Green Nihilism or Cosmic Pessimism


Men have been so mad as to believe that God is pleased by harmony



Some of us have read Desert, and opted to reprint it, to promote its discussion, maybe to promulgate (at least repeat) some of what is said in it.  Despite our efforts, I still feel it has not had the uptake it deserves. I am beginning to think that the issue is less about our limited ability to distribute texts and discuss ideas, and more about the limits of the milieu itself.  As to the reception Desert did get, the most one can say is that a few literate anarchists quickly processed it, either absorbing it into their position or rejecting it. This scanning-followed-by-yes-or-no operation pretty much sums up what many anarchists consider reading to be.  One sort of rejection was documented in the egoist newspapers The Sovereign Self and My Own (and responded to in The Anvil): it concerned the idea that the anonymous author of Desert was engaging in a pessimistic rhetoric for dramatic effect while concealing their ultimate clinging to hope, perhaps like those who endlessly criticize love, only to be revealed as the most perfectionist of romantics in the last instance. That exchange on Desert tells much more about the readers—what they expected, what they are looking for—than the booklet itself. As does the other, sloppier, sort of rejection of the writing, which has for obvious reasons not appeared in print. More than one person has been overheard to say something to the tune of: “Oh, Desert? I hated it! It was so depressing!” And that is it. No discussion, no engagement, just stating in a fairly direct manner that, if the writing did not further the agenda of hope or reinforce the belief that mass movements can improve the global climate situation, then it is not relevant to a discussion of green issues (which are therefore redefined as setting out from that agenda and belief). In the background of both exchanges is a kind of obtuseness characteristic of the anarchist milieu: our propensity to be as ready to pick up the new thing as to dismiss it either immediately after consumption or soon after another consumes it. This customary speed, which we share with many with whom we share little else, is what necessitates the yes-or-no operation. Whatever the response is, it has to happen quickly. (We are the best of Young-Girls when it comes to the commodities we ourselves produce.) To do something else than mechanically phagocyte Desert (or anything else worth reading) and absorb it or excrete it back out onto the bookshelf/literature table/shitpile, some of us will need to take up a far less practical, far less pragmatic attitude towards the best of what circulates in our little space of reading. In short, it is to intervene in the smooth functioning of the anarchist-identity machine, our own homegrown apparatus, which reproduces the milieu, ingesting unmarked ideas, expelling anarchist ideas. Of course all those online rants, our many little zines, our few books—the ones we write and make, and the ones that we adopt now and then—are only part of this set-up, which also includes living arrangements, political practices, anti-political projects, and so on. All together, from a few crowded metropoles to the archipelago of outward- or inward-looking towns, that array could be called the machine that makes anarchist identity, one of those awful hybrids of anachronism and ultramodernity that clutter our times. But, trivial though the role of Desert may be in the reproduction of the milieu, its small role in that reproduction is especially remarkable given that it directly addresses the limits of that reproduction, and, indirectly, of the milieu itself. Its reception is a kind of diagnostic test, a demonstration of our special obtuseness. If I am right about even some of the preceding, then the increasingly speculative nature of what follows ought to prove interesting to a few, and repulsive to the rest.

* * * *

I intend the or in the title to be destabilizing. It does not indicate a choice to be made between two already somewhat fictitious positions. (Quotation marks for each would not have been strong enough. To say this or that position is fictitious may seem to be belied by the advance, here or there, of those who present themselves as the representatives of positions. This is where we need to make our case most forcefully, arguing back that to take on a position as an identity simply eludes the what of position altogether, making it rest on a different, more familiar kind of fiction.) By placing the or between them I mean to mark a slippage, which I consider to be a movement of involuntary thought. Not being properly yoked to action, to what is considered voluntary, it is the kind of thought most have little time for. It has to do with passing imperceptibly from one state to another, and what may be learned in that shift. It is a terrible kind of thought at first, and, for some, will perhaps always be so, all the more so inasmuch as we are not its brave protagonists… Compare these passages:

The tide of Western authority will recede from much, though by no means all, of the planet. A writhing mess of social flotsam and jetsam will be left in its wake. Some will be patches of lived anarchy, some of horrible conflicts, some empires, some freedoms, and, of course, unimaginable weirdness. 


The world is increasingly unthinkable—a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part. To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all.

The first passage is from Desert, an anonymous pamphlet on the meaning of the irreversibility of climate change for anarchist practice. The second is from Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of this Planet<, a collection of essays that leads from philosophy to horror, or rather leads philosophy to horror. I bring them together here because they seem to me to coincide in a relatively unthought theoretical zone. As Desert invokes the present and coming anarchy and chaos, it admits the weirdness of the future (for our inherited thought patterns and political maps, at least); when Dust of this Planet gestures to the weirdness and unthinkability of the world, it invokes the current and coming biological, geological, and climatological chaos of the planet. They should be read together; the thought that is possible in that stereoscopic reading is what my or intends. (I mean to gesture towards the passage from one perspective to the other, and perhaps back.) If Desert sets out from the knowability of the world—as the object of science, principally—it has the rare merit of spelling out its increasing unknowability as an object for our political projects, our predictions and plans. Dust of this Planet allows us to push this thought father in an eminently troubling direction, revealing a wilderness more wild than the wild nature invoked by the critics of capitalism and civilization: the unthinkable Planet behind the inhabitable Earth. As we slip in this direction (which is also past the point of distinguishing the voluntary from the involuntary), all our positions, those little compressed bundles of opinion and analysis, practice and experience, crumble—as positions. No doubt many will find this disconcerting. But something of what we tried to do by thinking up, debating, adopting and abandoning, positions, is left—something lives on, survives—maybe just the primal thrust that begins with a question or profound need and collapses in a profession of faith or identity. That would be the path back to the perspective of Desert (now irreparably transformed). What is left, the afterlife of our first outward movements, might be something for each to witness alone, in a solitude far from the gregarious comfort of recognizable positions, of politics. To say nothing of community.

* * * *

All our maneuvering, all our petty excuses for not studying it aside, there is still much to be said about this wonderful, challenging booklet, Desert. To wit, that it is the first written elaboration of sentiments some of us admit to and others feel without confessing to them. And, moreover, that it hints repeatedly at an even broader and more troubling set of perspectives about the limits to what we can do, and maybe of what we are altogether. If the milieu’s demand were accepted and these feelings and ideas were narrowed down to a position, it could indeed be called green nihilism. In this naming of a position the second word indicates one familiar political, or rather anti-political, sense of nihilism—the position that views action, or inaction, from the perspective that nothing can be done to save the world. That no single event, or series of events clumsily apprehended as a single Event, can be posited as the object of political or moral optimism, except by the faithful and the deluded. Moreover, that the injunction to think of the future, to hope in a certain naive way, is itself pernicious, and often a tool of our enemies. As to green—well, those who have read Desert will be familiar with the story it tells. Irreversible global climate change, meshing in an increasingly confusing way with a global geopolitical system that intensifies control in resource-rich areas while loosening or perhaps losing its grips in the hinterlands, the growing desert… It is the story, then, of literal deserts, and also of zones deserted by authority or that those who desert the terrain of authority inhabit. But let’s be clear about this: Desert does not name its own position. It is less a book that proposes a certain strategy or set of practices and more a book about material conditions that are likely to affect any strategy, any practices whatsoever. What is best about Desert is not just the unflinching sobriety with which its author piles up evidence and insights for such a near future, without drifting too far into speculation; it is the way they do not abandon the idea of surviving in such a decomposing world. It is neither optimism nor pessimism in the usual sense; it is another way to grasp anarchy. That is why I write that much remains to be said about it. One way to begin thinking through Desert is to concentrate less on what position it supposedly takes (is there a green nihilism? for or against hope?) and to consider how to push its perspective farther. This means both asking more questions about how it allows us to redefine survival and taking up the possibilities for thought that it mostly hints at. For example, to say the future is unknowable is a pleasant banality, which can just as well be invoked by optimists as pessimists; but to concentrate on what is unknowable in a way that projects it into past and present as well is to think beyond the dull conversation about hope, or utopia and dystopia, for that matter. Here is one example of how such thinking might unfold: Desert seems to offer a novel perspective on chaos. There have probably been two anarchist takes on chaos so far: the traditional one, summed up in the motto, anarchy is not chaos, but order; and Hakim Bey’s discussions of chaos, which may be summed up in his poetic phrase Chaos never died. The former is clear enough: like many leftist analyses, it identifies social chaos with a badly managed society and opposes to it a harmonious anarchic order (which, it was later specified, could exist in harmony with a nature itself conceived as harmonious). This conception of chaos, which is still quite prevalent today, does not even merit its name. It is a way of morally condemning capitalism, the State, society, or what you will; it is basically name-calling. Any worthwhile conception of chaos should begin from a non-moral position, admitting that the formlessness of chaos is not for us to judge. That much Hakim Bey did amit. What, in retrospect especially, is curious about his little missive “Chaos” are the various references to “agents of chaos,” “avatars of chaos”, even a “prophethood of chaos.” It is a lovely letter from its time and perhaps some other times as well;  I have no intention to criticize it. It is a marked improvement on any version of anarchy is order, and yet… and yet. It comes too close, or reading it some came too close, to simply opting for chaos, as though order and chaos were sides and it were a matter of choosing sides. The inversion of a moral statement is still a moral statement, after all. What is left to say about chaos, then? The explicit references to chaos in Desert are all references to social disorder. But a thoughtful reader might, upon reading through for the third or fourth time, start to sense that another, more ancient sense of chaos is being invoked: less of an extreme of disorder and more of a primordial nothingness, a “yawning gap”, as the preferred gloss of some philologists has it. The repeated reference to a probable global archipelago of “large islands of chaos” is directly connected to the destabilization of the global climate. And this is the terrible thought that Desert constructs for us and will not save us from: that from now on we survive in a world where the global climate is irreversibly destabilized, and that such a survival is something other than life or politics as we have so far dreamt them. The meager discussion we’ve seen so far on Desert revolves around questions such as: is this true? and, since most who bother thinking it through will take it to be true, does the “no hope”/”no future” perspective (the supposed nihilism) which Desert to some extent adopts, and others to some extent impute to it, help or hinder an overall anarchist position? A less obvious discussion revolves around two very different sorts of questions: what myths does exposing this reality shatter? and, if we are brave enough to think ourselves into this demythologized space that has eclipsed the mythical future, is an anarchist position still a coherent or relevant response to survival there? The myth that is shattered here is first and foremost that wonderful old story about the Earth:

