Agency, Nature and Emergent Properties

An Interview with Jane Bennett

by Gulshan Khan

Jane Bennett is Professor of Political Theory and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. In 1986 she received her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts. In the following year her dissertation was published with New York University Press under the title Unthinking faith and enlightenment: nature and state in a post-Hegelian era. Her subsequent published books include Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild (Sage Publications, 1994) and The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2001). Her new book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, is forthcoming from Duke University Press. In 1988 Bennett became an Assistant Professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, where she also became the Elizabeth Todd Professor in the year 2000 until 2004 when she moved to John Hopkins. She has been a visiting fellow at universities in Britain and in Australia. Bennett is on the editorial and advisory board of a number of prestigious journals and book series ranging from Political Theory to Critical Horizons.

Bennett co-edited The Politics of Moralizing (Routledge, 2002) with Michael J. Shapiro and co-edited In the Nature of Things: Language, Politics and the Environment (University of Minnesota Press, 1993) with William Chaloupka. She and William E. Connolly are in the beginning stages of co-writing a political theory textbook, Friends of the Earth: Minor Voices in the History of Political Thought. These encounters have contributed to Bennett’s distinctive notion of ‘vital materiality’. Her intellectual trajectory is also indebted to aspects of the work of Lucretius (1995), Spinoza (1949), Diderot (1996), Nietzsche (1994), Deleuze and Guattari (1987), Henry Thoreau (1968) and Bruno Latour (1993). Her notion of ‘vital materiality’ also builds upon Michel Foucault’s notion of bio-power and Judith Butler’s early notion of ‘bodies that matter’. Conversely, the notion of agency that stems from Bennett’s work makes an important and substantive contribution, away from the politics of performativity associated with Butler and towards a politics of nonhuman matter and agency. She invokes a new and different political imaginary outside the Hegelian and psychoanalytic framework of the subject and object/other. In this sense her work shares a ‘subject matter’ as well an intellectual affinity with Elizabeth Grosz’s (1994) Deleuzian inspired works. Following a long tradition of thinkers who have sought to de-centre ‘the human’ (for example, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault), Bennett’s emphasis on nonhuman matter challenges the ontological privileging of ‘the human’. However, her approach creatively affirms the necessity of human embodiment, understood as one site of agency within and across a multiplicity of other material bodies and formations. Her notion of agency also seeks to avoid reducing politics to morality, which has implications for the predominant analytical framework that is heavily underpinned by a Kantian conception of moral agency with its emphasis on intuitions, duties and obligations. Bennett’s contribution to political theory with its emphasis on nature, ethics, aesthetics, environmentalism and vitalism is inter-laced with a political interest in the literary writings of Kafka, Coetzee, Thoreau and Kundera, on whom she has published several articles and essays. Her work has clear implications for re-thinking our relations to and engagement with the vitality of nature.

 GULSHAN KHAN: Jane, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I would like to begin by exploring some of the themes you are currently working on in your new book and issues raised by your paper presented at the ‘Stem Cell Identities, Governance and Ethics’ conference at Nottingham University in 2007.1  I will then move onto questions about your theory about the enchantment of modernity, nature and agency.

You are currently working on a book entitled Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things (2010), and I find myself drawn to your version of post-structuralism, which does not reduce life or matter to the play of language. Instead, you outline a layered notion of reality and in particular you delineate a conception of matter as a lively force present in all things. You seem to want to challenge our received notions of the distinction between nature and culture. For example, in your article ‘The force of things’ (2004) you confront Theodor Adorno’s (1990) point that we cannot make any positive claims about the ‘non-identity’ between the concept and the thing. By way of contrast, you offer an affirmative account of this non-identity understood as the play of lively animate forces. Can I press you to explain your notion of ‘things’ or ‘vital materiality’ and how it differs from contending versions?

JANE BENNETT: I’m trying to take ‘things’ more seriously than political theorists had been taking them. By ‘things’ I mean the materialities usually figured as inanimate objects, passive utilities, occasional interruptions or background context – figured, that is, in ways that give all the active, creative power to humans. I focus on five exemplary ‘things’ in the book: stem cells, fish oils, electricity, metal and trash. Our habit of parsing the world into passive matter (it) and vibrant life (us) is what Jacques Rancière (in another context) called a ‘partition of the sensible’. In other words, it limits what we are able to sense; it places below the threshold of note the active powers of material formations, such as the way landfills are, as we speak, generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane, or the way omega-3 fatty acids can transform brain chemistry and mood, or the way the differential rates of cooling organize the unpredictable patterns of granite.

My experiment is this: What would the world look and feel like were the life/matter binary to fall into disuse, were it to be translated into differences in degree rather than kind? And how, in particular, would our political analyses of events change were they to acknowledge an elemental, material agency distributed across bodies, human and nonhuman? Who or what would count as a ‘stakeholder’? How would a ‘public’ be constituted? Would politics become less centred around the punitive project of finding individual human agents responsible for the public problems of, say, an electricity blackout or an epidemic of obesity, and more concerned with identifying how the complex human–nonhuman assemblage that’s churning out the negative effect holds itself together – how it endures or feeds itself? Until we do that, political attempts to remedy the problem are likely to be ineffective.

An ‘assemblage’ is an ad hoc grouping of an ontologically diverse range of actants, of vital materialities of various sorts. It is a vibrant, throbbing collective with an uneven topography: some of the points at which its diverse affects and bodies cross paths are more heavily trafficked than others, and thus power is not distributed equally across its surface. An assemblage has no sovereignty in the classical sense, for it is not governed by a central head: no one materiality or type of material has sufficient competence to determine consistently its trajectory or impact. The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, emergent in that their ability to make something happen (a blackout, a hurricane, a war on terror) is distinct from the sum of the force of each materiality considered alone. An assemblage thus has both a distinctive history of formation and a finite life span.

To be clear: the agency of assemblages of which I speak is not the strong kind of agency traditionally attributed to humans or God. My contention, rather, is that if one looks closely enough, the productive impetus of change is always a congregation. As my friend Ben Corson helped me to see, not only is human agency always already distributed to ‘our’ tools, microbes, minerals and sounds. It only emerges as agentic via its distribution into the ‘foreign’ materialities we are all too eager to figure as mere objects.

It is, I think, the ‘responsibility’ of humans to pay attention to the effects of the assemblages in which we find ourselves participating, and then to work experimentally to alter the machine so as to minimize or compensate for the suffering it manufactures. Sometimes it may be necessary to try to extricate your body from that assemblage, to refuse to contribute more energy to it, and sometimes to work to tilt the existing assemblage in a different direction. In a world where agency is always distributed, a hesitant attitude towards assigning moral blame becomes a virtue. Outrage should not disappear completely, but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good. A moralized politics of good and evil, of singular agents who must be made to pay for their sins – be they Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush – becomes immoral to the degree that it legitimates vengeance and elevates violence to the tool of first resort. A distributive understanding of agency, then, re-invokes the need to detach ethics from moralism.

KHAN: What kind of materialist are you? How does your work differ from other models of materialism, for example: the Marxist model of ‘dialectical materialism’ and what we might call the ‘materialism of the body’ expressed in the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler? I am particularly interested to know whether or not you think we can make qualitative distinctions between desirable and non-desirable forms of matter? If all matter is characterized by an intrinsic vitality of forces, do these differ only in terms of their relative quantities and intensities, or could we perhaps use Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of active or reactive forces to evaluate them?

BENNETT: Mechanistic materialism does not attract me; it implicitly returns us to the status of consummate agents who run the machine. I am indebted to Spinoza’s idea of a world of bodies that strive to enhance their power of activity by forming alliances with other bodies, to Diderot’s picture of matter as a spiderweb of vibrating threads, to the Nietzsche for whom nature is a ‘play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many’, to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘material vitalism that doubtless exists everywhere but is ordinarily hidden’, and to Bruno Latour’s idea of nonhuman ‘actants’.

I’m also drawn to Epicurean materialism because of its naturalist, immanentist sensitivity, because of its idea that there is a swerve or unpredictability built right into the heart of matter (the clinamen), and because of its faith that everything is made of the same quirky stuff, the same ‘building blocks’, if you will. Lucretius speaks of primordia; today we might call them atoms, quarks, particle-streams, matter-energy. This same-stuff claim, which insinuates that deep down all’s connected, resonates with an ecological sensibility, and that is important to me. But in contrast to some versions of deep ecology, the oneness to which Epicureanism attests is neither a smooth harmony of parts nor a diversity unified by a common spirit. It is (as Michel Serres (2001) says about it in The Birth of Physics) a turbulent field in which various and variable materialities collide, congeal, morph and disintegrate.

Epicureanism is too simple in its imagery of individual atoms falling and swerving in the void, but I share its conviction that there is a natural tendency to the way things are – and that human decency and a decent politics are fostered to the extent that we are tuned-in to the strange logic of turbulence.

This ontological field of turbulence is heterogeneous, with lots of internal differences and differentiation. This differentiation is profound in the sense that there is no one key difference, no single red thread – ‘this is human, this is not’ – running through it. Any assemblage that forms and operates is a joint effort of human and nonhuman elements. An especially dogged resistance to anthropocentrism is perhaps the main difference between the ‘vital materialism’ I pursue and Marx’s materialism, Foucault’s biopower, and Judith Butler’s early notion of bodies that matter. I emphasize, even over-emphasize, the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces (operative within ‘external nature’ but also within our bodies and artefacts), in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought, as well as the conception of a humanity created in the image of a god who cares about us above everything else. What counts as the material of vital materialism? Is it only human labour and the socio-economic entities made by men using raw materials? Or is materiality more potent than that? How can political theory do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in every event and every stabilization? Is there a form of theory that can acknowledge a certain ‘thing-power’, that is, the irreducibility of objects to the human meanings or agendas they also embody?

More needs to be said about historical materialism and the place of a notion of active materiality within it: Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (2008) address this in an edited volume entitled the New Materialisms. I’ll also demur on the complicated question of the materialism of the body in Foucault and Butler, except to say that the more one focuses on the activeness of the elements that compose the human body, the less sufficient the notion of the ‘incorporation’ or ‘materialization’ of human ideas and practices seems. The bodily incorporation of cultural processes is only one side of the story. Equally important are the persistent lines of connection between us and interior forces (for example, hormones, chemicals, micro-organisms) and between us-and-our-interior and the exterior milieu. What becomes appropriate is to explore the affinities between our bodily composition and that of nonhumans, both natural and artificial. I agree with Deleuze and Guattari when they say that ‘a fibre stretches from a human to an animal, from a human or an animal to molecules, from molecules to particles, and so on to the imperceptible’.

One additional point about this ‘vital materiality’: I’ve found a rich source of ideas about materiality also in the tradition of ‘vitalism’ even though I do not endorse that tradition finally. Especially important are those early 20th century strands called ‘critical’ or ‘modern’ vitalism, whose advocates included Henri Bergson and Hans Driesch. These vitalists distinguished themselves from the ‘naive vitalism’ of soul by means of their close engagement with experimental science. They of course were anti-materialists of a sort, for many of the ‘materialists’ of their day (and some of our day) were mechanists for whom materiality is something that was in principle fully calculable. The critical vitalists did not think that nature is that simple. And so they struggled mightily both to remain scientific and to appreciate the incalculable dimension of things. They were attuned, not to an intrinsic purpose in things but to an excess that escapes quantification, prediction and control. They name that vital force ‘life’, entelechy, elan vital.

In their subtle attempts to give philosophical voice to the vitality of things, Driesch and Bergson came close to a vital materialism. But they stopped short: they could not imagine a materiality adequate to the vitality they discerned in natural processes. Instead, they dreamed of a life force of a non-material nature. Their vitalisms nevertheless fascinate me, in part because we share a common foe in mechanistic or deterministic materialism, and in part because the lively materiality of which I dream hovers close to a notion of vital force.

KHAN: Over the past 20 years a number of themes and concepts run through your work, which point in the direction of the notion of ‘vital materiality’. These themes reappear in different ways in Unthinking Faith and Enlightenment (1987), Thoreau’s Nature (1994) and The Enchantment of Modern Life (2001). Could you please elaborate a little on the genealogy of this concept? Is the notion of intrinsic ‘inter-connectedness’ developed in Unthinking Faith and Enlightenment a precursor of the idea of vital materiality? How has this idea been modified over time and who or what has shaped the development of this idea into its current manifestation? What added directions does this concept take in your new book?

BENNETT: When I wrote Unthinking Faith and Enlightenment, I was trying to ‘unthink’ my way out of an oscillation, identified by Hegel in Phenomenology of Spirit, between two responses to a modernity conceived as haunted by meaninglessness, suffering, that is, from ‘disenchantment’. On the one side was the ‘enlightenment’ response, which attempted to restore meaning by mastering or more thoroughly humanizing the world; on the other side was ‘faith’ or the attempt to re-enchant the world with a more modern (less sensuously present) form of divinity. In that book I didn’t question the diagnosis of modernity as disenchanted (later I would); I accepted it, examined the pros and cons of the two responses, and then, finding both wanting, tried to imagine a better response (outside of a Hegelian frame).

The enlightenment response had negative implications for my ecological commitments, but the faith response conceived of nature as more purposive than my encounters with it warranted (especially with regard to my brother’s struggle with schizophrenia). I then affirmed a stance called ‘fractious holism’, which remained true to the ecological slogan that everything is connected but rejected the idea that the connections were part of a pre-given, intelligent plan. The idea was that we should try to discern, and then more carefully engage, the frictions, noises, excesses and (though this idea was underdeveloped) surprising powers circulating through nature-culture.

Later, I turned to Thoreau’s notion of the Wild to develop the idea of that fractiousness: yes, humans were ‘part and parcel’ of nature, but (internal and external) nature included that which was perverse or uncanny to it. Thoreau celebrated this wildness for the moral refreshment it could bring to a self that was also naturally attracted to conformity. Thoreau’s idea of the Wild morphed, I now see, into the idea of ‘vital materiality’, a notion I first evoked in The Enchantment of Modern Life. That book was not an attempt to re-enchant the world with divinity but to bring to the fore the ways in which ‘modernity’ is always already filled with lively and enchanting, albeit non-purposive forces. In the book in progress now, I try to position the idea of lively matter within a larger history of philosophical materialisms. I guess that in each book, my ultimate aim has been to find ways to better cope – more artfully, more wisely – in a world that’s neither a divine creation, docile matter, nor completely lawful.

KHAN: You say that your brother’s struggle with schizophrenia caused you to question the idea of nature as purposive. I hope you don’t mind if I probe you a bit further on this. Could you elaborate on the problems associated with understanding nature as having an explicit design and how this has influenced you in theorizing an alternative conception of nature that cannot be fully mastered and has no inner telos? How have your experiences with your brother’s struggle with schizophrenia led you to question or support medical discourses on ‘madness’, ‘abnormality’ or ‘difference’?

BENNETT: To put the point bluntly, a sustained encounter with madness will eventually erode belief in a providential nature. And it makes belief in classical scientific conceptions of a law-like nature more difficult too. Or at least that is what happened to me. Like most people in my (Italian-Catholic and Irish-Catholic) neighbourhood, I grew up with the idea that the world was a divine creation and that external nature, or the animals, vegetables and minerals that surrounded us, was designed according to a divine plan. This article of faith was for me set in a liberation-theology-inflected Catholicism (a Catholicism pretty much dismissed by the Vatican today), according to which Jesus is a counter-cultural peace activist, a nature-lover who, like the Franciscans, Gandhi and Thoreau, practiced ‘voluntary simplicity’ when it came to the consumption of material goods. These beliefs were an important part of the rationale for the Earth Day environmentalism I affirmed in the 1970s: if nature was God’s handicraft, it was worthy of care and protection, and we ought to tread lightly upon it.

It was in 1980 that my then 16-year-old brother (a common onset age for schizophrenia) had his first psychotic episode. (He jumped off the garage roof because he thought he could fly.) He has been in and out of madness, in and out of hospitals ever since. (Though in the last 10 years the legal policies in the US are such that it has become effectively impossible to hospitalize someone against his/her will, which means that the jails are filled with people suffering from mental illness.) If you live with a person living with a brain that periodically malfunctions in dramatic ways – coherent sentences can no longer be formed, laughing loses its link to a funny situation or even an amusing thought but erupts independently of any social or psychic meaning, the movement of ants on the sidewalk or cars on the highway appear as sinister plots – you can easily lose interest in the idea of a purposive or providential natural order. (The notion of nature as a purposive plan starts to seem like the mirror image of my brother’s perverse conviction that the impersonal behaviour of ants and the anonymous movements of traffic are out to get him. Both assume purposiveness.) And the classical science figure of nature as law-like also loses much of its power.

The misery caused by the diminishment of the lives of those whose brain doesn’t work right will make it hard to believe in either a benevolent god-creator or in a Newtonian world where the eternal laws of nature correspond to the mind of a law-giving God. The figure of matter as an active power capable both of (undesigned) self-organization and of aleatory alteration becomes more credible if and when you forsake those two contending conceptions of divinity.

I support medical – in the sense of bio-chemical – discourses on schizophrenia. Though of course it is true that social conditions, family contexts and psychic structures are also involved, they do not alone seem to have the power to fix many types of breakdown of the organic machinery. I support research in brain science and experimentation with pharmacological agents that might re-calibrate the delicate chemistry that makes thinking possible – or, I would go so far as to say, that (almost) is thinking.

The political–theoretical impact of my experiences with schizophrenia is this: I needed to find a new basis for my lingering commitment to a green politics, to a way of life that was more ecologically sustainable, less poisonous of the water, air, soil and thus of human bodies. I needed a figure of nature that did not rely so heavily on what my friend Hent DeVries calls a ‘theological archive’ of images, concepts and narratives. The figure of ‘vital materiality’ or lively matter is one such candidate for that role.

KHAN: Throughout your work you have suggested that an appreciation of the liveliness of nonhuman matter can help us to live ethically, and you maintain that we ignore this at our own peril. Could you explain how an understanding of the vitality of matter enables us to live ethically? Perhaps you could answer this with reference to the environmental crisis, the problems of climate change, exponential human population growth and so on? For example, you share Martin Heidegger’s (1977) concern that modern science typically treats nature as ‘standing reserve’ as a passive object to be manipulated and controlled for basic human utility. His ideas have been mobilized by some in the direction of a deep green political praxis. Does your work point in a similar direction? Or do you see a more positive role for modern science and technology, understood as one force amongst many in the world? Should we extend ethical generosity to all living matter including those which are harmful to human beings such as viruses, diseases and tropical storms?

BENNETT: I think that the relationship between an enhanced sense of the vitality of things and ethical life is indirect, although indirection can sometimes be the most effective tactic. It is a matter of possible alliances and mutual reinforcement of tendencies – an ancillary and meandering connection subject to many intervening forces. In the context of, in particular, an American political economy, there seems to be a resonance between the idea of matter as dull stuff/passive resource and a set of gigantically wasteful production and consumption practices that foul our own nest. These practices endanger and immiserate workers, children, animals and plants here and abroad. To the extent that the figure of inert matter sustains this consumptive style, another figure might disrupt it. It isn’t a coincidence that Kant, when he talks about natural objects at the end of the Critique of Judgment, affirms together that ‘(the essential character of matter is lifelessness, inertia)’ and that man, as ‘the only being on earth that has … an ability to set himself purposes in his own choice’, holds ‘the title of lord of nature’.

With regard to Heidegger’s notion of standing-reserve, I agree that it can be put to Green use, though I don’t pursue that task. I don’t because Heidegger longs to recapture a sense of the universe as an encompassing whole in which nature and culture engage in a kind of primordial cooperation (even if that system of relations fades off into indefiniteness and incalculability). I too am critical of the picture of nature as calculable mechanism. But I am attracted to a more ‘pagan’ conception of materiality – as turbulent, energetic and capable of emergent forms of self-organization. It is worthy of our respect because we are composed of it, because we enter into various relations of dependence with it, and because its force fields can turn on us if we don’t attend closely to them.

So, should we, for example, love HIV? I don’t know if we should love HIV – I don’t believe in a creator God and so I can’t imagine the universe as an intrinsically moral order – but I don’t think that we can love HIV. It is associated with too much suffering. But its vitality nevertheless demands respect, more respect than was at the base of our initial attempt to eradicate the virus, which often resulted in killing the patient. The more effective therapy now aims to keep the viral load low, enabling a tense coexistence between human and nonhuman. It is also good to recall the vast array of vital materialities that were enlisted in response to HIV, the condoms, the laboratory instruments, the animals tested, as well as the revised sexual practices and rituals of human bodies.

KHAN: In The Enchantment of Modern Life you develop a polemical critique of the idea – associated particularly with Max Weber (1981) (but also many others) – that modernity is characterized by a progressive disenchantment of the world. Common to the various narratives of disenchantment is the idea that the emergence of modern scientific rationality has radically transformed our understanding of nature, greatly extending the capacity for human agency in a world, but at the cost of devaluing nonhuman matter, which has come to be seen as lifeless, inert and devoid of enchantment or vitality. Your alternative narrative emphasizes the enchantment of the modern experience of the world. For example, you suggest that claims about the uniqueness of modern rationality are exaggerated, and that under conditions of modernity social and political systems have become more complex but there is no fundamental break with the enchanted world of pre-modernity. However, for many theorists such as Jürgen Habermas (1987) modern rationality is also bound up with the question of political legitimacy and with the potential for an emancipated society free from arbitrary forms of power. He argues that under conditions of modernity political power is progressively disentangled from established tradition and ‘irrational’ forms of knowledge and superstition, and tied instead to rational procedures and due process. Does your counter narrative of the various continuities between modernity and pre-modernity enable us to draw a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of power?

