Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Another interview conducted for the Anarchist Fiction Writers project that we [strangers in a tangled wilderness] are working on.
My partner and I hitch-hiked down to California to interview Derrick Jensen, an author better known for his radical philosophy than for fiction. But I had read Walking on Water, a book he wrote about writing and education, and it was one of the impetuses for this collection.
It was a windy, rainy day in a rather dull, lifeless, stripmall sort of town, and when my partner and I spotted a small circle-A graffitied on a grocery store we immediately began to suspect Derrick. He met us and directed us to a nearly empty restaurant where we conducted our interview. I didn’t work up the nerve to ask him about the graffiti. Instead, we talked about language, fiction, writing, anarchism and dungeons & dragons. He even managed to bring my sex life into the conversation. Politely, mind you.
SiTW: I’m trying to talk to radical authors, specifically anarchist authors, and more on the fiction side about the intersection between the art of writing and where political things lie, and how they influence each other.
I’m going to be interviewing mostly fiction writers, but I’m interested in interviewing you because you did Walking On Water [a book about writing and education] and I’ve heard that you also write fiction, although I haven’t seen any of it.
DJ: I’ve got a graphic novel coming in January [As the World Burns, now released], and I’ve got two novels that nobody is interested in, so I’m going to publish them myself. And when I finish the current project, the next project I’m going to do is another novel and I’ve got another novel planned after that.
SiTW: What are the novels about?
DJ: The two that are written but aren’t published, one of them is about a character who is essentially like me—but is a woman. She is basically a paper revolutionary; she talked about how fucked up the system is and how it’s irredeemable and how we need to fight back, and she works on toxics issues in the inner city, but like with me she’s an analyst and a theorist. And then one night she gets mugged by these three guys, and as she’s getting mugged she gets really mad at them and she’s cursing at them about “I’m in here trying to help stop all of you from getting cancer is this is what you fucking do” and what she doesn’t know is that one of ‘em’s little sister died of cancer just before, and the other one’s cousin died of cancer, everyone’s dying of cancer. And it really pisses them in the moment, but then they go back and they think about it, and the one guy, he goes to visit his brother in the penitentiary, and his brother says she’s right, and he uses the example that if you take gunpowder and you put it on a table and you set it off, all you get is a burn mark on your table and a stink in your house, but if you take that gunpowder and you put it behind a bullet you’ve got something. And what he was saying is that you’re just beating up on other people just like yourself, but if you take this anger that you got and aim it, then you’re going to have something.
And then she gets over the mugging and six months later she’s working late at night and the guy shows up at her office, one of the guys who mugged her, and says “I thought about it and you’re right. We did it.” And what they did is they kidnapped the CEO of this chemical company that’s poisoning the inner city. He says “you’re right, and we did it, he’s out in the car, he’s in the trunk, so, help us figure out what to do with him.” She has a choice. If she just tells them to get lost then what she’s doing is acknowledging that everything she’s every said is rhetoric and nothing more. On the other hand, if she participates, she’s participating in a capital crime. To go ahead and ruin the book, she participates, she kills him. Kills the CEO. And that’s half the book. Interspersed with all of that is what happens afterwards. Basically, everything’s fine for awhile, and then one of the three guys is a drug addict, and two of the guys it really politicizes them and they end up going underground. And the other one is one night whacked out of his mind and he tells his drug dealer, spills the beans, and of course there’s a big reward for whoever killed the CEO. And so after that she ends up on the run and her parents die of cancer, the feds killed her niece, interspersed with that main plot is what happens in the years that follow.
