Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

71. Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto

I don’t recall where I got the idea to read this short book (or booklet) as part of my project. I think Phil Smith mentioned it somewhere in passing, but my notes are not forthcoming on the question. I’d heard of the Dark Mountain Project before but knew little about it. And I’m terrified by what climate chaos is going to mean for everything living on this planet. I just looked at Facebook and there was a Guardian article in my feed telling me that the ice in Antarctica is melting even faster than the ice in the Arctic, where it’s 90 degrees and the permafrost is turning to mush (releasing more methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as it does). And meanwhile Canadians are squabbling over a tiny carbon tax. We are in big, big trouble.

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto begins with an introduction to the 2014 edition written by one of its authors, Dougald Hine. (The other author is Paul Kingsnorth.) Hine notes that when the manifesto first appeared in 2009, it received a two-page lead review in the New Statesman, and started a cultural movement that the New York Times suggested was changing the European environmental debate (vii)—quite a response to what is essentially a pamphlet. “We get emails most days from readers who have found something here that resonates with their own experience,” Hine continues. “They write about hope, recognition, a sense of feeling less alone” (vii). But there are also attacks: “We have been called all sorts of things: Romantic dreamers, crazy collapsitarians, defeatists, utopians and nihilists” (vii-viii). “Putting all these different reactions alongside each other, trying to make out the pattern that they form,” Hine writes, 

what strikes me is how little it resembles a taking of sides over a recognisable argument. Something else is going on: something that reaches into murkier corners of ourselves than are generally given space on the shores of public debate. The lines of thinking that run through this manifesto are also the contours of a dark shape, an inkblot shape of our puzzlements, doubts and fears—so that, even more than is always the case with the slippery substance of language, every reading is also a veiled reflection of the reader. There are monsters here, if you look for them; there are dead ends, but there are also slender threads of possibility waiting for someone to pick them up. (viii)

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto was written in 2008, just as the financial crisis began (viii-ix). At that time, Hine contends, “we found ourselves in an age where crisis has become the new normal. An age of widening extremes and darkening horizons, when outbreaks of hope spark sporadically like broken power lines across networks and onto the streets, but the future no longer holds the promise it used to” (ix). Hine and Kingsnorth tried to make sense of their own experience, and in doing so, Hine writes, 

it seems that we put words to a feeling that others shared and that has become more widespread in the years since. A feeling that there is no way through the mess in which we find ourselves that doesn’t involve facing the darkness, and being honest about the scale of the unraveling that is underway, and the uncertainty as to where it will end. A feeling that it is time to look down. (ix-x)

At the time, the co-authors were disillusioned with the state of environmentalism: “It seemed that sustainability had come to mean sustain the western way of living at all costs, regardless of whether this was possible or desirable” (x). They were also disillusioned “with the state of literature and the cultural landscape,” feeling that the books celebrated in the Sunday newspapers “were going to look irrelevant or offensive in a generation’s time, given what we already knew about where things were headed” (x). Something different was needed, they decided—and that is what this manifesto calls for.

Uncivilisation does not offer suggestions about what to do—although the succeeding Dark Mountain books provide one possible answer (xiii). Instead, Hine writes,

at the heart of this manifesto is a hunch that sometimes it is right to walk away, to withdraw, to give up on hopes that no longer ring true, even though you have no answer to the accusing questions that will follow. Sometimes retreat is the only action left that makes sense. To give up on things you have held dear—beliefs, identities, habits—is an end, but it can also be a beginning, though it makes you no promises in advance. Only the chance that, having let go, as your eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, you may catch sight of something that your bright certainties had hidden from you” (xiv)

This manifesto was their first attempt at saying something, at working out where our society is going, and they are still discovering its “fuller significance” (xiv).

The manifesto proper begins with Robinson Jeffers’s 1935 poem “Rearmament,” which ends with the lines,

The beauty of modern

Man is not in the persons but in the

Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the

Dream-led masses down the dark mountain (qtd. 1)

Its first chapter, “Walking on Lava,” begins with these words: “Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die” (3). Ordinary life is fragile, and when its pattern is broken, “by civil war or natural disaster or the smaller-scale tragedies that tear at its fabric,” many of the activities in which we are habitually engaged “become impossible or meaningless, while simply meeting needs we once took for granted may occupy much of our lives” (3). War correspondents and relief workers report on the speed with which that fabric can unravel (4). Civilization is fragile—and that realization is nothing new (4). Take, for instance, Bertrand Russell’s comment about Joseph Conrad’s writing. Russell suggested that Conrad thought of civilization as “a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths” (qtd 4), a quotation that lends the chapter its title. For Kingsnorth and Hine, human civilizations are fragile, as any historian can confirm; they are “built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; above all, perhaps, belief in its future” (5). Once those beliefs begin to crumble, “the collapse of a civilisation may become unstoppable”—and all civilizations do fall, sooner or later (5). “What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning,” the co-authors continue (5). They believe that it’s our civilization’s turn “to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality. There is a fall coming. “ (5). 

Our story, they write, is one of a people who believed that their actions did not have consequences, of how that people “will cope with the crumbling of their own myth” (5-6). Without the myth of progress, our efforts cannot be sustained; our civilization is the optimistic Enlightenment grafted onto Western Christianity, resulting in a belief in an earthly paradise, where each generation expects to live better than the one before: “History becomes an escalator, and the only way is up” (7). The 20th century, though, “too often threatened a descent into hell, rather than the promised heaven on earth,” and even prosperous Western societies have failed to deliver: “Today’s generation are demonstrably less content, and consequently less optimistic, than those that went before” (7). “Most significantly of all, there is an underlying darkness at the root of everything we have built”—beyond the edges of our civilization, there is something it was never able to understand (8).

