David Levi Strauss by Hakim Bey

BOMB 89 Fall 2004
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

David Levi Strauss 01

Alfredo Jaar, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita , 1996.

The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.

David Levi Strauss and I got to know each other in the ‘80s, teaching at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where we were possibly first drawn together because neither of us is Buddhist. In those good old days when Ginsberg was still “above room temperature” (as Tuli Kupferberg says), Boulder experienced such limpid azure caressing afternoons and rainbow poetics weather that people would come in for a week, then cancel their flights home and linger on and on, falling in love with the wrong people and staying up all night. Consequently, details are blurred; but I do recall especially Levi’s compassionate and upsetting lecture on landmines in Cambodia (from where he’d just come), and episodes from his ongoing (perhaps lifelong) meditation on photography and memory, Odile & Odette.

Later I sponged off Levi in the Mission District of San Francisco (where he’d worked as a taxi driver and studied poetics with Robert Duncan) until a decade or so ago, when we both ended up in the Hudson Valley, almost neighbors here in the Shawangunk bioregion. We’ve collaborated on interviews, poetry readings, barbeques, and a trip to Ireland to plant 7,000 oak trees in honor of Joseph Beuys. My publisher, Autonomedia, also published Levi’s, Between Dog and Wolf in 1999.

Our chief common obsession—naturally touched on in this conversation about images—is the Hermetic Tradition, especially the Renaissance magi Giordano Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, and Paracelsus. As anti-authoritarians, we’re both fascinated by what anthropologist Mick Taussig (another neighbor) calls “the Magic of the State.” I don’t know if we constitute a “school” yet, but all of us are convinced of the need for what I call “hermetic critique.” Mick calls it the “dialectical image” (quoting Walter Benjamin), and Levi calls it “slowing down the machine.” In effect, his latest book, Between the Eyes; (Aperture, 2003), is devoted to this new-but-ancient form of critique.

Hakim Bey Your two most recent books, Between Dog and Wolf: Essays on Art and Politicsand the new one, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, both use the word between. A couple of weeks ago I asked you half-jokingly if that was a plan, and you said no. But surely it must be significant that you’ve used this word twice in two book titles.

David Levi Strauss Yeah, it must be (laughter), but I hadn’t thought of it until somebody pointed it out. The first one, Between Dog and Wolf, is translated from the French phrase entre chien et loup, referring to the time at dusk when the light diminishes to the point where one can’t tell whether the animal one sees is a dog or a wolf. I got it from Jean Genet, from a passage in Prisoner of Love about this “hour of metamorphoses, when people half hope, half fear that a dog will become a wolf.” So I applied that to art and politics in the twilight of the millennium. And the second one, Between the Eyes, was used by Miguel Rio Branco first in a longer title—Entre os Olhos, O Deserto (Between the Eyes, the Desert)—of a book of his photographic triptychs for which I wrote a parable. And I wrote a piece for another book of his photographs under the title “Beauty and the Beast, Right Between the Eyes,” in which I talked about the pineal gland (between the eyes) as the seat of the soul, acting as a link between the visible and invisible world.

HB Is it a liminality that you’re trying to express, or more of a dialectic?

DLS A dialectic, always. I am always concerned with what happens between things, with the relation. When I put words and images together, as in Odile & Odette (an unpublished book of correspondence in words and images, letters that I’ve written over many years to two women named Odile and Odette that only exist in a photograph), I’m interested in the third image (or what Burroughs and Gysin called “the third mind”), that is, what words and images form between them. In dealing with aesthetics and politics, which is what I am writing about in these two books of essays, I’m concerned with the relation between those two realms.

HB So it’s not really this anthropological concept of liminality that’s spurring you on?

DLS Not so much. It’s what things do in conversation with each other, what happens when you put one thing next to another and something else happens. But I’m not interested in resolving the relation. I mean, I always think of what Hannah Arendt said about the relation between art and politics: “The conflict between politics and art … cannot and must not be solved.” Every time there’s an attempt, a large-scale attempt to solve the relation, it has resulted in disaster.

