You don’t really care for music, do ya?

a continuation of “Kafka Reloaded”

I used to live alone before I knew you

There are a number of babies in this park, all of them accompanied by an adult. Little Worm is the only one in a baby sling, pressed tight against my chest. All the others are being pushed around in strollers, alternately sleeping or crying or staring off, while their adults are alternately talking or using cellphones or staring off.

Little Worm was removed early. Premature, they call it. The doctors said it was an emergency and he had to come out. It’s hard to know if they were right, because emergencies are their preferred terrain.

So, I suppose the first apparatus Little Worm encountered was a surgical procedure. (Do we have the machine that goes ping?) The second was an incubator. Given the politics of hygenization and the suppression of human contact, the bottle could be considered not just a tool (which in a different socio-historical context it would be) but a third apparatus. A fourth would be a stroller. All of these tend towards separation.

I wonder if it’s fair to consider the stroller an apparatus, while sparing the baby sling this perjorative assignment. The stroller minimizes interaction and socializes the baby to accept vehicular movement in which the force that impels is invisible, and the world is split into personal space and scenery. These same movements are repeated elsewhere in the grand symphony. Wars have been fought to inflict the same achievements on uncivilized populations.

The baby sling, in certain manifestations, reifies the bourgeois right to buy back some of the human contact that has been robbed from all of us. In the next neighborhood over, it would be easy to find progressive yuppy parents toting their tots around in baby slings, perhaps dyed to look like they’re from India, or done up as an entire backpack with extra diaper pockets and multiple safety features. The one Little Worm snuggles in is secondhand, purely functional. His parents don’t have the kind of money they have in the next neighborhood over.

Because Little Worm was kept in an incubator the first months of his life, he never got used to drinking milk straight from the breast, only from the bottle. One advantage to this sorry fact is that I can take him to the park and care for him for hours, despite my tragically useless mammaries.

The strollers are depressing me as they make their clockwise rounds, accompanied by their pair of humans, small and large, fore and aft. In an obvious juxtaposition, a minor fleet of Latin American immigrants appear on the scene to push citizen convalescents in wheelchairs counterclockwise about the park. The unpaid labor of mothers dances about the paid labor of immigrants in a symphony of social reproduction whose greatest movement silences the sound of the music.

The superimposition of strollers on wheelchairs makes me think of Addie Bundren in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, lying unseeing in the coffin as her family disintegrates around her on its journey cityward. And like Darl I’m overcome by an inarticulate sullenness, a need to burn down a barn, or its urban equivalent. I think about Jewel (the kid from Yoknapatawpha, not the singer from Alaska) running in to save the horses, and how every gesture of negation runs into complications, how every apparatus contains its innocent captives. Today, the exact same sensitivity can lead to terrorism or to humanism. Nihilism without arrogance—the kind that lets itself cry on top of a coffin as the barn burns—quickly loses its way. But this loss is a necessary and beautiful thing. Someone in the symphony must finally put down her violin and admit that really, she just doesn’t understand.

In the anarchist newspaper I read about a couple youths in the adjacent town who got sent to prison after breaking into the construction site for a mental hospital and destroying everything, just because. Donnie Darko’s summary of the Graham Greene novel tells us this destructive impulse is common enough to have passed from literature to pop culture. The official news does damage control, imposing an alibi of irrationality, while the silver screen pretends to sympathize with everyone’s inner nihilist as long as they just stay in their seats, stay tuned in. On a rational, discursive level, the entertainment media’s sympathy for nihilism makes no sense; it seems to contradict our argument that there is nothing subversive within the Spectacle. It is Power’s quest for affective allegiances that explains the contradiction.

Little Worm starts to twitch and squirm. I sing him a song to keep him asleep. His tiny fist clenches and unclenches at my chest.

Earlier I was looking at a book full of exercises that can be done with children, starting in the very first week, to maximize the development of their muscular and cognitive processes. The Worm’s mother told me that all the progressive daycares in town were like bootcamps in which the kiddies were strapped down, never hugged, and bombarded with stimuli meant to boost their intellect. I remember an argument with a doctor friend who wanted to send her child to school as early as possible to give him “more opportunities.” I think about the parents who want super-babies. The line between love and abuse is so fine sometimes. Neglect, in these cases, seems so benign.

If only we could get a little less attention, given the motives that lie, naturalized and invisible, behind that attention. I hug Little Worm close to me. He’s a little ball of warmth against my heartbeat. I shrug my way out of my jacket.

In the argument with my doctor friend, a devout follower of Francis Bacon, I was saying that science is a religion based on a mechanical mythology. William Gaddis illustrates this perfectly through brief vignettes in his comic novel J R, as the minor character in the public school where much of the storyline takes place, Coach Vogel, teaches his students about the human body using the naturalized metaphor of a machine (naturalized because the body is held to be, not like a machine, but in fact a machine). At first his monologues are simply annoying, when he talks about the digestive system, the fuel for this machine, then depressing when he claims the heart to be a piston, and then hilarious when, in the oblique background of one scene, he begins to explain the reproductive system. The naturalness of the metaphor finally breaks down when he assigns his students the construction of machine-bodies and they all pass out from inhaling glue fumes.

there was a time when you let me know what’s really going on below

The Little Worm awakes in a fit of sobs. I rock him and sing a lullaby, and soon he is breathing evenly, gripping me, eyes closed, head pressed against my chest to hear my heartbeat. It feels both perverse and wholesome that the song I put him to sleep with is the Decembrists’ “Shankhill Butchers.”

The shankhill butchers ride tonight
you better shut your windows tight
they’re sharpening their cleavers and their knives
they’re taking all their whiskey by the pint

cause everybody knows
if you don’t mind your mother’s words
a wicked wind will blow
your ribbons from your curls
the shankhill butcher’s wanna catch you

Since the Age of Disney, expressing such violence to children is blasphemous, but Disney itself represents a stark transformation from the Age of Grimm, in which fairy tales were used precisely to introduce children to a particular war. Santa Claus, remember, used to beat naughty children with bags of coal, not make presents of them; and the first two Little Pigs didn’t run to their brother’s house, they got eaten.

When the bow breaks
the cradle will fall
and down will come baby
cradle and all

It seems appropriately old-fashioned to put this atavistic baby to sleep with threats about the shankhill butchers. But the Grimm Brothers, now a stock symbol for the archaic, were every bit as much the revisionists as Walt Disney. Walter Benjamin has already untangled the meaning of the fairy tale as a semiotic war against the world of magic. Though the fairy tale’s didacticism communicates to both adults and children, by objectivating the audience as a childish one, the Grimmists restrict the magical world to prepubescence, which is to say subhumanity, sealing the monopoly of rationalism on adult discourses. Secondly, within the moral template of the fairy tale, the women are chaste, nature is either tame or evil, bad children meet with violent ends, and the witches always get killed. (The frequency with which women were the protagonists of fairy tales, in contrast to the cultural production of Hollywood up until the ’80s, also leads one to speculate whose social role required the most work in disciplining during that age).

The fairy tale is the accompaniment to the standardization of child-beating in Western society (for a study of the emphasis European colonizers put on teaching indigenous Americans to beat children, see Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch”). In other words, these putatively magical narratives are in fact a hostile incursion into imaginary territory.

That they must be directed at children is not solely a function of their didactic structure. Since the colonization of European populations by endogenous elites, children have been the keepers of the imaginary, without which no rebellious struggle is possible. Paradoxically, or perhaps as a direct result of the former, children also have the longest historical memories. Childrens’ rhymes tend to be the oldest surviving pieces of oral literature. For example, earlier forms of the following rhyme, “Ring around the rosie/ pockets full of posie/ ashes! ashes!/ We all fall down!”, date back to the 18th century, and the rhyme itself possibly refers to the Great Plague of 1655.

