B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


Confessions of a Mild-Mannered
Enemy of the State

Part 3 (1977-1997)


Japan and Hong Kong
The SI Anthology
Rock climbing
Rexroth again
Zen practice
Reading, writing, translating and music
How this book came to be


Japan and Hong Kong

I was in Japan for two months, based in Fujinomiya, a quiet country town at the foot of Mt. Fuji where Tommy Haruki and his family lived, enough off the beaten track that some of the neighborhood children had never seen a foreigner.

After a week or two I returned to Tokyo to meet some young anarchists who were translating my “Society of Situationism.” It was interesting to try to come up with Japanese equivalents for what I had written; but due to the absence of situationist activity in Japan they naturally had no conception of many of the nuances of ideologization that my text is largely concerned with, so I doubt if the translation ever met with much understanding.

I met a number of other anarchists in Tokyo, but for the most part I did not find the scene of much interest. Just to see if I could stir things up a bit, I wrote a sharply critical open letter to one of the groups [Open Letter to the Tokyo “Libertaire” Group], which Haruki translated and circulated to anarchist addresses throughout Japan. The group reprinted it along with a couple responses on the “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything” theme.

In November I made a three-week trip to Hong Kong to meet the “70s,” an anarchist group that was disseminating information on dissident tendencies in China at a time when such information was very hard to come by and many people still had illusions about Mao and the “Cultural Revolution.” I later put out a critical appreciation of the group and its publications [A Radical Group in Hong Kong]. To my surprise and disappointment, this text did not receive any public response from the 70s, though it apparently stirred up some internal debate. “Although some overseas comrades have criticised your ‘A Radical Group in Hong Kong’ as supercilious there are a number of us here (people including myself who have not met you) who do very much agree with you in your criticisms of the 70’s to the finest details,” wrote one correspondent, who unfortunately ended up rallying to the stale dogmatism of the International Communist Current, which hardly represents any improvement. The 70s group itself dissolved in the early 1980s.

Back in Japan, I visited some other anarchists in Kyoto and Osaka; helped Haruki reprint a Japanese translation of On the Poverty of Student Life that we had discovered; savored a few final dictionary-aided conversations, accompanied with cups of hot saké (particularly pleasant as the December cold began to penetrate the uninsulated houses); and returned to Berkeley.

I had mixed feelings about Japan. I disliked the conformism, the work ethic, and the persistence of traditional hierarchies and gender divisions. (There are even different grammatical forms depending on whether you’re a man or a woman, or are speaking to a superior or an inferior — I found it hard to take that sort of thing seriously.) But I liked some aspects of the culture very much — the traditional architecture and decor; the polite, modest comportment; the delicious cuisine; the almost fanatical neatness. (The practice of taking off your shoes before entering someone’s home seemed so sensible and comfortable that I’ve adopted it ever since in my own home.) And the language, though difficult, is fascinating to work with. Back in Berkeley I continued to study it, with the idea that I might go back and live there for a while. But I never ended up doing so, primarily because I didn’t hear of any interesting new radical developments there or any new contacts I wanted to meet. After a year I discontinued the study, and have since forgotten almost everything I knew. But it was fun while it lasted.

Apart from Japanese study, most of 1978 was taken up with proofreading work. For the last two decades I’ve gotten by on various freelance proofreading and editing jobs — not very exciting, but it allows me flexible hours and a lot of free time. Having fairly simple tastes and no family to support, I’ve been able to live my entire adult life in modest comfort on an income below the official poverty level. Of my only two apparent extravagances, my publications have almost paid for themselves (if you don’t count my “labor” on them, which has mostly been fun) and even my occasional foreign trips have been relatively cheap because I generally only go to places where there are friends or contacts I can stay with.

That fall I started closely following the revolt in Iran, reading daily press accounts as well as exploring a lot of background history. In March 1979 I issued a poster, The Opening in Iran, several hundred copies of which were distributed to radical Iranian student groups in America. It was my hope that a few copies, or at least some of the ideas, might find their way to Iran, but I don’t know if this ever happened. Some of the individual Iranians I met were vaguely sympathetic, but most were too caught up in the momentum of events and too attached to Islam or to one or another variety of Leninism to comprehend any truly radical perspective. A few even threatened to beat me up for disparaging Khomeini.

My text has been criticized for underestimating the preponderance of the religious element in the uprising. I assumed that both the strength of the Khomeiniist movement and its reactionary nature were obvious. In any case, though Khomeini’s eventual victory seemed likely, I did not believe it was a foregone conclusion — as it was, it took him several months to really consolidate his power. Leaving aside the admittedly overenthusiastic opening sentence, which was added on a last-minute impulse, my text was simply an attempt to cut through the prevalent confusions and distinguish the various forces and factors in play; it presented possibilities, not probabilities or predictions. For whatever it may be worth, someone later wrote to me: “I was in Iran shortly after the revolution. I hitchhiked from the Pakistan border to the Turkish border. I can tell of dozens of examples where ordinary people had taken power. Your analysis of the situation in Iran and its possibilities is the only bit of information I have seen that even remotely resembles the truth.” I know nothing about the reliability of this person, but every statement in my text was based on documented sources, most of them no more radical than Le Monde or the Christian Science Monitor.

The Monitor, incidentally, is the only mainstream news publication I read with any regularity: I’ve subscribed to it ever since I discovered it while researching my Iran piece. It is, of course, far from radical, but I find it less obnoxious than other American papers, and within its moderate, more or less liberal-humanistic limits (the paper’s religious perspective rarely obtrudes) it gives more international news and wastes less space on the latest moronic sensations.

In fall 1979 I went to Europe for four months. Several weeks were taken up in side trips to meet contacts in Mannheim, Nantes, Bordeaux, Barcelona, Athens and Thessaloniki. The rest of the time I stayed in Paris, hosted by Nadine and Joël, with whom I was back on excellent terms (they had visited me in California the year before). I also saw the Deneverts a few times. After the 1977 break they too had gone through a traumatic period that had eventually led them to question the sort of hostility and delirium that had frequently accompanied breaks in the situ milieu, and had initiated some degree of reconciliation with some of the people they had previously broken with. This did not mean that they were resigned to settling back into the usual superficial social relations. A year later they sent out a set of “Lettres sur l’amitié” in which they discussed their recent experiences on the terrain of political and personal relationships and declared a “friendship strike” of indefinite duration. That was the last I ever heard of them. The next time I tried to get in touch with them they had moved and left no address. (Does anyone know where they are?) [I have since found them.]

