Uncivilisation, settlerism, metaphorising and jazz – A conversation with Andrew Taggart

In early February I called up the American philosopher Andrew Taggart in New York for the first of a series of interviews with people involved in or affiliated with the Dark Mountain Project. Having just started my fieldwork I didn’t quite know what to expect. As it turned out, I was given a gift which opened up a whole new array of questions and cast my research in a different light. The conversational mode of our interaction and the mutual search of meaning through metaphorising came to influence following conversations as well as my approach to doing the research itself. It is in the spirit of the gift that we open up this conversation to view and share the process of sense-making here.

As rendered here, the text is very close to our actual conversation. I recorded and transcribed it, let Andrew have a look, clarify and refine the words where he felt the meaning was slightly warped. I also tidied up some of the uhms and erhs (which were mostly my own) and made parts of my own speech more precise but with a view to stay true to what was originally said and convey the conversation as it was. I will reflect in more depth on this process and explain the editorial choices and methodological implications in my research diary as I continue my fieldwork. The interview speaks for itself and is already quite long, so I will leave it to Andrew to introduce himself and simply tie the beginning of the conversation together with a couple of connecting remarks.

Now, I can almost hear a voice whispering “it’s with us now, it’s really with us now”.


AT: I see my work as a philosophical practice with individuals as involving the idea of moving them from a way of life that’s gone under to one that’s – now I’m using the word radiant, but to a radiant way of life. To put it in those terms is to put it only half right because every time I use ‘way of life’ I want it to resonate both individually and collectively.

And then I’m trying to help individuals, I guess, together with their fellows, I’m increasingly putting them in touch with each other, moving them toward forms of life that are robust, resilient and flourishing. It’s not a survival narrative, it’s actually a dancily narrative. We don’t want just to survive, we want also to flourish. We don’t want just to have gotten through something that was really bad; we want to lead lives that are going well.

Having read some of Andrew’s writing I was interested in hearing more about what he describes as a lag between the concepts we use to describe our lives and social reality itself. In his work as a philosophical counsellor he encounters people who experience this gap as a very real lack of meaning in life. In his words:

AT: …those who’ve come unstuck from a social order find themselves–not speechless but in certain forms of stuttering, or they’re not quite sure how to describe their lives, they’re clinging to forms of life that have not really made sense to them, but using the same vocabulary afterward.

So the speculative thesis would be that you’d see a lag in which social reality has actually moved ahead of the concepts we’re using still. And that’s creating a pretty profound sense of disquietude in people’s lives. So it very well could be the case that the idea of a ‘career’ is just one particular concept that could no longer really make sense of most of social and economic life. And yet people hold on to it as a structuring narrative. That’s creating a pretty profound sense of disquiet for those who still hold onto it as a way of being in the world, despite its distinct impossibility for most, so…. That’s quite saddening.

The conversation opened up when I asked him about what he took the term ‘uncivilisation’ to mean. Rather than go on to give me a direct reply, he turned around and asked me what I thought it might be.

JDG: I guess I see it as a concept that in some ways hold a promise of embodying a new vision of how life could be. As in a different world view from modernist/postmodernist world views, and a different way of life. And perhaps what that entails is shifting our focus and our perspective away from these ways of life which are essentially like a closed off system with it’s own logic that you can’t really break free from but you have to leave all together.

In terms of my own life, I think that uncivilisation ties in with both this sense of having a need to make sense of the world but also connecting deeper and becoming more rooted in my life. I have a sense that it’s an ongoing process and that it’s about training my eyes and ears, in a sense, and sharpening my reflections about my life.

I’ve found that my life manifests in all these different circles. And I kind of jump between them and draw them into the wider circle which is my whole life. And the other thing about the circle is that once you’ve made a full revolution you’ve come to the same place and either you learn something or you make a mistake and go round again. That learning aspect is about stopping up and saying “actually I’ve been here before now, I have learnt something, I don’t need to do the same thing again”.

In the same way I think uncivilisation is about shifting, moving from one logic to another and realising that it is a circle and we are making the same mistakes again and again. It’s about that process of turning the form of a circle into a different shape.

