INTERVIEW: DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF
Interview Conducted by Jonathan Ellis
Interview - Part 1
Interview - Part 2
Douglas Rushkoff is a multiple award winning author, documentary producer, media theorist, professor, musician, columnist and many other thing far too numerous to list here.
Douglas is a modern day new culture Renaissance man and it's always a pleasure to chat with him, read his works and hear him speak. Douglas released his first graphic novel CLUB ZERO-G last year through the Disinformation Company and now turns his sights towards the monthly serial with the new Vertigo series TESTAMENT. Written by Rushkoff and featuring artwork by Liam Sharp, TESTAMENT features a near future America wherein Rushkoff examines the allegorical nature of their world to that of the Bible. Rushkoff explores his theory that the Bible, much like our reality, is an 'open-source' collaboration.
Having experienced heat for tackling the Bible in his book NOTHING SACRED: THE TRUTH ABOUT JUDAISM Rushkoff relishes in the ability to tackle controversial issues through creative narratives in the field of sequential art.
Though TESTAMENT is Rushkoff's first monthly series, he's already setting ground to join the ranks of the intelligent and talented creators that helped build and define the Vertigo Publishing line.
When the news broke that Rushkoff would be writing for Vertigo, there was no doubt that we'd be in line to voice our support. In this extended two part interview we talk with Rushkoff about TESTAMENT, the Bible, his latest book GET BACK IN THE BOX: INNOVATION FROM THE INSIDE OUT, comics, and of course, what this all means for you, the reader.
You are, after all, a part of the story.
Was TESTAMENT a story you've wanted to tell for a while or did it come to life when the opportunity to do a comic series presented itself?
The underlying theme is something I've wanted to share for a long long time: The idea that the Bible is not something that occurred in some real moment in history, but rather in all moments of time. It's happening now - as the underlying narrative of human experience. And, even more importantly, it's hackable. The stories don't have to end the same way for us that they did for these characters.
The particular story for Testament - the modern story - that's something I came up with when Vertigo asked me to pitch some ideas. I probably would have been content doing it as a new version of the original DC Bible Stories (there was a comic back in the 40's) but as I worked on the proposal, it became clear that I'd have to show how these myths echoed in our own time.
So then I started to get off on all the parallels between the idolatry of Ancient Egypt and that of today's America. As well as the wars, slavery, and entrenched sense of scarcity. That's when the idea of telling the story from more than one linear time period hit me.
It was also a way to do something I've wanted to do with comics since I was pretty young - and that's telling stories from both inside and outside of the panels. There's an underlying logic to the way the panels are used, where events in linear time happen inside the panels, but characters living beyond linear time - like the gods - can go outside the panels. In fact, they're not allowed *inside* the panels, except in the form of transmuted elements and the like. Plus, characters outside the panels can only appear once on a given page. So there's advantages and limitations to both forms of existence.
Speaking of the allegorical nature of the Bible, I had a similar conversation with a colleague recently. This person was pointing out recent events and there relation to the events leading up to judgment day, to which I posed the question, how is that any different from 20 years ago? Or 20 years before that? Or 10 or 5, etc. There are always recurring characters and archetypes but are there any particular events in history or present day that you see as a glaring representation of events that occurred in the bible?
I do think there are certain shapes and themes in the Bible that are more prevalent on the global stage than at other times. The Sixties may have felt like an Exodus-type liberation from false gods, where the Internet era feels like the descent into Egypt and the slavery associated with debt or indentured servitude. The war against Al Qaeda is interesting, because America is closer to the Romans or Egyptians in this case.
You have to remember, though, that while one set of stories may seem to be happening on a global stage, a whole bunch of others might be happening on a personal one. The parents leaving their kids off at college may feel like Moses dying outside Canaan as his children - the next generation - go in and have all the fun. So many different kinds of mythological strains are playing out simultaneously.
Any planned media events to promote TESTAMENT? Signings or perhaps radio or television appearances?
Honestly, I'd prefer to let the book speak for itself. I mean, there's so much hype about everything these days. It often overshadows the actual thing. If I'm writing a comic book that gets reproduced 40,000 times or whatever it is, that should be communication enough.