While I was in Paris I drafted a leaflet, apropos of nothing in particular (I envisioned handing it out at random in the Métro, etc.). What with one thing or another I never got around to printing it up. Here it is for the first time, seventeen years later:


In Paris more than anywhere else, especially since the situationists, everything has been said but few have taken advantage of it. Because theory is in itself commonplace it can only be of value to people who are not. Radical texts have become as routine as the work and consumption they denounce. Yes, we know it’s necessary to abolish the state and wage labor, to liberate our everyday lives, etc. But we become blasé. It becomes difficult to think for ourselves. Revolution is contained by overexposure.
       Only exceptionally are our struggles open and clear. Usually we are entangled, implicated in what we want to fight. It’s easy, and comforting, to blame the capitalists or the bureaucrats or the police; but it’s only thanks to the passive complicity of the “masses” that those small minorities have any power. It’s not so much the “fault” of the unions or the mass media for falsifying workers’ struggles — after all, that’s their function — as of the workers who fail to themselves assure the communication of their own experiences and perspectives.
       Bad enough that the system exploits us and hurts us and keeps us in ignorance. Worse is that it warps us, turns us into mean, petty, spiteful, cowardly creatures. Were we confronted with a single gross temptation to self-betrayal we might well refuse it. But little by little a thousand compromises wear away our resistance. We become incapable of any experimentation, for fear of disturbing the defenses we have built up to repress our shame. Even when we arrive at considering a critical action, we hesitate; we find so many objections — we are afraid of seeming foolish, afraid of being mistaken, afraid that our idea won’t work, or that if it does it won’t amount to anything.
       Hypocrite reader, your blasé expression doesn’t hide the fact that you know very well what I’m talking about. You go from ideology to ideology, each containing just enough truth to keep you hanging on but fragmentary enough to keep you from confronting the totality concretely. Successively disillusioned, you end up believing in nothing but the illusory nature of everything. Cynical spectator, like everyone else you pride yourself on being “different.” You console yourself by despising the naïve, the provincial, the yokel, the person who still believes in God or in his job — whose caricatured submission is presented as a foil precisely to make you forget your own submission. You are even telling yourself right now that this applies to most people but not to you; while the person next to you thinks that it applies to you but not to him.
       You vaguely imagine that somehow your life may get better. Do you really have any reason to believe that? Are you going to continue as you have until you die? Have you nothing to say? Have you no audacity, no imagination?
       Dialogue must concern itself with the suppression of the conditions that suppress dialogue!
       Let’s resolve the anachronistic “social question” so we can tackle more interesting problems!
       Pettiness is always counterrevolutionary!


The SI Anthology

Back in Berkeley I started working on my Situationist International Anthology. For years I had been frustrated by the lack of SI translations. Most of those that had appeared were inaccurate, and the few relatively good ones were usually out of print. It was difficult for people to get a sense of the overall situationist perspective and how it had developed by reading just a few scattered articles, and the only general collection, Christopher Gray’s Leaving the Twentieth Century, was inadequate in several respects. I had already considered doing some translations myself, but my 1975 proposal (in the “Blind Men and the Elephant” poster) had failed to interest any publishers, and the thought of self-publishing a large collection seemed too overwhelming. Delay was also caused by two projected commercial editions of Vaneigem’s Treatise that proved abortive: those of us who might have gone ahead to translate and publish situationist texts ourselves were misled by these publishers’ firm assurance that their editions would soon be out — which, if true, would probably have led to other situationist books being issued by major publishers.

Eventually, after yet other rumors of new translations proved unfounded, I concluded that if I wanted a competent collection I would have to do it myself. Though not totally fluent in French, I did by this time have a pretty thorough understanding of the texts and I was able to enlist Joël and Nadine’s help in clarifying any obscurities that remained.

As soon as I had worked out a fairly specific idea of the contents of the Anthology I sent out a prospectus to some thirty publishers, but ran into the usual presumption that situationist writings were too difficult or obscure. In retrospect this was probably fortunate. Had I succeeded, I might have had to worry about the publisher arguing about my choice of texts, insisting on a preface by some radical celebrity, adding blurbs by reviewers who didn’t know what they were talking about, delaying publication, letting the book go out of print, etc. By self-publishing I was able to control the whole project. Among other things this meant that I could maintain the SI’s original noncopyright policy and that I was able to keep the price down and send large quantities of free copies to prisoners and to indigent comrades in East Europe and the Third World.

The project took up most of the next two years. This was just before the advent of cheap desktop publishing; with present-day equipment I could have saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on typesetting, indexing, pasteup, etc. But believing that these texts are the most important body of social critique in this century, I was quite happy to do whatever was necessary to present them as accurately as possible.

I don’t believe there are any significant errors in my translation, though I might have been able to render some of the passages a bit more clearly and idiomatically (as I did in the new version of the Watts article I recently issued). A few people have questioned my decision to anglicize dérive and détournement, but I have yet to see any alternatives that are not more confusing. (On the other hand, I now feel that the one other French term I anglicized, récupération, can be most clearly translated by “cooption,” despite the slightly different connotations of the two words.)

As happens with any anthology, some readers disagreed with the choice of articles. Michel Prigent, who seems never to have forgiven me for having pointed out that his own translations of situationist texts (published under the names Piranha and Chronos) are clumsily overliteral, accused me of shaping the selection to accord with my own “ideological perspectives”; but aside from apparently implying that I should have included one or two texts that he himself had already translated, the only alternative he suggested was a complete English edition of the French journals. I hope someone will eventually publish such an edition, but this would have tripled the time and expense of what was already a pretty overwhelming project.

A few other critics claimed that I “concealed” the earlier, more cultural phase of the SI. The Anthology is admittedly weighted somewhat toward the situationists’ later, more “political” period (without which no one but a few specialists in obscure avant-garde movements would have ever heard of them), but the main features of the earlier phase could hardly escape anyone who reads the first dozen articles of the book. I probably would have included more selections from Potlatch and other pre-SI material if it had been available at the time; but if I didn’t go into the subsequent history of the “Nashists” and other artistic tendencies this is because I think they are of little interest and have little to do with the situationists’ most original and vital contributions. Since the book’s appearance these critics have had fifteen years to publish the vital texts I supposedly concealed; so far what they have come up with has not been overwhelming.

Other readers wished there were more annotations explaining obscure references. Actually the supposed obscurity of situationist texts is greatly exaggerated. They usually assume little more than a minimal acquaintance with a few basic works and major historical events that anyone with a serious desire to understand and change the world should certainly find out about for themselves if they don’t already know about them. The context usually makes the sense pretty clear even if you are not familiar, say, with some particular European ideologue being denounced, just as you can learn a lot from Marx and Engels without knowing anything about the particular philosophers and economists they criticized.

Others wished I had included some of the original SI illustrations. I like them as much as anyone. But many of the best ones (particularly the detourned comics) were already so widely reprinted and imitated that they were tending to distract from the writings and reinforce the popular misconception that situationist publications consisted of zappy collages designed to blow people’s minds. I felt that it wouldn’t hurt the image addicts to pay attention to the simple unadorned texts for a change.

