For the Love of God

a continuation of “Golem in the Catacombs”

When living beings are separated from their own expressions, gestures, tools, and traditions, they are reduced to golem, mere bodies, and every influence that these things, once a part of their being and now expropriated by the category of “apparatus”, exercise over them is now read as a form of corruption or control. This postmodern trope of the fragility of liberty—all influence is coercion; therefore liberty is a utopian concept—derives from the unconscious assumption that every factor external to a golem has in fact been designed to mold it and guide it through the apparatuses where its miserable life plays out.

The defeated communards of 1871 who had taken refuge in the Paris catacombs suffered a particularly gruesome fate. The victorious Versailles troops, who had received tacit support—in a stirring example of elite internationalism—from Bismarck’s Prussians, dynamited the catacomb tunnels where the refugees huddled, killing thousands. We can only wonder how many survived the initial blast, the earth itself falling in on their heads (the World Turned Upside Down falling back into place?), and wandered the catacombs, emptied of their utopia, in search of some subsistence.

Later, the Sacré Cœur was built on the butte of Montmarte, the proletarian neighborhood where the insurrection began and where one of the key battles took place in the suppression of the Commune. The extravagant penance, now a major tourist attraction, prevents us from returning to the site of our loss. Long before the science of urban architecture as social control, the Church knew construction as an act of war designed to finish off a defeated enemy, for le Sacre Couer was one of the last of a long lineage. The famous monastery at Mont-Saint-Michel was built atop the most important gathering place of the Gallic druids; unwitting lines of tourists pay it homage today with cameras in hand. Throughout South America, the oldest churches are to be found atop the waka of the Aymara or the sacred sites of other colonized peoples.

In literature, another kind of Church was built atop an earlier revolutionary defeat. Victor Hugo’s monumental Les Miserables is set against the June Rebellion of 1832 (though it must also be read as a fruit of Hugo’s troubled relationship with the revolution of 1848). And although Hugo, a leftist, is sympathetic with the revolutionaries, his is above all a tale of redemption. Marius and Cosette may marry and find happiness and security (in the tale’s ethical grammar the latter is implicitly proferred as a precondition for the former) with Marius’s upper-class family (and, in the original novel, Jean Valjean’s factory money), their youthful flirtation with insurrection overlooked. A questioned God smiles on them, revealing in the end His undoubtable munificence, with the Happy Ending serving as proof of transformative forgiveness. In an earlier age, kings and tsars had to exercise general pardons—the Jubilee—to appear godlike. This new God need only save one soul—like the lottery winner or the pop star that rises alone out of crowds of miserable millions—to redeem Himself for the spectating masses.

Les Miserables‘ long run tells a sort of story about the rise and fall of modernity. The original novel sets the archetypes into play. Love conquers all and heroes find happy endings. Hugo, after all, needed to tack into a new wind after the massacres of ’48. He was part of a generation of writers who flirted with revolutionary ideas, only to abandon them when they were put into practice and used as weapons against the old order by “the wretched of the earth”. A republican who tended towards pacifism, Hugo spoke out vehemently for the cause of equality and fraternity and even consorted with anarchists, yet he also helped to suppress the 1848 insurrection in Paris. Later, old Victor was not as active as many of his colleagues who would lend their pens to justify the repression of proles and pétroleuses after the Paris Commune. He nonetheless found the utility in a tactful separation between art and life, and class-climbing lovers would provide the perfect protagonists for the modern storyline.

Les Miserables the musical struck the perfect note for a new generation of sell-out artists and failed revolutionaries, remassified and forced to consume their own defeat. The most poignant song in Schönberg and Boublil’s musical, opening in Paris and London before becoming a Broadway hit, is “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” In the lines,

Here they talked of revolution.
Here it was they lit the flame.
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more

one can almost imagine a recent university graduate, newly thrust into the real world, surveying in his mind the halls in the Sorbonne where the students debated, or the meeting room in Chicago where SDS had their 1969 congress that would launch the Maoist faction as an armed vanguard, back before the hammer fell.

It is the song of one who has participated in something transcendental, something real for the first time in his life, only to lose it because the community it was born in has been swept away, the other communards either shot down (as in 1832) or robbed by the Spectacle and the prisons (as were the Weathermen and their less mediatic contemporaries). The singer knows not how to find his way back and, enslaved again by a cruel purgatory, can only blame the foolishness of his braver comrades for having tried to storm heaven.

Finally, the Hollywood remake with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman proving—at times painfully—that today’s actors can still sing and dance, closes the cycle. Passing through the crass cultural cannibalism of the last years, with which every narrative that ever enjoyed an ounce of success is retailored for the silver screen in a desperate bid to continue producing without creating anything original, Les Miserables‘ love story—at a time when the romantic narrative must arm itself with witty cynicism or worldly nuance to rise above its festering limitations, comes off as antiquatedly trite. It must hide behind a grandiose production and the outsider antics of Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter because it is simply too weak to carry the plot, though in the original musical it is clearly identified as the principal narrative thread, all of Hugo’s other subplots and digressions abandoned without hesitation.

The excitement of the insurrection is far more moving than the romance, and here we find another important theme. Of necessity the Spectacle presents us with increasingly numerous renditions of revolution, from Fight Club to Robin Hood. To serve as operations of recuperation, some of these revolutions defeat themselves through extremism, providing a cautionary moral tale against putting ideals into practice. Others attack one aspect of power, say the banks, while reinforcing another, like patriarchy, and others still succeed by piercing the conspiracy, revealing the truth, and allowing the peaceful masses or the good institutions to make everything right, leaving the actual transformation to play out off camera. How is the rebellion of 1832 recuperated?

This question is difficult to answer, just as today’s spectators might have a hard time placing the story’s defeated revolution in the genealogy of their current liberty. William Wallace fights against an evil king—the bad kind of authority—and the voiceover in the final scenes assures us that the Scots eventually won their freedom, a fact that their recent opportunity to vote on independence can only confirm. In one of Mel Gibson’s many remakes of Braveheart, Patriot—the one set during the American Revolution—the relation between the heroic struggle portrayed and the audience’s consequent lack of need to struggle is even more obvious. But what about an attempted political revolution in 19th century constitutional France? On the one hand, the dissidents’ decision to take up arms is an admirable flaw, when they really all should have just married well and joined high society. On the other hand, their rebellion is presented as an idealistic spirit—most purely embodied by Gavroche, the fearless child—that we are meant to believe eventually triumphed, though it can be carried on just as easily by the final scene’s marching masses as by armed insurgents.

What makes up for the story’s ambiguity with regards to revolution is the parallel plot of redemption. The State is redeemed in Javert’s mercy, the Church is redeemed in Bishop Myriel, and the bourgeoisie are redeemed as the guarantors of Marius and Cosette’s eventual happiness (suggesting a curious window on the American Founding Fathers’ replacement of Locke’s “property” with “the pursuit of happiness”).

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

The Christian moral—wait, pray, and all will be well—comes through in the final song. And the presence of that moral in the three generations of the telling, at the adolescence, decadence, and twilight of modernity, suggests a continuity that is both obvious and inadmissable.

I don’t know how the tale was received by its original audience, but by the third telling, the love that holds up the contradictions in the narrative structure of Les Miserables is not the cupidic escapism of its young paramours, but the love of God that provides transcendental weight to the promise of redemption, overwhelming the failed, forgotten revolution’s promises of transcendence.

We can argue, and with good reason, that during the Enlightenment science replaced Christianity as the religion of the State. We should not, however, forget Christianity’s paradoxical persistence. It is a key force in nationalist movements from Ukraine to Venezuela, and an important tool for turning exploited populations against revolution, winning obedience to state authorities, extending capitalist property relations around the world. In South America and Africa in particular, Christian missionaries serve in many ways as advance scouts for logging and mining companies. And Christianity’s close cousin, Islam, is effectively building states throughout Africa and Asia in places where European colonialism failed to do so.

Anarchists in this century do not talk as much about religion as an animating force for the apparatuses of control, and if we do, we tend to understand it as a force in the lives of people who have not progressed as far in their civilizational development, whether the backwater under the microscope is South Carolina or Kenya.

We might speak of two distinct figures that represent the exploited during the Christian and then the scientific phases of capitalist accumulation; the zombie who is enchanted and set to work and the golem who is constructed by its master, made of broken material, simple dust. Christianity simply robs the soul to create workers, counfounding its slaves or holding them captive to metaphysical blackmail, while scientific power gives the masters an architectural control over the environment and reproduction of their subjects, not merely enslaving them but creating them out of whole cloth.

But this progression of distinct phases owes too much to the fundamental eschatology that Christianity and Western science share. In practice, the two modalities of power operate simultaneously. In a platonic world where body and spirit have been alienated, in a Christian world where the body has been shamed and the spirit captivated, in a capitalist world where the body has been enslaved and the spirit has been banished, and in a scientific world where the body has been mechanized and the spirit disproven, the apparatuses of control lack an animus.

They (by which I suppose I mean the conduits of apparatuses that exist to evaluate other apparatuses) can measure the power that flows between the conduits and captives of a given apparatus, binding and differentiating them. But they are also aware of the limits of a captive’s identification with their apparatus, a certain melancholy among conduits that acts like friction, decreasing their conductivity and even halting production. And they have seen cases of a grim nihilism that arises from time to time, causing captives to act like barbarians and handle their apparatus with brute violence and against its design, or one that spreads more invisibly to conduit and captive alike, causing them to blur and desert their roles.

Even in a well designed apparatus, the flow of power is not enough to motivate the conduits or bind the captives to their role. The threat of punishment is also a necessary element, but too honest to be left in the open for long without delivering diminishing returns and augmenting risks. The people need to be animated through an affective allegiance with an entity that cannot disappoint them by changing the terms of the contract, as any institution of power will eventually do when it capitalizes on whatever trust has been deposited in it. That entity is their own longing, the first glimpse of transcendence, the very substance the State has always worked to control or destroy.

If in its first millennium the Church aimed to keep the spirit out of the commoners’ grasp, effectively creating a less spiritual world by enclosing it in Latin scripture and in the Holy See and stamping out one of the most frequent heresies—that the Holy Ghost spoke to everyone who listened—now it is one of several institutions whose purpose is to divert the miserable and the wretched from a nihilistic confrontation with a dead, scientific society by dangling in front of them a new spirituality, controlled as the old one was but not so tightly, for the new permissible spirit is accessible, on sale, and adaptable to consumer demand.

While traveling recently in South America, I got to see this aggressive marketing firsthand. The evangelists are at the forefront, but is it overly paranoid to assume that one pope was recalled and another was elected to jumpstart a new Catholic evangelism in South America? From one country to the next, billboards announced mega-revivals by visiting evangelists from the US, each eager to expand their fief. And the growth of evangelism goes hand in hand with popular support for snitching, mining, policing, the eradication of indigenous cultures, and development in general. I also came face to face with a revived Christianity’s effectiveness at dealing with potentially destabilizing mental illness and subversive cynicism, when I got to know two truck drivers. The first was batshit crazy, and the second was a jaded ex-revolutionary who had been imprisoned during the dictatorship and evidently was not impressed by what the socialists had accomplished in power (a disenchantment that for some people leads to radicalization, but that has driven entire, forgotten generations into the arms of God).

The first driver told about a girl in Brazil who was dead for a week and then got resuscitated. While dead, St. Peter took her to visit heaven and hell so she could tell everyone about it. In hell she came across the Pope, hung upside down for being a Catholic, and Celia Cruz for her lascivious lyrics. She also spied Michael Jackson.

“For molesting children?” I asked.

“For dancing backwards, contrary to the spirit of God,” the driver told me with a straight face. He went on to explain that the King of Pop was surrounded by moonwalking demons, tormenting him to eternity for his linear perverseness.

Like I said, batshit crazy, the kind of person who would undermine any rational discourse of social control, if the Church hadn’t given them a ready made set of fantasies and bugaboos to fixate on.

I thought I would like the second truck driver more, because I learned off the bat that he had been a political prisoner. During the first hours of our shared drive, we spoke about the dictatorship, the current government, and the struggle by indigenous people in the region. Then the sun set, he turned off the radio, looked over at me, and asked if I believed in God. The following hours were Hell, as he aggressively tried to convince me that people were evil, and that quinoa was God’s way of letting the natives know about Jesus, since the Bible didn’t arrive until much later.

When he stopped to help a stranded driver replace a spare tire, I told him, “See, you’re a good person!”

“I am not good!” he shrieked, tears forming in his eyes.

A slow learner, I finally decided it was a mistake to try to have a reasonable conversation with him. I will never know what happened to that truck driver in prison, why he hated himself, and to what extent the corruption of his socialist former comrades affected him, but it seemed clear that Christianity mediated it for him. Love of God as hatred of self and hatred of society, but also an opportunity to do good in a safe, non-projectual way that requires no emotional risk, since the end is already written. Without that, I doubt he would have been able to function as a productive member of society.

Who can doubt that Christianity today is both innovative and on the cutting edge of social control, when they consider the great currency that Christianity has among the mad and insane? While the pills that are meant to regulate the emotional unreliability of the golem remain imperfect, the opiate of religion succeeds in redeeming millions of depressives and psychotics, casualties of capitalism who would otherwise turn to a destabilizing lunacy, as socially useful subjects. After all, good Christians may play out their paranoid persecution fantasies while faithfully serving as snitches, taxpayers, workers, and soldiers. Faith can be the release for their madness, a belief in human evil as the non-heretical expression of a manichean nihilism, and they never need to see the inside of an asylum.

The simultaneity of a Christian modality of power with the modality of scientific social control is also evident in the affective allegiance that can only exist for the subjects of a totalitarian state. Even in this age of scientific rationalism, people can experience a transformative rapture when they surrender themselves to the absolute power of a bureaucratic institution.

In the abstract this hypothesis, or any other that could ascribe such passion to a bureaucracy, seems doubtful. But imagine what it was like for the arrestees of the Greenscare, locked up in the dungeons of the State, their entire future in the hands of the FBI. When they broke and agreed to become snitches, did they feel the warm rush of clemency, like the kiss of the papal ring? Giving themselves over to the advances of the long-shunned State, did they suddenly find themselves in the presence of God, as Winston Smith finally found Big Brother?

With the invention of the golem, spiritual matters should have been put to rest. The living world has been utterly destroyed, ground to dust, and our new bodies—our new selves—are made from that dust, constructed in arrangements that suit the needs of power and set to play in a Garden of Eden that is really just one big factory. How could cyborgs dream? Yet dream we do, and become depressed, and sometimes go off the deep end and paint the canvass of our misery with a red more real than acryllic tones can simulate (guns will be blamed, though fortunately in the last few years the disarmed nations have increasingly belied this allegation with enthusiastic uses of knives and automobiles).

