Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

Mark Goldthorpe reviews John Gardner’s Grendel, a novel that reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf and speaks to us about ‘Othering’ the natural world, and how our excluded monsters insist on coming back in.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.

Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall

This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.

The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.

Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1973
http://michaelleonardartist.com

The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.

Creating realities

Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.

Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:

“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”

Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.

When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:

“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”

He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.

Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1970
http://michaelleonardartist.com

(B)ordering the world

This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?

Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.

In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.

Monster culture

In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in

“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen

Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:

  • Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body

As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.

  • Thesis II: The monster always escapes

Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.

  • Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis

Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”

  • Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference

As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.

  • Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible

Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.

  • Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire

What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.

  • Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming

Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.

Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’

Look your monsters in the eye - Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe
Look your monsters in the eye
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

At the British Museum Beowulf page you can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection — and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky.

Jeffery Jerome Cohen essay Monster culture (seven theses), appeared in Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Cohen J, ed), published by University of Minnesota Press (1996).

John Gardner’s Grendel was published by Gollancz (1971).

David Wright’s Beowulf (a prose translation), was published  in 1957, and is out of print.

A Razor-Sharp Fragility

Composer and pianist Lola Perrin discusses isolation: to create, we need to be alone (physically or mentally) and this can be an unpleasant process. And yet, we carry on creating because suppressing that creativity is even more unpleasant.


approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes 


Last September I started touring my latest piano suite; ‘Significantus’, a keyboard conversation about climate change. The idea was that I would perform specially composed solo piano music, a guest speaker would talk and then facilitate a conversation with the audience about positive response to climate change. My aim was to stimulate audience members to carry the conversation into their communities after the concert.

It was during a post-performance debrief, at the request of post-graduate composer Kate Honey who had invited me to perform the ninth date on this tour at Conservatorium van Amsterdam, that I admitted to a lack of satisfaction from performing this work. I wished none of it was necessary, that I wouldn’t have to look into the eyes of twenty-something year old research students studying Significantus and think how they, along with my sons of similar ages, would be facing unimaginable challenges in their later lives. During our debrief I realised how much I craved a return to my old simple ways where ambition lay in the same space as the notes, where satisfaction naturally followed from simply completing the work and the act of sharing my music was the point of my concerts.

For many of us, to create we need to be alone, if not physically, then at least mentally. We have to cut ourselves off and live in our heads. It’s generally an unpleasant process for me and may well be for you too; insecurity, doubt, lack of self-understanding, worry that it’s a repeat of your previous work or a copy of someone else’s, or just that it’s not very good …. the list goes on. Yet we carry on creating because we don’t know any other way of being, and suppressing that creativity is even more unpleasant; without our work processes we’ve lost so much of our identity and meaning.

Whiteread in the Arctic 

I found my real identity with my first piano suite. I’d been up all night at the window, watching a south London road gradually transform and as the dawn arrived, it began to morph into a favourite Hopper painting of an empty street at dawn. I decided to compose a set of pieces about the people behind the windows in that painting; people we can sense but not see. I made up their lives and dreams and found a compositional sound I hadn’t heard before. Inspired, I was soon onto my second suite, this time working from memories of how Ansel Adams photographs had made me feel. Later, after witnessing children set free at the piano, I copied their abandonment to write my third suite.

Then came an idea to follow Rachel Whiteread’s casting of physical spaces (such as in  Untitled (Black Bed) 1991 where she captured the shape of the space beneath a bed). I wanted to see if I could do something similar in music. Whiteread was in the Arctic at the time on a trip with Cape Farewell, so I decided to imagine the changing shapes within icebergs and allow the peaks and troughs of those imagined shapes to dictate the musical lines.

Untitled (Black Bed), 1991
Urethane, 30 x 213 x 137 cm
Artist: Rachel Whiteread © 1991 Image credit: Rachel Whiteread & Luhring Augustine
http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/rachel-whiteread/artworks/series#34

Writing this fourth piano suite was difficult. The three beforehand weren’t easy but I hadn’t become stuck the way I was stuck writing this one. It was 2005 and I was not yet clued up on climate change. That I was composing directly from Whiteread while she was in the Arctic cast a shadow over me. I was uncomfortable and resistant to learning much about the terrible reason for her journey. The feelings of Whiteread visiting ice because the ice was melting had the effect of blocking me. I tried hard, but for six months I couldn’t make the music work and felt disturbed. Finally, I turned to photographic sources also preoccupied with the depiction of spaces; six light drawings by Nazarin Montag revealing a hidden world, and cloud stories travelling the world by Roberto Battista. During a few short days the ideas finally joined up and ‘Music from Fragile Light Spaces’ was rapidly completed.

