Post-anarchist author Peter Lamborn Wilson, also known as Hakim Bey, and Jarret Earnest of Brooklyn Rail discuss modern technology and our machine-run society, the counter-productivity of higher institutions, and more.
via Brooklyn Rail:
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Given your resistance to certain forms of technology—you don’t have a computer or cell phone for instance—it is almost ironic how the techno-anarchist and cypherpunk communities have taken up some of your ideas.
Peter Lamborn Wilson: That happened right away. In the 1980s I cut more slack for modern communication technologies than I should have. What I thought was a possibility turned out not to be a possibility, and over the years I’ve become more of an ideological luddite. It became pretty apparent around 1995—I mention that year because it was “the year of the Internet”—that the whole thing was just an adjunct to capitalism and it had been from the very start. One should have been alerted by the fact that the Internet was a military-industrial-technology development. That we were headed to what I now call technopathocracy, “the rule of sick machines,” which is to say “money.” They are pretty much identical. They both fall in a malignant way under the sign of Hermes—the god of communication and also the failure of communication; he’s also the god of money and of occult realization, which would transcend money—so he has the dark and the light side, and it seems like we’ve moved totally into the shadow portion. I don’t think we are headed for some kind of Techno-Utopia. The more you have the possibility of knowing everything, the less you know. The more you can just take your phone out of your pocket and ask it anything, the less you are actually going to ask because you just assume it’s all there and that you can ask anytime you want to. These are all stupid simple things but they have tremendous implications for culture.
Rail: What is the place of the unconscious in a machine-run society?
Wilson: This is an extremely complex question which I could begin talking about by citing Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (1987) by Ioan P. Culianu—a discussion of Giordano Bruno’s image-magic. Bruno famously says it would be easier to ensorcel millions than to make one person fall in love with you using image-magic, meaning image-magic is something that works on a mass level. In other words if I send you a valentine you aren’t necessarily going to fall in love with me, but if I construct a really brilliant advertisement and put it in the media I can actually change consciousness. If I am a propagandist, if I’m a spin doctor, a public relations expert, an educator, I can manipulate images in order to manipulate consciousness. This is not a conscious process, you don’t look at an advertisement and say “Pepsi is better, I’ll buy that one!”—it’s not happening on a conscious level. It’s like pressing an erotic button. I prefer the term subconscious, because unconscious means you can never gain access to it, whereas subconscious, the older pre-Freudian term, means you actually do have access to it. The role of this image-magic is not something supernatural in the crude way that that term is usually understood, and it’s not something purely psychological. It’s neither Freud nor Jung, but it’s both; it’s neither magic nor religion, but it’s both. We are in a realm of intense paradox here but that is what makes it work. I would say also, by the way, that serious art works the same way, it’s just that the purpose of the artists, we presume, is the liberationof the people they are communicating with, rather than the enchainment, as Bruno put it—he talked about bonds and binding, an ancient concept of magic, to bind people to your will. The artist does that too—but to elevate, enlighten, and illuminate, rather than to endarken, enslave, and stupefy. The same techniques are at work. They are not to be transmitted in a merely rationalistic way. You cannot go to school to learn how to do this; you can learn a lot, but you can’t, for example, really be taught art. You can be educated, led forth by a great teacher to discover what is in yourself.
Rail: Who have been important teachers for you and in what ways was working with them an educational experience?
Wilson: It wasn’t college, I can tell you that. I dropped out after a year and a half because I wasn’t getting any education. At the time I wanted to become a street hippie and sell LSD. I thought that real life would be more educative than formal education. Subsequently I read Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling Society (1971) and I realized what had been going on: when you propose a monopoly on a certain good, let’s call it “education,” and you institutionalize that monopoly, what you get is a paradoxical counter-productivity, so that what was meant to educate now stupefies. In medicine, what was meant to heal you actually sickens you. You can look at any institution and see that when it achieves a certain overwhelming power it begins to counter-produce. When you ask who my good teachers were, there were a few decent ones in school but that was because they desperately needed to make a living and that is where they ended up. In a decent world they wouldn’t have had to do that, they could have educated outside of an institution, where their brilliance wasn’t being turned against the goals of liberation and illumination. No matter how brilliant you are, if you are working for Harvard you are on the wrong side of the struggle. No matter how nice you are, if you are working for Morgan Stanley you’re on the wrong side, because no matter how much money you personally might give to beggars, you are involved in institutionalized theft and philosophical greed. It’s not a question of individuals for me as much as situations—one can learn from anybody. Like the Sufis say, “If you don’t have a master, learn from the cat.”
Rail: You were involved for many years with the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. What do you think are the possibilities of alternative art schools?
