Interview With Hakim Bey
- An Anarchist in the Hudson Valley
in conversation: Peter Lamborn Wilson
with Jennifer Bleyer
Itâs been nearly ten years since Peter Lamborn Wilsonâ"nÃ©e Hakim
Beyâ"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. Itâs 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 deepenedâ"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. Thereâs 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 doesnât 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 donât make pencils. We donât make cement.
We donât make ladies garments or roll cigars. We donât even
manufacture computers. In other words, we donât 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
itâs almost nothing.
So for a few years the artists and their friends came up here and got
bargains and moved in, and now artistsâ studios in Beacon sell for
a quarter-million dollars. And weâre 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 thereâs a
lot of boosterism for the arts in the Hudson Valley because thereâs
no other economy. Itâs either that or "green tourism," which in my
mind is a disgusting term and something that I donât want to see
promoted in any way. Itâs a commodification of nature, turning
nature into a source of profit for the managerial caste in the Hudson
Valley. Thatâs not the solution Iâm 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"â"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 wonât 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 theyâre perfectly happy to see the old
farms close down and build McMansions, as long as theyâre 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. Itâs fashionable to be green, but itâs not at all
fashionable to wonder about the actual working class and farming
people and families that youâre 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 weâre
serving in this economy, Iâm afraid we would see that weâre
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 Iâm involved in the
arts, so what Iâm saying here is a bit of a mea culpa. I donât
think that we can consider ourselves guiltless and not implicated in
all this because weâre creative and artsy and have leftist
emotions. Where are our actual alternative institution-building
energies? Where are our food co-ops? Whereâs 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 doesnât involve alternative
economic institution building, itâs not. As an anarchist, Iâve
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
heartâs with them. But I think itâs done by and large without any
consciousness that this is already a privileged enclave. Weâre
saying that this is our backyard and we donât want any cement
factories. However, weâre not saying that we volunteer to do
without cement. What weâre 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. Iâm curious about your thoughts
on the web now, because ten years ago you seemed optimistic about its
Wilson: Well, I wouldnât 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 doesnât 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 Iâm not willing to talk to them anymore. I have
no interest in this dialogue. Itâs finished. The Internet revealed
itself as the perfect mirror image of global capital. It has no
borders? Neither does global capital. Governments canât control it?
Neither can they control global capital. Nor do they want to.
Theyâve given up trying, and now they basically serve as the
mercenary armed forces for the corporate interstateâ"the 200 or 300
megacorporations that actually run the world. Fine. But letâs not
call this radical politics, and letâs not call this liberation, and
letâs not talk about cyberfeminism or virtual community. Basically,
Iâm 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. Thatâs the Luddite critiqueâ"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
Bleyer: And I guess the Internet has really come to be the pinnacle
of this hurtful technology, in our age.
Wilson: Yes. Youâre slumped in front of a screen, in the same
physical situation as a TV watcher, youâve just added a typewriter.
And youâre "interactive." What does that mean? It does not mean
community. Itâs catatonic schizophrenia. So blah blah blah,
communicate communicate, data data data. It doesnât mean anything
more than catatonics babbling and drooling in a mental institution.
Why canât 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 isnât there something to be said for the subversive use
Wilson: We believed that in the â80s. The idea was that alternative
media would allow us the space in which to organize other things.
Even in the â80s I said Iâm 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 poetryâ"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 isnât 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. Itâs a
feedback situation between humanity and technology. There is some
truth to the idea of technological determination, especially when
youâre unconscious, drifting around like a sleepwalker. Especially
when youâve given up believing in anti-capitalism because theyâve
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, letâs make
it green capitalism." Thereâs no such thing. Itâs a hallucination
of the worst sort, because it isnât even a pleasurable one. Itâs
Bleyer: Iâm curious if you think weâre hallucinating more now
than ever beforeâ"if the psychic energy for liberation is gone.
Moises Saman, "Kabul National Theater" (2004), Lamda print. From an
exhibition of Samanâs work currently at Satellite (94 Prince
Street) through September 4. Moises Saman Â© 2004, Newsday, Inc.