Another old secret preserved in the games of children is the little trick of “rabbit ears.” What most children or adults would never guess is that the rabbit ears that sneak up behind a friend’s head in the moment of a group photo is in fact a representation of the cuckold’s horns. The cuckold, a term remembered by few people who are not Shakespeare enthusiasts or otherwise overly literate, derives its name from the cuckoo, a bird well known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests. The cuckold, therefore, is a man whose wife sleeps around. The joke, originally, was to give someone the “rabbit ears” without him noticing, so everyone else would understand you were sleeping with his wife.

But why on earth would the cuckold have horns? The cuckoo certainly doesn’t. The answer is even more obscure. In the Christian caricatures of pagans, and very possibly in the practices of the druids themselves, European shamans wore horns, possibly as a subversion of the division between humans and other animals, and as a symbol of communion with the natural world. For this reason, the Devil is portrayed as a horned creature, and nearly always part animal. Referring again to Silvia Federici, the early rise of capitalism was accompanied by an increasingly brutal repression against heresy, against surviving pagan traditions (frequently connected to early anti-capitalist resistance, as is still apparent in the dual significance of May Day), and against the relatively liberated role of women. Contemporary moralists converted sexual freedom into ‘allowing one’s wife to sleep around,’ utilizing the age-old sentiment of jealousy to enlist lower class men in the war to reconstruct patriarchy. The symbol they chose linked the emmasculated man to paganism and animism.

Cabrón, the word for “cuckold” in Spanish, recalls the goat (“cabra”), and thus, the horns.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

Little Worm’s nap was short-lived. He awakes again crying. By now I have learned to distinguish the different types of sobs. He is telling me he is hungry. As I sit down and prepare the bottle, I begin talking to him, and he calms, though continues to repeat his cry of “hunger! hunger! hunger!” until the bottle is in his mouth. I keep talking to him. The rich smell of his hair rises to my nose. Before long, he will start babbling, and a few months after that, to make full words. But it’s not a passive process of learning. Children who grow up in circumstances without an adequate, fully developed language will invent one, collectively, within a generation. This has been observed in refugee populations thrown together, and in other historical moments. In fact, children and immigrants are the principal creative forces in the development of every language. What the residents of the academies at the center have been blind to for so long is that the margins are the most dynamic, vital space of any paradigm. Western science as a whole, Linda Tuhiwai Smith notes, created itself in the colonies.

Immigrant and child continue their assymmetrical conversation. Now and again I make grammatical mistakes as I speak to Little Worm; the native language of his parents, which will presumably be his native language as well, is not my own. I hurry to correct myself and then think, “it doesn’t matter, he doesn’t know yet.” In fact if the two of us were to spend all our time together, we would create a new language, shaped by my errors and his own demands. Modern English, for one, has incorporated the typical grammatic mistakes made by the Gaelic subjects of the successful Anglo-Saxon invaders, even as nearly all the Gaelic vocabulary was eliminated. In all likelihood, it was Saxon children playing with Welsh children, to the consternation of their parents no doubt, who incorporated the grammatic variations—which to their ears, unlike to the adults, sounded just fine—into a creole which eventually became official.

For a moment I stop talking to Little Worm, to think about the learning process that unfolds before him. Is the language we are teaching this child an apparatus, like the stroller? Within the anarchist milieu, it is not hard to find arguments to this effect. From Zerzan to Tiqqun to emile (a once prolific commentator on anarchistnews), we find the assertion that language is a deterministic Pandora’s box or that grammar and writing superdetermine limitations to human thinking and intellectuality, although the former bases his hypothesis in non-falsifiable assertions and the latter two rest on factual inaccuracies (regarding Slavic languages and so-called phonetic language, respectively).

None of these conversations are able to embrace the present moment. I look down at Little Worm. The term “apparatus” becomes meaninglessly broad if it is put in his mouth, because this language is something he has a role in creating, and there is a whole world of difference—a difference I have been unable to find in the works of all the relevant theorists—between creating and reproducing.

Turning to Agamben, we find the following definition:

Further expanding the already large class of Foucauldian apparatuses, I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Not only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confession, factories, disciplines, juridical measures, and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and—why not—language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses—one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences he was about to face.

This description of the invention of language bears more in common with the story of Adam and Eve than with any plausible history of language. Furthermore, his idea of influence (“capture, orient, determine[…]”) preserves the philosophically lacking idea of a pure body separate from and beleaguered by its environment. When living beings are separated from their own expressions, gestures, tools, and traditions, they are reduced to golem, mere bodies, and every influence that these things, once a part of their being and now expropriated by the category of “apparatus”, exercise over them is now read as a form of corruption or control. And as Agamben only recognizes three broad categories: living beings; apparatuses; and the subjects that reside in the battle ground between the two; his conceptualization of an “apparatus” requires an alienation of beings from their collective and historical existence, since every collective or historical manifestation of a person must fall within the category, not of living being, but of apparatus. In other words, Agamben recreates living beings not so different from capitalism’s alienated individual.

And at the same time, he negates one of Foucault’s greatest contributions by doing away with the historicity of codes and categories of power and creating one categorical set that stretches back to the beginning of time, to the very invention of language. But if apparatuses are indeed strategic, which I think they must be if the term is to have any use, then they cannot have existed in a time whose paradigm of power is mutually unintelligible with our own. If there is a continuity to power from the beginning to the present day, it can only be in the imaginary; in a particular dream of power and its retroactive pedigree, on the one side; and on the other in a universal impulse towards rebellion and a conscious choice to incorporate the struggles of predecessors. In other words, out of many dreams of the powerful, of those living on the upper side of a line of social conflict, only one or a few bloomed into the State we know today. Those of us living on the lower side of a line of social conflict can certainly claim to have always been fighting against authority, and we may in fact be able to learn something about our fight today by identifying with those who fought a completely different configuration of power in the distant past, but the categories that describe this fight necessarily arise from the present vantage, and applying them timelessly, as Agamben attempts to do, will hide more than it reveals.

If power had never made the urgent evolution, around the 15th century in Western Europe, from being primarily parasitical to primarily productive (as biopower), we might well live in a society that would chose other lines of continuity to link itself to the complex admixture of the past, and the identification of a beginning in the invention of language, of agriculture, of phonetic alphabets, or whatever—-an identification that can make so much sense within today’s context-—would perhaps be about as meaningless to those hypothetical denizens of a parallel, non-capitalist universe as we would find it meaningless that these parallel denizens might locate the beginnings of their present struggle in the invention of the lute, or dancing.

In the final analysis, Agamben’s conceptualization of the apparatus is impractical for anarchists because it is victimistic. Contrary to the values of our rulers, influence and corruption are not the same, and we are made stronger by what influences us, because this is our manner of living in the world. An apparatus, in an anarchist analysis, can only be recognized because all its carefully constructed influence and points of contact are predicated upon separating us from the world. It is not the fact of influence that defines an apparatus, but the forceful replacement of one paradigm of influence—a mutual and circular one—with another paradigm of influence, based in control and exploitation with the necessary accompaniments of essentialism and mechanism.

