[ox-en] Interview with Peter Lamborn Wilson
- From: "Niall Douglas" <s_fsfeurope2 nedprod.com>
- Date: Sat, 31 Jul 2004 19:15:19 +0100
Seemed it might be of interest to the list.
--- cut ---
An Anarchist in the Hudson Valley
in conversation: Peter Lamborn Wilson
with Jennifer Bleyer
It?s been nearly ten years since Peter Lamborn Wilson?née Hakim
Bey?looked at the pitiably state-bound, rule-bound world around him
and asked: "Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience
autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only
by freedom?" In a slim, rattling volume called Temporary Autonomous
Zone, Wilson intoned that, in fact, freedom is already here. Autonomy
exists in time, he said, rather than space. It?s in times of
wildness, revelry, abandon and revolution that for even just one
brief jail-breaking moment, as sweet as honey to the tongue, one is
freed of all political and social control.
Wilson rightly became celebrated as a kind of urban prophet. It was
an identity to add the others he bears seamlessly and without
contradiction: anarchist, poet, public intellectual, psychedelic
explorer, artist, social critic, Sufi mystic. Six years ago he moved
upstate from the East Village to New Paltz, New York. The setting is
different, but the ideas have only deepened?notably his critique of
global capital and "technological determination." In his green wood-
frame house, trees rustling overhead and birds chirping outside, we
drank tea and talked.
Jennifer Bleyer: You left New York City six years ago and moved
upstate to New Paltz. There?s a lot of art happening here and in the
Hudson Valley in general, which seems pretty cool.
Peter Lamborn Wilson: The fact of it happening anywhere makes it more
interesting than a kick in the face. But the fact of the matter is
that America doesn?t produce anything anymore. A couple of years ago,
we passed the halfway mark from being a so-called productive economy
to a services economy. What are services? You tell me. Whatever it
means, we don?t make pencils. We don?t make cement. We don?t make
ladies garments or roll cigars. We don?t even manufacture computers.
In other words, we don?t make anything,, especially not around here.
There are a few cement factories left up in Greene County, but
basically, industry died here in the fifties. It was a long slow
death, certainly over by the seventies. There was a depression, so
artists, who are certainly blameless in this, discovered low real
estate prices and low rents, and they started to move up here. And
the gap between the artists and the real estate developers has gotten
very small in our modern times, down to where it?s almost nothing.
So for a few years the artists and their friends came up here and got
bargains and moved in, and now artists? studios in Beacon sell for a
quarter-million dollars. And we?re talking about a one-room building
on a half-acre lot. You want a house? Half-a-million. Do you know any
artists who can afford that? The point is that there?s a lot of
boosterism for the arts in the Hudson Valley because there?s no other
economy. It?s either that or "green tourism," which in my mind is a
disgusting term and something that I don?t want to see promoted in
any way. It?s a commodification of nature, turning nature into a
source of profit for the managerial caste in the Hudson Valley.
That?s not the solution I?m interested in.
We have all these knee-jerk phrases that in the sixties sounded like
communist revolution, and now are just corpses in the mouths of real
estate developers. "Sustainable development"?that means very
expensive houses for vaguely ecologically conscious idiots from New
York. It has nothing to do with a sustainable economy or
permaculture. They talk about agriculture, they get all weepy about
it, but they won?t do anything for the family farms because family
farms use pesticides and fertilizers, which is a terrible sin in the
minds of these people. So they?re perfectly happy to see the old
farms close down and build McMansions, as long as they?re green
McMansions, of course, with maybe a little solar power so they can
boast about how they are almost off the grid. This is just yuppie
poseurism. It?s fashionable to be green, but it?s not at all
fashionable to wonder about the actual working class and farming
people and families that you?re dispossessing. This is a class war
situation, and the artists are unfortunately not on the right side of
the battle. If we would just honestly look at what function we?re
serving in this economy, I?m afraid we would see that we?re basically
shills for real estate developers.
Bleyer: Which is really the case in Beacon, I suppose.
Wilson: Oh, absolutely. Dead Hudson Valley industrial towns
reinventing themselves as prole-free zones and calling it art. Now,
everyone I know is involved in the arts, and I?m involved in the
arts, so what I?m saying here is a bit of a mea culpa. I don?t think
that we can consider ourselves guiltless and not implicated in all
this because we?re creative and artsy and have leftist emotions.
Where are our actual alternative institution-building energies? Where
are our food co-ops? Where?s our support for the Mexican migrant
agricultural workers? Most people here are not interested in that.
Bleyer: So where should people who consider themselves radical be
directing their energies?
