David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 60 literary publishers and now US readers can shop All Lit Up close to home, and save on shipping when they purchase books from its new bookshop.org affiliate shop. Browse selected titles at bookshop.org/shop/alllitup. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover, buy, and collect exciting contemporary Canadian literature all in one place. Check out All Lit Up at www.alllitup.ca. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Hannah Stowe’s powerful and deeply personal narrative Move Like Water in which the stories of six keystone marine creatures, alongside Stowe’s own stunning illustrations, invite readers to fall in love with the ocean and those who call it home. For fans of Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard, Move Like Water is an inspiring heartfelt hymn to the sea, a testament to finding and following a dream. Jay Griffiths calls the book, “Exquisite in its intelligence and boundless in the fetch of its wave.” Charles Foster adds that Stowe doesn’t just watch and describe the sea; she’s part of it, it surges inside her and crashes out onto the page. Move Like Water is out now from Tin House. The books of today’s guest Naomi Klein usually fall outside the purview of the show as a literature show. Even though I’m a fan of her writing and she has coined and introduced language into the political discourse and ways of framing that have been very useful for me all this time, her new book is however different. It is still like her other books, books that she is described as ammo for activists but it is also more inward looking, more personal, more vulnerable, more searching and she even went back to writing school to bring this more memoiristic, and perhaps even novelistic element into her work. If the accolades are any indication of this turn toward the literary, notable writers from China Miéville to Kim Stanley Robinson are some of the many people praising Doppelganger among others who you might more expect from Bill McKibben to Angela Davis. But Doppelganger is also a book that in many ways centers literature as a topic as well, looking at doubling and doppelgangers throughout literary history as well as psychoanalytic thought and in the visual arts, as a means to make sense of the doubling we are seeing in the world, not only the doppelganger Naomi herself is often mistaken for but all the friends we’ve lost since the pandemic to what Naomi calls the mirror world who have succumbed to alternate mirror world narratives around vaccines, masks, or other ways to protect each other from harm. Both of these elements of her new book, a focus on literature and a move toward a more introspective and personal style may be interested in reaching out to Naomi. But there’s also a third reason that really sealed the deal for me. I knew Naomi Klein knew of the show because she had tweeted about my most recent conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen in 2021, a conversation that looked at many complex things from the revolutionary origins of the term Asian American to the ways it is now used in representational politics as a kind of erasure of certain segments of the community, from Hazel Carby’s critique of Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste to questions of Asian Black relations within the United States and Asian Arab relations in France. I remember after this episode a past guest from many years ago, Eunsong Kim, the author of The Gospel of Regicide. She said to me, “I think the show has gotten more radical.” Whether that’s true or not, I do think it has developed and come into its own politics. The politics is one that has been shaped by the conversations themselves, the encounters with the thoughts of people who’ve been on the show. When Claudia Rankine came on the show 10 years ago, I don’t think I could have had the conversation I had with Viet Thanh Nguyen two years ago with her. But it was through talking with Claudia, Natalie Diaz, Solmaz Sharif, Christina Sharpe, Dionne Brand, CA Conrad, Layli Long Soldier, and Viet Thanh Nguyen the first time, that step by step shaped a certain sensibility that was both aesthetic and political for Between the Covers. One thing Naomi’s new book has that’s similar to her other books is that it introduces new conceptual terms, new language that is incredibly useful to understand our current moment. But unlike her past groundbreaking terms like disaster capitalism or the shock doctrine, the terms in this book from the idea of the second body to sacrifice sounds and shadow lands, all of these new ideas, as helpful as they are for movements, also have deep relevance for writers and writing in any genre. What are we turning away from seeing, what are we not including in our frame of concern or attention, and what consequences for our literature, for our sense of self, our culture, or of our people is there for what we center and what we exclude for the shadowlands we create by continuing to not see certain things, and to always see others? Even when Naomi and I are talking in purely political terms, say about the pandemic or about climate change, there are direct analogs in writing for the questions we tackle, and as you’ll see, we keep coming back to books as we do. As Naomi says in this conversation, this is also her most Jewish book for many reasons. It is a book that looks at doppelgangers and doubling, partially within a Jewish context around anti-Semitism, Holocaust memory, Palestine, Zionism, Marxism, the labor boon and more. The conversation that we have today touches on many of these things throughout but we decided that we want to do a part two sometime later this fall, once her tour is over and she’s back home, a second Doppelganger episode that will be the Jewish edition, a more in-depth look at some of these questions around doubling an identity. As a case study, really I would say for many of the ways we will explore how a community remembers itself or how a community places itself in relation to other communities really has relevance for any people. One of the reasons the main conversation nevertheless still leans Jewish is because one of the central books that Naomi engages with today within Doppelganger is Philip Roth’s doppelganger book Operation Shylock, a book set in Israel and Palestine that engages deeply with Zionism, and what Philip Roth’s double calls diasporism. For the bonus audio, Naomi decided to read a truly amazing letter written by the fake Philip Roth to the real Philip Roth. This joins bonus audio from so many other dynamic writers from Christina Sharpe to Dionne Brand to Natalie Diaz to Viet Thanh Nguyen, and the bonus audio is only one reason to join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every listener-supporter gets the resources with each episode that include the many things referenced during it and the resources I used to prepare for it, and also further things to explore which this time includes some examples of writers working to confront the denied or forgotten shadowlands within their own writing. Then there’s plenty more to choose from, from the Tin House early readership subscription receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before the general public to rare collectibles from past guests. You can find out about all of this and more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Naomi Klein.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is author and journalist Naomi Klein. Her first book No Logo is one of the first books to put the emerging grassroots resistance to corporate manipulation into clear perspective and was named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 non-fiction books of the last 100 years, by the Literary Review of Canada as one of the 100 most important Canadian books ever published, and by HarperCollins UK for their 200th anniversary, named as one of their top 200 books ever. With The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Klein looked at the ways the powerful used catastrophes and the disorientation they cause to bypass democracy, and consent and to further consolidate power and wealth at the expense of the victims of the catastrophe itself. This changes everything capitalism versus the climate looked at the game changer that is the climate apocalypse we are all now suffering under. These are only three of her many books, books that have been published in over 35 languages and met with both popular enthusiasm and critical acclaim. Klein is also an award-winning journalist having written for The Intercept as senior contributing writer, The Nation, The Globe and Mail, as a columnist with The Guardian, and as a contributing editor at Harper’s and Rolling Stone. Her journalism has brought her everywhere from China to Standing Rock, Puerto Rico to Iraq and several of her books have been made into feature documentaries directed by Avi Lewis. In the profile of Klein in The New Yorker, she was described as, “The most visible and influential figure on the American left – what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were 30 years ago.” You are as likely to see Naomi Klein in conversation with Greta Thunberg as invited to the Vatican to help launch Pope Francis’ historic encyclical on ecology, giving the Edward Said memorial lecture or seen her on the stage at rallies for Bernie Sanders during his last presidential campaign. Klein was one of the key organizers of the Leap Manifesto that created a blueprint for a rapid, justice-based transition off fossil fuels in Canada, one that attended to the intersections of climate, race, and class and which was a notable influence on the Green New Deal. She’s the recipient of innumerable awards and honorary degrees including being named to the Frederick Douglass 200, a project to honor the impact of 200 living individuals who best embody the works and spirit of Douglass, the I.F. Stone Award for Outstanding Independent Media and Journalism, and the Sydney Peace Prize, Australia’s international award for peace. In 2018, she was named the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University and as an Honorary Professor of Media and Climate there. She currently serves as professor of Climate Justice at the University of British Columbia and is the founding co-director of the UBC Centre for Climate Justice. Given all that Klein has done, it may come as a surprise that Klein’s latest book Doppelganger is in many ways a venture into a new area for Klein, not only a new topic but a new way of writing. Past Between the Covers guests China Miéville says of Doppelganger, “This book is as foreboding as a guide through the maze of mirrors of the modern right should be. But it’s not only that: Naomi Klein has made Doppelganger gripping and scintillating, too. The result is a reckoning with the present moment that’s as insightful as all Klein’s indispensable work, and as suspenseful as a novel.” Angela Davis adds, “With her always incisive analysis of the systems and structures linked to global capitalism, Klein now fiercely and brilliantly urges that our justice movements be prepared to follow the quest for new meaning into dimensions where we might least expect to find it: in injury and vulnerability.” Judith Butler adds, “Naomi Klein’s thoughtful and honest inquiry into the troubling duplication of her name and the distorted appropriation of her views becomes the occasion for an incisive account of how the Right has appropriated Left discourses, producing a nightmarish doubling that has plunged some of us into silence. Klein moves her reader toward the truer grounds of solidarity in these times, showing us how to resist the lures of Fascism with militant humility and connection, letting ourselves be upended by what we thought we could not bear to see so that we can face and build an affirmative future.” Finally, another past guest of Between the Covers, Kim Stanley Robinson says, “Naomi Klein’s books have been building one on the next to create a very powerful and influential cognitive mapping of our time. This new book takes a personal turn, then opens out into an analysis of our shared global dilemma that is as incisive and fascinating as anything she has ever written—which is saying a lot. As always, my first thought on finishing one of her books is Thank you.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Naomi Klein.
Naomi Klein: Thank you so much, David. It is a real joy to be with you. Thank you for that beautiful introduction.
DN: So I’ve long been a fan of your books and the ways they frame things conceptually, how you’ve created new language that has helped empower movements on the ground. In preparing for today’s conversation, I gave some thought to the ways your political point of view both influences and aligns with choices that I make on the show, and it’s something that I want to explore a little bit later on today. But before we go into the political, I wanted to start with the literary because your books before now largely fall outside the purview of a literature-focused podcast. But the new book is a new direction, not only does Doppelganger meditate a lot on literature and other forms of art as its subject as part of its exploration of what you call the mirror world but you’ve also said that the book is a real departure for you insofar that it is a new way of writing that you haven’t done, more personal, more self-questioning. In a sense, Doppelganger exists in two ways, just like your other books in that it puts forth a political analysis, yet at the same time, it also exists as a memoir or a personal essay. In the acknowledgments to the book, you mentioned that at a moment of acute pandemic vertigo, as well as being stuck with your own writing, you decided to use the travel restrictions to go to the writing school you never attended, and Harriet Clark who is your teacher and that this project took root as part of your schooling with her. I’d love to hear in your own words how this book feels like a departure, the impetus behind going to writing school when you are already a supremely successful author, and maybe both something about what the schooling was like and something about the anxieties, fears, or excitements of writing in this new way, especially given that you mentioned that some people were explicitly cautioning you against writing like this.
