An interview with Sadie Plant
by Matthew Fuller
Published in Alien Underground 0.1, 1995
The Criminal Justice Act is a new law in the UK that massively enlarges the state’s power to deal with a diverse range of threats. From pornographers to travellers, ravers to hunt saboteurs, ramblers to the everyday criminalised, the state is preparing for a panic induced crackdown on all forms of resistance to the law of property and the reign of ‘decency’. Having already seen several large scale riots at demonstrations against the Act, the UK looks set for a widespread period of disturbance which many believe will, at least, end the fifteen years of Tory rule in the same way that resistance to the Poll Tax knocked Thatcher out of government. Politics has vastly changed here. New generations are completely disenfranchised by that of the mainstream, while the so-called revolutionaries continue their backward march to whatever theoretical year zero they’re hallucinating. Meanwhile, new methods of conceiving and realising the organisation of people and materials are being made: at one fractal level, by the very people this bill looks set to attack, and at another, as a wider global range of developments including the changing position of women; new forms of synthetic life; the migration of economic density and the concomitant impotence of ‘Euroman’; an understanding of self-organising systems in all previously discrete areas of science…
One self-declared “ex-human” pulling all these areas together into bundles of words is Sadie Plant whose writing forms, not some cataleptic pondering of these important times, but itself generates a torrential flood of deregulation. Here, sensual wordplay mixes with a synapse wrenching depth of thought that, in the right place, does to control what salt does to a slug.
m Okay, so what’s going on in the UK today with the Criminal Justice Act and so on?
s Well, on the one hand, total regrouping of reactionary forces summed up by the phrase Back to Basics and that basically is a panic reaction against a lot of bottom-up self-organising activity. The whole rave scene or the post rave scene has really changed Britain actually. I think it’s changed the way people think, not in a post-hippy sort of way which is often said to be the case but I think people, for example I see it with students who are no longer content to stick with one discipline; history or literature, they want to do biology economics, literature and multimedia art all at the same time. And again that’s a question of making lateral connections between what were once well established and separate disciplines. In terms of the art scene as well obviously that same move’s happening with multimedia – you’re no longer just a visual artist or a writer or whatever. Most people who are doing anything interesting in those fields are converging again with people who are working in other areas and other media. So in all those areas I think there is this basic pattern of a move away from this hierarchical, top-down, control of knowledge to a much more lateral, bottom-up, connectionist sort of approach and again I think this is converging with discoveries in biology and new work in economics and even work that’s developing understanding of how the brain works. It turns out that it too is a lateral processing system, not the top down, hierarchical organ that it was once thought to be.
m In a recent paper you have asked, “is this what it means to get out of the meat, not simply to leave the body, but to go further than the organism?” How does this relate to the evolutionary ideas of William Burroughs, trust fund baby, and the man who wrote ‘Here to Go’? How does his anti-body, brain thing/spacecraft, relate to what you’re on about?
s Basically the two positions that are established at the minute are either that you talk about disembodiment or you talk about embodiment. Either you’re out of the body in some stratospheric zone or you’re in the organism. I think that neither of those are correct. When people talk about getting out of the body they are still assuming that there is some kind of great transcendent space like heaven for the soul, or something non-material at any rate, to occupy. And as far as I’m concerned that isn’t there. The universe isn’t like that, it’s a material process not some sort of idealist construction. So you can’t get out of matter, that’s the crucial thing. But you can get out of the confining organisation of matter which is shaped into things and of course, organisms. The organism is literally organised around its organs, the vocabulary says it all really.
m So what are some of the escape routes that you think people are using at the moment?
s Well obviously there the whole dance thing for example, and all of the experiments with virtual reality (on a really pragmatic level). But more than that it’s not what people try to do, or what they think they’re doing. It actually is happening to us anyway. The organism, it seems to me, is mutating whether we mean it to or not.
m In what kind of way?