The second chapter, “The Severed Hand” (the title is taken from another Robinson Jeffers’s poem), begins with a discussion of the myth of progress. That myth, they write, “ is founded on the myth of nature”—a myth that claims that greatness comes without costs (10); that we have been able to attack nature and win (10). “Outside the citadels of self-congratulation, lone voices have cried out against this infantile version of the human story for centuries, but it is only in the last few decades that its inaccuracy has become laughably apparent”: we are now surrounded with evidence that our attempts to separate ourselves from nature are “proof not of our genius but our hubris” (10). “We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence”—and the result is a crisis of extinction, of overexploitation of resources (10). “Even though the deadening lens of statistics, we can glimpse the violence to which our myths have driven us,” they write (11). And, looming over everything else: “runaway climate change,” which “threatens to render all human projects irrelevant” while demonstrating that we don’t understand the world in which we live, even while we are utterly dependent upon it (11). “Climate change,” they write, “brings home at last our ultimate powerlessness” (11). 

We hear about technological solutions, about our ability to manage the situation, about our need to become “more ‘sustainable’”—but built into those suggestions is the notion that that everything will be fine and that growth and progress will continue (11-12). “We do not believe that everything will be fine,” Kingsnorth and Hine write. “We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be”; that’s because “we may well be the first species capable of effectively eliminating life on earth. This is a hypothesis we seem intent on putting to the test” (12). “We are already responsible for denuding the world of much of its richness, magnificence, beauty, colour and magic, and we show no sign of slowing down,” they continue (12). We sometimes imagined there would be a Plan B, that we might live under bubbles on the moon, but there is no Plan B, and the only bubble is our civilization (12).

That civilization is based on geological foundations—coal, oil, and gas (13). Above that are industrial abbatoirs, burning forests, and wasted soil (13). Finally, on the top layer, we stand, “unaware, or uninterested, in what goes on beneath us; demanding that the authorities keep us in the manner to which we have been accustomed; occasionally feeling twinges of guilt that lead us to buy organic chickens or locally produced lettuces; yet for the most part glutted, but not sated, on the fruits of the horrors on which our lifestyles depend” (13). “We are the first generations born into a new and unprecedented age—the age of ecocide,” they write (13). “Today, humanity is up to its neck in denial about what it has built, what it has become—and what it is in for. Ecological and economic collapse unfold before us and, if we acknowledge them at all, we act as if this were a temporary problem, a technical glitch” (15). Now, they continue, “we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it” (15). Their questions are these:

what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?

We believe it is time to look down. (15)

The shape that looking down might take is the subject of the third chapter, “Uncivilisation” (16). “If we are indeed teetering on the edge of a massive change in how we live, in how human society itself is constructed, and in how we relate to the rest of the world,” Kingsnorth and Hine write, “then we were led to this point by the stories we have told ourselves—above all, by the story of civilisation” (16). That is the story of our mastery over nature and our glorious future, a story about “human centrality” (16). “What makes this story so dangerous is that, for the most part, we have forgotten that it is a story,” they continue (17). Stories have always been important as a way of approaching reality, but, “as the myth of civilisation deepened its grip on our thinking, borrowing the guise of science and reason, we began to deny the role of stories, to dismiss their power as something primitive, childish, outgrown,” and the old tales, the ones “by which generations had made sense of life’s subtleties and strangenesses,” were abandoned  (17). “Yet for all this, our world is still shaped by stories” (17); most of them are entertainment, “a distraction from daily life” (18), which cannot “make up the equipment by which we navigate reality” (18). “On the other hand,” they continue, “there are the serious stories told by economists, politicians, geneticists and corporate leaders,” which are presented as “direct accounts of how the world is,” and not as stories at all (18). 

“So we find ourselves, our ways of telling unbalanced, trapped inside a runaway narrative, headed for the worst kind of encounter with reality,” Kingsnorth and Hine argue. “In such a moment, writers, artists, poets and storytellers of all kinds have a critical role to play” (18). Now it’s time for those storytellers and artists to “bust” the last taboo: “the myth of civilization” (19). “We believe that artists . . . have a responsibility to begin the process of decoupling”—the decoupling, that is, of our position on the earth and the ecocide we are creating. “We believe that, in the age of ecocide, the last taboo must be broken—and that only artists can do it” (19). The ongoing ecocide demands a response, and that response “is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed” (19). “We believe that art must look over the edge, face the world that is coming with a steady eye, and rise to the challenge of ecocide with a challenge of its own: an artistic response to the crumbling of the empires of the mind,” they write (20). They call this response “Uncivilised art,” and they are particularly interested in what they call “Uncivilised writing”: “writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence,” who “have constructed a sophisticated myth of their own importance with which to sustain their civilising project,” which has been “to civilise the forests, the deserts, the wild lands and the seas, to impose bonds on the minds of their own in order that they might feel nothing when the exploit their fellow creatures” (20). “Uncivilised writing offers not a non-human perspective,” they continue, “but a perspective which sees us as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession. It offers an unblinking look at the forces among which we find ourselves” (20-21). “It sets out to paint a picture of Homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own . . . might recognise as something approaching a truth,” and it aims “to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards” (21). “It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation—and us—into perspective,” they write (21).

Uncivilized writing, though, is not environmental writing, or nature writing; it is “more rooted than any of these” (21). “Above all, it is determined to shift our worldview, not to feed into it,” they argue. “It is writing for outsiders. If you want to be loved, it might be best not to get involved, for the world, at least for a time, will resolutely refuse to listen” (22). They offer poet Robinson Jeffers as an example, an exemplar (22). In his work, they write, we see “[t]he shifting of emphasis from man to notman: this is the aim of Uncivilised writing” (23).This is the literary challenge of our age, and few have taken it up (23), although there are those whose writing approaches the shores of the Uncivilized, such as Wendell Berry or Cormac McCarthy or W.S. Merwin (24). Uncivilized writing, they continue, is

[h]uman, inhuman, stoic and entirely natural. Humble, questioning, suspicious of the big idea and the easy answer. Walking the boundaries and reopening old conversations. Apart but engaged, its practitioners always willing to get their hands dirty . . . that keyboards should be tapped by those with soil under their fingernails and wilderness in their heads. (25)

Kingsnorth and Hine are resolute on the need for this kind of writing and of art:

We tried ruling the world; we tried acting as God’s steward; then we tried ushering in the human revolution, the age of reason and isolation. We failed in all of it, and our failure destroyed more than we were even aware of. The time for civilisation is past. Uncivilisation, which knows its flaws because it has participated in them; which sees unflinchingly and bites down hard as it records—this is the project we must embark on now. This is the challenge for writing—for art—to meet. This is what we are here for. (25)