NK: Thanks for that. The first line of the book is, in my defense, it was never my intent to write this book. [laughs] No one asked me to and many people cautioned against it, and that is all true. That is all true. [laughter] Yes, I’m really thrilled to be able to talk about my unexpected back-to-school COVID trip and why I did it. I did write a fair bit in the early days of COVID. I was pretty prolific around something I often do when there are big ruptures in the collective story. I often get asked to talk about The Shock Doctrine and ways to avoid it because there was a lot of concern about the ways the pandemic would be used by tech companies, by fossil fuel companies, I mean there were all kinds of deregulatory grabs, things that I’ve tracked before, so I talked a lot in those first months even though it was a very different kind of shock for me in the sense that I was in it unlike having that reportorial distance that I’ve had. You listed some of the places that I’ve gone as a journalist, like Iraq after the US, UK Invasion or New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those were not my shocks. I was there with my notebook and I was there as an observer, a reporter. I was watching the way other people’s trauma was being capitalized upon and exploited in order to push policies that would have been forcefully opposed under other circumstances, like privatizing the New Orleans school system and so on. So COVID is different in that I don’t think anybody was outside of it. We weren’t all on the same kinds of front lines by any means. It was an incredibly unequally distributed set of risks, I mean my head was foggy, I was more confused than I’ve ever been but I did try to push through it and really I guess until finally, Trump was out of the White House, then I crashed. The crash and the speechlessness that you referenced, I think it was not so much, so here we’re talking about spring 2021 I guess, winter-spring 2021, it was not so much the shock of COVID that left me speechless and not really able to write, really wanting to write or list lists or depressed, I mean these things are all very entangled for me. It was crashing from a few real political highs. As you said, I had been part of the Bernie Sanders campaign and that’s very much what I had been doing when the world shut down. Those have been frankly some of the best moments of my life. It sounds corny but being in Las Vegas when Bernie swept the strip, you’ve never seen so many happy leftists in your life, I mean we were just hugging strangers. [laughter] It was just so exciting because it was Vegas, it was trumpy gold ground zero of a certain kind of absurdist capitalism and the people who make that city run, who clean the hotel rooms, who shine the slot machines literally rose up and just said, “No,” and voted for a Democratic socialist, voted for universal health care, voted for a living wage despite the fact that in many cases, their own union had told them to vote for Biden, I believe it was. That was the moment when a bunch of us really let ourselves imagine that we might do this thing. [laughs] We didn’t. [laughs] As we all know, the end of that story, and I so vividly remember I was still living in the States at this time as I was teaching at Rutgers and I was living in New Jersey, and there was just something about the convergence of very early lockdown and watching that moment when the whole Democratic party just closed ranks around Biden. Remember that big rally where it was just like, “Who’s up next? Who’s up next?” He was like, [inaudible] It was just like, “It’s Cory Booker.” Everybody’s just lining up. I think it was something about that happening when we couldn’t be with one another, when we couldn’t process it, when we were all just freaking out about COVID at the same time but then of course, then comes the racial justice uprising that summer or that spring and that’s another opening, that’s another possibility, then there’s all this organizing about, “Well, maybe the way we emerge from this shock really learns its lessons.” Arundhati Roy writes, “The pandemic is a portal,” and we’re all passing it around, and imagining, “Well, maybe we’re going somewhere else and maybe we will be changed by it in a good way.” I think the speechlessness for me was the realization that wasn’t going to happen and I was just out of arguments. I had no more cheerleading left. [laughs] I had spent it all. I had done it. I had done it for Bernie, I had done it for the idea of a people’s reconstruction from COVID, and I just didn’t want to write anymore. I didn’t feel like I could write the kind of books that I have written which are more linear, which are more, “Okay, I’m going to lay out what the thesis is, then I’m going to prove it and reprove it, and we’re going to go in a pretty straight line up this mountain together, then we’re going to say that we did it.” [laughter] It’s funny you mentioned Harriet Clark and she says, “Don’t throw your other books under the bus. We can talk about how this is new without throwing your other books under the bus.” [laughter] I don’t want to throw the books under the bus but I guess I got to a point where I felt like if I can’t be excited about the content I had to offer, that maybe I could get excited about the form. I was feeling a certain lightness already about my public persona. You quoted from that New Yorker article about, and I find it a really silly quote, about the most influential person in the American lab or whatever it was. I’m not, I’m not anymore. There was a moment after The Shock Doctrine where my profile was really high and the Left was also much smaller. But there are so many other prominent, powerful, amazing people who are carrying movements forward, are in Congress, are much more the face of the Left than I am and I realized that there was something really freeing about that. I start the book with this quote from Judith Butler, “I have found a way to live to the side of my name,” and I just thought, “I don’t have to care that much anymore. I can actually have more fun as a writer and remember why I wanted to become a writer in the first place.” My first book No Logo, it is not as unconventional formally as this book but it is more fun than the other books. It’s more playful, it’s more confessional, it plays with voice. It called itself a mall-rat memoir. [laughs] It played with the contradictions of wanting all the shiny things at the same time as wanting to critique them. I think this book is more, a quarter of a century later, coming a little bit back to that voice changed obviously, I mean my 50s, not my 20s but there was a freedom to it, there was something about feeling like, “I’m not carrying around that heavy name anymore. Nobody really cares. I can have fun with that and do something a little more unconventional.” I thought actually about enrolling in an online writing class. I had heard that Iowa had moved online and I thought, “Well, maybe I can do that.” But then I was talking to my friend V, formerly Eve Ensler and I was asking her for her ideas. She’s a wonderful playwright, as people know, for writing schools. She said, “There’s somebody who I think might maybe take you on as a student and that might work better.” I think that she was concerned and I was as well that I might not feel free in a group space. She has been friends with Harriet Clark for a long time because she knows her mother Judith Clark who’s one of a member of The Weather Underground, and Harriet had taught writing at Iowa, taught writing at Stanford, and kindly took me on as a student, and the fact that Harriet’s a radical was also really important to me because I often struggle, whenever I’m testing out a new editor, I’m like, “Are you going to try to turn me into a liberal? Is that your idea of editing?” [laughter] because I have had that experience many times. Harriet is the kind of teacher who really wants you to be as radical as you can be, but to do it as creatively and interestingly as possible. We just clicked immediately, so I went to Harriet’s school. [laughs]
DN: I love it. Well, in the book, you explore doppelgangers throughout the history of literature and art, whether Dostoevsky, Saramago, Ursula Le Guin, or Rosetti, and why you do be a big part of what we talk about today. But before we talk about Doppelgangers and more specifically your real-life doppelganger, I wanted to mention how often the question of doubles comes up for writers on the show and I suspect this would be true for many artists too since we’re talking about the act of representation in some way. It’s super common that a conversation at some point will touch on the notion of doubles, of the gap between who someone is in the world and who they are on the page between lived life, and the imagination between words and the feelings or thoughts that are represented imperfectly by words, and many other things. For instance, what many consider the first modern novel Don Quixote you could look at as being very postmodern and a postmodern look at doubling through representation because Quixote is motivated to go on quests in the hope of being written about, like the heroes in the romance books that he reads. He’s motivated to become a double to have a reputation as such by reading the stories of these imagined doubles themselves. Then in the second half of the book when he’s successfully created a reputation, he is now known independent of his own day-to-day life and he’s now confronted with his reputation everywhere he goes. In your book, we see these questions of doubling in many places, for instance, with Bell Hooks whose real name was Gloria Jean Watkins but who wrote under the name of her great-grandmother. When she says that for her, it is important to say, “Not I am a feminist but I advocate feminism,” it’s because as you explain, she wants to avoid either-or speaking. But I suspect avoiding “I am a feminist” is also an acknowledgment of the way a word can reductively or regressively serve as a double for oneself, especially a noun versus a verb in a flattening way. In that spirit, you quote Judith Butler, which you’ve already done today, “I have found a way to live to the side of my name. That has proven to be very helpful.” While your book touches on these perhaps normal and healthy questions of doubling, and the human desire to name and represent, it’s really much more dealing with doppelgangers, which are more fraught figures. You explore others’ thoughts on this in the book but how would you yourself characterize the figure of the doppelganger and the way it has a different valence than the doubling I’ve been talking about?
NK: The throughline of the book is different forms of doubling. Yes, doppelgangers but not only doppelgangers, also I guess more benign forms of the doubled cells. But I think doppelgangers are more ominous. They are often seen as a bad omen, as a harbinger, as some kind of a warning. In so much of the literature of the figure of the doppelganger, which of course it literally translates from German as the double goer or the double walker and it goes back to this idea that we each have a double walking around somewhere, and that if we were to bump into them, it would be like looking into an uncanny mirror, a living mirror and you might also die after that happened. There are all kinds of stories like that, Catherine the Great sees her double, then dies shortly after. There are many examples of this. But in literature, if we’re thinking about Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, or Dostoevsky’s The Double, which has been doubled and doubled, and doubled in films and other novels, [laughs] there is very often that moment when the male protagonist is stabbing their double, is fighting for themselves. [laughs] I think it’s about the instability of identity, I think it’s also about ego, like in particular the kind of ego that you’re talking about in Don Quixote, of, “Will I be credited, will I get the recognition that I deserve?” I think writers are interested in the figure of doubles for all kinds of reasons. I think one of them is that there is such a clear doubling or multiplication, I mean doubling is not enough but let’s just start with a double in the act of writing and also in the act of bringing one’s work into the world. On the page, you’re creating a double often but even just from the writer’s perspective, the writer you, it has to be a very solitary figure, it has to be a very internal figure in order to do the work, I mean you have to be able to have this capacity that most people don’t have, to spend a hell of a lot of time alone with yourself and not get a lot of external input, then if you’re lucky, the book goes out in the world and there’s this completely other set of demands that is expected of you. You have to be extremely extroverted and you have to be able to talk about your work for two, and a half hours, [laughter] podcasts or if you’re very, very lucky, go into TV studios and be this shiny version of oneself. I think any writer who has navigated those two spaces is acutely aware of the fact that they have multiple cells to perform. I think that then often goes back into the work where you play with the multiplicity of identity. I think there’s a huge variety in the kinds of doubling and doppelganging that we experience, whether they’re menacing or not, whether they’re scary. As I mentioned, there’s a whole canon of White men who are worried about their reputations and are stabbing people in their double books, and we’ll come to Roth later. [laughter] I think the malevolent double is also the double that gets projected onto you by the outside world, the double that you have no control over, the ethnic double, the gender double, the double that you have to perform in different spaces, code-switching. In the book, I talk about the unshakable ethnic double because I’m trying to make sense of why I get confused with my doppelganger so much. Well, we’re both Jewish, so my mother suggests, “Well, maybe it’s just anti-Semitism,” and that leads me down in whole other path around the various kinds of menacing doubles that get projected onto people, much more menacing than the one that I’m dealing with and quote DuBois and Baldwin. I was talking to Robin DG Kelley the other day about it, who was an early reader of the book and he was talking about Native son being really about that racial doubling, and the menacing double created by White supremacy that is projected onto all Black men. I get into a little of this. I think different positionalities create different challenges and grappling with the figure of the way we all have doubles projected onto us. I guess that’s a long rambling way of saying doppelgangers are a lot of things that speak to the instability of the self. I think inherently, the reason why they recur so frequently, why they are just such a perennial throughline in the history of literature and cinema, and back to ancient mythology is because they speak to the instability at the core of identity that we want to believe that we have control over this thing we call the self but we also know that self can be undone in an instant by forces beyond our control, an accident, a psychotic break, a bad trip, a bad tweet. [laughter] In Operation Shylock, my favorite Philip Roth novel as of now about his doppelganger, though all of his books are about his doppelgangers, it begins interestingly with this story of having an adverse drug reaction to a sleeping pill and he says to his wife, Philip Roth not Philip Roth but sort of Philip Roth, “Where’s Philip?” He’s lost himself, then the doppelganger tale begins. I think that’s a really good example of the reason why writers are attracted to this idea that we are not in control of ourselves.