Wilson: I think that a radical life is not something that depends on
Internet connections or websites or demos or even on politics, like
having Green mayors. This may sound dull to people who think that
having a really hot website is a revolutionary act. Or that getting a
million people to come out and wave symbolic signs at a symbolic
march is a political act. If it doesn?t involve alternative economic
institution building, it?s not. As an anarchist, I?ve had this
critique for years, and experience has only deepened it. Here, there
are people who are very concerned with trying to preserve whatever
natural beauty and farmland exists in this region, and my heart?s
with them. But I think it?s done by and large without any
consciousness that this is already a privileged enclave. We?re saying
that this is our backyard and we don?t want any cement factories.
However, we?re not saying that we volunteer to do without cement.
What we?re saying is cement is fine, as long as the factories are in
Bleyer: Or in Sullivan County.
Wilson: Or Sullivan County. Although Sullivan County is fast
reinventing itself, too.
Bleyer: You mentioned hot websites. I?m curious about your thoughts
on the web now, because ten years ago you seemed optimistic about its
Wilson: Well, I wouldn?t say I was an optimist. I was curious and
attempted an anti-pessimist view. I went to about 25 conferences in
Europe in seven years, and in all that time, I never had a computer
or was on the Internet myself. I never have been. So I went to these
conferences as the voice of caution, the one guy who doesn?t own a
computer. Little by little, my talks at these conferences would
become more and more Luddite, sounding the knell of warning about
mechanization of consciousness and alienation and separation. There
was a time when everything was so confused and chaotic that it was
easy to believe that this technology would be an exception to all the
other technologies, and instead of enslaving us, it would liberate
us. I never actually believed that, but I was willing to talk to
people who did. Now I?m not willing to talk to them anymore. I have
no interest in this dialogue. It?s finished. The Internet revealed
itself as the perfect mirror image of global capital. It has no
borders? Neither does global capital. Governments can?t control it?
Neither can they control global capital. Nor do they want to. They?ve
given up trying, and now they basically serve as the mercenary armed
forces for the corporate interstate?the 200 or 300 megacorporations
that actually run the world. Fine. But let?s not call this radical
politics, and let?s not call this liberation, and let?s not talk
about cyberfeminism or virtual community. Basically, I?m a Luddite.
Certain technologies hurt the commonality, as they used to say in the
early 19th century. Any machinery that was hurtful to the
commonality, they took their sledgehammers out and tried to smash.
Direct action. That?s the Luddite critique?you do it with a
sledgehammer. What it means now to live as a Luddite seems to me to
involve a strict attention to what technologies one allows into one?s
Bleyer: And I guess the Internet has really come to be the pinnacle
of this hurtful technology, in our age.
Wilson: Yes. You?re slumped in front of a screen, in the same
physical situation as a TV watcher, you?ve just added a typewriter.
And you?re "interactive." What does that mean? It does not mean
community. It?s catatonic schizophrenia. So blah blah blah,
communicate communicate, data data data. It doesn?t mean anything
more than catatonics babbling and drooling in a mental institution.
Why can?t we stop? How is it that five years ago there were no cell
phones, and now everyone needs a cell phone? You can pick up any book
by any half-brained post-Marxist jerkoff and read about how
capitalism creates false needs. Yet we allow it to go on.
Bleyer: But isn?t there something to be said for the subversive use
Wilson: We believed that in the ?80s. The idea was that alternative
media would allow us the space in which to organize other things.
Even in the ?80s I said I?m waiting for my turkey and my turnips. I
want some material benefits from the Internet. I want to see somebody
set up a barter network where I could trade poetry for turnips. Or
not even poetry?lawn cutting, whatever. I want to see the Internet
used to spread the Ithaca dollar system around America so that every
community could start using alternative labor dollars. It is not
happening. And so I wonder, why isn?t it happening? And finally the
Luddite philosophy becomes clear. We create the machines and
therefore we think we control them, but then the machines create us,
so we can create new machines, which then can create us. It?s a
feedback situation between humanity and technology. There is some
truth to the idea of technological determination, especially when
you?re unconscious, drifting around like a sleepwalker. Especially
when you?ve given up believing in anti-capitalism because they?ve
convinced you that the free market is a natural law, and we just have
to accept that and hope for a free market with a friendly smiling
face. Smiley-faced fascism. I see so many people working for that as
if it were a real cause. "If we have to have capitalism, let?s make
it green capitalism." There?s no such thing. It?s a hallucination of
the worst sort, because it isn?t even a pleasurable one. It?s a
Bleyer: I?m curious if you think we?re hallucinating more now than
ever before?if the psychic energy for liberation is gone.
