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Strange fascinations

By Paul Watson on .

I have a confession to make: I don’t particularly like some of the new nature writing. Some of the old stuff bores me too.

I should probably clarify that a bit: I don’t want to read piles of books describing authors’ walks through the landscape, each book interspersed with worthy monologues about the disappearing countryside due to the negative effect of human civilisation on the natural world, whilst making sure to note the ‘often-ignored’ beauty of edgelands that only the authentic nature-hipster can really appreciate. I’m being dramatically arch, and exaggerating to make my point, but…

It’s not because I don’t, in general, agree with the political/environmental points being made—sometimes deftly, sometimes clumsily—but rather because it’s already been done. Several times before. And there’s only a small step between the use of formulaic repetition as a method to reinforce a point in the public consciousness and the human brain deciding to tune it out as dully repetitive and intrusive background noise (like the recorded security announcements played on constant loop over the PA systems at British train stations).

It’s reminiscent to me of the explosion of fantasy trilogies in the mid-1980s, each telling the tale of a socially-awkward adolescent boy who rises from obscurity to become the great king/wizard (add in a fumbling teen romance, a badly drawn map, an appendix of made-up words, then publish to assured success). Yes, each author probably added something uniquely their own—well, some of them did—but, after just a few produced to this formula, the prospect of reading another damned trilogy about a young boy destined to become something-or-other, proudly emblazoned “Comparable to Tolkien at his best!”, provoked not excitement but a sigh of resignation as I put it back unbought onto the bookshop shelf.

I don’t want to damn all nature writing with the same complaint. There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming out at the moment, but publishers know how to spot—and encourage—what they see as a “winning formula” when they start emerging because it’s their job. “More of the same” is always their cry when something works well once.

Turn and face the strange

Avoiding a formulaic way of working that contentedly brings in the traffic/sales/kudos is something that any artist—and here, for once, I’m using that term in its widest sense to include writers, musicians, and performers of all kinds—should strive to do. It’s something that’s been on my mind recently as I struggle to find the direction my artwork needs to take next. I could keep knocking out more of the same, but I feel that some of my current methods of working, particularly in photography, have now been fully-examined and have run their course.

In some ways the publication of my book of artwork Myth and Masks, which mainly covers my photography in the period of 2013–2015 has brought this to a head for me: the book on this particular period has been written, so it’s time to move on and grapple with something slightly different. That doesn’t mean that any new work I produce won’t involve either myth or masks, but rather that I approach my subject matter in different ways in order for it to remain exciting for me.

Continuous progression is fundamental to artistic practice - striving to become better. Without change or progression an artist’s work becomes stale and imitative of itself. David Bowie is the oft-cited popular exemplar of change and progression in the arts, and it’s probably the reason his music kept reappearing at the forefront of the collective consciousness. He’d disappear for a year or two, sometimes longer, and then he’d seem to burst back into the limelight with something new and exciting. In hindsight, and from the perspective of someone interested in the creative process, the most interesting parts of his career were those periods when he’d seem to disappear, because it was in those absences that the real creative work probably happened.

In his latest piece in the Guardian Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever Robert Macfarlane states that:

Literature and art are confronted with particular challenges by the idea of the Anthropocene. Old forms of representation are experiencing drastic new pressures and being tasked with daunting new responsibilities. How might a novel or a poem possibly account for our authorship of global-scale environmental change across millennia – let alone shape the nature of that change? The indifferent scale of the Anthropocene can induce a crushing sense of the cultural sphere’s impotence.

While I think that Macfarlane’s articles are generally good, interesting, and thought-provoking—and this one is no exception to that—the statement that old forms of representation are experiencing drastic new pressures and being tasked with daunting new responsibilities could have been lifted from any analysis of Western art at any point in the past thousand years. More than that, it’s a pressure that should affect any artist continuously throughout their artistic practice, otherwise they’re just producing “more of the same”.

Just gonna have to be a different man

Macfarlane’s article on the Anthropocene got me thinking about whether continuous progression is a fundamental part of global human civilisation. Continuous human/social progression emerged as the predominant belief in Western society during the 18th century, prior to which most Europeans subscribed to a belief that human societies were in a state of decline, the counter-myth of the Golden Age/Fall-from-Grace which states that things were better back in the old days and it’ll never be as good again, that human civilisation is a continuous state of decline. (I’m afraid that I don’t know what beliefs outside Western Europe were on this subject - I might research it after finishing this).