s For example, even if you just think of multimedia. Before you have multimedia you have separated media and they are all based on existing human organs like the eye and so on and I would say by extension that the whole sense of knowledge is based around the phallic organ, so they’re all based on specific organs, eras, eyes and so on. But you start to talk about multimedia it just doesn’t make sense to talk about separate media, or of course to talk about separate organs. The body becomes a processing system for what we can only still think of as separate organs, separate senses, separate media but once you get to the point where they start converging then you’re not really talking about the body as a collection of organs anymore. It becomes a point of coalescence for all sorts of material flows and again people realise that they are not separated individuals. Not just because you can have a new set of ideas about collectivity or whatever but because people begin to understand things like hormonal communication – all sorts of communications going on between people and between people and the rest of the material world. So the old idea about the individual as separated from nature or from the rest of world is going, and all systems of domination, it seems to me, have been based on that sort of separation.
m Yes! Okay, so how else does this pan out?
s LSD and MDMA are the two drugs that have had the sort of impact. But also, the whole drugs trade is fascinating. You can just think of it again as a whole global, out of control Black Economy. It poses an incredible threat to the whole nation state organisation of the world. Hence the War on Drugs. Hence also the impossibility of legalising drugs, and the impossibility of keeping going on the current policies almost sums up the crisis. And it really is a big crisis.
m Porn is currently been seen as something good by many feminists again. What’s the reason for this, what’s the porn that turns you on, and, is porn healthy?
s Is it healthy? No it is not healthy! It’s absolutely sick! And that’s why everybody likes it. Because health, cleanliness and so on are all out of the window. What sort of porn turns me on? Well actually there’s a whole crew of people in Birmingham writing sort of half lesbian half sort of machine porn, and yeah, I like that sort of thing. Post-human porn is the thing. Because again most porn is about tits and bums and organs. And what needs to happen is something that gets beyond that. Bacterial sex for example is full of potential – bacterial pornography!
m …Just open your refrigerator. So, to get back to basics. What is a woman. What is a drug. And, what’s a computer?
s What’s interesting about cybernetics and computers is that it almost goes without saying, but they were originally intended just to reinforce the stablished strucures and maintain the status quo. And also, technically, the first computers were serial machines and they were organised around central processing units so they too were very top down systems and they tended to perpetuate a top down world. But once you start to develop machine intelligence or artificial intelligence even in the most basic sense (just think of a computer as a proto-intelligent machine) then obviously the point about intelligence is that it will learn and it will learn its own stuff and it won’t necessarily learn what the experts feed into it and that shift has now really happened in AI with a real shift away from top down expertise to bottom-up learning processes and that again feeds into the challenge against education because teaching goes out of the window and it all becomes a matter of learning instead.
So that’s actually changed the internal composition of the computer, but it has also fed into its actual effects in the world as well. If you just take the example of the situation of women in the world, obviously there’s steps forward and steps backward but there is nevertheless a general tendency for more freedom for women and that is very much to do with the inhuman, (they are literally inhuman) processes of economic and technical change that do sweep away, as Marx said, the old structures of the family, the state, education, trade unions, all of the old social constraints.
Inevitably the fallout from that is a new freedom for women, and the irony of this is that feminism on the whole has been going in exactly the opposite direction – it’s wanted to have a political solution in a sense which is always a top down solution. (It’s a question of ‘let’s organise women’, or ‘let’s make such and such happen’). But what’s interesting about the present situation is that the changes that people hoped for are happening but they aren’t happening because of – they’re almost happening in spite of – the attempts to make them happen. Like this whole thing about girls doing better at school for instance. That’s happened totally under the noses, but also behind the backs of the whole equal opportunities lobby. It hasn’t happened because people have tried to get girls to do better. There is, it seems to me a whole shift across the board. And if you think of the position of women in the past; really women have almost been used like computers – as machines, to keep patriarchy going, to reproduce the generations and so on and again that too is another case of things that have been used as means to ends, patriarchal and power structure ends produce results that become self-organising and get their acts together without being means to ends. It’s true with the media as well, and also with trade routes and commodities even, that women really themselves have functioned as commodities in western cultures.