Emile, more specific than Agamben, attempts to link “phonetic language” (literary language rendered in alphabet) to the loss of a conjugate, “spatial-relational” understanding of the world and its replacement by a “material-causal” one. He makes a necessary critique of the role classical physics has had on conditioning a mechanical understanding of the world, and he suggests interesting possibilities for how the new physics and field dynamics could influence anarchist philosophy. However his linking of these worldviews to language is lacking. Mystical Hindu texts he cites to illustrate a “spatial-relational” worldview were written down in a phonetic alphabet, not in an ideographic writing system. The linear alphabet he mistakenly attributes to the ancient Greeks (it was the Phoenecians) and links to the rise of taxation and commerce and the fall of a spatial-relational worldview was in fact preceded by the Linear B of the Mycanaean Greeks, influenced by the Minoans. Linear B was a writing system used for taxation and administration, but it was not an alphabet. It was a syllabary, with each character reprenting a whole syllable, and not an isolated sound component that could represent a metaphor for other types of isolation, as it does in Emile’s theory, although ironically he doesn’t recognize his argumentative structure as a metaphorical one. And while Emile’s writings are full of references to what the Zuni, Hopi, and Dakota Indians think about certain social situations (a troublingly exoticizing and essentializing form of argument), I could not find a reference to the Han Chinese, who developed a complex bureaucracy with an ideographic writing system.

The various arguments to assign language a superdetermining role on our cultures, as an apparatus, fall short because language is a part of our being and something we constantly recreate to meet our changing needs. Language cannot be used to assign language a limited place in reality. Symbolic thought can not be used to confine the totality of symbolic thought to a symbol.

By focusing on the need of capitalism for images, many theorists have mistakenly attached an evil significance to symbols. But there are symbols that give, and symbols that take away. Holding this baby to my chest as he in turn clings to me and feels my warmth and my heartbeat, we watch a smile go from his face to mine and back again, while in the background a line of people stare dully at the advertisement placed in front of them as they wait for the bus. If we lived on a desert island, the two of us, we would invent a new language.

It is not the capturing of meaning in symbols that manipulates us, mediates our experiences, or robs us of understanding, nor could it be; meaning cannot exist outside of symbols, except for fleeting seconds of transcendent experience that neither negate nor are prevented by symbolic communication. What robs us of understanding is in fact the fracturing of a whole sensuousness into quantified, mediated, and quarantined senses. The true apparatus is governed in such a way that discourages whole sensuousness—-one does not hold and smell a baby in a stroller, nor stop to feel the texture of a roadsign. To quarantine the senses and prevent them from merging again, the apparatus isolates the intimate senses (touch, smell) while bombarding the expansive senses (sight, sound) with a deliberate surplus of non-reciprocal media. Within this controlled landscape of loss, people are more apt to chase after an attractive aesthetic because the transcendent beauty one encounters in the merging into sensuousness has been made strange, even uncomfortable.

For this reason, it is not naïve to claim that beauty is subversive.

Every time a monkey shouts “Snake!” as several types of monkeys are known to do, we could criticize them at a philosophical level for trapping themselves in language as an apparatus, reducing a complex snake-becoming to one function of that snake-becoming, which is the one that eats monkeys. By saying nothing, the monkeys would avoid this philosophical trap, but they would also be dead. By developing a more complex grammar, they could avoid the trap by learning to say, and necessarily to also distinguish, “a hungry snake!” They would no longer be reducing the snake to a single of its typical functions. But now they would fall victim to another error, that of predicates, which Tiqqun, for example, describe in one of their essays, articulating an alternative philosophical view through a romanticized and factually false portrayal of Slavic languages (they should have reached farther, more exotic: try Mayan next time).

If we humans, in turn, could evolve more complex brains that could sustain a more complex grammar, we might be able to express, in simple and quotidian phrases, Mach’s principle, interrelationality, and other high-falutin’ ideas. Emile, for one, would be happy. But then we would run into the next set of philosophical difficulties for which even that more nuanced grammar would be inadequate.

From this we can infer that we always tend to work just beyond the capacity of the tools we have at hand, coming up against our limits and just into the undefined space on the other side. Regardless of our personal weaknesses, as a species or as individuals, it is in this space, what we might call smooth as opposed to striated philosophical space, that the most important questions and challenges can be formed.

As the Little Worm goes back to sleep, I take a break from my pacing to sit on a park bench and open a book his mother lent me. I’m reading an essay from Sottosopra Rojo, January 1996; “The End of Patriarchy. It’s happened and not by chance” :

The symbolic, what is it? The tongue [language] we speak and the voice we have for speaking, with their admirable capacity to revolutionize the real. The tongue and the voice, which make, of stumbles, significant pauses; of defects, occasions for signifying better; of obstacles, levers; of deficiencies, points of transformation; of mistakes, a ladder upwards; of falls, deepenings. A tongue is not a sum of words, as it might seem, but a multiplication and, more than a multiplication, an open game that reveals what’s more because, as the linguist well knows, a new word can put the significance of everything that has already been said (or lived) back into play.

Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you

“Poetry is the mother tongue of the human race as gardening is older than the field, painting than writing, singing than declaiming, parables than inferences, bartering than commerce…”
J.G. Hamman, drawn from James C. Scott.

Poetry and rebellion build capacities for understanding that no grammar or phonetic system could ever take away from us, because they take place in that smooth philosophical space just beyond our capacities. The subversion of a rule, be it grammatical or otherwise, produces an unknown quantity that not only has the possibility of exceeding the value of its component parts, but of creating an entirely new measure of value.

Poetic language can communicate the interrelationality of all things in a way our grammars seem to prohibit, and it is able to produce this effect not because it disregards or frees itself from grammar, but because it works on it and against it. Yawar Nina, in Puruma: la complejidad poética del pensamiento andino libertario, offers a mobile glossary of Andean metaphors, deities, rituals, geographies, and peoples that serve not as categorical enclosures but as transformations: the image of a llama watching the stars is rebirthed as a foundation of astronomy and navigation; an anecdote of stars reflected in a pond opens into an entire metaphysics; an ethnicity shifts into a mode of movement through the world. In this lexicon, poetry is a weapon and an aspect of being that remembers what was stolen, reconstructs what is lost, and subverts the efforts of colonialism, through its language, history, and rationalism, to superdetermine memory and resistance.

Although there are clear differences between written and spoken language, poetry as subversion can exist in both, and language in no form is able to superdetermine what we can understand, because language is inseperable from understanding, and it is reciprocally affected by the processes of knowledge, constantly hollowed out and filled back in, extended and shorn, fractured and mended.

Although from the very beginning he has been speaking, in one form or another, it will be some time before Little Worm learns to read, if he so chooses. It is tempting to turn literacy into a symbol for the loss of oral culture, and it’s an easy enough magic trick, although there are illiterate populations that have lost their oral culture, and literate ones that have not. In defiance of the official narrative of a unilineal history, anarchists must realize the strategic necessity of recovering and reinventing oral culture. Language in its liberatory, collective capacity is not a paradise lost, but an ever present possibility.

James C. Scott, in The Art of Not Being Governed, documents many Southeast Asian cultures that have gone back and forth between literacy and illiteracy, as they cross the frontiers of state power or are crossed by them. Interestingly, literacy seems to be one of the only “state effects” many state-fleeing peoples are sad about losing. The non-literate Akha, for example, esteem writing, hate the census, and pride themselves on killing tyrants. Their oral tradition holds that they once had writing, but they lost it while running from authoritarian neighbors.

One of the principal contributions of Scott’s book is to emphasize chosen political strategies in the development of human societies. In the fractured microcosm of upland Southeast Asia, explanations of human social arrangements based on geographic determinism or game theory, which appear to hold water on a broad perspective that terminates and originates at the vantage of the present-day State, fall apart about as quickly as state-making projects in the hills.

At any one place and time, historically, the ethnic identities on offer might be seen as a bandwidth of possibilities for adjusting one’s relationship with the state—a gradient of identifications which may be, over time, fitted to the prevailing economic and political conditions. To be sure, it makes eminent economic sense for [sedentary rice] padi planters to drop everything and take up foraging when the price of resins, medicinal plants, or edible birds’ nests shoots up. But the move to foraging can as easily occur because it is a state-evading strategy. Similarly, the choice between padi planting and swiddening [mobile horticulture] is more likely to be a political choice than a mere comparative calculation of calories per unit of labor.