Wilson: The answer would have to be extremely complex, because I
don?t have any snappy aphorisms to explain this. You might say that
it wouldn?t matter if every government in the world was taken over by
screaming green socialists tomorrow morning, they couldn?t reverse
the damage. I don?t know. It seems clear that in human society,
despite the best intentions, technology has alienated people to such
an extent that they mistake technological and symbolic action for
social/political action. This is the commodity stance. You buy a
certain product, and you?ve made a political statement. You buy a car
that runs on salad oil. It?s still a car! Or make a documentary.
Where did we cross that line where we forgot that making a
documentary about how everyone would like to have a food co-op is not
the same as having a food co-op? I think some people have lost that
distinction. Now, about art in the service of the revolution: There
is no art in the service of the revolution, because
if there?s no revolution, there?s no art in its service. So to say
that you?re an artist but you?re progressive is a schizo position. We
have only capital, so all art is either in its service or it fails.
Those are the two alternatives. If it?s successful, it?s in the
service of capital. I don?t care what the content is. The content
could be Malcolm X crucified on a bed of lettuce. It doesn?t matter.
Bleyer: But what about the growing protest movement of the past five
years, which really does seem significant?
Wilson: You mean people who are building puppets and going around the
world being radical tourists?
Bleyer: The perhaps one million people coming to the streets of New
York to protest the RNC in August, for example.
Wilson: Well, make it two million. It can be like the biggest anti-
war marches ever held, they were forgotten five minutes later. All
they?re doing is assuaging their conscience a little. At best, it?s
symbolic discourse and it never goes beyond that. Especially in North
America. It?s not going to save the world to dump Bush and these
people are deluded.
Bleyer: What do you think about Burning Man and other events that are
in essence Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) but don?t necessarily
dismantle the power structures of global capital?
Wilson: I?ve never been to Burning Man, but that?s just accidental,
because I?ve given up travel. As far as I can tell it?s a lovely
thing. I call those things "periodic autonomous zones." The thing
about the TAZ is I didn?t invent it, I just gave it a name. I think
it?s a sociological reality that groups of people will come together
to maximize some concept of freedom that they share as naturally as
breathing. When all the potential for the emergence for a TAZ is
maximized, either because you?ve helped to maximize it or because
your local situation has arrived at a certain point where it becomes
possible, you?ll do it. Like I?ve said before, a TAZ is anywhere from
two to several thousand people, who for as little as two or three
hours or for as much as a couple of years manage to keep that mood
going. And it?s incredibly vital. It?s vital that every human being
should have some such experience, or else they?ll never know that
another world is possible. So Burning Man is a kind of periodic
autonomous zone. As soon as the first hint of commercialization or
tiredness appears, then I would think the best thing to do is to
close it down. Move on, reappear somewhere else. And ultimately, I do
believe that another world is possible and that permanent changes
could be made. But that?s different. That?s a revolution.
Bleyer: You lived abroad for about 12 years, mostly in the Islamic
world. What?s your perception of Islamic fundamentalists,
"terrorists" and otherwise?
Wilson: Certainly, these Islamic fundamentalists are of no interest
intellectually. They have no ideas, they?re not anti-capitalist; they
love technology and money. Ideologically, they?re not offering any
alternatives to anything. By and large, they?re an imagistic froth
that has very little to do with most people?s experience of Islam. In
their manifestations as tiny terrorist groups, they don?t have much
of a social role, only as symbolic figureheads, and that?s why their
actual support in the Muslim world is rather shallow. Right now it
depends largely on the fact that the Bushies have made the name of
America stink forever in the nostrils of the world. When I was
traveling in the East, I was always amazed at the unearned reservoir
of goodwill toward Americans. It existed everywhere. Now I reckon
they?d throw rocks at you.
Bleyer: And do you think that?s irreparable?
Wilson: Almost irreparable. Even the Vietnam War, which was still
going on when I began my travels, never aroused this much hatred and
Bleyer: Is there anything you could see altering the current course
of the American empire?
Wilson: Yes. If all our emotion for resistance could somehow pull us
together instead of apart. This is the brilliant thing they?ve
managed to do?set us all at each other?s throats. If I think of the
anarchist movement, we spend all our time screaming at each other
over various sub-sectarian impurities we perceive in each other?s
writing. That is what anarchist activity now boils down to. But it?s
not entirely our fault?when there?s no movement, there?s no movement.
But a new coherence could appear. Frankly, I think it would have to
be of a spiritual nature. It would have to involve a kind of
fanaticism that would involve real sacrifice?sacrifice of comforts,
sacrifice of cell phones, sacrifice of this privileged life in the
belly of the beast that we all acquiesce in. There?s a lot of
symbolic discourse, but no action. I suppose that could come back,
which is why I?m ready to cut slack for spiritual movements, which
have nothing necessarily to do with religion.