Earth, our bright home…


There are two main versions of this story. In the religious version, a god intends for us to live here and creates the Earth for us, or, to a lesser extent, creates us for the Earth. In either case our apparent fit into the Earth, our presumed kinship with it, usually expressed in the thought of Nature or the natural, has a transcendent guarantee. In the second version, which is usually of a rational or scientific sort, we have evolved to live on the Earth and can expect it to be responsive to our needs. Here the guarantee is immanent and rational. It is true that this second story, in the version of evolutionary theory, also taught us that we could have easily not come to be here, and that we may not always be here. That is why Freud classed Darwin’s theory as the second of three wounds to human narcissism (the first being the Copernican theory, which displaced the Earth from the center of the cosmos, and the third being Freud’s own theory, which displaced conscious thought from prominence in mental life). But a certain common sense, or what could be called the most obtuse rationalism, seems to have reintroduced the religious content of the first version into the second, and concluded that it is good or right or proper for us to be here. Natural, in short. In any case, the lesson here is that the psychic wound can be open and humanity, whoever that is, may limp on, wounded, thinking whatever it prefers to think about itself. What Desert draws attention to is a congeries of events that could increasingly trouble our collective ability to go on with this story of a natural place for (some) humans. Irreversible climate change is both something that can be understood (in scientific and derivative, common-sense ways) and something that, properly considered, suggests a vast panorama of unknowns. It is true that Desert makes much of its case by citing scientists and scientific statistics. But the real question here is about the status of these invocations of science. This is where a subtler reading shows its superiority. If the entire argumentative thrust of Desert relied on science, the pamphlet would be fairly disposable. Desert invokes science to put before the hopeful and the apathetic images of a terrible and sublime sort. We could say that its explicit argument is based on science, plus a certain kind of anti-political reasoning. But its overall effect is to dislodge us from our background assumption of a knowable and predictable world into a less predictable, less knowable awareness. After all, it would be just as easy to develop a similar narrative in the discourse of a pessimistic political science, emphasizing massive population growth and social chaos: an irruptive and ungovernable human biology beyond sociality. Let’s try it. From a red anarchist perspective, this could mean more opportunities for mutual aid, for setting the example of anarchy as order; chaos would be a kind of forced clean slate, a time to show that we are better and more efficient than the forces of the state. From an insurrectionary perspective, the chaos would be an inhuman element making possible the generalization of conflict. General social chaos would be the macrocosm corresponding to the microcosm of the riot. For them chaos would also be an opportunity, in this case to hasten and amplify anomic irruptions. In sum, one could make the same argument about the biological mass of humanity as about the Earth—that its coming chaos is an opportunity for anarchists because it is a materially forced anarchy. This does not mean that we are inherently aggressive or whatever you want to associate with social chaos, but rather ungovernable in the long run (or at least governed by forces and aims other than the ones accounted for in political reasoning). It does mean, however, that the idea we are ungovernable in the long run, the affirmation of which is more or less synonymous with the confidence with which the anarchists take their position, is now closely linked with another idea, that in the last instance the Earth is not our natural home. It may have been our home for some time, for a time that we call prehistory. Indeed, Fredy Perlman marks the transition from prehistory to His-Story, or Civilization, as the prolongation of an event of ecological imbalance, a prolongation whose overall effect is destructive, even as the short-term or narrowly focused results along the way are to make the Earth more and more of a welcoming and natural place for humans to be. And now our parting of ways with Hakim Bey may be clarified, for, even if he did not simply take the side of chaos, he did write: 

remember, only in Classical Physics does Chaos have anything to do with entropy, heat-death, or decay. In our physics (Chaos Theory), Chaos identifies with tao, beyond both yin-as-entropy & yang-as-energy, more a principle of continual creation than of any nihil, void in the sense of potentia, not exhaustion. (Chaos as the “sum of all orders.”) 

He was making an argument about what is stupid about death-glorifying art which, parenthetically, still seems relevant. But I simply don’t see why chaos (or tao, for that matter) is somehow better understood as creation than as destruction, or why it is preferable to invoke potentia and not exhaustion. In the name of what? “Ontological” anarchism? Life? And the sum of all orders… is this a figure of something at all knowable? And if not, why the preceding taking of sides? The chaos that Desert summons is not ontological. No new theory of being is claimed here. The effect is first of all psychological: stating what more or less everyone knows, but will not admit. If Desert deserves the label nihilist, it is really in this sense, that it knowingly points to the unknowable, to the background of all three narcissistic wounds. (This is my way of admitting that talking or writing about nihilism does not clarify much of anything. If it was worth doing, it is not because I wanted to share a way of believing-in-nothing. I see now that I was going somewhere else. The analysis of nihilism is the object of psychology… it being understood that this psychology is also that of the cosmos, wrote Deleuze.)

* * * *

In the Dust of This Planet introduces a tripartite distinction between World, Earth, and Planet. Thacker states that the human world, our sociocultural horizon of understanding, is what is usually meant by world. This is the world as it is invoked in politics, in statements that begin: what the world needs…, and of course any and all appeals to save or change the world. It is the single world of globalism (and of global revolution) but also the many little worlds of multiculturalism, nationalism, and regionalism. But one could argue that our experience (and the gaps in our experience) also unfold in another world, the enveloping site of natural processes, from climate to chemical and physical processes, of course including our own biology. This is the Earth that we are often invited to save in ecological politics or activism. A third version of what is meant by world is what Thacker calls the Planet. If the world as human World is the world-for-us, and the Earth as natural world is a world-for-itself, the Planet is the world-without-us. Visions of the World and the Earth correspond roughly to subjective and objective perspectives; but what these are visions of, the Planet, is not reducible to either, however optimistic our philosophy, theory, or science may be. In terms perhaps more familiar to some green anarchists, the World corresponds to the material and mental processes of civilization, and the Earth to Nature as constructed by civilization. Civilization, so it would seem, produces nature as its knowable byproduct as it encloses the wild, leaving fields, parks, and gardens, along with domesticated and corralled wild animals, including, of course, our species. Does the wildness or wilderness of the green anarchists then correspond to the Planet, as world-without-us? Only if we can grasp that the wild, like, or as, chaos, is ultimately unknowable—not because of some defect in our faculties but because it includes their limits and undoing. When green anarchists and others invoke the wild, we must always be sure to ask if they mean an especially unruly bit of nature, nature that is not yet fully processed by the civilized, or something that civilization will never domesticate or conquer. Planet is an odd category, in that it seems to correspond both to the putative and impossible object of science (a science without an observer) and an inexplicable and strange image emergent from out of the recesses of the unconscious (which itself raises a troubling question as to what an unconscious is at all if it can be said to issue images that exclude us). I think about this third category in terms of Desert as I read this passage from Thacker:

When the world as such cataclysmically manifests itself in the form of a disaster, how do we interpret or give meaning to the world? There are precedents in Western culture for this kind of thinking. In classical Greece the interpretation is primarily mythological—Greek tragedy, for instance, not only deals with the questions of fate and destiny, but in so doing it also evokes a world at once familiar and unfamiliar, a world within our control or a world as a plaything of the gods. By contrast, the response of Medieval and early modern Christianity is primarily theological—the long tradition of apocalyptic literature, as well as the Scholastic commentaries on the nature of evil, cast the non-human world within a moral framework of salvation. In modernity, in the intersection of scientific hegemony, industrial capitalism, and what Nietzsche famously prophesied as the death of God, the non-human world gains a different value. In modernity, the response is primarily existential—a questioning of the role of human individuals and human groups in light of modern science, high technology, industrial and post-industrial capitalism, and world wars. 