HB Is it “aestheticization” we’re talking about?

DLS Yes, well, either the aestheticization of politics (such as under the Third Reich) or the politicization of aesthetics (under Stalin). Both of those two things have led to major catastrophes.

HB Yes.

DLS So I always want to work between. Actually I thought about it recently in relation to your writing in Immediatism about trying to find a way out of mediated experience. It struck me that that’s what mediation means: “between.” Robin Blaser always used to say you needn’t be afraid of the gods, because they’re just between things. They’re intermediaries; they go between.

HB Well some do, such as Mercury/Hermes, and Iris, the messenger of the gods. The angel figures among the gods are messengers and mediators, the ones who meet up with humanity face to face and go report back to Olympus or to heaven. But by speaking about a relation between media and politics, you’re actually talking about a relationship between-between-between.

DLS How do you mean?

HB Well, I mean politics is also media, in a sense; it’s representation, after all. At least we like to believe that. So you’ve got a between on the one hand, which is politics, and a between on the other hand, which is media, and you now have to mediate between two betweens. This is kind of complicated.

DLS You’re right that we’re not talking about two distinct purities, two unadulterated entities.

HB We don’t want to reify them in some dreadful way.

DLS But we reify them as soon as we name them, as soon as we voice them, as soon as we put them in relation. The language makes us do it.

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Miguel Rio Branco, Between the Eyes, the Desert, 1997, 10 × 29½ feet continuous loop slide projection with soundtrack, In Site 97, San Diego. Courtesy of the artist.

HB In a nutshell then, how would you express the relation between these two betweens?

DLS That’s not a nutshell, that’s what I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to do!

HB Of course, that’s your “60-year project,” as Ed Sanders says.

DLS And the only way I can do it, the only useful way, is to look at specific examples and try to understand them by taking them apart to see how they work. Part of the approach in being relational is to stay in the dialectic and not try to get around it.

HB In this case we’re not looking for a synthesis.

DLS No. Again, I don’t know whether you would call that a synthesis—the aestheticization of politics or the politicization of aesthetics. But it’s often talked about that way.

HB But this total-separation concept also kind of bothers me. How are you going to make sure that art and politics don’t mix? Especially now, when there’s so much sensitivity pointed at this relation.

DLS Of course they mix. I’m not saying they don’t mix. I’m trying to understand what happens when they do.

HB Well, for example, you brought up my essay on immediatism, in which I proposed a militant view of this relation where, even before the question of aesthetic politics arose, we would try to free ourselves of the mediating qualities of media as much as possible by direct physical contact between, for example, artists and people who like art, rather than allowing galleries and museums to always be the mediators. But would it make for a different approach to your “between” if we could say that there’s a philosophical problem with media that we have to solve before we can discuss its relation with the political? In other words, do we have a critique of media? Or do we look at it as something neutral unless it’s deliberately politicized?

DLS Well, I’m not sure what choice you’re giving me there. Yes, there is a critique of media. And yes, there are theories of media and representation. But I don’t think I need to “solve the philosophical problem with media” in order to observe and address their political effects. I’m not a formalist. When examining the media, I am primarily a phenomenologist—I deal with what’s happening.

HB Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others deals with almost the same subject as Between the Eyes and came out at about the same time. I think it’s probably fair to say she got more critical response than you did.

DLS (laughter) Yeah, by a factor of a thousand or so.

HB Have you been in touch with her?

DLS No, I don’t know her, unfortunately. But when her book came out, I read it very closely and taught it and discussed it. I always read everything she writes very closely. Her early books of essays made many of the things I do possible. They had a tremendous influence on me. But it was coincidental that these two books came out at the same time and deal with a lot of the same subjects and the same questions.

HB Well, maybe not such a coincidence, given the intensity with which the “shock” of the image is screwed in and wound up right now.

