Saturday, 31 August 2013

Bones in Trees - some thoughts on perception and defining things

When the first anthropologists went out into what the profession calls “the field”, and in the pay of colonial administrations started systematically studying the cultures of those to be ruled, they came back with descriptions and theories. They would go and observe rituals, ceremonies and  everyday practices , they would interview people, take copious notes, make sketches of what they had seen. Then they would go home and painstakingly describe and interpret all the gathered data. Of course,  the vast majority of these early anthropologists would not have been able to see whatever they had seen in any other way than through the narrow lenses of their own cultural conditioning. When they saw people “worshipping” a figure, tree or animal, the conclusion was that they were indeed worshipping that figure, tree or animal, that the relationship was simple and straightforward, because after all that's what these people were like. The idea that their objects of study could have complex systems of meaning based on entirely different yet coherent premises, did hardly enter their minds. Their view that these people were inherently inferior, rather than just different, only reinforced this.
We  also know now that many of these people deliberately misinformed the anthropologists. In a tricksterish spirit, quite often they would feed them untruths or tell them what they thought they wanted to hear. And why would they just reveal the deepest secrets of their sense making systems when they themselves underwent complex and painful rites of passage to arrive at understanding and insight? Besides, some things cannot just be told in order to be known.  This was a notion that these colonial agents generally could not conceive of. They had been there, stood by, observed and noted down, and naturally this would enable them to name and interpret what they had seen.

Of course we have moved on since the days of colonial anthropology. We can laugh about the delusions of these agents of Empire, who would not have seen themselves as prisoners of their own conditioning at all. We know that there is no such thing as an objective observer. We have created whole new theoretical paradigms and academic discourses around this insight. And yet.

It was the image of the colonial anthropologist that came into my mind this week when I read some articles and reviews about the Dark Mountain Project and its Uncivilisation Festivals. I have been involved with Dark Mountain for a few years, first as a reader of the blog and books and a festival punter and gradually as a creative participant. Much like I imagine the subjects of many an anthropological study would struggle to recognise themselves or their world in the reports about them, I don't recognise in these accounts myself, or the festivals I've been to, the people I have shared them with and the impact all this has had in my life.
Dark Mountain has been called many things: survivalist, doom, cult, hippy, primitivist, all sorts, often by people who have never even engaged with it at all, most recently in the ever abundant comment section of a Guardian article. Last year, a largely positive review of the festival by Ed Lake appeared in Aeon magazine. This year, another largely positive review  by Tom Jeffreys appeared on the Wild Culture website. They were positive in a way, but something made me uneasy. The Aeon article, though ending on quite an open minded note, had an intrigued but slightly frightened tone, and Ed saw meanings and drew parallels everywhere that I didn't recognise: Heideggerian language, sinister undertones caused by bones hanging in trees, imagery evoking "far right bohemia". Then the description veered into more of a hippy connection, but I couldn't see myself in the probably well meaning description as "gentle and concerned" either. It painted a picture of men wearing "animal-tooth pendants" and women sporting "Peter Pan tunics". I'm not saying nobody at all wore such things, but these sweeping, defining statements annoyed me. (To be fair, some of this merely came across as slightly cliched journalism, but cliched journalism is actually a part of the bigger picture I'm looking at.)

My point is not so much about whether I agree or disagree with the reviewers and commenters. What Dark Mountain does will not work for everybody, there are many ways. I  can also appreciate that someone coming to an Uncivilisation festival for the first time could be bewildered and questioning. This is not even just about Dark Mountain. What I find fascinating in these reviews, articles and comments to varying degrees, are the ways of perceiving and how ready we can be to define something, even in a benign way, that has barely been encountered on a profound level. It's something that pervades our entire culture.

Dark Mountain is often described as a space for conversation, based around some basic premises that many (though maybe not even all) who are engaged with it share, and on a desire to create new stories or re-imagine old ones. It is therefore to a large degree an experimental space, a kind of cauldron of meaning-making that is still being concocted and stirred.
Something that I kept hearing at this year's festival, clearer than ever before, was that people came there and to Dark Mountain in general out of a longing for a new language, for the joy of finding a place to experiment with that, to hear people speak in it, to immerse themselves in it. This is language in more than the narrow sense of the word. We could say that they were there to take part in an experiment to make sense of this age, when the things that are meant to make sense of it don't cut it any longer.
But of course in this search for new ways of understanding, of expression, of relationships, we use reference points, imagery and forms that we have inherited and that are familiar to us at the start of this journey. So one might see people at Uncivilisation wear animal masks, hang bones in trees, recite poetry, tell weird stories, have strange rituals and feral theatre in the woods. But I would caution an observer against getting carried away with interpreting these forms and assuming that they are filled with the same content and meaning that we have been ascribing to them thus far.  In this experiment to find maybe not a completely new language so much as a language and a voice that is appropriate to our time, there will be an amalgamation of many things, as if the molecular structure of our sense making  is being dissolved and put back together in a slightly different pattern. Like alchemy. Some of it we may think we recognise, but on closer inspection its meaning may have shifted  ever so slightly, but ever so importantly.

Bones in trees, really, are just bones in trees. Instead of overlaying them straight away with a culturally conditioned significance, may it not be more interesting to look at them with new and slightly innocent eyes, to consider what they make us feel and think on a deeper level in this moment of our life, or the life of the world? Why has somebody chosen to walk around in a strange mask?  Maybe they are not a pagan, they don't worship at the altar of irrationality, maybe they have a wholly different and interesting reason for it.