In the fourth chapter, “To the Foothills!” they suggest that a movement needs a starting point, and while they hope their book has “created a spark,” they need others to get involved (26). “It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side,” they proclaim. “ We suspect that by questioning the foundations of civilisation, the myth of human centrality, our imagined isolation, we may find the beginning of such paths” (26-27). They name their project after that line from Jeffers’s poem that begins the booklet: the Dark Mountain Project (27). They intend to collect Uncivilized writing (27), although they don’t know where that will lead (28). And they cannot do anything by themselves: “Uncivilisation, like civilisation, is not something that can be created alone. Climbing the Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exercise. We need bearers, sherpas, guides, fellow adventurers. We need to rope ourselves together for safety” (28). They end with a call for others to participate: “Come. Join us. We leave at dawn” (28).

That’s the end of the manifesto, but not of the booklet. There is an appendix which outlines “The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation”; these principles are a summary of what we’ve already read. First, “[w]e live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling” and our way of living “is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it” (29). Second, they reject the faith in “solutions” (technological or political) to “problems” (29). Third, they believe the root of the crises we face “lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves,” and so they intend to challenge those stories and the myths they express (29). Fourth, they assert that storytelling is not entertainment, that it is the way “we weave reality” (29). Fifth, “Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble” and “reengage with the non-human world’ (30). Sixth, “We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time” (30). Seventh, “We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental” (30). And, finally, “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find in the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us” (30). This edition also includes a chronology of Dark Mountain’s activities after the manifesto was published.

In an odd way, Kingsnorth’s and Hine’s belief that something will come after our civilization is rather optimistic; it’s not a belief that, even on a lovely, sunny holiday afternoon, I find it easy to entertain. I wonder if the kind of writing they call “Uncivilised” might not be represented by the essays by Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst that I wrote about here some months ago. Perhaps. I saw Jan Zwicky and Randy Lundy read their poetry last week, and the conversation afterwards quickly turned to ecological grief—and let me tell you, the participants in that panel were grieving. It was moving. I wasn’t expecting such emotion to be expressed. But I don’t know. Sometimes I feel that I don’t know anything any more—except that climate change is going to bring a lot of species to and end, and ours will likely be among them–and that somehow, that needs to be part of my project. I wish I knew how.

Works Cited

Bringhurst, Robert, and Jan Zwicky. Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. U of Regina P, 2018.

Kingsnorth, Paul and Dougald Hine. Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, Dark Mountain Project, 2019.

70. Harold Johnson, Two Families: Treaties and Government

This summary is another adaptation of one I wrote for Dr. James Daschuk in the course on treaties I took with him last summer. And it’s more than appropriate to post this on Canada Day, because Cree writer and former lawyer Harold Johnson calls what we mean by Canada into question in Two Families: Treaties and Government. It was one of the most radical books I read last summer, and I continue to return to it, perhaps for that reason.

Johnson begins his book by introducing himself and his relations: “I am of this land,” he writes, echoing the Anishinabe Chiefs Craft discusses. “I am of this earth” (11). “I do not say that I own this land; rather, the land owns me,” he continues (13). That land holds stories, including the stories of the relationship between First Nations and settlers (12-13). “They can help us to live here in a good way if we learn to listen,” Johnson states. That is the purpose of his book: to teach settlers what they need to know if they are to live in this place—in Johnson’s perspective, the Treaty 6 lands—in a good way: to explain Cree laws and history, to explain how they are different from what settlers might have been told, to explain how the Canadian Constitution fits into Cree supreme law, and to “suggest how we might live together as two families sharing the same territory” (14). He will never suggest that settlers should go home, Johnson continues, because we “have a treaty right to be here” (14). Immediately Johnson’s perspective becomes clear: the treaties subtend Canadian law because they give settlers the right to share this land.

The key term in Johnson’s discussion is a Cree word he was given by Elders: kiciwamanawak, or “our cousins.” That is the term they told him he should use when addressing or talking about settlers. The kinship term is important. “In Cree law,” Johnson writes, “the treaties were adoptions of one nation by another” (13). That’s the reason Canadian laws are subordinate—or should be subordinate—to Cree law, in Johnson’s perspective: settlers were adopted by the Cree, and not the other way around.

Before settlers arrived, Johnson argues, “[w]e lived according to the laws of the Creator, which incidentally look a lot like the laws of ecological order” (18). It is the Creator’s laws that are superior to settlers’ legal systems. Those systems are simple compared to the laws of the Creator; a student could spend a lifetime trying to understand the questions that the phrase “All My Relations” raises (18-19). In Cree society, people are equals, and that means that Cree people and whites are also equals. “We should be living as two families in the same territory,” he states (20). He continues, giving a glimpse of what the Cree might have expected when they were negotiating Treaty 6:

When your family arrived here, Kiciwamanawak, we expected that you would join the families already here, and, in time, learn to live like us. No one thought you would try to take everything for yourselves, and that we would have to beg for leftovers. We thought we would live as before, and that you would share your technology with us. We thought that maybe, if you watched how we lived, you might learn how to live in balance in this territory. The treaties that gave your family the right to occupy this territory were also an opportunity for you to learn how to live in this territory. (20-21).

It’s worth noting that one of the Cree words for reserve, iskonigan, also means “leftover” (Wolvengrey 39). More importantly, it’s clear that, according to Johnson, settlers were supposed to adapt to Cree ways of living and laws, rather than the other way around. That, of course, did not happen, and one of the central reasons (aside from the sheer number of settlers who arrived in the 1880s and 1890s) might have been the way settlers and their government(s) have (as Johnson would argue) misunderstood the treaties.