DN: I love that. One of the incredibly useful concepts you created was the notion of the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism where you argue that the post-shock states of disorientation, and dislocation that happen in the wake of disasters, whether that’s 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, are exploited and that they are times when, without debate or consent, the powerful are able to enrich themselves at the expense of others and also roll back hard-earned political rights. In the opening to Doppelganger, we learned that for most of the last two decades that you believe that because you wrote about and understood these tactics, that you yourself would be immune to the tactics but that looking back post-COVID lockdown, you cringe now looking back at how easy you had it and how really the reason why you felt you were immune is because the effects of disaster capitalism weren’t really affecting you personally in any tangible embodied way. But now with COVID, that has changed significantly, suddenly confined in your home trying to help your neuroatypical son to learn online, then moving back to Canada to be closer to your parents, something that was supposed to be temporary but due to the pandemic became more permanent, a situation you describe as, “We now live full time up on a rock at the dead end of a street that is three hours including a less than dependable ferry boat from the closest city. It’s good here when it isn’t choked by heat and wildfire smoke or lashed by storms from which we keep having to learn new names but it is isolated, so maybe that’s what finally pushed me to or is it over the edge? The months and months without humans in bodies to feel and think with.” I set this all up not only because of how COVID was an equalizer of sorts for you with regards to the shock it delivered but also because your life, like many of ours, became more mediated through screens and our online avatar doubles. Even though your doppelganger problem long predated this moment, you were always able to say to yourself that well, it’s just confined to social media or mostly confined to social media. But with the lockdown, online life became one of the main ways to connect. You are online more. Your doppelganger herself became more unmoored, more prominent, and visible since COVID. You say in the book that when confronted with the appearance of one’s double, a person is duty-bound to go on a journey. You yourself more than most people have been given this signal or this warning to do this journey I think. I say this because your double is so significantly part of who you are in some ways, that if I go to your Wikipedia page, the first thing that I see is the line, “Not to be confused with Naomi Wolf.”
NK: Yeah. [laughter] I never read my Wikipedia page. I’m really sad that you told me that.
DN: Well, start to orient us to this confusion, this long-standing confusion becoming something more worrisome or more consuming essentially and ultimately, the way maybe like you saying this drug effect with Roth, Naomi Wolf becoming the white rabbit down the rabbit hole where you’re going to take this pill that makes you larger, the pill that makes you small. Talk to us about this confusion that becomes more serious than an annoyance, one that you end up using as, if not a portal like Roy’s notion of a portal, a rabbit hole like Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole.
NK: Well, I found it very productive and I’m grateful to her in a way. Quite sincerely, I feel like this has been such a productive metaphor for understanding so many different forms of doubling, the ways we double ourselves with our personal brands, with our online avatars, the way tech companies create digital golems of us that follow us around, which you don’t control and now AIs of us if we decide that that’s a good thing or even if we don’t decide to create AI versions of ourselves. There’s actually a company I just found out about called Doppel that will make an AI doppelganger review if you think that’s a good idea. It was definitely different before COVID, the confusion or capital C, the confusion after I refer to it in the book. [laughter] I think because Naomi Wolf was more like she dabbled in conspiracy culture and I say conspiracy culture, not conspiracy theory because there really weren’t theories. It was just conspiracy hunching, like there would be ISIS beheadings and she would share her thought that maybe they were crisis actors. It’s not like she had evidence. It was just like, “Thinking out loud in the social media age. I’m just going to share any thought that pops into my head.” When she would do things like this or take pictures of clouds and say, “What’s going on with that cloud?” it’s not like I was seeking it out. People would tell me, they would say, “Thoughts and prayers to Naomi Klein,” or like, “I can’t believe Naomi Klein, what has happened to her?” I would reverse-engineer it. I would go online, I would get a bunch of messages as if I had done something, then realize it was someone else, it was her, then do a bit of searching and realize, “Okay, she took some pictures of clouds again. Okay, she’s been sharing her views about crisis actors again.” But it was more sporadic. I would say it would happen once a month or something like that. There were things about it that were almost funny to me because I lucked out with my first book date, [laughter] I really did, I got lucky with No Logo. I went from being an unknown writer to being somebody who felt very watched. I had a lot of surveillance of me happening after No Logo came out by which I mean there was a paper in Canada that had a short-lived column called Klein Watch, which appeared to just be an attempt to catch me going into a gap. The guys who founded Vice before it was a global empire, it was just a local newspaper in Toronto and they sent a reporter to go through my garbage and take pictures of anything with a logo on it and they did a double-page spread with my tampon boxes and Diet Coke cans. Because I’m already a pretty repressed person, we don’t know each other well but let me just share that, I’m not an extrovert in that way. [laughter] I don’t write personally, which is another reason why this is a departure for me and a freeing for me. This is in part because I grew up with very extroverted hippie parents, so I was holding things together while they were skinny dipping and things like that. [laughter] That’s what happens when you have hippie parents and grow up in the 80s. It can bring out the controlling side in you. I was already controlling, then I had this real-world confirmation. People really are watching you and trying to catch you out. It all made me quite guarded. For instance, one of the books that Wolf wrote a few years before COVID was a book called Vagina: A New Biography. I think that was the subtitle. It was a history of the vagina but it was also her own stories of trouble having orgasms. I am not laughing at the book although a lot of people did. I’m laughing at the absurdity that if you knew me, you would know that if there was a lab somewhere to create a doppelganger, that seemed to be exactly designed to play on my particular bundle of neuroses, [laughter] it would be somebody who wrote a book about their vagina and also was caught making factual errors on the BBC, which also happened to her with the next book. It was funny, absurd, weird before COVID but then when COVID happened, it got even weirder, and Rothian because she had a theory around COVID, which was like a doppelganger of The Shock Doctrine. [laughs] The theory was that this whole thing may have been cooked up deliberately because there was some plan of the World Economic Forum, the Chinese Communist Party, Bill Gates, and Anthony Fauci to bring the Chinese Communist Party social credit system to the West, to depopulate the West. The theories are constantly changing. But the point was it was about shock exploitation and that is what I’m most identified with. When she started really leaning into this during COVID and was suddenly on Fox News, and was suddenly on Steve Bannon’s podcast, it was, as I read, a little bit like watching my own ideas get fed into one of those Vitamix blenders, then having the thought puree handed to Tucker Carlson who nodded vehemently and said, “Yes, absolutely.” I think it was around them where I thought, “I just have to write about this. What else can I do?” It’s funny but the idea was never for it to be about her. My friend Kyo Maclear who’s a wonderful memoirist and children’s book author, when I told her the concept at the beginning, she said, “Well, it’s perfect because it’s a narrow aperture and it’ll allow you to look at all these different things but lightly, you don’t have to stay with them,” and because she knows me and she knows I’m a completist, I feel like if I’m taking on a topic, I have to just get it from every single angle and have 70 pages of footnotes, it was like, “No, I don’t have to. I have this narrow aperture.” I can write a little bit revisiting the issue of personal branding, which I’ve been wanting to do a little bit about AI and a little bit about the child as double, then into the more consequential work of the book, which has to do with the ways in which settler colonial nations are doubles of other nations and the fascist doublings that are so much a theme in so many doppelganger works of art. That just felt very productive but also fitting with where my head was at. I wanted to write more creatively and I didn’t want to write exhaustively. I wanted to be able to tread a little more lightly through these things.
DN: In your book, you talk about how most of us have lost friends to the other side of the mirror since COVID, friends we thought we knew that seemingly suddenly revealed a very different worldview with regards to vaccines and masking or individual responsibility to the collective. I think of my wife Lucy who’s French but who has lived outside of France for 25 years and her oldest friend, her last non-familial connection to her home country, a friend in France who was adamantly against getting her or her family vaccinated and found the arguments that vaccine passports were the first signs of the beginnings of tyranny and fascism to be compelling. While Lucy, who is the farthest thing from polemical and would have been fine never raising these issues for the sake of harmony and peace between her and her friend, on the other hand, her friend was outraged that Lucy got vaccinated, that she masked and that she was sheltering at home. One thing Doppelganger helped us with was to understand better two things that her friend said that made no sense to us. That Lucy was selfish for getting vaccinated and that when Lucy asked, “But what about those who are old or who are immunocompromised, what about vaccinating for them for their sake?” her friend suggested, “Maybe it was natural,” or “Maybe it was okay that they died.” That this was part of a natural process. These are two things you go into in the book in a really illuminating way. But as a first step toward this, I wanted to set up a literary framework and a point of reference, the one that you’ve already referenced to that recurs throughout the book so that we can refer to it as we go. You say that you were originally planning to draw more heavily on Freud’s uncanny or Jung’s synchronicity, on Poe or on Dickens and they’re all there but there’s only one author in this entire upside-down chapter of your life who seemed to genuinely understand the specific texture of your experience, the combination of absurdity and gravity, and that was Philip Roth and his book Operation Shylock in specific, which you call hands down, the most gripping doppelganger book you had found in your study of the genre. You go to pains to say that you have found Roth maddening when it comes to his failure to create dimensional women who aren’t more than objects of desire and that 20 years ago, you threw one of his books across the room, swore you would never read him again. We should say that Operation Shylock does indeed have a cardboard cutout cartoonish femme-fatale Jinx Possesski. But you said that now decades later, you weren’t outraged as much as it seemed pitiful of sad reflection on him as a person but you were able to put that aside and see what was otherwise wonderful and remarkable in this regard. Before I read Doppelganger and I had no idea that Roth figured in your book but I knew you were at some point going to talk about Israel and Palestine in the book, I had written down, “We have to talk about Operation Shylock.” This is because Philip Roth wakes up one day to read in the paper that someone in Israel who claims to be Philip Roth is espousing a movement called reverse Zionism and ultimately, he goes to confront him. But I never suspected it would be such a presence in the book, a delightful presence beyond the question of Jewish identity and beyond Israel and Palestine, something that got more generally at the core of the doppelganger experience. I was hoping you could talk to us about the texture of this book for you, why it so captured your own experience with Naomi Wolf, why is it Operation Shylock that helps you to find the language to explore your own doppelganger.