BENNETT: I’m not exactly saying that there is no fundamental break with the enchanted world of pre-modernity. Clearly things have changed, especially with regard to what is plausibly considered to be the ultimate source of the power of things to provoke a mood of ‘enchantment’ in humans. If the natural world was once enchanted with divine will and intentionality (forming an episteme that Foucault called ‘the prose of the world’), my claim is that something akin to that wonder can persist even without the postulate of a God who is actively infused into all facets of the sensible world. Today things can and do enchant people by virtue of their material complexity, or by their sheer this-ness, or by their refusal to fit into the categories we bring to bear upon them.

I think that those moments when things call us up short and reveal our profound implication in nonhumanity are relevant, perhaps even indispensable, to ethical action. For such action requires a bodily comportment conducive to the enactment of ‘good will’ or generosity toward others. What Spinoza called the ‘joyful’ affects are needed to feed or energize a body called upon – by reason, habit, sympathy or some unnamed motive – to love, forgive or treat with compassion others, or to do as little violence as possible in one’s actions.

So of course I affirm the ‘rationalizing’ project of disentangling political power from oppressive traditions, and of the norms of due process and the rule of law. But the will to contest oppressive effects must itself be induced, and the norms of due process and democratic rule are not self-enacting. In each case, they require aesthetic-affective energy to spark or fuel them. If, for example, the American public is to be aroused to repudiate torture as a tool of foreign policy and re-endorse the Geneva conventions, the fearful and vengeful mood now prevalent must be altered. If Americans are to change established modes of energy production and consumption (to avoid catastrophic climate change and to decrease the social violence it is already entailing), we will need to stop thinking of earth as a basket of passive resources for the satisfaction of desires.

KHAN: For many modern thinkers, the distinction between the human and the nonhuman remains highly significant. For example, Heidegger (1998) insists on the uniqueness of Man as a ‘being that questions its own Being’, Hannah Arendt (1958) demarcates humans from other creatures in terms of the ability to act together politically, and Habermas (1984) singles out the fact of communication – understood as action orientated towards reaching understanding – as the specific faculty that raises humans out of nature. By way of contrast, you have sought to deliberately challenge the distinction between human and nonhuman matter and instead emphasize points of commonality between them. Furthermore, many thinkers attribute a capacity for agency – and particularly the faculty for responsible (moral or ethical) action – solely to human beings. Again, by way of contrast, you draw attention to the fact that (despite their best intentions) the actions of human individuals often have effects beyond their intended consequences, and you suggest that forms of nonhuman matter possess agency to a certain degree. Indeed, one innovative (and highly provocative) element of your approach is that you do not restrict the notion of agency to humans alone. Do you think there is any distinction to be drawn between the human and the nonhuman in terms of a capacity for agency? By attributing agency to nonhuman matter is there not a danger that the criterion for responsible human action is dissolved?

BENNETT: I think that human agency is best conceived as itself the outcome or effect of a certain configuration of human and nonhuman forces. When humans act they do not exercise exclusively human powers, but express and engage a variety of other actants, including food, micro-organisms, minerals, artefacts, sounds, bio- and other technologies, and so on. There is a difference between a human individual and a stone, but neither considered alone has real agency. The locus of agency is always a human–nonhuman collective. One example I work with in the Vital Materialism book is the agency behind the electricity blackout in 2003 in North America (and later in the year, in Europe). The government and industry response in the US was to identify some human – some Enron executive or energy trader – who was responsible and then to punish him. Meanwhile, the relations between the infrastructure of the grid, the legislation deregulating energy trading, the structure of consumptive desire and the natural tendencies of electricity remained unchanged. The danger of blackouts remains the same. The fetish of the exclusively human agent and the tendency to define social problems as moral failures – and their implicit assumption that we are in charge – prevented us from discerning the real locus of agency and attempting to alter its configuration. I don’t say, then, that single, nonhuman actants are agents. I do say that agency itself is located in the complex interinvolvement of humans and multiple nonhuman actants, which together form an effective assemblage. So, an actant is any single force with the capacity to make a difference, and an agent is a more complex formation made up of a variety of actants. Humans too are emergent and complex phenomena, which means that the intervener does not fully pre-exist the intervention.

My point is really a pragmatic one: ethics and politics have more traction on material assemblages and the way they reproduce patterns of effects than they can have on that elusive spiritual entity called the ‘moral subject’.

KHAN: In The Enchantment of Modern Life you explore the power of commodities to enchant us. You agree with Marx about the mystifying nature of the commodity. However, you argue that his understanding of commodity fetishism – as well as Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1972) work on ‘The Culture Industry’ that builds up upon Marx’s analysis – is insufficient to explain the fascination with commodities and the power of advertising in contemporary capitalist society. As you see it, there is something extra in the modern desire for commodities that escapes the deadening power of mystification, and if I have understood you correctly your approach does not seek to eliminate the commodity form, but rather to reform commodity culture by making capitalism more ecologically sustainable and by drawing out the ethical potential with it. How would you respond to a leftist sceptic: can advertisements really generate ethical forms of behaviour when the objects they promote are likely to have been produced in the developing world under conditions of sweat shop labour and gross exploitation? Is it not true that advertising creates and generates desires whose fulfilment manifests as consumption patterns that are destructive of human life and the environment? How can your emphasis on the elements of enchantment in modern capitalism help oppressed people resist and challenge the superficial desires created by capitalist entrepreneurs and help bring about a more equitable society?

BENNETT: Since I had been arguing that cultural artefacts (and not only nature) had the power to enchant and that this power could become ethical, I wanted to examine a hard case: enchantment issuing from the commodified object. In particular, I focused on the GAP’s khakis pants, or, to be more precise, on the television advertisement for them where young men and women clad in beige material danced to swing music.

I don’t believe in God, magic, pantheism or the (almost-convincing) panpsychism defended by Freya Mathews in her For Love of Matter (2003) and Reinhabiting Reality (2004). I am a materialist girl living in a material world, and I take my enchantment where I can get it. When I watched the GAP commercial, I was enchanted. It animated in my body, and presumably in others, a certain pleasurable energy or vitality. But what kind of relationship did this affect bear to the intentions of its artistic creators? My answer was that, like electricity, the charged affect generated by the commercial was an unruly, swerving force, one apt to overflow the design of its corporate sponsor. This suggests that corporate capitalism cannot be all-powerful, and that the affective energy it generates might be put to other uses. For affects, once let loose or put into play, have a degree of independence from their creators. To be too committed to the idea that capitalism recaptures entirely all the forces it unleashes is to turn capitalism into a (perhaps evil) god and us into its servants or victims.

My aim was not to defend existing capitalism or even to idealize a more ecologically sustainable form of capitalism, though I do think it would be foolish to oppose the latter just because you favour more radical changes in the political economy. My goal was to explore how the mood of enchantment works: what were its tendencies, its typical path of development, its aetiology? How does it sometimes manage to activate or enliven human action?

In your question, you worry that even if enchantment can sometimes motivate acts of ethical generosity, doesn’t it matter whether the source or provocateur of enchantment is itself an ethical agent? Could generosity issue from an encounter with an advertisement designed to get consumers to desire khakis for this season only (designed, that is, as part of an economy of waste), and also designed to obscure from view the working conditions of the people who assemble the slacks (designed, that is, as part of an economy of exploitation)? My ‘yes, it can’ answer is based on a theory of affect as a wayward force able to ally itself with a wide variety of semantic contents and political projects. I also said that acknowledgment of the attraction of commodities needs to be combined with a commitment to reorganize work and the established patterns of consumption.

The point I elided when I wrote the chapter, however, was this: the promiscuity of affect means that it will also be unfaithful to any ethical re-deployment of it. I should have thought more about how to cope with or compensate for that fact, and because I didn’t, it sounded easier than it is to transform commodity enchantment into non-commercial or counter-hegemonic modes of activity.

What I continue to affirm is the way commercials, by technologically animating the materialities that we normally experience as inert, dead or beneath notice, pose a challenge to the life/matter binary, which is also at the base of the system of exploitation. I found in this high-tech refusal to depict matter as merely passive a potential ally in my own project to re-think what materiality is and does in the world. The infectious energy of the GAP ad issued from the moving human bodies on the screen, from the sounds and rhythms of the humanly composed music, but also from the khakis themselves.

This animism was what the ad men sought: viewers would associate vitality (or youth or life) with GAP khakis and, because vitality is attractive, desire the pants. This would not work were the dancing pants to be joined, in the full picture, by the exploited, fatigued and stressed bodies of the assembly-workers. But in calling its viewers to a pagan sensibility – to the childhood idea that matter is alive, that ordinary, nonhuman things have powers over us – the advert nevertheless produced affective effects in excess of its intentions or of the moral compass of its authors.

Let me end by saying that what I try to do when I write is to call myself and others to a different direction, to point to those uneven spaces where nonhumans are actants, where agency is always an assemblage, where matter is not inert, where man is not lord, where everything is made of the same quirky stuff. We regularly traverse these spaces but tend to pass through them without paying attention. To inhabit them more fully is to find ourselves speaking new words, having new feelings, taking on new postures and practices, making adjustments to the pace and scope and ranking of our encounters with the ‘outside’. I can’t predict what kind of politics would result from this. My hunch is that the grass would be greener in a world of vital materialities.



1. Bennett was in residence at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham between 14 and 18 May 2007. She was the keynote speaker at the 1-day conference ‘Stem Cell Identities, Governance and Ethics: Implications for Social and Political Theory’, which was hosted by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), and funded by the CSSGJ, The School of Politics and International Relations. She also took part in a postgraduate workshop on 16 May 2007 at the School of Politics and International Relations.


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Agonism, Pluralism, and Contemporary Capitalism

An Interview with William E. Connolly

William Connolly

William E. Connolly is a political theorist known for his work on democracy and pluralism and Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His book ‘The Terms of Political Discourse’ won various awards in 1999, and is widely held to be a major work in political theory. Connolly is also a contributing writer to The Huffington Post and a founding member of the journal Theory & Event. Connolly’s recent turn towards philosophies of ‘immanence’ and creative process will be on full display is his forthcoming A World of Becoming (2010). More here.

Mark Wenman is a Lecturer in political theory in the School of Politics and International Relations and Associate Dean in the Faculty of Social Sciences. He is a Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), and a member of The Analysis of Democratic Cultures Research Group.He completed his Ph.D. in the Ideology and Discourse Analysis Programme at the University of Essex in 2005, and before that he was educated at Birkbeck College (London), the University of Westminster, and Christ’s Hospital.

MARK WENMAN: Bill, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I would like to take up some of the themes we discussed when you visited Nottingham in 2007.1 Perhaps I can start by asking you questions about the development of your work and about how you see the different elements of your project fitting together. I will then move onto questions about your theory of ‘immanent naturalism’, and also your recent work on capitalism.

For a period of more than 30 years you have made important contributions to the discipline of political theory, you have engaged in many different debates, and — since the publication of Identity/Difference (Connolly, 1991) — you have developed your own distinctive ‘post-Nietzschean’ account of late-modern politics. One theme you have returned to repeatedly in your writings is the concept of ‘pluralism’. This has been of interest to you since your earliest publications — for instance The Bias of Pluralism (Connolly, ed., 1969) — and since the mid-1990s you have established your own account of ‘multi-dimensional’ or ‘network pluralism’: most notably in the Ethos of Pluralisation (Connolly, 1995) and Pluralism (Connolly, 2005). Over this period, the concept of pluralism has also undergone a remarkable series of developments in Anglo-American political thought more generally. In the late 1960s this term was associated with American political science, with the work of Robert Dahl, David Truman and others who were criticized by radical thinkers — including you — for their narrow conception of the political and their naive behaviouralist assumptions about the operations of political power. Subsequently, this term has undergone a renaissance, so that it is now used widely — and in a positive manner — by analytical liberals, deliberative democrats, and by those — such as you — who are inspired by post-structuralism. This development is surely related to the rise of identity politics and multiculturalism, as John Rawls would have it: we now live in a society defined by the ‘fact of pluralism’. However, we know from Friedrich Nietzsche that there is no such thing as facts, only interpretations, so could you please say something about your distinctive understanding of ‘pluralism’ and how it differs from these other approaches? What exactly is pluralism? And to what extent do contemporary liberal democratic societies approximate the ideal of pluralism? How have your thoughts changed on these issues over the past 30 years?

WILLIAM CONNOLLY: My thinking about pluralism has, as you say, shifted over the years, as I have encountered new events and have moved through intellectual encounters with Hegel, Marx, Wittgenstein, Taylor, and Hampshire to those with Foucault, Nietzsche, Deleuze and James. Early on, I sought to show how ‘the fact’ of pluralism was exaggerated and how this exaggeration also served to obscure inequality. Most pluralist theory focused on a diversity of interests brought to the ‘governmental arena’. It seemed to me that when the independent power of corporations and other elites to shape the world was combined with their governmental power to veto policies that might rectify the adverse effects of those initiatives, the stratification of power became more transparent. I was also concerned, along with Peter Bachrach and Steven Lukes, with the ‘other face’ of power ignored by pluralist theorists of the day, power as the ability to stop potential issues from achieving sufficient definition to reach the public arena for decision.

It soon became clear to me that these concerns suggested a significant revision of democratic pluralism rather than its replacement. The rise of gay rights movements in the 1970s helped to prod me to dramatize how resistance to diversity flows from the visceral register of presumptive judgment into more refined modes of argument. To me, pluralism includes several dimensions. First, a pluralistic society is not merely one with multiple interests. It is multidimensional, involving diversity in the domains of creed, sensual disposition, gender practice, household organization, ethnic identification, first language, and fundamental existential orientations. The activation of multidimensional pluralism helps to open up public arenas and to ventilate the internal life of numerous organizations. Gays bring pressures to bear upon their churches; church activists apply it to their work place; feminists bring it to bear upon both, and so on.

Second, a pluralistic society is marked by recurrent tension between already existing diversity and new movements that press upon this or that established assumption about God, freedom, identity, legitimacy, rights, and the nation. This torsion between the politics of pluralism and that of pluralization is constitutive. Those who think we already have access to a definitive list of rights, for instance, miss how new rights periodically surge into being through a complex political process. The right to sexual diversity, to gay marriage, and to doctor assisted suicide, precarious as each is, were not even on the liberal list of rights a few decades ago. Drives to install them were launched below the register of legitimacy. One could pretend they were ‘implicit’, but to me such an assertion insinuates more logic into social and political processes than their real messiness allows. Movements of this type uncover power sedimented into established practices of identity, rights, and creed. Such an insight eventually invites you to rethink the logic of morality itself, perhaps supporting a shift from a fixed morality of principle, replete with previously unstated ‘implications’, toward an ethic of cultivation as you become alert to new forces arising in the world.

Third, attention to the first two dimensions pressed me to come to terms with the need for a positive ‘ethos of engagement’ between diverse, interdependent constituencies. This is particularly pertinent to a world in which the secular separation between private and public is exaggerated and secular proceduralism is insufficient to itself. Such an ethos solicits participants to recoil back upon their most fundamental creeds or philosophies — the two terms now move close together for me — to affirm without existential resentment the profound contestability of each in the eyes of others. Many priests, theorists, philosophers, economists, and media talking heads find this difficult to do. Such a bicameral orientation to citizenship is fundamental to the politics of pluralism. It is more difficult in circumstances where numerous forces press militantly against pluralism itself.

Thus, the other side of the theory is that many of the same forces that create opportunities to extend and heighten pluralism today also intensify the anxieties of those who resent the presence of living counter-examples to their own identities, faiths and household practices. Today pressures to pluralize and to fundamentalize the present encounter each other. This is a struggle that goes on within as well as between us.

Those are some elements in my rendering of pluralism. I should say that I also believe that numerous contemporary forces — including the globalization of capital, the rapid movement of people, things and affects across official borders, and the growing income differentials between regions of the world — intensify pressure for pluralization within and across territorial regimes. Pluralism is also connected to other practices. For instance, drives to reduce inequality within a state today are not likely to be successful unless a positive ethos of engagement is negotiated between multiple minorities of different types. The aspirations to pluralism and equality thus speak to each other now, despite what those who treat the highly centred nation as a precondition of equality say. Under contemporary conditions, without an ethos of pluralism, the drive to equality falters as chauvinist elites use opposition to immigrants, gays, single mothers, Muslims, and atheists to turn back egalitarian pressure. Similarly, without pressure toward a more egalitarian society one support for a positive ethos of pluralism is pulled away. So pluralism and egalitarianism now set conditions of possibility for each other.

The very forces noted above also make it essential for more citizens to participate periodically in cross-state citizen movements to put pressure from the inside and outside simultaneously upon states, corporations, and international organizations. That means that today, both the scope of diversity and the sites of political action have expanded. You might call that the fourth house of pluralism, as I construe it.

WENMAN: The thinkers who appear to have had the deepest and most lasting impact on your thought (as it has developed since the mid-1980s) are Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. Their ideas have been at the forefront of your work, and your engagement with other thinkers — for example, Rousseau, Marx, Tocqueville — has been developed through the lenses of your explicitly ‘post-Nietzschean’ perspective. This has taken you further and further away from the concerns of the mainstream in Anglo-American political thought towards an interest in the politics of becoming, embodiment, and affect. Your positive reception of these thinkers also distinguishes your work from other strands within post-structuralism, for example those who are influenced by Derrida (with or without Levinas) and/or Lacan. The ideas of Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze resonate closely with one another; nevertheless there are also differences between them. Foucault was careful to avoid engaging in questions about the transcendental, while he strove to unearth the cultural and historical contingency inherent within established claims to truth and seemingly stabilized social practices. By way of contrast Deleuze has focused on the classical controversies of metaphysics, developing his own account of the fundamentals of Being, albeit one that remains intrinsically open and irreducible to the principle of identity. Could you say something about your understanding of the relationships between these thinkers? Presumably you see them as forming something like a coherent assemblage. But where do you see the critical points of tension between them? Has there been a development in your thought — perhaps over the past 7 or 8 years — away from the critical genealogy of Foucault towards Deleuze’s ‘transcendental empiricism’?

CONNOLLY: I encountered Foucault first, Nietzsche second, and Deleuze third. As these engagements unfolded, I found myself focusing on sites at which each complements or corrects the others. These complementarities and corrections, of course, are filtered through my own sensibility, as it has also been affected by them. So I sometimes lose a sense of where they fade and I begin. That is why, for instance, I occasionally speak of ‘my Nietzsche’, not always worrying too much about whether I am representing his work or drawing selective sustenance from it in the interests of my project. He, of course, commended this sort of relation to his work.

When I began to read Foucault in the late 1970s, my initial intention was to overcome the challenge he posed to my left Hegelianism, drawing some of his themes into a more encompassing and coherent theory. The idea, of course, was to show how he succumbed to a series of performative contradictions. That seemed to work fairly well when I engaged The Order of Things (Foucault, 1970). But it collapsed under its own weight when I read Herculin Barbin (Barbin, 1980). I then carried the shift in sensibility that began to accrue back to the first book and to The History of Sexuality (Foucault, 1979, 1986, 1988). Hearing Foucault for the first time at Dartmouth in 1980 helped. As I read Herculin Barbin, the autobiography of a 19th century hermaphrodite who committed suicide, accompanied by a series of journalistic, legal and medical reports on ‘her’ condition and a brief statement by Foucault, I experienced turmoil in my gut. That is, I sensed vaguely how my visceral understandings of normality and morality delimited my theoretical judgments. I was a carrier of judgments that contributed to a life of hell for Alex/ina, and many others too. I felt pressure to work on the images of normality, biology, ethics, freedom, and politics with which I was imbued.

It soon became less a matter of convicting opposing theorists of a series of performative contradictions, more that of working tactically on the visceral sensibility that infused my orientations to ‘immanent critique’, judgment, and politics. I eventually saw how often the charge against others of a performative contradiction involves a focus on one dimension of their thought joined to other assumptions unconsciously projected into it because you have not yet conceived of alternatives to them. How many theorists in the 1980s, for instance, convicted Foucault of contradicting in theory his own practical judgments without first coming to terms with his distinctive conception of ethics? If you treat a theory as a ‘problematic’, consisting of multiple, connected elements with loose ends, remainders and paradoxes, to that extent you see how the master tool of critique advanced by rationalists and dialecticians easily devolves into a mode of self-conceit. To change a theory involves many things, including work on the visceral register of prejudgment that becomes sedimented into as us as we breathe the air, absorb the culture, encounter new events, and experience bouts of suffering, rebuke, praise, and exaltation.

Foucault thus started me on a journey to challenge Kantian and neoKantian theories of morality with an ethic of cultivation, linking that to efforts to rework some affect-imbued prejudgments about biology, culture, and politics into which I had been inducted. Neuropolitics represents the latest upshot of those efforts (Connolly, 2002).

Nietzsche came second. I read him to challenge a series of dispositions of judgment lodged in contemporary culture and political theory. The question was whether it was possible to draw selective sustenance from his work without committing myself to every priority he embraced. Since Foucault and Deleuze had already started this process of agonistic indebtedness, as I came to call it, it did not turn out to be that difficult, even though I still occasionally encounter critics who say that Connolly ‘says’ Nietzsche was a democrat, or that he ‘domesticates’ Nietzsche. It is fascinating how many theorists insist that you must either swallow Nietzsche whole or spit him out entirely, even though they do not bring that same insistence to readings of Augustine, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Arendt, or Rawls. To me, such an inordinate demand expresses the desire to ward off the challenge posed by Nietzsche’s fundamental ontology before you have engaged it. So I have been selective, ascertaining as I proceed whether the insights selected can be folded into a problematic he himself did not entirely share. Nietzsche’s themes of time as becoming, nobility as a positive relation between multiple nobilities, the cultural dangers of ressentiment, a pathos of distance, the spiritualization of enmity, gratitude for being in a world of becoming, tragic potentiality, becoming your own guinea pig, the place of existential affirmation in ethical life, the ‘unequal’ as difference even more than inequality, the immorality of morality, the insufficiency of both mechanical and organic conceptions of nature, and the torsion at key ‘moments’ between being and becoming have all infected me. I rework those themes to draw them into a theory of democratic pluralism, doing so because classic theories of democracy, pluralism, and morality urgently need infusions from elsewhere today.