AT: That makes perfectly good sense to me. Let me postulate a thesis and see what we think about it… it’ll be a hypothesis, a line of thought. Perhaps we could say the following: what we see with the late stages of civilisation is the idealisation of nomadism. A certain idea of one’s being itinerant and travelling about unmoored from social connections above all. Moving as a result of work, of love interests, it doesn’t really matter. It’s simply the case that the nomad is someone who can always pull up stakes and fly about, as it were. Without necessarily learning about himself or herself in some more substantive way. That’s part of the thesis.

The other part of this line of thought might go as follows: perhaps uncivilisation is just an attempt to answer the question “what would being a settler today be like?” Where settlement isn’t, as we’ve said in the past, settling for so and so. We have this in, at least in American English, “oh, I settled for her”. Which is to say I compromised, or etc, etc. Or uh… or as we say when we’re getting old, “well it’s just time for you to settle down”. That seems to be also a case of sour grapes. But what would it be actually to feel settled in life, that is, to be in a life that is actually one in which we can be settled.

JDG: For me there’s a very strong connection with the idea of circles and jumping between them and this sense of moving from a… kind of, idealising nomadic life and envisioning what being settled in life means. I think that’s really interesting.

AT: Especially because one could imagine settlement as in part invoking new infrastructures as well. It could very well be that the conversation we’re having today is a key part of settling, settling in a good sense, settling in a new sense. In as much as it’s a very tactile, intimate, potentially very enriching conversation in which we get to know each other further. And we work through some things, we reach a certain level of insight. That seems to be very settling. It could also be re-invoking old models that worked in the past but were lost or cast aside a bit by some of our movements in modern civilisation. So it could be that things like apprenticeship comes back, that you’re actually working with someone.

I think we could begin to imagine, at least in part, that settlerism would be a potential way of… of rooting, of being rooted in, of not feeling betwixt and between, of not being pulled about in different directions, of not desiring to be in flight.

JDG: Yea, I think that speaks to uh… the feeling that one has to flee as well. There’s a very high degree of disconnection with place in modern society and uncivilisation is perhaps also a connection, deep connection with place and a cherishing of place, and a valuing of places in their own right for all the different and wonderful characteristics that certain places have. In the modern or postmodern condition we live in a very abstract and smooth place, or space rather. It’s maybe like the logical conclusion that, I think… one of the points I take from Beckett is this smooth place where there’s nothing left, there’s no body even, there’s just a voice, it’s just a bodyless space which is also… sometimes feels like a rather paranoid place.

AT: There’s a late Beckett line from one of his short pieces that says “a voice comes to one in the dark. Listen”. That’s all you have, as you said, this complete minimalism, it’s horrifying. That’s sort of a reductio ad absurdum, I think Becket takes you as far as it can go when you… when you continue to rip free of empirical predicates. My hands, your tongue, our lips, our words, a landscape, trees, a forest, a meadow, a house. Well, you take those out and you’re left with the most abstract, minimal design of being human and it seems appalling and horrifying. Not freedom at all, but in fact very encaged, very much in bondage, very much a sense that we’d want to break free but we’ve no idea how.

JDG: And to do that, I think, that’s what I also was trying to get at with the learning aspect. To appreciate, real places we also have to train our senses and our powers of observation which is another aspect of uncivilisation to me.

And that also requires a level of patience. What do you think, because I’m finding that… we’re getting towards a place where virtue plays a much more important and kind of up front place. This is something I’ve thought about in relation to climate change because if we… if our response comes from a place where we essentially want to control where we’re going, to control the future, and at the same time we need a certain degree of security or certainty about the world, then we’re not going to get very far. It seems like the different paths that are ahead of us are better judged through looking at what kind of values or virtues they embody.

AT: I think that’s really well put. Let’s begin with the claims about reality, the ontological claims. Let’s suppose that reality is irreducibly complex. Montaigne saw this in the 16th century and we’re finding it again with a lot of systems talk, and people are interested in the idea of reality as chance. So if we begin with… if we begin from that very basic understanding of the claim of reality being irreducibly complex rather than being easily subsumable under basic concepts and categories, then that’s… that warrants or elicits from us the need of… for what Aristotle called the virtues. The three that I commonly mention with people I work with, that I think are of the most fundamental importance for living well today, are, one that you mentioned, patience, the second is courage, and the third is judgement or phronesis.