In the light of the ongoing and growing disaster called irreversible climate change, Desert clearly exposes the theological-existential roots (the modern roots, that is to say) of anarchist politics, not particularly different, as far as this issue goes, from the panorama of Left or radical positions. What matters to me is the opportunity to strike out beyond these positions, elaborating an anti-politics thought through in reference to a point of view Thacker calls cosmological. Could such a cosmological view, he writes, be understood not simply as the view from interstellar space, but as the view of the world-without-us, the Planetary view? Desert might be one of the first signs of the paradoxical draw of this view, which, it should be clear by now, is something other than a position to be adopted. But for those who like the convenience names lend to things, consider the version Thacker elaborates (in a discussion of the meaning of black in black metal, of all things). He calls it cosmic pessimism:

The view of Cosmic Pessimism is a strange mysticism of the world-without-us, a hermeticism of the abyss, a noumenal occultism. It is the difficult thought of the world as absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes, desires, and struggles of human individuals and groups. Its limit-thought is the idea of absolute nothingness, unconsciously represented in the many popular media images of nuclear war, natural disasters, global pandemics, and the cataclysmic effects of climate change. Certainly these are the images, or the specters, of Cosmic Pessimism, and different from the scientific, economic, and political realities and underlie them; but they are images deeply embedded in our psyche nonetheless. Beyond these specters there is the impossible thought of extinction, with not even a single human being to think the absence of all human beings, with no thought to think the negation of all thought. 

Now the intention of my or will be clear for some (from the psyche to the cosmos…). In Dust Thacker does not draw many connections between his ideas and politics, so it is worthwhile to examine one of the places where he illustrates the paradox his view of the Planet opens up in that space. He cites Carl Schmitt’s suggestion, in Political Theology:

the very possibility of imagining or re-imagining the political is dependent on a view of the world as revealed, as knowable, and as accessible to us as human beings living in a human world. But the way in which that analogy [from theology to politics] is manifest may change over time … 

Thacker notes:

the 17th and 18th centuries were dominated by the theological analogy of the transcendence of God in relation to the world, which correlates to the political idea of the transcendence of the sovereign ruler in relation to the state. By contrast, in the 19th century a shift occurs towards the theological notion of immanence… which likewise correlates to “the democratic thesis of the identity of the ruler and the ruled.” In these and other instances, we see theological concepts being mobilized in political concepts, forming a kind of direct, tabular comparison between cosmology and politics (God and sovereign ruler; the cosmos and the state; transcendence and absolutism; immanence and democracy). 

The closed loop of politics:

The republic is the only cure for the ills of the monarchy, and the monarchy is the only cure for the ills of the republic.


Thacker’s question follows: what happens to this analogy, which structures both political theory and ordinary thinking about politics to some extent, if one posits a world that is not, and will never be, entirely revealed and knowable? The closed loop is opened, and the analogy breaks down. What happens when we as human beings confront a world that is radically unhuman, impersonal, and even indifferent to the human? What happens to the concept of politics… It seems to me that a question of this sort is lurking in the background of Desert as well.

* * * *

The desert may be, or sometimes seem to be, what is left after a catastrophic event, but it has also always been with us, as image and reality.

In what passes for a moon
On the galactic periphery,
Here is an austere beauty,
Barren, uncompromising,
Like that which must have been 
Experienced by men
On the ice-caps and deserts 
As they once existed on earth
Before their urbanization
Harsh and unambiguous…

John Cotton

World-desert: the desert grows…

Earth-deserts: they are growing, too.

Cosmic deserts: on the galactic periphery… In a response to François Laruelle’s Du noir univers, Thacker elaborates on the various senses of the desert motif, suggesting both that it is the inevitable image and experience of the Planet, as a slice of the Cosmos, or what Laruelle calls the black Universe, and that it is a mirage, that there is no real desert to escape to. Hermits keep escaping to the desert, but their solitude is temporary; others gather nearby. The escape from forced community develops spontaneous forms of community. But for being spontaneous, such community does not cease to develop, sooner or later, the traits of the first, escaped, community. The issue for me is double: first, that to the two senses invoked in Desert (the literal ecological sense, and the sense of desertion) we may now add the third corresponding to the Planetary or Cosmic view, the desert as the impossible, as nothingness. Second, the ethical, psychological, or at least practical insight that some keep deserting society, civilization, or what have you in the direction of the desert and, as stated, sooner or later populating it, inhabiting it, somehow living or at least surviving in it. Even if these deserters headed towards the desert in the first sense, they were motivated or animated by the impossible target of the desert in the third sense. Now, this apparently closed-loop operation could be the inevitable repetition of some ancient anthropogenic trauma. Or it could be (we just can’t know here and now) the sane, wild reaction to Civilization: desperate attempt to return to the Earth (our bright home) via the dark indifference of the Planet or Cosmos. Of this return pessimism says: you will need to do it again and again. Is the pessimism about a condition we can escape, or one we can’t? Is it the anti-civilization pessimism of the most radical ecology, or is it despair, no less trivial for being a psychological insight, before the morbid obtuseness of humans? We just can’t know here and now. Masciandaro, Thacker’s fellow commentator on Laruelle, aptly terms this “the positivity and priority of opacity”—the opacity of the Planet and the Cosmos, Laruelle’s black universe.

O the dark, the deep hard dark
Of these galactic nights!
Even the planets have set
Leaving it slab and impenetrable,
As dark and directionless
As those long nights of the soul
The ancient mystics spoke of.
Beyond there is nothing,
Nothing we have known or experienced.

John Cotton

* * * *

In Desert we read:

Nature’s incredible power to re-grow and flourish following disasters is evident both from previous mass extinctions and from its ability to heal many lands scarred by civilisation. Its true power is rarely considered within the sealed, anthropocentric thinking of those who would profit from the present or attempt to plan the future. Yet the functioning of the Earth System is destructive as well as bountiful and it is not a conscious god with an interest in preserving us or its present arrangement—something we may find out if the Earth is now moving to a new much hotter state.

For his part, Thacker concludes his book by discussing a mysticism of the unhuman, what he calls a climatological mysticism. It is a way of thinking, and paradoxical knowing, modeled on religious mysticism rather than scientific knowledge. But it is not reducible to the former. He writes,

there is no being-on-the-side-of the world, much less nature or the weather. […] the world is indifferent to us as human beings. Indeed, the core problematic of the climate change issue is the extent to which human beings are at issue at all. On the one hand we as human beings are the problem; on the other hand at the planetary level of the Earth’s deep time, nothing could be more insignificant than the human. This is where mysticism again becomes relevant. 

This attitude of nonknowledge, as Bataille would have put it, informs life even as it decenters it. That the Earth is our place, but the planet does not care about us and the cosmos is not our home, is a thought of the ways in which we might survive here. Some will remember Vaneigem’s repeated contrast between vie and survie, life and survival. For him it was a matter of inverting the accepted, and to a large extent enforced, view in which one must survive first and live second. Some of this view seems to have been taken into the perspective that identifies life and nature, where the latter is understood as what we are or should be—that is, that there is something normative about life or nature that we can refer to. The perspective I am developing here suggests that we have no way of knowing what we are or should be, and that the wild is better conceived as that no-way, as the conditions that push back against our best effort to define ourselves, identify our selves, or know our world. Similarly, what is wild in us can only be conceived (though it is not really conceivable in the long run) as what resists, what pushes back, against any established order. But this might be closer to survival than to life. Survival has a positive value in that it is itself an activity, a set of nontrivial practices that refer back to life insofar as we know it. We survive as we can, not confident that we are living. It is this aspect of Desert that some insurrectionaries seem to have disagreed with, in that it often talks of plans for survival where they would have preferred to see plans for action, or at least calls to action. We can read there of

An Anarchism with plenty of adjectives, but one that also sets and achieves objectives, can have a wonderful present and still have a future; even when fundamentally out of the step with the world around it. There is so much we can do, achieve, defend and be; even here, where unfortunately civilisation probably still has a future. 