DLS The phenomenon has definitely grown and accelerated, and the pressure to respond has increased. As you know, I’ve been lecturing and writing about the Abu Ghraib images, and I was very pleased to see Sontag’s piece on them appear in The New York Times Magazine. No one but her could get that kind of coverage. She said what needed to be said and did it in a way that entered the discourse, that didn’t sit out on the edge of it. That was fantastic.

HB What would you say the difference between her project and yours might be?

DLS I’m sorry, I have a visceral response to “having a project.” I’ve never had a project. I don’t want a project. I’m a writer, I don’t have a program to fulfill.

HB If you take that word away, it’s like saying I don’t have an attitude, or an approach.

DLS Okay. But if you look at those two specific books, my book is a collection of essays written over a longer period of time, trying to look at how images work in public in specific instances, beginning with two photojournalists who worked in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the ‘70s and early ’80s, and ending with 9/11 and the bombing of Afghanistan. Regarding the Pain of Others is a book-length essay examining the changes in the way images of atrocity and war are received since Sontag’s groundbreaking work On Photography was published 25 years ago. The books are very different in many ways, but they did get reviewed together in several places, because they both address certain fundamental questions about how images work and how their effects have changed over time. They were also drawn together by John Berger’s introduction to Between the Eyes, in which he says my book is about “the pain of the world.

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Leon Golub, Interrogation II, 1981, acrylic on linen, 120 × 168 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

HB Do you get the feeling that a lot of people are resistant to the idea of analyzing the link between images and politics? In other words, is there a kind of vast unconsciousness about this out there?

DLS Yes.

HB And would you say that also includes intellectuals and artists to a certain extent?

DLS To some extent it does. There is definitely a part of the doctrinaire Left that is very suspicious of approaches that deal with the relation between aesthetics and politics, and thinks that what artists and writers do is a politically lesser order of work, and is not reliable.

HB This goes back to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, I think. The psychic remnants thereof, on the Left. One wonders how anyone whose brain isn’t completely pickled can go on thinking that way in the face of, for example, a phenomenon like Silvio Berlusconi, who I know you think is a key symptom or figure in this strange complex of image-politics.

DLS Berlusconi really interests me because people have started talking about his rule as “totalitarian democracy,” where he’s elected but there are no brakes on his authority. And he’s able to do this because he has nearly complete control of the public imaginary, by owning almost all media outlets in Italy. So it’s a populist, still nominally democratic approach that recognizes that if you control the fantasy life of the people (the phantasms), there are virtually no limits to what you can do. And all of the democratic antibodies against totalitarianism—freedom of the press, lively dissent, the rule of law, an informed public —go away, are out of the picture. It hasn’t really happened here in the U.S. yet, since it’s not precisely the same people, but I think that’s probably the next step. I mean, I don’t know what will happen under President Schwarzenegger, but …

HB (laughter) Right. State and media under one umbrella. Well, there are those I suppose who would say that there’s only about a half a degree of separation between media and politics here now.

DLS But there still is some difference. I mean, we saw the Abu Ghraib images because of Seymour Hersh and The New Yorker, and because Dan Rather said he wasn’t going to hold off anymore, he was going to put them out there. If Dan Rather was directly owned by the Bush team, I don’t think those images would have ever come to TV.

HB Sure, you can have 10 or six or three corporations controlling 80, 90 percent of the media but you can never control it all. And I’m not even talking about the blessed Internet here, you can’t control print anymore either. Sooner or later something would have surfaced. But it doesn’t really matter if a few thousand people know something if the billions don’t. So maybe censorship really isn’t necessary.

DLS If a few thousand know it and it never comes up into this stratum of public media, then it’s not going to have a public effect.

HB You’re saying it could have a secret effect?