I know very little about the old Buddhist states, but I can imagine that if they had grown to install a world system metaphysically organized atop the opposite pole in a similar mind/matter dichotomy, with a capitalism that measured accumulations of peace and duty rather than trade and production, eventually the body—that misleading shadow of the false physical world—would reassert itself and require more archaic institutions of state authority to coddle and distract its longings, always in a sphere that did not intersect with matters of the spirit.

So it is today. The golem still dream and cry—but if they are fabricated beings made of the dust of the old world, perhaps Democritus went awry in looking for the atom in the too-small-to-see, for if even dust contains dreamings the atom must be the universe itself—and they must be given something great and out of reach to love and to fear. The subjects of state power are no longer living beings, and there is a cathedral built atop each of our past defeats. To pay homage we are told we must walk in through the doors. On arrival we’re not sure it’s what we were looking for but we mouth along with the rite to assuage our doubts, just as the last grandiose song in a bad musical tries to divert our dissatisfaction.

But the body cannot walk to the spirit any more than the spirit can wish itself a body.

Work continues, disappointments stack up, hairs go grey and bellies flab, the tables and chairs where we sat in our passionate debates empty out, the street that was a bonfire is an apparatus again and the memory no longer seems worthy of passing on because of the inarticulate confusion it provokes in us. Yet the sense of something greater, immediate and unreachable, something that gives us courage, that could wrap us in the strongest of embraces and protect us through death or defeat, mocks us from all directions.

The Reign of Stupidity

Carnival and Cannibal, Ventriloquous Evil
Baudrillard, Jean.
London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010
92 Pages.

 More than others, Anarchists seem to suffer most under the Reign of Stupidity.  Stupidity reigns, has always reigned and according to Jean Baudrillard, it is virtually a perk of holding office.  Stupidity is what he says Power does to people, as it rules over our highly complex, scientific, techno-information-society.    Jean Baudrillard died before Barak Obama was elected, but it is certain that his conceptualization wouldn’t have changed:


…a majority of [voting] Americans desire the presence in the White House of someone whose stupidity and banality underwrite their own conformism. The more stupid he is, the less personally idiotic they will feel…In this ‘stupid’ hereditary function, power is a virtual configuration that absorbs any element and metabolizes it to its advantage. It may be formed of countless intelligent particles, but that will change nothing of its opaque structure: it is like a body that changes its cells but continues to be the same…America will have become Black, Indian, Hispanic or Puerto Rican [and I would add Asian] without ceasing to be America… it will be all the more integrist for having become, in actuality, multiracial and multicultural. And all the more imperialist for being led by the descendants of the slaves. This is how it is. It is a paradox…” (pp.16-17, brackets mine, fj).

 Throughout his life, Jean Baudrillard was concerned with the effects of Wealth/Power on the life of the mind. Nearly alone among French philosophers, he took the Situationists’ Society of the Spectacle at its word and his work is a logical extension of theirs.  For him, ‘Spectacle’ is the whole of Western socialization: as it is taught in schools; seen in films and TV; propelled in advertisement;  built in architecture; legislated in representative democracies; meted out in punishments in courtrooms and jails; researched in laboratories and forced onto others by the actions of its military apparatus.

… We may ask ourselves whether these Whites…are not already figures in a masquerade; we may ask whether they are not already caricatures of themselves, characters taking themselves for their own masks. The Whites may thus (be) said to have carnivalized – and hence cannibalized- themselves long before exporting all this to the whole world. We have here the great parade of a culture in the grip of a profusion of resources and offering itself for its own consumption, with mass consumerism and the consumption of all possible goods merely providing the most current form of this self-devouring…It is all a great collective spectacle, in which the West decks itself out not only in the spoils of all the other cultures – in its museums, fashions and art – but also in the spoils of its own culture.” (pp. 7-8, parenthesis mine-fj).

So the first part of this book is called Carnival and Cannibal.  Both words are shorthand for Jean Baudrillard’s 30 page depiction of the legacies of Western bourgeois culture.  “Carnival” is the parade of modernization: all the Western technical, economic and political values marching to the tune of evangelization, colonization, decolonization, globalization and hegemony.  “Cannibal” is the increasingly obvious sense that what is being produced by Carnival is a parody which devours itself (pp.4-11).
Everyone is ‘decked out’ in the signs of the master race, its fashion, its art, its technology, its free market, its ‘digital imperative’, but in the same moment, we falsify ourselves in our mimicry. One thinks immediately of college students and academics, of Bono, of Asian kids in German luxury cars, of “Bureau Indians”, of American puppet governments in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, of the new Billionaires of India and of course, of Barak Obama. Carnival and Cannibal are two movements of the same Westernization, from proselyte to self-parody.

 The previously held values of tribe, caricole, family, religion, temple, church and zen monastery all dissolve in the Carnival’s flood of words, images, lessons, attractions and commodities.  What’s left is the human fall-out we have today, a Disneyfied, Bollywoodized, Wall Streeted and 5th Avenue’d control society with its disoriented, demented participants: everyone in their places and wanting more, unable to think differently and destroying their own environment.  

The white missionaries of Wealth/Power hadn’t counted on the fact that they themselves are also their own victims. Western socio-political theory is thereby emptied out: no one (except maybe Zizek) believes in it anymore and the term ‘growth’ has a cancerous and pollutionary sense to it.  Cannibalism is a company against its employees AND its customers AND its environment (Wall Street). It is a country against the others AND its own people AND its own land (the US and the PIIGS countries). One thinks immediately of the French-Algerian rescue mission at an oil installation on 1/18/2013 which began by killing most of the hostages it was supposed to rescue.

Part Two of this book is 56 pages and is called “Ventriloquous Evil”. It is an address that was given in Quito, Ecuador in September 2006. Jean Baudrillard died the next spring, in March of 2007. In this part, Ventriloquous Evil is concerned with what happens after Western bourgeois cultural thought has been emptied of all meaning. It begins with an expression of the problem of ‘hegemony’ versus ‘domination’:

Domination is defined by what it is opposed to, by relations of force and internal contradictions. It is defined by a negativity, and, in order to exist, the master has as much need of the slave as the slave has of the master. Hegemony, by contrast, no longer has need of the opposite term; it does not need its contrary in order to exist – that contrary for which, unlike domination, it has no definition (which is why the concept of ‘liberation’ has no meaning for it: it has meaning only in the field of systems of domination). (pp. 35-36, parentheses in the original text).

Ventriloquous Evil is what happens when the Western “Good” wins and achieves hegemony. For those who might read this small book, it is best not to ruin it by telling the ending. Suffice it to say that Jean Baudrillard, right until his death, held out hope for humanity and he finds the solutions to these problems in the writing of Yukio Mishima and Alan Sillitoe among others – in the literature of Events. Jean Baudrillard’s symbolic realm of gift and potlatch opens a door for all of us:

There remains, also, the nostalgia cultivated by all heresies over the course of history – the dream, running parallel to the course of the real world, of the absolute event which would open on to a thousand years of happiness. The heightened expectation of the single event that would, at a stroke, unmask the enormous conspiracy in which we are immersed. This expectation is still at the heart of the collective imagination. The Apocalypse is present, in homeopathic doses, in each of us. (p. 89)

f. jones

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.

A Is for Adraknones

I’m going to wager that you know someone who has read more science fiction and/or fantasy novels than I have. In fact, you might be that person. I don’t live in the world of sf/fantasy; however, I’ve been vacationing there off and on for the past several years. I know a little bit about it, but no, not as much as you or your know-it-all friend.

My attraction to sf/fantasy is the creations of other worlds. This is not surprising. I’ll be up front in saying that the world I want to live in is not this one. I also recognize that there’s a fair amount of investment in creating a world, which is why a lot of sf/fantasy stories are published in series or at least as mammoth tomes. If you’re going to invent a new world, you may as well get a number of books out of it, or at least many pages. There’s also a certain commitment that I as a reader must make in order to fully engage with this.

I’m drawn to these alternate worlds generally because I would prefer to live in those worlds. For example, I would absolutely live in the magical world of Harry Potter if I had the choice. Even with Death Eaters and dragons, I’d still choose this if it also meant I could ride a broom and perform spells and hexes. Some literary worlds I’m a little more ambivalent about hypothetically inhabiting, such as Middle-earth in Tolkien’s books and Bas-Lag in the trilogy by China Mieville. Neither place is a walk in the park.

Recently I read Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Unlike my previous examples, it falls under the speculative fiction genre rather than the fantasy. It tips the scales at a hefty 890 pages, with another 45 pages dedicated to a glossary and three mathematical appendices. My hardcover copy could be used to bludgeon an opponent’s skull before polycosmology could erupt from anybody’s lips. The first third of the book is dedicated to describing the world that the protagonist Fraa Erasmus inhabits and its system of philosophical monasteries called concents. Arbre is a world similar to ours but with a few subtle differences. Stephenson creates new terminology to describe analogous occurrences. Jeejahs, fraas, suurs, Deolaters, and the Hylaean Theoric World: they each have corresponding realities in the world we live in, and some of their meanings can be deduced from comparable etymology.

There’s a criticism to be made about inventing new terms for things that an author could conceivably describe in the language in which the book is being written. It’s a lot of new words for a reader to pick up. The glossary is 20 pages long. It’s not every reader who will want to attempt such an endeavor. Some of my science fiction fan friends couldn’t tolerate the book because of this. I might not have attempted it if I hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed two of Stephenson’s novels already, including Cryptonomicon which at nearly 1200 pages is the longest novel I have ever read. As is turns out though, I seem to have a very long attention span for novels. Anticipating Anathem‘s bounty of new terms, I actually read the glossary first. If an author is going to go through the trouble of creating a new world, I want to at least understand it.

Let’s talk about the creation of terms first. Language literally defines the practices and values of a given civilization. If you were going to create a new world, why wouldn’t the words be different? In the practice of writing speculative fiction, you also have to think about the consistency of terminology within the given system. Arbre didn’t have Pythagoras; therefore the length of a hypotenuse isn’t determined with the Pythagorean Theorum but with the Adraknonic Theorum, named after ancient Arbran theorist Adrakhones. Arbre also has two language groups— Orth, reserved solely for monastic living, and various vernacular languages across the world, Fluccish being the one in use where most of the book takes place. Stephenson is no dummy; he makes an introductory disclaimer that while the book is translated from Arbran languages, original terminology is kept unless the difference between the Arbran object and our counterpart is so small that to use an Arbran term would be unnecessarily complicated. He cites the carrot as an example of something whose Arbran counterpart is so similar that he (the translator) may as well just call them carrots to make it easier on the reader. He also begins the book with a brief timeline of the approximately 7000 years of Arbran ontological history..

In addition to a long attention span for novels I also seem to have an ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to reading books about different worlds than my own. Once, after having read a few Harry Potter books in a row, I found myself requiring a pen that was across the room. Without pausing for thought, I said, “Accio pen!” Yes, aloud. It took me half a second to realize that the pen wasn’t going to fly across the room into my hand.

Similarly, Anathem‘s mathic system— that is to say, the social division on Arbre that places intellectuals and philosophers inside networks of monastic seclusion— infused my brain with its terms and features. I wondered if I would have been in the Edharian group or the New Circle, or if I would have been one of the Saeculars whom for whatever reason had never been properly assessed and collected as a child by the monastic orders. I even went through my romantic history and mentally categorized my relationships into Tivian liaisons and Etrevenean ones. Some of the argumentative concepts also seemed useful, and I nearly forgot that I couldn’t drop those terms in regular conversations. The Rake is Arbran shorthand for the idea that wishing something is true doesn’t make it more likely to be true, and stems from an incident when an ancient philosopher used a garden implement to brush away zealots. The Steelyard is a similar mental tool which states that when faced with two hypotheses to choose the simpler one, based on an ancient metaphor involving a scale.

I wonder if it’s just an aspect of these worlds that I’m drawn to, in the same way that Ren Faire folks obsess over only a certain spectrum of Renaissance era living. I like the part of Harry Potter that exists in Hogwarts, and I like the concents in Anathem. What does this say about me— that my true desire is to live in a cult? I hope not. No, I think what it says is that if I could, I would choose a life outside of capitalism. The concents as they are described in the beginning of the book seem like idyllic intentional communities where contemplation is favored over consumer culture. At first, it seems like a livable trade-off— sure there are rules about what documents you’re allowed to read and what technologies you can have access to, but on the other hand once you come of age your time is for the most part your own. Reading, writing, growing and preparing food, pursuing crafts or martial arts that interest you, and most importantly consulting with your peers— you can make a life of this.

I could make a life of this.

However, as with many things in life and in fiction, illusions fall away. The concents are centers of intellectual separatism which manage to successfully resist the comparably frenetic pace of cultural and technological change outside their fortified gates, but they are also themselves political entities with power and weaknesses known only to secret organizations within their walls. They maintain their perceived neutrality and separation only insofar as the outside governments decide to grant it to them, a situation not that different than an intentional community or cult on our planet that is left alone by military forces until such time that its inhabitants are deemed too dangerous or too useful.

As a result, I’m back on this planet, at least until I read another science fiction book.

How to Survive in Graduate School

A Review of Postmodernism is Not What You Think

Postmodernism Is Not What You Think by Charles Lemert, 1997.

Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 185 pages (first edition)

This first edition of Postmodernism is not what you think was written over 13 years ago, just before the “event” that changed everything. A proud and bright icon of modern architecture stands on the cover, mocking the two lowly constructions which appear to be from a younger age and time. It as if Charles Lemert wants to remind us that the problem of modernism have not yet passed. A simple and rarely refuted thesis dawns upon me: the problem of modernity is the problem that can not be gotten beyond. 1997 .. this was the same year that a lesser known post-anarchist by the name of John Caputo (you will recall an essay about Derrida’s “Responsible Anarchy”) introduced his book Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. Caputo wrote in his book that the “apostles of anti-deconstruction seem to think [in response to] strange readings of odd poems in graduate literary theory classes, [that] when the sort of anarchy that deconstruction perpetrates threatens to spill over into the streets of ethics and politics, that is serious business and it is not to be taken lightly. [They] have to put a stop to it; that is [their] ethical and civic duty, [they, the] Knights of Good Conscience.”