Besides, I've been getting the feeling, lately, that author appearances are more for the author's benefit and ego than anything else. I mean, my value writing a comic is the comic. Sure, it's cool to meet real writers, but it sets up an artificial distinction between writer and reader. As if there's some special charisma that the writer has, and he can pass that on in a personal live appearance. Perhaps, but I think that's mostly projection. And the writers I know who have bought this line of thinking and who get off on the fan adulation have been made poorer writers for it.
|"The bible may have actually been written in the wrong medium. I'm saying this as a media theorist - a guy who has written books and novels, taught university classes, and made documentaries about the impact of new technology on the way we relate to stories. And particularly on those we happen to really believe in."|
That said, I think I'm supposed to do a signing in NYC sponsored by my friends at Arthur magazine - at Hanley's, most likely. And then maybe a party or event at Alex Grey's new Chapel. But I don't know the specifics. And I'm seeing it more as an open party for friends and cohorts than a "reading" of the celebrity sort. I'm sure I'll do some Comicons after that. But I think the hope is to focus publicity efforts on the release of the first collection. The trick is getting people who don't normally read comics to get back into them - or into them for the first time. So publicity is going to focus more on the outside world.
How about Backlash? You've already experienced this with NOTHING SACRED and have seen a sampling of comics fandom as stories on the series have been released. Has it gotten to the point where reactions are more offbeat then you could've expected?
On the flipside however, you've already got pullquotes from Grant Morrison and Timothy Leary, so you're obviously doing something right.
Well, I peeked at one of those message boards that come after the interviews on comic fans site. At first I was just thrilled people cared enough to talk about it. But then I saw some backlash I hadn't expected - not so much against the Bible being reinterpreted, but a more cynical critique that the comic would be exploiting the already-controversial notion of reinterpreting the Bible.
I can't blame them, though. They're living in a world where things are being marketed to them all the time. They can't tell when someone is actually doing something, anymore. And it turns out to be one of the themes of the story, too. But it is always disheartening to see it directly. It's a defence mechanism gone awry, or into overload. I can't waste my time - or everyone else's - working to gain their trust. I'll just do what I do and if they don't like it, they don't have to read it.
I kind of expect some backlash from the more fundamentalist camps; it'd be a good thing, actually, because it could start a conversation. Most of the people and organizations who attacked my book on Judaism have since recanted or apologized. And most have invited me to come speak or write for them as the ideas I posed are finally becoming accepted.
December is a big month for you, not only because of the holidays but in the same week you'll be celebrating the release of TESTAMENT as well as your daughters birthday. Now that you've started a family is the world featured in TESTAMENT represent some of the fears you face in seeing the way the world, specifically America, is headed?
It's also the month that my book, Get Back in the Box, is coming out. And yes, there's a lot going on.
As a new father, I'm definitely more personally aware of the more catastrophic fallout from our nation's policies (or lack of them). A lot of things have changed over the past decade, and I don't feel nearly as safe or contributive to the well-being of the world as an American. So yeah, the comic being set in the near future gives me a chance to speculate on where things are headed if we don't change direction.
By the same token, I'm laying out a path for resistance of the most profound kind. There's regular resistance in there - just protesting through the system; there's a deeper resistance through true dissidence; and then there's something even more profound than revolution, and that's the part that's most like what the Hebrews do in the Bible. Ultimately, I'm hoping to take it a step further - resistance to even that narrative. And that's why I had to call this Testament - cause it represents a third Testament, and a different option for reality creation.
That conclusion as to the title only makes it sound better, focusing on GET BACK IN THE BOX for a minute though, this book tends to share a similar intent as that of TESTAMENT, though here the religion is less about a book and more about the wallet in a way. Tell us a little about of this book.
Well, I suppose the dirty little secret - or happy little secret - is that all my writing really has the same intention: to help people see that our reality is an open source proposition, and up for modification. I tried telling this to the Jews in my last book, since Judaism really was one of the original statements of this idea. But, thanks to some pressing topical concerns, they weren't too enthusiastic about it.
But I figured business people - the ones actually working with money on a regular basis - might be more open to a simple deconstruction of how the models they've been using no longer fit reality. I mean, business is easy to hack because its stated intention of prosperity through enterprise is so clear.
So I wrote a book looking at how the Industrial Age models of resource exploitation and artificial scarcity no longer work, and how these processes alienate us from the fun and passion that should drive our pursuits.
Did it feel a little bit like coming home with this book as your writing was media-centric, but moving into the realm of religion for NOTHING SACRED takes a lot of focus required in a new direction.