Patience is important today. Actually, it can’t be uprooted. In as much as not knowing what the future is going to hold, nor knowing how reality is going to unfold, requires that we hold on a bit further, patience means standing fast in the face if uncertainty, or, knowing when to move, to run. So patience is quite an elegant, buoyant notion of situated virtue in as much that it says that we need to hold longer with a thought.

The second is courage. Which is in key part… I’ve already made in reference to patience. We need to know what it’s like to stand firm or to flee and the right moments. Patience and courage are almost like two faces of the same coin. One which is much more resilient, and the other is… One is a sense of being held open to something, and the other is a sense of holding ourselves open, as it were.

And probably the most important is judgement. Phronesis means knowing when to say or do this, at what time, in what context with what person or other. That’s very much situated understanding. And it’s the kind of thing that has to be cultivated over and over again under different circumstances.

If it’s the case for us that we don’t have certain knowledge of the future, if it’s the case for us that reality’s become much more opaque, then here we are, you and I are trying to figure out what we mean. I think these are the things we’re trying to learn together right now, and I think that they are the only things that are going to separate us from those who go under, and don’t make it through. And for those of us who might be fortunate enough to have cultivated learning the virtues in these ways in hopes of staying afloat and getting on.

JDG: Yea. And so, I’m also interested in how we… how we find each other. Dougald [co-founder of Dark Mountain] has talked of the Dark Mountain Project as a kind of beacon, or a torch, or a light of some kind, that when people see it… well, it might not even appear as a light to everyone, it might be very dark, but you know, the people who need to see it then see it and move toward it in some sense. And I’m wondering whether this is reflected in how you came to meet the people involved in Dark Mountain and hear of this story itself?

AT: Let’s just say we’re sensing that these are the kind of people who are kindred spirits, and contingently so. So this doesn’t happen by means of certain investigations, but contingently by feeling our way through and… through enclaves, through corners, through serendipitous encounters. It would be hard to tell a straightforward narrative that led me to Dougald. Certainly, I can tell you a story, and that would be that I met him through Twitter by means of an e-tweet introduction. Someone I didn’t know started following me, and I had no idea how twitter worked, and she introduced me to Dougald. I said hello, we had a conversation and since then we’ve been in touch in many different ways. That would probably be the way that I’ve been in touch with a lot of people through Dark Mountain. But that story also seems insufficient.

Let’s just put it this way, you can… you can sense that these are the kind of people who are worth getting to know further. They seem somehow different from you but sufficiently like you. Here we all are, people who are in our… I’m in my early thirties, how can it be that we’re all in our early thirties to early forties, or late twenties to early forties who’ve come to realise that something’s not working… not something like a car is not working, but something very fundamental to life not working. But we’re all sensing this, as though it were… as though it were somehow a communal or mystical vision. There’s some kind of intimation, some visionary gleam, and it seems as though we’re groping towards each other and we’re finding not just consolation but actually a sense of kinship. “This is really better than what was going on before”. It’s hard for me to say in more direct terms how I got in touch with these people, it’s more like you find one person, you say hello, you dance around a bit, another person comes in and stops by, you say hello, and you find each other. How did you find me for example? Is there a way you can even tell a story?

JDG: In that same way, I guess… I think… Dougald mentioned you when I spoke to him sometime in the… it must have been after the festival in the early autumn. And then I guess through different connections and reading and then, also, getting… you know, following trails. Following Dark Mountain trails I guess, and then I ended up on your website and I…

AT: That’s a perfect way of describing it. It’s almost as though you hear a voice somewhere and you go, “oh, that’s… I’ve never heard that before”, and then… ‘unheimlich’, kind of an uncanny experience, you hear that again somewhere else, and you think “right, well, really?” I mean, because it seems to be pretty unlikely that that would occur. And then you keep hearing about these things and it finally reaches that point of going from dimness and vagueness to this moment of clarity, and you think “well, I should… this seems like it’s not a bad thing to enquire further about”. That’s kind of been my ongoing experience, not just with people but with ideas in the last couple of years since I left the academy. A movement from dimness to serendipity and uncanniness to a moment of clarity and a need to ask further about it.