One does not need to get behind the ethics of “responsible anarchy” to appreciate the way modernist ideas have inked their way back onto the pages of the book. Caputo wrote: “Deconstruction is […] the irrepressible anarchy of signifiers, the unmasterable, anarchic event of archi-ecriture.” And here, like so many signifiers spilled across a page, we are confronted with a proud modernism:

The problem of recuperation is precisely the problem of the retroactive powers of the state(ments); they inscribe the history of the text with the powers of the present. This is why Derrida’s responsible anarchy discloses is covered by the image of the state(ment). We have only to approach the image of the cover, in Lemert’s pro-postmodernism book to establish the legitimacy of this thesis and to thereby refer outside of the so-called anarchy of signifiers, and outside of the text, to the “nothing” that Derrida so favourably described (“there is nothing outside the con/text”).

1997 .. this was a time when so-called post-modernists, Derrida as our exemplar, were bitterly critiquing the works of modernist Marxists such as Habermas (and vice versa), proclaiming Marxism to be the shallow language of the university that one will have to learn to speak without speaking, to speak while secretly overcoming, to master so as to give way to the forces of anarchy in the university. This was a time when it was safe to present a cover of a modernist piece of architecture crumbling to the ground and yet Lemert did not take the opportunity. And has he not been validated by history?

2005 .. the second edition of Postmodernism is not what you think was published. This was a time of rational dialogue between postmodernists and modernists .. a time in which Derrida would overcome the differences he had with Habermas so that they might come together, as one, to speak in a single voice against a shared crisis of faith. When the twin towers of “system” and “lifeworld” come crashing down, we are left with the real terror of postmodernity and we run back to our safe space. Speaking in good conscience, Derrida and Habermas defend the ethical project of the Enlightenment. 2001 … three years before the modern towers came crashing down.

The introduction to the book Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (edited by Giovanna Borradori, 2003) explained the significance of this event in no uncertain terms: “This book is the first occasion in which Habermas and Derrida have agreed to appear side by side, responding to a similar sequence of questions in a parallel manner.” 2003 .. one “event”, an “event” that changed everything. Badiou would have us believe that through the witnessing of this rupture, in its (cover-)image, a the smooth ideology of the subject is puntured and s(he) is able to come into being by recognizing the dark face of truth. But here do we not experience precisely the opposite? The rupture of the smooth functioning of the system will always be sutured by the symbolic network of signifiers, the event terrorizes us, frightens us into submission, and we retreat back to a safe time, back to a safe place. The statist logic of modernity thereby is thereby renewed. .. Derrida and Habermas appear to us as the Knights of Good Conscience.

1997 .. 2005 … irony is at play between the two cover images. Whereas the archi-ecriture of the first cover reflects a time of modernity, while the book stands alone in defending the claims of post-modernism, the latter cover reflects a crisis of modernity at the hands of post-modernity: the twin towers of system and lifeworld are crashing to the ground. In a time of hope, Lemert has mocked us. In a time of fear, Lemert has frightened us. Finally, a book that goes all the way.

I had the honour and good fortune of listening to Charles Lemert speak at the W.C. Desmond Pacey Memorial Lecture at the University of New Brunswick. He shook the audience up with his words, provoking them. When they offered him looks of disgust, he disgusted them further. He stood unmoved by any of it, firmly in place. He spoke about the importance of coming to terms with death and stood like a corpse in front of an audience with dieing interest. After the lecture there was only one question and it was posed as such: “I respect you, Mr. Lemert, as a learned individual, and I respect that you are on the stage up there and that I am not, but all the same I wonder how you can go about spreading this theory of post-modernism and death and to thereby steal all the hope from our children?” The passionate interlocutor stood there with tears in his eyes as if to beg for mercy. Even I wanted to tell him what he wanted to hear, knowing very well he wouldn’t believe it anyway. Clearly, the interlocutor had not come prepared to engage with Mr. Lemert nor had he spent any time researching the thesis of his book.

A new thesis, rarely refuted, now dawns upon me: postmodernism is “the ability to drive people crazy, even to distraction.” This is what good post-modern philosophy does to people: it obfuscates and distracts them from the smooth functioning of their everyday lives, drawing them into new ambiences, new experiences, new ways of knowing and being. It does not do this by driving a plane into a giant piece of modern architecture, .. there is no reason to waste it all, to hurt so many people, on a strategy that won’t work anyway. But so long as I am alive, and so long as I know the error of the hysterics discourse, I speak through it from some other place of being. Imagine. Should one find oneself in the uncomfortable position of being a sociologist in the academy as well as an anarchist, a business owner and a radical, .. a baseball player and a freak; one nonetheless crucifies those who do the same. Let me reverse. Imagine. One should find oneself in the uncomfortable position of being an anarchist while also being prepared to be sacrificed to and alienated from the milieu for breaking the ethical codes that motivate the tradition, even while one believes these codes more dogmatically than most. Dare I say it? Having said it, I fear, I have already sacrificed too much.

Lemert’s quick on-point anecdotes were captivating. One such story described an incident in which a non-tenured junior colleague of sociology was carefully instructed that his/her department “so hate[d] postmodernism as to [have the individual stand] no chance of promotion should they be seen in its company.” It could similarly be stated as the case for any student of sociology, such as myself, who, after having searched through the archives of radical thought and, after finally exhausting the possibilities as to how to define the present crisis—of which it might well be impossible to doubt—to have finally stumbled upon a body of literature in nihilist anarchism, now finding herself having to defend such an audacious proposal! There is no defence! While reading this book, memories of undergraduate sociology courses vividly haunted me. I recall one debate that lasted for at least two classes in which a professor attempted to convince me that her department was more radical because it was not falling into the popular trap that so many other departments had become victim to: namely, the teach postmodern philosophy. But where does one go, in the university, to learn postmodern philosophy? Surely not Queen’s University.

The book is clearly written and surprisingly comprehensive: including, among several personal stories (even one reprinted love-note), well thought-out and cleverly focused treatments of Saussare, Derrida, Foucault, Debord, Mauss, Durkheim, Simmel, Strauss, Weber, Baudrillard, Lacan, Sivak, Habermas (who, I remember Lemert repetitively denouncing at the bar while we shared a few drinks), Barthes, Said, Rorty, Marcuse, Lyotard, Kristeva, Merton, Mills, Mead, Parsons, among many others. If one can move beyond Lemert’s naive retracing of the New Social Movements (a residue of the modern project) and his seemingly celebratory treatment of identity politics, the book is sure to be a good companion for any radical interested in understanding post-modernism and post-modernity from an academic who writes outside of the language of the university.

Lemert’s central line of argument is that not only is postmodernism not what you think, it is also not what you think. Trained as a sociologist, but be warned that he was also a minister, Lemert brings postmodernism to the sociological scrimmage line and, in the face of the supposed current crisis of theory suggests for us to stop asking “What’s wrong with sociology?”, “What is wrong with the university”, and to start asking “How does one speak the truth?, What truth?”

Perhaps there is something to this postmodernism thing after all. Whether one likes the term or not, one certainly has to admit that, as Lemert puts it, “something powerful, deep, and potentially far-reaching is going on [and this] seems to . . be beyond doubt.” A few interesting distinctions are made which are worth repeating. One of which is the difference between social theory and sociological theory. While the former is characterized by a critical attitude in the face of social life, the latter invokes a purely scientific methodology. Lemert is able to trace, not unlike many other contemporary sociologists, critical, even moral, impulses in such sociological figures as Durkheim, among others. It is this critical impulse that gives Lemert the academic force he needs to advance a case towards critically engaging with theories of the postmodern. Lemert is clearly a social theorist, he is not therefore a sociologist.

Another interesting distinction is made between what Lemert calls “radical modernism”, “radical postmodernism”, and “strategic postmodernism”. To put the matter simply: radical modernism is best explicated by Habermas’s defence of enlightenment subjectivity (the self-knowing subject), as can also be found in many of the Frankfurt school thinkers. Thus, one can sense, if not explicitly mark in the pages of such thinkers as Marcuse, the wanting to break away from the ‘iron-cage’ that Weber so dreadfully referred to. Radical postmodernism, as to be expected, is best explicated by Baudrillard and, to some degree, advanced earlier by the Situationists, for such thinkers the current situation is characterized not by the linearity and the reality of the past, but by hyperreality of the present. Strategic postmodernism, more cautious than full postmodernism and more critical than naive radical modernism, is interested in rewriting the history of modernity.

From a lonely, dark, apartment, such ends my one day encounter with Charles Lemert and the dreadfully depressing postmodernism he contends sociologists must be forced to think through. Though one might be in fear of that which is new, critical, and exciting, if one wants to invoke any sort of epistemological rupture, insurrection even, one must take, as Lemert puts it, ‘the mind of the fearless amateur’ — one who is not afraid to not know, to experiment with ugly and dirty ideas, and to face that which is unable to be explained (that which is impossible). Otherwise, one is faced with the likes of anarchism and its loyal servants who, on fear of having to contend with thoughts which bring power and responsibility closer to home, send out hostile emails, protesting the “dangerous” and decidedly infectious postmodernisms, post-lefts, and primitivists, and defending the even more dangerous and totalizing notions of progress, purity, social movements, and popularity.

Hum with the talk about these oppositional spirits

A polemical review of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin

White has declared his intention of piling up as much pressure as possible on the Queen Bishop file and on the Queen Bishop Pawn. Black must meet that threat by bringing all his resources to bear on defense of th efile, or int=stitute a counter-attack vigorous enough to divert White’s forces from assault
Logical Chess: Move by Move Irving Chernev

“Resistance is the present state of an interpretation of the subject. It is the manner in which, at the same time, the subject interprets the point he’s got to. … It simply means that he [the patient] cannot move any faster.”
The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis Lacan, Jacques.

A polemical review of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin

White has declared his intention of piling up as much pressure as possible on the Queen Bishop file and on the Queen Bishop Pawn. Black must meet that threat by bringing all his resources to bear on defense of th efile, or int=stitute a counter-attack vigorous enough to divert White’s forces from assault
Logical Chess: Move by Move Irving Chernev

“Resistance is the present state of an interpretation of the subject. It is the manner in which, at the same time, the subject interprets the point he’s got to. … It simply means that he [the patient] cannot move any faster.”
The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis Lacan, Jacques.

Before the internet there was “Blacklist: An Anti-Authoritarian Directory” published by the Blacklist Group in San Francisco around 1983-4. It listed active anarchist groups and individuals around the world in the expectation of communication between them and others. As is conventional with radical publications, the secondary visual requirements for Blacklist dragged up a hodgepodge of inadvertently telling images from various sources. One of these, in the form of a comic strip, portrayed a production line worker in a can factory. At the beginning of the strip, the worker is evidently dispirited by the repetitive tasks he must undertake… but by mid page he discovers a means by which to entertain himself. He inserts random objects into the cans. He then imagines with great delight the reactions of other people as they open the can and find what he has hidden.

The perplexing, parable-like content of this cartoon and its portrayal of an antisocial form of resistance is perhaps the explanation for its continued resonance over the 25 years since its publication. The meaning of the strip seemed in no way to relate to what I understood as anarchism at the time nor to the project of communication as envisaged by the Blacklist group. It presented an act of sabotage that, given the context of poisoning of foodstuffs and cosmetics by animal rights activists in supermarkets at the time, seemed misanthropic, even perverse in its fetishism of the compensations of workplace alienation. The revolutionary potential of such acts is not at all clear as they are phenomena that are entirely expressive of the conditions that produce them… they are directed nowhere, they are pure reaction and occur at the end of a sequence of alienation — they describe perfectly, in miniature, the entirety of the relations of domination of which they are a product.

In general, even politically, even strategically, the range of acts of resistance that may be called up by those who are held within a set of relations from which there is no escape only serve to reinforce, as these acts are brought into play like a series of last throws of the dice, the existing boundaries on permissible activities. The transgressions which a strategy of resistance attempts to instigate realise in a more immediate and tangible form, as do all transgressions, the generality of the law. There is nothing within resistance that does not already belong to that which is being resisted. Resistant values are not only derivative of dominant values they are also, as they become well-established, dependant for their continued relevance on the relations that they refuse. Resistance is the realisation of an experienced powerlessness to transform conditions and occurs in that place where a practice directed at social transformation would otherwise appear.

But who would believe that the path of most resistance is also, from another perspective, the path of least resistance? That the energy discharged along it is lost from the project of social change? And who would countenance the idea that opposition conducted outside of the register of resistance iconography is actually more resistant of the relations of domination? Impossible. Or at least, a fantastical proposition! But if we accept that the resistance role is always designated within the relations of domination; and that all historical examples of that role seem to conform to this taxonomic type; and that the operation of this type, in all situations contributes to the reproduction of unchanging conditions; then perhaps there are grounds for further investigation.

The resistance of husband and wife, Otto and Anna Quangel, conducted against the Nazi regime in Hans Fallada’s novel Alone In Berlin and which is thereby translated into an image of militant refusal by the narrative, typifies the aesthetics which underly resistance rationales. Within narrative conventions, the function of such images is to serve as uplifting examples, they are fed back into an ideology which presents acts of resistance as moments of transcendence even where nothing objective can be demonstrated to have been achieved — shorn of the apparatus which circulates them, they become self-justifying and unimpeachable because of their apparent succinct and stand alone beauty. Resistance always just is and all requests for explanation are treated as suspect.

The ownership and circulation of images of resistance becomes a powerful means of political organising. The use of resistant acts, rather than the acts themselves, is an underhand means of participating in the political establishment whilst presenting an oppositional ideology. The aesthetic of resistance is fundamentally mystificatory because it is not conventional to subject it to critique. We observe, in acts of resistance, a curious example of the phenomenon in which the register of survival is occluded by a register of the immediate… within the image of resistance not only are the priorities of survival obstructed by the priorities of the moment, very often (as in the case of suicide missions) they are actively denied —never mind your life, this is the cause!

The means by which this occlusion occurs and its reason cannot be discussed in this context and yet the capacity for human beings to become caught up and exult in a logic of self-defeat, where an image of the frozen present subjectively dominates active existence, and where all alternative futures completely disappear from awareness, has to be considered a decisive characteristic of the socialised human being. Not to recognise the work of this destructive capacity for willing absorption into temporary exigency would render both acts of resistance and their conversion into political images incomprehensible. In other words, resistance is always the art of resistance.