It is passages like this one, towards the end of the pamphlet, that probably left some with the impression that its author is still attached to hope, and left others with the sense of a form of survival that still somehow resembled activism more than attack. As for the former impression, that would be to confuse the climate pessimism of Desert with a kind of overarching and mandatory mood, as though those who had this view were of necessity personally depressed or despondent. There is no evidence for such a conclusion. As for the latter, it is a little more complicated. Yes, the author of Desert often sounds like someone addressing activists; and, yes, Desert explicitly rejects the cause of Revolution in several places. One could say this adds up to a kind of political retreat. One could also say, however, that some are too used to reading political texts that always end on a loud and vindictive note! No, this is where the question of rethinking survival from an anti-political perspective inflected by something like Thacker’s cosmic pessimism or reinvented mysticism is critical. We make survival primary, not so much inverting Vaneigem’s inversion of the norm in societies like ours, but rather by noticing what in our conception of life has always been a kind of religion or morality of life, easy adjustment to a familiar nature. Whatever its faults, Desert was written to say that such a conception is no longer useful, and that one useful meaning of anarchist is someone who admits as much. Can that meaning fit with the subcultures that most of today’s anarchists compose? Probably not. The subcultures exist as pockets of resistance, of course; but survival in them is indelibly tied to reproducing the anarchist as persona, as identity, as an answer to the question of what life is or is for. To make sense or have meaning this answer presupposes the workings of our homegrown identity-machine, our collective, repeated minimal task of discerning about actions whether they are anarchist or not, and, by extension, whether the person carrying them out is anarchist. It is our way of bringing the community into the desert. Announcement of one’s intentions to overcome the limits of subculture and reach out to others, or inspire them with our actions, is not different than, but rather a crucial part of, this operation. Survival, in the sense Desert suggests it to me, is something completely different, for in it any social group or kin network, as it attempts to live on, cannot draw significant lines of difference (of identification, therefore) between itself and others. It melts into a humanity collectively resisting death. Needless to say this is something entirely different than the revolutionary process as it has been imagined and attempted. There is no future to plan for, only a present to survive in, and that is the implosion of politics as we have known it.

To survive, not to live, or, not living, to maintain oneself, without life, in a state of pure supplement, movement of substitution for life, but rather to arrest dying…


… deserting life.


* * * *

A desert and not a garden: one remarkable aspect of the contemporary anarchist space is an open contradiction between two perspectives on what struggle is, or is for, that might be summed up in the phrases we have enemies and we did this to ourselves. There are countless versions of this contradiction, which at a deeper level is really not about political struggle at all, but about the essence of resistance. One version is the condemnation of the notion of enemy as a moral notion, and another is its silent return in the emphasis on friendship and affinity; there is also what a book called Enemies of Society may be taken to suggest from its title on. The contradiction surfaces most clearly in discussions influenced by primitivist positions or ones hostile to civilization, likely because of the tremendous temporal compression they require to make their case. In such talk, we zoom out from lifetimes and generations to a scale of tens of thousands of years. The enemy appears within the course of history, but the fact of the appearance of the enemy, the split in humanity, summons the second we, because of the need to presuppose a whole species in some natural state (balance, etc.) that, in the event or events that open up the panorama of civilization and history, cleaves itself into groups or at least roles. The positions we know better tend to revolve around trivialized versions of these perspectives, never really experiencing the tension between them. It is only in the play of the anarchist space as a whole (and precisely because it is not a single place, in which all involved would have to put up with each other for a few hours, let alone live together) that the contradiction unfolds. Some form of we have enemies is the great rallying for a wide array of active agents, from the remains of the Left to advocates of social war. And some form of we did this to ourselves is in the background of all sorts of moralizing approaches to oppression and interpersonal damage, but also the more misanthropic strains of primitivism. I would also argue that a modified form of it informs the deep background of egoism and some forms of individualism (splitting the forced we from the atomic ourselves). My question is, what happens if we zoom out farther? Here the virtue of invoking science as Desert does may be visible. For what is beyond history (the time of the World) and prehistory is geologic time, the time of the Planet, which leads us to cosmic time. There is a difference between invoking science and practicing or praising it. The latter simply produce more science. The former may be a way to encounter what our still humanist politics ignore. From the perspective of cosmic time, the contradiction does not dissolve (at least not for me); but its moral or political character seems to unravel. Something less centered on us emerges. Perhaps both stories—the story about enemies and the story about ourselves—ignore something much more disturbing than mere accidental guilt or immorality, something that disturbs us precisely because it is the disturbing of humanity.  (“It is not man who colonizes the planet, but the planet and the cosmos who transgress the lonely threshold of man”—does this odd sentence of Laruelle’s express the thought here, I wonder?) It makes sense for Thacker to invoke mysticism when he considers the cosmos or the Planet, because its otherness has most often been referred to as divine, and related to as a god. Now, that need have nothing to do with religion, especially if we identify religion with revelation; but mysticism is a good enough approximation to the attitude one takes towards a now decentered life. I call that attitude a thoughtful kind of survival. This is closely connected to a conversation one often overhears in the company of anarchists. Someone is discussing something they prefer or are inclined to do, and doing so in increasingly positive terms. Another person points out (functioning of the anarchist identity machine) that there is nothing specifically anti-capitalist or radical about the stated activity or preferred object, reducing it verbally to another form of consumption. Anxious hours are passed this way. About such inclinations I prefer to say that we do not know if they come from above or below; we know our own resistance, and not much more. That resistance manifests in unknowable ways, obeying no conscious plan. It could well be a particularly fancy kind of neurosis; but survival means just this, that we do not know the way out of the situation and we must live here with the idea of anarchy. Another way to put this is that if our rejection of society and state is as complete as we like to say it is, our project is not to create alternative micro-societies (scenes, milieus) that people can belong to, but something along the lines of becoming monsters. It is probable that anarchy has always had something to do with becoming monstrous. The monster, writes Thacker in another of his books, is unlawful life, or what cannot be controlled. It seems to me the only way to do this, as opposed to saying one is doing it and being satisfied with that, would be to unflinchingly contemplate the thing we are without trying to be, the thing we can never try to be or claim we are: the nameless thing, or unthinkable life. Which is also the solitary thing, or the lonely one. The egoist or individualist positions are like dull echoes of the inexpressible sentiment that I might be that nameless thing, translated into a common parlance for the benefit of a (resistant, yes) relation to the social mass. That the cosmos is not our natural home is a thought outside the ways in which we might survive here. To say we survive instead of living is in part to say that we have no idea what living is or ought to be (that there is probably no ought-to about living). But also that we resist any ideal of life, including our own. Becoming monstrous is therefore the goal of dismantling the milieu as anarchist identity machine. Being witness to the nameless thing, to the unthinkable life or Planet or Cosmos, is not a goal. It is not a criterion of anything, either. It is more like a state, a mystical, poetic state (though in this state I am the poem). It is the climatological mysticism Thacker describes and Desert hints at for an anarchist audience, both deriving in their own way from the weird insight that the Planet is indifferent to us. So read Desert again as an allegory of the self-destruction of the milieu, of any community that, as it runs from its norms, places new, unstated norms ahead of itself. Such is the slippage from green nihilism to cosmic pessimism, which gives us occasion to continue speaking of chaos. Well, one might say that I have merely imported some alien theory into an otherwise familiar (if not easy) discussion. Of course I have. My aim, however, was not to apply it, but to show in what sense one play that is often acted out in our spaces may be anti-politically theorized, which is to say cosmically psychoanalyzed. Our place is not to apply the theory of cosmic pessimism (or any other theory; that is not what theory is, or is for); our place is to think, to continue speaking of chaos, not being stupid enough to think we can take its side. There are no sides. We might come to realize that we, too, in our attempts to gather, organize, act, change life, and so on, were playing in the world, ignorant of the Planet, its unimaginable weirdness. 


If the earth must perish, then astronomy is our only consolation



Post scriptum. I mentioned community in passing. Most anarchists I converse with regularly treat the word delicately or dismissively, either ignoring it altogether, putting it in quotation marks, or virtually crossing it out. I suppose that crossed-out sense of community is another name for the milieu. As crappy as it is most of the time, I will admit that the milieu is a space-time (really a series of places-moments, some of them taking place ever so briefly) where one can register, to some extent, what ideas have traction in our lives. Desert‘s explicit statements are certainly more pedestrian than Thacker’s theory; but the downside to Thacker’s exciting flights of intellectual fancy, at least from where I am writing, is that it is hard to know who he is speaking to, or about, much of the time. One imagines that people do gather to hear what he has to say, or read his books in concert. I do wonder to what extent they consider themselves to be a community, a potential community, a crossed-out community.

Post scriptum bis. I mentioned solitude. It would also be worthwhile to think about friendship along these lines.




Desert. LBC Books. 2011.

Laruelle, François. “Theorems on the Good News.” 

—. “On the Black Universe.” In Dark Nights of the Universe, [NAME], 2013.

Masciandaro, Nicola. “Comments on Eugene Thacker’s ‘Cosmic Pessimism’.” continent. 2.2, 2012.

—. “Secret” In Dark Nights of the Universe, [NAME], 2013.

Snyder, Gary. “The Etiquette of Freedom.” In The Practice of the Wild, North Point Press, 1990.