There is no coherent theory that explains the sovereignty of the Crown in this territory, Johnson argues, unless one relies on “the out-moded doctrine that you have a right to this territory because you are superior to my family”—a doctrine that rightfully belongs to the KKK or the Aryan Nations (23). “Discovery cannot be justification for your family’s occupation of this territory,” he continues. “Your family did not discover this place. It was never lost” (23). Nor were First Nations conquered in battle. Therefore, “the only right you have to occupy this territory must come from treaty. You have a treaty right to be here,” Johnson concludes. “The only coherent theory that provides for your sovereignty that is not based on supremacist ideology is that you obtained the right to be here through negotiation and agreement” (25). Notice that Johnson is shifting between the words “occupation” and “sovereignty,” words that are not synonyms. Otherwise, “[w]e are left to assume that the Crown stole sovereignty, and that certainly is not honourable” (25). 

One of the ceremonies given to the Cree by the Creator is adoption, and for Johnson that is what happened when the treaties were negotiated. “It was in accordance with the law of adoption that my family took your ancestors as relatives,” he writes. “We solemnized the adoption with a sacred pipe. The promises that my ancestors made are forever, because they were made under the Creator’s law. This adoption ceremony is what we refer to when we talk about treaty” (27). The Cree adopted the Queen, according to Johnson, rather than the reverse (29). Of course, the implementation of the treaties did not reflect this understanding, and Cree societal structures have been damaged as a result. That is because of the difference between the written text of the treaty and the oral histories about it (41-42). “I doubt the Treaty Commissioner explained the treaty in a way that conveyed the meaning the Crown assigned to the words, ‘cede, release, surrender and yield up . . . all rights titles and privileges,’ and the limits to be placed on hunting and fishing,” Johnson argues (42). Sheldon Krasowski would agree with Johnson on this point, and in No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, he goes beyond Johnson’s conjecture. On the contrary, Johnson argues, Elders who are familiar with the oral histories “dispute the written record of the treaties. . . . When the written record is compared with the oral history, it is clear that much of what my family members said to the commissioner has been omitted, and that which has been recorded has been perverted” (43). The word “perverted” suggested an intentional decision to mislead or misrepresent, which is the opposite of the conclusion J.R. Miller reaches in Compact, Contract, Covenant, or that Michael Asch comes to in On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada. The cultural arrogance of the recorder, the people who write things down, is the reason for this perversion, and it’s a problem that doesn’t exist in oral history, according to Johnson, because in oral history the historians are bound by the Creator to maintain an accurate record of what was said and done, or else they will suffer negative consequences (43-44). “The written text of the treaties has no more authority than the oral histories,” Johnson continues. “The authority assigned to the written text is a subversion of what really happened,” which was that settlers “came under our law when you came to this territory. That is simple. You abide by the laws, customs, and traditions of the people in whose territory you reside (45).

Abiding by Cree law would mean abolishing hierarchies and artificial entities like corporations (46, 47, 49). It would also mean understanding that good and evil are extremes best avoided. “Our way of being is our understanding of where we are in relation to our environment,” Johnson writes. “This understanding has many more possibilities than the extremes of good and evil” (51). It would also mean abandoning adversarial ways of thinking about the world (57), as well as the belief that settler society is superior to the Cree. “As long as you insist on your doctrine of superiority, you will be in breach of that law [the law of adoption], and you will not develop your understanding,” Johnson writes. “We want to talk to you but you will not listen” (53).

Other changes would be necessary if Johnson’s understanding of the treaty became widespread, including the abandonment of the concept of property, which is inconsistent with the treaty’s promise to share the land and its resources. “The concept of property is laid over the earth like a sheet of clear plastic: invisible, sterile, and devoid of human connection,” Johnson writes (64). It would also mean that Cree nations have sovereignty, rather than the Crown. “We did not give you control over the entire territory, nor did we abdicate our responsibility to the earth,” Johnson contends. “Under our law, we did not have the right to pass off our duty to your family, to surrender our choice, our authority” (67). Also, the responsibility for resources would have to lie with First Nations, not the province—that decision violates the treaties (68). 

Moreover, the Canadian Constitution would have to be understood as secondary to the treaties. “Your acknowledgement of the treaties as first documents will begin to put us back in balance,” Johnson writes. “When your family accepts that this country’s founding families are yours and mine, then we can begin to search for other truths” (84-85). The doctrine of sovereignty would be unneeded, because settlers “have a treaty right to occupy and use this territory,” granted through the ceremony of adoption. “Sovereignty is an old excuse to deny my family’s equality with yours. Your family has sovereignty and mine does not” (89). And the written text of the treaties? “Kiciwamanawak, my family did not adopt a piece of paper; they adopted you. The paper at tre aty was ancillary to ceremony. My ancestors recognized your paper as your ceremony and participated so as not to offend” (90). The Constitution therefore becomes secondary to the oral treaty record. “I cannot accept that your constitutional documents have any power,” Johnson writes. “I cannot talk to those papers and tell them of the plight of my family. I can only talk to you, Kiciwamanawak, and remind you that you have treaty rights” (90). In fact, the Constitution is a treaty right, according to Johnson (92). He disagrees strenuously with the Constitution’s language regarding existing Aboriginal rights. “The assumption that your family can determine the rights of my family is never clearly articulated in your constitutional documents,” he writes. “Neither have your courts ever articulated a legitimate theory. Authority is merely assumed. Kiciwamanawak, I can only suspect the reason that the theory of your domination is never clearly articulated is because your family does not have one. The old theories of discovery or conquest or emptiness no longer hold true” (103). In fact, the Constitution itself “is subservient to and dependent on the treaties for its legitimacy,” Johnson argues. “There is no other legitimate basis for your occupation and use of this territory. It is only by treaty that you have any rights here at all” (105). And so Johnson returns to his starting point: “If we return to the original intention of treaty and recognize that we are relatives, Kiciwamanawak, we should be able to walk into the future in a good way” (121).

Two Families is a powerful expression of an Indigenous perspective on the treaties. It turns the standard way of thinking about Canada upside-down. I think it is definitely is one of the sources Asch uses in his discussion of treaties. There is a logic to Johnson’s argument that is difficult to deny, if you accept his claim that the treaties were ceremonies of adoption. Aimée Craft doesn’t go that far, in her book on Treaty 1, although she would agree with Johnson that the treaty was about sharing territory rather than surrendering it. And, to be honest, I can’t help thinking that our history would be less shameful if Johnson’s ideas had been shared by Victorian Canadians. There would have been no Indian Act, no residential schools, no pass system. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine settlers and First Nations walking into the future “in a good way” (121), even if that’s what reconciliation actually means—although when I think about Johnson’s argument, I become ever more convinced that he’s right, and settlers are wrong.