Though state-formation was advantaged in the valleys and disadvantaged in the hills, the landscape did not superdetermine social development. On a few occasions, states arose in the hills, and on countless occasions, valley societies overthrew states or their ruling states collapsed, and the people continued to practice sedentary rice padi agriculture, to live in small cities, and to have writing, without the management of a state. The ethnicities that formed in the flight to the hills did not perform a culture determined by their landscape or simple reproductive calculations; rather, their residence in the hills, the crops they cultivated, their language, and their loss of writing were strategic adaptations stemming from a chosen determination to live free from State authority.

Anarchist theory faces an absolute necessity to center personal and collective agency. This isn’t only a question of putting our theoretical money on a winning horse—always an embarrasing strategem because all theories, in the long run, lose, and there’s nothing more embarrassing than an ideologue shoring up an outdated hypothesis—but of recreating the real world. A theory that centers agency, rather than mechanistic determinism, has the chance of changing the supposedly natural laws the social sciences purport to extrapolate. The more we center, talk about, and theorize free will, the more we encourage it, recreating a world based on will out of and against the present system in which all choices are superdetermined.

Within this process of leaving state space, we run into the concept of legibility. States attempt to impose legibility on their subjects, encouraging them to speak a single language, follow the same religious practices, adopt surnames conducive to bureaucratic filing, practice a form of agriculture and industry that can be easily controlled and appropriated, live in permanent dwellings and participate in the census, so that they can all be easily read from above. Meanwhile, rebellious populations constantly shift in ways that, if successful, make them more illegible to their governors: moving around; transcending the formalized familial relations; changing ethnic identity; developing language; employing black market economies and heretical religions. Illegibility can be understood as externality and opacity to power. It is not external in the sense of being independent and unaffected, for it is indeed relative and mutually shaped. Rather, it is a font of creativity and subversive power that cannot be captivated or understood by centralizing power.

Although Foucault tends to eschew the idea of externality, we can infer its existence at the margins of one of his classic examples: sodomy, which during one historical period was absent from social discourses and in the subsequent period was acknowledged and disciplined. Although in the records, sodomy is invisible in that earlier period, we can surmise that proscribed sexual practices formed a grand conversation in private homes, nighttime rendezvous, illegal cabarets, and other spaces that were illegible and opaque to the cultural, moral, and legal authorities, and thus external to their disciplining powers and discourses.

Which brings us back to oral culture. Far from being limited or superdetermined by written language or higher powers, oral culture enjoys a constant potential for opacity and illegibility, for serving as a creative font for the poetic subversion of dominant values and meanings. It creates a space that can exist alongside permitted culture and official discourses, external and threatening to them, harboring fugitive dreams and memories. Contrary to its pretensions, biopower cannot eliminate memory. Short of eliminating its subject population and thus to an extent, itself, a centralizing power can only play tricks. Memory must be surrendered, and this is exactly what European rebellious movements did in the 18th and 19th centuries, by infantilizing their oral culture and adopting the myth of progress, the religion of rationalism, and the values of the Enlightenment.

Little Worm is stirring. Soon he’ll be awake, and if his return to the waking world is abrupt, he’ll come back crying. Time for a new song.

“They say there was a secret chord…”

Against Leviathan,‭ ‬Against Work

‭I engage in a pastime that’s both time-honored and yet somewhat of a relic in the punk world:‭ ‬tabling shows.‭ ‬I pack my panniers full of radical books and zines and bike them across town,‭ ‬setting them up on borrowed card tables in generally smoky venues,‭ ‬and more often than not lug nearly all of them back home with me at the end of the night.‭ ‬I’m not in it for the money—‭ ‬the petty cash all goes back into acquiring more material.‭

So why do I do it‭?

It’s a two-part answer.‭ ‬There are books and zines out there with messages that I find important.‭ ‬In addition,‭ ‬there’s a heritage of selling books and zines at shows,‭ ‬which means that there’s already in place an accepted process for getting this literature into people’s hands.‭ ‬I suppose there’s a corollary answer that the act of standing behind a table of books and zines is something with which I’m already familiar and comfortable,‭ ‬having attended so many book fairs and zine fests.‭

As a result of sharing a distro with a friend who has since left the country as well as my own wishful wholesale purchasing,‭ ‬I have found myself with a number of books on my table that I haven’t read.‭ ‬I am trying to rectify this,‭ ‬even if it means slogging through nearly all of Crimethinc’s titles.‭ ‬It has always surprised people to learn that I’ve never read a Crimethinc book,‭ ‬given the company I have kept over the years.

I once befriended someone who had gotten into anarchism in high school via Crimethinc.‭ ‬When I was in high school,‭ ‬Crimethinc didn’t exist yet.‭ ‬Neither did the internet,‭ ‬per se.‭ ‬It doesn’t make me better or worse,‭ ‬but it means I don’t have a shared experience with many people I know.‭ ‬Reading‭ ‬Evasion as a teen didn’t cause me to leave home and hitchhike across the country.‭ ‬I didn’t start doing that until much later,‭ ‬and it wasn’t because I read about it.

Although I planned to lose my Crimethinc virginity with‭ ‬Evasion,‭ ‬years past its expiration date,‭ ‬I was going out of town for five days and wanted to read something longer.‭ ‬At the last minute I left‭ ‬Evasion at home and brought Fredy Perlman’s‭ ‬300-page essay‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ I’ve read many other titles by Perlman,‭ ‬but this one had seemed daunting.‭ ‬Many of my friends started it and never finished.‭ ‬I thought out of town would be the best place to focus on it.‭

The first day of my trip,‭ ‬one of the friends I was visiting handed me the newest Crimethinc book,‭ ‬Work.‭ ‬As I leafed through it,‭ ‬I noticed that it was actually somewhat similar to‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ They both attempt to critique a totality while picking apart the smaller aspects.‭ ‬They also both utilize borrowed illustrations.‭

As if that wasn’t enough,‭ ‬upon first perusal I felt like the font used in‭ ‬Work had a similarity to the one used in‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ although font nerds might put my head on a stick for suggesting that.‭ ‬Having read‭ ‬Letters of Insurgents so many times,‭ ‬I reserve a special place in my heart for what I call Black‭ & ‬Red font,‭ ‬which is also in‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ I don’t know what the font is called,‭ ‬nor do I care to substitute my own naming for the historically accurate one.‭ (‬If I really wanted to know,‭ ‬I would just ask Lorraine.‭) ‬After careful comparison however I realized that although the‭ ‬Work font—‭ ‬revealed in the colophon as RePublic‭ ‬—‭ ‬does bear some resemblance to Black‭ & ‬Red,‭ ‬they are not the same.‭ ‬The italics for example are quite different,‭ ‬and Black‭ & ‬Red doesn’t contain any ligatures.

During this closer look at fonts and such,‭ ‬I noticed that‭ ‬Work cites‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ as a source.‭ ‬I decided to read the books concurrently rather than in tandem.‭ ‬Many factors led me to have many hours of reading time on this particular trip,‭ ‬both during the day and at night.‭ ‬I traded off reading from each of them,‭ ‬and ended up finishing them both by bedtime on my last night.‭ ‬That’s almost‭ ‬700‭ ‬pages of non-fiction in the span of five days,‭ ‬speedy even for me.

Reading them together has fused them in my mind.‭ ‬We all read books within contexts,‭ ‬and reading two books in such proximity puts them in a sort of conversation with each other.‭ ‬Ever since my friend handed me‭ ‬Work,‭ ‬the two books have been together constantly,‭ ‬and I’m finding it hard to imagine separating them physically.‭ ‬They’re definitely not the same book but rather complementary slices of the same pie.