The other novel that is already written is about this character ... It’s a pretty interesting book, because you know my writing style obviously: what I’ll do is have a central story and then I’ll hang all this analysis off of it, like The Culture of Make Believe. The main character is still me and I still tell stories, some of which are true, like in this book I’ve got a partner named Allison, and then this character, the Derrick character, starts falling through time. And what that means is that he can be sitting right here and suddenly he’ll see how it was 10 minutes ago, or 10 minutes from now, 100 years ago. Then he sees this serial killer dumping the bodies of women on this golf course. There was a golf course in Spokane that’s in Hangman Valley, and hangman Valley is called that because this white guy, this white colonel called Indians in to parlay under a flag of truce and then he hanged them. It’s pretty typical stuff. And they named a golf course after one of the Indians that was hanged. And the stream that runs through there used to have salmon in it and it doesn’t anymore. So it’s pretty amazing because in this one spot you’ve got everything wrong with the culture. You’ve got ecocide, genocide, misogyny and golf.
And it was a serial killer dumping the bodies of women on the golf course. So anyway this character sees that, he’s walking down by the golf course and he sees this guy dumping a body, and he’s sees other stuff, and eventually he sees the serial killer dumping his own body and the body of his girlfriend, and so the guys like what the hell am I going to do now, so the first that they do is that they leave, but then they come back to fight him and blah blah blah.
So that’s what that novels about. And the graphic novel coming out next year started out as a spoof of those 50 simple things books and then goes from there to have these space aliens land and they are going to consume the planet and one of their waste products is gold, their feces are gold. They can’t believe that people will do anything for gold here so they basically give a bunch of gold to the president and he gives them permits to take everything on the planet which makes it legal which means that nobody can fight them because of course we cant fight anybody if they got permits. So the aliens are consuming the planet and eventually wild animals start fighting back and some of the domesticates start joining them.
SiTW: Who is that one being published by?
DJ: Seven Stories.
SiTW: And they haven’t published the novels?
DJ: They didn’t even look at 'em, they don’t want them
SiTW: It just seems like you would have a lot of clout at this point as a respected author, but it doesn’t really help you get your fiction published?
DJ: It doesn’t even help me get my nonfiction published. I had a book come out this spring, it’s an anti-zoo book, and we had my agent whom I like a lot sent it to a bunch of publishers and they all turned it down. I woulda thought that with 10 books out it would get a lot easier, and it is a lot easier, certainly from when I started, but its gone from impossible to difficult. I don’t understand it
SiTW: I mean, I know a lot of people who would probably just read everything that you write, and publish, and you would probably do fine with self-publishing
DK: That’s what I’m going to do. And the reason I feel comfortable doing that is because I produced the two CDs, the first one of which, god, stinks, but the second one is good. Putting out another CD, and then I put out a novel, The Day Philosophy Dies, by Casey Maddicks. So I’ve had experience with this. The problem is that I stink at distribution.
SiTW: How did you get involved in writing, and specifically in teaching writing.
DJ: I always wanted to be a writer ever since I was a kid. The thing is, when I was in high school, I went through calculus, and I got accepted with a full ride scholarship to an engineering school. And if you get through calculus in high school and you get a full ride scholarship to an engineering school, then you’re insane if you want to go be a writer. I tried to transfer at some point and the registrar at where I wanted to transfer actually said to me: “you have a full ride scholarship and you want to transfer here? Are you insane?” Because of course when I got out of engineering school, I would have started at 35 or 40k back in 1983, honestly at this point I’ve still never made anything close to 35 or 40k. It’s the big cliché, and I’m sure you know this: writing is a great way to make a life and a terrible way to make a living. So if you presume that money is what’s important than you’d be an idiot to try to do something else. Even though I didn’t really like science, didn’t like math.
I was miserable in college and I realized I didn’t want to wake up when I was 65 and go “who the hell’s life was this” and so I realized that I would do whatever it took to be a writer. Then I spent my twenties... if you’re going to look at this from a production standpoint, I spent my 20s doing nothing, if you’re going to look at this from a soul standpoint, I spent my 20s getting grounded. But that sounds a lot more hoitie toitie than it actually was: what it actually was is that I spent a lot of time sitting by a river, which once again sounds really enlightened and everything but it’s not, I sat by the river and then I went home and watched the cubs. I spent a lot of time doing nothing.
