It’s hard not to trust Douglas Rushkoff immediately from just speaking to him. He’s polite, unassuming, affable. And one of the secret architects of the kind of criticism that is now shifting to the core of interpreting our progressive easing into digital culture.
The interview begins with my almost Stockholm-Syndromed awe. One of the most rewarding aspects of the interview however, is the ease with which Douglas is able to return to the ideas themselves. The ideas are always foregrounded, the thinker and the act of thinking fall in as secondary. We begin the interview about his newest fiction, ADD (Adolescent Demo Division, though strangely reminiscent of Attention Deficit Disorder), by talking about his doctoral dissertation currently underway. What’s the relationship between the scope of this dissertation and his fiction?
“The underlying theme or premise of a lot of my work is that people have a hard time acknowledging the operating system on which they’re functioning. So the (doctoral) dissertation is really looking at central currency as the unacknowledged economic operating system of our time. And corporations as kinds of the ideal software to run on that operating system. People accept the premises, the laws and rules, of that OS as if it were nature, as if it were the world. When it’s not the world it’s a playing field, it’s a construction of people.
“That’s really what, I guess, as a media theorist the main thing I’ve been trying to get across to people. Whether I’ve been talking about culture, or religion or anything else. That we accept a set of assumptions, we accept these creations, these rules as if they were nature. But they’re not, they’re a system, a construction. And writing ADD, because it’s fiction I can make that even more explicit.
“What if people were raised in basically a shopping mall, and all of that was their reality. What if you were raised since the time you were a tiny person to play video games? What if that’s the only reality you know. Now on the one hand, it’s like the ultimate dream for every kid, to live in that kind of universe where you can have everything that you want. But on the other hand, there’s all of these kinds of fixed assumptions that end up informing how you look at the world”.
But this isn’t the first time Douglas has written fiction. Or even the first time he’s written comics. Does his recent Program or be Programmed have any bearing on the project of writing ADD?
“In a way”, Douglas begins answering. “The leap from nonfiction to fiction is really about two things. The first is, technique, the what if of nonfiction, and making that a realized world of fiction. That you realize in a real, concrete situation rather than an abstract one. So the idea of living in a false world, and in a comicbook people would literally be living in a false world. Our corporate marketing system is creating a new, well… almost a new species of adolescent, then why don’t I create a story in which a corporation is literally creating a new species of adolescent. Where I take the metaphorical ideas and turn them from metaphors into real situations. That’s the main difference. And in doing so, the relationship of the nonfiction to the fiction is that the nonfiction helps me figure out, what is actually going on here, what is actually happening in the world. And the fiction is more about how do I communicate that to people, in a way that they can grasp and experience, rather than just wrap their heads around.
“Nonfiction is the discipline, fiction is the humanizing of it. And that’s the hardest part, especially since I’ve just spent two years in a nonfiction universe and then to realize it as people, with human frailties. Characters cannot just be symbols for universal forces, unless they’re gods. They have to be people. Everything that happens has an organic impact on who they are”.
It comes up casually, but the comment elegantly articulates the debate around postmodernism, one that can be traced back a seminal debate in 1992. Published in Cahiers du Cinema, in a single edition, visionary directors Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov submitted opposing manifestos. Eisenstein’s is the directorial form we’re most familiar with. Audiences become flies-on-the-wall, the camera becomes invisible, “a window on another world”. Almost singlehandedly, Vertov directed the vector of postmodernist cinema—the idea that actors play no parts, that cinematic cutting techniques be used to maintain audience awareness of the artificial, constructed nature of the film. But Vertov’s films weren’t documentaries, rather they were meant as entertainment. In a single publication, he’d foreshadowed the reality television revolution of seven decades hence.
Douglas’ insight lies in his being able to step out of this binaried-opposition and refuse the either-or the situation seems to demand. Immersive storytelling has a purpose, and so does communicating difficult-to-grasp concepts.
But isn’t a single graphic novel restrictive of the world being built?
There’s a pause before the reply comes. As if, collectively we’ve entered into the cathedral of things larger than ourselves. “You know, oddly enough, ADD was originally pitched, and it started to be written as a series. I saw it as a long series, and the majority of it would have happened outside the ADD facility. It would have been a little bit more like a WE3 or something, where these three kids are out there in the world, going from place to place. And we see our world through the eyes of these ADD kids. One issue would take them to a place where there’d be a kind of a Columbine shooting, then we’d go to Japan and see Japanese kids, all in the search for their origins. This would take on an Incredible Hulk kind of quality—each part would see them save another kid or town or something with their semi-superhero kind of abilities.
“I wrote the first two or three of what was going to be that series. And I don’t remember exactly why but I’m sure it had to do with as much with the way Vertigo and DC and the industry was changing, as whatever artistic vision I had. Everyone seemed to think it would be better to do this as a graphic novel than as a series. The problem with a series is you have so many external factors weighing on your story, that you don’t have to have in your graphic novel. You have to think: okay, how’s this going to be a discrete 22 page story; how is it going to be a satisfying three-issue or four-issue arc; how am I going to turn what was going to be a four-issue arc into a three-issue arc so we can have a one issue special done by another artist because the artist has fallen behind on this; and how am I going to tell my whole story that way? There’s so many different timelines at work, that if you’re trying to tell a complex story, it would be really, really difficult.
“So it was a great relief when it was decided I could do this as a graphic novel, but it really did change the story. The idea of doing the episodic-issue thing was much, much more plot-oriented. And once they sort of drew the margins around it, and I knew I was going to have whatever it was, 122 or 140 pages it became much more about character than about plot. And I think that was good for me. I ended up going back. I thought to myself, if I’ve got this much room exactly, I can almost end up going back to to the Robert McKee of storytelling. ‘Who is this person, how does he change, what does he want, what does he get’?
“Then it becomes a lot easier to look at the five or seven main characters and sketch them out. Where do they start, where do they end, what is the moment of maximum intimacy? What is the moment of maximum insight? It became a lot more focused on the humanity of these characters. Which ends up creating a more compelling narrative. And rather than seeing the humanity as some kind of dance I need to do to keep people occupied in my story while I give them the propaganda I have for them, it becomes instead the driving force.”
It’s beautiful commentary on the artist and the role of art. And it does nothing but underline the flawless, meticulous precision with which Douglas approaches both his theory, and his fiction. It’s also the comment that makes me buy a copy of ADD, and a second, above and beyond the review copy gifted me, and gift them to friends. There’s something strangely hopeful about the level and quality of thought that went into Douglas making this work of art. Like we’ve stepped into the middle of a great cultural shift, like we’ve caught Superman in that supply closet, changing back into Clark. Something strangely recursive to the words of TS Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time… The future is a faded song/… Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret/… You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,/… That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.”