Ironically, Tom who wrote the Wild Culture review says that the prevailing theme or mood of this year's festival seemed to be irrationality. I say ironically, because one of the big criticisms Dark Mountain and especially the festivals received in the early stages, was a heavy focus on intellectual and rational debate. Gradually, elements of other modes of perception and practice came into play, precisely from an understanding that experiments in making meaning cannot possibly come from the intellect alone. 
The same review also detects at the festival "an overly simplistic opposition between the conscious (Western civilisation, human control and domination, science, reason etc) and the unconscious (Uncivilisation, the unthinking behaviour of animals, instinct etc)" and quoted a festival participant as saying "nature does what it does". But I don't see how this statement and even the term "Uncivilisation" implies automatically that what nature does is in any way simple, unthinking, or machine-like? It's of course quite the opposite.What nature does and our entanglement in it is so complex that all our attempts to explain and understand it, science, religion, art, are just approximations, or a shining of light from different angles. Grappling in the dark to make sense of what nature – including us – just does. Dark Mountain is one space - I'm sure there are others - where I have found people grappling with this in seriousness, with sophistication, with imagination, passion and creativity. Oh, and fun.

Simplistic it is not, and the complexity is present at the festival as well as in the books. Festivals and gatherings have their special strength in affording us physical and sensual experiences of things. It's a different kind of complexity from that of theoretical argument and literary expression. I think that our culture is not well versed in perceiving the complexity that this kind of experience entails. It can easily be missed, maybe because we have a preconception that these things are simple, and as Tom puts it  "limited in terms of precision, nuance and the kind of depth into which the written word can delve". There is a whole other conversation to be had about the idea that an oral and more experiential culture could in fact be highly precise, nuanced and deep in its mode of perception and conceptualisation - just in a different way. One could consider what our written cultures may have lost by fixing things in so called precision. There are notions for example that the written word is deeply un-nuanced and shallow because it is fixed on a page and cannot move and fly. It may be good for understanding and expressing some things, but not for others. Frankly, I think I would have had an easier and more enjoyable time having a face to face conversation by the fire, than trying to fix all the nuances of what I want to say about this whole issue without being misunderstood on to this page/screen. I actually have a headache now. 

Engaging with a non-written, non-precise (in the Western rational sense) experience such as story-telling, singing, dance, embodiment through masquerade, ritual, and simply being with people in a more conscious than everyday way can be deeply insightful. It can also be exhilarating and painful in equal measure because it connects with more than our intellect. We are not safely disembodied behind a written page or a computer screen. What goes on cannot merely be told to be known, but has to be touched and felt and spoken. Most of us are not very practised in processing that kind of thing and could do with a lot more experimenting with it! On that note, this may not have been the last festival altogether, but just the last in its current form.

It would be nice  if we could open our minds to what actually may be going on in such experimental spaces, if we could rein in that urge to pigeonhole, define, critique and instead see whether the meaning we assume to perceive in the symbols and practices is really what is happening. Why take an experiment and imprison it in the language and the meanings of the age that we are slowly leaving behind? It does look to me like the language of Empire with its particular brand of rationality that has to encase everything in hard boundaried classifications. Why immediately cage the bird when it is just tentatively starting to fly? It speaks to me of a fear of the unknown, of an impulse to stand on the edge of the lake, survey, map and measure it, instead of touching the water, let alone dive in. But that is not the only way the world can be perceived and engaged with. In spaces where things are still fluid, still being cooked up, it may be a misguided approach to try and understand through dissecting and defining alone. This does not mean that there can be no critical voices and that there will be no conflict, far from it, but in order to criticise and make conflict worthwhile, surely one has to engage on quite a profound level first? 

I still think about the early anthropologists and how the faint shadow of their approach lies over the way we look at anything new that tries to emerge in our own culture. I don't mean to pick on these two reviews or the people who wrote them, I really don't. We all use this approach. It happened to Occupy too, and to many other initiatives that try something new or different. To a degree I can understand the impulse to define something unknown and unnerving quickly and to critique it in the paradigms we feel safe in. At the same time I'm wondering if it is just the machinations of Empire ingrained in our brains to such a degree that they feel natural. That fixing gaze, that cannot look at anything and let it be unfamiliar, unclear, disorienting, fluid or simply growing and emerging. My experience of academia was constantly being asked to dissect, analyse,define and criticise, all under the banner of "furthering knowledge", but it rarely felt creative in any real sense of the word. It rarely felt like I was spinning threads of existing ideas to weave something new. 

The defining, critical analysis of the detached observer - or in its more ignorant form, the flippant sarcasm of the comments sections - is such a big part not just of academia and journalism but of the cultural constructs of our age, and the way we relate with everything. Whole professions and industries are built on it, whole ways of being. Even among those of us who agree that things had better change. But I have long wondered what for? It feels like such a pointless expenditure of energy. How does it serve us in adapting and reacting to a changing world? How does it serve us in trying to change things and ourselves, even just a little bit? 

Skull in Tree, Uncivilisation 2012
Image by Bridget Mackenzie


  1. Fantastic, relevant article. Thank you.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this and it resonates with The Wayfinders by Wade Davies.

    1. Thank you Anne, and I will check out The Wayfinders.

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