Douglas Rushkoff

by Michael Szul on 2004-06-18 19:27:22 tags: douglas rushkoff

I first learned of Douglas Rushkoff while watching his speech segment on the Disinformation: The Series DVD. In truth, I was waiting for Grant Morrison’s turn, but decided to watch the first couple of speeches rather than fast-forward… and I’m glad I did.

Since that first viewing, I’ve had the opportunity to see him speak in person, sit in on one of his NYU classes, and talk to him sporadically through email. And each time, he has managed to impress me more and more.

To my direct knowledge, I cannot recollect a person more at ease speaking in front of an audience. He speaks from the heart, and often, on the fly, looking up to access his creative thoughts rather than looking down at deliberate notes.

More than a media genius though, Rushkoff is soundly grounded in philosophical fields, such as metaphysics, demonstrating a firm theory of designer reality, and his own passionate viewpoints on Judaism. He exhibits a wide range of knowledge that often does him more justice than his critically acclaimed media studies.

From Cyberia and Media Virus to Nothing Sacred… how did you make that transition and why?

Honestly, I’m just living my life, following interesting people or interesting lines of thought and seeing where they take me. There’s probably a dozen logical lines of reasoning I could use to develop a narrative that got me from one book to another. But I doubt it really happened that way. Here’s one possibility:

Cyberia was a celebration of a bunch of stuff I was seeing that most people weren’t aware of yet. And I saw it all connected – the Internet, rave, fantasy role-playing, chaos, new psychedelics – by a willingness to “design reality.” Media Virus was a demonstration about how that ability to reshape things from the periphery was actually influencing popular culture – and our politics and cultural consciousness. Playing the Future was an attempt to assuage our fear about all this change, and to stop parents from “protecting” their kids from interactive media. I had to show people how this stuff wasn’t just porn and viruses, and that a new way of thinking and modeling was being developed.

Coercion was a turn, I suppose. I realized that marketers were the main people buying my books, and I saw that the guidance I was giving people wasn’t being adopted by the mainstream. And this was because I had assumed a basic level of media and cultural literacy in my readers which just wasn’t there. So I went back a few steps, and recreated very simply the process by which I and many others had woken up to massive media and cultural manipulation.

Nothing Sacred was really a way of showing Jews and others that religion doesn’t have to be used as a way of forcing people to submit to fundamentalist doctrine. That religion, and Judaism in particular, was invented to prevent exactly the scenario that Judaism is in today – with a hardened belief system and a racist, nationalist identity.

You’ve been quoted as saying that Nothing Sacred is a Judaism book for non-Jews? Why is this?

Because non-Jews, and so-called “lapsed” Jews are more likely to be able to value the real gift of Judaism. People who need Judaism – who need to “believe” in its myths – are the least likely to be able to see its iconoclastic core, and its strong demand that we give up our belief systems and put social justice before our own transcendence or salvation.

Judaism was actually developed for cult survivors – for those breaking free of the religions of Egypt and Canaan, and from bizarre rituals like child sacrifice. That’s why my book – which looks at what Judaism really says – is better understood and accepted by those who do not have a stake in perpetuating institutional Judaism’s distortions of these ideas into a calcified “religion” that says and does close to the opposite of the progressives who developed it in the first place.

I’ve heard you at one conference refer to Judaism as being a religion of “literacy.” Why is this? What important similarities/differences are there between Judaism and other religions that make this so?

Well, it’s not my purpose to pick on anyone else’s religion. The beauty of Judaism is (was?) that it was invented to be revised. The religion’s ongoing revision is the responsibility of each new generation. So the whole point is that it’s not set in stone. It’s a living tradition.

Even the initiation process – the bar mitzvah – is really just a demonstration of literacy. We don’t fall back into the water in an act of faith. We don’t say “I believe,” and we don’t get “saved.” No, we simply demonstrate that we can read and speak intelligently about our central text. Likewise, Judaism is a text-only religion, to encourage transparency and engagement (as opposed to pictures, which you can’t really comment on or change). Judaism itself is an invention of literacy – the 22 letter alphabet led directly to Judaism, a spiritual practice that wouldn’t depend on the exclusive access of priests to the sacred.

Of course, fundamentalist Jews don’t see this, anymore. They are looking for a rock. For absolute truth. They aren’t strong enough, or adult enough, to accept their responsibility as the stewards of this planet’s development. They want to be ministered to by holy people, so they can go back to sleep.

You make the case that Judaism is a religion that “invites inquiry and change.” Judaism is not often seen as an “open source” religion capable of such change. How did you come to this conclusion?

