I don’t must

Gwynneth Porter: I have often wondered how you can escape conditioning that is undesirable to you.

David Craig: The whole framing of your sensibility?

Gwynneth: Exactly. Do you think you yourself have an unusual background for someone who’s ended up being a sociologist? Coming out of the Brethren/Pentecostal Church?

David: The primary issue for me here is the hermeneutic approach. I was conditioned from the age of zero by the happy delusion that all of reality could be parsed through a series of fairly thin precepts, and sure enough once you could work the precepts were, they did indeed work to frame up all kinds of things in a pretty clear kind of way. Clearer than truth, as Dean Acheson (Condy Rice in another dispensation) once said. So, you were always interpreting really complex orders in terms of really simple things, which came with various weightings and imperatives attached. And that’s just what social theory is. And that’s what art criticism can be if you let it be that. And within the Brethren Church, if you wanted to get to the top of the tree as a full-time pastor or speaker, you had to be able to do the ten-dimensional hermeneutic arbitrage. Which is altogether different from the hermeneutic shimmy. Though the former can be, was in my case, a precursor to the latter.

Gwynneth: What do you mean by the hermeneutic shimmy? You have also talked about the hermeneutic impulse being like putting pins through bugs; or “see Buddha, kill Buddha”…

David: Well, the hermeneutic shimmy and the hermeneutic nail are only recognisable once you’ve got post literal in your hermeneutics: that is, you’ve become a liberal post Fundy. In the Brethren church, the aim was to become a Total Literal Hermeneut, who could do the ten dimensional thing, and make almost anything read around Christ. So, for example, the ultimate goal was to be a ‘Tabernacle teacher’, and in that capacity, you would be able to go through the Book of Deuteronomy and Leviticus which would explain how the tabernacle was built, and you could make all the connections between the different parts of the tabernacle and the life of Christ. It’s called typology, and it’s a brand of scholasticism; that is, it’s figured up by relatively smart people stuck in very narrow orthodox parameters. Worms in a wormbox. Like the cabbala in some ways, which you can take off from like Benjamin.

Gwynneth: I have never heard him talked about in a non-secular fashion.

David: Mystically? That’s because we’re Anglo Saxon. We’re not very good at letting things being critical and spirited at once: we want total critical evacuation of a thing. It suits our purpose.

Gwynneth: What I wonder whether the bible still presses on your reality; like what happens when you close the bible, what happens to the semantic scaffolding…

David: No one has a just literal belief in the bible. Literalism is just one strand, and even that is not practised in a totalising kind of way. People are literal in a pick up sticks kind of way: pick up one precept, and use it to tool everything else, with a conviction of its universal applicability. But then they have a magical approach to the Bible: open the page, point, and God speak through the text under your thumb, often interpreted very metaphorically, across what would seem to many to be huge sensibility and pragmatic distance.

Gwynneth: Is that like when you are writing something and you see a book sitting at a funny angle on the library shelf and you pick it up and it was weirdly relevant?

David: Yes it really is as if the universe wants to be interpreted. That is an after-effect of biblical thinking is that you are at the centre of the universe and it is plastic around you. Another after-effect of the magical bible thing is you learn to trust your own hermeneutic instinct to a ridiculous extent, and learn to apply it magically, sometimes to excess. Another post-bible thing though is the canonical thing, where you treat other books as potential candidates for being in the Bible. I did it with Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, Hemingway’s the Sun Also Rises, and On the Road. Then I did it with French theory. Derrida, Barthes and Foucault become Matthew, Mark Luke and John…

Gwynneth: Is that like when you take drugs it opens up spaces that you can then go to any time you like when you are note even on drugs?

David: Yes, it sounds like how it is with canonical thinking. I once read a book a Christian book that introduced you to all these different world views through a canonical little list so that you could evangelise to each point of view: nihilism, read Kafka and Durrenmatt. Existentialism, read Sartre’s Nausea and The Myth of Sisyphus. Nausea really fucked me up, and so did The Castle. I got quite depressed. I talked to this man in the church – quite a strange man really; he’d read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance once and thought it was the most evil book ever written – and he said to me that God said that I had two weeks to make a decision. Either I stopped reading these things, or…

Gwynneth: What? Or else?

David: Well he didn’t really say what. But I dropped out of my English MA and went to work in a t-shirt store where I listened to things like Van Morrison singing “I’m happy cleaning windows”.

Gwynneth: The ten-dimensional hermeneutic arbitrage sounds like a massive construction. I don’t know where the front door is because I don’t even know what Pentecostalism is and what its relationship to the Brethren Church is.