My mom was very supportive of that, but my mom doesn’t have any patience for people who are lazy. She just trusted me. How did she know that I was just going to waste 4 or 5 years figuring out who I was as opposed to just being a lazy person who was going to waste my life? Which is not to say that a person has to be productive; I think that it’s really important for people to vomit up the effects of their schooling and to teach themselves how to think, to teach themselves how to write, to teach themselves what is important, and to teach themselves how to feel. All of those things are really important and it can take a really long time and I have a lot of patience for that process, in myself and others, and for people spending a lot of time confused. The thing that I don’t have patience for is for people who are just sort of... I don’t have a lot of patience for laziness. How do you know? I’ve had some friends that I think obviously have some issues, that they have tremendous talent and they’re never going to fulfill that talent because they are too lazy to do that work, or they have emotional issues or low self-esteem, any combination.
I remember, an important point came to me when I was 27. I called this friend of mine, and he gave me this lecture. If he had done sooner would have bugged the hell out of me but as it was it was perfect, he said to me, “You have been gifts, your ability to write is a gift. And if the universe gives you gifts and you don’t use them in service to your community, then you’re not worth shit.” And that’s where I really fall on the whole laziness line, that if you’ve got some gifts, you damn well better use ‘em, you better repay the universe for giving you those gifts. It’s like caterpillars and butterflies: you’ve gotta go through this period of pupation, and you have to go through this, and that’s what my 20s were, this period of pupation where I was becoming no longer the person I was as a teenager and becoming the person I am as an adult. And perhaps that process would have gone faster for me had I been in a functioning community that could have told me that this is the process I was going through as opposed to me just knowing that I was miserable? I mean, I didn’t like myself, I didn’t like my life, I didn’t like anything.
There’s a great line by Herman Hesse, in Demian: “I wanted only to act according to the promptings that came from my true self, why was that so very difficult?” It’s a lot easier now because I have an idea ...
Oh I gotta tell you this. I was doing a talk in Los Angeles several years ago. And these parents had brought their 14 year-old daughter, and she was this total fan. It was in this church, and it was this little talk, actually it was more of a discussion than a lecture, and then she started talking about, “what should I do with my life?” I’m not really saying anything, I’m just listening to her talk. This is after the sort of big Q&A and now there’s like 15 of us sorta sitting around. This was so great because she was sitting there, and her parents were sitting behind her. And she’s just rambling like a 14 year-old would do, and then at one point she says “maybe what I should do is find what I love to do, and then do it again.” And then I said “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said, could you say it again?” And then she said it again. And I said “The acoustics in here are really bad because I still can’t hear you. Can you say it again?” And then she said it again. And I said “god it’s really weird, because I’m still not understanding, can you say it again?” and she said it again. It was great cause I still remember her parents eyes were just shining with tears, and I had her say it again and again until... I mean she obviously figured out what was going on pretty quick. But I mean, that’s it. Figuring out what you love to do, and then doing it again.
And that’s sort of the short version, believe it or not, of how I became a writer.
SiTW: You mentioned that writing is a sort of a gift that you need to use in service of the community. What do you feel...
DJ: For me, if someone else knows explosives, they should use that. I mean whatever.
That’s the thing, I’ve gotten a bunch of emails from people over the years, it bugs the shit out of me. I’ve gotten probably 10. Organizers saying, “you know, you’ve written enough. Now you should organize.” I was thinking, jesus christ, I’m not an organizer. That’s not my gift. I’m terrible at that. I mean, I’m not really a people person—most writers aren’t—I mean, if I was social, I wouldn’t be a writer. So whatever your gifts are.
SiTW:What do you feel like you can accomplish through your writing to serve your community. have you seen anything specific and tangible.
