Marginalia: Interviews on Politics and Culture From a Radical Bent: Douglas Lain (archive)

This interview is the first on a long series on culture and politics.  The focus is on radical and marginalized politics and the cross-section of culture. Sometimes the interviews are from the left, but some will be from libertarian or even certain kinds of the right-wing thought.   Most of those I interview consider themselves in some sort of radical tradition opposed to contemporary politics.   Some of these people, like Douglas Lain, have opinions close to mine. Some are diametrically opposed.

Douglas Lain and I have been in dialogue for about a month now. So here are a few caveats: I really enjoy what I have read of Douglas Lain’s writings and I strongly endorse his podcast.  I also disagree with him often on finer parts of Marxist theory and how much the current left should deviated from classical understandings of Marx. We are both on the socialist/communist left in the sense that we come out a Marxist tradition that is post-Leninist and not interested in restructing anything like a Soviet or Maoist state; however, which in a way makes us close to the anarchists we criticize in this interview.  The other touch point is that Doug and I are both writers primarily, although we have other jobs. I am interested in Doug’s fiction and non-fiction—I am even involved in coordinating a reading group on his new novella, “Wave of Mutilation” and his memoir on Marxism and urban foraging. So our interests and goals surprising overlap and I am very sympathetic to his view.  That those as caveats, and read Doug’s blog yourself and listen to his podcast. 
Skepoet: Doug, I came to your work as a fellow writer and a vaguely left-leaning person, but about three years ago I started reading into Marxism again.   This led me to your blog and podcast.   So when you first started Diet Soap, what was your goal?

Douglas Lain: There are a couple of ways to answer your question about what I intended when I started the podcast of Diet Soap.  In fact it’s a somewhat overdetermined or elaborate story.

In 2007 I was laid off from a ten year stint as a sales rep for the Oregon Symphony and I sold a novel to Tor Books after  I pitched a high concept to an editor there.  The novel was to be a fantasy telling of Christopher Robin Milne’s fictional involvement with the events of Mai ’68 in Paris. I finished a first draft of the book in October of 2008, but did not get any rewrites back from Tor for quite a long time.

As a writer who had published short stories for many years but who had stopped consistently writing short stories in early 2006 in order to write novels, and as a former worker from the nonprofit sector who was slowly losing all sense of hope in a corporate call center, this delay in a response from my publisher seemed especially deadly.  So I was 37 years old, underemployed, waiting on my first novel to get published, feeling fairly sure that  I was evaporating as a known quantity in the tiny world of publishing where I felt I’d gained a slight toe hold, when I accidentally hit a sales goal and won an iPod from the company.  It was a nano.

I started listening to podcasts regularly on my commute to the Comcast call center.  I listened to stuff like Electric Politics, the Psychedelic Salon, Fresh Air, and occasionally conspiracy nut stuff like Alex Jones show.

When the economy tanked, when George Bush Jr came on television to announce the 2nd Great Depression, I’d already been listening to Alex Jones announcing how the world was ending for a couple of weeks. And I’d been listening to a podcast called the C-Realm already as well.  KMO is the host of that podcast, and he was interviewing guests about Peak Oil and what he was labeling collapse, and I found his story and his format compelling.  What was most interesting was that KMO was independent.  He was putting on this very eclectic but very professional podcast about stuff that obsessed him, he was interviewing interesting people who really seemed to know their stuff, and he was adding real insight to my understanding of the world.  And he was doing all of this without any institutional support.  It was a one man show.

So all of this stuff sort of coalesced into me trying my hand at podcast.  I had an iMac with a built in microphone, I had writer friends and acquaintances who’d be willing to be guests on my show, I had what I thought was a professional need for some exposure (but what might also be considered a narcissistic compulsion to get attention) and I had something pressing to talk about.

Skepoet: Would you like to go into your currnet writing projects?

Douglas Lain: I don’t have much in the way of current writing projects actually.  I have some books that are out or that are coming out, and one writing project that is firmly under way.

My books that are out include the short story collection Fall Into Time, the surrealist memoir Pick Your Battle, and the novella Wave of Mutilation, and that last title is the newest work and so it’s also the work I’m most proud of at the moment.

I am also working on co-writing another nonfiction book with the Rhetor and blogger Daniel Coffeen.  It’s titled “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think (How to Have Fun in the Late Capitalist Epoch.)” We’ll be co-writing the first 10,000 words or so of that for the highly trafficked blog Thought Catalog in the next month, and then hopefully we’ll find a publisher for the whole book.  Also, I’m hoping to write a inverted mystery novel sometime soon, but at the moment I’m working two jobs and find just keeping up with the podcast to be a challenge so I’m on a temporary hiatus from writing.

Skepoet: What do you accredit from moving you from the kind of nebulous left that most of us from MFA were to an emerging Marxist?

