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wild & dao

In 'The Practice of the Wild' (1990) Gary Snyder observes how:

Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what - from a human standpoint - it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what it is. Turn it the other way:

Of animals - free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.
Of plants - self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities.
Of land - a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine.
Of foodcrops - food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit or seeds.
Of societies - societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist economic and political domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem.
Of individuals - following local custom, style, and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent. "Proud and free."
Of behavior - fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation. Far-out, outrageous, "bad," admirable.
Of behavior - artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic.

Most of the senses in this [positive] set of definitions come very close to being how the Chinese define the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases we might call it sacred.

Snyder, Beat poet who brought both ecological sensitivity and Buddhist hermits to the mix. (In Beat lore, he was the one who arranged for Kerouac's mountaintop fire lookout job, described in 'The Dharma Bums'.) 'The Practice of the Wild' collects a number of his essays from the 1970s and '80s, on wilderness and ecology, branching out to the indigenous cultures of Turtle Island (aka North-America) and Buddhist philosophy.

Grounded in practical experience, his unsentimental yet fundamental concern for the natural world has been a major inspiration for the deep ecology movement. Even Snyder doesn't manage to completely extricate himself from the contradictions of consumer culture, as when he enthusiastically describes buying mangoes in a 24/7, airplane-supplied supermarket in the middle of Alaska. Then again, he already warned about global warming back in the 1980s.

At its best his poetic writing indeed attains the kind of wild, earthy spirituality of early Chinese Daoism - with all the adjectives cited above.

The wild - often dismissed as savage and chaotic by "civilized" thinkers, is actually impartially, relentlessly, and beautifully formal and free. Its expression - the richness of plant and animal life on the globe including us, the rainstorms, windstorms, and calm spring mornings - is the real world, to which we belong.

landscapes of belgium

'Landscapes of Belgium' in Brussels' Museum of Ixelles offers "a new vision of landscapes in Belgian art from 1830 to the present day". Its thematic setup is comparable to last summer's 'Sky in Dutch Art since 1850' in Haarlem, mirrored here in Magritte's 'La Malédiction'.

But as that title hints at, Belgian landscapes tend to be darker, earthier, more ominous and mysterious - as exemplified by the nocturnal landscapes of William Degouve de Nuncques, like 'Paysage, Effet de Nuit' and 'La Forêt' (both 1896).

William Degouve de Nuncques - La ForĂȘt

Next, skipping the entire twentieth century in an exhibition full of highlights, two modern works that appear to reinvent the magical realism of a century ago.

In the case of photography duo Felten-Massinger this means reapplying an old technique, the camera obscura, which they use in the form of a camper painted black on the inside, with no lense, just a tiny aperture, and exposure times of hours! The result, as they explain (in French), has been compared with the dark light of a solar eclipse as well as with Sugimoto's eternal Seascapes. It gives the Flemish landscape of 'Puttebos' (2002) - best seen at wall-covering size - its eerie atmosphere of time passing, light lingering in a still image.

Felten-Massinger - Puttebos

The charcoal drawings of Charles-Henry Sommelette, like the untitled garden fence 'Sans Titre' (2013), feel even more explicitly magical-realist. Both painstakingly realistic and romantically fairytalish, at once very modern (you'd almost expect a little G4S logo attached to the gate) and completely timeless, as if this gate might open to the mythical estate of 'Le Grand Meaulnes'. Needless to say its dark stormy textures are also best experienced at full, live size.

Charles-Henry Sommelette - Sans Titre

One other work needs to be mentioned, not part of the exhibition but in the Museum of Ixelles's permanent collection: James Ensor's 'Christ Calming the Storm' ('Christus bedaart de storm', ca. 1900). A great swirling shock of light and color, it counters my above Belgian landscape clichés with a completely different way of conveying the mysteries of the natural world.

James Ensor - Christ Calming the Storm

Note how ambiguously Ensor depicts the miracle, an eye of white light in the midst of a storm still in full horizon-effacing force. As if the storm might yet prevail...

lobby battles

Watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory regularly organizes a "citizen's tour of corporate power in Brussels". It reveals how entrenched corporate lobbying has become in today's politics.

The tour itself is a kind of safari of the EU quarter, the small Brussels neighborhood that houses the European Union's most important institutions as well as offices of virtually every multinational company, a plethora of trade associations, mercenary think tanks and astroturfed advocacy groups. With some 30,000 professional lobbyists, most of them representing big business, Brussels is second only to Washington DC in sheer amount of pressure exerted to influence politics.

Brussels EU quarter - 1

Safari-wise, of course, all this remains very abstract, with only shiny copper plaques hinting at the activities behind the glass facades. The most exciting moment might be when the people in suits go out to lunch, or even, on Fridays, for a beer.

But the problem, as CEO explains in a crash-course video, is far-reaching. It has to do with balance and transparency, more than with the practice of lobbying itself (NGOs are lobbyists too). Balance, as corporate interests simply outspend all other, civil society voices. But also as they have overwhelming priviledged access to policymakers, partly as a result of the infamous revolving door. And transparency, as the EU's policymaking processes still display a shocking lack of accountability.

(To distinguish this from my recent discussion of Han's 'The Transparent Society', transparency here is not an end in itself but a means of guaranteeing political integrity. Han doesn't really address this dimension.)

Brussels EU quarter - 2

Recent examples - this is just last week - include the way fossil fuel companies "undermined EU renewable energy targets and subsidies in favour of gas as a climate fix" (The Guardian). And the way the pharmaceutical industry has captured the debate, to the extent that the EU now speaks "pharmish" (CEO Big Pharma study).

The list goes on to cover all major policy battlefields, from climate to copyright to chemicals, and of course TTIP. In virtually every case the industry's strategy turns out to be a variation on the one pioneered by the tobacco industry in the 1950s: manufacturing doubt.

The documentary 'Endocrination' (2014), for instance, offers a detailed reconstruction of how this strategy, with its invariable appeal to "sound science", succesfully derailed EU policymaking. One observer wrily comments how "the current generation of policymakers are for the most part not aware of where it comes from, i.e. a PR strategy from the tobacco industry".

Brussels EU quarter - 3

The term post-democratic has been used over the past years to describe the EU, especially in its handling of the financial, Euro and Greek crises. But pre-democratic would be more to the point: as the work of groups like CEO shows, if anything the EU needs stronger democratic institutions capable of withstanding the torrents of corporate disinformation.

Pre-democratic, by emphasizing the goal of the EU project, may also help deal with the disheartening sense of déjà vu in these lobby battles.

See also CEO's guide 'Lobby Planet' (pdf). The current edition is from 2011 (before the American tech companies became some of the biggest spenders in town), so hopefully they'll put out an updated edition soon.