JDG: At the moment I’m trying to grapple with the need for, and you write about this as well, the need for a larger or a grand narrative while at the same time it needs to have a certain plasticity, it needs to be something that we can mould our lives, or we can mould into our lives with each of our differences. So this needs to be, and if Dark Mountain is a kind of beacon, then it also needs to be something that is flexible enough that people can integrate it in different aspects of their lives, the life stages that they’re in.

AT: I think that’s a great point. Have you thought further… that seems to go right to the heart of the work you’re trying to do. That is, on the one hand to honour the idea of a narrative that’s sufficiently robust and accurate and long enough that it’s sense-making. But on the other hand that would allow for movement and the steps, the incorporations and modifications necessary to ensure that it is not straitjacketed, or straitjacketing.

JDG: So I wonder, in your work… because you talk about how modern institutions are no longer functioning according to their purpose and it’s almost like these old concepts are keeping us from really facing up to reality as it is, and this works right across different spheres like work, and we’ve talked about the university, and the family, and friendships and all the different social institutions within which friendships unfold. It seems like the change taking place is across all these spheres and the narrative kind of needs to accommodate for all of these spheres of life.

AT: What we’re seeing, I think, as we walk nimbly forward, or try to walk nimbly forward in any case, is social experimentation that you also find elsewhere. And what I like is the idea of having very small scale, porous and semi-invisible institutions emerge that are serving a variety of purposes and that might work and later on get scaled up.

Let me first say one thing by way of genre. I think one of the great genres of today is the essay, coming from Montaigne. The essay is supposed to be first and second thoughts, provisional tentative steps, that link me, an ‘I’ to a broader social world, an ‘I’ to a ‘we,’ in that, say, “I’ve thought this far, I’ve thought this way, this occurs to me on this day, and I’m piecing things together, and frankly it’s not my final thought, and there’s certainly room for future modifications and revisions to come, and, in which case, I will revise the essay, or I will start a new essay that begins where that one left off”. That feels like a ‘we’, our ‘we’ today.

And I think it’s in tune, and this is… I’m coming back to institutions, I think it’s in tune with the idea of starting up experiments that are not likely to hurt and that could very well give us clues as to how new institutions might look when they’re scaled up. Let me give you one simple example. Maybe it’s not so simple. I recently, over the past year or so, I’ve walked very nimbly, and tentatively, and provisionally, and Montaigneanly toward a full-scale gift economy. So my philosophy practice is now actually working entirely in a semi-invisible gift economy with the conversation partners I work with. That’s actually quite scary. Because think about how many ways we seek not to be harmed by others. Stipulating terms at the outset is a way of saying “here and no further”. “We’ll have ten conversations, it’ll be an hourly wage, you’ll accept my terms or you won’t, and here’s how the invoice will look”. Well, what you have is a very strong stipulation of not wishing to be wounded, and not wishing to acknowledge our full human dependency.

What you see is, a gift economy is a way of trying to return us to an idea of human beings as being goodly mutually dependent. And goodly giving, wholeheartedly to each other. That seems to be a good story of how human beings actually work when they’re not put in hostile conditions, when they’re not put under situations of penury, and when they’re not thinking in terms of scarcity. To actually be in a gift economy is to be in the full fecundity and full plentitude of being human.

I don’t think that I can imagine that being a full fledged replacement for the current neoliberal economic order, but certainly the idea is that it can work as these small scale circulating economies with the people I work with and elsewhere. And it’s a really worthwhile experiment. Do you see how I’m not just trying to get away from things that haven’t been working but also trying to try out things that could?

JDG: Yes, and then the interesting question for me as a researcher is: what kind of experiments or what kind of new and fledging institutions… what is it that make them, essentially, what is it that makes them work? And I wonder whether this is something that I need to pursue a little further as this research unfolds. In terms of what the guiding values are, and this is probably linked to narrative again, what is it that… yeah, how can we use narratives and stories, and how do these stories travel and begin manifesting new ways of being together.

AT: My view is that this is a philosophical question concerning human anthropology. Kant refers to human anthropology as the question ‘what is a man?’ or ‘what does it mean to be human?’. And I think that some of my basic metaphysical premises that are underlying this discussion is that, we need to have some understanding of what first a human being is like, and second what a good human being is like. And if we can get some kind of understanding of those questions, then it should follow that we begin to see institutions being the very kinds of activities, kinds of structured activities that enhance the growth and development and flourishing-ness of human beings. And, on my view, the experiments that have the greatest likelihood of working are those that actually are not just consistent with being human and being goodly human, but are also are the ones that promote and enhance it.