DJ: Well there’s still dams standing, so obviously my work isn’t doing what I want. I’ve gotten bazillions of notes from people, and the most common type of note I get is saying “I thought I was the only one who was thinking these things, that civilization is unsustainable, and that it’s insane, that working in a wage job is insane,” or whatever part, “I thought I was the only person who thought that zoos are insane. So thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone.” And that’s really gratifying and that makes me really happy. And I’ve gotten so many notes from people, geez I’ve gotten notes from women who’ve—never men, have done this, oddly enough—I’ve gotten women who’ve divorced their abusive husbands they say because of my books—obviously they were ready for it—, there’s people who’ve become activists because of it, there’s all sorts of stuff. And that’s really great. And the bottom line is, how does it help the land. Does it? I don’t know. I mean that’s really the bottom line. This is something I say in Endgame, I say in my talks, you know nobody’s going to give a shit as to what good books we wrote, or whether we did treesits or didn’t do treesits, or whether we recycled, or whether we were vegetarians or not vegetarians, or whether the potstickers [which we were eating] were any good, they’re not going to care about any of that. What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. The land is everything. And so, is my work helping to save the salmon? I don’t know. And that’s a tremendous source of frustration.
I mean as a writer you are, by definition, abstracted, from the real work, I mean there are layers between you—even when I affect somebody and let them know that they’re not alone—there’s still those layers.
So what do I want, is your question? What do I want to accomplish?
SiTW: What do you feel like can be accomplished through writing, in the sense of the health of the landbase, etc.
I’m doing a conference, I hate conferences, but I’m doing a conference next week actually, South Carolina, and it’s a conference of nature writing or something. And the reason I’m doing it is because Orion published an excerpt of Endgame that really helped jumpstart the book, and they’ve a lot to do with it, so I’m doing it basically as a favor to them. And, [sigh] one of the things I’m going to talk about is... basically for years I was going to write an essay called “why I can’t read nature writing” cause I hate most nature writing. One of the reasons I hate it is because I’m not sure that the world needs more descriptions of beautiful places. Look out your fucking back door, ya know? What we need is to stop this culture from killing the planet. Its like, I’m writing a book right now with Eric McBay, about shit, about decay, and basically the book is about how this culture has taken some beautiful gift to the landbase and turned it into a toxic thing. In nature, somebody’s shit is somebody’s food. There is no waste in nature. You’ve seen, I’m sure, that there’s 6 times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the ocean. This culture’s creating these... I mean, how long is this [points to a plastic water cup] going to be here, or this [points to my recorder]? And I’m not picking on you; I’ve got a truck, and a computer, and blah blah blah. I mean, for crying out loud, how long is this [grabs the tablecloth] going to last I mean, I don’t know if it’s made of polyester or if it’s made of cotton, all of these things. And it’s an interesting book because I’ve always been fascinated by decay, it’s really fun, you know, all these fun facts about shit and fungus and everything else, but a problem Eric and I were having with it, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I’ve been writing this book ... RD Laing, in his book The Politics of Experience had the best first line ever of any book, which is: “few books today are forgivable.” The whole book is about alienation, how we’re so horribly desperately alienated. The point is if your book doesn’t start with this alienation as your starting point, and work towards resolving it, insofar as any piece of writing can resolve alienation, which is a big question, then it’s not forgivable and you’d be better off with blank pages. Basically in this book, I’m saying that any book that doesn’t start from the fact that this culture is killing the planet and work to resolve that is unforgivable. We’d be better off with blank pages.
So what do I want to accomplish with my writing? I want to bring down civilization, I want to stop this culture from killing the planet. And writing is my gift, and writing is my weapon, and if it ends up that writing isn’t a good enough weapon I’ll have to choose another weapon. Because, and this is what I’m going to say next week, is that so many nature writers forget that writing is a means to an end. Maybe if the planet weren’t being killed then we’d all have the luxury of just writing fun little stories, that it doesn’t matter if it’s a fun little story about a vampire or a fun little story about the beautiful bird out your window. It doesn’t matter. Right now we don’t have that luxury. And that’s a question I think about every day. How does my work help to bring about civilization?
SiTW: What are your associations with anarchism, and would you describe yourself as an anarchist? If so how did you get interested in it?
