Review of Truths Among Us: Conversations on Building a New Culture, a collection of interviews by Derrick Jensen, PM Press, 2012
Derrick Jensen can be a very enigmatic author. At one point he is talking about preserving nature by destroying civilization, and then in a blink of an eye he is engaging you on the subject of violence against women or civil war in Guatemala. This is because, for Jensen, the datum of abuse is civilization. We will finally be able to heal from our trauma and abusive behavior when we dismantle the idea of civilization and live in peace with one another. In his books, Jensen is constantly referring to his friends—his socialist friend, his feminist friend, his indigenous activist friend—who are reminding him to remain humble and informing his thoughts all the time. But who are these friends, and how can we figure out where their independent thoughts intersect with Jensen’s?
That is where Truths Among Us comes into play. Interviewing a diverse array of activists, scientists, and theorists, Jensen strikes to what is personal in all of our experiences with abuse, and finds the healing kernel of love in an intimate relationship with one another, mediated by nature. Civilization, here, is the abusive intervention in natural relationships; it is—via capital, commercialism, colonialism, etc—what pits us against one another through shame, competition, or outright victimization.
In today’s heated terrain of ideological polarization and alienation, Truths Among Us comes as a breath of fresh air. What strikes the reader at first are the names on the front cover. Jensen interviews sociologist Stanley Aaronowitz, feminist Jane Caputi, activist Luis Rodriguez, and a careful selection of other important thinkers. Throughout the book, Jensen’s own voice is subsumed within a broader discourse about science, activism, biodiversity, and social issues. Aaronowitz’s marxian socialism illuminates a surprising link with Jensen’s autonomous, primitivist views on the basis of a critique of technological civilization and contemporary science. Here, the alienated stance of scientism is challenged by appealing to the traditions of the philosophy of science, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and a host of other thinkers whose thoughts have been sacrificed at the alter of “method”.
In place of science as it exists in today’s highly professionalized and corporatized world, Jensen seeks out Marc Ian Barasch, the former editor of The New Age Journal, for some actionable medical knowledge. Barasch pulls on ideas of the collective unconscious hashed out across the world, from Carl Jung to Hasidic tradition to Buddhism. Presenting an interesting case for curing cancer through a personal quest of self-healing, Barasch explains that by listening to his dreams and following his desires he was able to win his battle with the scourge of modern civilization.
Accompanying self-healing, Jensen makes special inquiries into bioremediation with renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. Through the activities of fungi and mycelial mats, ecosystems are able to regenerate to a mind boggling extent, Stamets declares. Pursuing this knowledge base might be the key to restoring devastated ecosystems and returning to wild nature. Another interview with activist John Keeble exposes that the connection between bioremediation of Super Fund sites and other biohazard locations might have a lot to do with a sociological turn away from white supremacy and corporate control. Corporations “rob the world of its subjectivity,” says Keeble, “They are culturally sanctified, supported, and protected in their role of turning the living—forests, oceans, mountains, rivers, human lives—into the dead: money” while hate groups “serve that same function of objectifying. Their entire self-definition is based on this objectification.”
To get a closer understanding of the problems of hate and objectification, Jensen turns to influential professor and critic of patriarchy, Jane Caputi. In this interview, Jensen’s personality shines through; he draws on his own experience and strikes to the core of our collective trauma as well as the need for recovery. What Caputi shows us is that oppression is afflicted within before it is afflicted without; in rape for instance, what the perpetrator is “afraid of—perhaps even more profoundly than getting a dose of their own violence—is the feminine within themselves, the chaos represented by the wilderness.” Hence, the connection between the assault against nature and the assault against particular groups grows more keen, and is elucidated further by Jensen’s discussion with Luis Rodriguez.
A best-selling author whose autobiographical work, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Life in L.A., describes life as a gang member in South Central LA. Rodriguez discusses the need for place amongst inner city youth whom economic structures have abandoned. “[Gangs] are products of the industrial age,” declares Rodriguez, who also touches on the subject of the collective unconscious. “[W]e all have an ancestral pool of knowledge and experience that we’ve somehow forgotten about… in their bones these kids are indigenous people.” Raised on a reservation in New Mexico and trained as a Tzutujil Mayan shaman in Guatemala, Martín Prechtel also provides Jensen with an important connection to the indigenous: “We are all still human beings. Some of us have buried our humanity deep inside, or medicated or anesthetized it, but every person alive today, tribal or modern, primal or domesticated, has a soul that is original, natural, and, about all, indigenous in one way or another.” In contrast to the notion of indigeneity, love, and appreciation, professor Richard Drinnon provides a sweeping analysis of the connections between modernity, industrialism, and racism, asking the question, “Where can an attempted dominion over nature and self lead but to the eradication of feelings in any kind of fully human way?” The answer comes through Jensen’s interview with trauma expert Judith Herman: “If you’re part of a predatory and militaristic culture, then to behave in a predatory and exploitative way is not deviant, per se.”
To fit this many observations in a single work while pulling so many voices into a bricolage of diverse and complimentary discourse is a momentous achievement by Jensen, and it is sorely needed today. Which brings me to the next interesting aspect of Truths Among Us: many of the interviews took place before 9/11 and the Green Scare, bringing together a number of voices in an interesting time capsule; a point when “the movement” had the ability to articulate particular demands with far more discursive freedom. One can see in the history of Jensen’s writings a complicated tension between the right-wing anarchist-primitivist tradition and left wing socialist thought. Jensen’s own writing, which culminated in the monumental, prophetic lamentations of, Endgame, has always played along a tight-wire of resistance, moving between prison advocacy to animal welfare sympathies to feminism and post-colonial theory, while maintaining what one might call an autonomous political position. While the anarchist right has chided him for endorsing a liberal mindset, much of the liberal left has disassociated itself from Jensen’s antipathy for reforms.
When Jensen released Deep Green Resistance with controversial anti-vegan primitivist Lierre Keith and anarchist Aric McBay, he was criticized heavily from the left, which blamed DGR for adding fuel to a cultish right-wing tendency within primitivism that has attacked at various times vegetarianism, antiracism, feminism, and queer activism. This “backlash” against the left, however, is far from Jensen’s line of thought. The release of these interviews dating back to the late nineties is a relief from the infighting and disruption that has plagued activists in recent years, and an invitation to escape the repressive dead ends of reactionary discourse.
The glance back at the wonderful things that activists have done and said in solidarity with a global movement against oppression and pathological abuse serves as an inspirational (if not nostalgic) reminder of the relationships of solidarity that Jensen has helped to protect over the past two decades, and a motivation to embrace different people, different ideas, and different walks of life. It is a rewarding book, well worth the read, and is, ironically, perhaps a better reference point for Jensen’s thought than any other of his works that I have read.