I did not turn to Deleuze until the early 1990s. I was dazzled by the way Difference and Repetition tracked and challenged the Kantian and neoKantian problematics at each critical point (Deleuze, 1994). Each time Kant encounters a flash point and resolves it in one direction, Deleuze first hovers over it like a hummingbird and then flies in a different direction. I later became fascinated with his work on capitalism, and after that, the groundbreaking work on film and time. His engagement with experimental films teaches us more about duration and time as becoming than philosophical analysis does by itself. Indeed, Deleuze mixes dramatization into analysis, showing us how new thoughts bubble into the world and helping to usher some in as he goes. If he is right about the complexity and irreducibility of the virtual/actual relation, dramatization is part of philosophy itself. In this he follows Nietzsche, who wrote in a cinematic style before the rise of film.

Deleuze has not been engaged often by analytical philosophers because many have a visceral commitment to the sufficiency of analysis that is challenged by his practice. On the other hand, it is fascinating how young Anglo-American philosophers with an analytical background are effective at bringing Deleuze to a wider audience. I mean those such as James Williams, Paul Patton, Jane Bennett, Dan Smith, and Nathan Widder with several others in the wings. For, again, the kind of philosophy Deleuze practices involves delicate variations in the mix between dramatization and analysis, depending on the assignment. It takes close analysis to identify the flash points in Kant. However, when Deleuze enacts the highest purpose of philosophy as he defines it — to introduce new concepts into life during a period of heightened disequilibrium in this or that zone — experimentation and dramatization gain priority. The point of the suggestion is that we live in a world of becoming, where periods of relative equilibrium in this or that zone are periodically interrupted by those of sharp disequilibrium. When the latter occur in a zone, we may need a new concept or two to help negotiate the terrain. Their invention involves dwelling in fecund moments of duration, as layered elements from the past reverberate in a new situation, sometimes encouraging something new to surge into being. That is why Deleuze is so taken with irrational cuts, flashbacks and crystals of time in films, as well as with the work of Proust, Bergson and, of course, Nietzsche. For, as already intimated, Nietzsche reintroduced the method of dramatization into modern philosophical discourse. Sophocles was a noble predecessor in that regard.

While I have paid more attention to Deleuze recently, my debt to all three is fundamental. Together they advance what I call a philosophy of immanent naturalism, placing it in contention with other philosophies of the day on the ontological, ethical, religious, and political registers. They help to set an ethic of cultivation into competition with the morality of duty; and they provide cues to follow as we enter into the live experiments upon the visceral register such an orientation suggests, both with ourselves through techniques of the self and with and others and ourselves together through micropolitics. Each plays up the visceral register of relational life while refusing to link it authoritatively to a divine injunction.

Sometimes, I find Deleuze to be too reckless, and Foucault becomes a valuable corrective. Sometimes, I become frustrated by the bellicosity or aristocraticism of Nietzsche, and both Deleuze and Foucault help out. Sometimes I think that Foucault’s engagements with discipline, normalization, and surveillance, invaluable as they are, do not address sufficiently the centrality of the media in contemporary life, and Deleuze once again becomes valuable. And if you seek to place the revolution in contemporary neuroscience into closer conversation with cultural theory, all three thinkers are useful, augmented by Bergson, Proust, Merleau-Ponty and James. Above all, these three join the vision of a world of becoming replete with tragic possibility to the commendation to cultivate further that gratitude for belonging to life and the earth that already simmers in us when we are lucky. For all three are concerned about the recurrent political danger of what Nietzsche calls ressentiment, a covert resentment of the terms of existence as you yourself conceive those terms.

I am a bit less drawn to Derrida and more wary of Lacan. I sense a tendency to authoritarianism or dogmatism in the latter and I pursue articulation of a more robust, dissident metaphysic than Derrida allowed. Interpretations in the 1980s and early 1990s of Nietzsche as a post-metaphysical philosopher have always seemed exaggerated to me. He is a philosopher of immanent naturalism, who challenges the Christian background of most theoretical stances in the history of the west. He also acknowledges that neither he nor his opponents has proven the philosophy embraced. That’s why he invites a ‘spiritualization of enmity’ between protagonists of different theo-metaphysical doctrines, while noting how many priests, theologians, and philosophers refuse the invitation. Perhaps I still have things to learn from Derrida and Lacan. Certainly, Derrida’s essays on white mythology, differance, violence, and friendship have touched me. I also appreciate his attempts to identify those pregnant points of ‘undecidability’. But since I emphasize the power of (what Deleuze calls) ‘passive syntheses’ that flow up into refined cogitation I suspect that we are already strongly inclined in one way or another at these very points. That is why micropolitics and macropolitics are both pertinent to the quality of democratic life, and why the drive to reach a point where we can acknowledge without resentment the deep contestability of our basic faiths too. I also see the point of the Levinasian focus on the face of the other. But as I understand him, at least, the experience of alterity is not extended sufficiently to our implication in and imbrications with nonhuman nature, perhaps because he resists the Nietzschean image of a nonhuman world set on multiple tiers of becoming to which we are joined by a thousand affinities, pressures, and dissonances.

WENMAN: One of the principal motifs of your work since the early 1990s has been the notions of ‘agonistic respect’ and ‘critical responsiveness’. In Pluralism you describe these as the ‘civic virtues’ appropriate to conditions of multi-dimensional pluralism (Connolly, 2005, 126). Elsewhere, you have said that these virtues resemble an ethic of cultivation rather than a command morality, but that this is an ethic that cannot be reduced to a fixed teleology. In short, you counsel competing social forces to strive to accept contingency in order to circumvent the ever-present temptation to seek revenge against others for the precariousness of their own identity and their most fundamental beliefs. This idea is indebted to Nietzsche’ reflections on ressentiment. However, you have turned these ideas in many interesting directions and given them your own inflection. Could you say something about how you first arrived at the notion of ‘agonistic respect’? What kinds of political conflict did you have in mind? Also, how does this concept differ from contemporary liberal theories of tolerance, and of the public/private divide? At times you have intimated that the widespread dissemination of agonistic respect would be sufficient to bind the diverse moral and cultural constituencies together in contemporary societies. Is this a position you explicitly endorse? Could you perhaps answer this question with reference to the current context, which has seen a rise in the level of conflict and antagonism since 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the so-called ‘war on terror’?

CONNOLLY: In Identity|Difference I sought to come to terms with how every identity, whether religious, gender, sensual, or ethnic, is defined in part against an array of differences. Not yet the register of difference as a swarm of virtual forces, but difference in its mode as the alter-identity you need to define to be. The most profound temptation of identity is to secure its self-certainty by negating, punishing, or conquering those differences that threaten its self-confidence the most by the mere fact of being in the world. Out of this living paradox, the ethos of agonistic respect emerges as a civic way to both affirm our own identities (for identity always has relational, collective dimensions), while providing presumptive space for different and sometimes contending identities to be.

The dynamic in question is clear in religious engagements. But it is both present and obscured from itself in secular practice and theory. The assumption of a set of rational public principles around which a diverse set of private faiths revolve misreads much about both private and public life. For instance, Christian notions of free will, freedom, punishment, gender, marriage, sexuality, and responsibility are active in each domain in Euro-American cultures, as they also flow back and forth across the porous membranes between them. The liberal idea of tolerance is set in a public/private matrix. It assumes that secularism can be sufficient to itself, even as it quietly smuggles its own substantive views into the public realm. That is how it depresses the agonistic element of public life. Everyone, says Rawls, participates in the image of justice he advances, while particular aspects of their comprehensive views can contribute to the overlapping consensus. In fact, however, everyone, including secularists, brings this or that chunk of faith into public life with them as they engage specific issues. It is not, to me, whether we do so but how we do so. In these ways hollow secular assertions of neutrality (and allied notions) have made a partial contribution to the theocratic responses they protest against. The point is not to accept the theocratic agenda, but to revise secularism.

The idea of agonism conveyed there has two sides: the disturbance it poses to constituencies that initiate these engagements and the disturbance to the others they address. Agonism as suffering and engagement.

In a political relation of agonistic respect, each constituency absorbs the discomfort posed by an alter-identity that challenges some of its own commitments, as it actively contests some assumptions and priorities of the other. It brings pieces of its own articles of faith into the public realm when it is pertinent to do so, and it recoils back on itself to acknowledge without deep resentment the comparative contestability of some of its fundamental articles of faith. This is where the respect side of the agonistic relation appears. So the popular coinage of ‘agonistic democracy’ does not suffice for me. ‘Agonistic respect’ emphasizes the torsion built into the heart of the relation. People ask sometimes from whence the element of respect arrives, if I do not endorse Kantian morality. But respect can flow from multiple theistic and nontheistic sources; it is a conceit to pretend that it can only come from one source. I know Buddhists who convey profound respect for the preliminary bearings of others, even as they contest some of them without embracing Kantian or neoKantian philosophy. It is difficult to cultivate the presumption to agonistic respect and to pursue such negotiations between constituencies. And it takes at least two parties to promote such a relation. But it does not usually take heroism. It is about as difficult as it is in the teleological tradition to cultivate the virtues of community. It is just that, in my view, that latter tradition dramatically overplays the potential for consensus residing in politics. In fact, we encounter examples of agonistic respect all around us, even as we face bellicose constituencies who seek to degrade and erase those very examples.

Critical responsiveness is the twin of agonistic respect. If agonistic respect speaks to relations between already established constituencies, critical responsiveness is a civic virtue to practice when a movement seeks to move an incipient identity, faith, right, or sense of the good from below the threshold of articulation, legitimacy, and justice onto those registers. ‘Incipient’ here means a pluripotential movement underway, rather than something that is implicit. Critical responsiveness speaks to the politics of becoming or pluralization, during those protean moments when it is in the middle of self-exploration and consolidation. When you are on the initiating side of becoming, your own feeling-imbued ideas and judgments often change as the movement unfolds. When you are on the receiving end you may find some sedimented judgments about nature, biology, morality, the good, rights, or the cultural limits of diversity jostled or disturbed by the new movement. By internalizing a portion of that disturbance you allow the injuries that occasioned the movement, your own assumptions about universality in one or two of the above domains, your presumptive care for the diversity of being, and your concern to redress suffering to reverberate back and forth for a time. On some occasions you may find your thinking about rights or identity loosening up in this way or that, allowing you to admit a new candidate onto the register of legitimacy, even if you yourself do not seek to exercise, say, the new right you embrace. Millions of people go through this ringer from time to time.

Theorists who equate morality with the provision of sufficient criteria to resolve each issue in advance dislike the open, exploratory character of this process. They want to close down the politics of becoming in the name of morality. But in the instances under discussion overweaning confidence in universality and closure is one of the problems. Perhaps you will eventually decide that some visceral dispositions need work under new, unanticipated circumstances, or that this same register alerted you from the start to a danger that you must resist. In a world of becoming — where periods of relative stabilization in this or that zone are periodically punctuated by more active disequilibrium — theory can often point the way but not settle the issue. At such a point you try to draw presumptive care for the diversity of being and sensitivity to a new, surprising situation into collaboration. Perhaps something creative will emerge from this gestation.

I do not think, however, that in a culture of robust pluralism everyone must accept the fundamental ‘contingency’ of things. That would make it less pluralistic. My theory has been interpreted this way before, though, and I must accept a portion of responsibility for that fact. I emphasize branded and sedimented contingencies as I challenge elements in philosophies of providence, extreme voluntarism, and genetic determination. But many others embrace a more fixed biology, the sufficiency of philosophical analysis, or a transcendent vision. They evince respect for others when they acknowledge the contestability of that creed in the eyes of others and enter into thoughtful, comparative engagements with them. The appreciation of contestability, not universal acceptance of contingency, sets a key condition of pluralism and pluralization. Its appreciation does not introduce mindless relativism into the world, as Straussians sometimes love to insist. For to say that a vision, faith, or philosophy is contestable is to admit that it can be challenged at numerous points, including new evidence, immanent critiques designed to press for clarifications, citations of unexpected suffering that it promotes, reference to other traditions that also make a claim upon the holder, and dramatization of loose strands of feeling and thought circulating in it that have not been heeded sensitively before. The number and variety of modes of contestation means that several traditions are apt to survive these engagements. It is also difficult to draw a definitive line in advance between acceptable and unacceptable candidates. At least previous attempts to do so have faltered. So you take these issues as they arise. The established terms of contestation may shift again when a new competitor arrives.

Would the widespread dissemination of these virtues suffice to produce pluralism? The most I can say is that they would help. Extreme inequality militates against pluralism, and so it sets a condition too. What else? Well, not too many things can be put up for grabs at the same time. That is because too much public disorientation in too many zones at once is apt to foster either a breakdown or the rise of an authoritarian regime, or each in turn. A certain fragility stalks the politics of pluralism, a fragility that Foucault became alert to in his later work. Much of the time, in the countries that I know best, pressures of the day point toward consolidation and preservation at all costs. That is why many of my critiques take on those arrangements. Nonetheless, we also live in a time when the acceleration of pace, the repetition of natural disasters, state and non-state terrorism, and a simmering culture of ressentiment, aids and abets attempts through the media-state-corporate-church apparatus to foment radical change from the right. The susceptibility of panic stricken constituencies to such pressures is a key danger of our time. At its best, the balance between pluralism and pluralization invokes a public life in which not too many things are thrown up for grabs at the same time.

September 11 was a big event in American life. Bigger and more ominous was the use by the Bush regime of the fear and loathing it fomented to launch the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The United States, under Bush and his corporate-evangelical-media allies, has become a very dangerous country. An attack by a rogue minority has been converted into a product called ‘Islamofascism’. The ethos of public life has been set back by the refusal to admit or care that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, the state use of torture, the expansion of domestic surveillance, and the progressive militarization of American life. The regime first inflated the threat it loves to hate and then helped to enlarge the phenomenon it purports to fight. The Bush regime could have tried to root out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, pushed very hard for an Israeli–Palestianian settlement, curried favourable relations with moderate Muslim regimes, consulted Muslim leaders of international stature, and opened new lines of diplomacy. This would have reduced the threat, made it unnecessary to exaggerate it, and protected the structures of open politics. I am fearful how the populace will respond to the fear and hate mongers when the next event of non-state terrorism occurs in the States.

WENMAN: Since 1999 you have been developing a materialist ontology of ‘immanent naturalism’ (Connolly, 1999). This is inspired by Deleuze to a considerable degree, but also by developments in contemporary physics and biology. You invoke the term ‘naturalism’ to point to a world without divine purpose or direction, and the notion of radical immanence denies any element of transcendence from a materialist universe replete with multiple energies and protean forces. Alain Badiou has argued provocatively that Deleuze’s philosophy is ultimately a philosophy of the One, of the ‘univocity of Being’, that — despite his persistent emphasis on multiplicity — the forces that make up the Deleuzean cosmos are all ultimately ‘local intensities of the One’ (Badiou, 2000). Of course, this is a form of Cosmological unity that remains open and is essentially irreducible to the principle of identity, but nonetheless resembles the Spinozan idea of the multiple qua the actualization of substance (Spinoza, 1955). Could I ask you to reflect on the significance of Badiou’s claims for your own work? Your conception of immanence is indebted to Spinoza, and in Pluralism you elaborate the idea of the ‘pluralistic universe’ understood as a single Cosmology. Is this ultimately a form of ontological monism? Or how do you conceptualize the relationship between ontological monism and pluralism? What are the political implications of this conceptualization?

CONNOLLY: I cannot respond intelligently to the question about Badiou, because I have not yet read his account of Deleuze. One suspicion is that he plays up the analytical side of Deleuze while downplaying the indispensable role of dramatization in his work. Perhaps that suspicion is unfounded.

Deleuze says somewhere that philosophical monists support ethical and political pluralism while dualists support more hierarchical, national conceptions of politics. This is better treated as a tendency in my judgment than a law; there are numerous positions that do not fit these tendencies. William James, for instance, embraces a trace of transcendence while contending that the universe itself is pluralistic (James, 1909). Strong dualists often do treat their reading of the Transcendent as authoritative and commanding, calling upon us to obey unchangeable laws, tame desires and passions at odds with them, and obey fixed terms of order. Does monism support pluralism? It may point in a variety of directions. Deleuze himself projects protean, energized forces into the basic composition of the world, moving him toward what might be called protean monism. This version of monism can be specified further by calling it immanent naturalism. It is only, however, when that philosophical stance is joined to a sensibility that overcomes visceral resentment of such a world that its pluralist potential begins to sing. Creed and sensibility, here as elsewhere, are interinvolved. So, it is also possible to find dualists whose sensibilities support a mode of pluralism.

I seek to render immanent naturalism as credible as possible, so that it can compete actively with the theo-philosophies currently circulating in public life. Immanent naturalism breaks with mechanical and eliminative modes of naturalism. It differs from the former in investing more vitality and volatility into the basic constituents of the world. Jane Bennett and Brian Massumi have explored this issue. It breaks with the latter by treating consciousness, ethical judgment, and artistic achievement as refined emergents in a universe of immanence. Just because thought and language have evolved from less refined modes of complexity, and still depend upon them, does not detract from their value. Such a philosophy, in fact, enlarges our appreciation of multiple affinities between us and other parts of nature. To me, it is helpful to work back and forth between leading philosophers of immanence, among whom I include Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze, others who fold a large dose of immanence into their experience of transcendence, such as James, Bergson, Taylor, and Whitehead, and a growing list of scientists who stretch classic images of science by concluding that we live in a world of becoming, among whom are Ilya Prigogine, Brian Goodwin, Stephen Jay Gould, and Lynn Margulis.

By a world of immanence, I mean a world of becoming in which the existing composition of actuality is exceeded by open, energized potentialities simmering in it. You can compare an immanent process, perhaps, to a stem cell just as it migrates to another zone to be fashioned into a blood, brain, or skin cell. The movement is replete with pluripotentiality but not infinite plasticity. In politics, too, the interplay is between the virtual and the actual waxes and wanes. This is what makes it possible to hover in a period of duration, allowing layers from the past to reverberate in an unexpected situation, to see if a new idea, judgment, feeling or intervention bubbles up for further tests and existential experiments. Immanent naturalism and time as becoming form two sides of the same philosophy. To a philosopher of immanence time itself is ‘out of joint’.

Of course an immanent naturalist does not anchor morality in transcendent commands or universal laws generated by a consummate subject. We support an ethic of cultivation and a generous ethos of engagement between diverse constituencies. The obligations, responsibilities, and guilt we experience are treated as second-order formations infused into our characters and intersubjective relations. Sometimes they provide us with invaluable cues from which to proceed; sometimes a new, surprising encounter may press us to work upon something in those dispositions. That is why an affirmative sensibility about the most fundamental terms of human existence itself is so important to cultivate and why a culture infused with the spirit of existential revenge is so dangerous. A Kantian infused with the spirit of ressentiment could easily interpret a principle so that it commands an ugly imperative, while one with a more noble sensibility will interpret it differently. A Spinozist who has encountered too many ‘bad compositions’ may parrot the ideas of Spinoza while expressing a sensibility of resentment and punitiveness. All these things were understood by Spinoza, and there are moments in Kant, too, when he talks about the importance of tactical work on the sensible register to prepare the self to accept the moral law. The examples given above are individual, but the issue is also collective. A noble or exclusionary ethos of engagement operates on several intercoded levels in a media saturated society.

These disputes between dualism and monism, and between a morality of law and an ethic of cultivation, are apt to remain with us in some form as long as human beings explore the human condition. They may have acquired another new twist, however, as work in neuroscience, biology, and evolutionary theory point toward new conceptions of nature/culture relations and breathe new life into the fecund idea of time as becoming.

WENMAN: In your early work — most notably The Terms of Political Discourse (Connolly, 1993; original 1974) — you developed a critique of the positivist idea (characteristic of the mainstream in American Political Science) that key terms — such as ‘power’ and ‘interest’ — can be operationalized in a neutral fashion. Since that time your work has moved in many interesting directions — for example, the work on the politics of becoming, on secularism, on neuroscience, and on the politics of ‘brain-body processes’. This has taken you far away from the concerns of the mainstream discipline of political science, which has become increasingly dominated by rational choice theory. Could you discuss your perception of developments in the discipline of political science over the period of your career? Where do you see the discipline headed in the future, and do you see prospects for greater diversification in the kinds of methods that are employed within the discipline? Can recent developments in political theory be brought to bear on empirical political science? For example, do you see prospects for your own approach — of immanent naturalism — to have a wider impact on the mainstream?

CONNOLLY: I started teaching political theory during a time when many behaviouralists insisted that ‘traditional’ political theory must be replaced by a new science of politics. David Easton was one leader; Robert Dahl presented a more muted version of that view. Dahl has since recanted, and he now emphasizes how complex politics is and how numerous the contingencies that shape it are. I wrote my dissertation in a predominately behaviouristic department in an attempt to crawl out from under that stone. The dissertation and the book that grew out of it were themselves more positivistic than I realized. I took another step with The Terms of Political Discourse, written under the influence of Wittgenstein, Gallie, Hampshire, and Taylor. At that time rational choice theory was making inroads in the profession. Its proponents took temporary cover when a group of philosophers, anthropologists, and theorists criticized these assumptions, only to return in a more formal guise 15 years later without, to my knowledge, really engaging those critiques.