NK: There is a lot there, I will get to that but maybe I should respond first about Roth but I want to come back to Lucy’s friend and this double move that she does where she first accuses the COVID health measures of being fascistic, of being the first stage of bringing fascism to the West, then expose this fascistic thought herself, says, “Well, maybe they should die.” That is eugenics thought and that is rampant in this world. There are all kinds of ways where there’s a simultaneous appropriation and trivialization of language, of important language, like the word fascism, and actually an embodying of the fascistic values and beliefs directed at vulnerable people. For instance, there were many cases of people who were anti-mask saying, “I can’t breathe.” You appropriating that Black Lives Matter slogan, “I can’t breathe,” but projecting it onto the masks but then also being the same people who are banning books, who espousing great replacement theory, I mean not everybody but there’s definitely a Venn diagram of overlap similarly appropriating “My body, my choice” as a slogan around why not to get vaccinated, then cheering on the Supreme Court for destroying reproductive rights and freedoms in the United States, in many states.
DN: Hold on to more of that thought because we’re going to talk more about all of that in a bit. But I do love the notion that you bring up that if you have a double, it’s a signal that you’re not looking at something about yourself. Like another one that you bring up too that I liked was replacement theory and how that’s really like a doubling of manifest destiny. They’re not looking at the actual replacement that had the actual genocide that occurred, the actual motives of all of that. Instead, they’re obsessed with some future replacement that’s going to happen.
NK: But I do believe that all of it is a way of not looking, all of it is a kind of toxic nostalgia and it, of course, isn’t a coincidence that these slogans “I can’t breathe” about masks happen just a few months after the largest protests in US history and they are protests for Black lives against police murder, and for defunding the police. I think it is a desire to be a victim and it is a desire to not look at one’s own complicity in these systems. They’re not the only ones who don’t want to look at complicity. It’s hard, it’s very, very hard to be alive to all of these systems. I also want to say I wasn’t a fan of the vaccine apps either. I don’t think it was a great idea to introduce technology like that as a means of getting into public spaces. I think it was problematic. I don’t think it was fascism but I also think we can become so reactive that we don’t ask really important questions about some of the problems with the COVID health measures and how we could have had better ones. That’s also another issue that we’re supposed to be talking about Roth. Why Operation Shylock of all the books, I think just because there is a line where he is wailing about the difficulty of having what he calls his preposterous proxy running around Jerusalem, trying to engineer this reverse exodus in the name of Diasporism, which was the name of the movement, and one of the things that’s strange about it, that itself is a doubling of the Bundist vision of hereness and that is something that Roth was quite aligned with. It was an absurdization of himself, of his ideas and what I was talking about before about watching one’s own ideas be put into that blender and served to Tucker Carlson, that sense of high absurdity isn’t that present in many of the doppelganger novels, which tend to be a little bit more serious. There’s a line in Operation Shylock where “real Roth” says of fake Roth, “It’s too ridiculous to take seriously and too serious to be ridiculous,” and that is both my personal mantra and I would argue like a pretty good cut line for our age where we’re all just frozen in the laugh-cry emoji where we just don’t quite know whether to laugh or cry, [laughter] where there is real danger represented by a figure like Donald Trump but he is also a cartoon character and that it is often how fascism works where you don’t quite know whether to take it seriously or not. The book ends up becoming a book about fascist doubles and the backdrop of Operation Shylock as it moves forward as Roth is chasing fake Roth around Jerusalem, then the West Bank and impersonating him is a real-world event that was happening around this time where an auto worker, a retired auto worker I believe in Cleveland named John Demjanjuk was accused of being Ivan the Terrible in the Treblinka [extermination] camp, and having been this deeply, deeply sadistic guard who really delighted in sending thousands of Jews to their death in the gas chambers. It was a huge spectacle, this trial. As threading through the novel, Roth is a spectator in the courtroom. He’s having debates with himself and his mind about this. The reason why the book is called Operation Shylock is because a throughline is this idea that Shylock is the doppelganger of all Jews and that this is indeed the entire argument for Zionist settler colonialism, is that Jews will never be able to shake their Shylock doppelganger. That the Gentile world will always believe that they are the money-grubbing, mutilating Shylock and there’s no changing it, there’s no navigating it, and the only possible response is this fortress settler colonials state that engages in a doppelganger of the very kinds of ghettoization, militarization, ethnic cleansing, and massacre that Jews fled from when many of them came to Palestine. Here, I’m not making an analogy with the Holocaust but of the pogroms, of the treatment of Jews since the Inquisition. I guess that is why the book felt so generative and so useful in the moment that we’re in, and the moment that I was in, of having my own preposterous proxy, feeling like it is both absurd, both ridiculous and serious because the misinformation that is being spread has real medical consequences. There was a study that was done about, and you mentioned this friend of Lucy that she was mad at people who got vaccinated, and this is one of the ways that framings and ideas get appropriated and flipped. The argument for getting vaccinated is that we are part of a network of enmeshed bodies and that even if you personally are not vulnerable, because we are in this network, we all have to protect each other. If we get sick, even if we may be able to survive that sickness personally, we will shed sickness on other people and they might not be able to. This whole framework for why one would get vaccinated for infectious diseases gets flipped and absurdized in what I call the mirror world, and the argument becomes, “No, it’s vaccinated people who are shedding vaccine particles and those particles are making women bleed between periods, and potentially become infertile.” This piece of medical misinformation spread virally, particularly in the worlds of women’s wellness and a lot of women believed it, and women who were particularly concerned about being able to continue to conceive decided not to get vaccinated. Pregnant women decided not to get vaccinated because of it, which is particularly dangerous because pregnant women are more vulnerable to COVID because when you’re pregnant, your immune system is suppressed so that you don’t reject the fetus and because of that, your suppressed immune system is also more vulnerable to other kinds of infections. It’s a big deal to tell pregnant women that it’s dangerous. Anyway, this NPR study found that my doppelganger Naomi Wolf was ground zero for this piece of medical misinformation, that if you traced all the digital threads, many of them led back to some tweets that went viral where she amplified these claims that vaccinated people were shedding on unvaccinated, on people and it was causing bleeding between periods, and so on. That is serious and ridiculous. [laughs]
NK: I think that’s why I found Roth such a comforting companion despite my extremely conflicted feelings about him and despite the fact that I did throw a copy of The Counterlife, that was the book, which was the book I believe right before Operation Shylock, across my dorm room in second-year university and vowed never again to read another book by Philip Roth because the human experience is vast, and I felt like I really already knew everything I needed to know about the particular bundle of neuroses and mommy issues of Jewish men in the tri-state area. [laughter] I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. I’m just saying I know. I get your point.
DN: That’s for sure.
NK: I wanted to know about some other neuroses. [laughs]
DN: I love that you connect him to diasporism and to the labor-boons notion of hereness because that was what was really profound for me that he could stake a claim that his world, Newark, is central to a Jewish identity as any Jewish world. But one thing I wanted to add about Roth since the audience of the show is largely writers and art makers, and aspiring ones is that whereas you say that he always favored thinly disguised doubles of himself, I actually think it’s more complicated and interesting than that. When he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, an entire novel as a monologue to one’s psychoanalyst, when that book blew up, it was his No Logo, it was the book that really brought him into the public consciousness perhaps because of its intimate, confessional, therapeutic style. People just automatically assume this was Roth’s story, that he had been a maniacal masturbator, that these were his constantly constipated and overbearing parents. But he said at the time it couldn’t have been farther from the truth that his family was actually nothing like this family at all, that his parents couldn’t have been more different than the ones he conjured for Portnoy. But what’s interesting is instead of making that more clear in his future work, he chooses to toy with his reader’s desire to conflate him with his fiction and his fictional double by always backfilling the most superficial facts of his real life into the life of his characters, so much so that 40 years later, when his so-called double gets prostate cancer surgery and is impotent, and has urinary incontinence and has to strategize when, if ever, to leave his rural home in Connecticut to go to New York City, a home that is the same rural Connecticut setting of the real Philip Roth where he lived, people still were assuming this was Roth’s situation and he had to say in interviews, “No, I fortunately didn’t have prostate cancer and thus I haven’t had the side effects of cancer treatment either.” It’s unclear how much his career was thinly disguised or how much he was provocatively playing with his readership around the widespread and natural desire to collapse the gap between authors, and their characters to collapse the double.
NK: Well, Operation Shylock is particularly complicated, I mean he almost had like a disdain for his readers in that sense. [laughter] He really wanted to mess around because with this book, in a couple of key interviews, he insisted that it was non-fiction.
DN: Yeah, I remember that.
NK: Again and again and again.
DN: He did.
NK: And the interviewer was like, “It’s fiction, your publisher told me,” and he was like, “No, it’s not. It’s all true.
DN: Yeah. [laughter] Well, we won’t spoil the ending because there’s the supposedly non-fictional part of the ending. But thinking about this question between the real and the imagined, how they relate, and how they double, we have a question for you from China Miéville whose fabulous book of doubling The City and The City is one of the books that you talk about in Doppelganger.