DLS Yes. I just saw an interview on Bill Moyers with a guy named Frank Luntz, a PR guy. I mean, he calls himself a “pollster and communications consultant,” but this guy is pure hokum: snake oil and lakefront property. He’s the one who came up with the name “Clear Skies” for Bush’s dismantling of environmental protections, and called the estate tax the “death tax,” to make it sound unfair. And he’s the one who said no Bush official should give any speech about Iraq without mentioning 9/11. As a consequence, a high percentage of Americans still think Iraq had something to do with 9/11. Incredible. But Luntz knows how these things work. He’s now talking about something called the “free time agenda,” because he found out the number one issue with 25-to-40-year-old women is that they don’t have enough free time. What he does with words, others in his line of work do with images. These people interest me.

HB Do you think those people, by the way, all read McLuhan and Debord? Are they up-to-date about theory, these kinds of people? Or do they all do it in their sleep somehow?

DLS I think there are probably different styles, but this guy Luntz makes a big show of being anti-intellectual. His polls tell him that most people are stupid, so if you want to speak to “most people,” you need to speak stupid. Propaganda or PR is like Capital‚ the only thing that matters is the numbers. This is probably an old-fashioned notion, but I blame writers and artists for some of the success of this kind of “public relations” and the resultant degradation of the language, for not being good enough, and for letting these hacks control words and images. And some of our best writers and artists work for these people, making propaganda.

HB I have a real problem with that, because when there’s no revolution, you can’t have art in the service of a revolution. When there’s only Capital, or capitalism if you prefer, then you can only have art in the service of capitalism‚ or else, art that fails. Those are the only options. So, in a way, this is terrible, but it also means that artists can’t be blamed for this situation per se.

DLS I can blame them. My position on this is different from the one that you just articulated. I still think there’s room in the public imagination for change. There’s still a public imagination after the end of the spectacle, and this administration has been successful in manipulating it through its use of words and images. This has to be resisted and fought. Bush and his keepers are increasing the suffering in the world, and I say reduce the suffering first. If it’s possible to do that without a revolution, I choose that.

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Painting on wall in Sadr City, Baghdad, by Iraqi artist Salah Edine Sallat, 2004.

HB Turning to some even more specific cases, some people whom we know in Critical Art Ensemble are currently in trouble with the FBI for a suspected bio-terrorism charge. That has to do with an attempted interface between art and politics that Steve Kurtz and the CAE are very much trying to deal with. And as we speak, our publisher, Autonomedia, who is also CAE’s publisher, is being ordered to turn over correspondence and other documents to the grand jury. Then another case would be our mutual friend, artist Paul Chan and his associates in the group called Voices in the Wilderness who went to Iraq before the war, gave away free medicine, and are now facing a major charge from, I believe, the Treasury Department for violating the embargo. The political image is not going to be directly addressed in either of these cases, but the indirect implications are there. I wonder, if you look in your crystal ball, do you see a Cointelpro [acronym for a series of FBI counterintelligence programs designed to neutralize, isolate, and defame political dissidents] toward the arts, especially if They get re-elected (or, I guess we should say, elected)?

DLS Absolutely, and I think it’s going to be much more widespread if the Bush team is actually elected and given a mandate this time. Definitely if Ashcroft stays in place‚ he’s barely leashed now. It also depends so much on how successful they are at demonizing dissidents, as they did artists and writers during the culture wars of ’89 and ’90. At that point it was mostly on the basis of sex panics and fear of miscegenation. But I think under the cover of “anti-terrorism,” it has the potential to be a much larger assault. Anti-terrorism is the new anti-Communism.

HB People are saying that even the Democrats will have to institute a military draft by springtime in order to keep a presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and go on with whatever else they might have in mind. And so there is this potential for a Cointelpro-Vietnam-Nixon horror show again—under the Democrats, however.

DLS I can possibly imagine the Democrats doing it, but it’s hard for me to imagine an elected Bush administration bringing back the draft.

HB Oh?

DLS It just seems tactically—

HB You mean they’re such great tacticians?

DLS They have been in terms of controlling images.

HB Well, they’ve lost the spin by now, to a certain extent.

DLS They’re still 50-50 in the polls. But they know that if middle-class kids start being killed in battle again, they’ll have a very big problem.