Thacker, Eugene. After Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

—. In the Dust of this Planet. Zero Books. 2010.

—. “Cosmic Pessimism.” continent. 2.2 (2012).

—. “Remote: The Forgetting of the World.” In Dark Nights of the Universe, [NAME], 2013.



Ways In and Ways Out of the Situationist Labyrinth

“Voice 1: Howls for Sade, a film by Guy-Ernest Debord.
Voice 2: Howls for Sade is dedicated to Gil J Wolman.”

– opening of Debord’s Howls for Sade



(On a street corner, then running down the street)

Old Alciphron: Sorry I’m late. I’m always late to these things!

Young Alciphron:  Don’t worry, older one. I’m the only one here. Everyone else is at that Occupy thing…

OA: … which didn’t tempt you enough, younger one?

YA: …

OA: Anyway, before all that, we were to meet here to talk about the book by McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street.

YA:  Titles that recycle slogans: always a bad idea. But I am ready.

OA: As am I, with this sheaf of notes and this annotated copy. Let’s start walking. This way. Well, the first version of the book had a much more interesting title: 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International.

YA: Much better. But look, I am impatient (though I pretend not to be when I speak with you). Why either one? Why another book on the SI?

OA: Do we know them? From the point of view of our language, the first phase of translation, rendering the texts into English, is more or less accomplished. The majority of Situationist writings have been compiled, many or most images reproduced.  There are several archives that collect much of the material, adding commentary and context; there are academic and non-academic anthologies.

YA: You are suggesting that translation in other senses, the second, third, nth phases, is unstable and ongoing?

OA: Yes. What used to be called interpretation. Look, there have been decades of Situationist-inspired projects, so much so that for some of us some version of the SI is a basic point of reference. But for others, these many entryways are not automatically ways in.  An anthology or an archive, so it seems to me, is not a way in; one needs a reason, and the reason itself needs a desire. Faster.

YA: Run together desire-reason-need to find a way in, passing through the entryway?

OA: Yes – faster, let’s run, arm in arm – if one is like you, the first-timer – idealized or not – or like me, when I become capable of reading these texts anew, studying these images afresh …

YA: So the desire-reason-need complex will eventually show the path one takes through the labyrinth  … where are we going?

OA: For some of us our projects were the crystallization of that desire, the mark of our interest, our entry into dialogue with others (and, though many of us did not suspect it, with tradition. For example, it was one way to learn to speak Marxish and Hegelese).

YA: This goes for all of us, the idealized (or not) first-timer and the rest: we want a translation into a language of our own …

OA: … so that the figures who appear in a book can come to seem like our friends, and vice versa …

YA: … so that the theoretical terms that pepper it can be analogous, often enough, to the ones we use.

OA: Indeed, I would underline that the use of situationist terms (spectacle, situation, dérive, psychogeography, etc.) decades later and in other places cannot but have something of analogy about it.

YA: I imagine there are more analogies to come. The issue in this sort of translation is not one of exactitude, but of metamorphosis. We like what seems off in these terms and people when they mutate what is static in our lives. But that is a condition we set according to our desires.

OA: Have I answered your question as to why one might read a book like this?

YA: More or less. At least its appearance is a good occasion to stage such questions, because it is in some ways an introduction (corresponding to the latter phases of translation), and in other ways betrays that function.

OA: Museum, and hole in the museum’s wall.  Stop here.




(At the gate of the labyrinth)

YA: Here – you mean this labyrinth?

OA: Well, at its gate. The way in, maybe the way out as well.

YA: You can begin by explaining this to me: museum, and hole in the museum’s wall?

OA: Caress the stone of the gate as I do. An article in Internationale Situationniste 4 had the title Die welt als Labyrinth: a description for an exhibition that would lead from a museum to the streets in convoluted paths. Let me read a bit to you: “it is not desirable to build the labyrinth in the museum of a certain German town which is unsuitable to the dérive. Furthermore, the very fact of utilizing a museum brings with it a particular pressure, and the west face of the Amsterdam labyrinth was a wall specially constructed in the guise of an entrance to breach this: that hole in the wall had been requested by our German section as a guarantee of non-submission to the logic of the museum. The S.I. has also adopted, in April, a plan by Wyckaert profoundly modifying the use of the labyrinth studied for Amsterdam. The labyrinth shall not be built inside another building but, with greater flexibility and in direct relation to urban realities, on well-situated wasteland in a selected city, so as to become the setting off point for dérives.”

YA: I see. The labyrinth is their time…

OA: … and so we return to Wark’s better title. The reference to recuperation would seem to be an irreverent gesture rather than an angry complaint. A shrug in the face of the purists of the group.

YA: Of the idea of the group, the SI, or any group … suggesting the inevitability of recuperation, which could be the way things are at this turn of the labyrinth …

OA: … or, more speculatively, a spectacular version of some quite ordinary aspect of culture. I mean a glimpse of that aspect of culture that expresses our studied cruelty to the cultures of others – which can be linked with the ‘68 graffito soyons cruels! or Nietzsche’s be cruel with your past and all who would keep you there … wait, was that Nietzsche?

YA: How would I know, both hands on this stone? Anyway, this would not mean that there is no important distinction between recuperation and whatever we would face off against it, creating situations, for example, but it does mean that, from the point of view of culture as cruelty, or at least from that of the current inevitability of recuperation, there is not much urgency in distinguishing between good and bad Situationist ideas …

OA: … or people. And that lack of urgency, its irreverence, is a good way to describe Wark’s style: though he plays the academic game well enough, he does so with a certain lack of seriousness that, in his terms, consistently allows him to set aside the concepts (and proper names!) of high theory in favor of the incomplete ramblings and failed projects of what he calls low theory.

YA: You are going to have to explain that business of high and low theory to me.

OA: Take your hands off the stone, younger one; let us step back and gaze upon the gate. Probably the terminology arises through the twin demands of the academic market and the crude pragmatism of those we could call practitioners (activists or artists, for example).  If I am right about this, high theory would be whatever intellectual mode can claim some mixture of prestige and in-fashion status in the academic world at the moment, along with the canon this mode suggests.

YA: One could say so much more about this! Where such theory comes from geographically and where it doesn’t, its emphasis on proper names and adjectives formed from them, who publishes it, etc.  – not to mention how anyone arrived at the idea of “theory” at all…

OA: Sure, but let’s remain in his schema for now. Low theory could then be either the popularization of high theory in increasingly diluted, applied forms; or, more interestingly, it could be something else entirely, a way of theorizing that not only fails to be high theory, but does not attempt to qualify as such.

YA: Outsider theory, street theory; non-academic, or at least not primarily academic.

OA: Also, if this is to be an interesting idea, not necessarily popular theory; not necessarily theory aimed at the imaginary masses, the ideal everyman, the ghostly everywoman…

YA: According to this schema, most if not all of the theoretical works produced by anarchists (and situationists, supposing there are any) today would have to be classed as low theory.

OA: Naturally, no? This is especially interesting when we consider how many of these works propose a way of thinking and living that is to some degree impossible.

YA: Yes, and how that impossibility, rather than being solely a source of frustration for writers and readers, acts as something more on the order of an intimate, vital challenge, a lure for feeling.

OA: A challenge of this sort could be Wark’s desire…

YA: For that to be clear, we would have to know who Wark is addressing in this book. For my part, I am not sure. I am not sure he is sure.

OA: Yes, that is why I have to invent ideal first-time readers for him.

YA: Well, if I follow what you said a minute ago, he certainly develops Situationist terms and concepts in a satisfyingly low way, by which I mean: not enough of a definition to satisfy a theorist; enough to get a creative mind going in an interesting direction.

OA: Or, enough not to have read a thousand books before “putting ideas into practice,” as they say, though this schema of reading-and-then-acting is silly indeed…

YA: Low theory would have to sabotage that schema, or result from its sabotage. Let’s come back to theory and its terms on the other side. We are still in need of a way in. What about Situationist people (since we won’t have the problem of wondering whether people can be put into practice)?

OA: The last time I reviewed a book on the Situationists, one of a spate of academic books that have appeared in the last decade or so, I inserted this remark in passing: “Many commentators on the SI either hallucinate themselves into the decades-old fray of expulsions and corrections, or they pull away into an abstract and scholarly safety zone.”  In Wark’s favor, I can say that he does neither of these. I continued: “Could it be that this split is an effect of the continual centering of Guy Debord as originator, founding genius, even Bretonian ‘pope’ evidenced in this anthology (from its title on), a certain ‘Debordism’ diagnosed by Luther Blissett with all of the spite reserved by situationists for nouns with that suffix?”

YA: So in placing (for you, unexpected) emphasis on everyone-but-Debord, some of them so-called minor figures, and their versions of the Situationist project…

OA: … Wark dismisses the purists of the SI by writing as if there was never really one group. Listen to this bit: “One discovers in the first three years of the SI many potential versions of it”…

YA: … and later too. It is hard to find the story of Debord as pope here. He is rather a secretary, writing letters to and about practically everybody.