China Miéville: Congratulations and thank you for such a fascinating work. I feel like focusing too closely on the individual figures within it, including the key figure other than you, is to miss the point of an argument that’s more about structures of politics and reactionary affect than individuals. But for all that, my curiosity has got the better of me and given that publishing can be a small world, I wonder if you’ve heard anything, maybe through mutual acquaintances, about how your doppelganger feels about your book.
NK: Well, it’s lovely to hear from China. He did write that quote that you read earlier but he did more than that. He actually read an early draft of the book and gave me some fantastic feedback that really had a big impact, pushed me in really important ways to make it a true doppelganger book, which means that it’s never about them, it’s always about us. In those moments where I let myself just get a too-easy laugh, he’s like, “Are you sure you deserve this?” There was one point in particular where I talked about how Wolf had given an interview to a podcast that I’d never heard of before. She went on it and she shared her belief that when she goes into New York City, which now has very high vaccination rates, it’s as if the people in New York City are no longer fully human and they have become affectless. When you’re in a room with them, you don’t get any human feeling off of them. The other thing is that they don’t smell. They don’t have a smell and so it was like a straight-up Stepford or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She actually used a couple of those references which is another weird thing. She’s always talking about Invasion of the Body Snatchers and so am I. This is one of the things that is interesting about the mirror world is that we’re having these arguments about who is real and who is not, not about different interpretations of reality but basically who has been body snatched. In my first draft, I did just leave it there as a bit of an easy laugh. She thinks vaccinated people don’t smell, maybe she had COVID, and China just said it is funny but modern cities really do feel pretty soulless and this is another example of getting the facts wrong but the feeling’s right, which is why these conspiracy influencers find the traction that they do because they’re often articulating something adjacent to the truth. That’s another example. When I go into cities, you could certainly make a case that people are looking at each other less or interacting with each other less. That was a great piece of feedback from China. Big thanks to him for that because that’s now I think one of the strongest parts of the book. I haven’t heard anything directly from her. I did ask to interview her and she didn’t respond. She used to try to engage me in debate before this and I think that she feels really, really beat up by what she would call like liberal media. She didn’t respond to my request to an interview and she hasn’t responded to the book except to tell a New York Times fact checker that she had made some poorly worded tweets because I think the fact checker was checking to make sure that she had actually tweeted these things that I quoted her saying and that was her response. But other than that, I haven’t received any direct response. She does things that I find unsettling, including post pictures of her new husband doing target practice and saying things that are a little unsettling with that. But no, nothing direct. I think there probably will be something but not yet. But I have to say I think if she were to read the book, I hope that she would be pleasantly surprised that it is not as much about her as some of the reviews had made it seem and I’m pleased that some of the reviews have noted that it is not just more pile on more mockery, more cruelty because I think that part of what has pushed her into the arms of the Steve Bannon’s has been the fact that making fun of Naomi Wolf became a spectator sport on the internet. I’m not interested in contributing to more of that and I actually have been very aware as the book has entered the world, been reviewed, and talked about that this has probably been really hard for her and I don’t like that.
DN: I like hearing this backstory about you and China because I think it’s the most compelling thing about the book. I can feel how there would be this temptation to go, “Whoa, what the hell happened to Naomi Wolf? This liberal feminist from the Clinton-Gore era and now the darling of Steve Bannon.” But the move you make to think about doubles being a sign of what you aren’t looking at in yourself, it reverberates through the rest of the book that you use Naomi Wolf as a means to look at Naomi Klein. It feels like it almost becomes the reason for the book to confront one’s shadow self or one of the main reasons for the book. Also, in confronting your own shadow self, looking at the ways the movement that you are a part of has failed in a way that might fuel the appeal of a figure like Naomi Wolf, and the questions you ask of us, yourself included, I think feel really, really powerful. If we, in contrast to Wolf, are for a government having a significant role in protecting its citizens from infection, you ask, “How much, if at all, did we push the government to keep the mask mandate in place for the immune compromised?” which is still a live question. How much are we pushing the government to keep a mask mandate in place for the immune compromised or to make filtered indoor air a right? Or perhaps most poignantly, how much did we push to share our vaccines beyond our borders, especially I’ll add considering that at the beginning of 2022 long into the vaccination rollout, over a billion Africans hadn’t even received one dose. What if we had refused our second or third boosters in solidarity, refusing them until they had access to their first? I love these questions and I feel pained by these questions. I want to talk about our inaction in a couple of different ways but first, I wanted to start with inaction in relationship to language. Roth’s double’s real name is Moishe Pipik, which would translate from Yiddish to Moses Bellybutton.
NK: It’s not his real name. That’s the name Philip Roth gives him to try to get some kind of control over him.
DN: Okay. That’s a great name. [laughs]
NK: Yeah. He’s tired of calling him the other Roth and giving him that kind of power so he wants to come up with a name that will make him feel superior so he calls him Moishe Pipik, which means Moses’ belly button.
DN: Yeah. He calls him Moses’s belly button and you define pipikism as making such a parody of language that it creates a speechlessness in their opponents. You yourself have talked about speaking out less during the pandemic about certain things because of a certain anticipatory fear of how the mirror world would instrumentalize it in horrifying ways. But you now feel like the silence or the speechlessness is worse and I’m wondering if you could just speak a little bit about that for us.
NK: When I followed my white rabbit down the rabbit hole, I ended up getting much more interested in other people who I met down there than her. I think she is an interesting figure but probably a more consequential figure is Steve Bannon himself whom she’s now published a book with, put out t-shirts with. At one point, she was on a show every single day for two weeks. It’s not like she’s like an occasional appearance. At certain points, she’s been practically a co-host. I started listening to a lot of Steve Bannon, like a lot, and there’s a moment in the book where my partner Avi Lewis walks in on me doing yoga before bed while listening to War Room Pandemic, which is the name of the podcast and he would laugh that for months, every time he came into any room I was in, I would lunge for my phone to turn off whatever weird thing I was listening to because I just didn’t want to get into it. But most of us have a particular perception of Bannon because we only see him when he’s being dragged off in handcuffs or when Media Matters clips a particularly riled-up moment in one of his podcasts where he’s saying something like, “We’re going to put their heads on sticks, spikes, or whatever it was,” and so we see him as this really angry blowhard guy and he is that, there is that. But he contains multitudes you will find. The interesting thing about Doppelgangers is they do stand in for that. If you become a longitudinal listener of Steve Bannon, which I don’t recommend because I did it for you, I can tell you that there is another side where he really performs being this very welcoming presence for people who have been canceled or, he uses this word, othered which is another pipiking of an important term intimately connected to fascism so he’ll say to his listeners, “You need to subscribe to this or buy that because I would never other you. I would never cancel you. I would never do that to you. You’re always going to be welcome here.” It’s also very much an activist space. I think his skill as a strategist has always been to look at the issues and the people that his opponents have neglected or left unattended and pick them up and perform agreement and then, of course, it’s a bait and switch because then, it’s bashing immigrants, it’s transphobia, and it’s the goal of taking power for, as he says, a hundred years. But he knows what issues are going to sell with the public and he knows that in order for this to work, his opponents have to not be using those ideas. In 2016, he did this with free trade, opposition to free trade in many de-industrialized areas in the US where people had voted for Democrats again and again and again promising to renegotiate the free trade deals back to Bill Clinton and they never did and they just signed more of them. I don’t think Donald Trump cares about free trade deals. I think Steve Bannon told him, “You go there. You go to Pennsylvania and you talk non-stop about free trade.” That’s how you’re going to get those workers. You don’t need to get all of them. You need to get a slice of them. I think he did that with rage at Big Pharma. There’s so much reason to be angry at these drug companies that have knowingly spread toxic drugs in so many areas, some of these same de-industrialized areas. I think one of my more chilling moments when I was listening to his podcast was when I heard him cut together this audio montage of mainstream news shows like on MSNBC and CNN and just the parts that said, “Brought to you by Pfizer,” “Brought to you by Moderna,” just like Anderson Cooper, “Brought to you by Pfizer.” The thing that’s chilling about it was realizing that we on the Left have really stopped talking about corporate consolidation of the media and that he sounded like me, like Noam Chomsky, like Democracy Now at Circa 2000. That’s the move. That’s the skill. It’s not that he cares about these issues, it’s that he knows that there’s traction there, there’s juice there. I think there are just so many issues like that and that’s why I talk about the reactivity with the mirror world because it’s worse than that because then once an issue gets traction in that world, then liberals and some leftists are even less inclined to talk about it. If they’re against the vaccines, then all we have to say is roll up your sleeve and get vaccinated and we’re not talking about those patents that should never have been there. We’re seeding this really, really important political territory. Is that what you were getting at?
DN: Yeah, no, it is very much. I really like the part in the book about language and speechlessness. You talk a lot about victories that the Left has won on the level of language and discourse transforming the way we talk about things but not necessarily changing the things, or at least, not directly that are being talked about, that there’s been a focus on policing both the use of language and the borders of identity. I’d also add, there’s a liberal sport of pointing out misspellings in the speech of right-wing people and hypocrisies. Right after this part of the book, there’s a section called Beyond Blah Blah Blah where you recall that Greta Thunberg’s first protest was refusing to speak to anyone outside of her own family when she learned of the environmental crisis as a child, and that only when people around her committed to actions, not words, did she begin using words. When she started speaking in front of huge audiences, you said you could tell that she was believing that her words could actually yield actions but that she has since lost that faith and she speaks less and less about climate change and more about the farce of the whole charade put on by these supposedly concerned world leaders where she says things like, “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah.” At the end of the Glasgow Climate Conference, they asked her what she thought about the final agreement and she said, “They even succeeded in watering down the blah, blah, blah which is quite an achievement.” I bring this up because this question comes up often on the show about what art does in the world? What does poetry do in the world? What is it for? I like Adrienne Rich’s lines in her poem Dreamwood, “Poetry isn’t revolution but a way of knowing why it must come.” But the question is eternally vexing for writers and you go into this question of both how the left focuses on correct speech and can often be intolerant when it comes to differences on the level of speech and/or thought in a way that, as you’ve just mentioned with your Bannon yoga, Steve Bannon, at least, performs a different relationship to speech than the one that I’m characterizing about the Left. We have another question for you from another. It’s not really about speechlessness but I’m going to bring it back to speechlessness afterwards.
NK: I want to say something about Greta.
DN: Yeah, please.