There were also, of course, many more comments about the texts themselves. In the last few years books and articles on the SI have become even more numerous than in the immediate aftermath of May 1968, and the SI has become more intriguingly notorious than ever.

A little of the aura has even rubbed off on me. Since the original SI members have generally remained unavailable, I have sometimes been considered the next best thing, and have been asked to do booksignings, to grant interviews, to give talks, to be videotaped, to contribute to various publications, to provide information for graduate theses, to take part in radical conferences and academic symposiums, to be a “visiting artist” at an art institute, and even to furnish background material for a television program. I have refused all these requests.

This isn’t a matter of rigid principle. Someday, if I’m ever in the mood and am given sufficiently free conditions, I may decide to detourn one of these situations, as Debord once did when he gave a talk at a conference on “everyday life” (see SI Anthology, pp. 68-75 [new ed. 90-99]) [Perspectives for Conscious Changes in Everyday Life] which among other things criticized the inherent limits and biases of such conferences. But on the whole I think people are fooling themselves if they believe that the radical effect of this sort of publicity outweighs all the trivializing and neutralizing effects (including the subtle temptations to accentuate one’s own trendy or sensational qualities while refraining from offending anyone, in order to ensure that one will be invited again). In any case, although I’m somewhat less rigorous in these matters than was the SI, when I am asked to present or represent “the situationist perspective” I feel I convey that perspective most incisively by refusing the kinds of things the situationists themselves consistently refused.

Anyone is free to reprint, adapt or comment on the SI Anthology or any of my other publications. I can’t take seriously those who never do so while seeking some personal encounter or scoop designed to give spectators the impression they have gotten some inside dope about texts they often haven’t even bothered to read, much less put into practice. It seems to me that maintaining this distance puts things on the clearest basis. Shortly after the publication of the Anthology, for example, a certain professional writer wanted to interview me to obtain information for an article he had been asked to write on the situationists for the weekly East Bay Express. I refused to have anything to do with him, and the projected article never appeared. Around the same time I also refused to meet Greil Marcus when he was preparing a review of the Anthology for the Village Voice, but to his credit he did not let this stop him from writing a lengthy and very laudatory article. There was, after all, plenty of information in the SI texts themselves, and because he read them carefully he was able to get most of his facts right. Though limited in some regards,(1) his article was an honest expression of his take on the situationists, done out of his own enthusiastic interest, not because someone assigned him to do it or because I sucked up to him. Everything is so much clearer this way.

By the early 1980s I had reestablished friendly relations with most of the other “Notice” signers. They had gone their various ways and, except for Chris and Isaac, who had each put out two or three pamphlets in the interim, none of them had carried on any notable radical activity since our 1977 breakup. In 1982 Isaac and his wife Terrel Seltzer also put out Call It Sleep, a 45-minute videotape roughly in the style of Debord’s films. Not long afterwards Isaac renounced his previous radical perspective, justifying his subsequent devotion to primarily financial pursuits with what seems to be a sort of neo-laissez-faire ideology in a bizarre book he co-authored with Paul Béland, Money: Myths and Realities (1986).

I’ve made some criticisms of Isaac because he expressed viewpoints from which I felt obliged to dissociate myself. But I would like to acknowledge my debt to him and to many other former comrades. We went through a lot of exciting times together. All the polemics have tended to overemphasize the problems of the situ milieu. For me, at any rate, the ventures recounted here so tersely contained many valued relationships, lots of good times, and an immense amount of laughs; even the fiascos were often amusing. I hope my old friends haven’t entirely forgotten them.

Once the SI Anthology was published I felt less obliged to devote so much time and energy to explaining the situationist perspective, correcting misconceptions, etc. The most significant questions were dealt with quite lucidly by the situationists themselves in the texts that were now available. Over the next few years, apart from carrying on more or less routine correspondence and distribution and making occasional notes, I began to explore other things.


Rock climbing

My first new venture turned out to be rock climbing, one of the last things I would ever have imagined myself getting into. Like almost everyone, I was very afraid of heights; but during recent outings I had begun to find myself more and more intrigued by the idea of climbing, feeling a sort of primal, primate allure whenever I saw cliffs or rock formations. Eventually I suppressed my terror and signed up for a beginning rock climbing class. We spent a couple hours learning the basic principles, then went to some outcrops in the Berkeley Hills and actually climbed. A few weeks later I took a more advanced class in Yosemite and did my first really high climbs on the granite cliffs, hundreds of feet straight up.

For the next two years rock climbing was my passion. When possible I went on trips in Yosemite and elsewhere in the Sierras; but most of the time I climbed right in town, biking several times a week up to Indian Rock for bouldering (practicing difficult moves near the ground). With the right kind of shoes (made with high-friction rubber soles and worn supertight so your foot becomes one firm, scrunched-up unit like a mountain goat’s hoof) it’s amazing what meager indentations in the rock can accommodate your toe or finger — a pea-sized bump will do if you orient your body just right, gauging the right balance of opposing forces, moving carefully but with relaxed confidence (if you tremble you’re more likely to slip).

If you pay attention and use the ropes properly, rock climbing isn’t as dangerous as it might seem. Still, there’s obviously some risk. At first I loved it so much that I felt the risk was acceptable; but after a couple years I decided to quit while I was ahead. In Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel Island it’s part of the education of every adolescent to have at least one psychedelic trip and one rock climbing trip (though not at the same time!). Considering their risks I would hesitate to recommend either one unreservedly, but both experiences have certainly meant a lot to me.

I still occasionally do a little bouldering and hiking (most often over the hills, through the woods and along the beach at nearby Point Reyes), but my main exercise in recent years has been basketball and tennis. Playing basketball with the black teenagers in my neighborhood was an interesting cultural as well as physical challenge: I felt like I had accomplished something when I finally became accepted as more or less one of the guys. More recently I’ve shifted to tennis. It’s also virtually the only thing I ever watch on television: I lug my set out of storage three or four times a year for Wimbledon and other major tournaments.

In fall 1984 I made another trip to France, staying most of the time in Paris with my friend Christian Camus. We had originally met in a situ context during my previous trip, but by this time his focus had shifted to experimenting with ways to enliven his own immediate milieu. That’s fine with me: if I have to choose, I prefer intellectually alive people who do interesting things with their life over those who do nothing but regurgitate political platitudes and gripe all the time. Full of playful irony, provocative banter and jokes in several languages, and possessing a keen insight into people’s games and scripts (in Eric Berne’s sense), Christian keeps me on my toes when I start becoming too stodgy and pedantic.

There were two side trips: to the Dordogne region in southwest France where Joël and Nadine were now living, and to Germany to revisit my Mannheim friends and briefly meet another group in West Berlin.


Rexroth again

Back in Berkeley I began work on two Rexroth projects. During the early seventies my interest in Rexroth had waned. In the light of the situationist perspectives his political analysis seemed insufficient, his notion of subversion through art and poetry seemed dubious, and some of his activities, such as writing newspaper columns or dabbling in Catholicism, seemed unacceptably compromising.