Douglas Lain: Well, I’ve considered myself to be an Anarchist since my early twenties, and usually of the commie variety.  Alexander Berkman’s ABC’s of Anarchism was for me what the Watch Tower or a Chick Publication hope to be for whack-job Christians.  So moving from that to being some kind of Marxist wasn’t really a huge leap.  However, I have shifted my perspective over the last few years.  I’m less interested in anarchism as a cultural trend than I have been in the past, and more inclined to listen to constructive critics of anarchism.  That is, while I’ve been enthralled with Guy Debord’s SI and his Society of the Spectacle for many years, I’ve only recently taken his statements on anarchism to heart…maybe only recently really understood his criticism.  Debord wrote, “[Anarchism’s] critique of the political struggle has remained abstract, while its choice of economic struggle is affirmed only as a function of the illusion of a definitive solution brought about by one single blow on this terrain–on the day of the general strike or the insurrection.”

Without explaining that quote and what it means to me now as opposed as what it meant to me in, say, 1992, I’ll just point to the current economic crisis as a major factor for my increased interest in Marx.  Another factor would be doing a weekly podcast in reaction to what I think is really multi-dimensional crisis.

Skepoet: Funny, Doug, it was Debord and Zizek that got me to watch David Harvey’s Lectures on Kapital around 2008.   I was a struggling teacher at the time. I have given up trying to publish my poetry, and I had been reading Noam Chomsky recently. Prior to that I was on the right, actually, the far paleo-libertarian right in the “more reactionary than thou sense.”  I suppose it was because I found so much of the inconsistency of liberal Democrats unpalatable.  I remember in 2004, I was at an Iraq war protest and I remember hearing about how much more moral Clinton was about it and how Bosnia was a justified attack from a person wearing a t-shit with Che’s face on it.  My journey has been similar but different.  This brings me to question though, why were you listening to Alex Jones?

Douglas Lain: I was listening to Alex Jones because I’d gone down the rabbit hole on various conspiracy theories and discovered him online, and because the far right articulates the feeling of this late capitalist moment in a visceral way.  The unwinding of this system during this long crisis feels like a conspiracy being acted out by invisible forces, and in a sense it is. In fact, the trouble with guys like Alex Jones is that they aren’t paranoid enough.  That is, they don’t see how the very system of politics itself and what can be taken to be neutral and real is not only a part of the conspiracy but is generating the conspiracy.

Skepoet: Why do you think Debord is so popular among anarchists? I remember people who gave me Crimethinc books also raving about the Society of Spectacle.

Douglas Lain: Debord was a ultra-leftist coming out of the anti-Bolshevik group Soscialisme Ou Barbarie in Paris, and as a council-communist and anti-authoritarian Marxist it makes sense that he should be picked up by anarchists in the US.  Also, anarchists in the US mostly have no deep knowledge of Marx or philosophy in general (and I realize that many would raise an eyebrow and my labeling Marx as a philosopher) and this leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of Debord.  The concept of the Situation has been picked up as some sort of spontaneous or unmediated act, whereas I tend to interpret Debord as advocating a seizure of the mechanisms of mediation by worker’s councils so that the very act of mediation will no longer be alienated.  The workers will produce the structures of their lives directly under council communsim, but there will be structures, mediating technologies, etc…

Skepoet: Has the podcast help clarify any of your views?

Douglas Lain: It absolutely has helped me clarify my views.  The podcast works as a sort of personal crash course in radical philosophy in so much as I am contacting professors, writers, and thinkers on these subjects, reading of at least skimming their work, and discussing these subjects on a regular basis.  One reviewer compared the Diet Soap podcast to the kind of elective class you might take in college, one of those courses with titles like “Jazz and Existenstialism” or  “Star Trek and the Postmodern Condition.”  Well, if that’s true I’d just point out that I am the one student of Diet Soap who never misses a class.

Skepoet: You have recently interviewed some thinkers on your podcast who seem worried by Zizik’s Leninist turn. What your current take on Bolshevism?

Douglas Lain: I am ambivalent about the State as a tool for revolutionary change.  I basically believe that the Nation State is itself a product of Capitalist production and that destroying Capitalism will entail destroying the State just as much as it will mean destroying private property, production for exchange, the wage relation, and so on…

However, what I no longer believe is that destroying the State will mean that we will all participate in making all of the decisions currently made by the State, and it seems likely that some centralized planning of production will have to occur.  What kind of institutions or institution will be created in order to oversee these functions, what kind of authority will be exercised by these institutions, and what new mediating abstraction will be developed in order to replace Capitalist Value are my chief obsession these days. On that front your guess is probably as good as mine.

Skepoet: Both your recent novella, Wave of Mutilation, and your memoir, Pick Your Battles, deal with ideas about the development and history of space and objects.  Why do you find this so important aesthetically and philosophically?