Works Cited

Asch, Michael. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, University  of Toronto Press, 2014. 

Craft, Aimée. Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One, Purich, 2013. 

Johnson, Harold. Two Families: Treaties and Government, Purich, 2007.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Wolvengrey, Arok. nêhiyawêwin: itwêwina/Cree: words, vol. 1, Cree-English, University of Regina Press, 2001.

69. Michael Asch, On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada

I’ve been thinking about Michael Asch’s On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada for a few days now—and, more to the point, wondering if its possible to square Asch’s argument that the numbered treaties were legitimate against Sheldon Krasowski’s argument in No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous that, because the so-called surrender clause was not mentioned during the negotiations, those treaties are illegitimate—or at least problematic. And, before I fly off later this week, I’d like to get to 70 blog posts. So please allow me to revisit a summary of Asch’s book that I wrote as part of a course I took on treaty relationships with Dr. James Daschuk last summer. If nothing else, this post will be a test of how good these summaries are—whether they allow me to remember the gist of an argument without having to reread the source text. 

Asch’s book takes its title from a statement made by Chief Justice Antonio Lamer in the 1997 Delgamuukw decision: “Let us face it, we are all here to stay” (3). For Asch, an anthropologist, that statement poses a problem: “it is wrong legally as well as morally to move onto lands belonging to others without first obtaining their permission” (vii). But, as Asch continues, that problem leads to another:  “reconciling this principle with the fact that Canada is on lands that belong to Indigenous peoples” (vii). What might permission from those peoples entail? he asks (vii). Would those treaties allow Canada to act in compliance with the 1960 U.N. Declaration on De-Colonization, from which he derives his first principle, that it is wrong to occupy territory without asking permission first?

At first, Asch writes, he believed that the representatives of the Crown acted fraudulently in negotiating the treaties, because the government of Canada failed to implement the terms of those treaties. However, given the importance of R v. Badger and the Supreme Court’s finding in that case that the Crown, legally, must be regarded as truthful regardless of its original intent, Asch adopted that perspective (viii). He began looking at correspondences between what Indigenous authorities render as the treaty terms now, and what the treaty commissioners actually said. And, for Treaty 4, at least (his test case), Asch found that it seems that Morris meant what he said. That discovery led him to “recalibrate” his interpretation of the treaties (viii). “[T]here is at least a case to be made for the proposition that there were those who acted in good faith in the past, and thus the possibility that, while to act honourably now is to depart from how we have acted in the past, it is also to keep faith with it,” he writes (ix). Moreover, there is the problem of the purported nation-to-nation relationship between First Nations and Canada. “A relationship between equals . . . requires (at least as modernity describes it) that each party is a state with sovereignty and jurisdiction over a territory,” he writes. “Yet Indigenous authorities inform us that we did not acquire sovereignty and jurisdiction over any territory. Therefore,” he continues, “we cannot be equals, for a party that does not have sovereignty and jurisdiction in a territory cannot have the same standing as one that does” (x). Here we see the influence of Harold Johnson’s argument in Two Families: Treaties and Government that Canada did not acquire sovereignty as a result of the treaties. These are the questions Asch takes up in his book.

What authorizes the presence of settlers in this territory, aside from our numbers and our power (3)? For Asch, this question needs to be answered; otherwise, Canada is in violation of the Declaration on De-Colonization. Moreover, the question of how the Crown gained sovereignty—since Canada has made it clear that although First Nations have rights that flow from the period prior to the Crown’s assertion of sovereignty, it will not accept that this situation “might call into question the final legislative authority of the Crown” (10-11)—needs to be answered. How did the Crown gain its sovereignty? How can that sovereignty be reconciled with the pre-existence of Indigenous societies, and not the other way around (11)?

Asch begins his exploration of these questions by looking into the history of Aboriginal rights in Canada, at least since the Calder decision. “[T]he courts to date have adhered to the same position as the government of Canada: Aboriginal rights, whatever their content, are subordinate to the sovereignty of Canada,” he writes. “And, to reiterate, this formulation begs the most fundamental question: If Indigenous peoples had legitimate sovereignty when Europeans first arrived, how did the Crown legitimately acquire it?” (32). Clearly, recent judicial decisions have not answered this question.

Next, Asch responds to Tom Flanagan’s 2000 book, First Nations, Second Thoughts. Flanagan argues that temporal priority—essentially, the principle of first come, first served—does not apply in Canada in terms of the Crown’s sovereignty, and Asch demonstrates that it does (38). Flanagan argues that sovereignty over Indigenous peoples has legitimated itself over time, but Asch shows that because First Nations have not accepted this sovereignty, it has not legitimated itself (38). Flanagan asserts that Europeans were more civilized than Indigenous peoples, and therefore deserved to exercise sovereignty; Asch compares this position to the Declaration on De-Colonization, and suggests that Flanagan is relying “on a discredited convention that is a holdover from the colonial era” (54). “The question, then, is not whether the principle of temporal priority applies,” Asch writes, “but what are the consequences of applying it?” (58).

Asch then turns to the question of whether Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. If not, then the Declaration on De-Colonization does not apply to Canada. He determines that yes, they do have the right of self-determination, despite the arguments of Flanagan and Alan Cairns. This fact, along with Crown sovereignty and the presence of settlers on Indigenous lands, presents Asch with a dilemma, one he believes can be solved through a focus on treaty rights.

But the treaties present another problem: there is an “extreme dissonance” (78) between the the understandings of the treaties of the two negotiating parties. For the authors of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, that dissonance means that there was in fact a lack of consent to the treaties, due to the cultural differences of the negotiators. “The commission suggests that the proper approach to resolving the differences is to reach a shared agreement as to the treaties’ meaning based on the assumption that both interpretations carry equal weight” (79), and this will mean considering oral evidence. Asch is following Aimée Craft’s argument in Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One here (although he doesn’t cite her book, probably because he wasn’t able to consult it as he was writing On Being Here To Stay since it had not yet been published). “[I]t is my view that, despite cultural differences, there is every chance that these parties could have achieved a degree of shared understanding at the time of negotiations to conclude an agreement based on mutual consent,” Asch writes. “In other words, one cannot rule out the possibility that the position advanced by one of the parties today more closely conforms to what actually transpired at the time of treaty making than does the other” (80). 