DJ: I get called an anarchist lot. I think that’s the most accurate way to say it, I get called an anarchist a lot, and I don’t mind. Do I self identify as an anarchist? Sometimes. It’s a label. Like any other label, I guess I’ll use it when it feels right, and I won’t use it when it doesn’t feel right. I’ll tell you this review I got one time, it’s so funny, I don’t remember what magazine it was in, someone was attacking me for not being enough of anarchist. How can you be not enough of an anarchist? Isn’t that a contradiction? Do we have rules? This one anarchist actually told me this joke: “If there’s a party, how do you recognize the anarchists? They’re the ones all wearing the same uniform.” I read a really good book, History of Anarchism, and the author took anarchism back to Lao-tzu, back to the cynics in Greece. If I can use his definition... I don’t remember his definition. If I can use his lineage of anarchism, I’m down for anarchism. If I go with some of it’s other manifestations then I’m probably not. I got interviewed for Green Anarchy a few years ago. And the way I started the interview they asked me if I’m a green anarchist and I said “you know? I don’t give a shit. If you want to call me that that’s great, but what I really care about is living in a world that has wild salmon, and living in a world that has no dioxin in a mothers breast milk, a world that has icecaps, whatever, and if that makes me a green anarchist, great, if it makes me not a green anarchist, great.” It’s the same with anarchism ... I have problems with labels anyway. I mean it took me years before I’d call myself a writer. People would say “what are you” and I’d say “I’m a person” and that felt really precious to me. So yeah, I’m a writer, I’m an anarchist, I’m an anarcho-primitivist, whatever you want to call me, whatever, but then I’m a capitalist for that matter; I mean I sell books, I have a little publishing company. So yeah I’m a capitalist and damn proud of it. Whatever. It’s all just... once again John Zerzan's thought has been very important to me, I like John. Do you know john at all?
SiTW: I don’t know him personally.
DJ: He and I, we’ve been friends for ten years or something. And for ten years we’ve been having this great disagreement about the degree to which symbolic representation is always alienating. And it’s just, if anarchism consists of conversations like that, then yeah, sure, it’s wonderful, respectful, it’s the way I wish every disagreement was. Each of us is very respectful of the other’s position, and each of us respects the others work, and we still have some disagreements that we don’t hold back on expressing, and it’s very... I want to be clear: it’s not like “yeah I think your works great but you’re so full of shit on that” its not like that at all, it’s like okay, symbolic representation, what about birds chirping, I would say. Is that symbolic, is that a form of a language? Ge’s like “well yeah,” and then we’ll drop it and talk about something else, and then we’ll come back to it six months later.
SiTW: That was actually my next question.
SiTW: it was about primitivism and anti-language and mediation. And I was going to say that one of the reasons I feel like more people connect with your work than the other primitivist theory, it doesn’t say, by using words that I have to look up in a dictionary, that I can’t use language. Because I think that a critique of mediation, an awareness of mediation, and how, yeah, there’s barriers between people and your work when they read it, I think that all of that is very important...
DJ: Right. Well that’s another thing, John Zerzan says if we’re sitting in a restaurant and it catches on fire, then it would be nice if one of us said to the other one, “you know it’s on fire, we need to leave.” There is a place for language, and the thing that helped resolve for me the question of whether language is inherently alienating, I mean its a no-brainer, so you two are partners?
DJ: Are you lovers?
DJ: So if I say “lips touching, tongues touching, kissing in the ear, whispering in the ear,” if I say all of those things, then it’s different than them happening, and they have a different effect. Obviously words are not actions, and so in that sense they are inherently alienating. I mean I can write up this really passionate sexy scene, and it’s still just ink on paper. Likewise I can write this really horrible scene like the introduction to Culture of Make Believe. One day I was driving and I pulled off the interstate, and there was a stop sign on the off ramp. And I suddenly got it. The stop sign doesn’t stop your car, the stop sign tells you to stop your car. And so I suddenly understand.
