As I’m with the Bears, a collection of short stories from a damaged planet, is published, I interviewed Wu Ming 1 about his contribution, climate activism, the occupy movement and the mystery why writers on the left still do not publish under copyleft or creative commons.
Stir: In Bill McKibben’s introduction to I’m with the Bears he says that “science can only go so far…it is the role of artists to make us feel”. This expresses the limits of knowing something intellectually – “the climate science” – and emphasises that our experience of these important issues are complicated by psychological, historical, political and social forces. How important is this understanding in your own work and do you think that if we are to have any success against runaway climate change that we will have to take these considerations seriously as authors and activists?
Wu Ming 1: I’m an Italian novelist trained in continental philosophy, so this kind of reflection sounds like a truism to me. I think that there’s no real comprehension of the world without feelings. Neuroscience has demonstrated that Descartes’ concept of an abstract, disembodied, rational mind was utterly wrong, and that there’s no dichotomy between reason and emotion. Whatever “reason” is, it is embodied, and there’s really no rationality without emotions. We think through narratives based on primary metaphors, narratives whose unfolding has emotional and moral implications. By the way, this is precisely the reason why I prefer “continental philosophy” over “analytic philosophy”. I think that fans of analytic philosophy tend to have a somewhat narrow-minded idea of what the mind is and what language can do, they tend to focus almost exclusively on logic and the empirical realm, while continental philosophy in all its strands (Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault etc.) has tried to re-invent language in order to force us into thinking in different ways, into grasping the world not only as it is but as it could be. What continental philosophy is about is casting different glances on the world. That’s why continental philosophy developed a very fruitful relationship with poetry and literature, and sometimes even merged with them, as is the case with Nietzsche, Deleuze, Foucault etc. Foucault’s style was described by some scholars as “demonstrative lyricism”. When Rudolf Carnap rejected Heidegger’s concepts by saying that they lacked any empirical basis, he failed to understand that Heidegger was using language in a poetic way.
S: Your short story Arzèstula is a post-apocalyptic tale that takes place after the crisis. Do you think the promotion of this negative vision of the world is crucial to avoid it?
WM1: When I wrote Arzestula (a heavily, disturbingly autobiographical story) I tried not to lay too much emphasis on nightmarish descriptions of a post-apocalyptic future. Actually, I wanted to write a surrealistic, dreamlike tale of hope and redemption. And you probably noticed that global warming is never mentioned in the story. Honestly, I’m not even sure it fits in the anthology, Mark Martin thinks it does, and I trust him, but it isn’t a cautionary tale… Generally speaking – that is, forgetting Arzèstula for a while – I think that many writers (including yours truly) would like to produce a positive state of social alert. It may happen that an artistic work raises awareness of a great problem and takes part in spurring a decision process. I’m not talking about solving the problem, that goes way beyond what you can do with literature, but take for example the nineteenth-century serial novel, the stuff Dickens wrote in Britain and Dumas, Sue and all those guys wrote in France, where the genre was called “feuilleton”. Serial novels were very successful, and made the French public opinion aware of ghastly living conditions in poor neighborhoods, with such a clamor that the parliament was induced to pass an “anti-feuilleton” act. Moreover, literature and fiction can make us imagine “worst case scenarios” and thus serve as admonitions, to avert further deterioration of the situations. If during the Cold War civilisation wasn’t destroyed by nuclear weapons, it was in part because public opinion was constantly kept on alert with scenarios of apocalypse, post-nuclear stories, movies and novels about wandering survivors scorched by radiation. In 1983, The Day After was seen by one hundred million people. In Italy it was distributed at cinemas and was the third biggest hit of that season. Wherever it was broadcast or screened, it sparked heated debates on nuclear armament. The quality of that film was rather mediocre … But it had a function, it increased awareness. Think also of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: the question raised by that novel was whether it is more ethical to let a warmongering president be elected or assassinate him during the campaign! Without public opinion being constantly prodded in that direction, who can be sure that Nixon or Reagan or Brezhnev wouldn’t have dropped the bomb some day? However, we’re talking about ages ago. The question is: are cautionary tales still useful? Or should we authors write stories that are already… post-cautionary? Stories that take the catastrophe for granted, and try to figure out how people could go on and live and find a new sense of community after the world we know has fallen down? That’s really what Arzèstula is about.