Quite simply by reading the Torah – the central text of the religion – and then reading the chief works of the rabbis throughout history. The little moment we’re living in now – from about 1967 to the present – is very different. Judaism was never seen as a locked down closed source religion until now.

It’s amazing to me that my understanding of Judaism – one shared by pretty much every established scholar of Judaism, and one that has been dominant for a couple of thousand years – is now considered to be radical or new.

The entirety of Judaism, and its very conception, are open source. Midrash and Talmud are open source texts of commentary around the code. Really, just read my book on this.

As one who is deep-rooted in media, you’re aware of the media perception of Jews, and general perception of Jews from the point of US media consumer. What do you see occurring?

There’s many different perceptions of Jews. It depends who you speak with. The 7 percent of American voters who are fundamentalists see Jews as a necessary evil – as the ones who have to control Biblical Israel in order for Christ to come back.

Progressives tend to see Jews in the same light as the fundamentalists with whom Jews have struck a dangerous alliance.

Smart people see Jews as if they were ordinary people – with all different kinds of thoughts and allegiances. More than half of American Jews don’t belong to synagogues, and don’t support Israel’s policies. But those folks aren’t really thought of as Jews, anymore.

Club Zero-G is your foray into an epic graphic novel. What made you decide to take the leap into the comic book field?

For fun, really. And because I wanted to share my participatory view of reality in a participatory medium. Comics require the audience to create closure between text and image, or even image to image and page to page. This participation makes it a medium more conducive to the interactive spirit – the open source spirit – I’m trying to elicit from my readers.

What were you hoping most to get across to readers?

That our reality is largely of our own making. We are responsible for the world we live in. A whole lot more of this is software than hardware. It’s not too late.

Why the outcasts as heroes? Did you feel that this was necessary in order for the readers to relate?

Well, the outcasts are in the future. So they’re really just the outcast/heroes of one possible future scenario.

But I do believe that those who can see – those who are willing to see what’s going on in this world, and feel obligated to do something about it – they are outcasts. I’m not sure whether they’re outcasts because of how they feel, or whether their status as outcasts makes them uniquely capable of seeing how things are.

Outcasts are fun, too. Fringe people see the connections.

You teach reader-response theory, among other theories, in some of your NYU classes. How much of your knowledge of media and narrative theories did you incorporate into Club Zero-G?

A lot of it – but not that much of it consciously. I mean, I see it’s all in there, but I didn’t say, like, “let me work Stanley Fish in over here, and Barthes over there.” It’s just part of me. I tried to write this whole piece more like I was recounting a dream. That not only made it more fun, but more rich because I wasn’t editing the scary or revealing bits.

“Designer reality” is an important theme in Cyberia, Ecstasy Club, and Club Zero-G. You seem to come back to it a lot. Is it more that you want humanity to realize the control that they have over reality; or is it that you want humanity to take responsibility for this control? Is it a Utopia of freedom or a hey-watch-what-you’re-doing?

There’s no utopia at the end of the road, but there’s certainly some dangerous gutters on the sides. So yeah, I definitely want to help us avert disaster by showing people they can put their hands on the wheel. But it has more to do with bringing people into basic awareness. There’s too few people engaged in reality creation right now, and this has led to some disastrous oversimplifications. The more perspectives that come into play, the more resolved picture we can get.

Much like how The Beatles grabbed inspiration from The Beach Boys who had grabbed inspiration from The Beatles in a circular transference of information, you seem to have taken some notes from Grant Morrison and The Invisibles, who in turn was inspired by your work. Why do you think that is?

I guess because when the two of us started, there weren’t that many people thinking about these things. It’s also because Grant and I come from totally different places, but have gotten to the same insights. I mean, Judaism was invented, in part, to shut down belief systems like the one Grant is engaged with. And his systems of thought were developed, in part, to prevent the sort of abstractions that I work with. But here we are, saying very similar things in very similar ways.

But The Beach Boys and The Beatles were in competition. I see me and Grant more as collaborators. We’re pushing on the same thing. It’s a coordination, really. And a revolution, as he would say.

What can we expect from Douglas Rushkoff in the next few years? What does the future hold for you?

What would you like to see?

I’ve got a new documentary coming at the end of the year. A Frontline piece called The Persuaders. It’ll be like Coercion, but less instructive and more thoughtful. I’m working on a book about Renaissance, which I hope to sell to business people and then flip their way of thinking. After that, I’d like to do a movie or TV show. I think it’s time to have some fun.

Douglas Rushkoff Live soon debuting on CNN? Who knows? But Rushkoff’s charisma captures audiences on a regular basis during speeches, workshops, and book signings across the country. It would be a disservice to the American population should this not occur. Don’t believe me? See him in person, and I ‘m sure you’ll change your mind.