Wilson: I went to Naropa because it was fun, but I never could figure out what I was doing there. I don’t understand the idea of teaching poetry or writing, it just doesn’t seem to me like something you can do. I went there because there were a lot of nice people and they paid me to do what I wanted to do, which is talk. I could say whatever I wanted and I didn’t have to have formal classes. I was just reading that there are 8,000 M.F.A. programs in America now and the employment record for graduates of these programs, presumably in jobs that relate to what they supposedly have been learning is one percent—which basically means it’s a huge fucking scam. Naropa is not in that category; obviously it was a very special place. It’s quite clear though that late capitalism has a surplus of non-producing consumers and you have to store them somewhere, especially when they are young, otherwise they will make trouble. Education is no longer the social factory; it’s the social warehouse, it is where you put people to keep them off the job market. Basically these M.F.A. programs are training people how to not get jobs.
Rail: It’s far more insidious because at the same time they are gettingM.F.A.s my generation is becoming indebted with student loans, so it’s a deeper form of binding.
Wilson: That is right. It’s a situation where there is more consumption than production, which is what late capitalism looks like in America: you have a surplus of consumers and how are they supposed to make money to buy the shit? Well, they don’t have to—they can become debt slaves, debt peonage. It’s not a new discovery, the ancient Sumerians knew about it. The origin of civilization itself is debt peonage. I told David Graeber the only thing I didn’t like about his bookDebt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) is that it should have been 6,000 years—civilization appears about 6,000 years ago in Sumer and then shortly afterward in Egypt, and there for the first time you find humanity’s natural and bastardly impulses are given free reign to divide society into the rulers and ruled, slave owners and slaves, through debt and military conquest.
Rail: Not to press the issue—I really do believe that higher education in our country is criminal—but there is an important aspect to like-minded people coming together to have conversations about things that are important to them. That is in essence what a school is.
Wilson: Yes, at an earlier stage of civilization, before things were so corrupt, schools tended to take that form: non-coercive salon-like situations, like the Islamic Madrasas or the Athenians which were the early model for Western universities—but like Illich says, the more institutional the more counter-productive.
Rail: I want to know if you have any glimmer of how to approach organizations of younger artists or poets who are trying to figure out stuff outside of the context of an institution—or how you could create a space for a new, non-destructive school.
Wilson: Young people I know are trying to do this—meeting in each other’s living rooms to read books and study things together because it’s becoming crushingly obvious that they’re not getting what they want from the institution, except for a place to stay warm and cozy when they are not on the job market, if they’re lucky and willing to go into debt. I support the idea of the home school model for young people as well as adults. You don’t need institutions, especially if we are talking about studying something like English. I could understand going to a school to study nuclear physics, when you get into high technology, like for a science lab—that is why we have institutions, because we are enslaved to technology. But if we are talking about art, what do you need an institution for? What I would like to see more of is co-operative movements; you don’t have to have a revolution to have co-ops, which oddly enough are not illegal yet. The whole tendency of capitalism works against the idea of co-ops—the essence of capitalism is not sharing. In other words, everyone must have the whole set of gadgets for themselves in order for the market to keep expanding. When there is a new gadget you must have one, you can’t share it with your lover, much less 12 people you happen to know, otherwise you’re being a bad consumer. And they make it easy and they make it cheap. It is cheaper to do this than to cooperate; it costs effort and energy, which is expressed in terms of money. Food co-ops actually end up costing the customer more, but they could be more fulfilling and actually nutritive in a metaphorical sense as well as in an actual sense. Let’s not even talk about producer’s co-ops which used to be a reality in America, like all the dairy farmers organizing to fight monopolies and fix the prices of the railroad. That was going on just a hundred years ago in this country, but we’ve forgotten. The idea that there could be a radicalized working class is gone, even though we are working—and we are working more now than ever before. John Maynard Keynes predicted 80 years ago that by now the problem would be what to do with all our leisure because people wouldn’t need to work more than two hours a day to make enough to live a comfortable lifestyle—that there would be a crisis of leisure! How wrong can you get? And he was a brilliant economist, right about so many things—although in my view he was an evil bastard. So why didn’t we end up with a crisis of leisure? There are so many reasons, one of which is that the system didn’t want it to happen. When you have a free market it doesn’t mean that you’re free or that I’m free, it means that money is free to do what it wants—so now that we have the triumph of capitalism, now that there is not even the ghost of the social in some hideous, monstrous Stalinoid form to be the bugaboo that scares everybody from under the bed at night, now that everything is perfect, it turns out that we have to work 10 times more than we did in 1950 in order to go into debt to have all these gadgets that we need—and you do need them if you are going to make a living—it’s a circularity, it’s a routine, it’s a big con, a big Ponzi scheme.