During the second Dark Mountain Uncivilization festival in 2011 I witnessed two performances which convinced me that – for all of its light and colour and noise and force and HD, 3D, LED interactivity – there is a desperate poverty to the voice of the modern age. The problem is, in part, one of scale; as with every other human construct – economies, bureaucracies, armies, societies, governments, etc. – the larger the scale, the more distant (and distinct) from direct human experience something becomes. In his essay This Collapse is a Crisis of Bigness (The Guardian, 26 September 2011) Paul Kingsnorth celebrates the work of the economist and political scientist, Leopold Kohr, who believed, as Paul Kingsnorth summarised: “Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.”
There is power behind this seemingly simple premise, a power which may yet get us beyond our post-modernist malaise:
Kohr’s claim was that society’s problems were not caused by particular forms of social or economic organisation, but by their size. Socialism, anarchism, capitalism, democracy, monarchy – all could work well on what he called “the human scale”: a scale at which people could play a part in the systems that governed their lives. But once scaled up to the level of modern states, all systems became oppressors. Changing the system, or the ideology that it claimed inspiration from, would not prevent that oppression – as any number of revolutions have shown – because “the problem is not the thing that is big, but bigness itself”.
Sadly this “bigness” has even laid waste to the realm of storytelling, and with it the stories we are told. The entertainment industry is an industry like any other; a series of machines which spew out products designed to temporarily placate – rather than permanently satisfy (satisfaction being an anathema to the marketeers) – a hungry audience whose satellite dishes point constantly skyward begging “Please, sir, can I have some more?” There is no longer room for littleness among the Goliaths of the entertainment and media industry. There will, of course, always be small presses, independent record labels, open mic nights, and such – and the internet – for now at least – offers another possible outlet for those who have access to the technology – but for the main part the vernacular has been drowned by the spectacular.
To be honest I would find it quite easy to live with this – it can be a pleasure in itself to seek out those voices that few others even know exist – if it were not for the simple terrifying truth that the machine is already eating the living world and will eventually consume everything… even its own life support systems. And a major part of the problem, as the Dark Mountain Project has consistently pointed out, is that we are under the spell of the machines mono-mythological embrace. In its eyes there is no living thing more important than man, and even then some men are far more important than others.; there are no cultures more important than consumer capitalism; and there are no stories worth telling beyond the ‘truths’ of power, progress and growth. All else is heresy.
But as the machine falters it is becoming ever more obvious that we’re in desperate need of heretics. Not as heroes, gurus, revolutionaries or saviours, but simply as reference points for stories as yet to unfold.