Joseph Campbell said this about the people who literally believe the Bible: “You don’t go to a restaurant and eat the menu. The menu is telling you something else, the menu is pointing to something.” So as long as we recognize that me saying “there’s a fire over there” is not the fire itself, then there shouldn’t a problem. The problem comes—and this is a real problem in this culture, because people are insane—when we confuse what is real and what is not real, or when other people do, and so they confuse the words for the reality. That’s when it becomes a problem. This is part of a much bigger problem, I see this with all the so-called solutions to global warming, is that they all take industrial civilization and industrial capitalism as a given, and the natural world as secondary. So basically, it’s how can we maintain this culture, and it would be nice if we still have a world. But what is primary is that right there [points to the trees outside], what’s primary are those trees out there, the rain. That’s what’s real, everything else is negotiable. Does that make sense?
SiTW: Yeah. You mention in Endgame that you used to play Dungeons & Dragons. Do you think that fantasy, the creation of imaginary worlds, has played a role in your political/social development? We play D&D is the reason we ask.
DJ: You do now, or you used to?
SiTW: We do now, we started again.
DJ: Is it still.... I have to tell you that this is a point of pride, that I started playing, this also says how old I am, I started playing back when it was three little itty bitty paperback books, and then soon after they came out with the big hardbacks, that was a couple years later. What is sort of the current state of it? Is it 300,000 books now?
SiTW: Yeah, though you still theoretically need only three.
DJ: The same old three?
SiTW: They changed the system. When I first learned, in like 1990 when I was really young, it was one system, and in 2000 a different company bought it, and they changed the system.
DJ: One thing, I don’t think this answers your question, one thing that I learned, didn’t have to do with activism, it was an existential question. I had a character that would die, and then I’d just roll up another character. I was never one of those people who would kill themselves when their character died, we were all just like, “Okay I didn’t like him anyway, let’s roll up another one. God, this one is really stupid and really weak and really not charismatic. okay ill send him in to get killed” and one time when I was rolling up a character after having yet another one day... we also didn’t play it “right” whatever that means, because we never got past 4th level
SiTW: You just died?
DJ: Yeah. Plus I think that the way we handed out the experience we were too cheap with it: it would take you weeks and weeks and months of playing to get to second level, cause I mean you kill an orc you get 12 experience points and you got to get 1000 to get to the next level? Anyway, I was rolling up yet another character after having yet another character die--and this was a character I really liked, you know, had some really good characteristics--and I realized you know, this is the end, this is not a big deal for me, but if this character was alive, then this character would be dead. And I suddenly realized that it’s the same for me. If I was one of these characters, I mean, I don’t wanna just... especially because it was a character I liked, it had really high qualities of some sort or another I don’t remember what. It’s like okay, I’ve been given these gifts by the universe, and I’m going to die some day, and I’m not going to get rewards. So far as I know, when I die I’m done, so I need to live my life to the fullest. I need to be what I want to be, to explore those gifts. So that was the lesson it really taught me.
I don’t think it taught me anything as an activist. In retrospect, the lessons of Dungeons & Dragons, I don’t know if it’s any better now, they’re appalling, they’re so pro-civ. So basically, lawful is a good thing, that means you obey the rules. Why are orcs and kobolds the bad guys?
SiTW: We play that way actually, a lot of us play chaotic good, and lots of us play orcs and kobolds.
DJ: All of these various creatures who are just living their lives, what are they called? Ochre jelly?
SiTW: yeah and the gelatinous cube.
