Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 02/08/2006
Hacking the Bible ... and Reality itself
Douglas Rushkoff on Testament
Whether you first encountered his distinctive and thoughtful voice through the wicked good new ongoing series Testament, or via Club Zero-G, his first foray into comics which we discussed a while back, chances are that you were struck by the richness and depth of the ideas and realities presented by Douglas Rushkoff and friends. Now, if you haven't had the pleasure of encountering Doug, his ideas or his comics before now, well, truth be told I kinda envy you. That's because, no matter how astounding or illuminating each succeeding conversation might be - and there are surprises and new understandings arising after each and every encounter with Rushkoff or his work, on this you may trust me implicitly - there really is nothing quite like the experience of meeting Douglas Rushkoff and his ideas for the first time.
Bill Baker: Both you and Liam [Sharp] have mentioned that Testament sprung from your conception of the Bible as an "open source" collaboration, and as something that's happening in the present as much as in the historic past. Just so we're all on the same page, could you explain what you mean by the term "open source"? And how can we, today, be collaborating in the creation of a book whose text was codified for the past couple of hundred years?
Douglas Rushkoff: There's two different ideas you're looking at - and in some ways they don't fit on the same page. Yes, I see the Bible as a collaborative effort. I don't believe the Torah was written by Moses up on Mount Sinai, and I don't believe the rest of the books came straight from God, either. The best evidence shows that these stories were adapted from a long history of competing mythologies - and that many people over many centuries worked to integrate them all into a single narrative, with a consistent ethical and spiritual message.
So the authority of these texts - the Bible - comes less from the idea that these events really happened at some moment in historical time, and more from the fact that these stories represent dynamics underlying the human experience. They remained relevant throughout the hundreds of years during which they were being written down, and they remain relevant today.
The process through which the Bible was written and interpreted was and is, itself, a very "open source" process. I don't mean that in the sense of publishing and profit-sharing, as much as the sense that it is a collaborative effort and that it requires people understand that this stuff can be interpreted. Yes, after a couple of millennia, some rabbis did "lock down" the Torah - like the kernel of code around which everything else is supposed to be added. But "Midrash" - the explanations and additions to these stories - keeps going on. And Talmudic laws specifies that Midrash is just as holy and real as the Torah. So, as I've come to understand it, Torah and Bible are ongoing, evolving conversations - much like the US Constitution. They were written by inspired people, and written with the intent of being evolutionary documents.
Now, the other part is that this relationship to holy text can inform our relationship to reality, itself. Not only is the Bible meant to be hacked, as it were - but so is the world in which we live. The biggest lesson of the Bible is that we are participating in the ongoing creation of our world. Even though some fundamentalists today take the opposite message - they think the Bible is about the laws within it, rather than the revolutionary act of people writing laws instead of depending on God to give laws to them.
BB: Now, just to be absolutely clear, does this refute anything in the Bible, or that it's a divinely inspired text?
DR: As I understand it, and as more historically, academically, or philosophically inclined people would understand it, this is a much more faithful understanding of what the Bible is and how it works than most of what passes for religion these days. Bible is the story of people who escaped static fundamentalism (Egypt) in order to launch a civilization based in negotiation with God rather than simple obedience. The Torah is written in the form of a contract!
Now the Bible refutes itself on many occasions. Are we to stone sorceresses or not? Even the facts contradict themselves (was Eve created at the same time as Adam, as it says in one line of Genesis, or from his rib, as it says in another?).
My purpose is to write with great fidelity to the original stories of the Bible, as well as the context in which they were understood by the original hearers of these texts.
BB: Well, does this mean that this story is part of, for lack of better words, our culture's genetic structure and people are just acting out predetermined psycho-biological imperatives or scripts, or is it more the case of groups and individuals acting out these various patterns, be it consciously or no? Or, in more straightforward terms, do you think it's Nature or Nurture that's prompting these behaviors?
DR: You have to understand: the story I'm telling *in* the comic is not reality. It is a story - an allegory for reality. So just because things may be true for my characters, or even the Bible's characters, doesn't mean they are exactly true for us. The situations have underlying dynamics, however, that are quite analogous to what we're experiencing all the time. So just because we feel like someone else is getting better rewards for poorer work, doesn't mean that we are really Cain and that we're going to kill Abel.