HB No, but the point is, they’re stretched already, they’re calling reserves, they’re sending people back instead of giving them time off… .

DLS So, just hire more mercenaries. If you’re paying people a $100,000 a year in Iraq and Afghanistan and back home in Maryland or South Carolina they earn seven dollars an hour, you can get as many bodies as you want. And it all works so much better: you have a privatized military that works well with the private companies that are running everything over there. You don’t have to report deaths and injuries as military casualties. If they get caught doing something illegal, military law can’t touch them. I don’t know why they would even think of bringing back the draft. It would be such a tactical mistake that I can’t imagine them doing it.

HB Well, only time will tell. Do you think the scandal over Abu Ghraib that you’ve been lecturing on, showing images from, is responsible for a loss of spin on the part of the masters of the universe?

DLS Oh, absolutely. The release of those torture images was an extraordinary breach. The Bush administration had controlled public images so skillfully during the first year of the war—from Saving Private Lynch to the Falling Saddam to the Top Gun speech to Saddam’s capture—but they were blindsided by the Abu Ghraib images. Principal Bush strategist Karl Rove suggested that the consequences of these images were so great that it would take decades for the U.S. to recover from them. But it’s too early to tell if it will be enough to stop Bush. And too much can happen between now and the election to make everyone forget what came before. I keep coming back to this: Al Qaeda needs this administration. So they must do everything in their power to keep this administration in place and to get them elected in November (or allow them to suspend the election, as they’re apparently planning). And the way to do that, unfortunately, is another strike close to November.

HB Just not close enough to kill Number One.

DLS They’d have to do it without hitting the Republican leadership. Actually, it occurred to me that the most effective protest at the Republican convention in New York, if you could organize it, would be a total evacuation—a kind of anti-Bush Rapture, where people just disappeared, and the Republicans came into an eerily empty city—no cab drivers, no subway workers, no hookers… .

HB It’s the old dream of the general strike.

DLS Yes! Republicans carrying their own bags! No one to feed or water them!

HB If you could actually pull off the general strike you wouldn’t have to because the consciousness shift would have already occurred. That’s unfortunately the problem with the myth of the general strike, much to my eternal regret. But let’s continue on a more utopian level. You and I are both interested in hermeticism and we know that to a large extent hermeticism is the science of images. Giordano Bruno said in his book on magic that it was easier to control millions of people at a time through imagery than to control one person. He was thinking of love spells in this regard. If you translate that into modern parlance, you might say it is easier to influence a million people through their erotic subconscious to buy a product than it is to make one person fall in love with you personally. So this insight seems to be really a potent one. And it led Ioan Couliano to say that modern PR and agitprop and advertising—in fact almost all modern media—are in this sense only an extension of hermeticism. However, you might say that’s black magic. There should be white magic too, by which people can defend themselves against this kind of thing. Do you think that people should study ancient hermeticism in order to arrive at a defense against the onslaught of imagery in the modern world? How would you do that?

DLS Couliano’s book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance is a good place to start. In addition to the history and analysis, it is also a sort of handbook of possible resistance to media manipulations through knowledge of its techniques and sources. One of the reasons that Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 is having such an effect and is actually reaching so many people is that Moore has figured out how to use the same techniques that the other side is using in order to get different content in there. He’s realized that, often, the way that the media organs work, content doesn’t really matter. Because its formal presentation is the focus and the obsession, you can get in all kinds of content that you wouldn’t imagine possible.

HB It’s the old McLuhan “the medium is the message” insight. But trying to subvert the power of the media by entering into its power might be a self-defeating, or even a suicidal tactic.

DLS It can be. It’s treacherous ground. I think in all of this work, it matters to have a good heart.

HB A good heart, yes, but what about the trance state? There is a trance state we enter as connected to the media, not a self-induced trance for spiritual self-development, but trance for the purposes of control. So the point is to break it.