Douglas Lain: Here’s a kind of round about answer to that question.  While recently discussing the archeological site Göbekli Tepe on the Electric Politics podcast a journalist for National Geographic named Charles Mann perhaps unknowingly argued that an 11,000 year old temple in Eastern Turkey may have resolved the long standing conflict between voluntarism and determinism in Marx.  While for many years it has been assumed that the shift away from hunting and gathering to agriculture was a forced decision (scientists argued that environmental factors forced our ancestors’ to work the land and change their social relationships) the excavation of these megaliths in Eastern Turkey and subsequent discoveries appear to be a challenge to that hypothesis.  Archaeologists are claiming that rather than being moved to change their social existence by forces outside themselves, our ancestors’ made a collective effort to build carved megaliths and in this way created a new social space.

“We are creatures of our own wishes and desires.  This is really an argument about the basis of human nature,” Mann said.

From my way of thinking the construction of a new social space is perhaps the main challenge facing us.  Currently we live in spaces defined by Capitalist production, but we might very well create new spaces, spaces with their own demands and contradictions, in the future.

What do you think of most conspiracy theories?   I am intrigued by your assertion that they aren’t paranoid enough.  My problem is that I have always seem them as attributing systemic competence to individuals that I don’t think anyone could consciously have, but these situations could develop from power laws and structural trends which transcend this sort of focus on the personal and governmental. How do you see it?

In my book Pick Your Battle I point out that the conspiracy theorist is a realist whereas I am a irrealist.

Consider the project Blue Beam conspiracy.  My friend Neil Kramer summed it up in his blog “the Cleaver” this way:  “In short, Project Blue Beam is a highly classified black-budget project that takes the application of holographic technology to another level. An integrated array of satellite mounted lasers and ground installations will be used to simulate large-scale religious manifestations and a hostile alien presence. Gods, messiahs, extra terrestrials, motherships – the whole shooting match. Truly a show tocapture the imagination.”

“What’s going on then is that the government (the real government mind you, not the puppets you see on television) is planning to stage a phony UFO event in order to foist a new religion onto the public and gain complete control of the population, however what’s most interesting about this story it how it relies on the presupposition that there have been real UFO landings already.  The late William Cooper, for example, was convinced that the government had made a secret pact with ETs, an agreement to allow the aliens to abduct humans in exchange for alien technology.  And at the same time he also believed that sometime after 2010 the government would stage a UFO landing on the White House lawn in order to brainwash the public that aliens were real.  In fact, Cooper thought that the government would use alien technology in order to pull off the fake UFO stunt, and that the aliens themselves were giving the orders.  That is, the big secret was that the fake UFO landing would in fact be orchestrated by real aliens.  It would be a fraud that would present a truth in a lie.

My problem here is not that I don’t believe in conspiracy theories (although in the case of project blue beam I don’t) but rather that I don’t believe that these conspiracy theorists go far enough.  They always need something real and solid to support their stories, but in reality these supposed solid truths are just more conspiracies.

For example, many people look to the Financial Sector and see a banking conspiracy designed to take down the real economy, but from my point of view there is no real economy. Further, it’s the contradictions in the fiction we call Main Street that compelled bankers to conspire to create the housing bubble, and not merely malicious intent on the part of the bankers.

To take another example, the assassination of JFK looks to me to be a CIA plot and I do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.  However, I do not believe that the fact of JFK’s assassination indicates any dramatic change in either foreign or domestic policy was afoot.  Instead, what conspiracy theories prove (when verified) is how corrupt and dysfunctional the system is all the time.

Skepoet: This may seem almost irrelevant, but it comes off of my thinking about the relationship between surrealist and Trotskyism and the Situationists and Left communism. Do you think avant-garde art really has much to say politically?

Douglas Lain: I do think avant-garde art could have something to say politically if it were to exist.  What we have today are marketing categories where writers and artists are picking the bones of previous movements and creating fragmented or metafictional works that are, at best, groping after some sort of new vision.  And I’ll include my own work in that category.

Having said that, I do believe that some of the ideas and lessons learned by previous movements are vitally important.  For instance, the difference between modernism and avant-garde work is well worth keeping in mind.  Modernist works, according to Peter Burger for instance, are usually focused on formal innovation alone, whereas avant-garde art attempts to fuse art with life, or to use art as part of a revolutionary project.

Skepoet: Do you see modernism as a reactionary project?

Douglas Lain: I don’t exactly see modernism as reactionary because I don’t think the cleave between modernism and the avant-garde can be easily found.  Courbet, for instance, both toppled the Vendome and believed in his own individual subjective powers as acted out on a canvass.  Also, I happen to enjoy a lot of modernist work.

On the other hand, I believe much postmodern work, especially in the realm of fine art, is utterly reactionary. Take Jeff Koons work.