A different challenge, a razor-sharp fragility

That first experience of engaging in climate change, albeit inadvertently, was like a warning for my subsequent climate-engaged compositions. There’s a different challenge, a razor-sharp fragility when you’re creating work in response to the climate emergency. Each time I’ve become greatly blocked during, and often after, the externalising process of giving artistic expression to the inner world of dealing with climate change.

Inside of an iceberg: image from Brown Bluff, Antarctica
Photographer Boris Kester © 2011 www.traveladventures.org

While touring Significantus, I’m learning about the extent to which we are living the climate change story in our heads. During one performance, a close relative contributed to the audience conversation and this moved me in a way I didn’t recognise. How could it be that we had not ever spoken together about anything to do with climate change? Yet there he was, in the public space of a performance venue, sharing with the strangers around him his carefully thought-through ideas for how to how to make things better. But in our walks around Dovestone Reservoir and on trips to the Moors we had never thought to delve into the climate change story permeating our internal lives, no matter how much each of us might be swallowed up by it.

Two extremes in a story of extremes

For my forthcoming initiative, ClimateKeys, due to take place around COP23 (more about that in the next blog), I’m reaching out to people all over the world and encountering a myriad of responses; from a call centre worker in the Philippines who speaks of how the crops have recently and unseasonably frozen, to a Chinese geologist who speaks of his jaw-dropping invention to clean up toxic water by utilising carbon dioxide. Two extremes in a story of extremes which we cannot afford to see in any other way but as the Number One Global Emergency if we are to rescue our civilisation from the consequences of our dwindling carbon budget. That’s what needs much more talking about and of course, much more acting upon. And soon, I will be returning for another walk around Dovestone Reservoir with my relative and will try to remember to break my own silence and really talk with him about what matters.


Find out more

Listen to Lola Perrin’s Music for Fragile Light Spaces on SoundCloud.

Read more about Significantus and ClimateKeys at Lola’s websites.

Read a Guardian profile of Rachel Whiteread: A Life in Art

Explore Nazarin Montag’s six light drawings at her website.

Explore Roberto Battista’s cloud photography on Flickr.

 

Festival of the Dark – Dark February

Festival of the darkArtist Jennifer Leach introduces Reading’s year-long Festival of the Dark, whose purpose is to gently lead people into the darkness — a place of stillness, mystery and contemplation, and a locus of the unknowing and the unknown.

approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes 


Some months ago, I had a very graphic dream involving barbed wire, entanglement and injury. In my dream, as I was trying to ameliorate the situation and minimise pain, the message came through loud and clear, ‘Cut the wire!’. What exactly this wire is, I have since been seeking to understand. It kept presenting itself to me as a subversive notion, an act of daring sabotage.

The question has proved seminal to the progress of Reading’s Festival of the Dark. The seed for the festival was sown at the TippingPoint Doing Nothing is Not an Option conference, and the endeavour initially moved with great flow. Its purpose is to gently lead people into the darkness — a place of stillness, mystery, contemplation, locus of the unknowing and the unknown. To face and embrace the ultimate fear that is fuelling our electrically-lit lemming stampede over the cliffs of ecological destruction. Since the launch, and once the Arts Council funding came through, there has been, at best, a general indifference towards the festival; at worst, there has been a clear closing of the official ranks towards it – business, church and media. Surely not because they sense something of a challenge in its message? Grin! A message that was possibly not so apparent when they first pledged their support. The churches – with their great venue potential in a town with few suitable spaces – have been particularly disappointing (see the notable exception below). The response from one church in Reading, whose hall we wished to use for a general meeting of arts organisations: ‘As an evangelical Christian church we believe passionately that Jesus came into this world to bring light into the darkness.  As this belief is the foundation on which the Church is built it would be inappropriate for us to be involved in such an event [Festival of the Dark].’ Badgers, night-scented stocks, stars and moonlight? – that naughty co-creating Devil!

Monkey
Photographer: Jennifer Leach © 2017

Vision

It has been a painful journey for myself and the small band seeking to realise the Festival’s vision. I have been bemused, wounded, short-tempered with my family, deep-soul exhausted. And yet…

From the moment of the Festival’s inception, there has been a supportive network holding the vision and the importance of the work. I marvel at it – quite literally spread across the whole of the UK. Actively rooting for us. Travelling down to create thoughtful, thrilling events for us. Bringing their fire, love and magic. To Reading! There are visionary businesses in Reading who are supporting us, Reading Buses being the most extraordinary. There are beautiful individuals making madcap ideas reality. With humour. There is one church so far – the Catholic church of St James, with Father John – who is open to working with us, most particularly in the light of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, ‘Laudato Si’.