S: After the protests in Genoa in 2001, you described the event as a “crucial moment for the latest generation of activists” and talked about how it contributed to the understanding that you cannot “besiege a power that is everywhere” – the realization that capitalism’s power lies in the fact that it does not reside in a single place (a castle, a conference hall etc) but has been incorporated into almost every aspect of our social and economic life. Can this criticism be easily applied to the Occupy Movement that has turned up at Wall Street – the formal home of our financial system – or do you think there are important differences?
WM1: Violating the “red zones” was pure self-delusion, there was nothing in there, actual decisions were not taken in those summits. Capitalist power isn’t inside any fortress: it is in the microphysics of daily exploitation, in financial exchanges, and so on. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which has now turned into the Occupy Everything movement, is already a step – maybe several steps – ahead. As McKenzie Wark wrote, they started by occupying an abstraction, they weren’t actually occupying Wall Street, they were occupying the concept of Wall Street, and the rhetorical device by which Wall Street had come to mean “financial capital”. There is a more precise insight on how power works. In Italy we had “Occupy Bank of Italy”: campers weren’t really occupying the bank, they were shifting the focus of public discussion from Burlesquoni’s theatrical antics to the austerity measures dictated to Italy by the European Central Bank. They chose Banca d’Italia as a target because that was Mario Draghi’s last week as governor of the Bank. He was going to become president of the ECB. The movement was attacking enemy troops not in the positions they were leaving, but in the positions they were about to take possess of. In short, there were no trivialities like “Let’s besiege the palaces of power.”
S: You are a member of the writing collective Wu Ming which is a symbol used by Chinese dissidents, and means both anonymous and five. Could you explain how anonymity is part of your political and literary approach and why you use other uncommon forms of writing practice, such as the revision of female characters based on feedback from female readers, in your novels?
WM1: Well, we aren’t anonymous. “Wu Ming” is the name of our band. Then each members has a nom de plume that’s consistent with the band’s name, in the same way each member of the Ramones took that fake surname: John William Cummings became “Johnny Ramone”, and so on. Thus we are “Wu Ming 1”, “Wu Ming 2” etc. That’s no anonymity, that’s pseudonymity. And our real names aren’t secret, in Italy everybody knows that my name is Roberto Bui, but nobody uses it, it would be like calling Joey Ramone “Jeffrey Ross Hyman”, there would be no point in doing that. Confusion arises because our band’s name is a tribute to the political and cultural use of anonymity, but we aren’t really anonymous ourselves. As to uncommon writing practices, we always find it strange when people find our practices strange. To us, they are perfectly soundly normal. Submitting our female characters to the judgment of female readers is hardly revolutionary: we are an all-male band after all, we need to vicariously look at ourselves from an outside, indeed, we need to vicariously look at ourselves from an outside while we’re creating and depicting female characters, in order to breathe life into them and make them credible.
S: You have long published under Copyleft – a license that allows noncommercial and attributive reproduction of creative works. This license, along with Creative Commons, is still largely unpopular amongst radical political publishers and authors. Why do you think this is so?
WM1: I know this answer will disappoint you, but I really don’t have a clue. To us, it is a mystery. It would seem the most rational, useful, coherent thing to do, and yet only a few people do it. Quite strange and mystifying.
I’m with the Bears is published by Verso for £8.99 and royalties from the sale of I’m with the Bears will go to 350.org, an international grassroots movement working to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Wu Ming 1 is a member of the Wu Ming Foundation, grew up in the lands between Ferrara and the Adriatic Sea which are depicted in his story, and blogs at www.wumingfoundation.com