David: They’re really more like inverse images of each other, though they share notions of things like kinds of ex tempore spirit inspiration, and are both ultimately Protestant sects, with all that means in the contradictory terms of lay authority, hierarchy, and faction. Brethren is antithetical to Pentecostal in many ways, but in the 60s and 70s many people lurched out of it and into the other thing. Part of the Brethren movement became Charismatic, which is one step before Pentecostal, so we’re looking at speaking-in-tongues, healing, words of wisdom, visions, apostolic anointing, and all that. That would be common to Charismatic as well as Pentecostal sects.

Gwynneth: Are we talking demons? Although I can’t imagine how that is managed in practical life…

David: Yeah, all that, absolutely. Demons are out there. But in the charismatic Brethren church I went to, they sat kind of exceptionally they sat alongside social engagement of slightly more than a charitable kind, a very strange situation in Te Atatu North. So I ended up living on a rehab farm for about three years. It was a residential social work situation. People would come to the rehab farm either to go cold turkey on heroin, or because they were released from prison, or because they had been abused and the rehab farm was like a family. Or they came because they were bipolar, or paranoid-schizophrenic, or because they were charismatic social workers! They also came because they were Black Power prospects.

Gwynneth: Why would they be coming to you in this capacity?

David: Because they had a choice between that and going to jail. Their social workers would say you can go to the 4221 farm or to Mount Eden prison. I used to pick up quite a few people from prison. 4221 is called “Forever together to love one another”.

Gwynneth: That must have been popular with the prospects. I’m curious though, how effective was it? Did people who went there get much out of it?

David: It became a total world of itself, an end in itself, where you saw your future entirely in terms of the impact you would make on the world through this ministry. Of course it could never entirely occupy your sensibility, though the assumption was it would, could, should. You had to operate of course with filters on the whole time, though I tended to let lots of stuff seep in, and not to be too policey about it… it’s supposed to be fearless… perfect love casts out fear, so in theory you can embrace everything, like Jesus, in that million permutation sensibility way. It sounds contradictory with the narrow precepts, and in many ways it was: love was beyond the law, in theory, and often in sensibility. But social allegiance was in the end by no means as flexible, and if you busted social and cultural codes, or, worse, doctrinal ones, you were on the way out, and that hurts, still.

Gwynneth: I was thinking about Te Atatu. I mean there are precious few places to go to convalesce these days. It really isn’t part of our culture anymore. I actually discovered, and I was quite shocked about this, that the main Auckland rehab vets people coming in, they make very class-based decisions on who gets to go there. If you’re a little too criminal, they shuffle you off to Odyssey House; they don’t want you around with all these other “nice” people. What I’m wondering is – what are they protecting people from? My best mate in rehab for a week had Mongrel Mob tattooed around his neck, and our friendship was very therapeutic. We would go to the thermal pools – this place was in the North Canterbury foothills – and just sit there like snow monkeys in the winter. One day he said to go along with him and pretend we had just got married and sat me on his knee. He started talking to these amazingly nice Scandinavian tourists who were on their honeymoon and when one of the asked him what he did for a living, he said “armos”. They said “what is this armo?” and he made a gun shape with his hand and said “you know bang bang, give me all your money”. Then he swam us both away.

David: Residential social work places are full-on, the so-called normal standards of behaviour just don’t apply. It’s the puritan idea of danger, a Mary Douglas idea of danger. As in ‘Purity and Danger’. If there’s danger without, you need purity within. They purge the evil member. I was always unsure of the need to purge, which is an ongoing thing with me, with spillovers.

Gwynneth: He did get ejected. I always thought delinquency is quite purifying. The promise of genuinely a-historical moments…

David: Well, you know that, and it’s true. It can be the most wonderful cathartic thing. But it’s not from an institutional point of view. That’s the thing, everyone alone even in the Brethren church has their own spirit freedom in their head, however practically or puritanically constrained they actually are. But get in an institution, and the puritanisms coalesce, as if by social magic. Puritanism is just such a whole consideration, because it is such a primal New Zealand psyche thing. It’s about shared moral purpose, but it’s actually about fears about that, that at the end of the day the others won’t hold their end up, and then where would you be? I actually think it works in an actively structuring sense, building order and manifesting moral purpose, but out of an immense negative instability, which is fed by scarcity. Scarcity means you haven’t got a lot of stuff, so therefore you wouldn’t waste a lot of stuff, and beauty and issues like that might not be something you want to waste a lot on. I used to take ironing-boards as presents to my friends’ weddings for a long time.

Gwynneth: What are the plus sides of this kind of puritanical tendency?