In less direct ways, however, his influence persisted. Recalling his skeptical magnanimity helped me keep things in perspective during some of the more traumatic situ affairs. In my 1977 religion pamphlet I was already trying to figure out to what extent these two major influences of my life could be reconciled; since that time, my enthusiasm for him had fully revived. Besides rereading all his books, I hunted up and photocopied as many of his uncollected articles as I could locate in the old magazine files at the University library, including all of the 800+ columns he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner.

On a lark, I sent out a proposal to edit an anthology of the columns. There was enough tentative interest on the part of a few publishers that I spent several months going through the columns in order to prepare a representative sampling. Ultimately only one small publisher made an offer, and it was so unsatisfactory that I rejected it and decided to put the project on the shelf. I would have been happy to put in a lot of time editing the columns for a modest royalty, but I didn’t feel like publishing them myself.

It had meanwhile occurred to me that it was more to the point to express my own perspective on Rexroth, to try to convey just what it was that I thought was so great about him as well as to clarify the points where I disagreed with him. Besides hopefully turning people on to him, this would be a good way for me to work out my own views on all sorts of topics.

This project turned out to occupy me on and off over the next five years. I could, of course, have written most of what I had to say in a much shorter period; but since I had no deadline I took my time and indulged myself, reading his works over and over, gleaning favorite quotes, accumulating masses of notes, and following out all sorts of tangents. It might occur to me, say, that it would be interesting to compare Rexroth with other freewheeling writers such as H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, George Orwell or Paul Goodman; this would be a good excuse to reread several of their books, even if I ended up making little if any use of them in my text.


Zen practice

In 1985 I also began a regular Zen practice. Over the years I had occasionally done a little zazen at home, but I had scarcely taken part in any formal group practice since the sixties. As I mentioned earlier, in addition to laziness and involvement in other things, I had reservations about some of the traditional forms. Although Zen is less dogmatic and more intellectually sophisticated than most religions, traditional Zen practice is quite strict and formal. I could recognize the need for certain forms to facilitate concentration and self-discipline, but I was dubious about others that seemed to be mere vestiges of Oriental social hierarchy. I was quite aware of the deplorable role religion has played in reinforcing acquiescence in the established order, and of people’s remarkable capacity for self-deception.(2)

Rexroth used to say, “Religion is not something you believe, it’s something you do.” I don’t know if this can justly be said of the major Western religions, which very emphatically insist on belief in certain dogmas, but it’s at least partially true of some of the Eastern ones. The Eastern religions probably contain as much bullshit as the Western ones (the more superstitious or obnoxious aspects are usually discreetly omitted in Western popularizations), but they do tend to be more tolerant and ecumenical. Their myths are often explicitly presented as mere spiritual metaphors and there is relatively little insistence on beliefs. Zen in particular is more a practice than a belief system. Verbal teachings are considered meaningless unless you test and assimilate them for yourself. The most vital teachings are by living example. Despite an element of guru-disciple hierarchy (which has been considerably attenuated as Zen has been adapted in the West), the emphasis is not on worship of superior beings but on the practice of meditation and mindfulness in one’s own day-to-day activity.

In my Rexroth book I implied where I personally draw the line: “It is one thing to practice some type of meditation or take part in some ritual or festival that everyone understands is simply an arbitrary form to focus one’s life or celebrate communion; it is another to seem to lend credibility to repugnant institutions and to sick dogmas that are still widely believed.” I suppose this is mainly a matter of taste. I have friends who have fewer qualms than I, and others who wouldn’t be caught dead taking part in any formal religious practice whatsoever. Personally I like most of the Zen rituals, the silence, the bells, the incense, the neat Japanese-style decor, the ultraconsiderate etiquette. And practicing with a group offers many advantages in the way of instruction, camaraderie and mutual encouragement.

Anyway, I was in a mood to suspend my relatively mild objections and try out a more regular practice. The Berkeley center I had gone to in the sixties had quietly carried on the Soto Zen practice brought to America by Shunryu Suzuki.(3) The teacher, Mel Weitsman, one of Suzuki’s students whom I had known in the sixties, was both solid and low-key, and the members, a varied and generally congenial assortment of laypeople trying to integrate Zen practice into their everyday lives, seemed to have kept their sense of humor and to have avoided any excessive cultishness. And I didn’t even have to get up early: they now had afternoon as well as morning sittings.

I started going for a forty-minute period of zazen every weekday afternoon.

In zazen (sitting meditation) we sit cross-legged on a firm cushion, facing a blank wall. The belly is pushed slightly forward so that the spine is erect and the body is stably balanced on buttocks and knees. Mouth closed. Eyes lowered but open. Shoulders relaxed. Hands in lap, left on right, thumb tips lightly touching. If sitting cross-legged is too difficult other postures, such as sitting over one’s heels or even sitting on a chair, are okay as long as the back is straight; but the cross-legged lotus position (both feet resting on opposite thighs) or some easier variation thereof (one foot on opposite thigh or calf) provides optimum groundedness.

In Soto-style zazen we generally concentrate on maintaining our posture (constantly correcting the tendencies to slump or to tense up) and following our breath — breathing from the abdomen and silently counting exhalations: “O-n-n-n-e . . ., t-w-o-o-o . . .” If you get to ten you just start all over again. The numbers simply provide an arbitrary nonemotive focus to help maintain concentration. The point is to get as close as you can to “doing nothing” while remaining totally alert.

It’s not as easy as you might think. Most of us have developed a strong habitual resistance to being in the present. What usually happens is that by the time you’ve got to “three” or “four,” you’ve become caught up in memories, daydreams, desires, worries, fears, regrets. This repetitive cacophony is going on in our minds most of the time, but in zazen you become more acutely aware of it.

It may come as quite a shock to realize how petty and compulsive your usual thoughts and feelings are. It did to me, anyway. I could see how Christian believers going through similar experiences saw them as a confirmation of humanity’s inherent sinfulness, leaving them no way out but faith in some supernatural redemption. Buddhism addresses these matters more calmly, tolerantly, objectively, without getting so caught up in futile breastbeating. Trying to repress the “monkey mind” only stirs up more emotional entanglement. But if you just sit still, without any value judgments, and keep coming back to your breath, the disturbances, deprived of reinforcement, will tend to settle out, become less emotive, less subject to compulsive habits and associations. It’s not a matter of eliminating thoughts or emotions, but of ceasing to cling to them — ceasing to cling even to your sense of progress in not clinging. The moment you start thinking: “Ah! Now I’m finally getting somewhere! Won’t so-and-so be impressed!” you’ve drifted away from present awareness. Just calmly note the fact, and start again: “O-n-n-n-e . . ., t-w-o-o-o . . .”