NK: I do believe that speech that she made at Glasgow was a piece of absolutely brilliant performance art. She meant it because she has not been going to any of these things that she gets invited to since then. She didn’t go to the COP in Egypt. I doubt she will go to the COP in Dubai coming up in November. She didn’t go to Davos this year. She gets invited to all of these spaces. She gets pulled into these kinds of charades where these world leaders want to have their pictures taken with her. Justin Trudeau wanted to march with her against his own government when there was a big climate march but it’s not that Greta’s not doing anything, she has been doing direct action. People think of Greta as an activist but before the blah-blah-blah speech, she did the school strikes and she still does every Friday. She gathers and holds the sign but I think she’s been arrested three times at direct action or wrist arrest three times trying to stop oil trains and coal mining. I think she’s in a process of trying to reunite words with action. I don’t think she’s given up on words. She’s also published a book and it’s full of words.
DN: [Laughs] Let’s hope so.
NK: It’s a great book, The Climate Book, which is an anthology. I talked to her about that book when it launched as a kind of sequel to the blah-blah-blah speech in that she’s giving a platform to all kinds of different people. It’s a very large anthology. It includes many frontline activists from around the world, many indigenous voices, many scientific voices. But she says it’s for the movement. It’s not for the leaders. She’s no longer speaking “truth to power.” she is building part of a process of building power from below. I don’t think it’s about losing faith in words themselves but it’s about trying to knit back together the connection between the words about revolution and the revolution, which doesn’t mean that it necessarily needs to be the same person but I think there does need to be some kind of connection. I know for me as a writer, coming back to where we started around speechlessness, what made me feel speechless was not the pandemic or the climate crisis, it was the seeming collapse of our movements. It was how do you go from such highs to such lows in such a short period? That’s all I wanted to say.
DN: Here’s a question from another for you.
Judith Butler: Hello, Naomi, Naomi Klein, or is it Stein or Wolf? This is Judith. Judith Butler. Although my last name was changed at Ellis Island when the nurse in his final days asked my father his name, he said, “Levin,” wow, I should have been Judith Levin, odd how names are supposed to refer to us as singular creatures but they can get lost or muddled, translated, and appropriated. Who claims to be me in social media? I do not know. I loved your book and followed every word finding there both sustenance and reorientation. Thank you. My question for you is why only toward the end of this book did you start to consider your mother’s insight that you were being confused with Wolf whose views could now hardly be more different than your own because you were both Jewish women? Was there not both anti-Semitism and misogyny among those who thought perhaps you were substitutable for one another? After all, if there is a single figure for the loud Jewish woman making public her views, what matter the name?
NK: Challenging. [laughs] Oh, well, that was really wonderful to hear Judith’s voice. I feel really, really blessed by their support for this project. It is the final substantive chapter before the conclusion, the unshakable ethnic double, which begins during a blackout where we lost power in the middle of the climate-fueled storm and I went over to my parents’ house to siphon power for my laptop. I explained what I was working on to my mom and she got nervous because she felt like why draw attention to it? Because for her, it was just obvious that it was about anti-Semitism. Her word was they see you both as a type and the type is, as Judith said, a certain kind of opinionated Jewish woman. Another friend of mine said, “They see you both as Japs,” which I thought was interesting and challenging. Yeah, I think it’s the end of the book because it’s the most important part and it’s the longest chapter, it’s the most substantive chapter. If it’s a journey where we finally look at ourselves, it has to be at the end.
DN: I wondered if there was a subtext her wondering why it came towards the end if it was related to speechlessness because I think of, for instance, the many, what I would call illegitimate ways anti-Semitism is used by certain sectors of both the Jewish institutional world and the non-Jewish world, I remember watching this short video recently of David Graeber, the Jewish Anthropologist talking about how there were thousands of articles about Corbyn being anti-Semitic that were all insinuating things. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson wrote under his own name in his own book directly anti-Semitic things in it and no one’s writing about it at all. The real anti-Semitism isn’t being spoken but the accusation of anti-Semitism used to silence or derail and then just the really problematic definitions of anti-Semitism. Then I feel like when all that’s out there, I feel myself more reluctant to speak out about anti-Semitism that I feel is a real anti-Semitism, and I do feel like there’s plenty of that. I wondered if part of Judith’s subtext was did it come late because of a need to push through to say it? Because I think a lot of the speechlessness comes also from a parody of meaningful terms in language. If all these words get co-opted and then flash back to us from the mirror world in these really stupid ways, it’s hard to use them anymore.
NK: Yeah. Both anti-Semitism, real anti-Semitism, acts of anti-Semitism, and the fight against anti-Semitism or the claim to be fighting anti-Semitism have been used as a weapon to break apart coalitions again and again and again. I get into some of this in that chapter. This is a book in part about conspiracy culture and one of the oldest and most persistent, if not the oldest and most persistent conspiracy theories has to do with the Jews. There are two major pieces of it. One is the blood libel, this idea that’s the ancient one that Jews are kidnapping Christian children and doing rituals with their blood. Then there is the more recent one which runs through the Rothschilds to George Soros Protocols of the Elders of Zion that there’s this cabal of Jews pulling the strings before everything from the French Revolution to 9/11. It recurs and recurs and recurs. It was used in Russia in the first attempted failed Russian Revolution in 1905 when the labor boon was this central part of a multi-ethnic working-class coalition challenging Lazar and the way that coalition was broken apart was by, on the one hand, offering some minor reforms and on the other, unleashing the hounds of anti-Semitism that turns into a bloodbath of pogroms. Eventually, there is a successful Russian Revolution as we know and there’s huge anti-Semitism unleashed. Partly that is because there are so many Jews involved in the revolution. One of the things I look at in the book is why are there so many Jewish Marxists of various kinds, of various sectarian kinds of socialism and Marxism. I make an argument that, of course, it would be reductive to say it’s the main reason but part of the history of Marxism is a history of Jews banging their heads against the brick wall of history saying it’s not the Jews who are the fault of your problems, it’s capitalism. It is a system that is designed to produce oppression, to extract your labor, and to consolidate wealth. That system is called capitalism, it is not a conspiracy. But if nobody has ever explained to you how capitalism works, it’s understandable that when somebody says—and this comes back to your earlier question about what is the appeal—we don’t teach capitalism, how it works in schools, we tell people it’s about sunshine and Big Macs and freedom. When that system fails them tangibly as it is failing so many people on this planet, then there is an intellectual vacuum that is created. If somebody comes along and says, “It’s the Jews” or QAnon is a remix of the ancient blood libel and the newer, the more modern Jewish banker cabal because it’s about this idea of the global cabal of elites, many of whom are Jewish, not all of them but they are apparently trafficking in children so that they can get their adrenochrome, which is just like a little bit of a twist on the old ancient blood libel. That is an explanation if nobody has explained to you how capitalism actually works, which is why if you go back in the history of the boon, the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, and the Trotskys, and all of these Jewish revolutionaries, they took popular education so seriously. That is why we have the stereotype of the newspaper seller, the pamphleteer. They’re trying to explain to working people what the system is instead of getting blame, perhaps some of them being worried about getting blamed themselves. They all had skin in the game. This is what I’m arguing. Marx’s father was a convert but the reason Marx’s father converted from Judaism to Protestantism, I think it was Protestantism, was because it was illegal to be a lawyer if you were Jewish so he had to. He was forced to convert. He actually fought that law. Marx was descended from rabbis on both sides and eventually, his daughter, as China Miéville pointed out, he’s like, “You have to put in that she said I am a Jewess.” So that was another China Miéville nudge. But I think as you say, David, I’m acutely aware of how the fight against anti-Semitism, not anti-Semitism itself but the fight against anti-Semitism now is used as a weapon to break apart left-wing movements, used against BLM, used against Corbyn. Corbyn made mistakes, he did, but I don’t think he’s an anti-Semite and I think that it was incredibly opportunistic the way it was used and also outrageously hypocritical for the reasons that you mentioned because it isn’t the labor party that’s anti-Semitic, it’s British society that is anti-Semitic, which is why this confusion frankly happens about a hundred times more in the UK than it does in the US. It seems to me a more anti-Semitic society and the labor party is not outside of that society. I don’t think it’s particularly anti-Semitic.
DN: To return to these journeys of certain figures like Naomi Wolf from the Democratic power elite to the Bannon-led conspiracy fueled far right, or in the more memoiristic part of Doppelganger about raising your neuroatypical son, you looked at the questions raised by the career of Hans Asperger who was a progressive physician before the Nazis came to power and then became fully enmeshed in Nazi eugenics where the notion of high-functioning autism coined by him was meant to distinguish those who had skills that could plug into and further the aims of the COGs of Fascism and Nazism and all the others without those skills would be exterminated. Or my wife’s longest friend who now sees my wife as selfish and privileged for getting vaccinated and is okay with her unvaccinated actions killing people who don’t have strong immune systems, you talk about how eugenics was and is as popular on the Left and on the Right. On this show, we’ve occasionally touched on the long history of White supremacy as an intersection with ecological movements, ecofascism but also in other ways and the intersections for instance of prominent early Sierra Club board members were often eugenicists who were four forced sterilization and they had a membership policy up until the 60s, which kept the club largely White, or Audubon himself being a slaver who bought and sold people to fund his work on birds, or the explicit racism and xenophobia of Edward Abbey, or the way Hitler himself used ecological language as part of his project to protect the native lands of Germany and the people who naturally sprout from it versus the people who are polluting it. But because of your son’s narrative divergency, you focus more on the world of natural medicine in Doppelganger. Often, it’s viewed as a left-wing counterculture natural medicine. You find many people in this world who have been seduced by the far Right, something that is perhaps most poignantly brought home when you’re canvassing door-to-door on behalf of your husband’s candidacy for parliament. All of this you explore under the notion of what you call diagonalism. So I was hoping you could just spend a moment with diagonalism, why it’s a useful framing, and how you saw this manifest itself in either finding help for your son or helping your husband’s political campaign door-to-door.