Today political science is a mixed bag. In some departments, including the one in which I work, there is considerable interplay between people in comparative, IR, American politics, and theory. In others, theory is relegated to a ghetto. To me, the way to respond is not simply to oppose political theory to a rigid image of science. It is also to engage exploratory movements in the natural sciences themselves, particularly those indissolubly linked to cultural life such as biology, evolutionary theory, and neuroscience. When I started to address neuroscience several years ago, some friends in theory worried that I was going over to the dark side, and a few associates in political science politely suggested that I was getting in over my head. I was, certainly, over my head. But that research impinges upon central issues in cultural theory, particularly on how fears, anxieties, and positive aspirations can be communicated and amplified by multimodal means operating below the most refined intellectual capacities. Neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio welcome the interchanges between cultural theory and neuroscience. The more complex their conceptions of the body/brain/culture network become, the more they pursue engagements with contemporary theorists. Our debts to them are at least as important.

There is considerable interest in these issues in literary theory, anthropology, and geography. Political theorists can cultivate relations with these fields further, working to ventilate received images of science in political science as they do so. I speak from a fortunate departmental location in saying these things, but they may make sense nonetheless. I also doubt very much that immanent naturalism will take over the discipline! But it may make inroads among some political scientists discontented with the image of science into which they have been inducted.

What about the vocation of theory itself? It is fascinating how large ideas set to the side by many theorists for a few decades have now returned to the centre of attention. ‘Time’, ‘ontology’, ‘capitalism’, ‘nature’, ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’, ‘explanation’, ‘evolution’, ‘sovereignty’, and ‘the earth’ are just a few. Of course, each idea undergoes change as it resurfaces, and it is imperative to address several together under new conditions of being. More theorists see a need to extend the spatial, spiritual, and temporal horizons of our vocation as we explore positive possibilities of being under new conditions. All these things go together. The promise of theory grows as we move through debates between advocates of positive systems and practitioners of deconstruction to contending articulations of what might be called ‘positive problematics’. A problematic consists of a series of loose connections between multiple elements, falling below a tightly structured system and above a set of discrete ideas. Most canonical theories turn out to be problematics upon investigation. They include an ontological dimension without being reducible to it. A problematic can provide guidance as you intervene in events. Its revision, in turn, can be triggered by a variety of things: criticism of it; events that surprise you; new social movements that unnerve you; loose ends that now captivate you; a strategic concept in another field; and several of these in conjunction. Its mode of being means that it is open to contestation. To the extent that more theorists come to terms without resentment with the deep contestability of contending problematics, including their own, to that extent we can simulate in intellectual life the relations of agonistic respect urgently needed in politics. The relations between political theorists and political scientists might take another step forward as well. For the first thing a political scientist resents in a theorist is the disposition of intellectual conceit. And vice versa.

WENMAN: I would like to close with a question about your most recent work, where you have analysed the modalities of power characteristic of contemporary capitalism. You are interested in the affinity between economic interests and religious faith and especially the relationship between capitalism and Christianity. You explored some related issues in your early work — most notably in the Politicised Economy (Best and Connolly, 1976) — but these themes have not been prominent in your work over the past two decades. Why have you turned to these issues at this particular time? Are you concerned about the intensification of capitalist processes in the context of neo-liberal globalization, and related problems such as growing inequality and an intensification of the environmental crisis? You have said that the classical analyses of capitalism — Marx and Weber (e.g.) — are insufficient to conceptualize the current operations of capitalism, and that this requires instead new accounts of ‘emergent causality’ and of the capitalist ‘assemblage’. Could you say something about the development of these new concepts and how these differ from the classical analyses of capitalism? Also, how do you see the future development of these ideas in your new book?

CONNOLLY: I turned from The Politicized Economy, written with Michael Best, to questions of identity, pluralism, the visceral register of cultural life, and a new cosmopolitanism partly because I thought that political economy is never sufficient to itself and partly because political issues of the day pressed themselves upon me. The ‘detour’ took longer than I imagined as it opened more avenues than I anticipated. I did not guess at the outset that the new neuroscience would turn out to be so pertinent. Nonetheless, I tried to keep one finger on political economy, devoting chapters in some books to the issue. In the first book, we warned that a portion of the white working class could be captured by the right unless liberals and leftists changed course. Those warnings were updated in parts of later books (e.g. ‘The Politics of Reindustrialization’, ‘Fundamentalism in America’, and ‘Democracy, Equality, Normality’).2 The more robust return occurred as the Bush regime, the evangelical movement, and neoliberalism extended and intensified an assemblage that had already been formed in America, pushing investment priorities, consumption practices, church assemblies, think-tank enunciations, media polemics, and state policies in new directions. These changes affect both the United States and the rest of the world, as each American induced financial crisis shows. After the second election of George Bush — if you can call the first installation an election — it seemed imperative to take the measure of what might be called ‘the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’.

My new book begins by placing Deleuze and Weber into conversation about the nature of capitalism, with appearances by Marx, Fred Hirsch, and others as well. I move through those discussions to explore the intrinsic volatility of capitalism, both in its ‘internal’ mechanisms and its close imbrications with nature, science, education, churches, and the news media that periodically face their own moments of disequilibrium. I resist the suggestion that a specific spirituality only played a role in the formation of northern, European capitalism and that capitalism later became ‘disembedded’. There is no such beast as a disembedded economy. The idea that there is may be part of an academic drive to protect sharp boundaries between disciplinary fields. Rather, the ethos Weber identified in early capitalism, growing in part out of relays between an emerging formation and the Calvinist tradition, differs from that propelled by the evangelical and capitalist right today as its priorities become installed in theo-economic practices.

Today the right edges of evangelism and capital resonate together, with each pushing a bellicose spirituality that draws energy from complementary tendencies in the other. One discounts our responsibilities to the future of the earth by looking to its end amidst the fiery, divine punishment of nonbelievers; the other demands extreme entitlements for itself as it obscures the probable effects of its priorities upon the earth and collective future. Together they exacerbate popular resentments created by some features of late-modern life, including the growing minoritization of the world and the acceleration of pace in several zones of life. They also obscure the role that capitalism itself plays in fomenting these two effects, identifying a series of scapegoats to blame for the results. As these complementary drives resonate back and forth a machine emerges that is larger and more intense than the sum of its parts. The results become embedded in church sermons, media debates, sensual dispositions, investment priorities, electoral campaigns, consumption habits, state priorities, and the constant resonances back and forth between them. The term ‘resonance’ is thus not merely a metaphor to me. It, along with a larger family of notions, is designed to displace mechanical concepts of causality, to show how reverberations between various practices can set processes of self-amplification into motion irreducible to the triggers that launched them. That is, approximately, what I mean by emergent causality. The evangelical-capitalist resonance machine is an emergent formation.

To take on this machine is difficult, because it must be countered and reversed at so many sites. But it is essential to do so. One way is to search for openings and ambiguities within its core constituencies. Another is to acknowledge the element of faith in a variety of other existential stances, including the ones you and I adopt. Another yet is to advance positive themes and strategies that speak to the contemporary condition, seeking to recapture a segment of white working and middle-class males who defected to this machine in the 1980s. The goal, not realized entirely in this study, is to chart multiple sites and modes of communication adopted by the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine to help illuminate what it would take to create a counter machine today. The democratic left, for instance, has been tone deaf to the importance of micropolitics, while the right has been engrossed in such practices.

The study is one entry into intercoded practices that must be engaged in multi-disciplinary ways. Recent work in economic anthropology and economic geography is promising in that regard. New movements in theology and some churches are encouraging too. Today it is also essential to draw upon phenomenology, media analysis, and neuroscience to come to terms with how the media inflect the perceptions and dispositions embedded in investment priorities, consumption practices, foreign policy and electoral campaigns. The evangelical-capitalist machine works on all these fronts, even as it thumbs its nose at that kind of academic study. Those on the democratic left now see the need for that kind of study, but we often remain word strong and image weak. I include myself, certainly, in that judgment.

WENMAN: Bill, thank you for sharing your thoughts with me on these issues, and for your exemplary contribution to political theory. I very much look forward to reading your new book.


Badiou, A. (2000) Deleuze: The Clamour of Being, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Barbin, H. (1980) Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite, R. McDougall (trans.), New York: Pantheon.

Best, M. and Connolly, W.E. (1976) The Politicised Economy, Lexington: D.C. Heath.

Connolly, W.E. (ed.) (1969) The Bias of Pluralism, New York: Atherton.

Connolly, W.E. (1987) Politics and Ambiguity, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Connolly, W.E. (1991) Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Connolly, W.E. (1993 [ 1974] ) The Terms of Political Discourse, 3rd edn, Oxford: Blackwell.

Connolly, W.E. (1995) The Ethos of Pluralization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Connolly, W.E. (1999) ‘Brain waves, transcendental fields and techniques of thought’, Radical Philosophy 94(March/April): 19–28.

Connolly, W.E. (2002) Neuropolitics Thinking, Culture, Speed, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Connolly, W.E. (2005) Pluralism, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1994 [ 1968] ) Difference and Repetition, London and New York: Continuum.

Foucault, M. (1970) The Order of Things, London: Tavistock.

Foucault, M. (1979) The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: An Introduction, London: Allen Lane, Penguin.

Foucault, M. (1986) The History of Sexuality Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, Harmondsworth Middlesex: Viking.

Foucault, M. (1988) The History of Sexuality Vol. 3: The Care of the Self, London: Allen Lane, Penguin.

James, W. (1909) A Pluralistic Universe, London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Spinoza (1955) The Ethics, New York: Dover

SOURCE: Contemporary Political Theory 7, 200-219 (May 2008)

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Control and Becoming

Gilles Deleuze in Conversation with Antonio Negri

NEGRI: The problem of politics seems to have always been present in your intellectual life. Your involvement in various movements (prisoners, homosexuals, Italian autonomists, Palestinians), on the one hand, and the constant problematizing of institutions, on the other, follow on from one another and interact with one another in your work, from the book on Hume through to the one on Foucault. What are the roots of this sustained concern with the question of politics, and how has it remained so persistent within your developing work? Why is the rela­tion between movement and institution always problematic?

DELEUZE: What I’ve been interested in are collective creations rather than rep­resentations. There’s a whole order of movement in “institutions” that’s independent of both laws and contracts. What I found in Hume was a very creative conception of institutions and law. I was initially more interested in law than politics. Even with Masoch and Sade what I liked was the thoroughly twisted conception of contracts in Masoch, and of institutions in Sade, as these come out in relation to sexuality. And in the present day, I see Francois Ewald’s work to reestablish a phi­losophy of law as quite fundamental. What interests me isn’t the law or laws (the former being an empty notion, the latter uncritical notions), nor even law or rights, but jurisprudence. It’s jurisprudence, ultimately, that creates law, and we mustn’t go on leaving this to judges. Writers ought to read law reports rather than the Civil Code. People are already thinking about establishing a system of law for modern biology; but everything in modern biology and the new situations it creates, the new courses of events it makes possible, is a matter for jurisprudence. We don’t need an ethical committee of supposedly well-qualified wise men, but user-groups. This is where we move from law into politics. I, for my own part, made a sort of move into politics around May 68, as I came into contact with specific problems, through Guattari, through Foucault, through Elie Sambar. Anti-Oedipus was from beginning to end a book of political philosophy.

NEGRI: You took the events of ’68 to be the triumph of the Untimely, the dawn of counteractualization.2 Already in the years leading up to ’68, in your work on Nietzsche and a bit later in Coldness and Cruelty, you ‘d given a new mean­ing to politics—as possibility, event, singularity. You ‘d found short-circuits where the future breaks through into the present, modifying institutions in its wake. But then after ’68 you take a slightly different approach: nomadic thought always takes the temporal form of instantaneous counteractualization, while spatially only “minority becoming is universal.” How should we understand this universality of the untimely?

DELEUZE: The thing is, I became more and more aware of the possibility of dis­tinguishing between becoming and history. It was Nietzsche who said that nothing important is ever free from a “nonhistorical cloud.” This isn’t to oppose eternal and historical, or contemplation and action: Nietzsche is talking about the way things happen, about events them­selves or becoming. What history grasps in an event is the way it’s actu­alized in particular circumstances; the event’s becoming is beyond the scope of history. History isn’t experimental,3 it’s just the set of more or less negative preconditions that make it possible to experi­ment with something beyond history. Without history the experi­mentation would remain indeterminate, lacking any initial condi­tions, but experimentation isn’t historical. In a major philosophical work, Clio, Peguy explained that there are two ways of considering events, one being to follow the course of the event, gathering how it comes about historically, how it’s prepared and then decomposes in history, while the other way is to go back into the event, to take one’s place in it as in a becoming, to grow both young and old in it at once, going through all its components or singularities. Becoming isn’t part of history; history amounts only the set of preconditions, however recent, that one leaves behind in order to “become,” that is, to create something new. This is precisely what Nietzsche calls the Untimely. May 68 was a demonstration, an irruption, of a becoming in its pure state. It’s fashionable these days to condemn the horrors of revolu­tion. It’s nothing new; English Romanticism is permeated by reflec­tions on Cromwell very similar to present-day reflections on Stalin.4 They say revolutions turn out badly. But they’re constantly confusing two different things, the way revolutions turn out historically and peo­ple’s revolutionary becoming. These relate to two different sets of people. Men’s only hope lies in a revolutionary becoming: the only way of casting off their shame or responding to what is intolerable.

Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995)


NEGRI: A Thousand Plateaus, which I regard as a major philosophical work, seems to me at the same time a catalogue of unsolved problems, most particularly in the field of political philosophy. Its pairs of contrasting terms—process and pro­ject, singularity and subject, composition and organization, lines of flight and apparatuses/strategies, micro and macro, and so on—all this not only remains forever open but it’s constantly being reopened, through an amazing will to theorize, and with a violence reminiscent of heretical proclamations. I’ve nothing against such subversion, quite the reverse . . . But I seem sometimes to hear a tragic note, at points where it’s not clear where the “war-machine” is going.

DELEUZE: I’m moved by what you say. I think Felix Guattari and I have remained Marxists, in our two different ways, perhaps, but both of us. You see, we think any political philosophy must turn on the analysis of capital­ism and the ways it has developed. What we find most interesting in Marx is his analysis of capitalism as an immanent system that’s con­stantly overcoming its own limitations, and then coming up against them once more in a broader form, because its fundamental limit is Capital itself. A Thousand Plateaus sets out in many different direc­tions, but these are the three main ones: first, we think any society is defined not so much by its contradictions as by its lines of flight, it flees all over the place, and it’s very interesting to try and follow the lines of flight taking shape at some particular moment or other. Look at Europe now, for instance: western politicians have spent a great deal of effort setting it all up, the technocrats have spent a lot of effort getting uniform administration and rules, but then on the one hand there may be surprises in store in the form of upsurges of young peo­ple, of women, that become possible simply because certain restric­tions are removed (with “untechnocratizable” consequences); and on the other hand it’s rather comic when one considers that this Europe has already been completely superseded before being inaugurated, superseded by movements coming from the East. These are major lines of flight. There’s another direction in A Thousand Plateaus, which amounts to considering not just lines of flight rather than con­tradictions, but minorities rather than classes. Then finally, a third direction, which amounts to finding a characterization of “war machines” that’s nothing to do with war but to do with a particular way of occupying, taking up, space-time, or inventing new space-times: revolutionary movements (people don’t take enough account, for instance, of how the PLO has had to invent a space-time in the Arab world), but artistic movements too, are war-machines in this sense.

You say there’s a certain tragic or melancholic tone in all this. I think I can see why. I was very struck by all the passages in Primo Levi where he explains that Nazi camps have given us “a shame at being human.” Not, he says, that we’re all responsible for Nazism, as some would have us believe, but that we’ve all been tainted by it: even the survivors of the camps had to make compromises with it, if only to sur­vive. There’s the shame of there being men who became Nazis; the shame of being unable, not seeing how, to stop it; the shame of hav­ing compromised with it; there’s the whole of what Primo Levi calls this “gray area.” And we can feel shame at being human in utterly triv­ial situations, too: in the face of too great a vulgarization of thinking, in the face of tv entertainment, of a ministerial speech, of “jolly peo­ple” gossiping. This is one of the most powerful incentives toward phi­losophy, and it’s what makes all philosophy political. In capitalism only one thing is universal, the market. There’s no universal state, precisely because there’s a universal market of which states are the centers, the trading floors. But the market’s not universalizing, homogenizing, it’s an extraordinary generator of both wealth and misery. A concern for human rights shouldn’t lead us to extol the “joys” of the liberal capitalism of which they’re an integral part. There’s no democratic state that’s not compromised to the very core by its part in generating human misery. What’s so shameful is that we’ve no sure way of maintaining becomings, or still more of arousing them, even within ourselves. How any group will turn out, how it will fall back into history, presents a constant “concern.”5 There’s no longer any image of proletarians around of which it’s just a matter of becoming conscious.

NEGRI: How can minority becoming be powerful? How can resistance become an insur­rection ? Reading you, I’m never sure how to answer such questions, even though I always find in your works an impetus that forces me to reformulate the questions theoretically and practically. And yet when I read what you ‘ve written about the imagination, or on common notions in Spinoza, or when I follow your description in The Time-Image of the rise of revolutionary cine­ma in third-world countries, and with you grasp the passage from image into fabulation, into political praxis, I almost feel I’ve found an answer. . . Or am I mistaken ? Is there then, some way for the resistance of the oppressed to become effective, and for what’s intolerable to be definitively removed? Is there some way for the mass of singularities and atoms that we all are to come forward as a constitutive power, or must we rather accept the juridical paradox that con­stitutive power can be defined only by constituted power?

DELEUZE: The difference between minorities and majorities isn’t their size. A minority may be bigger than a majority. What defines the majority is a model you have to conform to: the average European adult male city-dweller, for example … A minority, on the other hand, has no model, it’s a becoming, a process. One might say the majority is nobody. Everybody’s caught, one way or another, in a minority becoming that would lead them info unknown paths if they opted to follow it through. When a ‘minority creates models for itself, it’s because it wants to become a majority, and probably has to, to survive or prosper (to have a state, be recognized, establish its rights, for example). But its power comes from what it’s managed to create, which to some extent goes into the model, but doesn’t depend on it. A people is always a creative minority, and remains one even when it acquires a majority^ it can be both at once because the two things aren’t lived out on the same plane. It’s the greatest artists (rather than populist artists) who invoke a people, and find they “lack a people”: Mallarme, Rimbaud, Klee, Berg. The Straubs in cinema. Artists can only invoke a people, their need for one goes to the very heart of what they’re doing, it’s not their job to create one, and they can’t. Art is resistance: it resists death, slavery, infamy, shame. But a people can’t worry about art. How is a people created, through what terrible suf­fering? When a people’s created, it’s through its own resources, but in away that links up with something in art (Garrel says there’s a mass of terrible suffering in the Louvre, too) or links up art to what it lacked. Utopia isn’t the right concept: it’s more a question of a “tabulation” in which a people and art both share. We ought to take up Bergson’s notion of tabulation and give it a political meaning.

Antonio Negri (b.1933)

NEGRI: In your book on Foucault, and then again in your TV interview at INA,6 you suggest we should look in more detail at three kinds of power: sovereign power, disciplinary power, and above all the control of “communication ” that’s on the way to becoming hegemonic. On the one hand this third scenario relates to the most perfect form of domination, extending even to speech and imagination, but on the other hand any man, any minority, any singularity, is more than ever before potentially able to speak out and thereby recover a greater degree of freedom. In the Marxist Utopia of the Grundrisse, communism takes precise­ly the form of a transversal organization of free individuals built on a tech­nology that makes it possible. Is communism still a viable option? Maybe in a communication society it’s less Utopian than it used to be?

DELEUZE: We’re definitely moving toward “control” societies that are no longer exactly disciplinary. Foucault’s often taken as the theorist of discipli­nary societies and of their principal technology, confinement (not just in hospitals and prisons, but in schools, factories, and barracks). But he was actually one of the first to say that we’re moving away from dis­ciplinary societies, we’ve already left them behind. We’re moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication. Bur­roughs was the first to address this. People are of course constantly talking about prisons, schools, hospitals: the institutions are breaking down. But they’re breaking down because they’re fighting a losing battle. New kinds of punishment, education, health care are being stealth­ily introduced. Open hospitals and teams providing home care have been around for some time. One can envisage education becoming less and less a closed site differentiated from the workspace as anoth­er closed site, but both disappearing and giving way to frightful con­tinual training, to continual monitoring7 of worker-schoolkids or bureaucrat-students. They try to present this as a reform of the school system, but it’s really its dismantling. In a control-based system noth­ing’s left alone for long. You yourself long ago suggested how work in Italy was being transformed by forms of part-time work done at home, which have spread since you wrote (and by new forms of circulation and distribution of products). One can of course see how each kind of society corresponds to a particular kind of machine—with simple mechanical machines corresponding to sovereign societies, thermo-dynamic machines to disciplinary societies, cybernetic machines and computers to control societies. But the machines don’t explain any­thing, you have to analyze the collective arrangements of which the machines are just one component. Compared with the approaching forms of ceaseless control in open sites, we may come to see the harsh­est confinement as part of a wonderful happy past. The quest for “uni-versals of communication” ought to make us shudder. It’s true that, even before control societies are fully in place, forms of delinquency or resistance (two different things) are also appearing. Computer pira­cy and viruses, for example, will replace strikes and what the nine­teenth century called “sabotage” (“clogging” the machinery) .8 You ask whether control or communication societies will lead to forms of resis­tance that might reopen the way for a communism understood as the “transversal organization of free individuals.” Maybe, I don’t know. But it would be nothing to do with minorities speaking out. Maybe speech and communication have been corrupted. They’re thoroughly per­meated by money—and not by accident but by their very nature. We’ve got to hijack speech. Creating has always been something dif­ferent from communicating. The key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control.

NEGRI: In Foucault and in The Fold, processes of subjectification seem to be studied more closely than in some of your other works. The subject’s the boundary of a continuous movement between an inside and outside. What are the political consequences of this conception of the subject^ If the subject can’t be reduced to an externalized citizenship, can it invest citizenship with force and life? Can it make possible a new militant pragmatism, at once a pietas toward the world and a very radical construct. What politics can carry into history the splen­dor of events and subjectivity. How can we conceive a community that has real force but no base, that isn’t a totality but is, as in Spinoza, absolute?