The suggestion I’m making is that if we can come to a further understanding of being human, that is to say also being a good social being, and begin with an Aristotelian premise according to which human beings really are social through and through, then you begin to see institutions that really work, that do good work, as being those that are, as Pindar puts it, raising us ‘toward the liquid sky.’ One other metaphor I use quite a bit, I ripped off from St Benedict… and he says that the guide of St. Benedict is an ‘ordo’, a trellis. So I’ve been using the metaphor of the trellis as being what a good institution would be like. Vines can… the trellis enhances, it holds, it supports, good growth of a vine but also it implies that good growth can only occur in certain directions. So not everything will go. That is, there are only ways in which vines can grow and produce fruit on trellises. It’s a beautiful understanding of what guidance is like. Good institutions are guiding good growth, development, reaching us up toward the liquid sky.

JDG: What you’re saying is a very living or alive metaphor. We seem stuck with, as you touched on earlier, the idea of competition, and I’m sure there is competition in nature everywhere, but we’ve just kind of blanked out the other side of that dualism which is cooperation. And we seem to have got stuck in a way of thinking about institution building and innovating, which is based on essentially metaphors of… yes, of competition, and the invisible hand, and the free market and…

AT: Let’s come back to that for a moment because I don’t think that… that already seems to imagine a kind of fallen world. I think you compete only under conditions of scarce resources, so there’s your first premise. And then there’s some sort of thin premise about human anthropology according to which self preservation is our most basic desire. Then you can begin to motivate that account of competition. But let’s roll back the clock for a moment and just imagine a form of life in which there’s just enough to go around. Whatever that just enough means, there’s just… there’s a fairly dim sense that there’s enough to go around.

I don’t think you’d get competition in that sense. Competition is already going to suggest there’s a breakdown. You’d also get innovation, perhaps, but that would be under conditions of needfulness. So for a way of life that’s working, there’s no need to innovate, right? I don’t think you’re going to see innovation, therefore, unless something doesn’t work, and I don’t think you’re going to see competition unless there’s a fundamental sense of disseverance… Hegel calls it the lack of friendliness of life. The end of the friendliness of life. And hostility settles in then. We can begin to talk about the rise of 17th and 18th century economic theories.

But surely it doesn’t have to be the case. And I’d also say one further thing, and I think we can also talk about innovation, and I think with a lot of your friends you might have talked about this, so it’s playfulness. If it’s also true that human beings are making-beings, they like to play around with stuff and things sort of come together, collage-like, then new things will appear serendipitously, in the spirit of giving.

So we’ve got a few different things going on. One which is innovation only under the condition when things are breaking down, I think, at least by my lights. Two, competition is settling in not… actually once a way of life is not working, and hostility sets in. And three, a different account of innovation according to which new things will arise by means of the playfulness of human life and in order to be given more freely to those around me.

JDG: Yea, so to close the loop and having come from the world you’re talking about where competition is not necessarily manifest to then living in a world where we start thinking about the economics of human transactions as having a competitive aspect to them… then that becomes part of manifested social reality through these ideas essentially coming into the social world. And then where we are now… talking of circles, coming round and seeing that actually by doing that we separated out certain aspects of the whole of human life. If humans are social creatures essentially, we can’t just say “actually, one’s sphere over here is economics and one sphere is politics and what happens outside that is largely kind of social or whatever”. So I guess that that must be the next… that must be what we should be doing, closing the loop and kind of coming full circle in terms of how we think of innovation, I guess. And it’s perhaps a way of taking us away from the metaphors of competition.

I think that metaphors have a very important role to play in our innovations and in the new institutions that we build. And I wanted to hear what you think about metaphors and the way that, say the metaphor of uncivilisation for example, how… what is the relation between the language we use about the world and the world that we create?