Asch’s test case is, as I’ve already mentioned, Treaty 4. After carefully examining the transcript of the negotiations in Morris’s book on the treaties he negotiated, Asch concludes that 

there is virtually nothing in the transcript that supports an interpretation of the extinguishment clause as resulting in the political subordination of the Indigenous parties to the government of Canada. Rather, it is more consistent with the evidence to conclude that the shared understanding of Treaty 4 resulted in a direct political alliance with the Queen. (90) 

He presents a complicated—some might say tortured—reading of the surrender clause that concludes that “First Nations are entering into the same relationship with the queen as between her and the Dominion” (91)—that, in other words, the negotiating parties ended up on a nation-to-nation basis. Asch concludes:

I think the evidence clearly shows that, on the balance of probabilities, the interpretation of the terms of Treaty 4 offered by our Indigenous partners today more accurately reflects the agreement we reached than does the version transmitted to us through the written text. That is, to gain their permission to settle on lands we recognized as belonging to them, we asked only to share the land with them (not take it over as by purchasing it). In return, we promised to do our utmost to ensure that our presence on these lands would result in benefits to them, and certainly would cause them no harm. Furthermore, whether or not we believed we had sovereignty, we treated our partners as independent political actors with their own leaders and with a right to make the final decision on our request, and there is nothing in the evidence to substantiate the proposition that, either in our minds or in theirs, the treaty terms were such that they would change the nature of our relationship. . . . Put succinctly, but perhaps too mechanically, the agreement was this: they would share the land, and we would treat them like our own brothers and sisters. (97)

If we accept the possibility that the version of Treaty 4 offered by First Nations was the product of good-faith negotiations, then that treaty is a remarkable achievement—a shared understanding, despite cultural differences, and one that offers a path to move beyond colonial relations (97-98). If, on the other hand, we think Morris and the other Crown negotiators lied, then the treaties become worthless pieces of paper and our right to be here disappears. Therefore, it’s better to treat them as legitimate (99). But the expediency of acting as if Treaty 4 is legitimate doesn’t make sense if, as Krasowski argues, the fact that the surrender clause was not discussed, mentioned, or explained renders the Crown’s claim on the land to be, well, specious and unfounded.

The treaties’ legitimacy means that Canada and First Nations are in a nation-to-nation relationship, Asch argues. “Indigenous peoples have spoken to us with one voice: using our conceptual frame, they had sovereignty and jurisdiction in their territories when we first arrived and they have not voluntarily relinquished this through treaties,” he writes. Therefore, “if we want to move ahead in implementing the treaty relationship in good faith, it seems reasonable to start by accepting that, no matter where our partners reside . . . they live on land that remains under their sovereignty and jurisdiction” (111-12). That argument leads him to agree with Harold Johnson’s position: “the only path for us to take is to join Indigenous polities as immigrants” (112). The Two Row Wampum, and the Cree principle of witaskewin, or living together on the land, emphasize the necessity of sharing the land and not interfering in the way First Nations manage their affairs (114). The treaties, in other words, bind us together permanently, even though settlers do not have sovereignty: “Two nations live together as partners though there is but one sovereign” (119). 

The linking principle demonstrated by the Two Row Wampum and witaskewin is central to Asch’s argument here. “Saying that the linking principle has the power to bind us to this land is one thing,” he writes. “Believing it to be possible is another. And while, at the end of the day, I know it is incumbent on us to take our partners at their word, the idea that sovereignty over a territory takes precedence is so fundamental in our thinking that it would be useful to attempt to conceptualize how linking could have that power in its absence” (119). Asch then turns more explicitly to Johnson’s claim that the treaties meant we became relatives. He suggests that the linking principle is similar to marriage, in which, to survive, two families have to come together and yet remain distinct, and compares this to the Two Row Wampum example, in which both partners have autonomy and equality, but need the other to survive (127-31). Or, to use another metaphor, the treaty is the foundation of a house we are building together with First Nations, a house in which we both can live (132). 

Using Anthony E. Smith’s concept of “ethnie,” a group with a common myth of descent, distinctive culture, association with specific territory, sense of solidarity, and identity (135),  Asch then demonstrates that in the 1870s, when the numbered treaties were being negotiated, First Nations on the prairies were living in multi-ethnie communities without a common sovereign or ethnie to bind them together (138). “One can readily imagine that our partners anticipated that we would adhere to the same principles; that is, we would not try to incorporate our partners into an ‘institutional-cum-territorial’ container of our own making but would rather link arms with them to shape a container in which we could all live together comfortably” (139). After all, that is what First Nations were already used to. “Looked at in this light,” Asch writes, “the treaties express our mutual commitment to that understanding” (139). That, of course, is precisely what did not happen, and Asch describes the results of our failure to act with kindness toward our treaty partners (142-48). “Nonetheless,” he writes, “I believe that returning to the promises we made in the treaties gives us a purchase on where to begin now” (149). “We must also act in accord with the spirit and intent of the treaties as they were negotiated,” he writes (150). Therefore, he suggests that in the future this understanding must orient our interactions not only with First Nations with which we have negotiated treaties, but also with those with which we have not (151). “My thesis comes down to this: Treaties offer us the means to reconcile the fact that we are ‘here to stay’ with the fact that there were people already here when we first arrived,” he concludes (152).

But that’s not the end of Asch’s argument. By examining biographical evidence, he suggests that Morris and Lord Dufferin, the Governor-General in the 1870s, honestly believed that the commitments they made in return to settle on the prairies would be kept (157). Morris advocated for faithful implementation of the spirit of the treaties, and as a result his authority over treaty implementation was removed in 1877 (161). When he continued to protest the breaking of the treaties, he was pushed out as lieutenant governor and Edgar Dewdney became Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the North West Territory. Dewdney implemented policies of deliberate starvation of First Nations (161). 