DELEUZE: It definitely makes sense to look at the various ways individuals and groups constitute themselves as subjects through processes of subjec-tification: what counts in such processes is the extent to which, as they take shape, they elude both established forms of knowledge and the dominant forms of power. Even if they in turn engender new forms of power or become assimilated into new forms of knowledge. For a while, though, they have a real rebellious spontaneity. This is nothing to do with going back to “the subject,” that is, to something invested with duties, power, and knowledge. One might equally well speak of new kinds of event, rather than processes of subjectification: events that can’t be explained by the situations that give rise to them, or into which they lead. They appear for a moment, and it’s that moment that matters, it’s the chance we must seize. Or we can simply talk about the brain: the brain’s precisely this boundary of a continuous two-way movement between an Inside and Outside, this membrane between them. New cerebral pathways, new ways of thinking, aren’t explicable in terms of microsurgery; it’s for science, rather, to try and discover what might have happened in the brain for one to start thinking this way or that. I think subjectification, events, and brains are more or less the same thing. What we most lack is a belief in the world, we’ve quite lost the world, it’s been taken from us. If you believe in the world you precipitate events, however inconspicuous, that elude control, you engender new space-times, however small their surface or volume. It’s what you call pietas. Our ability to resist control, or our submission to it, has to be assessed at the level of our every move. We need both creativity and a people.

SOURCE: Futur Anterieur 1 (Spring 1990), translated from the french by Martin Joughin.

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Filed under anthropology, ontology, politics, sociology

Marshall McLuhan: The Playboy Interview

::: from Digital Lantern :::

Marshall McLuhan

PLAYBOY: To borrow Henry Gibson’s oft-repeated one-line poem on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In — “Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin’?”

McLUHAN: Sometimes I wonder. I’m making explorations. I don’t know where they’re going to take me. My work is designed for the pragmatic purpose of trying to understand our technological environment and its psychic and social consequences. But my books constitute the process rather than the completed product of discovery; my purpose is to employ facts as tentative probes, as means of insight, of pattern recognition, rather than to use them in the traditional and sterile sense of classified data, categories, containers. I want to map new terrain rather than chart old landmarks.

But I’ve never presented such explorations as revealed truth. As an investigator, I have no fixed point of view, no commitment to any theory — my own or anyone else’s. As a matter of fact, I’m completely ready to junk any statement I’ve ever made about any subject if events don’t bear me out, or if I discover it isn’t contributing to an understanding of the problem. The better part of my work on media is actually somewhat like a safe-cracker’s. I don’t know what’s inside; maybe it’s nothing. I just sit down and start to work. I grope, I listen, I test, I accept and discard; I try out different sequences — until the tumblers fall and the doors spring open.

PLAYBOY: Isn’t such a methodology somewhat erratic and inconsistent — if not, as your critics would maintain, eccentric?

McLUHAN: Any approach to environmental problems must be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to encompass the entire environmental matrix, which is in constant flux. I consider myself a generalist, not a specialist who has staked out a tiny plot of study as his intellectual turf and is oblivious to everything else. Actually, my work is a depth operation, the accepted practice in most modern disciplines from psychiatry to metallurgy and structural analysis. Effective study of the media deals not only with the content of the media but with the media themselves and the total cultural environment within which the media function. Only by standing aside from any phenomenon and taking an overview can you discover its operative principles and lines of force. There’s really nothing inherently startling or radical about this study — except that for some reason few have had the vision to undertake it. For the past 3500 years of the Western world, the effects of media — whether it’s speech, writing, printing, photography, radio or television — have been systematically overlooked by social observers. Even in today’s revolutionary electronic age, scholars evidence few signs of modifying this traditional stance of ostrichlike disregard.


McLUHAN: Because all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment. Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it. It’s a process rather like that which occurs to the body under shock or stress conditions, or to the mind in line with the Freudian concept of repression. I call this peculiar form of self-hypnosis Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible.

This problem is doubly acute today because man must, as a simple survival strategy, become aware of what is happening to him, despite the attendant pain of such comprehension. The fact that he has not done so in this age of electronics is what has made this also the age of anxiety, which in turn has been transformed into its Doppelgänger — the therapeutically reactive age of anomie and apathy. But despite our self-protective escape mechanisms, the total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us — indeed, compelling us — to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious, toward a realization that technology is an extension of our own bodies. We live in the first age when change occurs sufficiently rapidly to make such pattern recognition possible for society at large. Until the present era, this awareness has always been reflected first by the artist, who has had the power — and courage — of the seer to read the language of the outer world and relate it to the inner world.

PLAYBOY: Why should it be the artist rather than the scientist who perceives these relationships and foresees these trends?

McLUHAN: Because inherent in the artist’s creative inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change. It’s always been the artist who perceives the alterations in man caused by a new medium, who recognizes that the future is the present, and uses his work to prepare the ground for it. But most people, from truck drivers to the literary Brahmins, are still blissfully ignorant of what the media do to them; unaware that because of their pervasive effects on man, it is the medium itself that is the message, not the content, and unaware that the medium is also the massage — that, all puns aside, it literally works over and saturates and molds and transforms every sense ratio. The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb. But the ability to perceive media-induced extensions of man, once the province of the artist, is now being expanded as the new environment of electric information makes possible a new degree of perception and critical awareness by nonartists.

PLAYBOY: Is the public, then, at last beginning to perceive the “invisible” contours of these new technological environments

McLUHAN: People are beginning to understand the nature of their new technology, but not yet nearly enough of them — and not nearly well enough. Most people, as I indicated, still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world. By this I mean to say that because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world. Because we are benumbed by any new technology — which in turn creates a totally new environment — we tend to make the old environment more visible; we do so by turning it into an art form and by attaching ourselves to the objects and atmosphere that characterized it, just as we’ve done with jazz, and as we’re now doing with the garbage of the mechanical environment via pop art.

The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day. In the midst of the electronic age of software, of instant information movement, we still believe we’re living in the mechanical age of hardware. At the height of the mechanical age, man turned back to earlier centuries in search of “pastoral” values. The Renaissance and the Middle Ages were completely oriented toward Rome; Rome was oriented toward Greece, and the Greeks were oriented toward the pre-Homeric primitives. We reverse the old educational dictum of learning by proceeding from the familiar to the unfamiliar by going from the unfamiliar to the familiar, which is nothing more or less than the numbing mechanism that takes place whenever new media drastically extend our senses.

PLAYBOY: If this “numbing” effect performs a beneficial role by protecting man from the psychic pain caused by the extensions of his nervous system that you attribute to the media, why are you attempting to dispel it and alert man to the changes in his environment?

McLUHAN: In the past, the effects of media were experienced more gradually, allowing the individual and society to absorb and cushion their impact to some degree. Today, in the electronic age of instantaneous communication, I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.

Because of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us — and thus win back control of our own destinies. The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process, and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot. It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present.

PLAYBOY: Will you trace that impact for us — in condensed form?

McLUHAN: It’s difficult to condense into the format of an interview such as this, but I’ll try to give you a brief rundown of the basic media breakthroughs. You’ve got to remember that my definition of media is broad; it includes any technology whatever that creates extensions of the human body and senses, from clothing to the computer. And a vital point I must stress again is that societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media with which men communicate than by the content of the communication. All technology has the property of the Midas touch; whenever a society develops an extension of itself, all other functions of that society tend to be transmuted to accommodate that new form; once any new technology penetrates a society, it saturates every institution of that society. New technology is thus a revolutionizing agent. We see this today with the electric media and we saw it several thousand years ago with the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which was just as far-reaching an innovation — and had just as profound consequences for man.

PLAYBOY: What were they?

McLUHAN: Before the invention of the phonetic alphabet, man lived in a world where all the senses were balanced and simultaneous, a closed world of tribal depth and resonance, an oral culture structured by a dominant auditory sense of life. The ear, as opposed to the cool and neutral eye, is sensitive, hyperaesthetic and all-inclusive, and contributes to the seamless web of tribal kinship and interdependence in which all members of the group existed in harmony. The primary medium of communication was speech, and thus no man knew appreciably more or less than any other — which meant that there was little individualism and specialization, the hallmarks of “civilized” Western man. Tribal cultures even today simply cannot comprehend the concept of the individual or of the separate and independent citizen. Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of “detached” literate man. Another basic characteristic distinguishing tribal man from his literate successors is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of time-space relationships.

PLAYBOY: What do you mean by “acoustic space”?

McLUHAN: I mean space that has no center and no margin, unlike strictly visual space, which is an extension and intensification of the eye. Acoustic space is organic and integral, perceived through the simultaneous interplay of all the senses; whereas “rational” or pictorial space is uniform, sequential and continuous and creates a closed world with none of the rich resonance of the tribal echoland. Our own Western time-space concepts derive from the environment created by the discovery of phonetic writing, as does our entire concept of Western civilization. The man of the tribal world led a complex, kaleidoscopic life precisely because the ear, unlike the eye, cannot be focused and is synaesthetic rather than analytical and linear. Speech is an utterance, or more precisely, an outering, of all our senses at once; the auditory field is simultaneous, the visual successive. The models of life of nonliterate people were implicit, simultaneous and discontinuous, and also far richer than those of literate man. By their dependence on the spoken word for information, people were drawn together into a tribal mesh; and since the spoken word is more emotionally laden than the written — conveying by intonation such rich emotions as anger, joy, sorrow, fear — tribal man was more spontaneous and passionately volatile. Audile-tactile tribal man partook of the collective unconscious, lived in a magical integral world patterned by myth and ritual, its values divine and unchallenged, whereas literate or visual man creates an environment that is strongly fragmented, individualistic, explicit, logical, specialized and detached.

PLAYBOY: Was it phonetic literacy alone that precipitated this profound shift of values from tribal involvement to “civilized” detachment?

McLUHAN: Yes, it was. Any culture is an order of sensory preferences, and in the tribal world, the senses of touch, taste, hearing and smell were developed, for very practical reasons, to a much higher level than the strictly visual. Into this world, the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell, installing sight at the head of the hierarchy of senses. Literacy propelled man from the tribe, gave him an eye for an ear and replaced his integral in-depth communal interplay with visual linear values and fragmented consciousness. As an intensification and amplification of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminished the role of the senses of hearing and touch and taste and smell, permeating the discontinuous culture of tribal man and translating its organic harmony and complex synaesthesia into the uniform, connected and visual mode that we still consider the norm of “rational” existence. The whole man became fragmented man; the alphabet shattered the charmed circle and resonating magic of the tribal world, exploding man into an agglomeration of specialized and psychically impoverished “individuals,” or units, functioning in a world of linear time and Euclidean space.

PLAYBOY: But literate societies existed in the ancient world long before the phonetic alphabet. Why weren’t they detribalized?

McLUHAN: The phonetic alphabet did not change or extend man so drastically just because it enabled him to read; as you point out, tribal culture had already coexisted with other written languages for thousands of years. But the phonetic alphabet was radically different from the older and richer hieroglyphic or ideogrammic cultures. The writings of Egyptian, Babylonian, Mayan and Chinese cultures were an extension of the senses in that they gave pictorial expression to reality, and they demanded many signs to cover the wide range of data in their societies — unlike phonetic writing, which uses semantically meaningless letters to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds and is able, with only a handful of letters, to encompass all meanings and all languages. This achievement demanded the separation of both sights and sounds from their semantic and dramatic meanings in order to render visible the actual sound of speech, thus placing a barrier between men and objects and creating a dualism between sight and sound. It divorced the visual function from the interplay with the other senses and thus led to the rejection from consciousness of vital areas of our sensory experience and to the resultant atrophy of the unconscious. The balance of the sensorium — or Gestalt interplay of all the senses — and the psychic and social harmony it engendered was disrupted, and the visual function was overdeveloped. This was true of no other writing system.

PLAYBOY: How can you be so sure that this all occurred solely because of phonetic literacy — or, in fact, if it occurred at all?

McLUHAN: You don’t have to go back 3000 or 4000 years to see this process at work; in Africa today, a single generation of alphabetic literacy is enough to wrench the individual from the tribal web. When tribal man becomes phonetically literate, he may have an improved abstract intellectual grasp of the world, but most of the deeply emotional corporate family feeling is excised from his relationship with his social milieu. This division of sight and sound and meaning causes deep psychological effects, and he suffers a corresponding separation and impoverishment of his imaginative, emotional and sensory life. He begins reasoning in a sequential linear fashion; he begins categorizing and classifying data. As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialties, creating division of function, of social classes, of nations and of knowledge — and in the process, the rich interplay of all the senses that characterized the tribal society is sacrificed.

PLAYBOY: But aren’t there corresponding gains in insight, understanding and cultural diversity to compensate detribalized man for the loss of his communal values?

McLUHAN: Your question reflects all the institutionalized biases of literate man. Literacy, contrary to the popular view of the “civilizing” process you’ve just echoed, creates people who are much less complex and diverse than those who develop in the intricate web of oral-tribal societies. Tribal man, unlike homogenized Western man, was not differentiated by his specialist talents or his visible characteristics, but by his unique emotional blends. The internal world of the tribal man was a creative mix of complex emotions and feelings that literate men of the Western world have allowed to wither or have suppressed in the name of efficiency and practicality. The alphabet served to neutralize all these rich divergencies of tribal cultures by translating their complexities into simple visual forms; and the visual sense, remember, is the only one that allows us to detach; all other senses involve us, but the detachment bred by literacy disinvolves and detribalizes man. He separates from the tribe as a predominantly visual man who shares standardized attitudes, habits and rights with other civilized men. But he is also given a tremendous advantage over the nonliterate tribal man who, today as in ancient times, is hamstrung by cultural pluralism, uniqueness and discontinuity — values that make the African as easy prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans. Only alphabetic cultures have ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social and psychic organization; the separation of all kinds of experiences into uniform and continuous units in order to generate accelerated action and alteration of form — in other words, applied knowledge — has been the secret of Western man’s ascendancy over other men as well as over his environment.

PLAYBOY: Isn’t the thrust of your argument, then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, as has generally been assumed, but a psychic and social disaster?

McLUHAN: It was both. It try to avoid value judgments in these areas, but there is much evidence to suggest that man may have paid too dear a price for his new environment of specialist technology and values. Schizophrenia and alienation may be the inevitable consequences of phonetic literacy. It’s metaphorically significant, I suspect, that the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragon’s teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men. Whenever the dragon’s teeth of technological change are sown, we reap a whirlwind of violence. We saw this clearly in classical times, although it was somewhat moderated because phonetic literacy did not win an overnight victory over primitive values and institutions; rather, it permeated ancient society in a gradual, if inexorable, evolutionary process.

PLAYBOY: How long did the old tribal culture endure?

McLUHAN: In isolated pockets, it held on until the invention of printing in the 16th Century, which was a vastly important qualitative extension of phonetic literacy. If the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell on tribal man, the printing press hit him like a 100-megaton H-bomb. The printing press was the ultimate extension of phonetic literacy: Books could be reproduced in infinite numbers; universal literacy was at last fully possible, if gradually realized; and books became portable individual possessions. Type, the prototype of all machines, ensured the primacy of the visual bias and finally sealed the doom of tribal man. The new medium of linear, uniform, repeatable type reproduced information in unlimited quantities and at hitherto-impossible speeds, thus assuring the eye a position of total predominance in man’s sensorium. As a drastic extension of man, it shaped and transformed his entire environment, psychic and social, and was directly responsible for the rise of such disparate phenomena as nationalism, the Reformation, the assembly line and its offspring, the Industrial Revolution, the whole concept of causality, Cartesian and Newtonian concepts of the universe, perspective in art, narrative chronology in literature and a psychological mode of introspection or inner direction that greatly intensified the tendencies toward individualism and specialization engendered 2000 years before by phonetic literacy. The schism between thought and action was institutionalized, and fragmented man, first sundered by the alphabet, was at last diced into bite-sized tidbits. From that point on, Western man was Gutenberg man.

PLAYBOY: Even accepting the principle that technological innovations generate far-reaching environmental changes, many of your readers find it difficult to understand how you can hold the development of printing responsible for such apparently unrelated phenomena as nationalism and industrialism.

McLUHAN: The key word is “apparently.” Look a bit closer at both nationalism and industrialism and you’ll see that both derived directly from the explosion of print technology in the 16th Century. Nationalism didn’t exist in Europe until the Renaissance, when typography enabled every literate man to see his mother tongue analytically as a uniform entity. The printing press, by spreading mass-produced books and printed matter across Europe, turned the vernacular regional languages of the day into uniform closed systems of national languages — just another variant of what we call mass media — and gave birth to the entire concept of nationalism.

The individual newly homogenized by print saw the nation concept as an intense and beguiling image of group destiny and status. With print, the homogeneity of money, markets and transport also became possible for the first time, thus creating economic as well as political unity and triggering all the dynamic centralizing energies of contemporary nationalism. By creating a speed of information movement unthinkable before printing, the Gutenberg revolution thus produced a new type of visual centralized national entity that was gradually merged with commercial expansion until Europe was a network of states.

By fostering continuity and competition within homogeneous and contiguous territory, nationalism not only forged new nations but sealed the doom of the old corporate, noncompetitive and discontinuous medieval order of guilds and family-structured social organization; print demanded both personal fragmentation and social uniformity, the natural expression of which was the nation-state. Literate nationalism’s tremendous speed-up of information movement accelerated the specialist function that was nurtured by phonetic literacy and nourished by Gutenberg, and rendered obsolete such generalist encyclopedic figures as Benvenuto Cellini, the goldsmith-cum-condottiere-cum-painter-cum-sculptor-cum-writer; it was the Renaissance that destroyed Renaissance Man.

PLAYBOY: Why do you feel that Gutenberg also laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution?

McLUHAN: The two go hand in hand. Printing, remember, was the first mechanization of a complex handicraft; by creating an analytic sequence of step-by-step processes, it became the blue-print of all mechanization to follow. The most important quality of print is its repeatability; it is a visual statement that can be reproduced indefinitely, and repeatability is the root of the mechanical principle that has transformed the world since Gutenberg. Typography, by producing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, also created Henry Ford, the first assembly line and the first mass production. Movable type was archetype and prototype for all subsequent industrial development. Without phonetic literacy and the printing press, modern industrialism would be impossible. It is necessary to recognize literacy as typographic technology, shaping not only production and marketing procedures but all other areas of life, from education to city planning.

PLAYBOY: You seem to be contending that practically every aspect of modern life is a direct consequence of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

McLUHAN: Every aspect of Western mechanical culture was shaped by print technology, but the modern age is the age of the electric media, which forge environments and cultures antithetical to the mechanical consumer society derived from print. Print tore man out of his traditional cultural matrix while showing him how to pile individual upon individual into a massive agglomeration of national and industrial power, and the typographic trance of the West has endured until today, when the electronic media are at last demesmerizing us. The Gutenberg Galaxy is being eclipsed by the constellation of Marconi.

PLAYBOY: You’ve discussed that constellation in general terms, but what precisely are the electric media that you contend have supplanted the old mechanical technology?

McLUHAN: The electric media are the telegraph, radio, films, telephone, computer and television, all of which have not only extended a single sense or function as the old mechanical media did — i.e., the wheel as an extension of the foot, clothing as an extension of the skin, the phonetic alphabet as an extension of the eye — but have enhanced and externalized our entire central nervous systems, thus transforming all aspects of our social and psychic existence. The use of the electronic media constitutes a break boundary between fragmented Gutenberg man and integral man, just as phonetic literacy was a break boundary between oral-tribal man and visual man.

In fact, today we can look back at 3000 years of differing degrees of visualization, atomization and mechanization and at last recognize the mechanical age as an interlude between two great organic eras of culture. The age of print, which held sway from approximately 1500 to 1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media, and further obsequies were registered by the perception of “curved space” and non-Euclidean mathematics in the early years of the century, which revived tribal man’s discontinuous time-space concepts — and which even Spengler dimly perceived as the death knell of Western literate values. The development of telephone, radio, film, television and the computer have driven further nails into the coffin. Today, television is the most significant of the electric media because it permeates nearly every home in the country, extending the central nervous system of every viewer as it works over and molds the entire sensorium with the ultimate message. It is television that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology, although each of the other electric media have played contributing roles.

PLAYBOY: But isn’t television itself a primarily visual medium?

McLUHAN: No, it’s quite the opposite, although the idea that TV is a visual extension is an understandable mistake. Unlike film or photograph, television is primarily an extension of the sense of touch rather than of sight, and it is the tactile sense that demands the greatest interplay of all the senses. The secret of TV’s tactile power is that the video image is one of low intensity or definition and thus, unlike either photograph or film, offers no detailed information about specific objects but instead involves the active participation of the viewer. The TV image is a mosaic mesh not only of horizontal lines but of millions of tiny dots, of which the viewer is physiologically able to pick up only 50 or 60 from which he shapes the image; thus he is constantly filling in vague and blurry images, bringing himself into in-depth involvement with the screen and acting out a constant creative dialog with the iconoscope. The contours of the resultant cartoonlike image are fleshed out within the imagination of the viewer, which necessitates great personal involvement and participation; the viewer, in fact, becomes the screen, whereas in film he becomes the camera. By requiring us to constantly fill in the spaces of the mosaic mesh, the iconoscope is tattooing its message directly on our skins. Each viewer is thus an unconscious pointillist painter like Seurat, limning new shapes and images as the iconoscope washes over his entire body. Since the point of focus for a TV set is the viewer, television is Orientalizing us by causing us all to begin to look within ourselves. The essence of TV viewing is, in short, intense participation and low definition — what I call a “cool” experience, as opposed to an essentially “hot,” or high definition-low participation, medium like radio.