NK: Diagonalism is a term that I think is a useful alternative to horseshoe theory, which often gets invoked to describe a left-right alliance. We have seen some migration from Left to Right. But I think it’s inaccurate to describe it as far Left and far Right coming together because I think for the reasons we were just discussing around the history of the radical Left being actually a history of people who are intensely focused on system thinking and on understanding how power and capital work. The far Left to me is where the socialists and the Marxists hang out. That is not who, for the most part, is crossing over to the Steve Bannon world. It is disaffected liberals like my own doppelganger who never was really a Leftist. She was very clear that her feminist critique was not a Marxist critique. She once said that very clearly. That it was about taking out what she saw as unfair obstacles and barriers to women achieving equality in the workplace. It was very lean in for its time, Sheryl Sandberg-type lean in feminism. I think for her, the house of liberalism collapsed and part of the reason why it collapsed is that she became, for a while, critical of Israeli policies and experienced an extreme kind of excommunication, which I have experienced but I was never in it in the way that she was in it because I was raised by Leftists who were critical of Zionism. When the house collapses, you have some choices about where you’re going to go. She could have gone to the far Left but she didn’t. She went over to the far Right. But the other thing that you see are a real over-representation of folks from the wellness world. There was a big protest in Canada led by truckers, the trucker convoy that took over Ottawa for three weeks. There was open-air yoga, there was a lot of support from somebody who wrote The Oh She Glows vegan cookbook. There were a lot of glowing people from the glowing mama world supporting this. I’m trying to understand what this is about. In my book, I say it’s not the far Left, it’s the far out, it’s the far-out Left that is crossing over. Not all of it but in a way that is say over represented to the far Right. William Callison and Quinn Slobodian who are both scholars of European politics, particularly German politics wrote an essay for The Boston Review early in the pandemic in which they lay out this framework for calling these crossovers diagonalism instead of the horseshoe theory and it’s building on a German word that the anti-lockdown protesters use, which is Querdenken, which means outside-the-box or diagonal thinking, so they basically translated that as diagonalist. They’re identifying a few trends. A lot of the folks are small business owners from the wellness world, from the alternative health world. They’ve owned yoga studios. They’re chiropractors. They were affected a lot by lockdowns. They also see themselves as being in competition with traditional medicine. A lot of them were selling supplements and seminars as an alternative to getting vaccinated. They talk about how the elements are an extreme rejection of traditional democratic institutions, combining elements of spiritual holism with libertarianism, and diagonalists tend to believe that “all power is conspiracy,” that’s a quote. Then the other thing is that although it contains elements of the green wellness left, it reliably arcs right. I would say that that’s true even if a figure like RFK Jr. Who is running for the Democratic party but with a lot of support from key Republicans like Roger Stone and Steve Bannon. I think it’s worth trying to figure out why wellness is so overrepresented in this diagonalist alliance because it’s not simply I think that they owned studios that were hit hard by lockdowns because they’re not the only ones. Small theater owners didn’t, for the most part, join these alliances so what was it about this particular kind of wellness that fits so well, so easily, and so comfortably with these far-right eugenicist movements? I think that it’s fair to say that the underlying tenets of corporate wellness culture already rhymed with the paranoid individualism of far-right conspiracies that neoliberal wellness culture’s message that individuals must take charge of our own bodies as our primary sites of influence, like we need to optimize, we need to perfect, we need to strengthen our bodies and our immune systems, fine, but the idea that that is basically our life raft in their roiling capitalist seas is just perfecting the self. I think that fit very nicely with far-right notions of natural hierarchy and genetic superiority and disposable people. That’s how you end up with, and I tell the story in the book of us going door-knocking for all these electoral campaign and Avi went to a door that he thought looked like it was probably going to be easy to get them to vote NDP, which is our leftish party, which he was trying to push further to the left, he said he could smell the sandalwood from the sidewalk and out came someone in full yoga gear who looked like somebody I could have taken in Ashtanga class from. The only question she had for him was, “What is your position on vaccine passports?” and he said the position of the party, that he was in favor of them and she said, “I have a strong immune system. I don’t need to get vaccinated,” and he raised, “What about people who don’t have as strong of an immune system as you?” and she said, “I think those people should die,” and it was just absolutely chilling because it’s not the thing you expect to hear when you go to a door with a whole bunch of like Ganesh statues on a windowsill and sandalwood wafting to the sidewalk. But if we look at what Modi is doing in India, maybe we should do a little more research about Hindu nationalism. It’s actually plenty compatible with supremacist thought.
DN: Yeah. Well, I want to spend some of the time we have left with the ways the language used to frame your politics feels connected to the way I envision the show. When I look across your books in public talks, a theme emerges for me. The title of your 2015 talk for the Othering & Belonging Institute is called Imagining a Future without Sacrifice Zones. Your wonderful Edward Said memorial lecture in London is called Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World. I’ll just say this talk is amazing, which begins from a place of how, on the surface, giving a climate talk as a memorial lecture for Said seems like an odd topic given his contempt for environmentalism as the indulgence of spoiled tree huggers who lack a proper cause. But you go on to complicate this deeply by looking at green colonialism in the context of Israel and Palestine, which really I think shows us what he was responding to. But you also talk about sacrifice zones in Doppelganger, not just the individual examples of anti-vaxxers who talk of body autonomy and strong immune systems or eco-fascists who might think widespread famine, disease, and poor continents might be a natural thing to help with population control, but you take this to the level of government policy who have we deemed sacrificial to save everyone else. Your focus on a future without sacrifice zones makes me think of past Between the Covers guests Christina Sharpe’s notion of distributive risk. She says in her latest book Ordinary Notes, “Care is complicated, gendered, misused. It is often mobilized to enact violence, not assuage it, yet I cannot surrender it. I want acts and accounts of care as shared and distributed risk, as mass refusals of the unbearable life, as total rejections of the dead future.” The concept that blew me away in your book, which is going to surely shape my thoughts going forward around the show is the notion of the second body, something the novelist Daisy Hildyard speaks of, that the human condition is one of having two bodies, the one we are aware of, and then the shadow self that supports and props up the actions of the other body, the known body by traveling through these denied parallel worlds on our own behalf and extracting resources and goods that make the life of the first body possible. She says, “You are stuck in your body right here, but in a technical way you could be said to be in India and Iraq, you are in the sky causing storms, and you are in the sea herding whales towards the beach. You probably don’t feel your body in those places: it is as if you have two distinct bodies. You have an individual body in which you exist, eat, sleep, and go about your day-to-day life. You also have a second body which has an impact on foreign countries and on whales, a body which is not so solid as the other one, but much larger.” I had never thought of it this way with this language but I feel like going forward, this is going to reverberate into many future conversations on the show. But before I bring this notion of the second body in relationship to Between the Covers, talk to us about taking this notion of individual second bodies and then talking in a larger systemic way about shadow lands and sacrificial zones.
NK: I also really, really love that passage, and thank you for reading that part of Christina’s book, which I also find so powerful and I love the refusal to surrender care despite all of these profound injustices around it because we just can’t afford to. This is why I said before that the book is not just about doppelganging, it really is about doubling. That’s the throughline. The mirror world image around there being this place that people who fall down the rabbit hole as we constantly are saying go to the world that they live in, it’s so easy and so comfortable to pretend that they are the only ones who are refusing to look at reality, that they are just in a world of their own making and they’re just fantasists. That is such a comforting message. I’m very conscious of the fact that this book, don’t tell anyone, is a bait and switch for liberals [laughter], or as an FT Review just said, “It’s a trojan horse.” It’s like yes, it is. You thought it was just going to make you feel smug about those other people and he’s like, “Why am I suddenly talking about settler colonialism in Red Vienna?” The reason is the “they,” the people in the mirror world, the people who have fallen down that rabbit hole are not the only ones who cannot bear to look at the full breadth, sorrow, and pain of what it means to be alive. Hildyard’s image of the second body, the body that is maybe less corporeal but larger and also ours I think is something that we all experienced in the early days of the pandemic where we suddenly felt bigger. The space that we had to think about, our bodies being in was much, much more enmeshed because that’s the nature of an airborne virus. I have to think I’m out on this walk, I’m breathing this air, who else breathed this air? Wow, our bodies are all big. They’re so big that they’re still there after we leave, after we leave the room. Who packed this box? Could they call in sick? Who’s caring for my parent? How many other institutions do they have to work in to piece together a paycheck that they can live on and send remittances back home? Capitalism is incredibly good, especially in its “frictionless” phase of hiding the reality of enmeshments and selling a fantasy of frictionlessness so that we do not see and do not think about the shadowlands that support our lives. I think that the reason why we had an acceleration of derangement in the COVID period is precisely because the studiously unseen came to be seen, albeit far too briefly, and it was such a profound challenge of the central narrative of colonial racist capitalism, which is you make yourself everything good that happens to you is because by dent of only your own labor and anything bad that happens to anyone else is just because they aren’t as good as you because of their own failures. Because public health and epidemiology sees us as a mass of humans, we are not being treated as individual bodies. We are being treated as a web of bodies. That was just too much of a mind f*ck for neoliberal capitalism because people believed what Margaret Thatcher told them that there’s no such thing as society, that all we are individual men and women and families. They believed it because that’s the air we breathe. That’s all that we’ve been told. We shouldn’t be surprised that they believed it. What was surprising was the idea that we actually were in a web and we were expected to act that way. We should take some heart and some solace that quite a lot of us welcomed that enmeshment for a while even if we then turned away. But the point is that we all have ways to look away, not only the Bannons and the Wolfs and the conspiracy culture as distraction machine. It’s very hard to sustain the reality of the shadowlands that support our ways of life and especially during the lockdowns because the class and race divisions were so sharp between the people who, as Christina Sharpe says, risk was so unevenly distributed, care was so unevenly distributed. The consciousness, the inability to hide from the fact that we were just being served, we who were able to stay home, by these many categories and classes of people who were on the front lines of risks who were getting COVID, who were dying from COVID because they were serving us, because they were caring for our parents, that is very, very hard to hold. Then comes the racial justice reckonings and it’s like no, you don’t have to just reckon with the present, you also have to reckon with the past. Then come the climate disasters and guess what, you also have to reckon with the future, which is banging down your doors. How do we hold that? Maybe we should have a little bit more compassion for the fact that a lot of people are finding ways to look away and some of them involve something we would recognize as disappearing into fantasy world. But what do you call going to see the Barbie movie for the sixth time and saying it’s radical feminism? That’s fantasy too. I think that’s what I mean by eventually we had to get to the shadowlands. That’s why I think the hardest reckonings are at the end of the book.