Harold Cardinal once described the treaties as our Magna Carta, but Asch notes that settlers don’t think of them that way, despite their fundamental importance. Canada’s historiography shows that we pay little attention to the treaties, and therefore do not understand them. However, he writes,

[w]hen we include in our history the position on the importance of treaty making offered by Commissioner Morris and Lord Dufferin, a different picture emerges. What then becomes clear is that, at the time of Confederation, the view taken by those who controlled treaty implementation was contested by a prominent leader in building Confederation and by the queen’s official representative. They believed that in Canada to be “here to stay” would mean making treaties amenable to all before settling on new lands and adhering to them. In this rendering, treaties become like the Magna Carta for us, for they are the foundation that legitimizes our settlement on these lands. As Morris suggested, to dishonour our obligations would be to call into question that legitimacy. And I think it fair to say that, were Settlers by and large to come to that view, then governments would be encouraged to act on the understanding that our treaty obligations are solemn commitments and not policy options. But this cannot happen so long as this debate is written out of our history. What I suggest is that, at the very least, we incorporate the perspective of Dufferin and Morris on treaty relations into the story we tell of Confederation and the settling of the west. (164)

Asch’s take on Morris is markedly different from J.R. Miller’s, in his 2009 book Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, and I honestly don’t know who to believe. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. If we need to assume that the Crown behaved honourably in the treaty negotiations, then it doesn’t matter whether Morris actually did—although the historical precedent of honest dealing and shared understanding is encouraging. What we need to do is keep faith to the principles Asch finds in the treaty-making process: gaining consent from those who were here first, keeping our commitments to them, and rectifying any harm our actions have caused (165). That is what reconciliation would look like. And yet, I’m haunted by Krasowski’s claim that Morris, and the other Crown negotiators, did not behave honourably—that they lied by omission about the surrender clause.

When I first read Asch’s book, I believed his argument made sense, particularly regarding the purported source of Crown sovereignty. His argument could help us to imagine a different way of engaging with First Nations. Perhaps being allowed to imagine that a nation-to-nation relationship is logically possible (rather than simply a matter of power and numbers) would be yet another gift from Canada’s Indigenous partners. In any case, there is now no question in my mind that the treaties were intended to be about sharing the land—from the Indigenous perspective, and if Asch is right about Morris, from the Crown negotiators’ perspective as well. And yet, as I’ve suggested, Krasowski’s book throws my faith in Asch’s argument up in the air. I now find myself wondering if his complicated reading of the surrender clause in the Treaty 4 document isn’t too clever by half—that we need to acknowledge that, because that clause was never discussed or mentioned by the Crown negotiators, the treaty’s validity is in jeopardy. And if that’s the case, as Asch points out, then settlers are simply squatting on this land, and we have no right to be here. That’s a pretty big problem.

Oh, and to answer the question I asked myself at the beginning of this summary: yes, the summary is useful, although I will eventually have to revisit Asch’s interpretation of the Treaty 4 surrender clause, to parse through his reading of it again.

Works Cited

Asch, Michael. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, University  of Toronto Press, 2014.

Craft, Aimée. Breathing Life Into the Stone Fort Treaty: An Anishinabe Understanding of Treaty One, Purich, 2013.

Harold Johnson, Two Families: Treaties and Government, Purich, 2007.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Miller, J.R. Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, University of Toronto Press, 2009.

67. Sam Cooper, “The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists”

I don’t remember where I ran across a reference to Sam Cooper’s essay, “The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists”—probably in Phil Smith’s book Walking’s New Movement. What I had hoped this essay would discuss would be the connection between contemporary British psychogeographers and Romanticism—a connection I keep seeing, and one which would make me unpopular among contemporary British psychogeographers if I were to meet any. But Cooper is after something else: by “English Situationists,” he is referring to the English Section of the Situationist International (SI), which existed briefly in the mid-1960s before it was expelled by the SI. So Cooper is much more specific in his investigation; nevertheless, I think this essay might be of some use. At least, it confirms my hunch that there is some Romanticism lurking in the background of English evocations of the Situationists.

Cooper begins with George Robertson’s claim that the British got the Situationists wrong. Robertson argues that the British are too suspicious of intellectualism, and he “regards the Romantic inheritance of ‘the British left avant-garde’ as self-evidently conservative,” incongruous with the Situationists’ avant-gardism (20-21). However, Cooper argues “that, actually, the earliest English Situationist groups were actively involved in a radicalised reworking of what it might mean to reproduce English Romanticism, whose politics may not be so far from those of the SI, nor so distant even now” (21). He is very clear about his plan for this essay:

The first half of this essay will investigate how the earliest English Situationists used Romanticism as the archive and medium through which to anglicise the late modernist programme of the SI, with a focus on the historical reasons for doing so. The second half, through reading the Situationist Guy Debord alongside William Wordsworth, will argue that the English Situationists’ decision serves also to illuminate a latent Romanticism in Situationist aesthetic practice even in its ‘proper’ francophone articulations. (21-22)

He immediately explains who he is talking about: in the 1960s, the Situationist International maintained an English Section, “but when that group began to anglicise Situationist practice, it was deemed to have the SI and was expelled” (22). That group imagined the Gordon Rioters, the Swing Rioters, and the Luddites as their precursors (23); they saw themselves as “part of an ongoing current of vernacular English dissent” (23). They also associated the Situationists with Romantic poetry (23). Their aesthetic, “which is principally a literary aesthetic,” with “its own subterranean legacy, most obviously by way of punk culture,” was “an attempt to reconstruct an English Romanticism that deployed something of its original radicality in the present” (23). 

The English Situationists only produced two publications. In their first, a long essay from 1967 entitled “The Revolution of Modern Art and the Modern Art of Revolution,” the English Section argued that juvenile delinquents were the true inheritors of Dadaism (23-24). In doing so, they also alluded to Wordsworth’s famous statement that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (qtd. 24). According to Cooper, that allusion is a détournement used on both Wordsworth and the Situationists’ own work; that it “conflates violence and poetry, to recall a long avant-gardist tradition of violent provocation as (anti-)art gesture”; and that “the ease with which the two analyses are brought together serves to align the SI’s project with something of Wordsworth’s early politico-aesthetic sensibility” (24).