And commodities you could really say are ‘getting smart’. You know, the computer is ‘the first smart commodity’ but obviously women are smart commodities too and the organising humans who still think that the world revolves around them they are the bracket or the section that really looses out. And also, because of the situation of women in the past they too have never been able to have a strong sense of identity and that’s always been a real problem: hence women getting locked up for being schizophrenics and hysterics and so on and so forth. But again, that strong sense of identity now becomes a terrible disadvantage and everybody that’s grown up with that, is and will, in the near future really suffer as a consequence of it.
m So while everything’s plummeting crazily out of control there are still people like Wired or whatever – the people they champion – who still think that they can make vast amounts of fast bucks out of the process…
s Well that’s true, but what they think they’re doing… I mean to be honest, making money out of it isn’t necessarily my problem. Them having control over it is a problem. Obviously it used to be the case that ownership and control went hand in hand but I’m not convinced that it’s quite that simple any more. And say intellectual property is a classic case. You can jump up and down to your heart’s content and say ‘that’s mine’ but the fact is, whether you like it or not, it isn’t any more.
There are scientists around for instance who really do see themselves as ‘Scientists in this again governing, top-down sort of role who do think that they are creating our future. Fortunately they are just naive. So it seems to me that it is increasingly possible to look at the emergence of intelligence far in excess of the province of the old white male, and again, people in that sort of position, they may think that they’re running the whole show but they’re just again tiny components subject to the same sort of molecular engineerings that the rest of us are and what they think they are doing, when you put it in the context of emergent planetary intelligence, is irrelevant to what they actually are doing. So there’s a big split all the way through this between intentions and effects. All the intentions that have fed into the present situation have universally been bad and have always been about maintaining existing structures of control but the effects are increasingly run-away effects and that’s what cybernetics is about almost.
m How do self-organising systems differ from cultures or subcultures such as punk, hacking, grass-roots feminism, wildcat working class organisation. Is it the same thing or is it a different thing?
s I think that it’s a new and better way of thinking the same thing actually. I think that retrospectively you look back and think ‘Oh yeah, well of course people have always been doing it’. But I think that the people who can really take advantage of it are the once who can really see themselves doing it. Because for example a lot of say, grass roots feminist organisation if you take the pornography issue for example, they may have organised themselves and so on, but if they’d thought of themselves as self-organising processes would have a very different attitude to pornography and they wouldn’t have wanted to be in this position of legislating and controlling the culture. So the more people actually do self-organisation and see themselves doing that, then that ratchets itself up one further level.
m So what is the difference between autoproduction (autoproduzione) and what you are talking about?
s Well, it’s that I think that even though autoproduction and any notions like that have got the potential to hit what I’m talking about, or come very close, largely because its all influenced… you know Negri and others are influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault and such characters, and so am I… so they come out of similar roots. But autoproduction as they have characterised it is still very much about ‘the self’ with a much older, bourgeoisie conception of self-identity and collective identity or social identity. And what I’m talking about is something that does pass through that, and makes all of that possible, but goes beyond it. It undoes ‘the self’ just as much as it undoes the state, corporations or any other institutions etc.
m So does this obviously doesn’t present yet another set of key principles through which to work?
s No, we need no principles. But cultural viruses I think is a really good clue, and this notion of engineering. You can’t hope to, and people shouldn’t want to, take political control or to organise other people. It’s a matter of looking really coolly and calmly at where you are at the time, whatever situation you’re in and what you can engineer within that situation: not getting too over inflated about taking control of it or making something happen in a sort of dogmatic fashion but just going for a bit of tinkering here and there which can have amazing sort of unexpected effects. If you want to change the atmosphere of somewhere you don’t do it by just walking in and taking over. You can do a lot more subtle bottom-up sort of tinkering. And in terms of spreading ideas and so on this whole idea of cultural viruses is really fascinating and very useful. You can see how they get on to your head so you can easily see how to use them.
m How does your version of cultural viruses compare to that of Richard Dworkins for instance?
s Well Dworkins is still very much a scientist. He talks very happily about cultural viruses and very interestingly up to a point but he doesn’t think that he himself is a viral contagion he still think that he is the scientist. If he’d gone one step further and could see how integral he to is to that process and he wasn’t running it again in this old version of what a scientist is then yeah, I think he’d probably be quite interesting as well.