DN: Well, I want to take this notion of the second body into writing and also this question of the ways the notion of there is no society influences the way people write. As part of connecting the second body to the show and to writing and capitalism and the way capitalism and sacrifice zones shape the way we portray characters, I want to read something from a recent conversation with poet Roger Reeves from his essay collection Dark Days where through much of this collection, he’s contemplating the questions that come up for him in raising his five-year-old Black daughter in the United States, what to teach her and what to shield her from. One of the things he feels is important to impart is that victim and victimizer roles are not stable relationships. That even for Black people in America, something as simple as buying clothes for his daughter is buying from maquiladora factories where elsewhere, people are being exploited sometimes in unimaginable ways. He quotes Achille Mbembe from his book Critique of Black Reason who in writing about plantation life says, “The Blacks on the plantation were, furthermore, diverse. They were hunters of maroons and fugitives, executioners and executioners’ assistants, skilled slaves, informants, domestics, cooks, emancipated slaves who were still subjugated, concubines, field-workers assigned to cutting cane, workers in factories, machine operators, masters’ companions, and occasionally soldiers. Their positions were far from stable. Circumstances could change, and one position could become another. Today’s victim could tomorrow become an executioner in the service of the master. It was not uncommon for a slave, once freed, to become a slave owner and hunter of fugitive slaves.” In my opinion, if there are any people in the United States that least need to be thinking about how they’re victimizers, it would be Black Americans and Indigenous people but I realized from reading you and from reading Roger that this is another way of framing the second body, which everyone has to some degree or another. This framing prevents victimhood from being seen and taken as virtuous I think and makes the self in one’s community porous to other, sometimes countervailing or contradictory narratives from other people. That’s a big part of what attracts me to Roger Reeves or other guests like Monica Youn who simultaneously is examining anti-Asian racism but also anti-Black racism within the Korean-American community, or Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Pádraig Ó Tuama who speak about colonized Irish people and culture but also about Irish people abroad being complicit in colonization, or Charif Shanahan where he looked at fraught intersections of Arabness and Blackness at the many centuries-long taboo of doing scholarship on the effect of the trans-Saharan slave trade on Black Africans, which is just now being broken with great care by Black Arab and Muslim Scholars. Again, Roger Reeves himself thinking through the ways the African-American community, which has found the acquisition of land as one effective way to secure a base of security and power could and should contend with the fact that the land itself is stolen land. The question of whether our stories or our poems are creating sacrificial zones is something I think of a lot. In the art I’m attracted to, poet Claire Schwartz when she was on the show, the culture editor of Jewish Currents, and I think Jewish Currents as a whole being a place of Jewish identity that looks at the dangers of mapping one’s story in a way that refuses to contend with the story of another that dreams itself across an entire other culture in a way to exile it into a shadowland and sacrifice zone, and this brings me, in my very long meditation, to the steam engine, something that you talk about in one of these talks about othering that you gave where you point to the steam engine and the way its invention allowed people to think that they could decouple themselves from the earth. That before the steam engine, you might have to build something by a waterfall, for example, to get power by water, for instance, you had to bend to the land and what it provided and you had to listen to it. Your own agenda was only one agenda and it was porous to the otherness of the planet. But the steam engine produces or the steam engine promised the allure that you’re the boss, you can now create energy whenever you want, wherever you are for however long you want and have this one-way non-reciprocal relationship to nature. What’s interesting about that to me is Ursula Le Guin also focuses on the steam engine and makes I think an intriguing connection between industrialization and capital and the way we’ve changed the way we tell stories. She said, “Until the eighteenth century in Europe, imaginative fiction was fiction. Realism and fiction is a recent literary invention, not much older than the steam engine and probably related to it.” I think of how in many fantastical stories, humans are dwarfed by the landscape and are only one type of being among a wealth of other beings. In contrast, you think of contemporary stories set in Brooklyn apartments where even the houseplants or the cats might not be worthy of attention or description, but also how the realist novel eventually is seen as the prime vehicle to express the individual consciousness, a narrative vehicle for the individual. You say in this book that if we have a double, it is a sign that there’s something about ourselves we refuse to see, and near the end, you say we need to be hard on structures but soft on people, that change requires collaboration and coalition, a softening of the borders of self and identity groups, a porousness that I think we see in pre-steam engine narratives but also I think we see people pushing against those narratives now, pushing other voices, other beings into the way we do narratives and softening the borders of the self also seems to be about softening the border of the novel. But I wondered if you could talk about the softening of the borders around identity and around groups of people in your work.
I do feel that so many of the doppelganger stories are these intensely ego-obsessed journeys, and I relate, I do think when I first thought about doing this project which I thought was just going to be an essay, it was as I confess in the book like it was going to be like a battle of the Naomis and I was going to be the last Naomi standing. [laughs] I was going to have a duel with my duo. I think on this, Freud was right that doppelgangers stand in for the multiplicities of the self that we’re aware of, that the person we are is not the only possible self that we could have been. We could have made different choices, we could be a different self, and we could become and will become a different self. That’s hard to hold especially if you are holding very tightly onto yourself, your reputation, and YOUR NAME in all caps, in Philip Roth’s novel, “Your name, your name, all you care about is your f*cking name.” [laughter] The challenge that fake Roth makes to real Roth is like what about the collective project? And he’s saying, “What about the Jews?” Not just the Jews, what about the other kinds of collective projects? Because this is the thing about the unbearability of this moment is here we are doing everything we can to perfect ourselves and to fortress ourselves, and a lot of that involves creating doubles of ourselves like when we create a brand, when we try to turn our children into mini-mes of ourselves that are little trophies that we can polish. I didn’t answer your question about my son but this is what having an atypical child has taught me is that that’s not what kids are for. That’s a really hard thing for a lot of parents to deal with, which is why I think they go down a lot of these rabbit holes about blaming vaccines because they can’t just accept their kids whoever they are. I think a lot of parents of trans kids do the same things, parents of queer kids do the same thing, and we try to double ourselves because it makes us immortal. If our kids are just extensions of ourselves, then that means we never die. That’s the ultimate form of self-instability. But if we come back to Daisy Hildyard’s second body and the reckonings of this moment, the overlaying reckonings of past, present, and future, none of these are things we can do on our own. We can’t face any of it as an individual. Yet capitalism is constantly trying to tell us that we can, that it’s just take a DEI workshop, confront your personal White supremacy, buy ethical clothing, become a vegan. Fine, do all of it but don’t delude yourself that any of it is the actual collective work that we have to do. We can only face these unbearable realities, we can only bear them if we’re bearing them together and we will only bear them together if we loosen our grips on these various kinds of proprietary selfhoods, some of which are individual, some of which are a little larger, the family, the child, and some of them are the identity group. This is why this is my most Jewish book because this is something I’ve wrestled with my whole writing life and I mean that literally like the very first piece I published was my bat mitzvah speech when I was 12. [laughter] It was published in the synagogue bulletin and it was about Jews being racist. It was an attempt to reconcile the Universalist values that I had grown up with with the values that I was seeing in my Jewish day school and the fact that there was a lot of racism against Black people and also against Moroccan Jews to the extent that there was a school, because I grew up in Montreal so there are a lot of French-speaking Moroccan Jews, there was a school down the block, a Jewish school where kids from my school would throw rocks at them through the fence. My bat mitzvah speech, which as I said, my first piece of published writing was a harangue of like, “How is this possible?” [laughs] I thought we said never again but there was a difference. There are different ways of understanding the phrase never again. I want to overly idealize my Leftist Jewish upbringing but I did hear a version of never again, which was never again to anyone, that we need to understand the methodologies of othering and stand up whenever it’s happening to anyone. At my Jewish day school, it was never again to the Jews, never again because of Israel because now we’ve got the guns. It was a very different story. I think Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò in Elite Capture talks about how trauma is not ennobling, it doesn’t make you a better person but it can be a bridge. It can be a bridge because it is a bridge in a profoundly human experience that a great many people on this planet have experienced and it can also be a wall of division. It can also be a way not to enter into coalition, a way to grip very, very tightly on the collective self. When I think about the moment that we’re in and how we might earn some hope even when we don’t feel it, it’s only going to happen if we can look away at the various reflective surfaces and towards each other. You mentioned Christina Sharpe, who I know from Toronto and I love her writing, I interviewed her some years ago, and had a real effect on me when she was talking about the kinds of coalition that we need. I don’t have the exact quote but it was very clear that it’s not that we collapse into a mushy unity, we’re still going to be different. We still have different experiences. We still have different experiences of risks. We still carry different debts, our own different things. If we can hold on to that difference and still reach towards each other, we can earn coalitions.
DN: As we’re coming to an end, I think of my conversation with Adrienne Maree Brown also where she deeply links science fiction and social justice and talks about how all organizing begins as an imaginative act, how more than anything, we’re in an imagination battle of who can tell the story that speaks deeply to where we are and where we need to be or where we could dream to go. I think exemplified again by Le Guin’s quote, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” There are many surprises at the end of your book that I’m going to preserve so people can discover them on their own, but you return to this question of action versus words where you say, “Most tasks are easier said than done. But coming together across seemingly intractable borders may be easier done than said. If we stay in the realm of words, we will always find reasons to fracture or step out. And camaraderie is in the doing the recognition of shared interest in the doing.” Or quoting Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Struggles help us to see each other. Movements change the people in them,” and the Palestinian poet Naomi Shihab Nye, “There’s a way not to be broken that takes brokenness to find it.” I just wanted to say I really love the way, when you discover that speaking about The Shock Doctrine for years, didn’t prepare you to actually navigate it when it affected you directly in the world, that you now as a consequence write differently going inward in order to go outward but also the uncertainty and the vulnerability alongside the vision and the apprehensions and pauses alongside the paths forward. Perhaps that’s what Angela Davis is referring to in her blurb that justice movements may find new meaning in a place they least expect to in injury and in vulnerability. I wondered if the writing of this book in a new way has produced any new unexpected desires for you as a writer or as an activist going forward post-Doppelganger.
NK: I think it has, including a desired four more collective, creative processes. I would be really interested in trying to not just be the writer alone in the room. I’m drawn to a process of collective writing for plays. I would love to write with other people. That’s the main thing that I feel. I don’t know if I’m going to go back to writing more straight-ahead nonfiction. I teach and do research in university and that might fill that part of me and then for my own writing, I might keep trying to play a little bit and see what happens but I’m interested in not doing it all by myself, like most things I don’t want to do by myself. Like [Marianne Camus] said, “Everything we’re doing is done with other people.”
DN: Well, thank you, Naomi, for being on the show with me for two and a half hours today.
NK: It was a joy. Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to think with you and that incredible web of voices you brought in.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Naomi Klein about her latest book Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find out more about Naomi Klein at naomiklein.org. For the bonus audio archive, Naomi contributes a reading from Operation Shylock of a letter written by fake Roth, otherwise known as Moishe Pipik to the real Roth. This joins supplemental readings by so many of our past guests, long-form interviews with translators, some craft talks, and more. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation, of things I discovered while preparing for the conversation, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards including the Tin House Early Readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. Find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the Summer and Winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.