I think business was even bigger leap for me than Judaism. I've been in a synagogue and got bar mitzvahed. I've never worked in a company, or even had a real job. So business was pretty foreign.
But the fact that I've got no personal stake in the business game has allowed me to be more honest than most officially business writers, who are dependent on the corporate world's support. I mean, the Fast Company reviewer seemed fascinated that I would dare to call out stupid-acting CEO's by name. As if that was some dangerous thing to do. It reveals a lot about business journalism.
The book is definitely media and technology centric, though, so in that case I feel like I'm on the firmest ground I know. There's not many arguments in Get Back in the Box that I couldn't defend for a good long time. I don't feel like there are too many people out there who could surprise me with a media argument - whereas there are plenty of Hassidic rabbis who occasionally throw me for a loop with a bit of Talmud that contradicts something I'm trying to say about Judaism. It takes me a few days to go find a different piece to counter them with.
This book focuses on innovation, but does a corporation really need to innovate when its core responsibility is to make money? I mean, you look at how companies get stuck in simply regurgitating old ideas instead of employing new ones, but take someone like McDonalds, they could take any old thing, add bacon, call it new and continue to make money.
Once you have a ton of money, it's easy in the current system to use that as momentum. Capital is capital, after all, and the money we use was designed to keep those with capital at an advantage. That's one of the main points of the book: money is a medium, and it was invented with certain biases. There are rules underlying the money we use that are not the only rules that could be applied to a monetary system. And most people forget this.
Money can be hacked, though. And that's going to happen increasingly over the next few years. And as people and businesses begin to create and value other forms of currency (not must money, but entire value systems and trading protocols) those with the cash, only, will be at less of an advantage.
And, finally, in answer to your question: no. McDonalds has failed terribly with simply renaming products based on marketing research. Look at Arch Deluxe, and the other "new" sandwiches. They failed, and drove the stock price down. Where McDonalds is finally making new money is by innovating, for real, with salads and other healthier meals. This requires rethinking how the food is shipped and stored, since produce goes bad faster than frozen beef patties.
The book targets business people, though not exclusively, for those not in the business of business, what can they extract from the book for themselves?
The book is really a history lesson and a public sigil. I'm declaring us in a new renaissance that, like the original Renaissance, rebirths some long repressed ideas. But where the original Renaissance reinvented the individual and competition, our renaissance reinvents the group and collaboration. It's a major fantastic cultural shift, occurring just in the nick of time.
While economics and industry might be the framework for the book, we kind of have to accept that economics and industry are also the framework for our lives right now. Except for a few extremely awakened souls and, say, organic farmers, we are all immersed in a world made of money, marketing, and management. The way out is to understand its faulty codes and then exploit them.
Bringing this back to comics, there's an old quote from local cartoonist Jay Stephens that always stuck with me and it really speaks to those who value their creativity, and it's this: "Innovate Don't Imitate".
Yeah, but that's easier said than done. Sometimes, it's better to acknowledge your influences and then push through them. Jack Kirby made it impossible for me to go into comics because I always wanted to be like him. The way out was through.
The main character Jake Stern is raised in France, did you chose France because of the anti-French proclamations that sprang out of their non-support for the Iraq occupation?
|"If anything, working in what is still a rather new space of networked computers has taught me that our relationship to narratives is stuck in a dangerous place. Sure, we watch TV and imagine ourselves as characters, but we have lost access to the gaps in those stories, the places where temporality, interpretation and sequence are up for grabs. We just get lost in the seamless reality and get taken along for the ride."|
Partly. That's just one symptom or characteristic. France is a strange place. They're both resistant to homogeny, yet struggling with forms of racism and hegemony all their own. I started writing a whole bit about race and class protests occurring in France - during one of the flashbacks to our era, actually - and then all those riots and protests broke out. It was kind of scary. That's the trouble with writing about the near future. All the stuff you thought you were being so clever about often turn out to be simply true by the time you're published.
I wanted Jake to be a foreigner to the United States, but someone of this place, as well. It's a situation very common to Biblical heroes - Abraham, Joseph and Moses, to name just three, were all taken from their own territories and forced to do their thing in strange places to them.
I also needed to find a reason why he *doesn't* have one of those chips in his arm.