After a couple months of daily sitting I started taking part in the monthly sesshins: one or more days of intensive Zen practice, primarily zazen, but with other activities carried out with a similar effort to focus mindfully on just what you are doing. A sesshin typically runs from 5:00 in the morning to 9:00 in the evening. Zazen is in 40-minute periods, alternating with 10-minute periods of kinhin (ultraslow walking meditation to stretch the legs). Beginning and end of periods are signaled by bells or wooden clappers. No talking except for minimal necessary communication during work. The procedure of serving and eating, which also takes place in the zendo (meditation hall), is elaborately ritualistic. Servers bring a dish, you bow to each other, they serve you, you make a palm-up gesture to indicate “enough,” you bow to each other again, then they proceed to the next person. . . .

I particularly liked the longer sesshins (five or seven days). The first day of a sesshin you may still be preoccupied with your other affairs, but after three or four days you can hardly help settling into the sesshin rhythm. They say there are two kinds of Zen experience. One is sudden and unmistakable, like getting a bucket of water dumped on your head. The other is more gradual and subtle, like walking through a mist and then noticing that your clothes have imperceptibly become soaking wet. That’s sort of what you feel like in the later stages of a sesshin. It all starts coming together.

It can also be pretty grueling, with fatigue, stiff shoulders, aching back, sore knees. Though it becomes easier as the body gets used to the cross-legged position, most people continue to experience some knee pain during sesshins. The point isn’t to see how much pain you can stand (if it’s really too much, you can always shift to some easier position), but to learn to deal with whatever comes with equanimity; to stop yearning for the past or the future and settle right in the moment. After a while you discover that suffering is caused less by pain itself than by cringing apprehension of future pain. The first day of a sesshin can be horrifying if you’re sitting there thinking that you have seven more days of this to endure. But if you take it just one breath at a time, it’s not so bad.

(This is where one of the greatest advantages of practicing with a group comes in. When you’re sitting alone it’s too easy to rationalize stopping when you feel a little discomfort; but when several participants have committed themselves to a sesshin and are all sitting there together, each person’s effort encourages everyone else.)

As soon as you begin to get accustomed to the zazen, other responsibilities are thrust upon you which require equal mindfulness. If you’re a server your mind mustn’t wander or you might spill soup on someone. If you head up a dishwashing team consisting of people who aren’t familiar with the procedures, you need to make sure dishes are put away in the right places, yet you don’t want to disturb people’s efforts to concentrate by yacking away about every detail. Each situation presents new challenges to find the right balance between efficiency and presence, calculation and spontaneity, effort and ease.

Hopefully some of these habits gradually become integrated into your everyday life. I don’t want to give the impression that zazen is a cure-all, but I do think that some sort of regular meditation helps one to develop a little more patience and sense of perspective; to recognize certain problems as unimportant or illusory, and to deal more calmly and objectively with those that still seem significant.

After a year and a half of intensive day-to-day involvement with the center I got a bit burned out, and reverted to doing my daily zazen at home. I continued, however, to take part in the longer sesshins. I also started going to sesshins at some of the other centers in northern California, including one that Gary Snyder and others (including an old friend of Sam’s and mine from the sixties) had recently built on their land in the Sierra Nevada foothills. As might be expected, they have a strong back-to-nature orientation: some of their sesshins are combined with seven-day backpacking trips — an arduous but powerful combination!

In early 1988 I started thinking about taking part in an intensive three-month “practice period” at the Tassajara monastery. For years I had vaguely imagined that going to a Zen monastery would be one of the ultimate things to do; now I began to think I might actually do it. In the spring I went to Tassajara for a week just to see what it felt like, and liked it very much indeed. Back in the Bay Area I took part in a few more sesshins, arranged my affairs, and in late September packed up and drove back down.

The first Zen monastery in the Western hemisphere (founded in 1967 by Shunryu Suzuki), Tassajara is located in the coastal mountains about a hundred miles south of the Bay Area. It used to be a hot springs resort, and still functions as such in the summer; but during the rest of the year it’s closed to the public.

Besides Mel, who led the practice period, there were 26 participants (14 men and 12 women) plus two staff people who took care of technical maintenance work and shopping trips to town. During the next three months none of us left Tassajara and no one else came there except a couple visiting Japanese monks and two or three Zen Center people briefly down from San Francisco.

Eleven of us were there for our first practice period and had to go through a five-day initiation: a superintensive sesshin with even less physical and mental relief from zazen (no kinhin, no lectures, no work). Except for a half-hour break after each meal and bathroom breaks as needed, we had to remain seated on our cushions from 4:20 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Even more than in a sesshin, everything levels out. Time slows. Attention is reduced to the simplest things. Nothing to do but stew in your own juices (literally as well as figuratively: it’s sweltering) and learn to calmly ignore the relentless little mucous flies that delight in crawling around your eyes, ears and nostrils. (The only solution is to accept them: “Okay, you little rascals, do what you must! I’m not moving.”) Just sit, perfectly still, breath after breath. . . . The bell rings. Slowly get up, keeping eyes lowered. Come together for a ritual. Then back to your cushion for a meal. Then a break. Slowly exit the zendo, striving to maintain complete concentration despite the sudden splendor of the natural world outside. Have a cup of tea. Massage your aching legs. A few precious minutes are left for sitting by the creek and letting the sound of the water pour through your head. Then back to the zendo. Settle into the right posture. Become perfectly still. Just this breath, breath after breath. . . .

After it was over, we reverted to a somewhat less intense schedule. Every morning at 4:00 we were awakened by someone running down the main path jangling a loud bell. Just time to wash my face, do a few yoga stretches, put on my meditation robe and go to the zendo. The morning was like a sesshin: mostly zazen, with breakfast and lunch served ritual-style in the zendo. In the afternoon we worked for three hours. I was part of the miscellaneous contingent and did all sorts of different jobs — carpentry, hauling, gardening, dishwashing, cleaning, taking care of the library. After work came the most luxurious part of the day: a leisurely hot bath followed by an hour of free time. Then back on with our robes and to the zendo for dinner. Then a study period, then more zazen. To bed at 9:30. There was never any trouble getting to sleep: the next thing I heard was that jangling wakeup bell. . . .

Every fifth day we got to sleep till the indulgently late hour of 5:00, and after one period of zazen and breakfast we had free time until evening. This was generally spent doing laundry, packing a sack lunch and taking a hike, or sitting around reading, writing letters or quietly socializing. In the evening we had a class on Dogen’s “Genjo Koan”: “To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things. When actualized by the myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace is continued endlessly. . . .”

Within a few weeks the weather turned frigid. Shaded by the surrounding mountains, Tassajara becomes cold and damp in fall and winter, at least until midday, and there was no heating or insulation. At least the cold helped us wake up. Though the routine was Spartan in some ways, it was refreshing to get down to basics and live in a community in which everyone was quietly working together. For me a sesshin or a practice period is a hint of how life could be. Upon meeting anyone on a path we both stopped, bowed to each other, then continued on our way without saying a word. Wonderful!


