Comments on the recuperation of The Dialectical Butterflies web on prime time

TV, re BBC's2's Nature World Series:

"Butterflies: A Very British Obsession" shown mid-December 2010


It is not unfair to say that this hour-long film was based on various reoccurring themes running through the Dialectical Butterflies website and in the process making a complete mockery of them. It isn’t simply a matter of recuperation in the classical sense of the term meaning cutting out razor-sharp radicalism in order to make edgy, subversive ideas palatable to a dulled public requiring entertainment at all costs but a recuperation of recuperation; a watering down so vast that only traces of insight remain. It was that un-memorable!

 If you like the film played with some of the history and philosophy of butterflies though without an ounce of profundity added in comparison with historical and general remarks we have made over the years and have paid the price for in terms of general shunning, imposed silence, disdain and professional contempt on the lines of “they’re only amateurs” when at the very least we categorically rejected such banal distinctions. And that’s the least of it….

As for the life cycle of a moth or butterfly the film emphasised considerably (as indeed we have done for decades) the metamorphoses regarding the general evolution from lowly grub to an often-stunning imago; a natural history dialectics, one of profound transformation, something like a hidden (r)evolutionary process mimicking more general revolutionary processes which can make the study of Lepidoptera fascinating and prone to wild and interesting add-ones interpretation-wise, like for instance, the 19th century utopian Charles Fourier’s “butterfly principle” or Psyche’s butterflies in Ancient Greece.

Decades you say? Well yes, a piece of juvenilia one of us knocked out for Icteric in 1966 called Some Remarks on Butterflies has had over nigh on fifty years an enormous influence without leading to anything of consequence. It was a piece marking the beginning of the aestheticisation of entomology; a form of happening or installation predicated on experiencing clouds of butterflies like shapes of huge, morphing colour masses intent on leaving behind in historical archives all the canvases of gigantic colour washes (a la abstract expressionism) for the truer un-commodified delight of the heavens. The Painted Lady and their migratory swarms often deriving from sun-baked North African deserts were picked upon and sure enough there was more than a memory or echo in the December 2010 TV spectacular.

In any case Some Remarks on Butterflies was merely a bridging, a piece of ephemera en passant quickly leading to more profoundly worked out revolutionary insights, transcending aestheticisation attempting to encompass some kind of totality and a process involving a lifetime. Instead this real moving process of thought and perception has become pickled in aspic; a kind of stunted happening of butterflies but one that has taken off everywhere and getting nowhere. Thus entomologists today like The Guardian journalist Patrick Barkham gets his relatively light weight book published - The Butterfly Isles. A Summer in Search of our Emperors and Admirals. Obviously there are interesting facts in this book on the lines of the “New Nature Writing”, i.e. relating nature to wider concerns - even if dealt with superficially without dialectical thrust - like dangerous climate change, stifling consumerism, feminism and the failure of love relationships and butterflies as part players also in installation events (e.g. art food displays to lure Purple Emperors down from top oaks). In a somewhat similar vein aestheticisation played a part in Butterflies: A Very British Obsession, not only in all the endless (and pointless) slow-motion sequencing of flight and mating rituals but their re-enacted imitations in swooshing skirts of butterfly wings in decades old vaudeville acts.

Moreover for  some years we’ve been well aware how in particular The Guardian / Independent journalists plus one or to others, endlessly trawl and plagiarise our webs cutting out essential theorising and masking their sources in an age when all radicalism has to be denied and exterminated. All that remains to be said is the necessity of evaluating recuperation as a double-edged sword. Such rip-off implies contemporary revolutionary theory is beginning to make waves among those at the sharp end with media misrepresentation as the mere froth showing up on top of deep threatening seas that may bode well for the future of a profound social explosion sweeping away all vestiges of the old world of misery and exploitation.

As for today’s surface appearances aesthetics now enmeshes with a mild mannered, eco critique whereby business and institutions are persuaded to reduce their carbon foot print. Thus ensconced in London’s Tate Modern the 10:10 Campaign (cutting carbon emissions by 10%) was born in the autumn of 2009 considerably spear-headed by the afore-mentioned Patrick Barkham, the guilty, fashion conscious consumer on a mission finding it painful to get rid of his polluting car and, more especially, his wardrobe. (We don’t have a wardrobe merely a pile of clothes spilling off a chair). He needs to subdue ‘the evil’ within for unlike us it doesn’t come natural. Barkham eagerly pro-mos himself: we don’t! But we never had much of a carbon front print in any case even when the concept wasn’t fashionable and we don’t even know how to drive a car never mind own one. In the index section of his book Barkham lists a few “useful” websites and surprise, surprise though obviously having perused it, Dialectical Butterflies   isn’t mentioned!