PLAYBOY: A good deal of the perplexity surrounding your theories is related to this postulation of hot and cool media. Could you give us a brief definition of each?

McLUHAN: Basically, a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes; hot media are low in participation, or completion, by the audience and cool media are high in participation. A hot medium is one that extends a single sense with high definition. High definition means a complete filling in of data by the medium without intense audience participation. A photograph, for example, is high definition or hot; whereas a cartoon is low definition or cool, because the rough outline drawing provides very little visual data and requires the viewer to fill in or complete the image himself. The telephone, which gives the ear relatively little data, is thus cool, as is speech; both demand considerable filling in by the listener. On the other hand, radio is a hot medium because it sharply and intensely provides great amounts of high-definition auditory information that leaves little or nothing to be filled in by the audience. A lecture, by the same token, is hot, but a seminar is cool; a book is hot, but a conversation or bull session is cool.

In a cool medium, the audience is an active constituent of the viewing or listening experience. A girl wearing open-mesh silk stockings or glasses is inherently cool and sensual because the eye acts as a surrogate hand in filling in the low-definition image thus engendered. Which is why boys make passes at girls who wear glasses. In any case, the overwhelming majority of our technologies and entertainments since the introduction of print technology have been hot, fragmented and exclusive, but in the age of television we see a return to cool values and the inclusive in-depth involvement and participation they engender. This is, of course, just one more reason why the medium is the message, rather than the content; it is the participatory nature of the TV experience itself that is important, rather than the content of the particular TV image that is being invisibly and indelibly inscribed on our skins.

PLAYBOY: Even if, as you contend, the medium is the ultimate message, how can you entirely discount the importance of content? Didn’t the content of Hitler’s radio speeches, for example, have some effect on the Germans?

McLUHAN: By stressing that the medium is the message rather than the content, I’m not suggesting that content plays no role — merely that it plays a distinctly subordinate role. Even if Hitler had delivered botany lectures, some other demagog would have used the radio to retribalize the Germans and rekindle the dark atavistic side of the tribal nature that created European fascism in the Twenties and Thirties. By placing all the stress on content and practically none on the medium, we lose all chance of perceiving and influencing the impact of new technologies on man, and thus we are always dumfounded by — and unprepared for — the revolutionary environmental transformations induced by new media. Buffeted by environmental changes he cannot comprehend, man echoes the last plaintive cry of his tribal ancestor, Tarzan, as he plummeted to earth: “Who greased my vine?” The German Jew victimized by the Nazis because his old tribalism clashed with their new tribalism could no more understand why his world was turned upside down than the American today can understand the reconfiguration of social and political institutions caused by the electric media in general and television in particular.

PLAYBOY: How is television reshaping our political institutions?

McLUHAN: TV is revolutionizing every political system in the Western world. For one thing, it’s creating a totally new type of national leader, a man who is much more of a tribal chieftain than a politician. Castro is a good example of the new tribal chieftain who rules his country by a mass-participational TV dialog and feedback; he governs his country on camera, by giving the Cuban people the experience of being directly and intimately involved in the process of collective decision making. Castro’s adroit blend of political education, propaganda and avuncular guidance is the pattern for tribal chieftains in other countries. The new political showman has to literally as well as figuratively put on his audience as he would a suit of clothes and become a corporate tribal image — like Mussolini, Hitler and F.D.R. in the days of radio, and Jack Kennedy in the television era. All these men were tribal emperors on a scale theretofore unknown in the world, because they all mastered their media.

PLAYBOY: How did Kennedy use TV in a manner different from his predecessors — or successors?

McLUHAN: Kennedy was the first TV President because he was the first prominent American politician to ever understand the dynamics and lines of force of the television iconoscope. As I’ve explained, TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to TV. Any political candidate who doesn’t have such cool, low definition qualities, which allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with his own personal identification, simply electrocutes himself on television — as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. Nixon was essentially hot; he presented a high-definition, sharply-defined image and action on the TV screen that contributed to his reputation as a phony — the “Tricky Dicky” syndrome that has dogged his footsteps for years. “Would you buy a used car from this man?” the political cartoon asked — and the answer was no, because he didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

PLAYBOY: Did Nixon take any lessons from you the last time around?

McLUHAN: He certainly took lessons from somebody, because in the recent election it was Nixon who was cool and Humphrey who was hot. I had noticed the change in Nixon as far back as 1963 when I saw him on The Jack Paar Show. No longer the slick, glib, aggressive Nixon of 1960, he had been toned down, polished, programmed and packaged into the new Nixon we saw in 1968: earnest, modest, quietly sincere — in a word, cool. I realized then that if Nixon maintained this mask, he could be elected President, and apparently the American electorate agreed last November.

PLAYBOY: How did Lyndon Johnson make use of television?

McLUHAN: He botched it the same way Nixon did in 1960. He was too intense, too obsessed with making his audience love and revere him as father and teacher, and too classifiable. Would people feel any safer buying a used car from L.B.J. than from the old Nixon? The answer is, obviously, no. Johnson became a stereotype — even a parody — of himself, and earned the same reputation as a phony that plagued Nixon for so long. The people wouldn’t have cared if John Kennedy lied to them on TV, but they couldn’t stomach L.B.J. even when he told the truth. The credibility gap was really a communications gap. The political candidate who understands TV — whatever his party, goals or beliefs — can gain power unknown in history. How he uses that power is, of course, quite another question. But the basic thing to remember about the electric media is that they inexorably transform every sense ratio and thus recondition and restructure all our values and institutions. The overhauling of our traditional political system is only one manifestation of the retribalizing process wrought by the electric media, which is turning the planet into a global village.

PLAYBOY: Would you describe this retribalizing process in more detail?

McLUHAN: The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems, which I spoke of earlier, are immersing us in a world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence — violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.

PLAYBOY: Do you relate this identity crisis to the current social unrest and violence in the United States?

McLUHAN: Yes, and to the booming business psychiatrists are doing. All our alienation and atomization are reflected in the crumbling of such time-honored social values as the right of privacy and the sanctity of the individual; as they yield to the intensities of the new technology’s electric circus, it seems to the average citizen that the sky is falling in. As man is tribally metamorphosed by the electric media, we all become Chicken Littles, scurrying around frantically in search of our former identities, and in the process unleash tremendous violence. As the preliterate confronts the literate in the postliterate arena, as new information patterns inundate and uproot the old, mental breakdowns of varying degrees — including the collective nervous breakdowns of whole societies unable to resolve their crises of identity — will become very common.

It is not an easy period in which to live, especially for the television-conditioned young who, unlike their literate elders, cannot take refuge in the zombie trance of Narcissus narcosis that numbs the state of psychic shock induced by the impact of the new media. From Tokyo to Paris to Columbia, youth mindlessly acts out its identity quest in the theater of the streets, searching not for goals but for roles, striving for an identity that eludes them.

PLAYBOY: Why do you think they aren’t finding it within the educational system?

McLUHAN: Because education, which should be helping youth to understand and adapt to their revolutionary new environments, is instead being used merely as an instrument of cultural aggression, imposing upon retribalized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age. Our entire educational system is reactionary, oriented to past values and past technologies, and will likely continue so until the old generation relinquishes power. The generation gap is actually a chasm, separating not two age groups but two vastly divergent cultures. I can understand the ferment in our schools, because our educational system is totally rearview mirror. It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation.

PLAYBOY: How do you think the educational system can be adapted to accommodate the needs of this television generation?

McLUHAN: Well, before we can start doing things the right way, we’ve got to recognize that we’ve been doing them the wrong way — which most pedagogs and administrators and even most parents still refuse to accept. Today’s child is growing up absurd because he is suspended between two worlds and two value systems, neither of which inclines him to maturity because he belongs wholly to neither but exists in a hybrid limbo of constantly conflicting values. The challenge of the new era is simply the total creative process of growing up — and mere teaching and repetition of facts are as irrelevant to this process as a dowser to a nuclear power plant. To expect a “turned on” child of the electric age to respond to the old education modes is rather like expecting an eagle to swim. It’s simply not within his environment, and therefore incomprehensible.

The TV child finds if difficult if not impossible to adjust to the fragmented, visual goals of our education after having had all his senses involved by the electric media; he craves in-depth involvement, not linear detachment and uniform sequential patterns. But suddenly and without preparation, he is snatched from the cool, inclusive womb of television and exposed — within a vast bureaucratic structure of courses and credits — to the hot medium of print. His natural instinct, conditioned by the electric media, is to bring all his senses to bear on the book he’s instructed to read, and print resolutely rejects that approach, demanding an isolated visual attitude to learning rather than the Gestalt approach of the unified sensorium. The reading postures of children in elementary school are a pathetic testimonial to the effects of television; children of the TV generation separate book from eye by an average distance of four and a half inches, attempting psychomimetically to bring to the printed page the all-inclusive sensory experience of TV. They are becoming Cyclops, desperately seeking to wallow in the book as they do in the TV screen.

PLAYBOY: Might it be possible for the “TV child” to make the adjustment to his educational environment by synthesizing traditional literate-visual forms with the insights of his own electric culture — or must the medium of print be totally unassimilable for him?

McLUHAN: Such a synthesis is entirely possible, and could create a creative blend of the two cultures — if the educational establishment was aware that there is an electric culture. In the absence of such elementary awareness, I’m afraid that the television child has no future in our schools. You must remember that the TV child has been relentlessly exposed to all the “adult” news of the modern world — war, racial discrimination, rioting, crime, inflation, sexual revolution. The war in Vietnam has written its bloody message on his skin; he has witnessed the assassinations and funerals of the nation’s leaders; he’s been orbited through the TV screen into the astronaut’s dance in space, been inundated by information transmitted via radio, telephone, films, recordings and other people. His parents plopped him down in front of a TV set at the age of two to tranquilize him, and by the time he enters kindergarten, he’s clocked as much as 4000 hours of television. As an IBM executive told me, “My children had lived several lifetimes compared to their grandparents when they began grade one.”

PLAYBOY: If you had children young enough to belong to the TV generation, how would you educate them?

McLUHAN: Certainly not in our current schools, which are intellectual penal institutions. In today’s world, to paraphrase Jefferson, the least education is the best education, since very few young minds can survive the intellectual tortures of our educational system. The mosaic image of the TV screen generates a depth-involving nowness and simultaneity in the lives of children that makes them scorn the distant visualized goals of traditional education as unreal, irrelevant and puerile. Another basic problem is that in our schools there is simply too much to learn by the traditional analytic methods; this is an age of information overload. The only way to make the schools other than prisons without bars is to start fresh with new techniques and values.

PLAYBOY: A number of experimental projects are bringing both TV and computers directly into the classrooms. Do you consider this sort of electronic educational aid a step in the right direction?

McLUHAN: It’s not really too important if there is ever a TV set in each classroom across the country, since the sensory and attitudinal revolution has already taken place at home before the child ever reaches school, altering his sensory existence and his mental processes in profound ways. Book learning is no longer sufficient in any subject; the children all say now, “Let’s talk Spanish,” or “Let the Bard be heard,” reflecting their rejection of the old sterile system where education begins and ends in a book. What we need now is educational crash programing in depth to first understand and then meet the new challenges. Just putting the present classroom on TV, with its archaic values and methods, won’t change anything; it would be just like running movies on television; the result would be a hybrid that is neither. We have to ask what TV can do, in the instruction of English or physics or any other subject, that the classroom cannot do as presently constituted. The answer is that TV can deeply involve youth in the process of learning, illustrating graphically the complex interplay of people and events, the development of forms, the multileveled interrelationships between and among such arbitrarily segregated subjects as biology, geography, mathematics, anthropology, history, literature and languages.

If education is to become relevant to the young of this electric age, we must also supplant the stifling, impersonal and dehumanizing multiversity with a multiplicity of autonomous colleges devoted to an in-depth approach to learning. This must be done immediately, for few adults really comprehend the intensity of youth’s alienation from the fragmented mechanical world and its fossilized educational system, which is designed in their minds solely to fit them into classified slots in bureaucratic society. To them, both draft card and degree are passports to psychic, if not physical, oblivion, and they accept neither. A new generation is alienated from its own 3000-year heritage of literacy and visual culture, and the celebration of literate values in home and school only intensifies that alienation. If we don’t adapt our educational system to their needs and values, we will see only more dropouts and more chaos.

PLAYBOY: Do you think the surviving hippie subculture is a reflection of youth’s rejection of the values of our mechanical society?

McLUHAN: Of course. These kids are fed up with jobs and goals, and are determined to forget their own roles and involvement in society. They want nothing to do with our fragmented and specialist consumer society. Living in the transitional identity vacuum between two great antithetical cultures, they are desperately trying to discover themselves and fashion a mode of existence attuned to their new values; thus the stress on developing an “alternate life style.” We can see the results of this retribalization process whenever we look at any of our youth — not just at hippies. Take the field of fashion, for example, which now finds boys and girls dressing alike and wearing their hair alike, reflecting the unisexuality deriving from the shift from visual to tactile. The younger generation’s whole orientation is toward a return to the native, as reflected by their costumes, their music, their long hair and their sociosexual behavior. Our teenage generation is already becoming part of a jungle clan. As youth enters this clan world and all their senses are electrically extended and intensified, there is a corresponding amplification of their sexual sensibilities. Nudity and unabashed sexuality are growing in the electric age because as TV tattoos its message directly on our skins, it renders clothing obsolescent and a barrier, and the new tactility makes it natural for kids to constantly touch one another — as reflected by the button sold in the psychedelic shops: IF IT MOVES, FONDLE IT. The electric media, by stimulating all the senses simultaneously, also give a new and richer sensual dimension to everyday sexuality that makes Henry Miller’s style of randy rutting old-fashioned and obsolete. Once a society enters the all-involving tribal mode, it is inevitable that our attitudes toward sexuality change. We see, for example, the ease with which young people live guiltlessly with one another, or, as among the hippies, in communal mènages. This is completely tribal.

PLAYBOY: But aren’t most tribal societies sexually restrictive rather than permissive?

McLUHAN: Actually, they’re both. Virginity is not, with a few exceptions, the tribal style in most primitive societies; young people tend to have total sexual access to one another until marriage. But after marriage, the wife becomes a jealously guarded possession and adultery a paramount sin. It’s paradoxical that in the transition to a retribalized society, there is inevitably a great explosion of sexual energy and freedom; but when that society is fully realized, moral values will be extremely tight. In an integrated tribal society, the young will have free rein to experiment, but marriage and the family will become inviolate institutions, and infidelity and divorce will constitute serious violations of the social bond, not a private deviation but a collective insult and loss of face to the entire tribe. Tribal societies, unlike detribalized, fragmented cultures with their stress on individualist values, are extremely austere morally, and do not hesitate to destroy or banish those who offend the tribal values. This is rather harsh, of course, but at the same time, sexuality can take on new and richer dimensions of depth involvement in a tribalized society.

Today, meanwhile, as the old values collapse and we see an exhilarating release of pent-up sexual frustrations, we are all inundated by a tidal wave of emphasis on sex. Far from liberating the libido, however, such onslaughts seem to have induced jaded attitudes and a kind of psychosexual Weltschmerz. No sensitivity of sensual response can survive such an assault, which stimulates the mechanical view of the body as capable of experiencing specific thrills, but not total sexual-emotional involvement and transcendence. It contributes to the schism between sexual enjoyment and reproduction that is so prevalent, and also strengthens the case for homosexuality. Projecting current trends, the love machine would appear a natural development in the near future — not just the current computerized datefinder, but a machine whereby ultimate orgasm is achieved by direct mechanical stimulation of the pleasure circuits of the brain.

PLAYBOY: Do we detect a note of disapproval in your analysis of the growing sexual freedom?

McLUHAN: No, I neither approve nor disapprove. I merely try to understand. Sexual freedom is as natural to newly tribalized youth as drugs.

PLAYBOY: What’s natural about drugs?

McLUHAN: They’re natural means of smoothing cultural transitions, and also a short cut into the electric vortex. The upsurge in drug taking is intimately related to the impact of the electric media. Look at the metaphor for getting high: turning on. One turns on his consciousness through drugs just as he opens up all his senses to a total depth involvement by turning on the TV dial. Drug taking is stimulated by today’s pervasive environment of instant information, with its feedback mechanism of the inner trip. The inner trip is not the sole prerogative of the LSD traveler; it’s the universal experience of TV watchers. LSD is a way of miming the invisible electronic world; it releases a person from acquired verbal and visual habits and reactions, and gives the potential of instant and total involvement, both all-at-onceness and all-at-oneness, which are the basic needs of people translated by electric extensions of their central nervous systems out of the old rational, sequential value system. The attraction to hallucinogenic drugs is a means of achieving empathy with our penetrating electric environment, an environment that in itself is a drugless inner trip.

Drug taking is also a means of expressing rejection of the obsolescent mechanical world and values. And drugs often stimulate a fresh interest in artistic expression, which is primarily of the audile-tactile world. The hallucinogenic drugs, as chemical simulations of our electric environment, thus revive senses long atrophied by the overwhelmingly visual orientation of the mechanical culture. LSD and related hallucinogenic drugs, furthermore, breed a highly tribal and communally oriented subculture, so it’s understandable why the retribalized young take to drugs like a duck to water.

PLAYBOY: A Columbia coed was recently quoted in Newsweek as equating you and LSD. “LSD doesn’t mean anything until you consume it,” she said. “Likewise McLuhan.” Do you see any similarities?

McLUHAN: I’m flattered to hear my work described as hallucinogenic, but I suspect that some of my academic critics find me a bad trip.

PLAYBOY: Have you ever taken LSD yourself?

McLUHAN: No, I never have. I’m an observer in these matters, not a participant. I had an operation last year to remove a tumor that was expanding my brain in a less pleasant manner, and during my prolonged convalescence I’m not allowed any stimulant stronger than coffee. Alas! A few months ago, however, I was almost “busted” on a drug charge. On a plane returning from Vancouver, where a university had awarded me an honorary degree, I ran into a colleague who asked me where I’d been. “To Vancouver to pick up my LL.D.,” I told him. I noticed a fellow passenger looking at me with a strange expression, and when I got off the plane at Toronto Airport, two customs guards pulled me into a little room and started going over my luggage. “Do you know Timothy Leary?” one asked. I replied I did and that seemed to wrap it up for him. “All right,” he said. “Where’s the stuff? We know you told somebody you’d gone to Vancouver to pick up some LL.D.” After a laborious dialog, I persuaded him that an LL.D. has nothing to do with consciousness expansion — just the opposite, in fact — and I was released. Of course, in light of the present educational crisis, I’m not sure there isn’t something to be said for making possession of an LL.D. a felony.

PLAYBOY: Are you in favor of legalizing marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs?

McLUHAN: My personal point of view is irrelevant, since all such legal restrictions are futile and will inevitably wither away. You could as easily ban drugs in a retribalized society as outlaw clocks in a mechanical culture. The young will continue turning on no matter how many of them are turned off into prisons, and such legal restrictions only reflect the cultural aggression and revenge of a dying culture against its successor.

Speaking of dying cultures, it’s no accident that drugs first were widely used in America by the Indians and then by the Negroes, both of whom have the great cultural advantage in this transitional age of remaining close to their tribal roots. The cultural aggression of white America against Negroes and Indians is not based on skin color and belief in racial superiority, whatever ideological clothing may be used to rationalize it, but on the white man’s inchoate awareness that the Negro and Indian — as men with deep roots in the resonating echo chamber of the discontinuous, interrelated tribal world — are actually psychically and socially superior to the fragmented, alienated and dissociated man of Western civilization. Such a recognition, which stabs at the heart of the white man’s entire social value system, inevitably generates violence and genocide. It has been the sad fate of the Negro and the Indian to be tribal men in a fragmented culture — men born ahead of rather than behind their time.

PLAYBOY: How do you mean?

McLUHAN: I mean that at precisely the time when the white younger generation is retribalizing and generalizing, the Negro and the Indian are under tremendous social and economic pressure to go in the opposite direction: to detribalize and specialize, to tear out their tribal roots when the rest of society is rediscovering theirs. Long held in a totally subordinate socioeconomic position, they are now impelled to acquire literacy as a prerequisite to employment in the old mechanical service environment of hardware, rather than adapt themselves to the new tribal environment of software, or electric information, as the middle-class white young are doing. Needless to say, this generates great psychic pain, which in turn is translated into bitterness and violence. This can be seen in the microcosmic drug culture; psychological studies show that the Negro and the Indian who are turned on by marijuana, unlike the white, are frequently engulfed with rage; they have a low high. They are angry because they understand under the influence of the drug that the source of their psychic and social degradation lies in the mechanical technology that is now being repudiated by the very white overculture that developed it — a repudiation that the majority of Negroes and Indians cannot, literally, afford because of their inferior economic position.

This is both ironic and tragic, and lessens the chances for an across-the-board racial dètente and reconciliation, because rather than diminishing and eventually closing the sociopsychic differences between the races, it widens them. The Negro and the Indian seem to always get a bad deal; they suffered first because they were tribal men in a mechanical world, and now as they try to detribalize and structure themselves within the values of the mechanical culture, they find the gulf between them and a suddenly retribalizing society widening rather than narrowing. The future, I fear, is not too bright for either — but particularly for the Negro.

PLAYBOY: What, specifically, do you think will happen to him?

McLUHAN: At best, he will have to make a painful adjustment to two conflicting cultures and technologies, the visual-mechanical and the electric world; at worst, he will be exterminated.

PLAYBOY: Exterminated?

McLUHAN: I seriously fear the possibility, though God knows I hope I’m proved wrong. As I’ve tried to point out, the one inexorable consequence of any identity quest generated by environmental upheaval is tremendous violence. This violence has traditionally been directed at the tribal man who challenged visual-mechanical culture, as with the genocide against the Indian and the institutionalized dehumanization of the Negro. Today, the process is reversed and the violence is being meted out, during this transitional period, to those who are nonassimilable into the new tribe. Not because of his skin color but because he is in a limbo between mechanical and electric cultures, the Negro is a threat, a rival tribe that cannot be digested by the new order. The fate of such tribes is often extermination.