Reading, writing, translating and music

Back in Berkeley, I resumed what has been my ongoing Zen practice ever since (brief daily zazen at home plus long sesshins a few times a year) and got back to work on my Rexroth book [The Relevance of Rexroth]. I had accumulated hundreds of pages of notes, but eventually I decided to leave most of them out and pare the text down to a brief and relatively accessible presentation of a few main themes. It was finally completed in 1990. Sales have been pretty modest, but (one of the advantages of self-publishing) I’ve also been able to give copies to hundreds of friends and acquaintances, sometimes even to total strangers. I’ll continue to do so with the numerous copies I still have on hand, but I’ve also included it in this collection [the book Public Secrets] because it goes into a lot of matters that are important to me but that aren’t dealt with in my other writings.

In January 1991 the Gulf war brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets for the first time in years. I immediately started writing The War and the Spectacle. Most of the points in that text were already being widely discussed or intuited, but I felt that the situationist concept of the spectacle would help tie them together. With a little help from some friends I distributed 15,000 copies over the next few months. Besides mailing them to individuals, groups and radical bookstores around the world, I saturated the local antiwar milieu, handing them out at marches, rallies, demonstrations, films, concert benefits, radical theater performances in the parks, forums on “the war and the media,” and appearances of Ramsey Clark and Thich Nhat Hanh. It was the most well received text I’ve ever done. Nearly everyone who got it read it, no one complained that they couldn’t understand it, many people later told me that they had photocopied it and sent it to friends or entered it onto computer networks, and it was widely reprinted and translated.

One of the few critics of the piece expressed surprise that I took over two months to write such a short article. I envy people who can work faster, but for me that’s about par for the course. I do write a lot — noting anything that has any conceivable connection with whatever topic I’m working on, sometimes virtually free-associating — but I’m not usually satisfied till I’ve drastically condensed the material, going over every detail numerous times, eliminating redundancies and exaggerations, experimenting with different rearrangements, considering potential objections and misconceptions. I feel that one carefully considered text will have a sharper and ultimately more far-reaching impact than a dozen slipshod ones.

Since I only tackle subjects that I’m really interested in, the process is usually pretty engrossing. Sometimes I get into the ecstatic “negative rush” state described in Double-Reflection — so many ideas flood through my mind I hardly have time to write them all down; out walking, I may have to stop every few minutes to jot down some idea; I may even get up in the middle of the night to scribble notes to myself. Sometimes I get so involved that if I faced imminent death my first concern would be: Just let me finish this piece, then I’ll go happily!

At other times I get burned out and depressed; everything I’ve written seems boring and trite. I may work all day on some passage, lie awake thinking about it that night, then throw the whole thing out in disgust the next morning. As I get closer to publication I agonize over possible consequences. A poorly expressed point might lead to a lot of time wasted in misunderstandings; a well-expressed one might trigger a turning point in someone’s life.

We all have a natural tendency to repress things that contradict our own views. The best way I know to mitigate this tendency is the one Darwin used: “I had, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought, came across me which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favorable ones.” I try to follow this rule, playing devil’s advocate on every issue, carefully considering any critiques of myself and immediately noting anything that occurs to me in the way of possible objections to my ideas — answering them if I can, modifying or abandoning my position if I can’t. Even the most delirious attacks usually contain some valid points, or at least reveal misconceptions that I need to clarify.

It’s necessary to strike a psychological balance. Too much worry about possible objections makes you afraid to do anything. Orthodox situationists scorn my mysticism, New Ageists feel I’m too rationalistic, old leftists denounce me for downplaying class struggle, arbiters of political correctness imply that I should express more contrition for being a white American male, academics fault my lack of scholarly objectivity, hangloose types find me too meticulous, some complain that my writing is too difficult, others accuse me of oversimplifying. . . . If I took all these objections too seriously, I’d become a catatonic! Eventually you just have to go for it.

As far as possible I try to make each project a new venture, choosing a topic I haven’t explored or a method I haven’t tried before. This makes it more interesting for me at least, and hopefully for the reader as well. I also try to avoid taking on too many things at once. It’s easy to get burned out if you constantly absorb all the bad news of the world or try to contribute to every good cause. I generally concentrate on one or two projects that interest me so deeply that I’m willing to devote to them whatever time and expense is necessary, while ignoring most other things that I have no real intention of doing anything about.

Back to France in fall 1991, once again staying with Christian (in a household with his girlfriend and his brother). There were three side trips: to Grenoble to visit Jean-François Labrugère, a friend who has translated several of my texts with an exemplary meticulousness; to Warsaw to meet some young anarchists who were just discovering the situationists; and to Barcelona, where I joined some of my German friends. On the way back to Paris I stopped in the Dordogne region to see Joël and Nadine. I had turned them on to Rexroth years before, and they had eventually become as enthusiastic Rexrothians as I and had recently completed a translation of the first of his books to appear in French, Les Classiques revisités.

I spent a lot of my time in Paris exploring my biggest musical enthusiasm of the last few years, vintage French popular songs — scouring the flea markets and used record stores for old albums, taping my friends’ collections, and trying to decipher the more obscure, slangy lyrics. It’s a rich, fascinating world, from nineteenth-century cabaret singers like Aristide Bruant (the guy with red scarf and black cape pictured on the well-known Toulouse-Lautrec poster, which was commissioned to advertise the café where Bruant performed his own songs), through the tragic-sordid chansons réalistes (Fréhel, Damia, early Piaf) and upbeat music hall artists (especially the delightfully zany Charles Trenet) of the 1930s, to the post-World War II renaissance of great poet-singers: Georges Brassens (the greatest, ranging from worldly-wise elegies to outrageous satirical humor), Anne Sylvestre (a lovely lyricist, somewhat reminiscent of early Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell), Léo Ferré, Jean-Roger Caussimon, Jacques Brel, Guy Béart, Félix Leclerc; along with many excellent interpreters of earlier material, of whom my favorite is Germaine Montero.

