Interview with Hakim Bey
An Anarchist in the Hudson Valley
in conversation: Peter Lamborn Wilson
with Jennifer Bleyer
Itís been nearly ten years since Peter Lamborn Wilsonónťe Hakim Beyólooked 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. Itís 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 deepenedónotably 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. Thereís 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 doesnít 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 donít make pencils. We donít make cement. We donít make ladies garments or roll cigars. We donít even manufacture computers. In other words, we donít 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 itís almost nothing.
So for a few years the artists and their friends came up here and got bargains and moved in, and now artistsí studios in Beacon sell for a quarter-million dollars. And weíre 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 thereís a lot of boosterism for the arts in the Hudson Valley because thereís no other economy. Itís either that or "green tourism," which in my mind is a disgusting term and something that I donít want to see promoted in any way. Itís a commodification of nature, turning nature into a source of profit for the managerial caste in the Hudson Valley. Thatís not the solution Iím 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"óthat 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 wonít 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 theyíre perfectly happy to see the old farms close down and build McMansions, as long as theyíre 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. Itís fashionable to be green, but itís not at all fashionable to wonder about the actual working class and farming people and families that youíre 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 weíre serving in this economy, Iím afraid we would see that weíre 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 Iím involved in the arts, so what Iím saying here is a bit of a mea culpa. I donít think that we can consider ourselves guiltless and not implicated in all this because weíre creative and artsy and have leftist emotions. Where are our actual alternative institution-building energies? Where are our food co-ops? Whereís 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 doesnít involve alternative economic institution building, itís not. As an anarchist, Iíve 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 heartís with them. But I think itís done by and large without any consciousness that this is already a privileged enclave. Weíre saying that this is our backyard and we donít want any cement factories. However, weíre not saying that we volunteer to do without cement. What weíre saying is cement is fine, as long as the factories are in Mexico.
Bleyer: Or in Sullivan County.
Wilson: Or Sullivan County. Although Sullivan County is fast reinventing itself, too.
Bleyer: You mentioned hot websites. Iím curious about your thoughts on the web now, because ten years ago you seemed optimistic about its potential.
Wilson: Well, I wouldnít 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 doesnít 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 Iím not willing to talk to them anymore. I have no interest in this dialogue. Itís finished. The Internet revealed itself as the perfect mirror image of global capital. It has no borders? Neither does global capital. Governments canít control it? Neither can they control global capital. Nor do they want to. Theyíve given up trying, and now they basically serve as the mercenary armed forces for the corporate interstateóthe 200 or 300 megacorporations that actually run the world. Fine. But letís not call this radical politics, and letís not call this liberation, and letís not talk about cyberfeminism or virtual community. Basically, Iím 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. Thatís the Luddite critiqueóyou 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 oneís life.
Bleyer: And I guess the Internet has really come to be the pinnacle of this hurtful technology, in our age.
Wilson: Yes. Youíre slumped in front of a screen, in the same physical situation as a TV watcher, youíve just added a typewriter. And youíre "interactive." What does that mean? It does not mean community. Itís catatonic schizophrenia. So blah blah blah, communicate communicate, data data data. It doesnít mean anything more than catatonics babbling and drooling in a mental institution. Why canít 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 isnít there something to be said for the subversive use of technologies?
Wilson: We believed that in the í80s. The idea was that alternative media would allow us the space in which to organize other things. Even in the í80s I said Iím 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 poetryólawn 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 isnít 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. Itís a feedback situation between humanity and technology. There is some truth to the idea of technological determination, especially when youíre unconscious, drifting around like a sleepwalker. Especially when youíve given up believing in anti-capitalism because theyíve 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, letís make it green capitalism." Thereís no such thing. Itís a hallucination of the worst sort, because it isnít even a pleasurable one. Itís a nightmare.
Bleyer: Iím curious if you think weíre hallucinating more now than ever beforeóif the psychic energy for liberation is gone.
Moises Saman, "Kabul National Theater" (2004), Lamda print. From an exhibition of Samanís work currently at Satellite (94 Prince Street) through September 4. Moises Saman © 2004, Newsday, Inc.