Some people now believe, and with some justification, that the continual progress of human civilisation is a myth, a literary falsehood produced by the artificial narrative we impose on any study of humanity over time. Certainly any claim of the constant progression of human civilisation—whatever indicators you use to define “progression” or indeed “civilisation”—can be shot down by reference to frequent “dark ages” and “regressions” over the past few thousand years, whether they be technological, cultural, or social.

However we now seem to be reaching a point where the Golden Age/Fall-from-Grace myth seems to be gaining ground again, to the extent that a new secular eschatology seems to be on the rise, predicting the end of the world (again). I should state that I’m not talking about Macfarlane here!

It would be completely naive to say that humans don’t have the ability to destroy humanity (and take with it most, if not all, of the other animal and plant life on this planet) - that’s a very real possibility that we’ve all lived with since the proliferation of nuclear weapons started in the middle of the previous century. We’ve been close to nuclear extinction at least a couple of times—the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and Exercise Able Archer in 1983—but thankfully that particular threat, while still present, is less probable than it was in the 20th century.

You’ve left us up to our necks in it

Climate change is the greatest threat of this century. It’s a global problem that we have caused. It’s been decades in the making, and most problems take longer to solve than to cause. Immediate and decisive action is needed, not “aspirations” to gradually, reluctantly, tweak things.

The new secular eschatology is focused around the human destruction of the environment, mainly around climate change, but also other factors. And yes, it’s our greatest problem. But the narrative structure of “continuous progression” has been replaced by a narrative structure, at least in some small circles, of “continuous decline”. Both of these narrative structures are just that - narrative structures imposed on facts by people, because people like things to tell a story. The troubling difference is that “continuous decline” implies an unavoidable doom, and if something’s unavoidable it’s not worth fighting.

The mythological theme of a “fall” is an enticing one. It makes sense at a gut level because it’s a familiar narrative, strangely comforting in its imposition of some sort of structure on the chaos around us, even if that structure leads to our annihilation: at least we would have (thought that we had) made sense of what was going on.

Sometimes subscribing to one of these narrative structures risks being trapped by it. The narrative stops being an explanation of what is happening, and instead becomes an agent of it. Just as the myth of the continuous progression of civilisation has been used as an excuse to harm much of the planet over the past two centuries, leading to climate change (because whatever we do we’re obviously moving forward, so it must be good, right?) so embracing the eschatological myth of continuous decline and the inevitable end of civilisation provides a convenient excuse for not trying to fix the problems the human race is responsible for. In short, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that becomes an even more dangerous situation when we still have—at the other extreme—some people denying that climate change either exists or matters.

Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it

Both the idea of human civilisation being either unavoidably doomed, and of it being destined to smoothly progress forever, ring false to me. Instead the form of progression defined by regular change—as per artistic practice, mentioned earlier—seems much more likely, striving to become better through periodic reinvention.

This progression is defined by reinvention rather than new inventions, the world turned upside down—or, at least, turned on its side—rather than the end of the world. There are a growing number of people looking into radically and peacefully changing human civilisation for the better. Some of these are even reasonably well-known names now: Paul Mason, amongst others, is investigating radical socio-economic change; George Monbiot is putting forward radical changes around environmental issues.

What I find particularly interesting about these two is that, while they can be generally classed as “left-wing”, they have departed from left-wing dogma of the past two centuries, and are producing new radical alternatives tailored to the present day. That’s not to say that the past has been entirely swept aside: Mason certainly uses Marxism as an analytical tool, but he doesn’t seem to be chained to it as a creed. And as I’ve always found strict political dogma of any type far too much like a straitjacket, I like this approach. Alongside these new ideas, some older ideas are being considered anew in some countries, such as a universal basic income being provided to all citizens.

Which ideas will work in the end is far from decided yet: to borrow a concept from the world of programming, an Agile approach is definitely needed, constantly re-evaluating methods and processes. And of course that’s an approach that is well-known to artists of all types.