OA: I noted that, although he does not place Debord at the center of his narrative, Wark does not criticize him for the practice of exclusion, which would be, for some, evidence for his own sense of centrality.

YA:  It is a qualified explanation. Writing that he does not think there was one SI changes the status of exclusions.

OA: Listen to this part: “Situationists were expected to know what was expected of them and without being told. Debord’s policy as secretary was ‘to place a priori confidence, in all cases, and only until the first proof to the contrary, in a certain number of recognized comrades, based upon objective criteria.’ The reason for most exclusions is not mysterious. It was a failure to live up to expectations. Members are what they do: ‘No problem in our collective action can be resolved by good will.’ A certain unsentimental understanding of how friendships form and dissolve, of how character becomes different to itself as it struggles in and against time underlie the distinctive quality of Situationist subjectivity, where ‘neither freedom nor intelligence are given once and for all.’” Repeat: in Debord’s SI, exclusion was perhaps related more to a certain understanding of friendship than to the leftover habits of communist parties and groupuscules it is usually connected to by commentators.

YA: I would rather not be friends with someone that places his friends in such double binds!

OA: Your preferences or mine aside, what could be more common? Driven, intense people are often this way – nothing “sinister” about it, as Wark puts it. For a party in power, or seeking power, to exclude is indeed sinister. For a group such as the Situationist International (or some version thereof) to do so is another matter entirely. Wark aptly calls them “a provisional micro-society”: something between a political group and a band of friends.

YA: An affinity group? People are always explaining how they come together and how they stay together, not how they are disassembled or fall apart …

OA: In any case, some people make friends for life, and others don’t; some friendships end well, and others end badly; and to the degree that some of that is done freely, I prefer to understand this as one of the many uses of freedom in friendship, rather than encroaching on them, even by criticism.

YA: So that would be one example of the openness of Wark’s irreverent approach.

OA: Yes. It is ultimately pleasant to think that this might be a sign that there are now many ways into learning from the Situationists. For example, in decentering Debord, Wark also revokes the status of Society of the Spectacle as the defining text of Situationist theory. I consider it a good thing that people might now begin with something other than Society of the Spectacle. For all its interest, this attempt to give the movement a theory text (or to invent a movement by writing one, in classic socialist/communist fashion) is done at the cost of the expulsion of the idea of situation, probably so as to give center stage to the by now clearly dubious political proposal of worker’s councils.

YA: So you are celebrating the decentering of this book? I haven’t read it yet.

OA: Decentered, it will be better reading. Past decentering it, those of us who have learned something from it, and some irresponsible others, will have to rewrite it one day without the dialectic and in a way that renders the worker’s councils a local solution (Council-bolos?) and restores the construction of situations to its more critical place. Otherwise generation after generation will continue to get mired in the crudest dualism of appearance and reality … separation realized …

YA: What about the other one I always hear about, The Revolution of Everyday Life?

OA: Well, Vaneigem barely appears in The Beach. It is less clear why – probably, whereas Society of the Spectacle has too much of a high theory agenda, Revolution sets too much of a unilateral tone. You know, the younger generations … whatever one ultimately makes of these decenterings, they are also ways to undo some of the binds and knots that we have inherited from the Situationists and their interpreters.

YA: I think it is the nightmare of some to consider that they come together with their interpreters.

OA: Ha! 50 years of recuperation!

YA: … better than fifty years of introduction, half a century of getting ready to live…

OA: … in some sense even the little betrayal that is in irreverence can be a way out for which we will be grateful should the labyrinth grow tiresome.

YA: But now I am imagining two labyrinths: their time, and ours.

OA: Which suggests that we are ready to pass inside. Let’s be silent for a while.





(Some time later, inside the labyrinth)


YA: It is very dark in here.

OA: What have you been thinking about in the dark, younger one?

YA: Proper names…

OA: … these others, strange friends…

YA: Wark devotes the bulk of The Beach to discussions of everyone-but-Debord. But one could also say that the first marginal situationist in Wark’s book is … Guy Debord.

OA: Before appearing as the secretary, he shows up in the days of Lettrism as a “street ethnographer” interested in the life of non-working people – hanging out with dropouts and delinquents.  I remember this line: “Debord was researching a people who were neither bourgeois nor proletarian nor bohemian, and decidedly not middle class.”

YA: In their company, before there was a group, or before the group had a name, ideas and experiences were exchanged, friendships and enmities bloomed.

OA: And love affairs.

YA: And that togetherness is something other than politics or community.

OA: [Sigh]

YA: In this street research we might have learned the stakes in sticking together as gangs do. As Ralph Rumney said: “Our social exclusion made us a close group.”

OA: And love affairs? Wark describes Michèle Bernstein’s novels All the King’s Horses and The Night as détournements of F. Sagan and A. Robbe-Grillet, then-popular novelists, and at the same time versions of her relationships with Debord and others. Love triangles, and so on.

YA: Gangs … different sorts of knots and binds?

OA: Wark makes this an opportunity to briefly broach the subject of sexual politics, and maybe there is something here to meditate on: when the inevitably narcissistic novel of one’s life, that novel we are all involuntarily writing about ourselves, is to be written out, it might be desirable to take a detour through the spectacular presentation of another’s life.

YA: For me, that there were two novels based on the same events is perhaps the remarkable, rebellious point in all that.

OA: Rebellious writing? What about Alexander Trocchi’s collective writing project, sigma portfolio?

YA: Its outcome was certainly something other than a novel: an “interpersonal log. It is to be an open-ended series of simple typed and duplicated documents.”

OA: In Trocchi’s own words: “This gambit, a round-robin which includes n participants, an interpersonal experiment in expression; a man responding as and when he pleases; copies of his response at once roneo-ed for circulation; individuals chiming in, checking out at any time.”

YA: What is roneo-ed?

OA: I don’t know either. Some kind of duplication, ditto machine.

YA: Predictably, Wark gets excited about sigma and describes it as “a web of logs before there was even an internet.”

OA: More interestingly, here is Trocchi again: “we propose immediate action on the international scale, a self-governing (non-)organization of producers of the new culture beyond, and independent of, all political organizations…”

YA: You have certainly memorized a lot of this book!

OA: No, I have a small light with me, and my annotated copy. You didn’t notice because I am walking behind you. I want to talk about Asger Jorn, which is going to require some lengthy quotes. Close your eyes and re-enter the dark of the labyrinth. First, concerning a recent object of some controversy, the fact that he continued to fund the Situationists after his exit, he said: “my interest in the situationist movement is purely personal and passionate, in a direct fashion, and, if the inevitable developments of social circumstances necessitate my exclusion from the movement this changes absolutely nothing in my purely economic attitude towards this movement. The economic surplus that my social situation, insofar as I am a painter, gives me is best placed with the situationist movement, even if this movement is obliged to attack me for being in a situation from which I can’t escape, but which embarrasses the movement.”

YA: An appropriate complement to your earlier statements about friendship and exclusion. But I thought that, overall, the discussion of Asger Jorn’s theoretical contributions in The Beach is confused.

OA: Perhaps Jorn, the “amateur Marxist,” was confusing. One can get at least a sense of the primacy of aesthetic over scientific considerations for him. Take his flirtation with one of the most obtuse works in the Marxist canon, Engels’ Anti-Dühring: “It is Engels who leads Jorn down the slippery slope of a dialectics of nature, and like Engels he risks a somewhat vapid generalization of certain figures from scientific literature … But what distinguishes Jorn from Engels is not just that his readings in scientific literature are more contemporary; they are readings of a different kind. Jorn does not aspire to a materialist world view, as Engels did, but a materialist attitude to life. He wants not a metaphysics legitimized by science but a pataphysics that reads science creatively. Rather than imitate scientific writing, Jorn – like Alfred Jarry – appropriates from scientific writing according to his own desires.”

YA: It seems to me that the bulk of Wark’s case for low theory rests on what he says about Jorn.

OA: It is almost inevitable that he faces off Jorn (not Debord!) vs. Althusser in the name of low theory. “Jorn’s amateur Marxist theories from the 1940s and early ‘50s went largely unpublished at the time and received scant attention. The most influential appropriation of Marxist thought would not be Sartre’s but that of Jorn’s contemporary Louis Althusser. They could hardly be more different. Althusser spent the war in a POW camp, not the Resistance. Althusser’s thought was in Jorn’s terms clearly that of a materialist world view. It took science rather than aesthetic practice as its model. Althusser stayed within the Communist Party (with Maoist sympathies) rather than break with it. He made Marxism respectable within the space of the academy, rather than attempting to found a new nexus between theory and practice outside if it. Althusser was much more interested in history as objective process than as subjective practice. Where Althusser became a respected academic philosopher, Jorn’s academic advisor gently suggested that his thesis was not really the sort of thing that could even be submitted.”