AT: There are a few things that I’ve written in particular about the ways that new styles emerge. I would say it’s consistent with what we’re saying so far. I don’t think you’d see the preponderance of metaphorising, the preponderance of poetic language, until it was needful. That is to say, let’s suppose… well, we’re having this conversation today, but suppose you come upon something and the words you use are not quite doing it justice. And you’ve had this experience already, right, you’ve had this sense in which there’s more that you’d like to say, or different you’d like to say, and the words are not quite there yet. And then there’s a certain restlessness or impatience with the words not being there. Well, I think we can begin to see, I use a lot of metaphors in my practice, that something… when new social conditions emerge, or new natural conditions, or some way of seeing the world differently emerges, then we’re also going to have an incredible flourishing of metaphors. Some of which are going to be useful and some of which are not. Almost all of us seem to be writing poetry today in one sense or another. To make sense of our lives and in some way to become poets of life.

Because the words we’re using… if ‘career’ is no longer available to us and we actually grasp that, then what is the shape of a life? Because a career was actually a very strong shaping narrative. It’s actually a very well structured narrative, and all the conditions that make possible a career, and the economic conditions, were beautifully in place at certain points in time. No longer, however. Now, we can no longer avail ourselves of that concept nor of many other concepts that used to be very common sensical to us, and in that space, the space that we’re now in, we… if we’re courageous enough, we start playing with language to a point at which we can… I mean, metaphors, analogies, negations are actually quite helpful sometimes. “It’s not this, it’s not that, it’s not the other”. “It’s sort of like this, it’s kind of like that, it’s a bit like this”. “This tastes a bit like a tree limb”. That’s not nonsense, it’s a way of trying to become much more accurate about the way in which we’re living now.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is metaphors, you’d imagine, would emerge both at the time when social and economic conditions change, and then there’s a certain opacity, and when we’re trying to get closer to each other, becoming more intimate with each other and re-using, using words in this very playful metaphoric way.

JDG: So then it’s almost as if building new institutions and taking part in, whatever we call the process, is about playfulness, we got that from before, and metaphors. New metaphors, new ways of speaking which are then going to entail closeness because we use them together, when using new metaphors and spreading them there is community arising as well.

AT: Absolutely. So, we’re right now at a point where we’re getting a… lots of metaphors are being thrown out, or neologisms too. Collapsonomics, what’s that? So this is a time at which there’s a profound amount of trying out. You would think that a community would settle at the time when the metaphors also become at home with them. These are words that are no longer like the first time we’ve kissed, the first time we’ve had wine. Now we’ve had the wine and we’re becoming quite at home with its properties, we love it, it’s enriching. And now we can… but we’re also… it’s become part of us. We’ve taken it in, we’ve digested it, as it were.

And I’m also very keen on the metaphor of ‘at home with.’ It seems like the best we can do in terms of trying to give a very, very broad social sense of what it means to be in a life. To be really in a life. So I think that metaphors are going to have less lustre, and more homeyness once we’re in a way of life. Right now there’s going to be an incredible amount of… of fecundity without finality, do you see what I mean? Like the first moments of jazz. And that’s a very nice experience. It’s also, however, just a little bit… it requires patience again because if we had a conversation again I’d probably use different metaphors. There’s a time at which we have to become much more patient and creative with each other because the vocabularies we’re using are also in flux… before we have enough time together in which things start to become settled, and taken in, and at home with. Do you agree? Do you think that that makes sense of some of the things you were saying? Some of the things you’ve lived?

JDG: I think it does, yeah. Absolutely. I hadn’t actually thought about it in that way but it seems to make a great deal of sense. And I like the jazz metaphor as well, because then it’s like a jazz improvisation… although it’s improvised, it builds its own structures and becomes recursive and refers back to what it did before and then eventually it attains some kind of larger form which is only really apparent once it’s over.

AT: And ideally… it’s worth mentioning what’s obvious here and that is: it’s working for us. Even when it becomes a little more structured it’s doing work for us, we’ve… in a way we relish it. So this a way of talking about institutions from which we’re not alienated, it’s actually becoming a little more codified without being rigidified. I think that the trellis again comes to mind. Because it’s providing some kind of scaffolding. It’s losing a little bit of its metaphoricity, but it’s with us now, it’s really with us now. It’s helping us, it’s really helping us get on with this new way of life and that’s really nice.

JDG: Yea, and that’s where, I guess, then metaphors and narratives become, well, manifest as social reality, or as a shared experience of the world or as a shared way of seeing, or being in the world.

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