It’s hard to find such music here in the States, but my friends and I occasionally get a little taste when the Baguette Quartette performs at the local Freight and Salvage folk music club, which has hosted so many wonderful musicians over the last three decades. Although I’ve gone through a number of musical enthusiasms over the years, from the elemental sounds of Japanese taiko drum ensembles to the hard-boiled rebetika songs of the Greek urban underworld, I’ve always retained a special fondness for old-time American folk music, probably because it’s the only kind I can also play. I still enjoy doing so with small gatherings of friends (including a few who date from my old Shimer and Chicago days) and I rarely miss the monthly East Bay Fiddlin’ and Pickin’ Potlucks, where a hundred or so people bring food and play music all afternoon at some suitably large house. Interspersed with eating and socializing, people cluster into their own preferred genres — bluegrass, say, in the back yard, Irish music in the den, group singing upstairs, 1930s swing around the piano (if there happens to be one), old-time fiddle tunes on the front porch, blues, or perhaps cajun or klezmorim, in the driveway or overflowing onto the sidewalk. I’m usually to be found with one of the old-time bunches, singing and playing fiddle or guitar — nothing fancy, but enough to have a good time. Everybody participates at their own level: less-skilled players like myself tend to follow the more versatile ones as best we can, but any of us are always free to initiate one of the numbers we know. The EBFPP has been smoothly functioning for nearly twenty years now on a purely self-organized and volunteer basis. I sometimes think of it, and of countless similar circles and networks that are going on all the time without ever seeking or receiving notice in the spectacle, as modest foreshadowings of how things would function in a sane society. Not that it’s any big deal. That’s the point.

I still agree with the situationists that the arts are limited forms of creativity, and that it’s more interesting to try to bring our creativity into the project of transforming our lives, and ultimately our whole society. When I’m engaged in that great game I find I have less inclination for artistic activities. But there’s a time for everything. The situationist critique of “the spectacle” (i.e. of the spectacle system) is a critique of an excessive social tendency; it does not mean that it’s a sin to be a spectator, any more than the Marxian critique of the commodity system implies that people should do without goods.

I’ve always found it amusing that radicals feel they have to justify their cultural consumption by pretending to find some radical message in it. Personally, I would far rather read a lively human being with a twinkle in his eye, like Rexroth, Mencken, Henry Miller or Ford Madox Ford, than some inane politically correct priggery. For that matter, I’d rather read Homer or Basho or Montaigne or Gibbon than virtually any modern writer. I can still appreciate certain great works of the past, recognizing that their limitations were understandable in the context of their time; but it’s hard to take seriously post-1968 visionaries who haven’t even noticed the new possibilities of life. When it comes to contemporary authors, I scarcely read anything but frankly escapist works that have no pretensions of profundity or radicality. Some of my favorites are Rex Stout’s detective stories (not so much for the plots as for the amusing world of the Nero Wolfe household and Archie Goodwin’s lively narration); Jack Vance’s fantasy and science fiction (for his remarkable variety of bizarre societies and his drolly sardonic and ironic dialogues); and the nonfiction science essays of Isaac Asimov, who has the rare knack of making just about anything he writes about both informative and entertaining, whether he’s explaining the latest discoveries in astronomy or particle physics or speculating about what sex would be like in a zero-gravity space station.

In 1992 I set out to translate my Rexroth book into French. Even if it was never published, I wanted at least to have an adequate version on hand to give to friends and contacts. It was also a good opportunity to refine my still rather limited French skills. I prepared a first draft on my dandy new computer, then over the next year mailed successive drafts to Jean-François Labrugère, who made numerous corrections and suggestions for more idiomatic style. We circulated a provisional version in 1993; a revised version will be published in early 1997.

During the same period I also began working with Joël Cornuault on a series of translations of Rexroth’s own works, beginning with a bilingual edition of thirty of his poems (L’automne en Californie, 1994) and most recently including a selection from his journalism (Le San Francisco de Kenneth Rexroth, 1997).

It’s been a pleasure to collaborate with these two translators because both of them have the patience to carefully verify the precise nuance of each phrase, even though this can be pretty time-consuming when done by correspondence.


How this book came to be

1993 brought a lot of things together for me, ultimately leading to the book you have in your hands [Public Secrets]. Early in the year I finally got around to reading all of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Immersing myself in that immense, sometimes tedious but usually fascinating work got me in the mood to explore my own past. Primarily for my own interest (though with the idea that I might eventually show the text to a few close friends), I started writing down whatever I could remember from my early days. One thing reminded me of another, and before I knew it there were over a hundred pages.

It turned out to be a good way to come to terms with a number of past problems and mistakes. Recalling some of the good old times also inspired me to reestablish contact with several old friends, including Mike Beardsley, whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. I managed to hunt him up, we had some long phone conversations, and in June I flew to Chicago to see him. He had ended up in the rather stressful occupation of inner-city school teacher, gone through several tempestuous marriages and divorces, and let himself get way overweight; but he still had a lot of his old wild, independent spirit. It was great to see him again. To add to the nostalgia, we drove out to the old Shimer campus for a reunion that happened to be taking place at the same time and saw several other old friends for the first time since the sixties.

Two months later I got the news of Mike’s sudden death. In an effort to deal with my sorrow I free-associated a long elegy celebrating our old friendship. Then I reworked it into a short statement which I circulated to a few mutual friends and relatives:


Mike died August 29 of heart failure while in the hospital being treated for pneumonia.
       We were best friends for just two years, 1961-1963, but they were vital, intensely exciting ones for both of us — meeting as roommates at Shimer College when we were just 16, then heading out on our own for bohemian explorations in California, Texas (where he and his first wife Nancy had their baby) and Chicago. Just a few years later a counterculture embodying some of our aspirations would surface and spread among millions of people; but in the early sixties it was still just brewing underground here and there; we and our fellow questers were still relatively isolated, clumsily groping our own way for new visions, new lifestyles. In some ways this isolation made things more difficult for us, but it also gave a special savor to the adventures and even the misadventures the two of us shared — discovering Zen and peyote, Rimbaud and the Beats, Henry Miller and Hermann Hesse, Leadbelly and Ravi Shankar; living from day to day, constantly experimenting, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness; hitching through vast, oblivious Mid-America, maybe getting stranded overnight but not really minding all that much, just strolling on down the empty highway humming Coltrane and imagining the great world out there waiting to be explored. . . .
       We eventually went our separate ways, with only very sporadic communication over the next thirty years. Then a nostalgic mood luckily inspired me to hunt him up again, and I flew back to Chicago to see him just a couple months ago. Despite all the water under the bridge there were lively moments of our old camaraderie. I looked forward to a renewed friendship in the years to come. Then suddenly he was gone.
       As I cried over his death I realized I was really crying mainly for myself, because a precious part of my own life was now gone. I know that others who were close to him feel this same kind of personal loss. It’s sad to think of all the things we shared with him, or might yet have shared with him. Yet ultimately I don’t think there was very much of life that he missed out on. Mike had a very tumultuous life, there were a lot of passions and pains, but he lived it with wonder and intensity. One time he barged into my room while I was asleep and exclaimed: “Ken! Wake up! The world is magic!” “Wha — ? Oh, yeah I know, Mike, but I didn’t get to bed till pretty late last night . . .” “But Ken, I want you to really see that the world is magic. Right here! Just look!” There was no arguing with him — I had to get up and see. And he was right, of course.
       So long, old buddy.

