For and Against Interpretation

Angels are knocking at the tavern door
--Hafez of Shiraz

...[to] the Lunaticks of Ireland...
--Dean Swift's Last Will & Testament (formerly inscribed on the 10 note)

Kildare is flat - so no matter where you go you can see the electric lines parading across the landscape like Hollywood Martians. Patrick is staying at "Bishop's Court" which despite the name turns out to be a dank, three-room cottage and an old cowshed littered with artworks by Hilarius and others including several pieces made out of rusty farm implements and slabs of peat cut from local bog. After tea in the windswept muddy farmyard, we set out to find St. Patrick's Church and Well, not far away in another farmyard next to a metal barn and surrounded by cows and cowshit - thirteenth century or earlier, Romanesque with a touch of Gothic (or Egyptian?) in the pointed arch of the windows - restored in the 1950s but forgotten and overgrown with ivy and cobwebs - the architecture enforces humility since one must stoop to enter as in Zen tea-houses. Our friends James and Sean have decided to spruce it up, construct an altar and hang a brass bell in the belfry, then see how long it takes for anyone to notice. We walk along the road occasionally cringing into the wildflowers, to dodge the fast cars of big farmers, then duck into the hedge of blackberry vines full of late flowers and early fruit. The Well doesn't appear to be listed in any national Register - perhaps no one visits it anymore. Like other springs I've seen in Ireland, it feels like a sapphire set in an emerald set in jade, set in a druid's hand - we circle it thrice sunwise then drink - cars are whizzing by not twenty paces away - Sean recently saw a spirit here and left a portrait of it like a life-mask in plaster next to the Well on a slab of stone.

According to the 13th century Andalusian Sufi Ibn Arabi there exist "delicate tenuities" that stretch between heaven and earth like Jacobs-ladders - and the "meanings" which descend along these tenuities are like angels. I believe he actually saw the tenuities as nearly-transparent ribbands of light, strands of aurora borealis pulsing with luminous nodes like stars falling through gauze curtains. There's no need to limit this perception either by theological or psychological explanations - for the nave realist any experience has as much a prior claim to ontological authenticity as any other experience - a spirit is seen or a meaning descends in the same manner that a soft rain is seen and descends. But how nave can we be? Never mind - the most advanced science or abstruse theology leads us in bewilderment back to the same crude existentialist proposal: since it appears, it might as well be real. So - if the meaning that appears in the tenuity is real, it can be traced back to its source which is real - or real enough for our present purposes - and this tracing-back is called (by the Ismaili gnostics) ta'wil, or "Interpretation." The psychologist would say the knowledge that arises in this operation comes from inside - the theologian would say it comes from outside - but for us both explanations have lost power to beguile. As an alchemical process, interpretation transpires in a space both inside/outside and neither simultaneously; as "hermeneutic exegesis" (in Henry Corbin's phrase) it belongs to an in-between or isthmus called Mundus Imaginalis, where images appear as autonomous, or where dreams foretell the truth. In one sense neither real nor unreal, in another sense, perfectly capable of appearing to us as spirit, the world of imagination acts as if it were the source of significances, location of personae, breath of the world. Science and religion might unite to call this delusion - but for us it is rather a matter of sheer desperation. The two-dimensionality of duelling epistemologies, dichotomies, semantic traps, bad faiths - fuck science and religion - we should demand a rationalism of the marvellous - an end to the violence of the explanation.

In this context, individuals and groups bear the responsibility of making contact with their own angels - even the mystic gurus has misled us here, since they stand between us and our own awareness and pretend to an authority that reduces us to subjects - or rather to objects - objects of someone else's interpretation. It seems we cannot escape the imputation of an old heresy here - based on the presumption that everyone at every moment knows precisely what's going on and what to do - if only they can break free of need, oppression, and the suffocation of false consciousness - and escape the scarcity by which authority measures its wealth and its power against us. Above all - the scarcity of interpretation.

The most pernicious power of interpretation belongs now to Capital itself, which claims to be free of all dualities, all otherness - in a terminal "obscene ecstasy" of united and flattened consciousness - a universalization of money in conceptual space, far removed and transcended above all mere filthy production, a kind of numisphere or heavenly weather of pure money - and in global debt, everything's debt to nothing, like a black hole on the event horizon, sucking up every last particle of light in an emptiness beyond history. According to the "natural law" of this total liberation of money, nothing - not even air, water, or dirt - is to be experienced directly by the autonomous self or group; everything must be mediated by money itself, which intends to stand between consciousness and production as an absolute filter, sifting out every last trace of authenticity and charging for it - taxing reality itself - as an ultimate power beyond even authority or law. Above all, Capital intends to acquire a monopoly on interpretation.

Walter Benjamin has elucidated the process whereby the commodity is imbued with a "utopian trace" - that is, by the image of a promise: that this object-for-sale contains a kind of futurity or no-place-place where your consciousness will once more be valid, your experience real. If the product were not so advertized, you would not buy it - but if the product delivered its promise, you would stop buying other products - why go on spending money once realization is attained? - and thus cause the collapse of Capitalism. Money can only circulate freely in a realm of continual disappointment - the reproduction of scarcity is the production of wealth. I am only rich if others are poor - but money itself has no other end or goal than the total poverty of everything that is not "the Market." Having long ago capitalized all material being, the power of scarcity has had no choice but to commodify the image (and the imagination) as well - on the presumption that this is an ever-expanding market. Awareness must be privatized - thought must be appropriated, adulterated, alienated, packaged, labelled, advertized and sold back to consciousness. All creativity must be priced, and even the very process of resistance against this expropriation must be turned to profit ("Be a rebel - buy a Toyota!" - or "Image is nothing, taste is everything" as a slogan for some crappy softdrink). All informational media from education to advertizing are dedicated to detaching the image from any mooring in experienced life, floating it free, and rematerializing it in commodification. Work, consume, die.