The narrative of Alone In Berlin first presents the Quangel’s at the moment of their receiving the news of their son’s death in the war. It shows how their well-entrenched incapacity for expressing love renders them unable to adequately grieve for his loss — not being able to express any emotional weakness is of course significant within the Quangel’s historical context. Up to this moment Otto has been no friend of the regime but nor has he been an active enemy. However, from the announcement of his son’s death his principle of non-involvement is turned on its head and the image of his personal struggle against the Nazi state, powered by the absence of his personal grief, begins to take hold of him. He conceives of a long campaign in which he proposes to leave postcards denouncing the regime and the war in semi-public places… he imagines the postcards having immediate positive effect on his fellow citizens and their consequent eager discussing of his ideas. His wife is sceptical at first:

And what was he proposing? Nothing at all, something so ridiculously small, something absolutely in his character, something discreet, out of the way, something that wouldn’t interfere with his peace and quiet. Postcards with slogans against the FŸhrer and the Party, against the war, for the information of his fellow men, that was all. And these cards he wasn’t going to send to particular individuals, or stick on the walls like placards, no, he wanted to leave them lying in the stairwells of widely visited buildings, leave them to their fate, without any control over who picked them up, where the might be trampled underfoot, torn up… Everything in her rebelled against this obscure and ignoble form of warfare. She wanted to be active, to do something with results she could see!

Both Otto and Anna gain some partial insight in their analysis of the function of the cards — their mutual corrections of each other’s ideas fill out the underlying aesthetic of this shadowy figure at the brink of covert action. No image is more positively charged in politics than that of the resistance fighter and yet the components of this image often pass unexamined: it is about a lived drama; it is about a great gamble; it is about the neat encapsulation of the generality by the isolated individual; it is about the embodied contrast between homely and glorious principles; it is about not having enough resources and yet having no choice but to fight back; it is about being alone; it is about being tested by danger, above all danger; it is about the setting of one’s own pathetic status against the might of what cannot be changed; it is about hopelessness of one’s position, above all the hopeless; it is about actively narrowing everything down to the moment, the switch, the movement from this side of complicity to the other; it is about living as an image; it is about the play of social forces in one’s actions, in one’s own existence; it is about separating oneself, elevating oneself; it is about the ascetic as a plenitude; it is about binding oneself to an external purpose; it is about living in a moment without a future where every experience is suffused with death and defeat.

In their joint assessment of the project, Otto rightly understands that the cards represent his only realistic opportunity for prolonged activity given their limited resources whilst Anna rightly understands that the cards will make no difference to anyone but themselves. Unfortunately for them, the inflationary element in Otto’s vision of communicating with the masses and the imaginary movement that will result prove too intoxicating for both of them. The adoption of resistant personae, of becoming an image for themselves, has a radical effect upon their perception of the world:

Things that when they first had happened had struck them as barely censurable, such as the suppression of all other political parties, or things that they had condemned as merely excessive in degree or too vigourously carried out, like the persecution of the Jews — such things, now that the Quangels had become enemies of the FŸhrer, came to have a completely different weight and importance. The proved mendacity of the Party and its FŸhrer. And, like all converts, the Quangels had the desire to convert others […] Neither Quangle doubted for one moment that their cards were being passed from hand to hand in factories and offices, that Berlin was beginning to hum with the talk about these oppositional spirits […] They had so often thought and spoken about the great effectiveness of their work that the circulation of their cards and the attention that greeted them was, as far as they were concerned, no longer theoretical but practical […] And yet the Quangels didn’t have the least actual evidence for this.

The intoxicating effect of a new belief system causes the convert to mistake his personal rapture for a widespread external phenomenon. The individual’s absorption in his works is mistaken for a corresponding absorption of those he thinks are consuming his message. It is impossible for anyone in such a heightened state to consider the possibility that it is not messages that are decisive, and that this message, despite its subjective exigency, is only objectively equivalent to all others. After all, it is not possible that a person writes this message (which cannot not be written) whilst also considering that it will be received by others in the same state of incomprehension and indifference as are all adverts for unwanted products.

Unknown to the Quangels, their ambitions are pricked from the start. They anticipate that perhaps a fifth of their productions will fall into the hands of the police when in fact almost all are immediately handed in. And where Otto and Anna assume they are communicating with a widespread readership their communiqu’s are in fact only monitored by the local Gestapo in the development of a psychological profile of them.

At its core, the image of resistance (that is those sequences of resistance which pass through a political cycle and which are deployed as a narrative) is defined by its ambitions for a direct route to power — of most concern is the way it by-passes those who it is supposed to speak to and for, and the manner in which it seeks to go straight to the top. The essence of the ideology of resistance is located in its search for an amplification of the beautifully succinct gesture into a lasting and meaningful gain — that is, the goal is the transformation by force of local instances into generalisable relations. Often this involves explosives but sometimes the narration of the mythologised act itself is sufficient — there seems an inverse proportionality between the pitiful character of the act and its suitability for mythic recuperation (the more puny the David, the more terrible the Goliath, the more potent the narrative).

For as long as he survives, the resistant can be sure that his resistance is recognised and catalogued by that which is being resisted… it is a game of cat and mouse, a sort of intimate dialogue which functions to further delineate the nature and the reach of the authorities. Without Winston Smith, O’Brien would not have had the opportunity to speak so eloquently. Without the Quangels, the Berlin Gestapo would not have known itself quite so accurately. Acts of resistance, to the degree that they come to the authorities’ attention, are the means by which the authorities’ knowledge of their own capabilities are appropriated through the works of others. It is also hoped by the resistant party, and this sometimes happens, that the extension of the authorities’ knowledge of itself eventually reaches a recognition of its own need to institutionalise its opponents as a function of itself.

Only the authorities take the Quangels seriously. Only the Gestapo register the potential threat of their postcards and this because of the absolute absence of all other significant internal opposition to the regime. If the postcards had indicated a network and expressed a wider set of relations which were constituted as something more than this particular gesture of opposition, then the method of the postcards would have been rendered immediately obsolete to that network (how might such a strategy have furthered the cause of such a network?)… but the fact that the postcards are utilised as the chosen method, the Gestapo rightly deduce, only serves to indicate the author’s isolation and thus prove the absence of any significant network. Acts of resistance illuminate, and bring into focus, relations of power as they are constituted in that moment, they succinctly express the extent of those relations — the Quangel’s cards confess the dead end in which they find themselves, their discourse banished to the top of stairwells in anonymous buildings.

He shook his head. “Dear, oh dear!” he said with mock disapproval. “You do make it so terribly easy for us! And you’d like to be conspirators? You’re trying to bring down the state with your childish games. The only people you’ll bring down are yourselves!”

Resistance appears where defeat is certain. Its miragic image only occurs in relations where an opportunity for transformation of those relations is absent. It advances a rationale, or justification, of worthwhile sacrifice but by this it also feeds into the state’s certainty of there being no alternative. The choice presented by state and resistant alike is always between suicidal “childish games” or consensual silence. The state seeks to provoke these premature confrontations on its territory and in its temporality — it is to its advantage that those who oppose it dissolve themselves in rushed images of heroism in defeat. And it is to the advantage of resistance ideologues that they focus all awareness of acts of resistance on the images rather than on the costs (great) or the material gains achieved (non-existent).

Where the motifs of resistance are rejected, a more careful analysis of the situation becomes infused by the certain knowledge that both the territory and the temporality of the state are themselves only temporarily held. The impersonal forces which brought such and such faction to power will soon also destroy it. Whilst the resistance aesthetic invests in the state’s own image of itself as a constant which terrifyingly fills every horizon, a Reich that will last a thousand years, the social critic by contrast, perceives this government as essentially fleeting and arbitrary in character.

The greatest victory of any powerful elite achieved over its opponents is where it dictates how it is to be perceived and engaged by them. By contrast, any true rejection of instituted domination must be based upon life lived in the certainty of time passing, in the intuition of the temporariness of this incarnation of domination, in acceptance of itscontingency, in the knowledge of its coming failure, and in the thought of its helplessness within its own decline. Set hard upon this awareness of domination’s mighty weakness is always the continued possibility of living other lives in an other future.

Escherich asked, “Do you know how many letters and postcards you wrote, Quangel?”
“Two hundred and seventy-six postcards, nine letters.”
“Which means that all of eighteen items were not handed in.”
“Eighteen items: that’s the sum total of my work of two years, my hope. My life for those eighteen pieces of paper. Well, at least they were as many as that.!”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Quangel,” said the inspector, Ôthat those eighteen circulated from hand to hand. No, it’s just that they were found by individuals so deeply compromised already that they didn’t dare hand them in. Those eighteen cards were just as ineffectual as all the others. We’ve never heard anything from the public at large that leads us to think they had the least effect…”
“So I’ve accomplished nothing?”
“So you’ve accomplished nothing – certainly nothing that you would have wanted to accomplish!…”

The exchange ends with the Gestapo inspector sketching out the odds of one man up against the state whilst Quangel asserts the necessity of his struggle despite it all. He ends by saying that if he had the chance he would fight again but he would fight differently. This insight concerning how the fight might be undertaken differently always occurs at the end of the logic of resistance and yet because resistance itself is conducted by isolated individuals either operating alone or directed by a remote leadership, the insight itself cannot be passed on… each resistant is presented with the same options in the inexorable logic of premature struggles, and each encounters the same endgame which must be played out wholly on the terms of the police. The resistance sequence always ends in the interrogation room. The problem for every opponent of instituted power is how to instigate an opposition that might be conducted, as Quangel wishes, “differently”. How is it possible for any opposition to avoid the trap of futile re-enactment of the established rituals and motifs of resistance which must always end in the same heroic defeat only later redeemed as rebel songs and folk sentimentality?

Quangel, whilst awaiting execution, and as he undergoes a sudden transformation in his personality, does gain profound insights, in spite of the novel’s narrative drift, into how a different opposition might be conducted — significantly this connection with himself occurs because his worklife has been forcibly suspended. But these insights arrive too late and are not communicable to anyone within the novel’s narrative:

“I sometimes think now, Doctor, about the gifts I had no idea I had. It’s only since meeting you, since coming to this death row, that I understand how much I’ve missed out on in my life.”
“It’s like that for everyone. Everyone facing death, especially premature death, like us, will be kicking themselves about each wasted hour.”
“But it’s different for me, Doctor. I always thought it was enough if I did my work properly and didn’t mess anything up. And now I learn that there are loads of other things I could have done: play chess, be kind to people, listen to music, go to the theatre.”

Quangel begins to understand that the image of resistance which he had dissolved himself into, and the appearance to him of the necessity of this resistance, the form it had to take, the effect it had to have, the engagement it sought out, all essentially belonged to the discourse of that which was being resisted Ð he perceives that he had been articulating its militarised codes and reproducing its exigencies within his own life. He was not so much resisting as playing out a role.

The religious-moral justifications made by his cellmate in response, that he has retained his dignity and that he has not been corrupted, do not convince him. He seems to perceive that thousands dying alone only indicates a wasted opportunity for the establishment of other sets of relations, for other forms of organisation which do not require that level of individual purity and dignity which leads ineluctably to the grave. It seems that in this passage he begins to grasp that he has colluded in promoting the priorities of an instrumentalist logic in the place of his own humanity, that by (in Sixties terminology) “going underground” and adopting a clandestine, semi-militarised existence he has refused human relations and the register of human experience in order to achieve a political end, an end which in fact could only be realised by living it as a prefigurative means. It is the predicament which is presented to every pro-revolutionary — the operational values of the most militant rebels come to resemble most the values of the dominant order.

Whilst the character of Otto Quangel seems to encounter these thoughts, the narrative direction of the novel does not adopt them, it cannot portray his resistance as a dead end but instead adopts a transcendent, even supernatural, tone of release at the end. Alone in Berlin romanticises the wretchedness and underplays the delusions of Otto and Anna. Where, in reality, their interventions have literally no social impact, the novel interjects the postcards into the psychological processes of leading local Gestapo officers and thereby bestows upon them an aura of objective political significance which they simply cannot have — crackpots may prove troublesome to the authorities but they do not constitute a realistic opposition.

Just as Melville deploys mental illness as a distancing device in Bartleby the Scrivener, so as to reveal social conventions and create a liberating “different point of view” from which the character of Bartleby himself gains no benefit so Fallada portrays the resistance of Otto and Anna in a heightened aesthetisised register so that, for the reader, their executions appear an acceptable cost for the glory that has been gained, and by implication that such activities should be emulated. The affect-benefits of all martyr narratives are experienced only as a sort of reflected glory by those buying into the ideology of martyrdom and evidently not by those who are sacrificed. The martyrs do not live on in the cause. They are just converted into images and become a sort of currency — images being so much more persistent than human life. Heroes do not go to heaven. They just die.

Introspective acts of resistance (i.e. those political acts which manifest the actant’s psychology in the external world) require an external narrative to circulate them as images in order that they might be consumed from the outside (i.e. in a form where the psychological aspects have been erased.) The miracles of Jesus, as acts of resistance, in which redemption is supernaturalised in a context where social and political transformation is impossible, only make political sense if understood as instances of mental anguish in a context without hope of change. That Jesus felt a profound empathy and wished he could feed, unblind, cure, raise-up those who were suffering around him is only recorded because he was unable to conceive of such transformations in any terms but as miracles (inexplicable images of transformation) — the chasm between the register of suffering and the capacity to do anything about it is mystified in the image of transcendence.

The supernatural appears within relations where an opportunity for transformation of those relations is absent — supernature resists the limits of reality by means of images of transcendence. And the aura of the supernatural still suffuses the images deployed in modern resistance narratives, even where explicit supernatural references are removed. The image of resistance mystifies that space which nonetheless remains empty and which should be taken up by the process of social transformation which as long as change is conceived in terms of fighting, is materially absent from the practice of subjected populations.

If Otto and Anna had set up a reading group, or a discussion network, their grief, their relationship problems and their political impotence, i.e. their actual problems, would have had to shape their participation. Beginning from the constraints of their actual social position they would have had to engage their conditions without recourse to fantasies of wildly disproportionate effect. Whether this approach would have succeeded or failed in any register at all is impossible to say, but it would at least have retained the object appropriate to their engagement, i.e. the question of changing their lives, an object only encountered by Otto on death row.

The intoxicating power of the image of resistance is the result of its framing within a narrative context that grants to isolated gestures an external heroic aura. For it to work effectively, the image which is collapsed into an act-person-strategy amalgam has first to be extracted from the actual wretched people, the actually wretched acts, the actually wretched thinking and the actual wretched context where the act first wretchedly appeared. The image is intended within the context of the narrative to induce an immediate and thoughtless identification. The narrative assumes a form of consumption in which there is an already established proclivity to exteriorise political consciousness and perceive struggle in terms of simplified heroic righteousness.