As for nature/nurture, from the perspective of what I'm working on right now, I'd have to say that it's in our nature to move towards nurture. The Bible is about how people move from being animals dependent on given circumstances to being humans who can be involved in the improvement of those circumstances. This is the very premise of the story. It's the whole thing, really. That's why it's so sad that people are using Bible for the opposite message.
BB: So how did you get from that idea to Testament? How'd you go about developing this idea into a general ground plan for the series, and how did you then translate that into the verbally and visually multilayered book we're seeing each month?
DR: Well, once I had all that, the rest was easy. Why not make this apparent to everyone by telling a modern story about human slavery to their idols and fixed narratives - and then relate key moments of that story back to its Biblical parallels? Then, why not let the characters slowly begin to come into awareness of this repeating structure - and see if they can break free?
I had always wanted to work in comics because I feel like certain aspects of time and sequential history hadn't yet been exploited. And what about relating action inside the panels to action beyond them?
This story felt like a perfect opportunity to do this. So I've created god characters who live beyond the panels, attempting to influence what is happening inside. But they can't go in, because the panels are linear time, while the gods live outside time. If they try to shove their arm into a panel, it will only appear inside as an element, like fire. (Think burning bush.)
I've been thinking about all that for so long that it was really easy to move into this medium. As for the multi-layered story (gods, moderns, ancients, all occurring simultaneously), well, that's what note cards are for! You should see my walls.
BB: What kind of scripts have you been passing to Liam and the rest of the team? Oh, and I was wondering if you were providing them with thumbnails for some of the more complicated pages?
DR: Yeah - I've made some crazy drawings of this stuff. I make the drawings as ridiculous as possible, so as not to over-determine the look and feel of the book. And I don't want to insult anybody. I mean, I'm not the artist and it's not my place to visualize this material. At the same time, even after a page or two describing an image, I'll still get an email back from [Jonathan] Vankin [the book's editor] asking what I'm trying to depict. And then I'll just draw something like this:
BB: I've counted what appear to be five different layers of reality, encompassing the historic, spiritual, mythic, fiction and actual worlds; I mean, that was you lecturing about mythic structures reoccurring in life and art in Testament # 1, right? So, how many layers of reality are you working with in the series, generally, and how involved are some of the mechanics involved with not just putting it down on the page, but getting them to interweave and, on occasion, interact?
DR: Well, it's hard to count realities because they fold in on each other. Most simply there's the near future reality of the main story, there's Bible time, there's the gods' reality, and there's the reader's reality (the real world). So that's really just three realities and ours. For now. They haven't all begun to interact, yet.
So there's the way the gods see what's happening in our reality (which we won't see until issue # 5, really). And there's our way of seeing what goes on in their reality (which won't be a for a while). And then there's the human relationship to the story in which they're trapped.
But in the end - and I think any great magician would agree with this - there's just one reality. To actually believe there's different ones is to surrender to the illusion. The boundaries aren't exactly real, even though they've become quite opaque.
BB: As some of our readers might know, you're widely published in other fields, as both an academic and popular author of fiction and nonfiction. Which then makes me wonder if you've found that working in the comics medium making is making you use different "mental muscles" than your other work; whether you have to, in a sense, use a different part of your brain to write comics versus nonfiction or fiction, or if it's all "just writing" to you?
DR: Comics are a much better medium for telling the kinds of stories and sharing the kinds of perspectives I've been trying to share all along. Comics have more than one thing going on at a time. They can explore multiple perspectives simultaneously. They communicate as much or more in the gutters as they do in the panels. And they are beneath a certain cultural radar, which lets me do a lot more dangerous stuff. Hell, I wrote a book on Judaism in which I hinted at what most rational people would consider very uncontroversial stuff: I suggested that the modern nation state of Israel may not actually be a God-ordained political entity, but rather the result of a series of human choices. Or I asked readers to consider whether Jewish continuity might best be served by sharing Jewish insights with people of other religions, rather than just trying to stop Jewish kids from inter-marrying. And this got me blacklisted by some very moderate Jewish organizations. It was considered radical, off-the-wall blasphemy.
In comics, I can go a lot further towards acknowledging the Bible's origins and its brilliance, without setting off the same alarm bells.