It’s a pie of criticism thrust into the face of that which some call the Spectacle,‭ ‬others Leviathan,‭ ‬and still others the Totality.‭ ‬There are many names for this hydra,‭ ‬including…‭ ‬Hydra.‭

One of the main differences between these similarly sized polemics are matters of chronology.‭ ‬Perlman wrote‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ nearly thirty years before‭ ‬Work came onto the scene.‭ ‬This is not to say that‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ is outdated‭; ‬rather,‭ ‬it is a narrative told in a different era.‭ ‬The reason that many of my friends can’t get through the book is because of the omnipresent references to ancient history.‭ ‬I think past generations studied ancient history a lot more.‭ ‬For anyone who was out back smoking during high school history class and never caught up on their own time,‭ ‬a criticism of civilization citing numerous examples from Ur to the Pilgrims would seem not unlike a string of nonsense words,‭ ‬things that would have to be looked up or else just not understood.‭ ‬Perlman starts with the Sumerians and gives a survey history of Western Civilization,‭ ‬epoch by epoch,‭ ‬describing how each step that civilization takes is the Leviathan destroying all that is human and replacing it with its own burrowed tentacles.‭ ‬Whether a worm or an octopus,‭ ‬Leviathan goes only one direction,‭ ‬and that is toward destruction.‭

Maybe because I wasn’t smoking during history class or maybe just dumb luck,‭ ‬I happened to remember enough about the history of Western Civilization to make it through this book without having to look anything up to understand what was going on.‭ ‬I’m no scholar,‭ ‬but I was successfully indoctrinated in high school to the point that I have some idea about the Etruscans,‭ ‬Byzantine Empire,‭ ‬the era of the two Popes,‭ ‬and the Crusades.‭ ‬I don’t believe it’s necessary to be fluent in this knowledge,‭ ‬but some familiarity helps.

Work tells a similar story but in the present.‭ ‬The Leviathan is named as Capitalism,‭ ‬but it’s clear that it’s not just an economic system but force of occupation in all aspects of our lives.‭ ‬The book breaks down capitalism into every category in which it touches us,‭ ‬changing who we are inside and out.‭ ‬I can’t think of any facet that the book doesn’t cover.‭ ‬I’m not saying I agree with everything in it,‭ ‬but the analysis is pretty total.

The question of course is why write a polemic at all.‭ ‬If someone is sympathetic enough to read a book in the first place,‭ ‬wouldn’t they be already one of the converted,‭ ‬so to speak‭? ‬And does anyone hostile ever change their views based on something they read‭? ‬My answer would be,‭ ‬eh,‭ ‬sometimes and sometimes.‭ ‬Or maybe eh,‭ ‬often and rarely.‭ ‬Or on some days eh,‭ ‬who cares and fuck‭ ‘‬em.‭

As for me,‭ ‬I feel good about having spent the time to read both of them together.‭ ‬They bring me some sorrow about the pervasiveness of the damage already done and its continuance on a daily basis.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬they both remind me of why I’m an anarchist in the first place.‭ ‬This is important because I’ve been losing my way in the past few years.‭ ‬Not because I’ve changed my opinion on the way things are,‭ ‬but because anarchists have been a source of havoc in my life.‭ ‬My question is always why I do anything at all,‭ ‬if my reward is bad friends.‭ ‬Maybe it’s the occasional good friend,‭ ‬but what ended up being a five-day reading retreat for me renewed my passion in not just the things I do but the way I do them,‭ ‬the tense but mindful approach.‭ ‬I won’t be able to tell Fredy Perlman about this experience,‭ ‬but I’ll have the writer(s‭) ‬of‭ ‬Work know that in true Crimethinc fashion,‭ ‬I read two-thirds of‭ ‬Work while on a farm and the other third while sitting on the roof of an urban punk house.

Back at home,‭ ‬I had a conversation with a couple of friends about my experience with the books that are now cousins in my mind.‭ ‬One friend asked me what‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ was getting at.‭

“It’s a history of Western Civilization,‭” ‬I said,‭ “‬and how it’s fucked‭! ‬It’s all fucked‭!”
“Well,‭ ‬what about‭ ‬Work‭?” ‬he said.
‭“‬It’s about how capitalism has invaded all aspects of our lives‭!” ‬I said,‭ ‬sort of laughing at this point.‭ “‬and how it’s fucked‭! ‬It’s all fucked‭!”

My friend said he’d give‭ ‬Against His-Story,‭ ‬Against Leviathan‭!‬ another try.‭ ‬A second friend offered to loan him his never-finished copy.‭ “‬Oh no,‭” ‬the first friend said,‭ “‬I have my own never-finished copy.‭”
Perhaps that’s why we write books.‭ ‬And why we table them at shows still.‭ ‬People still do read them.

Cynical Lessons

“There were always men who practiced this philosophy. For it seems to be in some ways a universal philosophy, and the most natural.”
– Julian the Apostate


Some months ago, I discovered a series of books on ancient philosophies produced by the University of California Press, with lovely details of Baroque paintings reproduced on the covers. The titles read: Stoicism, Epicureanism, Neoplatonism, Ancient Scepticism … Cynics. That last title immediately drew my attention: Cynics and not Cynicism. It turned out that Cynics makes explicit reference to anarchist ideas in a way that is both intelligent and important to at least some of us. (I will return to this intersection).

The choice of the title Cynics for William Desmond’s contribution was probably only meant to avoid confusion, but it also suggests a way to read the book so as to learn not merely of the Cynics but from them. Why is it not called Cynicism? True, from one point of view it is perfectly easy to say that there is Cynicism because we can list tenets held in common by Cynics. Textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries do this: in any of them we can learn that these people favored what Desmond calls “carefree living in the present”1; and that, to accomplish it, they practiced a generalized rejection of social customs (Desmond catalogs this rejection in delightful detail: it includes customs concerning clothing, housing, diet, sex and marriage, slavery, work …) in the direction of a simplification of life.2 (This was somewhat more confusingly referred to as living in accord with nature).

But already in the ancient world, Diogenes Laertius, author of the great gossip-book of ancient philosophers, commented: “we will go on to append the doctrines which they held in common — if, that is, we decide that Cynicism is really a philosophy, and not, as some maintain, just a way of life.”3 One of the perpetual question marks hanging next to the Cynics’ status as philosophers is their common rejection of intellectual confusion. The term typhos (smoke, vapor) rightly emphasized by Desmond sums this up nicely. It was used, he writes, “to denote the delirium of popular ideas and conventions” (244). Typhos also included the “technical language” of philosophers: “the best cure” for it “is to speak simply” (127).

In any case, there is also certainly something called cynicism. Desmond consciously capitalizes the word when it is a matter of the school, and leaves it uncapitalized when it is a matter of what could be called the ambient attitude of a place and time — something people definitely live, but in no way choose or wish for. Something like that seems to be what Deleuze and Guattari were after in their recurring references to a special relation between capitalism and cynicism in the Anti-Oedipus: cynicism as the correlate of modern bad conscience, “accompanied by a strange piety.”4 Cynicism, for them, is not so much the ideology of capitalism, as it is a congeries of behaviors and attitudes secreted by the capitalist socius, the apparent apathy that is ever becoming real, but never for all that passing into a reasoned or passionate way of life. It is rather the default lifestyle of those for whom a way of life (in any interesting sense of the phrase) is impossible.5

In light of this, I propose that perhaps the most interesting perspective is to say that there is no Cynicism, that there is cynicism, and that there are (or at least were) Cynics, as individuals.