So much to sing about; what we need to do is change tack. A friend I have worked with and whom I greatly admire shared with me yesterday what she asks for with her work: Take me to the hungry. For me it was a conversation that has unlocked the mystery. I realized that the metaphysical cutting of the wire was not a subversive act of sabotage, but an empowering act of liberation. There is no point in trying to convert patriarchy to a more meaningful system, or to try and engender a new spirit in people who are sated, if not content. Working with those who, with us, are spiritually hungry, eager for new ways – this is the way forward. The wire that needed cutting belonged to the imprisoning fence holding us all within ‘the system’, the critical and the non-critical alike. And so I ‘cut’ the wire, crawled through the fence, and lay face down on the earth, studiously avoiding the cowpats, breathing in the fresh rich energy of the Earth and the Universe.

Festival of the Dark
Photographer: Jennifer Leach © 2017

The Night Breathes Us In

The personal feeling of liberation is calmly satisfying, and the way forward for the Festival – although as unknown as ever – feels right. I suspect the Festival events will be small, and different to our initial conception. Yet embracing this is now effortless. Exciting. And who knows, hundreds of Reading-ites may yet surprise us and turn out in force for our next event, The Night Breathes Us In with the wonderful Dark Mountain Project, on 25th March. It would be lovely if you joined us.


Find out more

Festival of the Dark at Outrider Anthems

 

Culturing Climate Change

Ouroboros - wicked problemsClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe explores climate change through the lens of ‘Wicked Problems’ and what ‘culture’ — a web of identities and practices that rub up against each other — means for how we might think about it.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes  


Climate change could almost define ‘Wicked Problems’. Unlike ordinary, ‘tame’ problems, these have multiple causes, produce a web of effects, entangle themselves in interdependencies, are riddled with complexities, uncertainties and contradictory interpretations and induce a sense of both confusion and urgency. In Dialogue Mapping, organisational collaborator Jeff Conklin talks about the “pain of fragmentation” caused by working on Wicked Problems “with thinking, tools, and methods that are useful only for simpler (‘tame’) problems … a sense of futility of expecting things to be one way and repeatedly banging into a different reality”.

More often than not, ‘tame solutions’ for Wicked Problems reveal or create more problems; their frustration then compounds our urgency, inciting either a stronger desire to act ‘at any cost’ or a lifeless apathy. A self-perpetuating anxiety, climate change’s wickedness is both a call to in/action and the cascade of in/action’s unintended consequences.

Age of anxiety

Ouroboros
Ouroboros
Artist: AnonMoos 2009
Public Domain: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ouroboros-simple.svg

Rereading Alan Watts’ 1951 The Wisdom of Insecurity, writer Megan Mayhew Bergman describes how Watts “believed that hyper-rationalising our desires creates a vicious and taxing cycle, a habitual state of tension and abstraction that is actually a mental disorder.” He saw a modern split between mind and body (“a war between … the desire for permanence and the fact of flux”). This produces a cycle of insecurity, which he likened to Ouroboros, the mythical serpent endlessly biting its own tail in a cycle of self-consumption. While it’s human nature to seek an “escape from the reality of the anxiety-producing present,” Bergman suggests that with climate change it’s the future that now seems fearful: “That sheer inevitability bewilders me … We can no longer afford the luxury of looking away.” 

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has written about climate change anxiety inhabiting both the ‘reality-based’ and ‘narcissistic’ parts of our self. On one hand (or in one mind?) we face the loss of a reliable future, “our hope that we are generative … and rooted within long time” when “our sense of regularity and continuity as a species [is] threatened at such a basic level”. This depressive anxiety is compounded by our sense of dependence on global leaders and corporations to somehow overcome the short-termism threatening the planetary system. And on the other hand, the actions that we know are needed to reduce these risks threaten the part of our identity that’s tied into lifestyles that are implicated in the problems. Weintrobe suggests that “what we dread giving up is not so much particular material possessions or particular ways of life, but our way of seeing ourselves as special and as entitled, not only to our possessions but to our ‘quick fixes’ to the problems of reality.” The wickedness fills the gap between these minds.

But maybe, in an anxious, subjectivity-riddled world, the idea of wickedness at least offers a way to acknowledge this messiness, open a creative space to view it in and grapple with the extreme risk and uncertain force of the climate change we cannot look away from.

Culture – permission to disagree

In Keywords, cultural academic Raymond Williams introduces ‘Culture’ as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (and ‘Nature’ as perhaps the most complex word in the language: great news for anyone working on un/common grounds of NatureCulture). A word that’s rooted in colere (Latin: inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship), fractured and evolved into cults, colony and couture, became a synonym for civilised in its antagonism with natural, and offers its own dividing line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, was destined to do lots of different kinds of work for different people. Culture has its own wickedness, perhaps. Can this help us with wicked climate change?