Wilson: The answer would have to be extremely complex, because I
donât have any snappy aphorisms to explain this. You might say that
it wouldnât matter if every government in the world was taken over
by screaming green socialists tomorrow morning, they couldnât
reverse the damage. I donât 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 youâve made a political statement. You buy a
car that runs on salad oil. Itâs 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 thereâs no revolution, thereâs no art in its service. So to
say that youâre an artist but youâre 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 itâs successful,
itâs in the service of capital. I donât care what the content is.
The content could be Malcolm X crucified on a bed of lettuce. It
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
theyâre doing is assuaging their conscience a little. At best,
itâs symbolic discourse and it never goes beyond that. Especially
in North America. Itâs 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 donât necessarily
dismantle the power structures of global capital?
Wilson: Iâve never been to Burning Man, but thatâs just
accidental, because Iâve given up travel. As far as I can tell
itâs a lovely thing. I call those things "periodic autonomous
zones." The thing about the TAZ is I didnât invent it, I just gave
it a name. I think itâs 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 youâve helped to
maximize it or because your local situation has arrived at a certain
point where it becomes possible, youâll do it. Like Iâve 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 itâs incredibly vital.
Itâs vital that every human being should have some such experience,
or else theyâll 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 thatâs
different. Thatâs a revolution.
Bleyer: You lived abroad for about 12 years, mostly in the Islamic
world. Whatâs your perception of Islamic
fundamentalists, "terrorists" and otherwise?
Wilson: Certainly, these Islamic fundamentalists are of no interest
intellectually. They have no ideas, theyâre not anti-capitalist;
they love technology and money. Ideologically, theyâre not offering
any alternatives to anything. By and large, theyâre an imagistic
froth that has very little to do with most peopleâs experience of
Islam. In their manifestations as tiny terrorist groups, they donât
have much of a social role, only as symbolic figureheads, and
thatâs 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 theyâd throw rocks at you.
Bleyer: And do you think thatâs 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 theyâve
managed to doâ"set us all at each otherâs 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 otherâs
writing. That is what anarchist activity now boils down to. But
itâs not entirely our faultâ"when thereâs no movement, thereâs
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 sacrificeâ"sacrifice of
comforts, sacrifice of cell phones, sacrifice of this privileged life
in the belly of the beast that we all acquiesce in. Thereâs a lot
of symbolic discourse, but no action. I suppose that could come back,
which is why Iâm ready to cut slack for spiritual movements, which
have nothing necessarily to do with religion.
Bleyer: Iâm curious about this intersection between the political
Wilson: There are those of us who are usually called spiritualist
anarchists. Iâm willing to accept that label if I can have other
labels as well. Itâs a well-known fact that thereâs no secular
Luddite community anywhere. The only Luddite communities are
Anabaptistsâ"Amish, Mennonite, seventh day Baptists, all those kind
of Germano-Anabaptist groups that originate in Pennsylvania. I guess
itâs 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 weâve 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: Thatâs a hard question to answer. No, Iâm not a
practicing Muslim. I donât spend a lot of time saying my beads, but
I donât 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. Heâs faced
with a jail sentence now in France for a heavily militant
actionâ"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: Iâm 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"â"suppressing art as an
elitist consumption activity of the wealthy, suppressing it as
something that alienates other people who arenât artists and makes
them less important or less significant, and somehow universalizing
it. Thatâs 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. Thereâs 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. Theyâve 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 Iâm naturally very pleased. But in a lot of
cases they have very different tastes than I do. Iâm a sixties guy.
I donât like industrial music or even rock ânâ roll. I am
willing to accept rock ânâ roll as an orgiastic music, but I
think itâs 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 donât like the drugs that they useâ"I
prefer mushrooms and pot. I donât enjoy raves. The ravers were
among my biggest readersâ"theyâre now getting a little old
themselves. Personally, I donât enjoy those parties. This is a
matter of taste. Iâm happy that theyâre happy, but I donât want
to go to the party. Iâm not 20-years-old anymore, I get tired. But
fine for them. Terrific. I wish they would rethink all this techno
stuffâ"they didnât 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. Iâm waitingâ"maybe
before I die there will be a hip Luddite movement. Iâll probably
like their parties and go to them. But itâs not happening. Most of
the people interested in TAZ tend to be very techno-oriented. But as
I say, if theyâre having a good time, God bless them. Allah bless
them. Goddess bless them. Just bless them. I think thatâs terrific.
Itâs important to have those TAZ experiences. If you didnât, you
wouldnât know what there is to struggle for.
Wilsonâs 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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