YA: Why all these lengthy quotes for this guy?

OA: Be patient. Low theory can be long-winded too. “Jorn points towards the question of practice, outside of, and now after the eclipse of, both the Communist and bourgeois versions of history. If Althusser cements a place within the academy for developing Marxism as a critical postwar discourse, he does so at the expense of aligning it with high theory. Marx is absorbed into the conventions of academic thought, into its spaces of authority, its codes of discipline, its temporality of semesters and sabbaticals. Jorn offers something in addition to all that. His is a development of Marx as a critical postwar discourse that creates its own games, makes its own rules, answers to a quite different time, and belongs to a more marginal but more interesting space, the space not of an institution but of a provisional micro-society, within which the practice of thought might be otherwise.”

YA: Hmmm. All of this will take some rumination. Wark assumes we have a stake in the outcome of Marxism. You might; I don’t.

OA: But there are analogies to be made with anarchist theory as it exists and to come, no? Think it over. Also, as with the two novels, it’s not trivial that he made such bizarre paintings while writing all this stuff. We’ll talk about it later when you’ve had a chance to see them in good lighting. Constant?

YA: Much more appropriate for this dark enclosure. From the early researches on urbanism to the New Babylon project, he seems to have had an influence, or at least his own take, on the construction of situations. He proposed a dynamic urbanism of movable, I almost want to say poseable buildings. The psychological effects of an environment upon a person or group are quite limited if buildings are heavy and static …

OA:  So set people and buildings into motion: “Owning property affords someone a house in which to be at home, at the price of being homeless in the world. Dispense with property, dispense with separation, and the feeling of being merely thrown into the world goes with them. Our species-being can give vent to its wanderlust, at home in a house-like world. Constant thought modernity was already accelerating a return to a nomadic existence. New Babylon is nomadic life fully realized.”

YA: Architecture set in motion, pliable architecture, allows the events of life, no longer mere psychological effects, to be primary!

OA: Dynamism seems to make us raise our voices! Jaqueline de Jong?

YA: She appears most dramatically with the Second Situationist International, “a rival and a replacement” for what was, for them, the “First” SI. Their journal, Situationist Times, was an alternative to Internationale Situationniste. In their founding document, one can read: “now everyone is free to become a Situationist without the need for special formalities.” I loved that.

OA: So maybe you have an opinion on this matter of exclusions as well?

YA: No, that is their business. But I prefer to do things without special formalities.

OA: De Jong writes in a letter to Debord: “The Situationist International has to be considered either as an avant-garde school which has already produced a series of first-class artists thrown out after having passed through their education OR as an anti-organization based upon new ideology which is situationist and which has not yet found in details its clear formulations in the fields of science, technique, and art.” The anti-organization does not practice exclusion, but rather allows an uncontrolled inclusion: “everybody who develops theoretically or practically this new unity is automatically a member of the situationist international and in this perspective the Situationist Times.”

YA: Well, we could have inherited this schizo version instead of the paranoiac pro-Situ, post-Situ, etc. arrangements that respected the central and centralizing version…

OA: Schizo, that reminds me … Chtcheglov?

YA: Almost not mentioned at all!  I will remember Chtcheglov with a line from outside Wark’s book. Poor Chtcheglov! He was bored in the city. In Olympia I found a book of poems about him. Here is the best line: “The moon rises above the State.”

OA:  Our dialogue is lunar, no? I believe we have found our way to one of the exits.

YA: Let us pass through the hole in the wall, older one.

OA: On the other side, we might speak about some situationist terms before parting ways … these words that needed, perhaps still need definition…





(Outside the labyrinth, on another street, maybe the same street)

YA: It is bright here, or at least brighter. And I am the one who asks the questions now, older one! You are the one who knows something about these terms that are more concrete than ideas, less precise than concepts, and I want to see what news you learned in this book of Wark’s. My list is short. Decomposition?

OA: It might be helpful to compare the definitions from Internationale Situationniste 1. Here is the one for decomposition: “The process in which traditional cultural forms have destroyed themselves as a result of the emergence of superior means of controlling nature which make possible and necessary superior cultural constructions. We can distinguish between the active phase of the decomposition and effective demolition of the old superstructures — which came to an end around 1930 — and a phase of repetition that has prevailed since that time. The delay in the transition from decomposition to new constructions is linked to the delay in the revolutionary liquidation of capitalism.” Wark broadens the context for understanding this idea, presenting decomposition in and as the passage from a technique of avant-garde art to a critique of modern life: taking things apart until we notice that things are falling apart …

YA: … or as we notice things are falling apart. And then still taking things apart, but in other ways and for other reasons.

OA: One source is Isidore Isou: “When most people thought of the postwar years as a time of reconstruction, Isou wanted to push the destruction of culture still further. His trans-historical theory of culture took the will to create as its primary axiom. Not Marxist necessity, not Sartrean freedom, but creation is the highest form of human activity. Creation takes us from the spit of unconsciousness to the eternity of a consciously created history, for while the artist creates within history, the act of creation touches the eternal. All forms – aesthetic and social – move from a stage of amplification to one of decomposition. In the amplification stage, a form grows to incorporate whole aspects of existence. The amplified form shapes life and makes it meaningful. In the period of decomposition, forms turn on themselves, become self-referential. Forms fall from grace and from history. As the form decomposes, so does the life to which it once gave shape. Form becomes unreal; language becomes tame: ‘Tarzan learns in his father’s book to call tigers cats.’”

YA: But somehow the situationist can get into decomposition and operate within it, push it farther? Tiger cats are not just sad, they are also funny. They are dialectically reversible to cat tigers, mini-tigers, suggesting the power of the small and the weak … Yes, I see. This decomposition was to be pursued “to the limit.” I like that. Dérive?

OA: From the journal: “A mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences.” Wark supplements this with the memory of your friend Chtcheglov, his part in the invention of street ethnography; this wandering or drifting around urban spaces could be understood more precisely as a discovery of lived time. This is time devoted neither to work nor to leisure. The time of the non-working classes.

YA: The time of research … of low theory. Situation?

OA: Well, you know, “A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambience and a game of events.” As you might have heard, part of the polemical function of this definition is to replace the concept of the artwork as commodity. But Wark suggests that  in the background of the polemic there is also an engagement with the idea of freedom. He helpfully contrasts Sartre’s use of the term situation: “Sartre … famously makes the category of freedom a central one, but in so doing [has] a sly recourse also to the category of situation. That which is for-itself, consciousness, presupposes something external to it. ‘There can be a free for-itself only in a resisting world.’ It is because of the intractable physicality of things that freedom arises as freedom.” But the situation as defined above does not distinguish between consciousness and what is external to it.

YA: Which perhaps explains the attraction of the adjective unitary for some of these folks.

OA: To construct freedom, construct situations: micro-worlds, provisional micro-societies, in which the obstacle and what it blocks are simultaneously transformed.

YA: I am thinking of Constant, again …

OA: It is a telling aspect of situation as a low-theoretical term that it includes a hidden reference to, and correction of previous high-theoretical concepts of, the supremely recuperable idea of freedom. And?

YA: … I almost don’t want to bother, given what you’ve said so far. There’s plenty to get going with …

OA: So …

YA: Oh, what the hell. Spectacle?

OA: The term is not defined in the initial list in Internationale Situationniste and was later overdefined…

YA: … Debord aiming in Society of the Spectacle at a concept worthy of high theory, so you have suggested.

OA: Wark somewhat perversely amuses himself by discussing it not through Debord’s opus, as social relation mediated by images or materialized worldview or topsy-turvy world  but through the work of his sometimes friend, sometimes enemy, the sociologist Lefebvre. For Lefebvre it is “the great pleonasm, the Thing of Things.” As though the term was already saturated with meaning at the beginning – as though the books that speak of it (Lefebvre’s and Debord’s) are also pleonastic … The definition of the spectacle and the spectacle of definition: schema for high theory. Wark allows us to consider this sociological appropriation of what was hardly intended as a sociological concept as a moment of 50 years of recuperation…

YA … this term, so it would seem, has a different status.

OA: The first three already belong to low theory. Almost no one cares about them. This last one will have to be re-appropriated if it is to be of use.

YA: As long as re-appropriated does not suggest the mastery that is high theory’s concern.  I think rather of setting it adrift, along with all the others.

OA:  Wark says: “Low theory returns in moments, not of disappointment, but of boredom. We are bored with these burnt offerings, these warmed-up leftovers. High theory cedes too much to the existing organization of knowledge and art. It is nothing more than the spectacle of disintegration extending into knowledge itself. Rather a negative theory that reveals the gap between this world and its promises. Rather a negative action which reveals the gap between what can be done and what is to be done.”