Wilson: The answer would have to be extremely complex, because I donít have any snappy aphorisms to explain this. You might say that it wouldnít matter if every government in the world was taken over by screaming green socialists tomorrow morning, they couldnít reverse the damage. I donít 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 youíve made a political statement. You buy a car that runs on salad oil. Itís 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 thereís no revolution, thereís no art in its service. So to say that youíre an artist but youíre 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 itís successful, itís in the service of capital. I donít care what the content is. The content could be Malcolm X crucified on a bed of lettuce. It doesnít 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 theyíre doing is assuaging their conscience a little. At best, itís symbolic discourse and it never goes beyond that. Especially in North America. Itís 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 donít necessarily dismantle the power structures of global capital?
Wilson: Iíve never been to Burning Man, but thatís just accidental, because Iíve given up travel. As far as I can tell itís a lovely thing. I call those things "periodic autonomous zones." The thing about the TAZ is I didnít invent it, I just gave it a name. I think itís 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 youíve helped to maximize it or because your local situation has arrived at a certain point where it becomes possible, youíll do it. Like Iíve 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 itís incredibly vital. Itís vital that every human being should have some such experience, or else theyíll 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 thatís different. Thatís a revolution.
Bleyer: You lived abroad for about 12 years, mostly in the Islamic world. Whatís your perception of Islamic fundamentalists, "terrorists" and otherwise?
Wilson: Certainly, these Islamic fundamentalists are of no interest intellectually. They have no ideas, theyíre not anti-capitalist; they love technology and money. Ideologically, theyíre not offering any alternatives to anything. By and large, theyíre an imagistic froth that has very little to do with most peopleís experience of Islam. In their manifestations as tiny terrorist groups, they donít have much of a social role, only as symbolic figureheads, and thatís 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 theyíd throw rocks at you.
Bleyer: And do you think thatís irreparable?
Wilson: Almost irreparable. Even the Vietnam War, which was still going on when I began my travels, never aroused this much hatred and unpopularity.
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 theyíve managed to doóset us all at each otherís 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 otherís writing. That is what anarchist activity now boils down to. But itís not entirely our faultówhen thereís no movement, thereís 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 sacrificeósacrifice of comforts, sacrifice of cell phones, sacrifice of this privileged life in the belly of the beast that we all acquiesce in. Thereís a lot of symbolic discourse, but no action. I suppose that could come back, which is why Iím ready to cut slack for spiritual movements, which have nothing necessarily to do with religion.
Bleyer: Iím curious about this intersection between the political and spiritual.
Wilson: There are those of us who are usually called spiritualist anarchists. Iím willing to accept that label if I can have other labels as well. Itís a well-known fact that thereís no secular Luddite community anywhere. The only Luddite communities are AnabaptistsóAmish, Mennonite, seventh day Baptists, all those kind of Germano-Anabaptist groups that originate in Pennsylvania. I guess itís 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 weíve been going through since the sixties. It will have to crystallize and provide this psychic power for self-sacrifice.
Bleyer: Are you still a Sufi?
Wilson: Thatís a hard question to answer. No, Iím not a practicing Muslim. I donít spend a lot of time saying my beads, but I donít 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. Heís faced with a jail sentence now in France for a heavily militant actionódestroying 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: Iím 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"ósuppressing art as an elitist consumption activity of the wealthy, suppressing it as something that alienates other people who arenít artists and makes them less important or less significant, and somehow universalizing it. Thatís 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. Thereís 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. Theyíve 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, lately?
Wilson: A lot of people tell me that they have enjoyed or benefited from my work, for which Iím naturally very pleased. But in a lot of cases they have very different tastes than I do. Iím a sixties guy. I donít like industrial music or even rock íní roll. I am willing to accept rock íní roll as an orgiastic music, but I think itís 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 donít like the drugs that they useóI prefer mushrooms and pot. I donít enjoy raves. The ravers were among my biggest readersótheyíre now getting a little old themselves. Personally, I donít enjoy those parties. This is a matter of taste. Iím happy that theyíre happy, but I donít want to go to the party. Iím not 20-years-old anymore, I get tired. But fine for them. Terrific. I wish they would rethink all this techno stuffóthey didnít 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. Iím waitingómaybe before I die there will be a hip Luddite movement. Iíll probably like their parties and go to them. But itís not happening. Most of the people interested in TAZ tend to be very techno-oriented. But as I say, if theyíre having a good time, God bless them. Allah bless them. Goddess bless them. Just bless them. I think thatís terrific. Itís important to have those TAZ experiences. If you didnít, you wouldnít know what there is to struggle for.
Wilsonís 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.
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- AKTUELL last edited on 6 October 2005 at 12:52 am by cable-126.96.36.199.coditel.net