Camping, conversation and conviviality – reflections on Uncivilisation 2011

I’ve been trying to start this post since getting home last Sunday from the Uncivilisation Dark Mountain Fesitival. It’s now Wednesday and I still don’t really know what I want to say so I’ve decided to just sit here and see what comes out, partly prompted by the report on the event in the Independent this morning The Uncivilisation Festival : The apocalpyse? Now we’re talking…. So this is likely to end up as a collection of random observations.

First, the people. For me the main delight of the Festival was the simplicity of tented living and the environment this provided for leisurely, spontaneous and random conversation with fellow campers. Tents and simple camping technology are indeed excellent tools for conviviality. I hadn’t camped for over 25 years and so was a little nervous about how I would take to it again. I arrived at the Sustainability Centre near East Meon in the Hampshire Downs about 4.30pm with two friends, Brian and Helen, who had been complete strangers when I picked them up at Leeds Station about 5 hours earlier. The weekend could not have got off to a better start. On arrival there were only a few tents up so we were able to to find a section of forest glade not too far from the loos (or too near for that matter), the main event spaces, the café, the bar tent and the food wagon (who incidentally did an amazing job). Over the next hour Jennifer, Tom, Jen, David, Mark and Gabrielle turned up and pitched in the same area. I think it is fair to say that none of us would have been meeting up here if it was not for David and Twitter – the real power of social networking, the virtual made flesh!

When I told friends I was going to the Dark Mountain Festival this year I struggled to answer their questions about why I was going since I didn’t know anything very much about the Dark Mountain Project and, in any case, I was not sure why myself – probably virtual peer pressure. I have since learnt (and please correct me if I am wrong) that the general thrust is to imagine, in some instances re-imagine, how we might make sense of and live in a world where all the taken-for-grantedness of our civilisation and our civilised way of life – from a Western perspective at any rate – collapses around us. For we may well be living in Žižek’s ‘End Times’. Certainly two sessions I went to, Collapsonomics: living through the unfolding breakdown and Bubbles and their consequences made a very good job of convincing me! If you juxtapose these with self-sufficiency sessions on How to make booze for (almost) free, Foraging and low-tech communal leisure pursuits like story telling and music on acoustic instruments by candle light, you’ll get an idea of what a lot of the festival was about.

However, story telling is much more important than just a sociable low cost leisure pursuit. The title of the festival was ‘Uncivilisation’. This was not an invitation to behave in an uncivilised fashion and to throw off our civilised inhibitions (actually it was to some extent judging by the feral singing sessions and the willingness to talk to and trust strangers). It is an invitation to examine the taken for granted values and affordances of our energy and technology intensive way of life based upon monetarised values and commodified relations and to imagine what life could be like (in both dystopian and utopian modes of imagining) when the well runs dry, i.e. don’t make the mistake made by Russell’s inductive turkey.  Our immediate past experience is not an infallible guide to the future. We need to see our taken for granted story about civilisation, especially its up side, for what it is – a story – and begin to tell alternative stories not only about the civilisational story itself but stories about other possible worlds, societies and satisfying and fulfilling ways of living.

I guess I am predisposed to have sympathy with the Dark Mountain agenda having consumed a pretty gloomy reading diet over the last year or two. Low lights have been Ronald Wrights’ A Short History of Progress and Richard Manning’s Against the Grain. Mildly uplifting (for someone who is not very good with his hands) has been Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for US and Fixing Things is Good. Snappy huh? More intellectually challenging but in keeping with the Dark Mountain agenda is Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, a telling challenge to the self-understandings of capitalist modernity and its categories of thought and fundamental concepts.

I say the Dark Mountain ‘agenda’ but in practice there doesn’t seem to be one, certainly not clearly articulated anyway. This may well be in the spirit of post-modern sociological doubt and uncertainty and the denigration of meta-narratives and grand theories. It chimes in well with my old professor’s, Zygmunt Bauman, insistence that the only role for his discipline, sociology, is to act as a facilitator and interpretor amongst different stories. It’s old role from an earlier and apparently more certain period of modernity, as providing sound knowledge to legislators, was a delusion which has been painfully exposed by our current predicaments. It is little wonder that, when asked what readings inspires his work today, he mentions only literary figures like  Robert Musil, José Saramago and Miguel de Cervantes. If you have not yet read any Saramago why not start with The Notebook, the hard copy of a daily blog he ran for a couple of years in his eighties before he died. Zygmunt (also now well into his eighties) also recommended to me The Cave. There is much in these books for the Dark Mountaineer. I am currently drafting a piece on the power of literature as the way to sociological understanding inspired by Zygmunt and a quote from George R.R. Martin “A reader lives a thousand lives before they die. The person who never reads lives only one”.

An articulated agenda presupposes some sort of clear political position and this was the basis of the only question I asked at one of the sessions –  where is the politics in all this? Or, what sorts of implicit politics can be disinterred from what is going on here? One of the problems with notions of self-self-sufficiency, individual survival strategies, reclaim the past, return to the soil, etc. (and there were elements of this in several discussions I overheard or took part in)  is that they can be appropriated by a wide range of political positions some of which most of us would not be comfortable with. A diagnosis that leaves open the possible pathways to the future can accommodate, for instance, the (probably tongue-in-cheek) question asked at the collapsonomics session, why not just arm ourselves and shoot anyone who comes to take our stuff? It is an entirely feasible possible strategy. In this session one of the presenters, I think it was Anton Shelupenov speaking about the Albanian collapse, reports one of his acquaintances at that time saying a night wouldn’t go by without the sounds of gunshots. He called on his neighbour to ask if he had any spare bullets he could let him have. He hadn’t got a gun but he wanted his neighbour to think he had. To avoid this entirely possible future we need more than a critique of civilisation and survival skills – both very necessary of course. We need a clear set of articulated values with a political agenda linked to a cunning plan. Where’s Baldrick when you need him?

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