On institutions – part two

or, On Playing King of the Mountain

All institutions over-claim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place.

Richard Holloway, Leaving Alexandria

There was an arrogance to the new ones. Shadow could see that. But there was also fear. They were afraid that unless they kept pace with a changing world, unless they remade and redrew and rebuilt the world in their image, their time would already be over.

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Occasionally I stumble upon books or sources on the internet that speak directly to what I’m thinking about and feeling at that given point in my life, that present themselves to me in the spirit of serendipity. Haven’t we all had that experience, that frisson of yes!, that sense of connection and mutuality with the thoughts and ideas of another? It is the essential ingredient of art, that gratification of sharing, drawing us to read or listen to or look at the creative expressions of others.

My friends, family and readers of my blog know, for instance, that over the past few years I have been following the evolution of a group called the Dark Mountain Project – first as a tentative observer, next as an exhausted and disregarded volunteer, followed by an unhappy stage as a resentful and furious (abusive, some would say) critic, and now full circle, back to my role as mere observer – though not tentative so much as marginalised-yet-persistent in my commentary.  So it goes.

I was reminded recently of what drew me to the project in the first instance. In this conversation with Jeppe Graugaard, Antonio Dias describes eloquently his own experience in words which could have been taken right out of my mouth:

I vividly remember reading the manifesto. I felt a powerful synchronicity, a sense of having stumbled upon just what I needed. I passed from a profound isolation, preoccupied with concerns no one seemed to share, to discovering a network of people with whom I shared a common language.

There was a compelling clarity in asking,

“What do we do when we stop pretending?”

It touches the heart of our situation!

Finding community – A conversation with Tony Dias (Part I)

What has intrigued me much about the project has been its transformation from a formless exploration and exchange of ideas (billed frequently as an invitation to join a conversation) to its consolidation into what I now consider to be a commercial institution, with the inevitable shortcomings and power struggles that all institutions harbour. It’s as though the fluidity of unknowing inquiry has congealed into a ‘brand experience’.

People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations.

The branded experience has certain contours, and is trimmed to fit the worldviews of those in charge: narrative is shaped accordingly, as it always has done throughout recorded human history. How else could human activities propel our race along the age-old route of colonisation and over-consumption, if not through the on-message narratives shaped for us by leaders and by those conditioned to having their voices acknowledged?

On the first night, guitars passed back and forth in the central marquee, all distinction between performer and audience erased. It was, as Uncivilisation’s charismatic architect Paul Kingsnorth told us, not a consumer experience.

Tales on a dark mountain

It was, I must respectfully point out, most certainly a consumer experience. Festival-goers paid for their tickets in order to gather in that marquee; they paid for transport to the remote venue; they paid for tents and camping accessories before they arrived and food and drink while there. A particular type of product was on offer: wholefood vegetarian and real ale, earnest earthiness and campfire bonding – all this speaks to a certain audience, no matter how briefly the illusive curtain between performer and audience is lifted in singalongs and conviviality-by-achitecture. Those without the finances or wherewithal to partake were not in attendance. As a friend of mine pointed out recently, “Dancing in the woods in Hampshire begins to seem like a unattainable luxury.” As a consumer experience, it always comes back to customer profiles and target markets, and to the angle being played in the sales appeal.

Was I the only one who noted the breathtaking transparency with which Dougald wrote about the difficulties of hitting the right note in DM fundraising? It was, he suggested, all about how to frame the bid. In considering Andrew Taggart’s advice on how to attract income, Dougald had realised:

A better approach might be to speak in terms of a ‘We’ that includes all of us who feel at home in this company that is drawn to Dark Mountain. [Andrew] writes: “If I were doing the fundraising for DMP, I would stress the We: the yearly festivals, the meetings and meet-ups, the informal gatherings, the DMP-inspired artistic projects, and so on.”

Ever danced with the devil?

It put me in mind of the Bill Hicks routine about marketing:

I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too, “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing, he’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market, he’s very smart.”

by the way…

This is not by any means a criticism of the mechanisms used by the project in order for it to function in the commercial world of bookselling and event organising. It is simply naming it for what it is: a small business institution. The marketplace of ideas is still a marketplace.

What is interesting though is where it intersects with the desire for transcendence:

Kingsnorth sees it as his task to ‘make it clear what’s wrong.’ And what’s wrong, he believes, is more than just practical short-sightedness. It has a metaphysical character. I asked him what he would think if civilisation didn’t collapse. ‘There’s still a huge hole in the middle,’ he replied. ‘It’s still a society that has to cannibalise nature in order to live, it’s still a society that has to put a price on everything, that has to give a material value to everything, has no spiritual relationship with nature.’

Viewed in this light, Dark Mountain’s intense preoccupation with story and ritual makes more sense. These, after all, are the means by which spiritual dispositions are traditionally cultivated.

At times it seemed as if the whole event was an experiment in willed pantheism. ‘[W]hat we’re talking about here,’ Kingsnorth notes in the third issue of Dark Mountain, ‘is something that is maybe not exactly religious, but it’s obviously spiritual, it’s beyond the rational …’

Tales on a dark mountain

This reaches right back to the ideas explored in the Manifesto:

Uncivilised writing is more deeply rooted than [environmental writing, nature writing, and political writing]. Above all, it is determined to shift our worldview, not to feed into it. It is writing for outsiders.

Dark Mountain Manifesto (p.14)

If this is the case, then the New Testement Bible is probably the best known (and best selling) example of Uncivilised writing out there.

I’m not sure, but is Dark Mountain poising itself – perhaps unintentionally, even unconsciously – to be a new ‘not exactly’ religious movement? If so, it will be a sad ending to an interesting story. What drew me to Dark Mountain at the start was its declared willingness to sit with uncertainty, to embrace paradox; not the “non-negotiable” platforms of self-definition (what is commonly known as dogma.)

Religious institutions, Richard Holloway writes,

segue from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacency of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging. Which is what people want. They don’t want to spend years wandering in the wilderness of doubt.

Sell the people what they want: a creed shared by snake-oil salesmen everywhere. As for abiding in that wilderness of doubt, engaging in that process of uncivilisation… perhaps the Dark Mountain Project might practice what it preaches?