The act-person-strategy amalgam is an aestheticised image which proposes redemption from inescapable wretchedness … it is the mechanism by which oppression by heroes is constructed, and normative myths promulgated. Fetishised gestures of resistance are bought into by other equally wretched individuals who are equally unable or unwilling to face up to the real problems that they face. Desperate resistant acts are also premature discharges along paths of least resistance — avoiding the most awkward problems and seeking out resonant images to supplant them with.

It is a strange argument that upholds itself in these terms: where that which purportedly resists in fact, within a different register, does not resist at all and where that opposition which does not seek to express itself in the images of resistance in fact is most resistant to domination. How difficult it is to put forward this idea and how fraught with inevitable misrepresentations. How might it, for example, be promoted to a Palestinian freedom fighter? Impossible. Impossible. What a terrible force of will it takes not to fight back and yet who would believe that?

By what means might it be communicated that there is always another alternative, a more felt, even more painful register that is directed away from the discourse of the rigid imagery of feuding and towards the full complexity of human beings living lives distinct from images? There are no such means. Only within the discourse of resistance itself perhaps, at the end of its logic, on death row as it were, and facing its own defeat, can non-resistance seem an alluring political possibility. Otherwise, it is taking political opposition to the point of absurdity to suggest that this other non-resistant/more resistant alternative is constituted less in terms of the “tightening” aesthetic of striking back and taking the fight to the enemy and more directed towards an ongoing practice of relaxing constraints, the releasing of binds and the redirection of life’s energies into other relations and structures. Truly, a quixotic enterprise.

Has the insurrection come yet? My arm is getting tired…

A cartography of The Coming Insurrection, Tiqqun, and their Party

“I didn’t come to praise Caesar, but to bury him.”

The Emperor is missing some clothes

I want to critique The Coming Insurrection and some of the writings of Tiqqun not because I dislike these texts but on the contrary because I like them, because I find them interesting, and because they have become so popular. I focus on the weaknesses because I find their strengths to be self-evident and through this review I hope to encourage more people to read them, but in a critical way. The aura of fashion that has surrounded them encourages one to swallow these texts wholesale and uncritically, so that they become digested as a style rather than as an analysis.

A cartography of The Coming Insurrection, Tiqqun, and their Party

“I didn’t come to praise Caesar, but to bury him.”

The Emperor is missing some clothes

I want to critique The Coming Insurrection and some of the writings of Tiqqun not because I dislike these texts but on the contrary because I like them, because I find them interesting, and because they have become so popular. I focus on the weaknesses because I find their strengths to be self-evident and through this review I hope to encourage more people to read them, but in a critical way. The aura of fashion that has surrounded them encourages one to swallow these texts wholesale and uncritically, so that they become digested as a style rather than as an analysis.

The “Chicago Branch” of the Imaginary Party, for example, put out a translation of “Theses on the Imaginary Party” which is dotted with sentences so botched that the translators themselves probably did not understand them, as they are absolutely ungrammatical. (For example, in thesis 3: “It follows identically for the social war of which the combats can remain at their paroxysm perfectly silent and, so to speak, colorless.” And in thesis 17: “One does not insult a mode of unveiling like a fortress, even if one can usefully lead to the other.”) Despite this incomprehension, the Party members in Chicago found something so exciting in it that they “chose to reformat this text to give momentum to its North American circulation, and give it the aesthetic backing it deserves. And because we really like Tiqqun.”

How is it to be said?

While “Theses on the Imaginary Party” could probably be burnt to ashes without any great loss, the other translations I worked with were all poetic, and the texts thought-provoking. Theory of Bloom and The Coming Insurrection deserve to join the great works of philosophy of their respective centuries. But then, as they might agree, philosophy has often been nothing more than the justification of a certain ordering of things.

While the Invisible Committee’s writings are a sincere strike against a certain arrangement of lies, there are a number of operations they perform in how they communicate that exacerbate other of their weaknesses, and lead to a certain problematic ordering of revolution.

First of all, they communicate through resonance, rather than through argument. This is to say, they present a description of reality as self-evident, confident that some readers will immediately identify with their words, seeing in them possibilities they find attractive, or an apt description of their own experience they might not have been able to formulate for themselves.
“In our time of utter decadence, the only thing imposing about temples is the dismal truth that they are already in ruins.” [TCI, p.112]
This “truth” will ring true to some readers, thus any concrete proposition logically based on this truth will seem valid, but to other people, with other experiences, the temples—the institutions that manufacture power and meaning—may justifiably seem robust. This latter group are not presented with any convincing arguments, any evidence, to change their perception or question their experience. If the text does not resonate with them, it simply moves on without them.

The advantage of resonance is that it communicates, more than an idea, a certainty, an inspired strength, that reasoned argument cannot; and it bypasses the discourses of the Spectacle, the distracting alibis that don’t deserve to be taken seriously and argued with. Presenting reasoned arguments against the flows of Capital could be like sitting down to a debate with a Creationist or global warming denier; it gives them legitimacy.

The disadvantage is its high potential for demagogery. It creates an in-group and an out-group, based on who is predisposed to receive those words. Rightwing radio jockeys also use resonance, although with the crucial difference that they can rely on a mass fabrication of experiences to ensure a greater amount of resonance. The TV news is full of crime stories, so when they talk about fear of crime, their message will resonate with many in the audience who have a virtual experience of crime. Because the Invisible Committee cannot rely on the discourses of the Spectacle, the fact that their words resonate with so many people means they’re on to something.

However, on top of resonance they add a second problematic method of communication: the frequent use of untrue truisms. For example: “this same lack of discipline figures so prominently among the recognized military virtues of resistance fighters.” [TCI, p.111]. Actually, one finds in the biographies of many if not most resistance fighters a strict personal and group discipline, which only some do not share. But the Invisible Committee simply does not engage with facts on this factual level. And the resonance-blinded reader will be predisposed to breeze through these errors.

Another example: “Nothing can explain the systematic lack of remorse among criminals, if not the mute sentiment of participating in a grandiose work of devastation.” [Theses, thesis 20]. Actually, a great many criminals are remorseful, even when they distinctly should not be, and this reality tells us as much if not more about the functioning of power than the putative silence of the remorseless ones, into whose closed mouths the Invisible Committee is comfortable inserting entire soliloquies.

Thirdly is the element of totalization. Like their Situationist predecessors, the Invisible Committee is proposing a theory by which to understand the totality of domination, struggle, identity, and existence. Their theory is a very sound one, an interesting one, and an inspiring one, but it would be reductionist to understand it as the only one with any validity. Yet this, it seems, is what they do, confusing the finger with the moon like the fool in the old zen parable.

We can read, for example, statements like:
“That’s the reason for the well planned and public constitution of a lumpen-proletariat in all the nations where late capitalism reigns: the lumpens are there to dissuade Bloom from abandoning his essential detachment by the abrupt but frightening threat of hunger.” [Bloom, p.100].
Really? The existence of an entire class can be reduced to their utility in frightening others? And when were the lumpen-proletariat ever not publicly constituted, and what were the reasons for their constitution before the advent of Bloom, and why did these reasons fully disappear with Bloom? At what point did society change so thoroughly that one theory could disappear and another appear, having fully subsumed all the mechanisms of the former?

A fourth hallmark of the manifestos of the Imaginary Party is non-falsifiability. They go beyond offering poetic, inspiring, or useful descriptions of reality to argue scientific causality and propose (semi)concrete actions. It often happens something like this:
“Organizations are obstacles to organizing ourselves.
“In truth, there is no gap between what we are, what we do, and what we are becoming. “Organizations—political or labor, fascist or anarchist—always begin by separating, practically, these aspects of existence.” [TCI, p.15]

The first two sentences contain interesting points. They do not need to be absolutely true in order to be useful. However, the writers go on to assert a causal connection between those two points; in other words by always enforcing this existential gap, organizations make themselves obstacles. Now they have moved from a poetic or suggestive logic to a scientific one, at the same time as they make a non-falsifiable statement about the origin of organizations. This assertion cannot be true in any empirical sense, it can only be true if you accept the insistence of its truth. You must accept their specific redefinition of a common word and the writers need not take any risks by clarifying which actual groups constitute organizations, by this new definition, and which do not.

“Organization” is now reserved as an ideological weapon to be used against those whose organizing one does not like.

Generally, and again like the Situationists, the Invisible Committee are careful not to make any falsifiable statements while offering up their total theory, even while they use a scientific or causal logic. And the few times they do let slip an assertion that can be factually checked, it falls flat on its face. For example:
“It is a rarely disputed fact: we know from experience that the violence of explosions grows in proportion to excessive confinement.” [Bloom, p.113].
This is another fact that is not a fact. Confinement often leads to greater passivity, to depression and unresponsiveness. This can be factually confirmed in a prison, at the zoo, in densely populated cities, during the Holocaust. Violent explosions are sometimes related to confinement, but the relationship is hardly so simple to justify such a facile correlation.

The Second Coming Insurrection

From its very title, the millenarian character of The Coming Insurrection becomes apparent.
“Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode. [TCI p.9]
“Whether [the collapse] comes sooner or later, the point is to prepare for it.” [TCI p.9]
“Everyone agrees that things can only get worse. “The future has no future.”” [TCI p.23]
The same imminence can be found in other texts of theirs. “We know at present that the denouement is close.” [Theses, No. 15]
“commodity society” has reached “its final age.” [Bloom, p.97].
The insurrection is coming. One can almost hear it panting out those very words in the exuberance of these writings. As we’ve seen, there is no need to argue this certainty. In the style of Appel (the earlier book by this crew), it is presented simply as “an evident.”

What is accomplished by this operation? Those with whom these texts resonate, which is to say, those who are predisposed to agree with them, will be inspired by the poetic language, the beautiful descriptions of their own isolated experiences, and empowered by the projection of strength, certainty, and confidence. For everyone else, the text will have no effect. Thus, the Invisible Committee’s chosen form of communication creates a strong divide between believer and gentile which is at its core thoroughly unstrategic, not because there is anything wrong with resonance over argument, but because the specific message the IC is spreading speaks of an impending civil war in which we will have to choose sides, yet the way they spread it forgoes the necessity of intervention, of influencing how others perceive that choice and what choice they make.

Our attention is directed towards the certainty of this insurrection’s arrival and away from what we might do to aid it. If we are predisposed, we will “break ranks.” If not, we won’t. And that’s not even worrisome, because we are presented (again) with a revolution that unfolds from an internal “dialectic”. If Blooms and the negative acts of desertion they are capable of are simply produced by the contradictions within the Spectacle, within the “empire of positivity”, then we are once again saddled with a mechanistic view of struggle.

The contradiction between dialectics and human agency is especially pronounced in Theory of Bloom. Tiqqun “is not the revolution that must be waited for, muchless the revolution that we can prepare: but the revolution that is taking place according to its own invisible pulsations, in a temporality operating internally within history.” [Bloom, p.102]. Here we are presented with a revolution wholly unaffected by our choices, plans, preparations, and strategies. A revolution we need not even be conscious of, and that is, in fact, largely inscrutable, according to the assurances of the Invisible Committee. This absence of strategy undergoes a curious shift towards an exaltation of agency, with such passages acting as intermediary: “Because [Bloom’s] strategy is to produce disaster, and around himself to produce silence.” [Bloom, p.115]. Since Bloom is a phenomenon and a condition produced by the Spectacle, the emptiness on the other side of alienated individuality, any strategy that is ascribed to him is a function of his characteristics rather than a choice of his desires. He is just another machine, but one that “produces” disaster.

Only at the rousing end of the text does Bloom gain his agency, and we suddenly hear about the “duty to make decisions” [Bloom, p.122].

This is neither incoherence nor creative paradox. An attentive reading of Tiqqun reveals that there is a run-of-the-mill Bloom and a becoming-conscious Bloom who is more equal than the others, just as, in a few paragraphs, we will infer the existence of an Inner Party and an Outer Party.

For now, Bloom is overwhelmingly an object, and his “fate is either to make his escape from nihilism or perish.” [Bloom, p.104]. Those who learn from history probably hear a little warning bell go off with this phrase. Didn’t some prophet of the past promise us a similar insurmountable contradiction that arose from the imperatives of the system itself? Hasn’t there already been an argument between those who saw revolution as something for us to make now and those who saw it as an inexorable product of history?

We simply have to ask ourselves: what if the insurrection doesn’t come? What if we’re just getting jerked around, and capitalism finds a way out, secures itself a future existence, as it has every time so far? Will our participation in this civil war, the morale we need to be insurgents, be staked on the “fact” that the catastrophe is here? The communists drowned themselves in a hundred year defeat by gambling that capitalism contained a contradiction it could not overcome. Is the grand carousel of history, well past the point of tragedy, looking to serve up a little farce?

Didn’t you hear? The event got defeated

A major problem with The Coming Insurrection is that it basically dresses up a tried and defeated strategy in new clothes, the strategy of a good part of the European autonomous struggles of past decades. Perhaps this is why it was way more popular in the US than in France: because its suggestions aren’t all that groundbreaking, except here, where there never was an autonomous movement. Knowledge is often created by struggle. Could it be that some academics (Agamben) were inspired by the new theoretical directions implicit in the ongoing social struggles of the ’70s and ’80s, gradually worked that inspiration into their theoretical production over the years, and then twenty years later some intellectuals, disenchanted with the failings of present struggles and cut off from stories of past struggles, read the new theory, which was just a digestion of the old struggles, and thought they had discovered something original (beef jerky)?

I wouldn’t even call that a hypothesis, but still one wonders how else European radicals could repackage the strategy of revolution through the networking of autonomous spaces as though it were a new idea.

Their analysis of the world is brilliant and moving. Their suggestions for what to do generally fall flat. They have replaced the term “autonomous space” with the old favorite, “commune” (neologism: it’s a great way to lose the same fight twice); they keep the emphasis on learning skills of self-sufficiency; they throw in a nice take on pacifism; they resolve the question around the General Assembly by calling for its abolition and clarifying the assembly as a place for talk rather than decision, which is a great point but hardly constitutes a correction to the autonomous strategy, since there were already strong segments of this practice who felt the same way. They’ve beefed up the importance of sabotage and the economic blockade, and they’ve thrown in a partially original call for invisibility.

They fail to answer or even ask what in my mind is the most important question regarding the defeat of this strategy: how to build the communes and the material basis for self-sufficiency—thus creating something to lose—while continuing to act like you have nothing to lose, which is to say, without falling into a defensive posture that facilitates recuperation or at the very least stagnation, seeking some uneasy truce with the dominant order. What they offer instead is a confidence that they will never sell out, which mirrors the confidence of the autonomen in the ’70s, although the IC has found more poetic language for it.