David: In sociological terms it goes back to Protestant ethics, to the spirit of capitalism. It’s efficient and effective in a brutal kind of way. But the point is it’s basically productive, in a relentless and perverse kind of way.

Gwynneth: You do seem to have superhuman powers to work.

David: There’s a lot to be done, parsing and structuring all that reality. But my realities have basically multiplied, and I’m now simply much more a man of parts. There are dozens of me, all clamouring for my time, or all pissed and disillusioned with the others; nowadays, more of that, which is literally depressing. Yes, when there are a thousand of you inside you are always a bit fucked, not least in terms of puritan purpose. But puritan purpose is pretty relentless, it keeps coming around and around. The world still needs parsing, and restructuring along better lines…

Gwynneth: I guess you get the job done.

David: Sure, and you go hard. You are not really thinking you are competing with other people, but you’re mainly competing with this image or these structuring conceptions and their intransigence, or the intransigence of the world, you’re really competing with this strong visceral sense of moral purpose and values that you hold up against the world, maybe yourself, maybe not, all the time – and of course you hold up against other people. Other people always think that’s the point, Oh, they’re judging me? But that’s not actually the point in Protestantism, it’s not judging them first and foremost, it’s about judging the system, the ‘world’, and thereby of course yourself, to a point. But then, you’re ok, free in the spirit, justified by faith, a sinner, but forgiven…. But then, people are right, the judgment is always hypocritical, because the judgment is applied in such total terms that no one can live up to it.

Gwynneth: The more I think about all this, the more I like the idea of re-instituting a series of convalescent hospitals, without psychiatrists though.

David: Like little voluntary monasteries you can hop into and check out at any time you like?

Gwynneth: Yes, I kind of thought about it when I went around Queen Mary Hospital in autumn this year. After reading Magic Mountain in the summer. They closed the place last year, the last of New Zealand’s convalescent hospitals from the 1920s. The spirit of capitalism was moved to decide that, being a thermal resort, the real estate was just too good for “non-copers”. I just kind of let myself in and looked around and took some photos. I thought that it’s slightly close to a feeling of a family bach. I think people forget that these places have those kind of identities, ongoing intergenerational kind of senses of belonging and rest.

David: That’s a really nice affinity. The family bach being the place where you go for a little holiday, away from normality.

Gwynneth: Where all deals are off.

David: And it’s also kind of stark, it’s a sensory-reduced environment, a rather hermetic place.

Gwynneth: I don’t really see hospitals as being hermetic, because one of their really strong points is that there are lots of other people there, and when you’re not working and when you don’t have any demands on you of being productive, and you just give yourself that time… The weird kind of crowd that you are, it’s really quite delirious, quite amazing the re-inventions that people stage in really short spaces of time.

David: And they form relationships too.

Gwynneth: Yes they are necessarily social somehow, those sort of transformations, I can’t quite work it out. Some sort of collective invocation that is all the more powerful for being of a group.

David: It’s a little temporary community.

Gwynneth: With an embarrassment of time on your hands. It’s such a joy. Even if you are in agony. But when do you have the time to do that, when employed, to re-invent yourself?

David: I don’t think that re-inventing yourself is actually possible.

Gwynneth: Really? Well, granted, it’s never complete, but there are ways of getting around things. You’ve just got to stab certain parts of yourself to death or ignore them long enough until they atrophy and fall off. But sometimes you’ve got no choice but to change something really quite structural. I tend to think of the self as habitual and that adaptation is necessary if you discover your conditioned constitution isn’t operating in your present circumstances.

David: I can see how people discipline themselves, but the idea of a re-invention is not very well appreciated in a lot of circles, especially powerful circles. And there’s no time for it really: there’s always everything to be done, and you’ve got to shape up, not for the big questions, but for the petty little everyday ones, the little things you do all day around others. So you discipline yourself to make these terse, elbows out, to try to do the right thing, do the job well enough, to be seen as reliable, to get the little bits of respect that come from little things like that. Be a stable enough person for yourself and others.

Gwynneth: Psychiatry and rehabilitation do love stable, calm, ‘integrated’ subjects… But whether or not people would prefer you to stay the same, you have to admit that re-inventions are possible, even if they are partial. Micro-suicides for greater vitality? I mean you’ve extracted yourself from religion almost completely. That was a bit of a nail-bomb, to use your term.

David: I think I got rid of it on a cerebral level, but I think on a visceral level I’m still puritanical to the gut, to the bone. The world can still be grasped, and to the extent you can do it, it still needs re-structuring.

Gwynneth: What about on a spiritual level? You didn’t leave that behind when you left organised religion?

David: No. It actually came to me through speaking-in-tongues.