DLS To break it or be able to emerge from it, undamaged or at least alive. To be able to continue working. I’m a firm believer in the value of getting your hands dirty (my grandfather was a blacksmith and my father was a mechanic). The best way to learn about how images work is to open them up, take them apart, and move them around. Put them next to one another and to texts to see how they change. Examine them closely, over time.

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L to R: George W. Bush, “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USSAbraham Lincoln, May 1, 2003. Unidentified cheerleader.

HB You seem to be proposing a liberation from the image through the image. In other words, to master the science of images by mastering the science of images, not by some iconoclastic technique of eliminating the images.

DLS That’s the direction that I tend to go. Both because I take such pleasure in images—I love images so much that it would be hard for me to give them up—but also because in my experience, abstinence doesn’t work.

HB What about the idea of the media fast, of temporary abstinence?

DLS Oh, I think that’s fine on a personal level.

HB Clear your brain. This idea comes from Gert Lovink, who I think coined the term “media fast.” I’ve always thought it might be a good way to start. Take a week or two off, especially electronic media. All of them, if possible. But what about other strategies?

DLS I think for me it gets down to basic questions. What kinds of words and images are you making, and what effects are they having? Are you speaking truth to power and making it harder for Control, or are you being complicitous and adding to the confusion? A big part of this for me is that I really stand against the whole idea that came up on the Left in the ‘70s and ’80s that we could counter what you’ve called the “empire of the image” by turning against the aesthetic and embracing the anti-aesthetic. I consider that to have been a grievous tactical error. As you’ve said, “The blind panopticon of Capital remains, after all, most vulnerable in the realm of ‘magic’, the manipulation of images to control events, hermetic ‘action at a distance.’ ” It’s proven more and more every day that images matter, that it’s images that are making the political changes that we see happening around us possible. Focusing on what those images are and how they work and how they can be changed to work otherwise is not a side issue anymore, it’s a necessity. And trying to separate “real politics” from “mere aesthetics” is a mistake. It matters what we imagine to be possible. Change can only happen if we imagine things differently. Ficino said that “The task of Magic consists in comparing things to one another,” and that’s also the work of criticism. I told you I’ve been reading quite a good book, Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, that argues that rhetoric actually came out of poetics, not the other way around, which has been thought to be the case (or that the two are distinct and unrelated). The author, Jeffrey Walker, talks about the art of argument and persuasion suitable for deliberation, debate, discussion and decision in the public sphere as being opposed to the mere exercise of formal eloquence, the “epideictic,” which is just adapted for display or showing off set orations. I think it’s an important distinction. But he’s saying that the persuasion of rhetoric really emerges from out of poetics, which deals with aesthetic pleasure. The reason that images work politically is that we take pleasure in them. Denying that is self-defeating. Basically, I refuse to choose between rhetoric and poetics, or politics and aesthetics.

HB Between: where we started, and will end.

Taz, The Temporary Autonomous Zone: Ontological Anarchy & Poetic Terrorism, was just issued as a second edition with a new preface by Autonomedia.

Stuart Hall by Caryl Phillips
Stuart Hall 01 Body
Mel Chin by Saul Ostrow
Mel Chin 01 Bomb 137

Wry installations and revelatory sculptures blend art-making and activism in Chin’s unique practice of transformation.

John Miller by Liam Gillick
Miller 1

John Miller and Liam Gillick talk about repurposing painting, conceptualism, and reality TV.

Art Isn’t Fair: Further Essays on the Traffic in Photographs and Related Media by Allan Sekula Reviewed by Billy Anania
Allan Sekula, ​Art Isn’t Fair: Further Essays on the Traffic in Photographs and Related Media

A new book of writings and photographs by the acclaimed artist and writer.

Originally published in

BOMB 89, Fall 2004

Featuring interviews with Rodney Graham, Pierre Huyghe and Doug Aitken, Jerome Charyn and Frederic Tuten, Ben Marcus and Courtney Eldridge, Kaffe Matthews and Antony Huberman, Jonathan Caouette, Laura Linney and Romulus Linney, and David Levi Strauss and Hakim Bey. 

Read the issue
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