Whereas the usual philosophical guidebook (and, worse, the usual philosophical conversation) starts with the Great Question “what is …”, I propose instead the question “who is …” Who is a Cynic? This question never disappears: even when we find great commonalities between different Cynics, we are still dealing with its familiar variant: “Who is the real Cynic?” We know that Cynics first appeared in the Greece of Socrates and Plato, and that there were Cynics well into Christian times. How do we know this? As with other ancient schools, its inventors, creators of a way of life, wrote nothing, or their writings are lost. We know of them through what is now called doxography: collections of sayings and opinions. Desmond recompiles and rearranges the doxographies charmingly, proving the point that if it is philosophy as a way of life that we are interested in, perhaps a few anecdotes about a singular character are as valuable as a short treatise or a letter to a friend. (I recall here Nietzsche’s gnomic proposition: “It is possible to present the image of a man in three anecdotes”6).

In behavior and intent, The Cynics we know of were “missionary” (as Pierre Hadot has put it).7 Their rejection of customs seems to have had an essentially performative, confrontational aspect. Desmond illustrates this as follows:

… the ancient Cynic could be stereotyped as a wild man who stood on the corner piercing passers-by with his glances, passing remarks to all and sundry, but reserving his bitterest scorn for the elites who parade by in purple and chariots, living unnatural lives, and trampling on the natural equality of man. (187)

Such confrontations in public places were one way in which the Cynic way of life was communicated. How does one become a Cynic? By example, obviously; by means of a model. Now, this anecdote tells of a more intimate communication:

Metrocles had been studying with Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle and head of the Lyceum, a taxonomist and classificatory thinker with a specialty in botany. Once while declaiming Metrocles farted audibly and was so ashamed that he shut himself off from public view and thought of starving himself to death. But Crates visited him, fed him with lupin-beans, and advanced various arguments to convince him that his action was not wrong or unnatural, and had been for the best in fact. Then Crates capped his exhortation with a great fart of his own. “From that day on Metrocles started to listen to Crates’ discourses and became a capable man in philosophy.”8 (28)

This intimate aspect is not emphasized in Desmond’s book, perhaps for lack of evidence. One could go a long ways in the direction of answering the question “Who can be a Cynic?” by considering the status of customs and laws from the perspective of how people have become capable of subverting them. I do not mean conferring a special status on transgression as a social or philosophical category, but rather becoming curious about who it is that grasps the instability of mores, conventions, laws and so on, and how they become capable of selectively ignoring them.


Consider then this couple: unusual public behavior / anecdote documenting the same. As Desmond points out, a typical chreia or anecdote related an action followed by a witty, insightful, or bluntly truthful utterance. It would seem that the anecdote was simultaneously a spoken rhetorical device and a genre of literature, both in close relation to what is best about gossip. There were many compilations of such anecdotes in the ancient world. It is not hard to imagine that these anthologies were compiled so as to amuse the curious; but they could also have brought about, at a distance and thanks to a certain sort of reading, the transmission of a model that public harangues and private obscenities can communicate face to face, body to body. I mean the imitation of unusual behaviors, and, more importantly, a stimulation to invent new ones relevant to one’s own life. This literary transmission of the Cynic life has surely happened many times and in many ways.

Long after the first generations came lengthier written texts either advocating the Cynical way of life or at least presenting it in a favorable light. But by then the writers’ commitment to the way of life was in question. It is one version of the question “Who is the real Cynic?” Desmond discusses, though does not promote, a common distinction between original “hard” Cynics (Diogenes, Crates, Hipparchia) who lived the life and derivative “soft” Cynics, who, fascinated by it, merely wrote about it (Lucian, Dio Chrysostom). It is, of course, as a distant echo of this supposed merely literary presence of the school that the term “cynic” reappears as an ordinary noun, and eventually as a pejorative term, bringing the question “who?” full circle from punctual designation to anonymous epithet.

One example of the richness of this question’s persistence in the literary transmission of Cynicism is Lucian’s The Death of Peregrinus. Desmond mentions it briefly; I will take it up in some detail. In this satire we learn of the life and spectacular death of the “ill-starred” Peregrinus the Cynic.9 As the satire opens, Theagenes, a fearful, crying Cynic (?) gives a hoary speech in praise of Peregrinus; then a nameless, laughing man mounts the same platform to tell the truth. (This man is not identified as a Cynic). He dismisses Theagnes’ praise as well as his tears. Instead he offers his laughter, and another perspective on Peregrinus. He details, among other things, how Peregrinus started life as a good-for-nothing, becoming a parricide in exile after strangling his own father for no reason other than the inconvenience of caring for an old man. In exile Peregrinus eventually transformed himself, managing to become a well-respected Christian leader. As such, he was imprisoned, and received all of their support. Once freed, he betrayed the Christians. Setting off again, he became a Cynic and trained in ascetic exercises. These were the ponoi, practices Cynics would use to loosen the bonds of custom: Peregrinus shaved half his head, smeared his face with mud, masturbated in public, beat and was beaten with a fennel cane, etc. Eventually his love of glory and attention led him to his famous self-immolation, the event that Lucian ruthlessly mocks as a failed apotheosis. Having publically announced it years in advance, Peregrinus killed himself by jumping into an enormous pyre before countless witnesses at the Olympic festival. This was purportedly done to show others that they need not fear death. Lucian, now present as the narrator, places himself, laughing, at the scene of the pyre, describing Peregrinus and Theagenes as pitiful actors. Lucian is not only unimpressed: he calls the witnesses “idiots,” and retires. In the scenes of the aftermath, Lucian converses with curious passers-by and latecomers, answering their idle questions with preposterous and contradictory exaggerations.

It seems that, for Lucian, to say one is a Cynic, even to have trained in the ascetic exercises, means nothing special if in the present one continues to demonstrate vanity. And nothing could be more vain than capitalizing on one’s own suicide by announcing it years in advance. Here Lucian, who never called himself a Cynic, shows himself capable of wearing that mask in his satire. He addresses an interlocutor:

… I can hear you crying out, as you well might: “Oh, the stupidity! Oh, the thirst for renown! Oh — “, all the other things we tend to say about them. Well, you can say all this at a distance and much more safely; but I said it right by the fire, and even before that in a large crowd of listeners. Some of these became angry, the ones who were impressed by the old man’s lunacy; but there were others who laughed at him too. Yet I can tell you I was nearly torn to pieces by the Cynics …10

The entire story revolves around the question: “who?” Lucian’s Peregrinus cynically moves from low-life to moral Christian to ascetic Cynic to vainglorious blowhard. Is this progression Cynical? Or is Lucian’s laughter more of a Cynic effect, however he may have lived?