DJ: Yeah. It’s just hanging out, it’s not hurting anybody, and we see anything like that, giant slugs, you gotta kill ‘em. You gotta kill everything you see. The lessons were pretty appalling, in retrospect. Another thing I thought is pretty interesting about Dungeons & Dragons ... I thought it would be a pretty darn good psychological evolution tool. A lot of the people I played with, I mean some of them might be real sadists. When we start playing, and these really nasty, they devise all these extraordinary tortures. It’s like, “I guess I understand you a bit better now, don’t I?”
yeah, we had to do an intervention last summer at our house, because I was playing and it was mostly boys, all these anarchist boys that pride themselves on their feminism and everything, and they just started getting sexist, their characters would try to sleep with every woman who came their way, and like, we had to stop and say “you alls characters cant do this, why are you acting this way”
SiTW: Have you run into any impediments in publishing because of your status as a radical, of how far you take your words?
SiTW: I think the question is “have I ever not run into impediments to getting stuff published.” Yes, I’ve run into those impediments. I was actually surprised they published Endgame. I’m lucky; no publisher has ever tried to censor me, no publisher has ever tried to take the edge off my work. I’ve heard so many stories of other writers who have been censored. Of course I’m also going with small publishers who don’t give me big advances, but I’m very pleased with my publishers in that way. I don’t know if you know this, but the rule in publishing is that the writer has final say over all of the words and the publisher has final say over things like the cover, the title and marketing. So if they were to say “I want you to cut this” I would say “I will listen to your arguments” and so it’s been great because they always recognize that I have the final say, and that’s how we have the discussion.
I really like my agent right now. He’s great, his politics are very radical obviously. And he doesn’t tell me to edit my stuff. I’ve fired agents before. I had one agent that read the first 70 pages of Language and told me that if I took out the social criticism and the family stuff I’d have a book. I fired her. I’ve had agents, early on in my career, try to stifle me, try to “steer me towards bigger audiences” they would say. Sierra Club didn’t take the zoo book because they thought it was too much of a rant. They said that it wouldn’t help animals at all. I think my fiction writing is good, I don’t think that that’s why it hasn’t gotten not accepted anywhere, part of it is the idea. If you have a book where someone kidnaps and kills a CEO, that’s totally different than if you have a book where somebody kidnaps and kills a woman. That’s every movie that’s on HBO right now, that’s what you do. It’s what George Gerber talked about: casting and fate. George Gerber was the TV violence guy; he studied violence from the 50s till 2005 when he died. And when people talk about how much violence is on TV, they’re citing his studies. I interviewed him, he’s a great guy. He said everybody gets his stuff wrong, they always misinterpret him. His problem is not that there’s violence on TV, he doesn’t care about that, or movies, his problem is that he says that violence is a social relation, and the question is who does what to whom. He studied how many times in movies men commit acts of violence, versus how many times do women commit acts of violence, and who is doing them, so what he found, no surprise, is that white males, on film and TV and movies, commit violence with impunity, and if a woman commits an act of violence, then the whole movie has to be about why would she do something so disturbing. But if you have Bruce Willis? Kills somebody in the first three minutes. And that’s really important because what he says is, these are stories. I mean there’s this great line by a Scottish balladeer, “If I could write all the ballads, I wouldn’t care who wrote the laws.” And it’s so true because stories are how we learn—we are for better or worse social creatures—and stories are how we learn how to be human beings. And if the stories you see routinely show people like you committing acts of violence and getting away with it, you’re going to be different than if stories routinely show you being victimized. That’s a really important thing. Why’d I bring that up? What was your question?
DJ: That’s one of the things that I think, is that it’s distasteful for a person to have a book where a woman, of all people, kills a CEO. Never mind that the body count in the book is pretty low. Two people die. The feds kill her niece, and she kills the CEO. That’s the other thing that’s pretty interesting, people have said: “oh my god, your books are so violent,” but that’s not true at all. The body count on my books is much lower than your standard Hollywood movie. The thing I’ve found really important is that I bring meaning to it. And the problem is, if you put meaning and violence together? It’s like... nature writers can say, “oh its so terrible” and philosophers can use big words to say “oh its so terrible” and then you can have this huge body count in a movie. But the problem is, if you put a body count together with the analysis, it’s not additive but multiplicative, do you see what I’m trying to say? And so that’s one of the things that’s really been scary, that’s one of the reasons why I think the work is more effective than some people’s.