Tourism is perfect Capitalism: the consumption of the image of the world as it really is - the chief goods on sale include geography (the inscription of significance in the landscape) and historiography (the inscription of meaning in the culturescape). But the ultimate image is that of the "blessing" or baraka inherent in the object of the tourist's gaze. The possible moment of realization is packaged, pre-interpreted by official experts, transformed into a series of views, distanced from the direct senses (touch, taste, smell); space is overwhelmed by time, stratified, separated, parcelled on a grid of permissible expectation; becoming is rendered into the rigid digitalizations of recording devices, banished from memory, and embalmed into a counterfeit of pure being. So-called primitives would say that soul is being stolen here, that meaning itself has entered a field of decay, a sort of beam emanating from an evil eye or withered self eaten by envy of all significance. The problem lies not in the content of the tourist's experience - one can imagine tours based on ideas we might consider quite correct or even beautiful - the problem is inherent in the container, in the very fact of interpretation, in the structure of a "dialogue" that excludes all response, resonance, or resistance. Certain kinds of travel - nomadism, pilgrimage - return meaning to the landscape. Other kinds - war, tourism - can only take it away. Reciprocity reaches a vanishing point in such patterns of depredation. Even the most subtle propaganda of the State never approached this ultimate edge - after all, it always evoked its own opposition - while tourism represents the end of all dialectic - since the only negative gesture it evokes is terrorism, which is its own suppressed content, it's "evil twin". The tourist, seduced by the utopian trace in its most poignant aspect - the image of difference - becomes a molecule of pollution, bears the virus of sameness, and the burden of disappointment, into a world that once lived for itself.

The role of the artist in Capitalism can be compared with that of the tour-guide: -- interpreter of experience for consumption on the most elite level, agent of recuperation for society's most exquisite longing or deepest resentments; -- and even a tour-guide may be sincere. But the comparison might prove invidious - inasmuch as the artist's intention is to add meaning to the sum total of experience, not to subtract or abstract it. The gesture art makes presupposes the gesture of reciprocity, of presence. This movement is interrupted by the essentially non-human intervention of Capital, the exacerbated mediation of a power that can only grow by creating scarcity and separation. What if all the artists, poets, scholars and musicians of Ireland were invited to transform the country's new Interpretive Centres in their own image? Who cares what exalted aesthetic lays claim to the triumph of interpretation so long as the result is always the suppression of our own creativity? In Java, I heard that "Everyone must be an artist" - and indeed everyone already is an artist to the extent that all lived experience is a co-creation of self and other: -- production that is also play - and above all, the production of meaning. We do not need the artist to live for us, but simply to be our facilitator, our companion, part of our circle of reciprocity - and as for art, if there exists any way for it to avoid being englobed, we can see it only as a form of opposition to the One Big World of unified representation. Such art refuses to become part of the Grand Unified Theory of the end of physics or history or the minimum wage or anything else. There's nothing "virtual" about it - and it's not headed for a condition of "disappearance," which would simply amount to defeat. I believe modern art as resistance is headed for the condition of the Unseen. That which is real but not seen has the power of the occult, of the imagination, of the erotic - like Sean's spirit-mask at Patrick's Well, it gives back meaning to the landscape - it abides unnoticed until someone perhaps takes it as a free gift - by its very existence it challenges the world of the commodified image and changes (however slightly) the shape of consensus reality. Even at its most hidden and secret, it exercises a magnetic effect, brings about subtle shifts and re-alignments - and at least in theory, it gives up merely talking about the world in order to change it. Is this perhaps however covertly an authoritarian act? No, not if it were a sharing of meaning, an opening into the field of "delicate tenuities". What if it were rendered completely invisible? Then perhaps we might speak of the presence of spirits, of a necessary re-enchantment too tenuous for the imperial heaviness of the eye - and of a necessary clandestinity. And what if it were to re-appear sometime as sheer opposition to the unbreathing virtuality of a world which is always deferred, always someplace else, always fatal?

That evening we drive back to Dublin in the long summer light past megalithic mounds, travellers' encampments, and the crumbling 18th century follies and ziggurats of mad Ascendency lords - past St. Patrick's Hospital, which Dean Swift left in his will "to the lunaticks of Ireland" - sites that have perhaps not yet been absorbed into the new world of Euro-money, golf, and the National Heritage. Just before nightfall, we're in Dun Laoghaire near the Martello tower, looking out at a heavy and nostalgic view of the ocean under gray clouds. The front gardens of the seedy Victorian seaside villas are adorned with one of my favorite Irish plants, mysterious and rather shabby palmtrees that evoke for me a secret Moorish past, a memory of Barbary corsairs, or of monks from Egypt and Spain. A Celtic cross was once discovered in Ireland engraved with the Arabic phrase "Bismillah," the opening of the Koran. These palmtrees were probably introduced by some turn-of-the-century horticulturalist with a taste for the exotic, but for me they stand for Ireland's "hidden African soul." A soft dark rain begins to fall. Or that at least is my interpretation.

Dublin, Aug. 23, 1996

 

Interview with Hakim Bey | Millennium | For and Against Interpretation | Religion and Revolution | Note on Nationalism