It was Mike’s death more than anything else that made me decide to publish this autobiography. I had looked forward to showing it to him and having him remind me of things I’d forgotten. Now it’s too late. I’m not personally expecting to kick off any time soon, but this sort of shock does remind you that you don’t live forever and that if you want to do something you’d do well to get on with it.

Bringing together so many loose ends in my life in turn encouraged me to get some of my old notes in shape. Since the late seventies I had been accumulating observations on different types of radical tactics and situations, but without ever managing to get them coherently organized. Now the two projects began to complement each other. The casual format of the autobiography lent itself to brief remarks on miscellaneous topics that would not have merited whole articles (answers to questions I am often asked, clarifications of various misconceptions, attempts to convey what I have found interesting about this or that), in some cases serving to illustrate or elaborate on topics presented more objectively in The Joy of Revolution. Material could be shifted from one text to the other as appropriate.

I had also been thinking about reissuing my previous publications in some sort of collected form. Apart from a few extravagant pronouncements and slips into kneejerk situ rhetoric, I still stand by most of what I said in them, though they will no doubt seem obscure to people who don’t engage in the sort of ventures they deal with.

For a while I thought in terms of several separate publications: reserving the autobiography for close friends while issuing the other writings as pamphlets or small books; or perhaps reworking parts of the autobiography as a commentary to the reissued texts; or putting out a journal that would include “The Joy of Revolution” plus miscellaneous material. Eventually it occurred to me that a lot of things would be simplified if I just put it all together in one big book. Incongruous as such a collection might seem, it would have the advantage of revealing both the interrelations (which might not otherwise be evident to readers) and the contradictions (which might not otherwise be faced by myself).

Knowing that it would be read by a rather diverse range of people, most, but not all, of whom would be familiar with the situationists, presented a number of interesting challenges, both in relating different aspects to each other and in finding the right balance between too little and too much explanation. The rather mixed result (part political chronicle, part self-analysis, part simple nostalgia) will probably not fully satisfy anyone — some will wonder why I go into certain matters at all, others will wish I had gone into juicier detail.

Once I envisioned publishing the autobiography, I trimmed out a lot of the personal details in the original draft, either because they might embarrass those involved or because they would be of little interest to most readers. With a few exceptions I have not referred to people by name unless they have already committed themselves to some sort of public activity.

The whole thing is admittedly very self-indulgent. Although I’ve mentioned a few painful episodes that were too crucial to omit, for the most part I’ve made it easy on myself and dealt only with things I enjoyed recalling and felt might be of interest to my friends and perhaps a few other people. If some readers consider me an egomaniac for presuming to write about my relatively unspectacular life, I hope that others will be encouraged to reexamine their own experiences.


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* * *

“I round and finish little, if anything;
and could not, consistently with my scheme.
The reader will always have his or her part to do,
just as much as I have had mine. I seek less to state
or display any theme or thought, and more to bring
you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or
thought — there to pursue your own flight.”

(Whitman, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”)



1. To put it briefly, in both his Village Voice article and his subsequent book, Lipstick Traces, Marcus relates to the situationists aesthetically, as a fascinated spectator. For all his awe of their extremist ideas, he shows little interest in the carefully calculated tactics and organizational forms through which they tried to implement those ideas instead of merely impulsively “expressing” them like his other heroes, the dadaists and the punks. His personal, impressionistic approach is more illuminating than the fatuous accounts of most academic and cultural critics, but he shares the latter’s main blind spot: preferring the situationists’ early, more intriguingly exotic phase, while seeing their later revolutionary perspective as an embarrassing anachronism. Such critics invariably assure us that, whatever revolutions may have happened in the past, it’s all over now and will never happen again. After ridiculing the SI’s advocacy of workers councils (which was far less simplistic than he implies), Marcus blasély concludes: “If the situationist idea of general contestation was realized in May 1968, the idea also realized its limits. The theory of the exemplary act . . . may have gone as far as such a theory or such an act can go” — ignoring how close the May movement came to going much farther (see the passages cited on pages 53 and 57 of the present book [in the sections “What could have happened in May 1968” and “The ultimate showdown” of The Joy of Revolution, chapter 3]) and never mentioning subsequent movements such as Portugal 1974 or Poland 1980 (which in some respects did go farther) or any of the individual currents attempting to actually use and develop the situationists’ achievements. I myself am oddly pigeonholed as a “student” of the SI, as if there was nothing left for any of us latecomers but to produce learned dissertations or wistful elegies on the heroic ventures of bygone times.

2. Before going on, I should stress that my Zen practice has nothing to do with any supernatural beliefs. To my understanding, Zen does not invalidate science or reason, it simply tries to break the habit of excessive, compulsive intellectualizing. Without some logical discrimination people could not survive for a day — or even understand what I’m saying well enough to disagree with it.
       Though science is often accused of arrogance, it is virtually the only field of human endeavor that takes into account its own fallibility, that consistently tests itself and corrects its own errors through rigorously objective methods designed to counteract people’s natural tendencies toward fallacious reasoning, unconscious biases and selective memory (remembering the hits and forgetting all the misses). To really test the claims of astrology, for example, requires checking a statistically large sampling of people to see if, say, a disproportionate number of scientists are born under signs supposed to indicate rationalistic tendencies. Such tests have been carried out many times and in no case has there turned out to be any such correlation. Similar investigations of many other supposed paranormal phenomena have been described in books by James Randi, Martin Gardner and others and in numerous articles in the Skeptical Inquirer (journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Over and over such claims have been shown to be based on rumors that turn out to be false, misinterpretations of otherwise explainable events, insufficiently rigorous conditions of experimentation, or hoaxes and charlatanism.
       There may turn out to be kernels of truth in a few of these areas, but considering how susceptible people are to fooling themselves (and to clinging to their beliefs rather than admitting that they’ve been made fools of) I intend to reserve judgment until I see some good evidence. For years Randi and others have made a standing offer of $100,000 to anyone who can demonstrate any paranormal power whatsoever under scientifically controlled conditions (including observation by professional magicians like Randi, who are capable of recognizing the sorts of tricks often used by charlatans). Hundreds of self-proclaimed psychics, dowsers, astrologers, etc., have tried to do so. So far not a single one has succeeded.

3. Not to be confused with D.T. Suzuki, whose numerous works deal with the more dramatically “goal-oriented” Rinzai school of Zen. Shunryu Suzuki left only one modest little book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, but it’s a gem. There is now a Shunryu Suzuki website created by David Chadwick, author of the excellent Suzuki biography, Crooked Cucumber, and of the delightful and often hilarious account of his own experiences, Thank You and OK!: An American Zen Failure in Japan. [Note added 1999.]

End of Confessions of a Mild-Mannered Enemy of the State, from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb (1997).

No copyright.

[Part 1]  [Part 2]

[French translation of this text]

[Italian translation of this text]




Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA
  www.bopsecrets.org   knabb@bopsecrets.org