SiTW: When I was talking to Ursula K LeGuin about it, she mentioned that the main thing was what she referred to how it was good for what people used to call consciousness raising, just kinda a general basic level of awareness, creating a culture... I feel like that’s one thing that your work has contributed to, is a culture where people actually talk about this.
DJ: I did this post to the Derrick Jensen discussion forum, maybe a month ago, that one of the reasons I don’t bother to learn primitive living skills is that I’m not going to survive the crash. Either those in power will kill me ... Somebody asked John Stockwell: “If everything you say about the CIA is true, then why are you still alive?” “Because they’re winning.” And so I’m safe for now. I can say whatever I want, they don’t give a shit. But if they start to lose, we’re all dead. And one’s purity and ones silence won’t save you. Those in power will do what it takes to maintain power. That’s one thing, the other thing is that Crohn’s Disease will kill me. So I’m dead through the crash. But that’s okay because if the big revolution comes that I’ve been working for my whole professional life, my whole personal life at this point, if that came I’d be done anyway, my works done. My work is about creating culture where what I’m writing about can take place. And once it starts, my work takes a long time ... Jesus, if I finished a book today it doesn’t come out for at least a year, so there’s a big time lag, and then after that, people have to read it, people have to digest it, they have to internalize it, they have metabolize it, they have to shit out what they don’t accept, and they have to turn what they do accept into theirs, and that takes years. And so my role is really a longer term thing. There’s this great movie, The Battle for Algiers. Have you seen it?
SiTW: No, but I’ve heard it was required viewing for the Black Panthers.
DJ: It’s also required viewing at West Point. It’s the movie on insurgency and anti-insurgency. And I was thinking about where I would fit into the movie. It’s about an insurgency against the French in Algeria, and where I would fit into this movie is that my books would be on the shelves of the people who are doing the fighting. That doesn’t mean I don’t have other roles; I spent most of the day today fighting a timber harvest plan. But what I’m really trying to do is lay a philosophical and emotional and intellectual groundwork for all of this. When Listening to the Land came out, Barry Lopez read the first line: “We are members of the most destructive culture ever to exist,” then he held it at arms length and said, “this is great, somebody is finally saying it.” And that’s what I do: I finally say the stuff that a lot of people are thinking. And yeah, I see my role the same as Ursula k LeGuin’s in that way. She has one of my favorite lines ever about writing, which is, “writing is a lot like sex, its better with two people.” It’s one thing to write in a journal, and it’s another to write for an audience. It’s an interactive thing, and a lot of people don’t understand that and a lot of people’s writing ends up being essentially journal writing that someone else is supposed to read. It’s like, “why the fuck am I supposed to read this? It’s boring as hell.” And I really like the way she puts that because it’s essentially like masturbating with another person. It’s like, “Hi I’m here, I’m having a great time, you don’t exist, but I don’t care.” Which is of course the patriarchal model. Tell her I think her work has been really vital.
SiTW: She also wrote possibly my favorite line about anarchism: “An anarchist is one who, given the choice, chooses responsibility.”
DJ: That’s great, under that definition, yeah, I’ll call myself an anarchist. One of the problems I’ve had with a lot of anarchists, is that frankly, I’ve known a lot of “anarchists” for whom it was basically an excuse to be irresponsible, and to be fuckups. I got into this little argument with these kids several years ago. They were saying that anarchism is about doing whatever you want whenever you want to do it. I said, you know, let’s say we’re all going to do an action. And you decide at the last minute that you don’t feel like doing it tonight, you’re going to watch a movie, you’re going to stay at home and smoke pot. And because you don’t show up, the action fails and my brother dies. I’m gonna kill you. Because my brother is dead because of you, because you chose to stay home and smoke pot. There has to accountability if we’re going to have any sort of real movement, there has to be discipline. The truth is I would want to vet him out before hand, so I wouldn’t get in the position where I was relying on him in the first place.
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