Thanks to the Tarnac 9 arrests, the most famous part of the book, though it only receives a few pages, is where they cosmetically alter the old autonomous strategy by adding emphasis to the idea of sabotaging the commodity flows. “The interruption of the flow of commodities […] liberate potentialities for self-organization unthinkable in other circumstances.” [TCI, p.119]. Elsewhere: “In order for something to rise up in the midst of the metropolis and open up other possibilities, the first act must be to interupt its perpetuum mobile.” [TCI, p.61]. Yet the examples they mention, in Thailand or in France, seem to indicate that this interruption is in fact a result of self-organization rather than a prerequisite. Strong movements with real popular support already existed, and were able to knock out infrastructure with a large part of society sympathizing with the inconvenience rather than becoming hostile towards the troublemakers. On the other hand, the countrywide train sabotage for which the Tarnac 9 were arrested did not seem to liberate any potentialities, and the massive blackout in Barcelona of 2007 was experienced more as a wasted potential than a liberated potential.

Of course I can’t abide any Marxist-Leninist “accumulation of forces” argument and I won’t suggest that these tactics are only appropriate or worthwhile once a mass movement has gained full popular approval and the petitions to prove it. The experience of the Argentine piqueteros shows that the increasing use of sabotage can be a useful tool in building up the potentials of self-organization and social presence over time. The point is simply that The Coming Insurrection exaggerates the effect of the blockade. Its greatest potential, evidently, comes not as an event but as a process. The authors also fail to make a useful point culled from the Greek experience: once a struggle becomes strong enough to precipitate a rupture, perhaps the principal infrastrucutral network to be sabotaged is the television.

The Invisible Committee does an equally good job of missing out on important lessons to be learned from the major social rebellions in Oaxaca (2006) and Kabylia (2001), though they make a really good point about how the communes can arise from the social movements, when talking about the French students’ struggle on page 121 of The Coming Insurrection.

Where did the rebellions in Oaxaca and Kabylia come from, and why did they fail? Important questions. The IC passes the buck. They include a critique of organizations, but it’s not nearly nuanced enough. The Oaxaca rebellion was largely co-opted by elements within the APPO—not the general assembly itself but its steering committee—but it was provoked largely by the teachers’ unions. In their brief mention of Kabylia, the writers diss the “interminable” assemblies, but fail to mention that some of these assemblies were a continuation of indigenous forms of self-organization and an important vehicle for the rebellion itself. Some of these forms of organization recuperated themselves, while others are still resisting the recuperation. The Coming Insurrection is trying to dissect a fly with a butter knife, and justifying it with a witchhunt logic: if it gets smashed, it was no good.

About as invisible as that elephant sitting over there in the corner

The Invisible Committee’s most characteristic modification of the autonomous strategy is the call for invisibility, to avoid recognition. “Flee visibility […] to be visible is to be exposed, that is to say above all, vulnerable” [TCI, pp.112-113]. “[W]e see appearing among Blooms not only a certain taste for anonymity, but at the same time a certain defiance towards visibility” [Bloom, p.111]. “From now on, to be perceived means to be defeated” [How?, p.11].

I’ll get the awkwardness out of the way, do the brutish, inappropriate thing, and say right off the bat that this is an odd argument, seeing as how the presumed authors of the text, once the state’s spotlight was turned on them, fled directly into the media spotlight, which has always been recognized as an at least partially effective way for people to save themselves from the executioners of the justice system. In the terrain of democracy, unlike the terrain of guerrilla warfare, people tend to be safest in plain view. As much as the Spectacle needs to be abolished, media attention that protagonizes rebels, though it is a poisoned apple, can build sympathy and provide protection from repression, and this is no more a contradiction than the fact that, while fighting to destroy capitalism, we often have to get jobs and buy commodities; while fighting to destroy the state, we use state infrastrucure. After all, we’re not vegans or anything, and we understand that the total boycott isn’t even possible. I also argue, and I’m not sure whether the Invisible Committee understands this, that although our theories may be unified and streamlined, the system we’re fighting against never is. There are contradictions among institutions of power that we can exploit.

One could counter that the arrestees only utilized a media campaign, with big protests, dignified academics writing in to the major newspapers and all that, only after they were already in the spotlight. The obvious answer is that going to the hills, dressing normal, and trying to avoid recognition didn’t work very well then, because it was relatively easy for the state to find them and slap on whatever ill-fitting label was in its own political interests at the moment, in that case, anarcho-autonome or terrorist.

The War on Terrorism succeeds as a repressive operation precisely when its victims cannot be recognized. Because recognition is not only to accept someone’s predicate assigned on the basis of an assemblage of social constructs, in this case, “terrorist.” It can also mean to assign someone a predicate based on a conflicting assemblage of social constructs (“good citizen,” “neighbor,” “human being,” “social activist,” “freedom fighter,” “conscientious objector,”), an approach which creates a strategic conflict that can neutralize the initial operation (exposing certain individuals and groups to greater repression by not allowing them to be recognized outside of the category imposed by the state) but one that also recuperates the recognizant defiance by maintaining it within the assemblages proffered by the system—in other words, a draw, a going back to square one. An honestly, fighting a campaign of repression to a draw is not all bad. But there is a third possibility for recognition: assigning someone predicates that are fluid and non-categorical.

In “How is it to be done?” the Party members talk about predicates in a way that could be optimistically construed as only referring to socially imposed categories: “it takes many assemblages to turn a female being into “a woman”, or a black-skinned man into “a Black”.” [How?, p.9], although phrases like “Let be the gap between the subject and its predicates” and “A “white horse” is not “a horse”.” [How”, p.9] suggest that indeed they are attempting to cut much deeper.

Elsewhere, they leave no room for doubt.
“As for the statement “a rose is a flower,” it allows me to erase myself opportunely from behind the classification operation that I am carrying out. It would thus be more suitable to say “I class the rose as among the flowers,” which is a standard formulation in Slavic languages.” [Metaphysics]
This structural argument is interesting as a passing, philosophical consideration, but it is theoretically useless and factually flawed. I can say with certainty that their assertion regarding the grammar of the Slavic languages is wholly untrue in Russian and Ukrainian. I’m waiting to hear back from some friends regarding Polish, Bulgarian, and Croat, and I’ll announce my error if my prediction proves untrue but the IC’s track record with facts leaves me with little doubt that they’re imagining things again.

While we’re at it, I want to point out that the structuralist hypothesis that language defines possibilities for thought, which is the assumption on which the IC is basing their point about predicates (they say the “to be” verb of Indo-European languages allows for a peculiar confusion between subject and predicate), has been soundly disputed. Research has shown that there is a weak effect—for example speakers of languages in which all nouns are gendered (“el tiroteo,” “die Tür,”) are more likely to assign feminine or masculine adjectives to inanimate objects based on the noun’s gender, when asked to personify those nouns in a survey, though not necessarily in everyday speech (i.e. the German speakers will personify “the door” with feminine adjectives). There is, however, no strong determination of language on thought. English and Spanish speakers do not have a profounder sense of time than German or Russian speakers because English and Spanish grammars contain far more tenses, just as English and Spanish speakers do not have a more primitive grasp of the interactional relationship between different bodies and objects just because German and Russian grammar contain far more developed cases. The human brain is everywhere the same in its range of differences, and language is something we constantly recreate as needed—given the necessity, children will create a brand new language for themselves in a generation. Faced with a restrictive grammar, we have a whole array of other linguistic cues to communicate all the nuance we need. Anarchy is the fundamental reality of linguistics as with all other spheres; every language has its black market amply provisioned with whatever needed meaning one cannot get through the more structured spaces of the tongue.

The very assemblage of meanings, of cultural assumptions and conversations suppressed or already had, that form the backdrop to every conversation, allow us to surpass the confusions or limitations of grammar at any moment. A society that reifies scientific categories may be confused by the sentence, “a rose is a flower,” just as they may believe when they are told a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable (dastardly lie). But a society in which people talk about the relationship between language and the world, people with a humbly metaphysical appreciation of the act of naming would not be confused. They will still say “a rose is a flower” rather than “I classify the rose as a flower,” because the former is more streamlined, and a linguistic rule of thumb is that more frequently used formulations tend to be shortened.

Another example. Two paragraphs back, I hesitated before writing the phrase “feminine or masculine adjectives”. I thought about writing “adjectives considered to be feminine or masculine” but decided that was too bulky to put in the middle of an already long sentence. And it was unnecessary. The former phrase and the latter phrase mean the exact same thing, as long as the readers have already engaged with the idea that femininity and masculinity are always social constructs and matters of assigned value.

Suspending language, which does not exist without the assignment of predicates, can be vital in moments of meditation, hallucination, and ecstasy. But as a program or ideological argument the suggestion is the absurd fantasy of a totalitarianism of ideas, a hyper-intellectuality that has gotten so lost in its own cerebral cortex it has not heard that its mother has been calling it down to dinner for the last three days.

To talk of becoming anonymous or existing only in presence, avoiding recognition, on a practical level, means very little if this is not simply a strategy of boycotting the media and not adopting any identity category other than member of the Imaginary Party. The thing about “opaque zones” [How?, p.11] is that they are only opaque to the state, its media, its academy. Within these zones there is a great deal of recognition, of differentiation, and a flourishing of predicates. If the banlieue or Kabylia seem opaque to the Invisible Committee, this is only because they stand outside and above them.

The fact of the matter is, invisibility is only an option for the state agents spying on us, and the guerrilla who is willing to sacrifice her life to an existence of clandestinity. For the rest of us, it’s a question of appearance and disappearance: constantly learning to appear in the lives of others, and disappear from the traps, the enclosures of meaning, the Spectacle creates around us.

Here’s another thing about invisibility: the more you hide, the hipper you get. Case in point, Vice Magazine seeking out the Invisible Committee in Tarnac.

What is, er, sorry, how is the human strike?

While The Coming Insurrection may be excused for the weakness of its practical suggestions, since the greater emphasis goes to their analysis of the present reality, Tiqqun has given us a text specifically intended to address this question: “How is it to be done?” They start by making a haughty distinction between theirs and Lenin’s pamphlet of a similar name, provoking some interesting thoughts by outlining the difference between focusing on what to do and how to do it, though in the body of the text the difference proves to be basically meaningless, as their suggestions just as easily constitute a what as a how. The exception is in their discussion of recognition, which, as I already argued, is nothing to write home about.

On page 14 they offer a concrete suggestion that is equal parts what and how and advises, quite like The Coming Insurrection, a succinct reemployment of the autonomous strategy, “an expansionary constellation of squats[…] linked by an intense circulation of bodies”, without any idea on how to improve this practice. The fact that the autonomous strategy was defeated, though significant, should not in any way obscure all the possibilities it creates and capacities it develops. In fact, throughout France and Spain in particular, many people are still working at this expansionary constellation, tweaking it, maintaining it, giving it consistency, trying to push it in new directions, coming together in periodic encounters to share ideas and emotions. Curiously, at least some of the partisans of the Imaginary Party denounce these efforts as not whatever enough. Are they calling shots from the bleachers, or do they have anything to share from their own experiences of taking to the field?

“How is it to be done?” answers its eponymous question primarily through the suggestion of the “human strike,” giving the example of the Italian feminists who refused to be mothers, who refused to dedicate their care to the reproduction of capitalism. I’m confused by how this suggestion conflicts with the calls for invisibility and against recognition, because it seems that a human strike requires, above all, consistency, as we learn over time how to liberate care and create new relationships, but consistency, which is on some levels the creation of new rituals, would seem to allow for what the IC refer to as visibility, an opportunity for the Spectacle to recuperate these efforts by assigning new labels and dispatching new commodities.

The human strike is a building up of force that will most certainly be noticed as we withdraw our affective energies from the economy, and replace commodity relations with a mutual caring for one another. Even if the police agencies of the state somehow fail to notice all the new communes—not the easy communes of the riot but the persevering ones that build up new capacities through consistency—Revlon will certainly notify them when cosmetics sales start to plummet.

Yet the Invisible Committee admonishes us that: “Our appearance as a force must be reserved for the right moment” [TCI, p.114] Wait for the right moment?? These people seem to be re-ordering all the Marxist fallacies and trying to make them hip again. What gives?

And how are we to remain invisible (for now) while carrying out a human strike, when the Italian feminists got recuperated and the Tarnac 9 couldn’t even pull it off? They’ve let us know what to do, but the Party leaders just can’t pinpoint how we’re actually supposed to do it.

Precarias a la Deriva of Madrid give a more meaningful explanation of the human strike (see “A Very Careful Strike”), but they also seem wedded to the great communist defeats. Their analysis of care and feminine labor is brilliant, but they do just as the Marxists in adopting capitalist logics in their challenges of capitalist relations, in this case by seeing care in instrumental terms, as another form of production. What I want to know is, how can we liberate something we insist on viewing in mechanical terms? After all, care can only be plugged into capitalism in the first place when it ceases to be nurturing and comes to be reproductive.

It’s hard to say how the Invisible Committee view care because they’re so far removed from care’s gritty details. The statement, “We are not depressed; we’re on strike” [TCI, p.34], can only be true if this strike comes with its own picket line to hold back those who would cross into the recuperation of pharmaceuticals, its own support committee so that the misery of being out of work, affectively, becomes a joyful poverty. In the movement from absenteeism to the unlimited general strike, what we need is an expansive body of experience and experimentation to mobilize our boredom, reify our resentment, wear our open wounds with pride and heal them with abandon, and help one another make our bodies whole again. The IC call for this experimentation, but hell, so did the feminists of the ’70s, and even the activists of the anti-globalization era. All we get that’s new is a rhetoric that protects us from seeming like those who failed before us.

Whatever, dude

For the Invisible Committee, in the insurrection they prophesy, the real one, their insurrection, we are all “whatever singularities,” without predicates, an emptiness brimming with possibilities. It’s a beautiful dream, and I, for one, believe in fighting for dreams. But there is a certain ownership they exercise over their insurrection, a certain power of exclusion the Invisible Committee have vis a vis the Imaginary Party, that could make this dream nothing more than a maneuver identical to the one by which the communists suppressed difference by demanding adherence to the unified identity of the Working Class. There are no women, there are no blacks, there are only members of the Imaginary Party.