Gwynneth: I have no idea what speaking in tongues really is, it all just seems like ‘Night of the Hunter’ to me. I seem to remember snakes…

David: Well, it works against the grain, against reason, primarily: but by doing so it reinstates reason as the framework and the residue against which things are pitched… it’s perverse… Brethrenism is just a form of ossification, like lots of things, no more perverse or benign, though it can be very much of both. A lot of cultural forms are ossifications, they’re over-used, they calcify, where there’s something else going on, something else that actually often drives the ossification, the stuff that it picks up on the way through and sediments down. So to read the codes through the code is the wrong way to read the code, you read the code through what was driving the code.

Gwynneth: When you are in the process of extracting yourself from organised religion, do you get to keep the bits you like, or are there things which aren’t transferable?

David: You don’t have any choice about the mystic things, it’s not about you choosing the things you like, it’s like the ground of everything. You’d be really dumb if you tried to live your life without it. You’d just be cutting yourself off from everything.

Gwynneth: What is speaking-in-tongues?

David: It’s a weird play of semiology, it’s post-rational, it’s just a way out of rational.

Gwynneth: Into delirium?

David: No, it’s not delirious at all. It’s just mechanical. It’s like when you want to go to sleep, you mix up all your thoughts.

Gwynneth: That’s what my dad advised me to do once, drop all the consonants out of my thoughts.

David: It’s like talking a language that you don’t actually understand, you just talk it. All mysticism is essentially distantiation. Mystic techniques – not mysticism – are all about knocking various bricks out of the wall of consciousness and seeing what happens. Like speaking in a language that you don’t understand.

Gwynneth: But are you making it up on the spot or is it sort of coming from somewhere else?

David: It’s just there.

Gwynneth: Don’t be so cryptic.

David: It’s just a language that you start talking, and off you go.

Gwynneth: But is it made up or channelled? Oh, stop, I am starting to think that those sort of questions are always best answered “both”… Is it a private thing or a public thing?

David: Some people will do it in public, they do it in meetings and they will yell it out loud. At some Pentecostal meetings people will give utterances in tongues and someone else will have the translation of it, which they offer in a completely, it’s intuitive, one person will give the talk in tongues and then the other person will say, God’s saying this.

Gwynneth: Is this while they’re doing it or afterwards?

David: Usually afterwards, but you don’t think about it, the point for the translator is to be totally intuitive, to just go with the flow and not think about what they’re saying.

Gwynneth: It’s like a slide test.

David: I don’t know, what’s that?

Gwynneth: That’s the only type of test I ever excelled in as a student. High-speed written responses to images of art work.

David: Ah! Well, I guess it is – like spontaneous translation, if you think about it, you’re fucked. If you’re a simultaneous translator, what you do is, you listen to the person you’re translating, and you just talk as they speak, and you don’t know what you’ve just said. If it’s conscious, you’re fucked. You’re just concentrating on what they are saying. It’s a habitus thing, in sociological terms. So, anyone can do it. But you have to have an expectation of it.

Gwynneth: Is that the invocational plasticity thing? Invocational is a funny word – it looks like anti-career…

David: In Pentecostal circles it’s considered a gift of the spirit, it enables you to have this particular gift of tongues, so you just receive it from the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit might also give you other gifts, gifts of prophecy, gifts of healing, of words of wisdom, visions, but there are also gifts of mercy, gifts of health. This is how it’s framed up in the discourse, so they open themselves up to it and they get it. And if you want a half-way house between solid mysticism, which is beyond any words, let alone speaking-in-tongues, and puritanical ossification, and rules and norms which make up a lot of everyday practice, especially religious practice, which seems to be more rule-bound ironically than almost anything…

Gwynneth: You can have a half-way house between apparent contradictions? I mean if someone professes that their religious organisation gives you the power to become, that drips all the irony really, if you’re thinking about it in terms of the liberation of desire in those kinds of transformative concepts.

David: It’s worse than that on a lot of levels, because Pentecostal power structures, sociologically, are just so totally authoritarian and male. I don’t know, but maybe all these Pentecostals speaking in tongues are actually profoundly politically reactionary, because it turns you into a fascist, as it lays bare some primal kind of will in some fascistic and delusional way. Maybe in my case my own delusional things are so grand they completely outstrip the normal kinds of moralistic micro-fascisms that most Pentecostal people would have… Again, all these things are maybe best seen as two sides of a coin, or two outcomes of some fairly potent inner drives of various provenance and effect… but they don’t seem to want to go away, or find a place you can live with them, and that’s what I can’t get to grips with really. The best I think you can do is get a bit of distance, and then do something other.