Bleyer: I?m curious about this intersection between the political and
Wilson: There are those of us who are usually called spiritualist
anarchists. I?m willing to accept that label if I can have other
labels as well. It?s a well-known fact that there?s no secular
Luddite community anywhere. The only Luddite communities are
Anabaptists?Amish, Mennonite, seventh day Baptists, all those kind of
Germano-Anabaptist groups that originate in Pennsylvania. I guess
it?s religious fanaticism. Well, we need some equivalent of that. I
can only see that coming from what people would identify as a
spiritual movement. Nowadays it would probably have to have a neo-
pagan shamanic quality to it, but I think it would also have to keep
the door open to people in the established religions who are
rethinking their positions, including some Catholics. It would have
to be very inclusive, non-dogmatic, and not involve any central cult
of authority. It would have to be a spontaneous crystallization of
all the pagan-LSD stuff we?ve been going through since the sixties.
It will have to crystallize and provide this psychic power for self-
Bleyer: Are you still a Sufi?
Wilson: That?s a hard question to answer. No, I?m not a practicing
Muslim. I don?t spend a lot of time saying my beads, but I don?t
consider myself utterly broken away from all that. In fact, I have
very good friends and allies within the Sufi movement.
Bleyer: Who among other anarchist thinkers do you admire?
Wilson: Rene Riesel in France is an admirable character. He?s faced
with a jail sentence now in France for a heavily militant
action?destroying genetically manipulated crops and possibly other
things as well. Some of his followers are engaged in blowing up
electric power lines. And Jose Bove, the farmer from the south of
France, has done a lot of interesting stuff.
Bleyer: What are you studying now?
Wilson: I?m very interested in early Romanticism now. To me, the
Romantics were the first people to consciously deal with these
issues. Some of the most interesting aspects of this come from the
early Romantic movement in Germany around 1795. The early German
Romantics have been forgotten as a source for our movement,
especially from an artistic point of view. They informed all the art
movements since then, the ones that tried to do what Hegelians call
the "suppression and realization of art"?suppressing art as an
elitist consumption activity of the wealthy, suppressing it as
something that alienates other people who aren?t artists and makes
them less important or less significant, and somehow universalizing
it. That?s the realization or art, so that somehow or another
everyone is an artist or some sort, fully free and encouraged to be
as creative as possible. There?s no privileged position to the art
that ends up in galleries or museums. That would be the suppression
and realization of art, and that was basically a Romantic program and
a program of every avant-garde art movement since then. They?ve all
begun by saying, "We hate art as alienation, we want to restore it
somehow to the kind of universal experience that we sense, for
example, among a tribe of pygmies, where everyone is a singer and no
one leads the singing." That goal has been there for every single art
movement since Romanticism.
Bleyer: What have you experienced personally of TAZ realities,
Wilson: A lot of people tell me that they have enjoyed or benefited
from my work, for which I?m naturally very pleased. But in a lot of
cases they have very different tastes than I do. I?m a sixties guy. I
don?t like industrial music or even rock ?n? roll. I am willing to
accept rock ?n? roll as an orgiastic music, but I think it?s
disgusting that I have to have orgiastic music spewed at me from
every single orifice of modern civilization, all the time, nonstop,
to make me buy more products and lose my intellectual acuity and
start shopping. I also don?t like the drugs that they use?I prefer
mushrooms and pot. I don?t enjoy raves. The ravers were among my
biggest readers?they?re now getting a little old themselves.
Personally, I don?t enjoy those parties. This is a matter of taste.
I?m happy that they?re happy, but I don?t want to go to the party.
I?m not 20-years-old anymore, I get tired. But fine for them.
Terrific. I wish they would rethink all this techno stuff?they didn?t
get that part of my writing. I think it would be very interesting if
they took some of my ideas about immediatism and the bee. Small
groups should do art for each other, and stay out of the media as
much as possible, and this will eventually cause a buzz and make
people want to be part of it. I?m waiting?maybe before I die there
will be a hip Luddite movement. I?ll probably like their parties and
go to them. But it?s not happening. Most of the people interested in
TAZ tend to be very techno-oriented. But as I say, if they?re having
a good time, God bless them. Allah bless them. Goddess bless them.
Just bless them. I think that?s terrific. It?s important to have
those TAZ experiences. If you didn?t, you wouldn?t know what there is
to struggle for.
Wilson?s books are available from Autonomedia, www.autonomedia.org.
His next book of essays, Lost Histories, will be out this fall.
Jennifer Bleyer is a journalist and activist who lives in Fort
Greene. She is the founder and former editor of Heeb Magazine.
Organization: projekt oekonux.de