In Butterflies: A Very British Obsession, Martin Wright the butterfly breeder and so-called ‘illegal’ (i.e. not sanctioned by Parliament!) species introducer from Worksop, Nottinghamshire is interviewed; an interview steering well clear of Wright’s trenchant observations which have clearly proved how organisations like Butterfly Conservation and Natural England have wilfully gotten involved in capital developments that subsequently massively involved the destruction of bio-diversity and wildlife, including butterflies especially that of the Dingy Skipper on the colliery spoil heap makeovers in northern England. The BBC film more or less stressed the British tend to have an ‘obsession’ (hence the title) with invertebrates without noting that the biggest invertebrate societies in the world do sweet FA in preventing invertebrate destruction if it means opposing the onward march of suicide capitalism. Moreover it seems nobody, not even George Monbiot is willing to expose the truly dismal side of these organisations preferring to emphasise their successes on mainly public land in traditional scenic locations regarding increased population growth via sensitive eco-management of the Silver Spotted Skipper, The Adonis Blue, the High Brown Fritillary etc (not forgetting the great effort required in reintroducing the Large Blue in south-west England).

Inevitably too in the film a street artist makes an appearance (name of Mick Walker) spray painting butterfly tags on the bleak designer life-style walls of new-fangled post-modern London streets as well as (a la Banksy) making certain at the same time he keeps well in with the art gallery establishment retaining the signatory and (mainly financial) kudos of the role of artist and artistic commodity intact. The photographic panoramas of Canary Wharfe where the guy struts his stuff was more than reminiscent of our photograph of the Oleander Hawk moth on the Dialectical Butterflies web set against the Brutalist 1950s Trellick Towers point block in London’s Notting Hill. And talking of Notting Hill, well we still occasionally live there and so the local August Bank Holiday Caribbean carnival’s butterfly costumes slipped in bye-the-bye were therefore hardly surprising.

And as for further installation, the BBC film inevitably had to cover Clive Farrell’s garden for kids in Dorset as an art happening / magic of childhood site, a concept we’ve put in much better perspective on the Dialectical Butterflies website essentially underpinned by Freud’s breathtaking perceptive comment that, “Happiness is a subsequent fulfilment of a childhood wish and that’s why money never brought happiness because it was never a childhood wish” meaning our practical attempts at rejuvenating nature (e.g. what a friend called “criminal gardening” on police, Network Rail property etc) are always inextricably linked to the abolition of money, wage labour, commodity production and the state. A reduced theory of childhood shorn of such radical perspectives is also a theme the much diluted Bug Life conservation group now pursues having long buried its somewhat radical beginnings opposing a motorway bypass noting at the time how “English Nature climbed into bed with the Highways Agency” by killing off (i.e. translocating) the Desmoulins Whorl Snail. In any case the tourist trail – and the bottom line of all conservation groups - was not that far away from Dorset (a hundred miles?) in the shape of the gigantic St Alban’s Butterfly House which we have condemned outright as the quintessential expression of the Promised Land and realisation of financial capital’s playground. Moreover Farrell is the architect / builder / and personal fund manager – to the tune of £27 million - of this monstrosity.

Beyond that there are further Dialectical Butterflies shadowings - especially the emphasis on sites of industrial dereliction interwoven with railway lines and sidings which go back to an Icteric / childhood theme - all treated in a lightweight, harmless way (and believe us we still wish to do harm to the powers that be!) Indeed many of our rough and ready – but far superior films – hang together around these themes. Moreover most of these films are available on our websites for anyone to purloin and firmly on the side of copywrong.

Everyday life is also an underlying theme of the BBC2 butterfly film though not alas on the essential level we have always emphasised around passionate, spontaneous encounters in the field or ex pit spoil heap; encounters we have always regarded as liberating and full of potentiality. Alas in this film an everyday life overlapping with butterflies was reduced to the quintessentially traditional English mores of the country squire, Noel Coward and the worst of the music hall tradition or local rep emphasising the village green plus the ubiquitous and obnoxious cricket match; in short an everyday life playing on permanent Home Counties conservatism among which reside somewhat interesting eccentrics enjoying butterflies as a harmless hobby.

So it was all sour grapes on our part? Well not really as we were asked to specifically participate in the programme especially the part of the film dealing with Healey Mills Marshalling Yards between Horbury and Ossett in West Yorks. True we did discuss the ins and outs of the matter mainly because having been ignored by all the local bio-diversity / conservation bodies regarding this amazing nature site juxtaposed with abandoned diesel engines and freight wagons we were still desperate for some kind of protection for the yards instead of constantly threatened with arrest which still happens to us on a regular basis. Finally we turned down the request as we have done in the recent, and not so recent past, regarding journalists and the like who never stop requesting interviews knowing we would merely make an arse of our ideas and ourselves. The BBC film unit was narked. As for us it had to be no compromise! Either total revolutionary dialectical ecology or nothing!


 David & Stuart Wise 2010