In his three basketballs work Koons produces a horrible parody of Duchamp.  While Duchamp’s urinal was an attack upon the category of art as something alienated from life, Koon’s basketballs attack the common objects of everyday life by aestheticizing the alienation and attacking life and objects.  While Duchamp’s urinal risked evoking the smell of piss in the gallery, Koons’ basketballs sterilize and abstract lived experience.

What I hope is that, inadvertently, Koons will lead to people to a true avant-garde position as they attempt to explain why three basketballs in a fish tank can be so deadening and depressing.

Skepoet: Do you see slipstream and bizzaro work as part of an avante-garde literary movement?

Douglas Lain: I think slipstream work had the potential to be avant-garde but ended up being modernist instead, whereas Bizarro fiction is mostly self-consciously apolitical and tawdry.  Bizarro fiction aims at being a marketing category.  It’s whole purpose is to shock and titillate an audience numbed out on 4 Chan debauchery and first person shooter games. Still, it could end up producing avant garde work if counter intuitive thinking and struggling for change becomes the next big thrill.  Zizek might be thought of as a Bizarro philosopher.

Skepoet: Have you read lipstick traces by Griel Marcus?   One of the things that struck me about a lot of the post-war modernists in the 1920s is that many of them moved from far left to far right positions in a very short period of time. One can see this with the futurists.   It seems to have been a contention between one reading of the history involved against another.   I suppose I these as the sort of vulgar version of the debates against Adorno in the 1930s with  Lukács, Benjamin, and Bertolt Brecht.  Anyway do you see the overlap?   I suppose there are both reactionary and revolutionary elements in modernism.     But where the focus is seems so very different from author to author.

Douglas Lain: I have read Lipstick Traces by Griel Marcus.  After Sadie Plant’s book The Most Radical Gesture Griel Marcus’s book was my introduction to the SI, but I haven’t spent a lot of time  trying to understand the Futurists.  However, it seems to me that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and especially Fascists, end up embracing traditional forms of art and opposing the innovations and dissonances found in modernism and amongst the avant garde.  The Nazis, for instance, called modernists “degenerates.”

Skepoet: You have been involved with Occupy Portland.  Has that changed your mind on any points of your politics?

Douglas Lain: Unfortunately I have recently shifted from being unemployed to working two part time jobs. This has meant that I’ve had far less time for creative and radical projects, including getting involved with Occupy Portland.

Still, the fact of Occupy Portland’s very existence is a hopeful sign, and I feel more positive about the future than I have since 1999 probably.

Skepoet: How has Pick Your Battle done as a project?  I heard you say on your podcast that you were going to give out the remaining few at Occupy Portland’s library tent.

Douglas Lain: My book Pick Your Battle was a major success for me because it was funded largely through the podcast as I ran a Kickstarter campaign to get the cash together to do it.  I actually started off to write about urban foraging in a fairly straight forward way, but by the time I’d raised the funds and started the project I was already well down the rabbit hole and looked at urban foraging and other permaculture projects as movements that, while technically interesting and personally rewarding, were mostly attempts to solve political problems by apolitical means.  The fact that my audience and donors read the book and seemed to largely follow my reasoning, or at least indulged my divergence from the usual approach to these issues, is another way the book was a success.

Beyond the initial donors to the project the readership for this book has been small. I still have many copies left after an initial small print run.  However, I do plan on pushing the book onto the denizens of Occupy Portland.  I’m a bit nervous about the reception I might receive as I try to pass out copies and leave them in the library tent, and yet the book was written precisely for the people who might participate in something like Occupy Portland or Occupy Wall Street.

Skepoet: What do you see as the limitations of classical Marxism?

Douglas Lain: I don’t feel that I’m qualified to pass judgement on classical Marxism as my exposure to Marx has been through Marxists and not much Marx. I’ve read a lot more Zizek, for instance, than Marx.

What I can speak to is the limits I’ve encountered in those that hold to what might be thought of as classically Marxist politics. For instance, in a future episode of the Diet Soap podcast I’ll be posting an interview with a man named Jehu, and he holds that classical Marxism is closer to anarchism than Statist Marxism, and what’s interesting about his perspective is how it correlates to somebody like Jodi Dean’s position.  Dean is a Statist while Jehu is not, but both of them seem to think that people can simply act directly to transcend class.  I guess the trouble I see revolves around ontological presuppositions having to do with some sort of natural need based or utilitarian foundation for politics. I think that any move to a pre-conceptual foundation for society is bound to fail.  However, I should admit, that I can end up contemplating the process wherein one takes the toe of a sock and shoves it into the opening at the top creating a sock version of a snake eating his or her own tail.

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Douglas Lain: I don’t think so.  This was an interesting conversation and thanks for initiating it.


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