Comics readers are more sophisticated, while the medium remains relatively ignored by our cultural censors. So I'm free to do what, sadly, is considered blasphemy by modern religious institutions. I'm free to explore the real power and stories of these ancient texts in a more open atmosphere, where the intellect is not forbidden.
BB: I hope you don't mind, but something you said earlier, just before we began this interview, really piqued my curiosity.
Specifically, you noted that you felt as if you'd "finally found the right medium for my story and perspective. Club Zero-G was a great experiment and testing ground. I learned by [experience] both what worked and what didn't." Which leads me to ask several questions, the first of which is what, exactly, about the comics medium makes it the perfect foil for your particular story and perspective?
DR: I think I mentioned a lot of this above. First, it's the power of sequential narrative to convey through relationships and order. When I write in plain text, I only have one line. Comics give me ways to do more things at the same time, and to work multiple meanings and dynamics. They also have their own tradition of mythos and super-heroes, which is a good backdrop for stories about how our civilization developed myths and heroes.
Secondly, and just as important, are comics place within the overall media landscape. They are both more popular than books with the kinds of people who actually think, yet less restricted by big business concerns, and less likely to provoke censorship or ex-communication.
BB: What were some of the important lessons Club Zero-G taught you about the medium? And what kind of real surprises, or even revelations, if any, did that experience offer you?
DR: I originally intended Club Zero-G as a 400-page story, told over three or four years as a 16-page monthly insert in BPM magazine. Financial constraints (I was paying the artist out of my pocket) as well as publishing constraints (the original magazine couldn't afford to print our little inserts) forced me to find another way to finish the story. My friends at Disinfo picked it up, but only as a 100-page book. So I edited the story down and ended up having to tell too much too quickly.
Plus, Steph Dumais has a very particular drawing style that wasn't appreciated by the kind of audience the book was attracting. The comic was intended as a Western answer to manga - which is why his Euro splatter comics approach was kind of interesting to me. His characters' faces are funny - light-hearted and sweet. Very rave, and the book takes place in rave culture. So it seemed like a good fit.
And it was, at least in BPM magazine - a rave magazine. But when we branched out into the graphic novel world, buyers expected a more detailed look, and didn't know quite what to make of our book. I hoped the whole thing would work as kind of a sigil - a magickal experience; a simple transformative hit. But I was entering an existing ecology of works where this work just didn't fit.
Plus, I wasn't being edited. I just did my thing in as many pages as I was allotted. Vertigo has editors - smart people with lots of knowledge about comics, making comments all along the way.
As for flash major insights, I think it was learning the difference between film (in which I'm trained) and comics (which are still new).
Film is a medium dependent on reaction shots. In comics, reaction shots rarely work. You can't really rely on the face so much. It's a whole lot more about the words; the images can play against those words, or even say something additional. But they kind of have to do different things all the time. If you try to match them up, there will always be dissonance.
BB: What has working on Testament offered you in the way of surprises? And how about fulfillment? What has it been doing for you that your many other endeavors don't give you?
DR: Honestly, the biggest surprise has been the positivity surrounding the project. At least the positivity ever since the first issue came out. Many of the comics BBS people were guarded and suspicious - as if the Bible were being exploited for hype value, or as if a stranger to the medium shouldn't be entrusted with a whole title. And that did intimidate me.
But since the book came out, it's been received with great open-mindedness and fairness. I guess I was surprised by how many real sites and publications decided to cover it, and then by how positively. It's been really encouraging. I mean, I come from the book world - where getting a review, much less a positive one, is like pulling teeth. There's just so many new book titles every day, it's hard to get noticed. The comics world may seem really big when you're looking at a wall of titles, but it's a really small world compared with the book industry.
So the biggest surprise was that the thing has been noticed, and that people were willing to overlook their suspicions to the real intent and determination with which all of us involved in this book have approached it.
Another big surprise was how dedicated the artist, Liam Sharp, has been. From the moment he read the first summaries and FAQ's I'd prepared for Vertigo, Liam started emailing me, saying things like "I was born to dot his project." And he's gone and dropped pretty much everything else he's been working on in order to devote himself entirely to this project. That's really humbling.