Desmond, for his part, suggests that much of Lucian’s satire may be a “hatchet job,” such as the account of the parricide, for example. Considering this takes us one turn further into the maze of the question: “who?” What if it is Lucian, the writer, who is the vainglorious one, envious of Peregrinus’ performance, its practical philosophy? What if, for example, Peregrinus had an excellent reason to take his own life, and opted to use his death to teach a final lesson, one the results of which he could not live to see? Could that not be the opposite of vanity? For me this ambiguity manifests a tension between way of life and philosophy, or, again, between living according to nature and a missionary urge to harangue others to do the same.11

Lucian calls Peregrinus an actor, his suicide a “performance.” Discussing the history of the well-worn metaphor of the world as theater, the philologist Ernst Robert Curtius traces it back to comments in Plato’s Laws about humans as puppets of the gods, or to a phrase in his Philebus about the “tragedy and comedy of life.” But then he notes: “In the popular lectures on philosophy (’diatribes’) of the Cynics, the comparison of man to an actor became a much-used cliché.”12 This story of origins only becomes interesting when we read between the lines in Curtius, noticing that it must have been the Cynics who began using this metaphor without reference to the divine, and perhaps not as a metaphor at all. Simply put: everyone is an actor. Desmond writes: “if the self is substantial and secure in itself, then, like a good actor, it can put on and off many masks, playing many roles without dissipating or compromising itself, just as a good actor can appear in many guises while remaining the same person beneath” (182).13 Indeed, the reception of this idea, metaphor or not, which Curtius traces from the Romans through the Middle Ages to Shakespeare, Baltasar Gracián, and Calderón, may be studied along at least two axes: who takes the world-theater to be a divine place? Who does not? And: who says is there is anything behind the actor’s masks? Who does not? About Lucian and Peregrinus, Desmond writes:

Peregrinus was rightly named Proteus because he was as adaptable and many-masked as the Old Man of the Sea. He took many shapes and professed not to be changed by any. Lucian scoffs, but Peregrinus’ own intention in his last “role” as a latter-day Hercules may have been to demonstrate that external flames and a melting body cannot harm “the god within.” (182)

That would be the case for saying that there is someone behind the mask. Something like Lucian’s laughter would be the case for saying that there is not, or that what is behind the mask is another mask, or that it does not really matter… Now we might have begun to understand what is vital in the couple behavior/anecdote. It it is a tension, an intimate challenge, a kind of existential dare, that can only be resolved or transformed in one’s own life and body.


I have mentioned the list of titles in the series: Stoicism, Epicureanism, Neoplatonism, Ancient ScepticismCynics. When I gazed upon the gathered books I felt I was not merely looking at a list of didactic books aimed at a curious and intelligent student. I also felt that I had before me a series of manuals, or at least fragments of manuals concerning ways of life that are perhaps still available. (Notice that someone claiming that the Cynic way of life is no longer available could be accused of taking a cynical position). Grasped as manuals they suggest a different sort of curiosity, and perhaps another aspect of intelligence as well. I have advocated for a pragmatic use of certain anthropology books along the same lines, as manuals concerning the organization and disorganization of social and cultural life, available to all. This sort of reading is obviously also in some sense a willful misappropriation, or at least a misreading; something else than the conventional use of such texts. It has two facets: the patience of engagement with the text (one cannot simply call it plagiarism or ‘stealing ideas’); the impatience, or maybe hurried patience, concerning whatever in it is significant enough to draw into one’s life as an urgent problem, challenge, or question …

That said, I would like to consider that the Cynic way of life is impossible. Maybe no one could embody their way of life perfectly, avoiding the ambiguities brought about by the public aspect of the example or the harangue. Or at least, if someone did, it was in a way that was inimitable and so incommunicable. Historically speaking, such perfect Cynics must have disappeared. I recall the first day I spoke in public of the Cynics. One of my strange teachers was present; he said something like: “What about the Cynics who were such perfect masters that they disappeared?” At the time, I did not know how to respond. Perhaps I was confused. I now find his question calming, in two perhaps contradictory ways. First, if we suppose that the real Cynics disappeared, we can be untroubled about finding real Cynics; we can assume that we never will. The use of the question “Who is a Cynic?” is modified accordingly: we will expect to find masks, semblances, references. Imperfect embodiment is still embodiment, and literature is still (is very much so!) life.

Secondly, however, one can certainly disappear to the historical record without disappearing from the historical record. One’s life can just as much be expressed in an anecdote as hidden within it. (Or both, which is what I suppose Nietzsche meant: the best anecdotes reveal and conceal at once. Otherwise we are collecting bad gossip, trivia, distractions, typhos). This idea of disappearing (of secrecy, or of clandestinity) could be used to finally dispose of the seriousness behind the question “Who is the real Cynic?”, dissolving the distinction between “hard” and “soft” Cynics: the first might have written all manner of things, an exquisite and singular literature which they destroyed or shared with a very few; the latter might have undertaken countless ascetic exercises, from the ridiculous to the grotesque, but opted not to record them and disallowed others from reporting on them. All of this is intimately related to the problem of vanity at stake between Lucian and his character Peregrinus; it also shows much of what is at stake in the difference between ancient or medieval ways of life and our so-called lifestyles.


I conclude by discussing the interesting references to anarchist ideas in Cynics. This has great interest for me and mine. One of my companions, when I showed him, patted me on the back and said something like: “See, now our movements are points of reference for everything, even for a book on ancient philosophy!” At which point I cringed twice, once for the phrase “our movements” and again for the pat on the back, that little victorious sentiment … I do not think that is exactly what is interesting here. That Desmond makes the reference is indeed noteworthy, especially given the clearly pedagogical intent of his book.14 But at the same time, that is not a reason for us to be comforted; rather, it is a matter of curiosity, a reason to think differently about who we suppose we are and what we suppose we are doing. I mean that we could provisionally accept the connection he makes, taking everything he writes about the Cynics as an intimate challenge.

When he calls the Cynics anarchists, Desmond confesses this is just “the most convenient label” for them. Of course:

… they renounced the authority of officialdom and of social tradition: not marrying; not claiming citizenship in their native or adopted cities; not holding political office; not voting in the assembly or courts; not exercising in the gymnasium or marching with the city militia; and not respecting political leaders … To be free is to have no master, whether that master be a god, political assembly, magistrate, general, or spouse. (185)

But Desmond thinks, as many or most do, of anarchism as a form of politics, and so restricts the Cynic-anarchist connection to the rejection of certain forms of political organization. On this side of the question, he generalizes to the point of grotesque error: it is not true that, as he seems to think, all anarchists think humans are fundamentally good, or that life without the state is better because it is more natural than life under it. On the other hand, calling Cynics anarchists is compelling in that they did not form parties or foment revolutions. So it is precisely to those anarchists most suspicious of such activities that this comparison will be interesting.

For me, the import of this is to show the tense relation, or non-relation, between the Cynics’ concern with ethics (a way of life) above all, and the various political stages of the world, with all of their typhos. One could anachronistically call them a subculture; this would be useful precisely to the degree that it allows us to focus on how they both maintained a way of life and did not entirely disappear in the doing. That is: it is arguably the public aspect of their way of life that brought them to these various platforms.

Desmond does not call the Cynics anarchists and leave it at that; he also suggests that the same Cynics could be called democrats, kings, or cosmopolitans. Indeed, for what does “carefree living in the present” especially have to do with the State or its rejection? Instead of asking: “what is Cynic politics?”, we can ask: “who is the Cynic when she does this, when he says that …?” Let us say provisionally that the Cynics were playing with, playing at politics, insofar as its cloudy stages are also so many platforms from which to launch the perhaps inevitable diatribe. They were democrats, because in so doing they discovered a way of simultaneously inhabiting and resisting their dominant political environment, pushing it in a radically egalitarian or at least populist direction (Desmond reminds us that for many “democracy” essentially meant “rule by the poor”(188).) But the democratic assembly is also a place to practice comic wit! And the funniest thing is to call oneself a king. Well, why not? It is much funnier than calling oneself an anarchist or a democrat! Cynics are kings in rags (57).15 As with democracy, Desmond suggests that what we have here is an intelligent exaggeration, a pushing to the limit, of another ancient commonplace: that the best should rule.