Making him a foreigner also tends to create a stigmatism which in turn causes any mission taken on or support needed that much more difficult.
Well, it gives him the perspective of a foreigner, which in theory should be a bit clearer than those of us stuck in the soup. But it also would tend to make people trust his leadership a bit less, true. Still - that's the place of the Jew in society at large. Always the foreigner (except recently, in Israel, but that's a very new position). Jews were always the strangers in strange lands, seeing things that the locals didn't, and worshipping a universal god instead of the local ones.
That's why dictatorships and fascist governments crack down on Jews so quickly. They aren't of the "body" of the main group, and their living amongst the original "race" of people in a particular place stands in contradiction to the claim that the race needs to be pure to survive or thrive.
But I also just liked the idea of making Jake a French Jew, since French Jews have had such a particularly interesting journey. They're in a pretty progressive place by some measures, but also - on occasion - one of the most anti-Semitic places in Western Europe. It also makes him Sefardic, which was important to me for certain later moments in the story.
But there will be some questions about his origin in the near future which will throw a lot of this up in the air.
Lets talk about the involvement of the locator chips, this was something publicly introduced as a way for owners to keep track of where their pets were but I remember when some proclaimed it as a sign of the apocalypse because not only was it a quick jump from having them placed into pets then into humans and some had summarized that the chips barcodes numeric value could be compounded into 666, thus creating a generation of people walking around with the mark of the beast on themselves.
Yeah, I don't get into that New Testament apocalypse stuff, but I knew perfectly well that some readers would take it there, and that's just fine with me. The locator chips in Testament are really just a way to enforce draft registration. At least at first. The idea is that parents began inserting them into their infants much in the way we get vaccinations, today. It was all about abductions and kidnapping and protecting your baby, Lowjack-style.
And then when the Administration decides to enforce the draft, they get used as a way to maintain registration enforcement. Plus, as we find out in the second issue, there are some undocumented features that allow for all sorts of training and military use.
By next year, when I get into the modern story of Joseph, I'll create new incentives for people to keep their chips other than simply not to break the law by removing them.
It's certainly *like* the mark of the beast thing, but in Torah and Tanakh - basically the Old Testament - there is no beast, exactly. There are, however, certain real indicators of moving in the wrong direction - away from life and towards death or idolatry - and this is one of them.
TESTAMENT begins with the allegory of human sacrifice in biblical times being akin to today, sacrificing children for the military and for what? A sense of security? Duty? Or simply fear?
It's interesting. Sometimes I feel like we have the cause and effects reversed. Do we sacrifice our children because we're going to war? Or are we going to war because it's been too long since we've sacrificed our children?
It's no secret that Judaism was invented in large part to get people to stop sacrificing their first born sons to the god Moloch. (It was terrible for a nation preparing for war, because all those sons were being killed.) But it was also really upsetting to people. So the Israelites came up with some substitutes, like sacrificing animals, or doing circumcisions, that didn't require the murder of babies.
Still, when the going got tough, they reverted to child sacrifice. It gave them a sense of order - at least the chaos was more predictable. (Kind of like when an adolescent girl cuts her arms. It gives a sense of control.) You can still find the altars where it was done. This isn't conjecture. And the prophets keep pleading with the people to stop doing it - that their new God doesn't require it, or even want it.
So I look at our sacrifice of young men and women in war as a very similar urge.
We should just encourage kids to start smoking, that way you can kill yourself without having to travel across an ocean.
Yeah, well, we do that, too. We sacrifice our kids in all sorts of ways. Even just through idiotic fiscal policies that burden the unborn with our debt. The reason it's such a great metaphor from the Bible - this sacrificing of children - is that it becomes a great litmus test for almost anything we decide to do, today: does it fuck up our kids? If it does, or if it puts them in terrible danger, then we need to evaluate the thinking, policies, or ethics that get us there.
Child sacrifice is the ultimate indicator. Is your civilization sacrificing its children? If so, you've crossed the line. Your ends do not justify your means.
Interview - Part 1
Interview - Part 2
Jonathan Ellis Is Co-Editor in Chief of PopImage
Forum - Discuss this message at the PopImage forum.
PopPreview - Check out this preview of TESTAMENT With Commentary from Douglas Rushkoff.
Rushkoff Interview - 2004 - Find out more about CLUB ZERO-G in this interview from 2004.
Archive - Read past Industrial articles