Climate change constantly draws people into different camps, each arguing passionately for one version and vehemently against the others. Can culture help us, if not to tame the untameable, then at least seize its contrariness, try out its meanings, and rehearse what cohabitation might offer us? We’re more used to diversity in culture and (in more tolerant moments) give ourselves permission to disagree; to incorporate this disagreement into culture itself. Maybe this offers a way to open discussions and imaginations to diversity in ‘climate change’.

In his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, and in an article of the same name, geographer Mike Hulme examines it as a cultural entity, a kaleidoscopic “idea circulating anxiously in the worlds of domestic politics and international diplomacy… circulating with mobilising force in the worlds of business, of law and of international trade … circulating with potency in the worlds of knowledge and invention, of development and welfare, of religion and ethics and of public celebrity … circulating creatively in the worlds of art, of cinema, of literature, of music and of sport.” The scientific consensus on climate change is powerful and real, but we lack any comparable consensus on its meanings; it has so many that the hope for strong agreement on them is probably illusory. Hulme says:

“We need to understand the creative psychological, spiritual and ethical work that climate change can do and is doing for us. By understanding the ways climate change connects with foundational human instincts of nostalgia, fear, pride and justice we open up a way of resituating culture and the human spirit at the centre of our understanding of climate.”

On a parallel thought, literary scholar Benjamin Morgan investigates the origin and uses of the concept of extinction. Like climate change, “extinction has never been a purely scientific concept … [it] first came into being as a problem of human meaning” long before we came to identify our own species as a new driver of extinctions; the discovery of spectacular fossils in the 18th century revealed nature “possessed of the same self-destructive energy as human society.”

Science of all kinds is crucial for better understanding of environmental and climate change and the Anthropocene, but can only offer one kind of necessary enquiry: one of many routes to meaningful action. As part of the living matrix we’re eroding around us, we must also call on other aspects of our identity, other practices as well as science.

Multispecies scholar Deborah Bird Rose speaks of ‘ecological humanities’ as an interdiscipline, attempting to “build dialogical bridges between knowledge systems: between ecological sciences and the humanities, between Western and other knowledge systems.” But what is not needed, she says, is boundary crossings that aim to homogenise knowledge or “suggest that everyone has to do or think everything … Quite the opposite, we acknowledge that there are many abrasive edges between knowledge systems. We believe that rubbing those abrasive edges together enables something new to happen.” 

Identity and practice

And this is what ‘culture’ means for me when I think about climate change: a web of identities and practices that rub up against each other. It’s a rough sketch, but I start with:

  • Culture as identity: the different contexts that we inhabit and shape, and which inhabit and shape us; the forces that create, reinforce or challenge our personal and social values; an expression of and comforter for our particular world view.
  • Culture as practice: the making, sharing and responding to particular creative works and directions; visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, fictional, film and all the other artistic practices — and also research and educational practices, and the practices of collecting, editing and presenting.

Both these aspects of culture suggest that nuance and diversity are key, helping us navigate the complexities, uncertainties and interdependencies of climate change without immediately resorting to ‘tame’ solutions within hard-and-fast borders. As Morgan points out: “Drawing battle-lines is never an exercise in nuance … The avenue into these ethical and political dilemmas [of extinction] is culture, broadly conceived.”

Bergman retells Watts’ account of the response of a Chinese sage to the inevitability of human suffering: “’How shall we escape the heat?’ the sage is asked. His answer is unsettling: ‘Go right into the middle of the fire.’”

‘Wicked Cultures’ as a means at least of seeing and coming to terms with the dynamics of ‘Wicked Problems’, maybe acknowledging what might be untameable but worth living through and with?


Find out more

See the Wikipedia entries on Ouroboros and on Wicked Problems

Meeting Ones’ Madness by Meghan Mayhew Bergman’s appeared in Paris Review (15th November 2016).

Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems by Jeff Conklin was published by Wiley (2006).

Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change originally appeared in The Carbon Yearbook (2009), and his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity was published by Cambridge University Press (2009).

On the Origin of Extinction by Benjamin Morgan appeared in Public Books (9th March 2017).

The Ecological Humanities by Deborah Rose Bird appeared in Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, (edited by Katherine Gibson, Deborah Rose Bird and Ruth Fincher:  Punctum Books, 2015).

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan Watts was republished by Penguin Random House in 2011 (originally 1951).

The Difficult Problem of Anxiety in Thinking About Climate Change by Sally Weintrobe appeared in Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited by Sally Weintrobe: Routledge, 2013).

Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams’s was published by Fontana Press (revised edition, 1983).