Something curious, of an understated significance, takes place within the pages of the English-language edition of The Coming Insurrection. On page 83, just a page after the French authors extol agricultural experimentation in Cuba and the artistry of auto mechanics in Africa as evidence of the fertility of catastrophe, they allow themselves to get excited by the Common Ground Clinic in New Orleans, as a fruit of the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina. This is no doubt embarrassing for Party members in the US, as Common Ground is an example of “activism” and thus part of the Spectacle, the Party of Order, and not of the Imaginary Party. So, the translators insert a footnote to explain away the mistake and denounce the Clinic. They say its founder, Malik Rahim, used it for a Congressional campaign (they need not consider what Rahim’s relationship was to the Clinic during his campaign, nor the attitude of those who keep the Clinic running to political campaigns), and they point out that “one of the main spokesmen for the project, Brandon Darby, was an FBI informant” (ignoring that FBI informants have also cropped up in the most insurrectionary of projects in this country—let’s not forget what else Darby himself participated in).

The translators stumble blindly into a great irony that they themselves have dug, abyss-like, in their very path. They try to minimize the IC’s error of praising Common Ground with an easy truth: “A certain distance leads to a certain obscurity.”

I want to repeat that one: “A certain distance leads to a certain obscurity.” This little turn of phrase, like a sewing needle, pops the overinflated balloon of a good part of what the Invisible Committee says, of what the Imaginary Party itself stands for.

First of all, isn’t obscurity exactly what they were going for? Or is their a functional difference between obscurity and opacity? And if this is true, one might not be so brash in predicting that in the Arabic or Imazigh translation of The Coming Insurrection or Tiqqun texts, the translators would embarrassingly note that Kabylia isn’t such a good example because that struggle was full of recuperators, but the authors could hardly have known that because of the distances involved; in the Spanish translation of these texts the translators would embarrassingly note that experimental Cuban agriculture isn’t such a good example because so much of it was funded or at least permitted by the state, and Oaxaca isn’t such a good example either because the initial strikes were actually organized by the teachers’ unions.

Once you penetrate their opacity, it seems, all the little chapters of the Imaginary Party blow away in a puff of smoke.

Could it be that the Imaginary Party is, after all, imaginary? There can be little doubt, when one reads their assertion about “Japanese children, whom one might justly consider the most intense avant-garde of the Imaginary Party” [Theses, thesis 18].

Most whatevers aren’t good enough for them. Only what is farthest away is valued. They sling denunciations of activists, of leftists, of anarchists, of other ways of doing things, and their only suggestions are exotic. The analysis in the first parts of The Coming Insurrection brilliantly show how the civil war is all around us, but when talking about how it is to be fought, all they can do is make struggle even more distant, by creating a pressure, a higher standard, to fight effectively by being unrecognizable, by being anonymous, by being spontaneous, higher standards that only exotic examples can meet because they are unknown to the authors.

The whatever is just an ignorance of details.

And the ignorance is above all a philosopher’s preference for easy answers, an ideologue’s refusal to engage with complexity. In the theorizing of the Invisible Committee, there is a certain streamlining of resistance. Beneath the poetry exists an economy of thought that demands the excision of all but the most sleek movements towards insurrection. Everything that is not judged to be perfect on the plane of ideas is denounced as recuperation.

“RULE No. 2: You can never free yourself from an apparatus by getting engaged within its minor part.” [Metaphysics]. There is a logic to this. The identities, the subjectivities, they refer to can certainly be viewed as a “minor part” of the apparatus, and certainly creating counter-subjectivities cannot in and of itself destroy that apparatus and may often bind you to it more tightly, but the idea that only the most economic of motions in a struggle should be preserved ignores the messy reality of how people begin to desert and to fight, and it misses the opportunity for strength that is presented by an attitude of picking fights with the apparatus everywhere, in its most minor and major parts. Engaging with gender by redefining what it means to be a woman or a trannie or a man in this world is just moving around the prison bars. Attacking advertising that defines these roles for us (and realistically, such an attack would come out of a process in which we are also reading and writing and talking about gender identities) can be a step towards the insurrectionary, towards the war against domination in all its forms.

I, for one, do not see insurrection in the efforts of a Party that is increasingly warlike, precise, and correct, but in the messy, inefficient, contradictory ecology of resistance that already exists. A thousand forms of collaboration are contrary to the spirit of insurrection, true, but no person embodies this spirit wholly. On some key levels what’s important is to sympathize with it. We may and must critique and challenge the many compromises with existing reality, absolutely, but abandon them, never. Let the others fight the revolution from temple to temple. I’ll stay here in the swamp.

The Incompleteness of the Totality

The Invisible Committee presents us with a totalizing theory. In the very introduction of The Coming Insurrection, they tell us, “Everyone agrees.” In Theory of Bloom they assert that, “it’s how every being is the way they are […] it is precisely what gives consistency and possibility to each being. Bloom is the Stimmung in which and by which we understand each other at the present time” [Bloom, pp.22-24]. Bloom “experiences an ontological finiteness and separation common to all men.” [Bloom, p.105].

In fact, the affirmation of these truths is the necessary signifier for the creation of a new identity, a new milieu. It’s also the recreation of a working class, a universal identity that has room for everyone. But it’s a poor fit. There simply is no clean, unproblematic answer to the question of identity. Its very nature is as a question that will never be solved. True becoming can have no end point.

The totality is not a collection of identities (which could then be opposed by singularities) but a set of rules, often contradictory but arranged by mostly shared loyalties and similar visions of a common project, generated and imposed by numerous institutions, to define identities and regulate people’s movement between them.

So two people who call themselves “activists” (or mothers or militants) may have entirely distinct relations to the totality. One may indeed be a becoming, a whatever, as she asks herself questions about how to strike out from where she stands and lets herself feel doubts about both the ground she stands on and the weapons she has picked up; while the other may indeed be a recuperator, satisfied with activism as a reproducible practice, eager for the paths of promotion laid out within it.

The Invisible Committee presents us with an Imaginary Party that is homogenous not in any implied sameness but in its characteristic rejection of any internal differentiation. But I wonder how well this totalization encompasses all those who do not see themselves in Bloom, or who see aspects of themselves that the IC does not acknowledge, and seems to dismiss (I’m talking now about, among other things, race, gender, sexuality, as particularities). We can read an astute analysis of apparatuses that control us by mobilizing comfort [Metaphysics], but there is a subtextual hostility towards the discussion of the discomfort that is mobilized only against certain people. In fact, this sort of differentiation seems to contradict the poetic simplicity of Bloom theory and the idea of the Imaginary Party. They will take the effort to construct a theory of the Young Girl as a “model citizen” for consumer society but insist that this “is obviously not a gendered concept” [YoungGirl, iii] despite how odd it is to look at models of citizenship and commodity consumption without looking at gender.

Cat calls, degrading looks, insulting comments, men who follow you, every time you go out the door alone: the fact that certain people who are not cis male presenting as heterosexual will never be allowed to be comfortable in public space, when walking down the street, reveals a number of critical dynamics that any theory would be short-sighted to ignore. First of all, while the private sphere may indeed be socialized, because it holds a measure of security (though for some this may be a contractual security, such as that won through marriage) that the public sphere never will, we have to assert a continuing difference between the public and private spheres, one that necessarily precedes the Spectacle and links today’s apparatuses to classical Patriarchy. This is a link I have never seen the Invisible Committee acknowledge. Rather everything is new, freshly discovered and named (by them). Their favorite phrase is, “From now on…”

Secondly, through this gendered mobilization of discomfort in public space, or the racial segregation of neighborhoods, we see how people who are generally alienated exercise power over the bodies that pass through the space around them, the actual structure of which they are powerless to change. Much of the antisocial violence in public space, violence which is romanticized in several Tiqqun texts, is not so much a rebellion as an autonomous attempt to impose hierarchies in miniature. It may well be that the majority of casualties in this global civil war are the bodies that have fallen in the civil war being fought within the ranks of the Imaginary Party.

Another example: “The thread of historical transmission has been broken. Even the revolutionary tradition.” [How?, p.11]. This has not been my experience. Although I grew up ahistorically, Bloomlike, another lost child of the ‘burbs, I have sinced lived in places with historical continuities of struggle. I have been a recipient of historical transmission and it has been something qualitatively different, unlike anything I knew growing up, and it made me infinitely stronger. One can also see that places with history, with revolutionary tradition (e.g. Greece, Kabylia, Oaxaca) are generally stronger in their struggles.

On a specific point, this thesis about the end of history directly contradicts many indigenous struggles for freedom. A major element of some of these struggles is that the genocide has not been completed, that there is an unbroken 500 year history of resistance, which at times has been stamped out to the point of darkness, but never fully extinguished. The argument that historical transmission has been broken and recognition is counterrevolutionary means that these indigenous struggles are wrong in asserting that they are still fighting colonialism, that there is something liberating in recognizing themselves as members of this or that nation (not nation-state, eurocentric readers), that through centuries of genocide they have survived (though no one is saying they survived unaltered, which is the strawman the academics usually opt for).

In considering these struggles, one cannot simply dismiss them or sweep them without direct comment into the ranks of the Imaginary Party. One must either give them solidarity, or agree with the post-modernist academics who are reclassifying them in accordance with continuing colonization, or choose some third option that I have never seen elaborated.

Through their Bloom theory, the Invisible Committee make another of the same mistakes as Marx. Dialectical reasoning and their implicit assumption of a unilineal history make them look to the populations most advanced in capitalist development as the site of future revolutions. Scientific Marx predicted Britain and Germany, unscientific Bakunin predicted Russia, Italy, and Spain. Enough said. The IC, in their turn, predict that the Bloom figure, the total death of subjectivity, contains within it the necessary annihilation of the Spectacle. But it seems true that—generally, not totally—where Bloom is least present, rebellions and social ruptures are most common. They refrain from admitting it, but the most bloomified figure is the middle class white, who has no history and no identity left but an array of false privileges, which is to say an absence of certain blackmails that are, for everyone else, universal.

I spit on the politics of anyone who says middle class whites cannot be revolutionary, are not exploited and abused, and do not have their own truckload of reasons to hate and destroy the system, but someone who says they have the same experiences as everyone else, just as someone saying that everyone within one of these identity categories (“all women know that…”) have the same experience, is speaking not from their body but from the narrative of the Spectacle.

The Dictatorship of the Fashionable

In the days of “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” the Communists could play at vanguard by organizing a Party that would manipulate and dominate general assemblies, communes, soviets, and any other gathering point of what was a largely aboveground and solidaristic movement.

In the ’60s and ’70s, an aboveground Party could only be reformist, so one could only be a vanguardist by encouraging a hierarchy of tactics, whereby the most illegal, risky, and spectacular actions were understood to be the most important. That way, a miniscule group, whether the Weather Underground or the Red Brigades, could form guerrilla cells to carry out the heavy actions that would ensure that everyone else in the struggle would give them their due attention and read their lengthy communiques. The mass movement is replaced by the media, and the vanguard constitutes itself as such not through organizational relationships but through attention that places it symbolically at the cutting edge of what had been a diverse and multi-directional movement.

As the Spectacle degenerates from a reality based on news to one based on fashion, I wonder if nowadays, a postmodern vanguard could form itself only by being fashionable, by turning their Party into a fad and their analysis into a style. It’s interesting that the IC give us such a perfect explanation of hipsters [Bloom, p.55] when, at least in the US, many of their most avid partisans have come from the hipster wing of the anarchist movement. And what are hipsters but an elite in an age when integration is produced above all through consumption? And for the anti-capitalist palette, consumption need not require a large budget for shopping. In this economy of trivia, sophistication is enough.

I don’t want be alarmist, and certainly a vanguard based on la mode could never be as dangerous as one based on the cheka, but either way, turning a text like The Coming Insurrection that has good parts and bad parts into a cult classic, and tolerating for a moment a resurrection of the idea of the Party is nothing other than a good way to defeat ourselves, which I suppose is the role that communists have played in anti-capitalist struggles for over a century, so it should be no surprise that they’re coming back now.

The putsch that ushered in the October Revolution was led by anarchist sailors from Kronstadt and left SRs. It was largely orchestrated by the Leninists, whom the anarchists trusted in part because Lenin’s populist rhetoric was largely borrowed from the anarchists. They thought he was one of them.

Again, I believe that the danger this time around is miniscule, and the IC-as-thought have helped rejuvenate theorizing as a collective activity among US anarchists to an extent that far outweighs their disastrous effect, -as-style, on the plethora of hyperbolic communiques that announced various broken windows and occupied buildings with a mood of poetic rapture.

And on the other hand, the IC shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, let’s cut the crap: they’re basically CrimethInc. with a better vocabulary. Replace “deserting” with “dropping out” and there’s no denying it. They blatantly lack the humility that at times has allowed CrimethInc. to be such a positive thing; furthermore, they carry out a couple operations that would make me hesitate before starting a commune with them, much less a milieu or a Party. As I mentioned earlier, this Party is not just an ironic linguistic device but a group that has its inner circle and its mechanisms for exclusion.

It works like this: if you disagree with them, you’re out. “One would have to be a militant element of the planetary-petty-bourgeoisie, a citizen really, not to see that society no longer exists.” [How?, p.3]. They never define society, mind you, though I would guess they know, they’re so well read after all, that it is a central element of the praxis of other anti-capitalists that society in fact does exist, beneath all the chains and IV tubes of Biopower, and that this is a good thing. But I guess their ideological competitors are nothing but representatives of the petty bourgeoisie (say, haven’t we heard that one before?).

I predict the Party leaders might chide me for missing the irony of their words, but with such ideological absolutism, though they may not hand out membership cards they have still fallen for their own joke.

Curious thing: sometimes the Imaginary Party is an unconscious umbrella that includes everyone who chafes at their forced assimilation, and at other times it is a conscious group employing a singular strategy. “The Imaginary Party is the particular form that contradiction assumes in the historic period where Domination imposes itself as dictatorship of visibility and of dictatorship as visibility, in a word as Spectacle.” [Theses, thesis 1]; “In this sense, the Imaginary Party is the political party, or more exactly the party of the political, because it is the sole one which can designate in this society the metaphysical labor of an absolute hostility” [Theses, thesis 7]; “Therefore the Imaginary Party is known in the Spectacle as the party of chaos, crisis, and disaster.” [Theses, thesis 14]; “every Bloom, as a Bloom, is an agent of the Imaginary Party” [Bloom, p.114].

And now see how quickly this undifferentiated mass signs on to a common wisdom or a shared program, or becomes a Party with “conscious fractions” [Theses, thesis 27]. “[T]hose of the Imaginary Party work to hasten the advent of this by any means[…] They are besides freer to choose what will be the theatre of their operations and act at the point where the smallest forces can cause the greatest losses.” [Theses, thesis 15]; “The Imaginary Party can count upon this constant: that a handful of partisans suffices to immobilize all the “Party of Order”.” [Theses, thesis 21]; “the assumption of Bloom mean[s] […] to enter into contact with other agents of the Invisible Committee – through Tiqqun for example – and silently coordinate a truly elegant act of sabotage.” [Bloom, p.134]; “we can only desert the situation inwardly, by reclaiming our fundamental non-belonging to the biopolitical fabric with a participation on a more intimate and thus unattributable level, in the strategic community of the Invisible Committee” [Bloom, pp.135-136]. “Tiqqun is the only possible outlook for revolution.” [Bloom, p.102].