PLAYBOY: What can we do to prevent this from happening to America’s Negro population?

McLUHAN: I think a valuable first step would be to alert the Negro, as well as the rest of society, to the nature of the new electric technology and the reasons it is so inexorably transforming our social and psychic values. The Negro should understand that the aspects of himself he has been conditioned to think of as inferior or “backward” are actually superior attributes in the new environment. Western man is obsessed by the forward-motion folly of step-by-step “progress,” and always views the discontinuous synaesthetic interrelationships of the tribe as primitive. If the Negro realizes the great advantages of his heritage, he will cease his lemming leap into the senescent mechanical world.

There are encouraging signs that the new black-power movement — with its emphasis on Negritude and a return to the tribal pride of African cultural and social roots — is recognizing this, but unfortunately a majority of Negro Americans are still determined to join the mechanical culture. But if they can be persuaded to follow the lead of those who wish to rekindle their sparks of tribal awareness, they will be strategically placed to make an easy transition to the new technology, using their own enduring tribal values as environmental survival aids. They should take pride in these tribal values, for they are rainbow-hued in comparison with the pallid literate culture of their traditional masters.

But as I said, the Negro arouses hostility in whites precisely because they subliminally recognize that he is closest to that tribal depth involvement and simultaneity and harmony that is the richest and most highly developed expression of human consciousness. This is why the white political and economic institutions mobilize to exclude and oppress Negroes, from semiliterate unions to semiliterate politicians, whose slim visual culture makes them hang on with unremitting fanaticism to their antiquated hardware and the specialized skills and classifications and compartmentalized neighborhoods and life styles deriving from it. The lowest intellectual stratum of whites view literacy and its hardware environment as a novelty, still fresh and still status symbols of achievement, and thus will be the last to retribalize and the first to initiate what could easily become a full-blown racial civil war. The United States as a nation is doomed, in any case, to break up into a series of regional and racial ministates, and such a civil war would merely accelerate that process.

PLAYBOY: On what do you base your prediction that the United States will disintegrate?

McLUHAN: Actually, in this case as in most of my work, I’m “predicting” what has already happened and merely extrapolating a current process to its logical conclusion. The Balkanization of the United States as a continental political structure has been going on for some years now, and racial chaos is merely one of several catalysts for change. This isn’t a peculiarly American phenomenon; as I pointed out earlier, the electric media always produce psychically integrating and socially decentralizing effects, and this affects not only political institutions within the existing state but the national entities themselves.

All over the world, we can see how the electric media are stimulating the rise of ministates: In Great Britain, Welsh and Scottish nationalism are recrudescing powerfully; in Spain, the Basques are demanding autonomy; in Belgium, the Flemings insist on separation from the Walloons; in my own country, the Quebecois are in the first stages of a war of independence; and in Africa, we’ve witnessed the germination of several ministates and the collapse of several ambitiously unrealistic schemes for regional confederation. These ministates are just the opposite of the traditional centralizing nationalisms of the past that forged mass states that homogenized disparate ethnic and linguistic groups within one national boundary. The new ministates are decentralized tribal agglomerates of those same ethnic and linguistic groups. Though their creation may be accompanied by violence, they will not remain hostile or competitive armed camps but will eventually discover that their tribal bonds transcend their differences and will thereafter live in harmony and cultural cross-fertilization with one another.

This pattern of decentralized ministates will be repeated in the United States, although I realize that most Americans still find the thought of the Union’s dissolution inconceivable. The U.S., which was the first nation in history to begin its national existence as a centralized and literate political entity, will now play the historical film backward, reeling into a multiplicity of decentralized Negro states, Indian states, regional states, linguistic and ethnic states, etc. Decentralism is today the burning issue in the 50 states, from the school crisis in New York City to the demands of the retribalized young that the oppressive multiversities be reduced to a human scale and the mass state be debureaucratized. The tribes and the bureaucracy are antithetical means of social organization and can never coexist peacefully; one must destroy and supplant the other, or neither will survive.

PLAYBOY: Accepting, for the moment, your contention that the United States will be “Balkanized” into an assortment of ethnic and linguistic ministates, isn’t it likely that the results would be social chaos and internecine warfare?

McLUHAN: Not necessarily. Violence can be avoided if we comprehend the process of decentralism and retribalization, and accept its outcome while moving to control and modify the dynamics of change. In any case, the day of the stupor state is over; as men not only in the U.S. but throughout the world are united into a single tribe, they will forge a diversity of viable decentralized political and social institutions.

PLAYBOY: Along what lines?

McLUHAN: It will be a totally retribalized world of depth involvements. Through radio, TV and the computer, we are already entering a global theater in which the entire world is a Happening. Our whole cultural habitat, which we once viewed as a mere container of people, is being transformed by these media and by space satellites into a living organism, itself contained within a new macrocosm or connubium of a supraterrestrial nature. The day of the individualist, of privacy, of fragmented or “applied” knowledge, of “points of view” and specialist goals is being replaced by the over-all awareness of a mosaic world in which space and time are overcome by television, jets and computers — a simultaneous, “all-at-once” world in which everything resonates with everything else as in a total electrical field, a world in which energy is generated and perceived not by the traditional connections that create linear, causative thought processes, but by the intervals, or gaps, which Linus Pauling grasps as the languages of cells, and which create synaesthetic discontinuous integral consciousness.

The open society, the visual offspring of phonetic literacy, is irrelevant to today’s retribalized youth; and the closed society, the product of speech, drum and ear technologies, is thus being reborn. After centuries of dissociated sensibilities, modern awareness is once more becoming integral and inclusive, as the entire human family is sealed to a single universal membrane. The compressional, implosive nature of the new electric technology is retrogressing Western man back from the open plateaus of literate values and into the heart of tribal darkness, into what Joseph Conrad termed “the Africa within.”

PLAYBOY: Many critics feel that your own “Africa within” promises to be a rigidly conformist hive world in which the individual is totally subordinate to the group and personal freedom is unknown.

McLUHAN: Individual talents and perspectives don’t have to shrivel within a retribalized society; they merely interact within a group consciousness that has the potential for releasing far more creativity than the old atomized culture. Literate man is alienated, impoverished man; retribalized man can lead a far richer and more fulfilling life — not the life of a mindless drone but of the participant in a seamless web of interdependence and harmony. The implosion of electric technology is transmogrifying literate, fragmented man into a complex and depth-structured human being with a deep emotional awareness of his complete interdependence with all of humanity. The old “individualistic” print society was one where the individual was “free” only to be alienated and dissociated, a rootless outsider bereft of tribal dreams; our new electronic environment compels commitment and participation, and fulfills man’s psychic and social needs at profound levels.

The tribe, you see, is not conformist just because it’s inclusive; after all, there is far more diversity and less conformity within a family group than there is within an urban conglomerate housing thousands of families. It’s in the village where eccentricity lingers, in the big city where uniformity and impersonality are the milieu. The global-village conditions being forged by the electric technology stimulate more discontinuity and diversity and division than the old mechanical, standardized society; in fact, the global village makes maximum disagreement and creative dialog inevitable. Uniformity and tranquillity are not hallmarks of the global village; far more likely are conflict and discord as well as love and harmony — the customary life mode of any tribal people.

PLAYBOY: Despite what you’ve said, haven’t literate cultures been the only ones to value the concepts of individual freedom, and haven’t tribal societies traditionally imposed rigid social taboos — as you suggested earlier in regard to sexual behavior — and ruthlessly punished all who do not conform to tribal values?

McLUHAN: We confront a basic paradox whenever we discuss personal freedom in literate and tribal cultures. Literate mechanical society separated the individual from the group in space, engendering privacy; in thought, engendering point of view; and in work, engendering specialism — thus forging all the values associated with individualism. But at the same time, print technology has homogenized man, creating mass militarism, mass mind and mass uniformity; print gave man private habits of individualism and a public role of absolute conformity. That is why the young today welcome their retribalization, however dimly they perceive it, as a release from the uniformity, alienation and dehumanization of literate society. Print centralizes socially and fragments psychically, whereas the electric media bring man together in a tribal village that is a rich and creative mix, where there is actually more room for creative diversity than within the homogenized mass urban society of Western man.

PLAYBOY: Are you claiming, now, that there will be no taboos in the world tribal society you envision?

McLUHAN: No, I’m not saying that, and I’m not claiming that freedom will be absolute — merely that it will be less restricted than your question implies. The world tribe will be essentially conservative, it’s true, like all iconic and inclusive societies; a mythic environment lives beyond time and space and thus generates little radical social change. All technology becomes part of a shared ritual that the tribe desperately strives to keep stabilized and permanent; by its very nature, an oral-tribal society — such as Pharaonic Egypt — is far more stable and enduring than any fragmented visual society. The oral and auditory tribal society is patterned by acoustic space, a total and simultaneous field of relations alien to the visual world, in which points of view and goals make social change an inevitable and constant by product. An electrically imploded tribal society discards the linear forward-motion of “progress.” We can see in our own time how, as we begin to react in depth to the challenges of the global village, we all become reactionaries.

PLAYBOY: That can hardly be said of the young, whom you claim are leading the process of retribalization, and according to most estimates are also the most radical generation in our history.

McLUHAN: Ah, but you’re talking about politics, about goals and issues, which are really quite irrelevant. I’m saying that the result, not the current process, of retribalization makes us reactionary in our basic attitudes and values. Once we are enmeshed in the magical resonance of the tribal echo chamber, the debunking of myths and legends is replaced by their religious study. Within the consensual framework of tribal values, there will be unending diversity — but there will be few if any rebels who challenge the tribe itself.

The instant involvement that accompanies instant technologies triggers a conservative, stabilizing, gyroscopic function in man, as reflected by the second-grader who, when requested by her teacher to compose a poem after the first Sputnik was launched into orbit, wrote: “The stars are so big / The earth is so small / Stay as you are.” The little girl who wrote those lines is part of the new tribal society; she lives in a world infinitely more complex, vast and eternal than any scientist has instruments to measure or imagination to describe.

PLAYBOY: If personal freedom will still exist — although restricted by certain consensual taboos — in this new tribal world, what about the political system most closely associated with individual freedom: democracy? Will it, too, survive the transition to your global village?

McLUHAN: No, it will not. The day of political democracy as we know it today is finished. Let me stress again that individual freedom itself will not be submerged in the new tribal society, but it will certainly assume different and more complex dimensions. The ballot box, for example, is the product of literate Western culture — a hot box in a cool world — and thus obsolescent. The tribal will is consensually expressed through the simultaneous interplay of all members of a community that is deeply interrelated and involved, and would thus consider the casting of a “private” ballot in a shrouded polling booth a ludicrous anachronism. The TV networks’ computers, by “projecting” a victor in a Presidential race while the polls are still open, have already rendered the traditional electoral process obsolescent.

In our software world of instant electric communications movement, politics is shifting from the old patterns of political representation by electoral delegation to a new form of spontaneous and instantaneous communal involvement in all areas of decision making. In a tribal all-at-once culture, the idea of the “public” as a differentiated agglomerate of fragmented individuals, all dissimilar but all capable of acting in basically the same way, like interchangeable mechanical cogs in a production line, is supplanted by a mass society in which personal diversity is encouraged while at the same time everybody reacts and interacts simultaneously to every stimulus. The election as we know it today will be meaningless in such a society.

PLAYBOY: How will the popular will be registered in the new tribal society if elections are passe?

McLUHAN: The electric media open up totally new means of registering popular opinion. The old concept of the plebiscite, for example, may take on new relevance; TV could conduct daily plebiscites by presenting facts to 200,000,000 people and providing a computerized feedback of the popular will. But voting, in the traditional sense, is through as we leave the age of political parties, political issues and political goals, and enter an age where the collective tribal image and the iconic image of the tribal chieftain is the overriding political reality. But that’s only one of countless new realities we’ll be confronted with in the tribal village. We must understand that a totally new society is coming into being, one that rejects all our old values, conditioned responses, attitudes and institutions. If you have difficulty envisioning something as trivial as the imminent end of elections, you’ll be totally unprepared to cope with the prospect of the forthcoming demise of spoken language and its replacement by a global consciousness.

PLAYBOY: You’re right.

McLUHAN: Let me help you. Tribal man is tightly sealed in an integral collective awareness that transcends conventional boundaries of time and space. As such, the new society will be one mythic integration, a resonating world akin to the old tribal echo chamber where magic will live again: a world of ESP. The current interest of youth in astrology, clairvoyance and the occult is no coincidence. Electric technology, you see, does not require words any more than a digital computer requires numbers. Electricity makes possible — and not in the distant future, either — an amplification of human consciousness on a world scale, without any verbalization at all.

PLAYBOY: Are you talking about global telepathy?

McLUHAN: Precisely. Already, computers offer the potential of instantaneous translation of any code or language into any other code or language. If a data feedback is possible through the computer, why not a feed-forward of thought whereby a world consciousness links into a world computer? Via the computer, we could logically proceed from translating languages to bypassing them entirely in favor of an integral cosmic unconsciousness somewhat similar to the collective unconscious envisioned by Bergson. The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. This is the real use of the computer, not to expedite marketing or solve technical problems but to speed the process of discovery and orchestrate terrestrial — and eventually galactic — environments and energies. Psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness foreseen by Dante when he predicted that men would continue as no more than broken fragments until they were unified into an inclusive consciousness. In a Christian sense, this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man.

PLAYBOY: Isn’t this projection of an electronically induced world consciousness more mystical than technological?

McLUHAN: Yes — as mystical as the most advanced theories of modern nuclear physics. Mysticism is just tomorrow’s science dreamed today.

PLAYBOY: You said a few minutes ago that all of contemporary man’s traditional values, attitudes and institutions are going to be destroyed and replaced in and by the new electric age. That’s a pretty sweeping generalization. Apart from the complex psychosocial metamorphoses you’ve mentioned, would you explain in more detail some of the specific changes you foresee?

McLUHAN: The transformations are taking place everywhere around us. As the old value systems crumble, so do all the institutional clothing and garb-age they fashioned. The cities, corporate extensions of our physical organs, are withering and being translated along with all other such extensions into information systems, as television and the jet — by compressing time and space — make all the world one village and destroy the old city-country dichotomy. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles — all will disappear like the dinosaur. The automobile, too, will soon be as obsolete as the cities it is currently strangling, replaced by new antigravitational technology. The marketing systems and the stock market as we know them today will soon be dead as the dodo, and automation will end the traditional concept of the job, replacing it with a role, and giving men the breath of leisure. The electric media will create a world of dropouts from the old fragmented society, with its neatly compartmentalized analytic functions, and cause people to drop in to the new integrated global-village community.

All these convulsive changes, as I’ve already noted, carry with them attendant pain, violence and war — the normal stigmata of the identity quest — but the new society is springing so quickly from the ashes of the old that I believe it will be possible to avoid the transitional anarchy many predict. Automation and cybernation can play an essential role in smoothing the transition to the new society.


McLUHAN: The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness. Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways.

PLAYBOY: How do you program an entire society — beneficially or otherwise?

McLUHAN: There’s nothing at all difficult about putting computers in the position where they will be able to conduct carefully orchestrated programing of the sensory life of whole populations. I know it sounds rather science-fictional, but if you understood cybernetics you’d realize we could do it today. The computer could program the media to determine the given messages a people should hear in terms of their over-all needs, creating a total media experience absorbed and patterned by all the senses. We could program five hours less of TV in Italy to promote the reading of newspapers during an election, or lay on an additional 25 hours of TV in Venezuela to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio the preceding month. By such orchestrated interplay of all media, whole cultures could now be programed in order to improve and stabilize their emotional climate, just as we are beginning to learn how to maintain equilibrium among the world’s competing economies.

PLAYBOY: How does such environmental programing, however enlightened in intent, differ from Pavlovian brainwashing?

McLUHAN: Your question reflects the usual panic of people confronted with unexplored technologies. I’m not saying such panic isn’t justified, or that such environmental programing couldn’t be brainwashing, or far worse — merely that such reactions are useless and distracting. Though I think the programing of societies could actually be conducted quite constructively and humanistically, I don’t want to be in the position of a Hiroshima physicist extolling the potential of nuclear energy in the first days of August 1945. But an understanding of media’s effects constitutes a civil defense against media fallout.

The alarm of so many people, however, at the prospect of corporate programing’s creation of a complete service environment on this planet is rather like fearing that a municipal lighting system will deprive the individual of the right to adjust each light to his own favorite level of intensity. Computer technology can — and doubtless will — program entire environments to fulfill the social needs and sensory preferences of communities and nations. The content of that programing, however, depends on the nature of future societies — but that is in our own hands.

PLAYBOY: Is it really in our hands — or, by seeming to advocate the use of computers to manipulate the future of entire cultures, aren’t you actually encouraging man to abdicate control over his destiny?

McLUHAN: First of all — and I’m sorry to have to repeat this disclaimer — I’m not advocating anything; I’m merely probing and predicting trends. Even if I opposed them or thought them disastrous, I couldn’t stop them, so why waste my time lamenting? As Carlyle said of author Margaret Fuller after she remarked, “I accept the Universe”: “She’d better.” I see no possibility of a worldwide Luddite rebellion that will smash all machinery to bits, so we might as well sit back and see what is happening and what will happen to us in a cybernetic world. Resenting a new technology will not halt its progress.

The point to remember here is that whenever we use or perceive any technological extension of ourselves, we necessarily embrace it. Whenever we watch a TV screen or read a book, we are absorbing these extensions of ourselves into our individual system and experiencing an automatic “closure” or displacement of perception; we can’t escape this perpetual embrace of our daily technology unless we escape the technology itself and flee to a hermit’s cave. By consistently embracing all these technologies, we inevitably relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. Thus, in order to make use of them at all, we must serve them as we do gods. The Eskimo is a servomechanism of his kayak, the cowboy of his horse, the businessman of his clock, the cyberneticist — and soon the entire world — of his computer. In other words, to the spoils belongs the victor.

This continuous modification of man by his own technology stimulates him to find continuous means of modifying it; man thus becomes the sex organs of the machine world just as the bee is of the plant world, permitting it to reproduce and constantly evolve to higher forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s devotion by rewarding him with goods and services and bounty. Man’s relationship with his machinery is thus inherently symbiotic. This has always been the case; it’s only in the electric age that man has an opportunity to recognize this marriage to his own technology. Electric technology is a qualitative extension of this age-old man-machine relationship; 20th Century man’s relationship to the computer is not by nature very different from prehistoric man’s relationship to his boat or to his wheel — with the important difference that all previous technologies or extensions of man were partial and fragmentary, whereas the electric is total and inclusive. Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull and his nerves outside his skin; new technology breeds new man. A recent cartoon portrayed a little boy telling his nonplused mother: “I’m going to be a computer when I grow up.” Humor is often prophecy.

PLAYBOY: If man can’t prevent this transformation of himself by technology — or into technology — how can he control and direct the process of change?

McLUHAN: The first and most vital step of all, as I said at the outset, is simply to understand media and its revolutionary effects on all psychic and social values and institutions. Understanding is half the battle. The central purpose of all my work is to convey this message, that by understanding media as they extend man, we gain a measure of control over them. And this is a vital task, because the immediate interface between audile-tactile and visual perception is taking place everywhere around us. No civilian can escape this environmental blitzkrieg, for there is, quite literally, no place to hide. But if we diagnose what is happening to us, we can reduce the ferocity of the winds of change and bring the best elements of the old visual culture, during this transitional period, into peaceful coexistence with the new retribalized society.

If we persist, however, in our conventional rearview-mirror approach to these cataclysmic developments, all of Western culture will be destroyed and swept into the dustbin of history. If literate Western man were really interested in preserving the most creative aspects of his civilization, he would not cower in his ivory tower bemoaning change but would plunge himself into the vortex of electric technology and, by understanding it, dictate his new environment — turn ivory tower into control tower. But I can understand his hostile attitude, because I once shared his visual bias.

PLAYBOY: What changed your mind?

McLUHAN: Experience. For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.

As someone committed to literature and the traditions of literacy, I began to study the new environment that imperiled literary values, and I soon realized that they could not be dismissed by moral outrage or pious indignation. Study showed that a totally new approach was required, both to save what deserved saving in our Western heritage and to help man adopt a new survival strategy. I adapted some of this new approach in The Mechanical Bride by attempting to immerse myself in the advertising media in order to apprehend its impact on man, but even there some of my old literate “point of view” bias crept in. The book, in any case, appeared just as television was making all its major points irrelevant.

I soon realized that recognizing the symptoms of change was not enough; one must understand the cause of change, for without comprehending causes, the social any psychic effects of new technology cannot be counteracted or modified. But I recognized also that one individual cannot accomplish these self-protective modifications; they must be the collective effort of society, because they affect all of society; the individual is helpless against the pervasiveness of environmental change: the new garbage — or mess-age — induced by new technologies. Only the social organism, united and recognizing the challenge, can move to meet it.

Unfortunately, no society in history has ever known enough about the forces that shape and transform it to take action to control and direct new technologies as they extend and transform man. But today, change proceeds so instantaneously through the new media that it may be possible to institute a global education program that will enable us to seize the reins of our destiny — but to do this we must first recognize the kind of therapy that’s needed for the effects of the new media. In such an effort, indignation against those who perceive the nature of those effects is no substitute for awareness and insight.

PLAYBOY: Are you referring to the critical attacks to which you’ve been subjected for some of your theories and predictions?