m Right! So: cultural viruses…
s Drugs are obviously one. MDMA is a fascinating case because after all it had been around for years. people had even used it in the sixties and it just obviously wasn’t the right moment. The point about a cultural virus is that it can lie dormant for a long time and them something can trigger it or it can trigger something else and again, the crucial thing is not to talk about this sort of thing metaphorically because otherwise you just leave the old world intact. This isn’t a new way of thinking about it. It is that, but only because of material necessity, not because of ‘hey, let’s have new set of ideas’. It’s just simply that the old set of ideas is totally obsolete. And thinking itself is a material process and that too is part of it. There isn’t this separation between ideas and whatever else.
m It’s a question of where you situate it.
s Yeah, I do think that Britain, much as I spend most of my time hating it, I do increasingly think that it is quite an interesting place to be. Partly because it has got such a sort of load of remnants of the aristocracy dotted around and that does tend to do something positive on the underside. So it has got this amazing underground culture and it seems to me that the authorities haven’t quite got the stranglehold that they have even in other European countries. And it’s also interestingly positioned, not only between Europe and America, because I don’t think it is European and it’s obviously not American. But by the same token it’s positioned strangely between north Europe, Scandinavia and the south of Europe as well. It is a funny sort of experimental zone I think, the UK.
m And that was sponsored by the British Tourist Board there.
s I know, it’s terrible isn’t it but I can see the point of being here sometimes.
m So, what do you expect will happen in Britain after the Criminal Justice Bill comes into force in all its glory?
s Well, I think two things actually. You might disagree with this… On the one hand people by necessity will increasingly ignore the law. You know, that nicely exacerbates the whole situation. Because there’s no way that people are just going to stop, and can’t stop, and anyway wouldn’t want to. And then I think that there will be more and more polarised confrontation between the old world and the new, basically, I think it’s almost as simple as that, and the more that does polarise, in a way, the better it is because I think that the Right, or the authorities, are behaving incredibly short-sightedly and are just feeding into the hands of the bottom up tendencies. It’s really true though! God they are asking for fucking trouble aren’t they!
m Yeah, it’s like no-one can work it out.
s Well they’re thick. You see the point is that it’s where intelligence is. Intelligence is no longer on the side of power. That’s the point.
m Well that’s a good slogan to end on.
s No, but they’re not intelligent! They haven’t a clue what is happening in the world! And that’s good! The whole social structure in the past has been devoted to getting all the intelligent people, not just intelligent people because it goes way beyond that – it’s about intelligent processes – on to the side of power. That’s no longer the only place for people to go. And this again is again why markets are interesting because the difference between for example writing a book for a university press and the open market is the difference between total constraint and total freedom.
m Though there is a difference between markets per se and the actual forces which work through markets. Perhaps you could make a distinction between those.
s Well again, rather as with women who have if you like been the means of communication between men, structurally and obviously trade routes and commodities have been just simply means of perpetuating the corporation and the state or any of the big, powerful structures. But increasingly, it’s pretty obvious now that the state is being eroded by its own markets and that they are no longer just serving it as means to its ends. They’ve accelerated beyond that. The West for example just cannot stop the Pacific Rim booming. There’s nothing that a government could do. That human level of power has no sort of control over it at all.
So the danger is that instead of states you get corporations. Which is obviously no help at all. But corporations, and even smaller companies and firms are finding exactly the same problem because they’re in exactly the same structural relation to markets as the state is and they too are being taken over by their own markets. I mean the classic case is obviously IBM. Corporations now if they are going to survive have to start behaving a lot less like the old mega-multi-national. I mean they can be as multinational as they want but they can’t necessarily exercise the same control which is again the key thing.
But, markets are a very different thing to capitalism. Markets are just the structured form of market activity. If you go somewhere like Mexico there is an incredible grass-roots trading economy, even through the years of so-called central planning. People just trade everything and that is the grass-roots mode of life there. Everybody just pays each other a couple of cents or whatever for everything but that circulation gives everybody the opportunity to crawl off the ground. And all this is very urgent because the welfare state for example is over and people have to find, and will find, and do find, new ways of getting themselves together. It really is the end of both the advantages and disadvantages of a dependency culture. It’s not a question of actually promoting that. It just is happening.
m How do we accelerate it?
s Anybody who asks the state for anything is almost already fucked. So it’s a matter of creating a real anarchism that actually would destroy the state. Which is of course, quite happily destroying itself at the moment. So that’s the process that can be encouraged.
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