In the second of the English Section’s texts, the English Situationists alluded to William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in a translation of the penultimate sentence of a French Situationist text (24-25). “Such irreverent treatment of the group’s decrees, and such disrespect shown to the SI’s paranoid proprietorship of its genealogical identity, led to the English Section’s expulsion,” Cooper writes (25). After their expulsion, one member formed a group called King Mob; Cooper treats King Mob and the English Section together, as the English Situationists (25). “King Mob’s programme was confrontational, aggressive, and black-humoured, and involved playing the role of the juvenile delinquents who, it maintained, were spectacular capitalism’s agents of negation,” Cooper argues (25). However, he also claims that their actions were “very likely informed by the group’s reading of Wordsworth” (26)—and other English Romantic poets: King Mob used quotations from Coleridge and Blake in graffiti (26). “King Mob’s reproduction of these lines running as paint down tenement walls literally inscribes their everyday environment with the spectral presences of Blake and Coleridge,” Cooper writes (26).

However Cooper is quick to point out that the English Situationists weren’t alone in turning to the Romantics in the 1960s, and that they weren’t interested in Romanticism’s more conservative and rural forms (27). But he sees the influence of the Romantics elsewhere: he suggests that Guy Debord’s Situationist statement Society of the Spectacle is an “estranged descendant” of Wordsworth’s 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads (28): “As the former has come to serve as the most comprehensive account of Situationist theory, so the latter has come to serve as a de facto manifesto of early English Romantic poetry” (28). Both texts offer “an aesthetic theory and a reflexive explication of how that aesthetic theory has been applied to its own articulation” (28). “It may seem overdetermined or historiographically abrupt to read these two writers together, but my interest here is to be a little more specific about the version of Romanticism that the English Situationists emphasised in their anglicisation of the SI,” Cooper argues (28).

Cooper’s reading of both writers generates some surprises. For instance, he suggests that 

the English Situationists recognised that Wordsworth’s early project responded to large-scale political changes and their effects on everyday life—which I will discuss in terms of capitalist accumulation and the possibility of ‘authentic’ experience—and sought aesthetic responses whose very form might be antagonistic or even incommensurable with the new social order being imposed. (28)

“The dichotomy that Wordsworth establishes between a rustic life that is experienced in all its richness and a more sophisticated life that has lost its immediate connection with nature is echoed by a distinction made by Debord in the first thesis of Society of the Spectacle” (30), he continues, noting that Debord’s first thesis claims that life is presented as an accumulation of spectacles, and that “[e]verything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (qtd. 30). “Like Wordsworth, Debord associates authenticity with that which is experienced directly, without mediation,” Cooper continues (30). In addition, 

both Wordsworth’s and Debord’s aesthetic formulations (both of which rely on idyllic, even prelapsarian, conceptions of authenticity) were issued as responses to socio-economic changes in late eighteenth-century England and in post-war France respectively. More specifically, Wordsworth and Debord both held that authentic experience, or at least its possibility, was being obscured and sequestered by successive phases of capitalist accumulation (30)–

primitive accumulation for Wordsworth, and spectacular accumulation for Debord (30). Cooper also notes that Jacques Rancière recognizes that the SI’s critique of the spectacle is based in Romanticism (32)—a moment in The Emancipated Spectator that I missed. However, after these similarities, Debord’s and Wordsworth’s paths diverge: “Wordsworth believed that there were poetic subjects appropriate for the representation of authenticity; Debord believed that any affirmative art would ultimately collude with the spectacle” (32). 

The English Situationists, however, 

recognised that Wordsworth’s commemoration of soon-to-be eradicated, pre-capitalist ways of life was not simply nostalgic, but a tactic of resistance and assault. When they anglicised the work of the SI, the English Situationists replicated Wordsworth’s tactic: they privileged the SI’s discussion of juvenile delinquency over its many other discussions, and even attempted to locate that delinquency structurally as evidence of a ‘new lumpen’ class which was the repository of revolutionary potential. (33)

As a result, they ended up reproducing “Wordsworth’s faith that authenticity can be identified and represented, that positive representation is not necessarily spectacular or alienating,” a position with which the Situationist International disagreed (36). The English Situationists 

attempted to transpose the core political content of the SI’s critique of spectacle into a distinctly English literary tradition, but in severing the SI’s political analysis from its aesthetic one, in articulating the former by way of a Romantic, affirmative, and positivistic mode of exposition, the English Situationist aesthetic practice became diametrically opposed to that of the SI. (36-37)

This put them into conflict with the SI: “In direct contravention of the SI’s aesthetic austerity, the English Situationists went directly to the three Ss—the subjective, the superficial, and the spectacular—which remain the bêtes noires of Situationist discourse, to ask whether they could yet be sabotaged into becoming sites of contestation” (37). However, Cooper concludes that, “in their attempt to reclaim for the present something of the project of early English Romanticism, the English Situationists remained in full accordance with Debord’s account of the function of détournement” (37), which reradicalizes “previous critical conclusions” that have become “respectable truths” and therefore lies (qtd. 37). In other words, the English Situationists’ borrowing from the English Romantics wasn’t just a borrowing, it was a détournement.

All of this is interesting, but it doesn’t give me anything I can refer to in a discussion of the Romanticism I see in contemporary British psychogeography, or in its source texts, like Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering. I’m certain that what I’m seeing is there, however unpopular such a claim might be, and I’ll keep my eyes open for a critical discussion that is more on target. In some ways, the relationship between psychogeography and Romanticism doesn’t matter, because I’m not interested in claiming to be a psychogeographer, but at the same time, I don’t want to get sidetracked and find myself rereading the Romantics in order to make the connection myself. I’d much rather find a text in which someone else argues that connection is there. Perhaps there’s something in the secondary literature on Iain Sinclair; if I run out of things to read (and that’s not likely to happen), I’ll take a look.

Works Cited

Sam Cooper, “The Peculiar Romanticism of the English Situationists,” The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-37.

Machen, Arthur. The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering, Martin Secker, 1924.

Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.