McLUHAN: I am. But I don’t want to sound uncharitable about my critics. Indeed, I appreciate their attention. After all, a man’s detractors work for him tirelessly and for free. It’s as good as being banned in Boston. But as I’ve said, I can understand their hostile attitude toward environmental change, having once shared it. Theirs is the customary human reaction when confronted with innovation: to flounder about attempting to adapt old responses to new situations or to simply condemn or ignore the harbingers of change — a practice refined by the Chinese emperors, who used to execute messengers bringing bad news. The new technological environments generate the most pain among those least prepared to alter their old value structures. The literati find the new electronic environment far more threatening than do those less committed to literacy as a way of life. When an individual or social group feels that its whole identity is jeopardized by social or psychic change, its natural reaction is to lash out in defensive fury. But for all their lamentations, the revolution has already taken place.

PLAYBOY: You’ve explained why you avoid approving or disapproving of this revolution in your work, but you must have a private opinion. What is it?

McLUHAN: I don’t like to tell people what I think is good or bad about the social and psychic changes caused by new media, but if you insist on pinning me down about my own subjective reactions as I observe the reprimitivization of our culture, I would have to say that I view such upheavals with total personal dislike and dissatisfaction. I do see the prospect of a rich and creative retribalized society — free of the fragmentation and alienation of the mechanical age — emerging from this traumatic period of culture clash; but I have nothing but distaste for the process of change. As a man molded within the literate Western tradition, I do not personally cheer the dissolution of that tradition through the electric involvement of all the senses: I don’t enjoy the destruction of neighborhoods by high-rises or revel in the pain of identity quest. No one could be less enthusiastic about these radical changes than myself. I am not, by temperament or conviction, a revolutionary; I would prefer a stable, changeless environment of modest services and human scale. TV and all the electric media are unraveling the entire fabric of our society, and as a man who is forced by circumstances to live within that society, I do not take delight in its disintegration.

You see, I am not a crusader; I imagine I would be most happy living in a secure preliterate environment; I would never attempt to change my world, for better or worse. Thus I derive no joy from observing the traumatic effects of media on man, although I do obtain satisfaction from grasping their modes of operation. Such comprehension is inherently cool, since it is simultaneously involvement and detachment. This posture is essential in studying media. One must begin by becoming extraenvironmental, putting oneself beyond the battle in order to study and understand the configuration of forces. It’s vital to adopt a posture of arrogant superiority; instead of scurrying into a corner and wailing about what media are doing to us, one should charge straight ahead and kick them in the electrodes. They respond beautifully to such resolute treatment and soon become servants rather than masters. But without this detached involvement, I could never objectively observe media; it would be like an octopus grappling with the Empire State Building. So I employ the greatest boon of literate culture: the power of man to act without reaction — the sort of specialization by dissociation that has been the driving motive force behind Western civilization.

The Western world is being revolutionized by the electric media as rapidly as the East is being Westernized, and although the society that eventually emerges may be superior to our own, the process of change is agonizing. I must move through this pain-wracked transitional era as a scientist would move through a world of disease; once a surgeon becomes personally involved and disturbed about the condition of his patient, he loses the power to help that patient. Clinical detachment is not some kind of haughty pose I affect — nor does it reflect any lack of compassion on my part; it’s simply a survival strategy. The world we are living in is not one I would have created on my own drawing board, but it’s the one in which I must live, and in which the students I teach must live. If nothing else, I owe it to them to avoid the luxury of moral indignation or the troglodytic security of the ivory tower and to get down into the junk yard of environmental change and steam-shovel my way through to a comprehension of its contents and its lines of force — in order to understand how and why it is metamorphosing man.

PLAYBOY: Despite your personal distaste for the upheavals induced by the new electric technology, you seem to feel that if we understand and influence its effects on us, a less alienated and fragmented society may emerge from it. Is it thus accurate to say that you are essentially optimistic about the future?

McLUHAN: There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism. The extensions of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium, but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ — Yeats’ rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Cataclysmic environmental changes such as these are, in and of themselves, morally neutral; it is how we perceive them and react to them that will determine their ultimate psychic and social consequences. If we refuse to see them at all, we will become their servants. It’s inevitable that the world-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can come through.

Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope. I feel that we’re standing on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family and man’s consciousness can be freed from the shackles of mechanical culture and enabled to roam the cosmos. I have a deep and abiding belief in man’s potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth.

I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new man, linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and man himself will become an organic art form. There is a long road ahead, and the stars are only way stations, but we have begun the journey. To be born in this age is a precious gift, and I regret the prospect of my own death only because I will leave so many pages of man’s destiny — if you will excuse the Gutenbergian image — tantalizingly unread. But perhaps, as I’ve tried to demonstrate in my examination of the postliterate culture, the story begins only when the book closes.

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Chomsky on Governance, Science And Art

::: from Z Magazine :::

MIKSE: What is your perspective on science and its role in the development of human progress and the human mind?

CHOMSKY: It’s right at the core. If you mean professional science, for a long time it didn’t make much of a direct contribution in getting things done. The point at which true science began to really influence practice is pretty recent. Take MIT. When I got here almost 60 years ago, it was an engineering school. People learned how to make things—build a bridge, make an electrical circuit. It was mostly craft. You learned things the way a good carpenter learns things. There were science courses and math courses, but they were pretty much service courses, techniques for engineers. Within 20 years, if you wanted to build things or make things, you didn’t go to MIT, you went to Northeastern or Wentworth Institute or some place like that. This has become a science university.

The reason was because of the change that took place. Science had something to say to the practical arts and there was a huge explosion of technology: computers, software, IT, satellites, microelectronics. A lot of these massive changes came out of fundamental science. Furthermore, technology started to change much faster. If you wanted to train engineers of the future, there’s not much point training them in the technology of today. It’s going to be much different 20 years from now, so you study fundamental science.

The same thing took place in medicine. Until, say, a century ago, there was a real question studied by the historians of medicine. If you went to a doctor, your chances of improvement would be no better than 50 percent because it’s mostly intuition and craft. I remember doctors in my childhood who would do things such as leeches, which was supposed to bring out the blood. That changed a lot with the development of the first sulfur drugs, antibiotics, and so on—and also advanced surgical techniques. But these were all consequences of the contributions of real science, such as biology, to the practice of medicine. It’s not the first time. Like the early industrial revolution, the physical principals are not the most sophisticated ones.

By now, not only the world, but the survival of the species depends on sophisticated science. We’re not going to get out of the environmental crisis unless there are significant scientific innovations, figuring out some way to harness solar power. That’s not going to happen by itself. Unfortunately, a lot of science tradition throughout the years has been going into developing better means of destruction.

The early agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago was based on the science of the day; that is, figuring out how to grow crops more effectively. It was pretty sophisticated. One of the things that’s been discovered that surprised contemporary scientists and anthropologists is that, quite commonly when the West goes into some cultures like Liberia and proposes scientific agriculture, its yields decline. What’s happened is that there’s a tremendous amount of technical lore that isn’t written down and is usually passed from mother to daughter. Agriculture was usually women’s work, but very complex lore—you should plant this seed under this rock because the sun hits it at a certain hour and so on and so forth. That lore wasn’t known by most men in the community, let alone anyone else. When scientific agriculture comes in, it destroys it and brings in Western concepts of agriculture: high use of fertilizer, other inputs, to deal with a decline in yields. So science isn’t simply what we do in an MIT laboratory.

MIKSE: What is the general public’s outlook on science and the arts? Do they consider it a worthwhile part of their education? Is it even possible to measure?

CHOMSKY: You can take polls, but they give you strange results. The United States is a strange country. It’s off the spectrum on many of these issues. I don’t think there’s any other industrial country or part of the modern world where you get half the population thinking the world was created 10,000 years ago. That’s a pretty unique U.S. phenomenon.

Listen to talk radio sometimes, which I do a lot when I’m driving. It’s a segment of popular opinion. I happened to catch Rush Limbaugh interviewing Sarah Palin. For anybody who cares about possible survival, it’s pretty frightening. It was all leading questions, “Sarah, what do you think of global warming?” “Oh, that’s just made up by elitist liberals who are taking our jobs who don’t care about us poor people. It’s nothing like that. Look out the window, do you see any palm trees? Well, that takes care of global warming.”

It’s not just talk radio. You can read it in the front page of the New York Times. There was an article a couple of days ago asking if global warming is science or snake oil? They presented two views to balance it. One was the view of 99 percent of people who know anything about the topic. The other was the view of Senator James Inhofe who says it’s all fake and a couple others, or maybe Rush Limbaugh. Those are the two views. You don’t say that about the flat earth hypothesis or did the holocaust happen? You don’t balance two views like that.

To get back to your question, if you look at popular attitudes, they’re dangerous and they’re affected very significantly by massive propaganda. If you want to get to the core of irrationality, the deepest level has to be market systems. In a market system—we have only a partial market system—but markets have inherent what they call “inefficiencies,” really lethal inefficiencies. We’re living through one right now: the financial crisis. It’s an inherent part of markets that if you make a transaction, then you look out for yourself not other people. That’s called in economics an externality. If you’re, say, a Goldman Sachs executive and you make a loan or investment or something, if you’re functioning “properly” you cover your own risk. But you don’t cover what’s called systemic risk—the risk to society and the system in general.

When you look at most of the business world—particularly the energy corporations, but also the business world in general—for them the survival of the species is an externality. When you’re making decisions you cannot take that into account. They’re legally obligated not to take it into account. If you’re a CEO of a corporation you are legally obligated to maximize profit and market share, not to pay attention to consequences. If you did you’d be out of a job because someone else would come in who is interested in profit. That’s inherent to markets. You can find ways to counter them with large-scale regulation and other stuff, but in a market system what you have is the business community committed to destroying everything they own and making it impossible for their grandchildren to survive. It’s not that they’re bad people. If you ask them, do they care about their grandchildren, they say sure, they’d do anything for them.

Meanwhile, in their institutions, they have to disregard it. So there’s massive business propaganda trying to convince people that humans have no effect on global warming because that doesn’t increase short-term profit. If they knock down energy legislation, they’ll do better in the next quarter. Those are very profound irrationalities. One of the consequences is that there’s a very destructive belief system.

MIKSE: In your book Failed States, one of the points you bring up is how government policy is very frequently the opposite of what people want. Is it the same when it comes to science, research, and the arts?

CHOMSKY: The way public opinion is portrayed is incredibly misleading. For example, take welfare state policies, social policies, aid for the poor, Social Security. What you read in the headlines is that the public is against them. If you take a look at social attitudes, they’re entirely different. Even among people who identify themselves in polls, there’s still considerable majorities and support for education and health, the government, for the poor and so on. There are only two exceptions that are striking. One exception is blacks. People who call themselves conservative or “anti-government” think we’re giving too much to blacks. Take a look at the black population: it’s a deep depression for them right now. But we’re giving too much away to them. That’s an example of old-fashioned American racism.

The other exception is welfare. People say they’re opposed to welfare. That’s a Reaganite contribution. If welfare means some rich black woman driving up in her limousine to get your hard-earned money at the welfare office, people say they’re against it. On the other hand, if you ask the same people, “Are you in favor of more government aid to, say, women who have low income with children?” They say they’re in favor of that, but they’re not in favor of “welfare.”

You get the same answer to foreign aid. A large majority say we give too much away to those “undeserving” people out there. Then when you ask the same people what they think foreign aid should be, it turns out it’s far higher than what it actually is. You have to be really careful in studying what attitudes really are.

Another thing that’s surprising is that a considerable majority thinks the U.S. shouldn’t take the lead in international crises. It should rely on the United Nations. In fact, the majority of the population thinks we should give up the veto in the Security Council. Take Iran. I don’t know what the attitudes are now because there’s been a tremendous propaganda campaign over the last two years. But two years ago, a very large majority of the population thought Iran should have the right to enrich uranium as a signer of the non-proliferation treaty, but of course not have nuclear weapons. Over time this propaganda does change attitudes, though. If the polls were taken now, they’d say that Iran is a major threat. So, propaganda works. But still there’s a substantial split between public attitudes and public policies.

Same on health care. If you read the headlines, they tell you that the public is turning against Obama’s health-care program, which is true. They say it’s because we want to get the government off our backs. But you take a look at the polls that those headlines are based on and they show that you have people against it because it doesn’t go far enough, that they gave everything away, like the public option, the Medicare buy-in, and so on.

MIKSE: A strong focus of the previous and current Administration is on safety of the public. As such, money is being cut from science and the National Institute of Health and shifted more towards militarization….

CHOMSKY: If I may interrupt, the safety of the public is a low priority for governments. In the Bush administration, for example, terror was quite a low priority and it’s very clear. Take invading Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was undertaken with the assumption that it would increase terror and, in fact, it did, significantly. Their data showed that it went up a factor of seven the year after the invasion.

Take after 9/11. If there had been any concern for reducing terror, there was a policy that could have been pursued. The jihadi movement is a big movement and it bitterly condemned al-Qaida. It condemned the 9/11 attacks as non-Islamic. There were also sharp condemnations from universities and from radical clerics. Suppose you were interested in reducing terror, what could have been done was to exploit the fact that the jihadi movement, let alone the general population, was appalled by this. You try to isolate al-Qaida and break them off from their constituencies and supporters. Instead, the government decided to do the opposite. It decided to weld the jihadi movement back together and create massive new recruiting for al-Qaida. That’s what the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq did.

MIKSE: Would it be more precise to say that funding has been cut from the NIH and shifted more towards militarization?

Under the Bush administration, there were significant cuts. It was a very anti-science administration. But let’s take Obama, who’s supposed to be progressive. You read every day about the deficit. The headlines are concerned that the debt’s been misplaced. In fact, if you want to reduce the deficit, most economists will tell you—even conservative economists—the way to do it is to spend more government money. With a bigger stimulus it will get people back to working. That will increase economic growth, it will increase taxes. It’s pretty much the consensus among economists and it’s pretty straightforward.

Let’s take a look at the deficit. Where is it coming from? Almost half of next year’s deficit is coming from the military budget. Obama has submitted the biggest military budget of any president since World War II. And it’s close to half the deficit. Are they talking about reducing the military budget? No. What they’re talking about is reducing Social Security, services for the population. If you’re an executive in the business roundtable, or business lobbies, it’s just what you want. Their power is extraordinary.

MIKSE: One of the issues that was discussed in the movie The Corporationis that the genetic code is slowly being owned by corporations as they copyright different genes for their profit. What do you think the ethical merits are of this and is the idea of life at risk of being property?

CHOMSKY: Sure, and it’s not just there. One of the main issues of the World Trade Organization was called “trade and services.” What are services? “Services” are usually anything a person cares about, like education, health, environment. So what are trade and services? Well, to the WTO, et al., They mean that anything people care about is put into the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies. That’s a tremendous attack on democracy. It means you can have formal democratic institutions, but there’s nothing for them to do because everything is in the in the hands of private tyrannies—corporations.

MIKSE: Switching topics a little bit, Harold Varmus and other intellectuals have been appointed as chairs of the Presidential Counsel of Advisors for Science and Technology for the Obama administration. What role does this counsel essentially play and have they influenced legislation in the past at all?

CHOMSKY: Take a look at modern science and technology, like computers, the Internet, satellites, lasers, buying things at Wal-Mart—which comes from trade which comes from containers. Anywhere you look, you’ll find major contributions of the state sector to the advanced economy. That came from scientists in the early post-war period who persuaded the government to pour a lot of money into developing fundamental science. You could argue that maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but what was interesting about it was that it was done in a way that demonstrated their fear and hatred of democracy. They didn’t come to the public and say, “Look, you guys should pay more taxes so maybe your grandchildren will have a PC.” What they said was, “The Russians are coming and we’ve got to defend ourselves so we need a huge military budget.” You can see it at MIT. This is one of the main places where it happened. In the 1950s and 1960s, MIT was maybe 90 percent funded by the Pentagon. But it wasn’t doing military work, it was developing the advanced economy of the future.

If you look at the years since, Pentagon funding has declined. It hasn’t disappeared, but it’s declined and funding from the National Institute of Health and health-related funding has gone up. Why? Because the cutting edge of the economy of the future is biology-based, not electronic based. So the public is being ripped off in a different fashion.

Take a walk around the area near MIT. What you see are startup firms in genetic engineering, bioengineering, biotechnology, and the big guys like Novartis who feed off the public trough. They want the public to pay the cost of research and development while they get the benefits. If you look back 50 years ago, what you found were small startup and electronic firms feeding off of funded technology.

That’s the way the economy works, but it was initiated by far-sighted scientists and I suppose the advisors today are doing the same thing. They have an interest in science—a lot of them are real scientists and want serious scientific work going on—but they’ve got to have the same concerns as Obama. If the investment community doesn’t like what you’re doing, you’re out of business because they’re the guys who own and dictate policy, so you’ve got to have an eye on that.

MIKSE: Is that one of reasons why recently in England David Nutt, who was the government advisor on drugs and marijuana, was fired? Because he didn’t agree with government policy?

CHOMSKY: It certainly looked like that. Actually, the marijuana case is very interesting. Why is marijuana criminalized? It’s comparably less dangerous than alcohol and massively less dangerous than tobacco. If you look at deaths from substances, way out in the lead is tobacco with millions of deaths all over the place. Tobacco not only harms the user, it harms everyone else, so deaths from passive smoking and being around people who smoke are way higher than deaths from hard drugs.

The next most lethal substance is alcohol in terms of deaths, but also alcohol harms other people. Alcohol makes people violent. A lot of domestic abuses are from alcohol. Drunk driving kills people. So, alcohol is not only extremely harmful for the user, but for everyone else, too. But it’s not criminalized. When you get down to marijuana, it’s probably not good for you, but coffee is not good for you either.

I don’t think there’s been a single overdose of marijuana recorded in how many millions of users, but that’s the one that’s criminalized. The reasons for it go back to racism. Look at the history of marijuana criminalization. It started early in the last century—Mexicans were using it. Most prohibitions have been geared towards the “dangerous classes,” poor working people and so on. When prohibition ended, there was a big government bureaucracy left and they had to have something to do, so they started to call Senate hearings on marijuana. The American Medical Association testified and said there’s nothing wrong with it, but they were disregarded. There were a few scare stories that it makes people insane and makes people criminals, so then comes the big marijuana scare.

In 1971—there have been studies of this—not only the government, but the whole elite sector from right to left had two big problems. One was that young people were getting out of control; they weren’t disciplined. There were studies from the liberal sector saying we have to do something about these institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young. They’re not doing their job. Kids are thinking too much, they’re too free, they’re out of control, so there was a “law and order” campaign. There was another problem. By around 1970, criticism of the Vietnam War was getting beyond legitimate bounds.

For liberal educated America, you cannot say the United States did anything wrong. Maybe some individuals did, but they can’t do anything wrong by definition. The U.S. can make mistakes, but they can’t be criminals. That’s a deep element of the intellectual culture across the spectrum. In 1971, a lot of people were saying the war was criminal. A majority of the American population was saying the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake, and that’s dangerous. So you have to do something about that. They had to turn us into the victims and that was done by concocting the myth of an addicted army.

If you listened to Walter Cronkite, he would say that the “commies” are not only attacking our boys with rifles, they’re attacking them with drugs. They’re going to come back and start a criminal rampage in the country and they’re going to destroy us. That was across the spectrum. Actually, there are studies and it turns out that drug addiction among soldiers was kind of at the level of the youth culture—pretty much what you’d expect. There was addiction, it was alcohol, but that’s not considered addiction.

So what you have is this mythology that was used by the law and order side as the reason the youth were going crazy, and they won’t listen to us because they’re all high on pot. So you declare a war on drugs. And it worked.

By 1977, Jimmy Carter was able to give a press conference in which he was asked, “Do we owe anything to the Vietnamese?” He answered by saying no we don’t because the destruction was mutual.

Around the same time the economy was being financialized. There was a reduction of productive industry, which means no jobs for working class people who happened to be black, so you have to do something with the superfluous population. What are you going to do with them? Toss them in jail. It was around that time—from Reagan until now—that the incarceration rate went from the norm for industrial countries to way beyond any country that has statistics. Look who’s there. A very high percentage are blacks and now Hispanics who are there on drug charges. So it was a way to get rid of the superfluous population. It was a way of turning us into the good guys in Vietnam. It was a way of imposing law and order. And abroad it’s just a cover for counterinsurgency. You want to, say, carry out chemical warfare in Colombia to clear the land for multinationals to drive the population away? You call it a drug war.

It’s quite interesting because study after study shows that the drug war has no effect on drug use or even drug prices. The price of cocaine in New York stayed about the same, despite the huge amount of money that went into it.

MIKSE: Why do you think that in this modern time when science is more embraced than it’s ever been, people still cling onto the idea of intelligent design regardless of the evidence present for evolution. Do you think it’s scientists failing to communicate the idea efficiently?

CHOMSKY: It’s partly that. But remember, it’s mostly a U.S. phenomenon. In part it’s due to strains in the culture that go back to the early colonists. Remember this country was settled by religious fanatics. Take a look at the colonists who came over from England. There’s a streak of providentialism, meaning carrying out God’s will, which is very strong in American culture, including the leading figures.

There was an article last year in Seed magazine called “The Essential Parallel between Science and Democracy” and it talks about U.S. policy favoring an alliance between science and business. Do you feel that an alliance like this is ideal if we are to expect the maximum benefits of the scientific community?

Let’s take everything we talked about. Do you use a computer? That’s science contributing to business. Is it a good thing to do? Maybe, but if you go back to the 1950s, suppose people were given a choice, an honest choice, “Look, do you want your grandchildren to have an iPod or do you want better health and education?” Maybe they would have said, “I want my grandson to have an iPod.” But they weren’t given that choice. These are real decisions that have to be made. Should we have solar energy? Yeah, I think we should. Should it be an honest choice among the population or should it be overwhelmed by business propaganda, which says it’s all a liberal farce?

But there’s no general comment to make about science and the public good. I mean it all depends on social and economic conditions, on power relations, on commitment to democracy.

— this interview appears in the May 2010 issue of Z Magazine —

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