YA: But is all low theory negative theory? We need to think this through, work through the permutations … we need spaces in which to do this …

OA: “For such experiments the Situationist legacy stands ripe for a détournement that has no respect for those who claim proprietary rights over it.”

YA: Rights: the museum. Experiments: the hole in the museum’s wall. Where else?

OA: Though one is often housed inside the other, “The archive too is a space for dérive.”

YA: The city and the archive … well-positioned wastelands, they said. But they are dead. Who is there now, in the dérive?

OA: In some exemplary and dangerous sense, we are. In another sense, we only find a mask, that of translator or researcher of low theory. In a third sense, no one is there.

YA: What am I supposed to do with that answer? I am going back into the labyrinth. I want to see if the way in is also a way out. Wherever I come out, I guess I’ll go visit the Occupy thing after all. But I am going to be late.


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.

The Game That Instructs


A few years ago, I was asked by some friends to write on play and games for Anarchy. I sent them an essay, entitled “A Funny Thought Concerning a New Way to Play,” in which I insisted above all on a certain attitude: a deep distaste for competition, for the unkind imposition of arbitrary rules and the unthinking acceptance of them. I continue to find that healthy. Beyond that attitude, the interest of the essay is that it maintains:

a) that everything we do is in some sense a game, and

b) that the apparently discrete and rule-bound activities we usually consider games are for the most part not the kind of game in question.

I am also still happy with the conceit I shared in this regard, the idea of a cosmic, chaotic game that bleeds into every discrete, ordinary game. And I am still playing, still dreaming, still trying to forget the game of the thesis. So I review my own writing here to refine that conceit.

Illustrating the concept of the cosmic game, I had recourse to a fine chapter in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, adopting his distinction between Normal Games and the Ideal Game.

What I have been calling discrete or ordinary games, Deleuze dubbed Normal Games, suggesting that they are “mixed‚” — they involve chance, of course, but “only at certain points”; the rest of their play (?) “refers to another type of activity, labor, or morality.” We can think of social activities as games … only because we think of games in the restricted, “mixed” economy of Normal Games that involve the acceptance of rules and a possible competition. That is, normal games always refer their play to a norm that is taken to be serious, outside of the play-sphere.

The Ideal Game is Deleuze’s name for this funny thought of the cosmic game or the play of the world. It has no rules and is entirely too chaotic to allow for any skillful use of chance (meaning the mechanical consequences of well-executed moves). Every Normal Game flirts with chance to some degree or another, and plays, Deleuze wrote, at mastering it. And if one is serious one might think one has.

In adopting this distinction, I made a double objection:

My problem with Deleuze’s version of the Ideal Game is that he states, first of all, that it can’t be played “by either man or God.” Worse, “it would amuse no one.” He writes that, ultimately, “it can only be thought as nonsense.” I wonder why this did not suggest another idea of play and of amusement, such that, not negating but simply and nonsensically contradicting the first two claims, the Ideal Game can’t but be played by people and Gods (if any); and it not only amuses everyone but is precisely the Amusing as such!

Both aspects of this double ojection now strike me as silly. First, to invert the claim that the Ideal Game can’t be played by either man or God was a clumsy move. It would have been more interesting, and also nonsensical in a more modest, more subtle way, to agree. I now think Deleuze was showing that, from the point of view of the Ideal Game, both humanism and divine anthropomorphism are rendered ultimately impossible. From that perspective, God and Man never really play. They are immediately transformed, cancelled, rendered radically other, so that these words turn out to be signs of stranger, more wonderful processes. Insofar as such mirages have any consistency (I won’t write reality), they name players of normal games (Creation, anyone?): mixtures, as Deleuze wrote, of play and work, chance and rules well followed. Is anyone surprised? God and Man are always primarily at work. That is what History teaches.

What about Deleuze’s second statement: ” it would amuse no one”? I held out the possibility that perhaps the Ideal Game “is the Amusing as such.” Now I want to ask: amusing for whom? Not for Man or God, as I think I’ve established – they work and play in their normal games, and work at least cannot be amusing. It is serious, rigorous, painful. (I leave it to you to discern if even the play component of normal games is ever amusing). So who is amused? Personne, as it is said in French: anyone, nobody. But that anonymous person is a mask to be sculpted, not a pre-existent fact.  It would have been more interesting to agree, again, and draw this conclusion: if the Ideal Game were the Amusing as such, then some minimum permanent amusement  would have to be guaranteed. That is, the Ideal Game would have to be conceived not as the impossible Idea of Play but as the all too possible guarantee of amusement. I think that is also called heaven. Or the dull utopia of our more secular, still silly friends who think that the play of the world is progressive and make plans accordingly. Is anyone surprised? Amusement is not guaranteed. That is what History teaches.

How could it be more interesting to agree that the Ideal Game amuses no one? This is what is most difficult. The Ideal Game, if one accepts that its play dissolves God and Man in chaos, is not amusing because it can never be determined ahead of time who is amused or what is amusing. We can go on playing normal games, or attempt to open them up to their Outside, the  Ideal Game. Of course, they are already so opened. The question is to know it, to show it, and to play according to this intuition. The success of this operation is no more guaranteed than victory in a normal game, but it is far more desirable. There must be an unevenly distributed virtuosity in the ability to know and show this opening, to act on it. (And this is perhaps the only way that desire and virtue may be related). More straightforwardly I mean that it is not only dull, but impossible, to be God or Man outside of one or more normal games – so the bleed is how we become  someone or something else, whoever or whatever is amused.

Becoming whoever or whatever is amused by the Ideal Game is necessarily uncertain. It is the most delicate of processes, the most unpredictable of undertakings. In these mutations we might discover what I consider to be the sole healthy use of hope: we may hope for amusement, hope to become those who are amused (and amusing?!).


An aside for the curious: how could exposure to the Ideal Game transform the sense of our old motto “ni dieux ni maître“? I suppose its destructive intuition remains intact. It was always a matter of playing certain historical or political games so that Gods and Masters were excluded. But its rage is perhaps diffused into a bizarre comedy.  Ni dieux ni maître: a title for a play about ridiculous gods, and laughable masters. It is a story of History seen from its underside, of the World Turned Upside Down. I hope that this chaotic reinterpretation is amusing!

Hume, in his  Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, arguably sketched out part of it, with his tales of less than Ideal gods: witness the increasingly mad hypotheses of the infant god, the senile god, the 30,000 competing gods, the Spider god of the Spider planet … Are any of these “God”?  Can we learn how to act out the rest of the play, becoming those who amuse everyone by laughing at the laughable masters, at power, at competition, at every form of auctoritas? Is it still “Man” we are talking about when we become the manimals that, outside of History, wander the fields of ownness like packs of wolves, flocks of birds, or solitary and proud beasts?


My revision of the essay is done. I would like to add one more provocation: the Ideal Game is the only game that truly instructs. Of course normal games teach in some trivial way. One might say that a given game teaches patience, for example, or that another teaches strategic thinking. Maybe so. In the metaphysical register where all of this butterfly-writing is lodged, I would say that, if normal games teach, they teach first, foremost, and perhaps only the mastery of their own play. To say they teach anything beyond their own play is to engage, wittingly or unwittingly, in contemplating their opening up to the Ideal Game.

That is to say that normal games only teach through redundancy. As our genial grandmother, Gertrude Stein, wrote: “let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.” Let us not forget that Vico, Hegel, Marx and our other perverse grandfathers, inventors of the concept of History, all set out to define and describe its inexorable laws of development. Let us not forget that the ideal of progress, especially as inherited by the Left, was always taught as the working out of these laws – a massive normal game combining work and chance, but mostly work.

Peer if you know how into the outside of History. You might discern that the  Ideal Game is impressive. It silently impresses its lessons upon us insofar as we are exposed to a chaos that cannot be thought, only felt. Artaud called it a metaphysics that enters through the skin. Wouldn’t the strangest thing be to take these impersonal lessons, and, impressed, learn the lightness of the self and its masks? Who but the most virtuous among us could claim to have gracefully opened the play of their life to the cruelty of the cosmic game and sculpted the artifice of a person, a mask for this slice of the chaos to wear? Who but the most sober could admit that the slice  comes into being with the mask, that personality is local, like the weather? Who but the most delicate could claim to have learned, not in the strictures of normal games of morality and etiquette, but in the midst of chaos, the attitudes of patience, gentleness, or honesty? That chaos is still their raw material and, dare I say, essence?

The Ideal Game instructs because it is ultimately all there is to experience. Not a limit, but a pulsating horizon, interminably receding. Becoming one who is amused is almost intolerably gradual. Patience, gentleness, honesty: these are not static qualities of a moral person. They are masks to be endlessly perfected, ways of playing normal games that seek to open their play to the cosmic game with ever greater virtuosity. If one learns anything in one’s life (and, not to be coy, of course one does! all the time!) it is learned in and through participation in the Ideal Game, that cosmic prefiguration of zerowork.