The poor Cynic can claim to be a “king” because in his wild, unconventional life he has recovered all the natural virtues: courage, temperance, simplicity, freedom, and, most of all, philanthropia. As “kings” who try to lead people to a life “according to nature,” they are acting only in the people’s best interest. They alone love mankind, and so in comparison with them, Sardanapallus, Xerxes, Philip, Alexander, Antigonus, Seleucus, Ptolemy, Nero, Vespasian, Domitian and the rest are only gangsters. (199)

They are, or aspire to be, monarchs in the only non-deluded sense of the word. And cosmopolitans? It seems that at least some of them did use this term. And here again we have what seems to be a provocation. Since the polis was the only available sense of “state,” to claim to be a citizen of the cosmos is to express oneself through paradox. “How can one be a citizen of the totality and its vast spaces? Can one make the cosmos one’s home? … Diogenes implies that only the Cynic wanderer is truly at home anywhere” (205). I conclude that this mixture of paradoxical and provocative attitudes is more interesting than opting for any one Cynic politics.

Keeping this in mind, what happens when we return to the initial connection and make it operate in the other direction, asking: are anarchists Cynics? Could anarchists (really) be Cynics?16 As with other practices or ideas that interest me, for example those of the Situationists and Nihilists (there might even be people clever enough to play this game with the word “communist”!), I feel the need to keep asking the question “who is …?” which is, among other things, the perspectival question of the true and false.17 This is not a matter of identity or identification, of clarifying or purifying our essence. It means, among other things, asking if there are anarchists who, instead of considering their activities solely as a politics (”anarchism”), understand what they do as aspects of a way of life distributed unevenly between political activities in the ordinary sense, micropolitical activities, and anti- or non-political activities — even inactivities? Are there anarchists who experience their lives as the ultimate criterion, instead of some goal or cause? If so, they will find plenty of interest in a manual entitled Cynics.

Yes, someone could read this book as a manual; someone could begin a revaluation of anarchist activities stimulated by the example of the Cynics. In that direction, I conclude with an outline of topics for immediate discussion and implementation:

  1. What is typhos to you? I think of this as a promising alternative to terms such as “ideology” or “spectacle.” Rather than deploying a a true-false, reality-appearance dichotomy (the starting point of so many boring conversations), to me typhos suggests an intimate, personal, singular limit. It is the limit of my interest in the world, in the ideas and experiences of others, and in some of my own ideas and experiences as well. “Beyond this limit,” I can make a habit of thinking, “all is smoke, vapor, typhos.” Ah, the destestable convergence of the uninteresting and the confusing …
  2. What are your forms of ascetic exercises, your ponoi? I know many people who have shaved half of their head, some who are dirty enough to be said to have caked mud on themselves, a few who have masturbated in public … what kinds of situations can you get yourselves into that exemplify, not in principle but in fact, detachment from what you wish to detach yourself from? Instead of contending with others about interpretations of the world, you could bend your urge to compete in the direction of increasingly absurd or confrontational public acts. It is stimulating to imagine how, violating before me a custom concerning sexuality, you could provoke me to go and violate one concerning diet or work.
  3. In thinking through the first topic and living out the second, who can truly describe themselves as “laughing a lot and taking nothing seriously?” (65)18

Works Cited or Referenced

Chrysostom, Dio. Discourses. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Desmond, William. Cynics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Laertius, Diogenes. Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, vol. II. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.

Lucian. Selected Dialogues. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Nieztsche, Friedrich. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Chicago: Regnery, 1962.

—. Human, All Too Human. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Serres, Michel. Detachment. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.


  1. Cynics, 65. All further references in the essay.
  2. An account of this simplification as a de-culturing, perhaps de-civilizing process, perhaps more palatable to some, can be found in Nietzsche: “The Cynic knows the connection between the more highly cultivated man’s stronger and more numerous pains, and his profuse needs; therefore he understands that manifold opinions about beauty, propriety, seemliness, and delight must give rise to very rich sources of pleasure, but also to sources of discontent. In accordance with this insight, the Cynic educates himself retrogressively by giving up many of these opinions and withdrawing from the demands of culture. In that way, he achieves a feeling of freedom and of strengthening …” Human, All Too Human § 275.
  3. Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VI. 103.
  4. Anti-Oedipus, 225.
  5. Question: does awareness matter in all this? Those who become aware of ambient cynicism and how it has affected or shaped their social personas: could they be on the way to becoming Cynics? It cannot be so simple. Deleuze and Guattari’s reference to “a strange piety” invites us to consider contemporary cynicism as the cynicism of the credulous. I do not have much of a taste for discussing capitalism as such, but it would be interesting to consider modern cynics in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense as those descended, though not without a series of sociocultural mutations, from those Hume called the superstitious. Precisely with this difference: modern cynics are superstitious, and they know it, and they are resigned to it.
  6. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, 25.
  7. What is Ancient Philosophy?, 108. The Cynic faces the crowd and “scold[s] to his heart’s content,” as Nietzsche puts it (Human, All Too Human, § 275.)
  8. The last sentence is cited from Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VI.
  9. Lucian, “The Death of Peregrinus,” in Selected Dialogues, 74.
  10. Lucian, 75.
  11. A fascinating discussion of these sorts of reversals, based on a famous anecdote involving Diogenes the Cynic and Alexander the Great, appears in Part 4, “Friar,” of Michel Serres’ Detachment.
  12. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 138.
  13. This is one of the few places where Desmond seems to go too fast, overstepping his doxographical task. I find no correlate in the texts he discusses to any such substantial concept of the self, which I take to be a more recent invention. The same problem occurs in the definition of typhos that I cited above: “…insubstantial ‘smoke’ in relation to the self and its present experiences, which alone can be known and possessed.” For me the highly abstract concept of the self is more likely to be another example of typhos.
  14. His reference in making this connection ultimately seems to be Kropotkin’s Britannica article of 1911 on “Anarchism,” in which Zeno of Citium is given as an early inspiration. Zeno, founder of the Stoic school, was a student of Crates the Cynic. (It would be tremendously satisfying to discover a story about the two involving farts or something comparable, to embarrass the seekers of noble origins.)
  15. As Dio Chrysostom put it, alluding to the figure of Odysseus. In his “Fourth Discourse on Kingship,” Dio imagines a version of the anecdotal dialogue between Diogenes the Cynic and Alexander the Great in which he prepares the idea of “kings in rags” by undermining the conventional understanding of monarchy. “And Alexander said: ‘Apparently you do not hold even the Great King to be a king, do you?’ And Diogenes with a smile replied, ‘No more, Alexander, than I do my little finger.’ ‘But shall I not be a great king,’ Alexander asked, ‘when once I have overthrown him?’ ‘Yes, but not for that reason,’ replied Diogenes; ‘for not even when boys play the game to which the boys themselves give the name ‘kings’ is the winner really a king. The boys, anyhow, know that the winner who has the title of ‘king’ is only the son of a shoemaker or a carpenter — and he ought to be learning his father’s trade, but he has played truant and is now playing with the other boys, and he fancies that now of all times he is engaged in a serious business — and sometimes the ‘king’ is even a slave who has deserted his master. Now perhaps you kings are also doing something like that: each of you has playmates …” (46-48)
  16. There are multiple ways to understand this question. It might be interesting to compare it, and its possible answers, with a topic of scholarly controversy discussed by Desmond: was Jesus a Cynic? (Cynics, 211-216). Naturally, the mere question would disturb the average Christian: if Jesus was a Cynic, then the entirety of the Christian religion is an colossal misunderstanding at best, a vile imposture at worst. Does the correlation of Cynics and anarchists similarly unground “anarchism”?
  17. The parallels are obvious: there are vague epithets, a noun and an adjective, for cynics and anarchists alike; there are Cynics and anarchists, and there may or may not be Cynicism or Anarchism, depending on who you ask. But “who is …” is also the question of possible and impossible positions: “Who can be a Cynic?” So, for example, in the aphorism cited above, Nietzsche writes that the gentle Epicureans had the same perspective as the Cynics: “between the two there is usually only a difference in temperament.”
  18. The quote is from Lucian.