There are moments when one needs to argue against an idea, and moments when one need only present it clearly. Here it is: the Imaginary Party. We are told we all belong to it, insofar as we are alienated. It is the Party of our class. And it is a Party that has its partisans and conscious fractions, who will say we are the enemy if we disagree with them, or even, perhaps, use different words. The Imaginary Party: take it or leave it.

I thank the Invisible Committee for their writings, and I wish them the best of luck. If my words sting too sharp, I want them to know I consider them comrades, and I have participated in solidarity events for the Tarnac 9 (though the money went to others of the French anarcho-autonome who were arrested for bombing police cars and have gotten far less attention than the 9). When there are barricades in the streets or people in prison, we will always be on the same side. But I think it should be clear: when it comes to the Imaginary Party, I hope to be the first to be purged.

Works Cited
TCI = The Coming Insurrection, Semiotext edition
Bloom = Theory of Bloom, anonymous 2010 edition
Theses = “Theses on the Imaginary Party”, Chicago Branch edition
How? = “How is it to be done?” Inoperative Committee 2008 edition
Metaphysics = “A Critical Metaphysics Could Come About as a Science of Apparatuses”, online version from the tiqqunista site.
YoungGirl = Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, online version from the tiqqunista site.


In 1960 the Japanese author Yukio Mishima wrote the horribly beautiful story “Patriotism.” There is no possibility of ‘spoilers’ in this review, because it is announced on the first page that this is the story of the ritual suicide (‘seppuku’) of one lieutenant Shinji Takeyama (and we are also told, almost as an afterthought, of the accompanying suicide of his wife Reiko). The action of the story takes place in 1936. In a nutshell, the lieutenant has just been informed of a failed mutiny against the Emperor, to whom he is loyal, that was perpetrated by men to whom he is also loyal. He knows he will be called upon to suppress the mutiny and fight and kill his erstwhile comrades, an untenable situation. Fortunately, his culture provides him with a way to deal honorably with untenable situations—seppuku.

The entire story takes place in Takeyama’s home, and involves the preparations he and his wife make to end their lives; their rather intense relations leading up to the act, in which everything is done by the book, as it were, but there is still plenty of room for passion and steamy sex; and, of course, the grisly act itself, which is described unflinchingly, without romanticizing the mechanics of the thing or the necessary human frailty involved in carrying it out. The story has been quite aptly described by a friend of mine as “fascist pornography.” It is told without any irony or attempts to undermine the motives or honor of its characters; in fact, Mishima was to commit seppuku himself ten years after writing the story. The general feeling conveyed is a sort of grim exaltation in the face of fate.

In 1960 the Japanese author Yukio Mishima wrote the horribly beautiful story “Patriotism.” There is no possibility of ‘spoilers’ in this review, because it is announced on the first page that this is the story of the ritual suicide (‘seppuku’) of one lieutenant Shinji Takeyama (and we are also told, almost as an afterthought, of the accompanying suicide of his wife Reiko). The action of the story takes place in 1936. In a nutshell, the lieutenant has just been informed of a failed mutiny against the Emperor, to whom he is loyal, that was perpetrated by men to whom he is also loyal. He knows he will be called upon to suppress the mutiny and fight and kill his erstwhile comrades, an untenable situation. Fortunately, his culture provides him with a way to deal honorably with untenable situations—seppuku.

The entire story takes place in Takeyama’s home, and involves the preparations he and his wife make to end their lives; their rather intense relations leading up to the act, in which everything is done by the book, as it were, but there is still plenty of room for passion and steamy sex; and, of course, the grisly act itself, which is described unflinchingly, without romanticizing the mechanics of the thing or the necessary human frailty involved in carrying it out. The story has been quite aptly described by a friend of mine as “fascist pornography.” It is told without any irony or attempts to undermine the motives or honor of its characters; in fact, Mishima was to commit seppuku himself ten years after writing the story. The general feeling conveyed is a sort of grim exaltation in the face of fate.

The title in Japanese is “Yukoku,” which apparently means something like care or anxiety for one’s country. In any case, “Patriotism” is a perfect title for the story, with its connotations of homeland, loyalty, and even patriarchy. The essence of the story is expressed quite clearly in the following passage; Takeyama and his wife have just finished having sex for the final time, and a calm and dreadful certainty settles over them:

They had both sensed at that moment—though not, of course, in any clear and conscious way—that those permissible pleasures were once more beneath the protection of Righteousness and Divine Power, and of a complete and unassailable morality. On looking into each other eyes and discovering there an honorable death, they had felt themselves safe once more behind steel walls which none could destroy, encased in an impenetrable armor of Beauty and Truth.

Morality, honor, steel, armor, power, truth—this is a sort of fascist pornography indeed, although, if it is nothing if not consistently earnest, it manages to avoid any hint of kitsch.

In fact, if there is hint of nostalgia or doubt, or any sense that the domain of truth and beauty is less of an impregnable fortress than it may appear to be in the quoted passage, it does not appear within the story itself, but rather in the fact that the story was written at all. Although the story is about a sort of patriotism, few words are wasted extolling Japan, its emperor, or its soldiers; instead, the patriotic connection is more with honor, loyalty, and patriotism itself than with any specific object of fealty. Partly, no doubt, this is because any code of honor is in some sense self-regarding, holding honor itself higher than any mundane imperatives. Nevertheless, a declaration such as this one inevitably comes with a question mark or two, whether or not these are actually inscribed within the text. It is not simply that this affirmation of honor and truth comes against the backdrop of global capitalism and is thus politically coded in a certain way, which I have followed my friend in calling ‘fascist.’ The issue isn’t simply what is being affirmed here, but when and why. Mishima is defending the fort against the incursion of a global culture of monetary, rather then moral, values, and this means the central paradox of the story is that a putatively impregnable fortress must be defended at all.

There are several reasons why “Patriotism” is such an aesthetically satisfying story, not least because it describes a way of life that doesn’t distinguish between ethical and aesthetic considerations but recognizes their deep, underlying unity; furthermore, it’s written in lapidary, gripping prose that displays a very high degree of both sincere commitment and masterful artistry, all of which keeps it from stumbling into the sort of hilariously didactic tar pit in which the bones of Ayn Rand are perfectly preserved. And it’s hard not to feel a yearning pang for the sense of meaningful belonging expressed in Mishima’s story. However, the sort of question I am interested in here is less personal and ethical than social and historical. This question is one of belonging, of some sort of homeland and what and where it may be. This is precisely the question put most succinctly by Heidegger when he asks: “What is the nature of dwelling in our precarious time?”

It is no coincidence, of course, that Heidegger himself was attracted to fascism, infamously joining the Nazi party in 1933. Fascism is one possible reaction to the relentless razing of every homeland that goes by the name of global capital. But Heidegger’s thought cannot be reduced to an apologia for his execrable political decision, although it is clearly not unrelated to the latter either. But he came to see the only type of authentic dwelling available to contemporary humanity as a sort of becoming at home in homelessness. Heidegger himself was able to maintain a very fervent kind of patriotism for the nebulous homeland of human homelessness, which (along with his period of allegiance to Nazism) has led many to see him as embracing a sort of parochial localism, without noticing that his patriotism was for a ground that is groundless and uproots as much as it grounds. But this kind of patriotism is much harder to muster than the type that impels Takeyama and Reiko to gut themselves in Mishima’s story.

If fascism is partly a reaction to capitalism that tries to violently reaffirm local and national ties, at least rhetorically, then communism insists that the wasteland itself can be made a home, seeing in capitalism an unpleasant precursor to a social form that is global and universal, but that nevertheless shucks off the traces of value production and the institutions that secure the dominance of capital. In that case, in some ways Heidegger is closer to communism than he is to fascism, and indeed although he cravenly joined the party and mouthed some of its more deplorable slogans, in the end he was never able to accommodate his thinking to a regime that held him in deep suspicion by the time of its final years in power.

In any case, critics of capitalism, when seeking to envision an alternative, are faced with a decision: not a simple choice between Nazism and communism, of course, but a choice that is not as easy, or as clear. This is the alternative between locating a homeland in the old way, on a smaller scale and with a group that is, in whatever way, clearly identifiable and distinguished from its neighbors, and a global social entity of whatever kind, however loosely defined or held together. The situation that any social critic is faced with, in other words, is homelessness and the meaning of the home. Posed more concretely, this is the question as to whether the liquidation of fixed meanings, rituals, and social hierarchies that capital brings is a lamentable obstacle to a healthy social body, or whether it in some way lays the ground for something new. This does not have to be posed as a choice between nationalism and internationalism, and thus can be separated from the question of whether the productive structures and institutions of capitalism can be adapted to a socialist framework, or whether they must be somehow abolished. No matter the answer, it is Heidegger’s question that must be addressed: “What is the nature of dwelling in our precarious time?”

Outsider Anarchism

a review of METAtropolis, edited by John Scalzi

Five award-winning science fiction writers got together, wrote a shared-world fiction anthology that explores explicitly anarchist solutions to the world’s problems, and then got the cast of Battlestar Galactica to read them as an audiobook. And the anarchists, by and large, took no notice.

METAtropolis–released as an audiobook in 2008 and finally reaching trade paperback printing only this year in 2010–is a fascinating piece of outsider anarchist fiction. The authors are not consciously political radicals, but they are clearly inspired by the possibilities of autonomy that have been opened up in the 21st century. I would guess that not a one of them has read Bakunin, Rolling Thunder, or; they’ve struck upon the idea of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring largely in a vacuum. They’re completely unfettered by the assumptions that so many of us carry with us at all times.

a review of METAtropolis, edited by John Scalzi

Five award-winning science fiction writers got together, wrote a shared-world fiction anthology that explores explicitly anarchist solutions to the world’s problems, and then got the cast of Battlestar Galactica to read them as an audiobook. And the anarchists, by and large, took no notice.

METAtropolis–released as an audiobook in 2008 and finally reaching trade paperback printing only this year in 2010–is a fascinating piece of outsider anarchist fiction. The authors are not consciously political radicals, but they are clearly inspired by the possibilities of autonomy that have been opened up in the 21st century. I would guess that not a one of them has read Bakunin, Rolling Thunder, or; they’ve struck upon the idea of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring largely in a vacuum. They’re completely unfettered by the assumptions that so many of us carry with us at all times.

This isn’t to say that they’ve created utopias, or that the societies presented in METAtropolis deserve to be copied and pasted into a “traditional” anarchist context, only that these outsider pieces are useful–in showing us that there are many roads to anarchy–and fascinating.

The basic premise of the anthology is to explore–or perhaps explode–the concept of cities after the collapse of most of the tenants of western civilization, but not after an apocalypse. After an economic and governmental collapse.

The first piece is perhaps the most obvious example of the contradictions and the sordid beauty of a naive look at anarchism: Tyger Tyger by Jay Lake describes eco-anarchists who live in the forests of Cascadia. They are technology workers, genetic engineers who’s main cultural export is open-source genetic code. They’ve got a slight bit of military hierarchy and they’ve got torture chambers for their political enemies. Their borders are closed and fiercely controlled. Not the sort of piece that a classical anarchist would write.

Elizabeth Bear describes a scavenger society built on reputation economics, a new-world-in-the-shell-of-the-old culture of recyclers and communists who’ve never read any Marx. But she also gets at the heart of what is being offered in the anthology: no author is trying to blueprint a utopia. One character in Bear’s story points out: “It’s not a utopia. It’s just maybe something that sucks a little less.”

Tobias S. Buckell describes an arguably horizontal nomadic structure that travels the country, happily utilizing a diversity of tactics from protest to bombings to shut down police infrastructure and build vertical farms and other monuments to sustainability wherever they go. They ride bikes and forcibly dismantle people’s cars, and are a sort of fanatical–yet sympathetic–cult of “zero footprinters.”

John Scalzi describes a more traditional, hierarchical city but sympathizes heavily with the barbarians at its gates, and Karl Schroeder describes an augmented reality city on top of a city with its own post-scarcity economic structure.

I’m not just fascinated by the cultures that these stories present, I’m fascinated by their authors’ point of entry. I would suggest that technology culture in the 21st century is leaning more and more towards anarchist approaches. Centralization is being outed as the demon it is: centralization and homogeny are understood as the bane of a healthy online network, and many are beginning to realize that the same is true of offline networks. A sort of neo-tribalism is on the rise, as is simply understanding that people and cultures are more fascinating when viewed as webs, as horizontal networks, than as rigidly controlled and highly-formalized structures.

What’s more, intellectual property is increasingly out of vogue. A sort of anarcho-futurist mentality is on the rise: that we should borrow and steal freely from each other’s ideas, that copyright laws are an imposition on our aesthetic and creative freedom, that they stand in the way of moving our culture forward–or outward, or in whatever direction it feels like moving. Some are, I would argue, even beginning to understand that it is not that we steal ideas from one another, but that copyright and intellectual property actually represent theft from the public, enclosure of what by nature ought to be the commons. Knowledge knows no scarcity and there is no reason to charge for its dissemination.

Slowly, this critique of intellectual property is filtering out into meatspace, and now in the 21st century many geeks are coming to their own understandings of what Proudhon so famously stated in the 19th: property is theft.

Radicals would be fools to ignore this sudden appearance of fellow-travelers.

There is plenty to be critical about in METAtropolis, to be certain. I know many people who will reject the entire thing whole-hog because it proposes (or at least describes) genetically engineering pigs to better feed a “green” city. Its critique of technology is quite specialized, its critique of capital is occasionally bizarre, and its portrayal of protests is actually sort of cute in its naivety. But still, these authors are intelligent people and their proposals merit consideration at the very least.

But I’m not as concerned with how this might influence the radical crowd as I am excited about how this might influence a broader audience. Fiction is a powerful medium for the dissemination of radical thought, and here it has been utilized quite effectively: the line between utopia and dystopia are so blurred that it is almost impossible to take ideas from the book as prescriptive, and anarchism is presented as a fairly non-ideological movement or idea. There are no black flags, but there is squatting, permaculture, and direct action. And thank heavens, there’s no appealing to the state. A mainstream book that talks about solutions to political problems without a hint of reformism: I can handle that.