I was also surprised by how the Vertigo team really acts like a family. They have been really aware of my life, and about keeping me as shielded as possible from the harsher realities of publishing and business. They were the first ones to call and send a gift when my wife had our baby. They are the first to call when someone is sick or if there's some other problem. So it doesn't feel like some cold publishing company or like the division of a media conglomerate. They really do care about me as a person and - dare I say it - as an artist. As if I'm a person who should be protected on some level. And that's really new for me.
Finally, I've been surprised by how hard and how exhilarating this medium can be. Telling a story in sequential narrative is at once the hardest and most rewarding experience I've had since I started writing. It's hard because I have to convey so much in so few words. Exhilarating, because once Peter [Gross'] layouts, Liam's art, and Jamie's colors are finished, there's more being communicated per inch than any other medium yet invented.
Comics really are magical. I mean that in specific sense of the word.
We are conjuring, here. It's not like writing a novel, where people wonder if that stuff really *happened* to you. It's more like future-casting - where people wonder if the stuff we're making up will somehow come to pass.
BB: What would you like readers to get from Testament? I'm pretty confident from what you've said that, ideally, you'd like folks to get a little more than a fun, thoughtful, frightening and entertaining read out of it. So what would you like them to get from your work on this project, ultimately?
DR: Well, gosh. A really entertaining ride should be good enough. If everyone gets that then I haven't done too bad a job.
As for getting more, I suppose the best-case scenario would be for readers to come away realizing that the narrative in which we seem so mired is of our own making. We are still in charge of the story. Believing that Bush or the Pope or some other entity is "in charge" of us is ultimately a cop-out. The story is not yet written, nothing is set in stone, reality is an ongoing negotiation, and some of the best hints for how to do that negotiating are in the Bible, of all places.
If nothing else, I'd hope people come away with a better sense of how relevant the Bible is. It's been framed as a sanctimonious tome, but it's actually quite sexy and real. And, of course, metaphysical. If people just came away understanding how much of the Bible is about sex magick and how to incorporate it into daily life, I'd feel like I'd achieved a great thing for our culture.
BB: Testament is described by Vertigo as an ongoing series. Is that "ongoing" in the sense that you could literally tell this tale for the next 5, 10 or 20 years, or is there a definite arc, however extended, to this story?
DR: There's a definite meta-arc that I'm working on - and some mini-arcs nested within it. My big arc would go about four years. After that, there could still be years and years of episodes, but the reality will have shifted a bit. But the main arc I'm talking about right now covers the Torah - maybe a bit more. I'd hope they let me (or the marketplace lets me) get through those first four years of stuff.
I could keep doing it for decades, though. The source material is that good.
BB: As mentioned earlier, you're typically very active in several different spheres of the arts or letters at any one time. For instance, I know that another book bearing your name came out late last year. Why don't you tell us a bit about that one, just to give us an idea of what else you've been thinking about?
DR: I wrote a book that came out a week before the first issue of Testament, called Get Back in the Box. It's something of a sigil to transform capitalism, masquerading as a business book. Business people are stuck in some really old and dangerous models, born during the Renaissance. They're addicted to scarcity models, exploitation of labor, maximizing efficiency, and competition itself. None of these are appropriate to the business landscape of the 21st century - not when there are opportunities to actually make the world a better place through constructive enterprise. There are some real problems to contend with - things more important than which blue jeans people buy, or how to get slave labor to sew them.
But these new opportunities - like sustainable agriculture or renewable energy - can't be supported by a fiscal landscape based on models of scarcity. So I'm trying to show businesspeople the same thing I'm trying to show readers of Testament: these laws are not written in stone. Those of you who get that you can rewrite this stuff, and who have the energy to do it, will have a lot more fun, have a whole lot to do with how things come out, and probably achieve of bit of prosperity in the process.
BB: Anything else to add before I let you get back to work?
DR: I just want to thank people who are interested enough to read my comic book. If it weren't for you, they wouldn't be letting me write it. And it's by far the most interesting and important thing I've gotten to do as a writer.
To learn more about Vertigo's excellent ongoing monthly comic Testament, head on over to www.DCComics.com. To learn more about what Douglass Rushkoff is thinking about today, be sure to hit www.DouglasRushkoff.com and prepare to be both entertained and amazed by what this vital and important modern Renaissance Man.
And I mean that last part in the forward-thinking, multiply talented sense of the word, don't cha know?
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