Temporary Autonomous Zone

Chaos Never Dies: Hakim Bey's Post-Anarchism Anarchy


Fifth Estate # 343, Fall-Winter, 1993

a review of
T.A.Z: Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchism, Poetic Terrorism, Hakim Bey, Autonomedia, New York, 1991, $6.00 (Available from FE Books)

Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z. is a stylized and impassioned manifesto regarding anti-authoritarian themes of freedom and authority. desire and conformity.

Bey’s manifesto awakens us to an intellectual and social impasse in contemporary culture and in the anarchist milieu in particular. He cites the vogue of alienation in aesthetics, the intractable debates concerning technology and spirituality, and the prevailing mood of private cynicism as symptoms that plague anti-authoritarian efforts to enlarge and expand freedoms and liberties that democratic societies, to some degree, take as the cornerstones for their legitimation.

Ontological anarchism is his response to the current impasse. It is a “type-3 anarchism” that not only trashes the values of authoritarian culture but also the dogmas within the anarchist milieu. Like the visionaries of romanticism and modernism, Bey’s pursuit of imagination is relentless and suggests nothing less than an effort to rethink and re-experience anarchy as, fundamentally, a way of living freedom given the constraints of the “New World Order.”

In the first section we encounter a series of broadsheets that explore important themes in Bey’s development of Ontological Anarchism. In one sense his renditions of “Chaos,” “Amour fou,” “Wild Children,” “Crime,” and “Sorcery,” etc., are projective exercises that attempt to chart new directions for war-torn egos and shell-shocked personalities in search of the uninhibited. On the other hand, these historical and mythical motifs could be read as Bey’s response to the fate of earlier currents of liberating poetics in American culture, particularly the literary encounters with Whitman, Blake, Pound, Apollinaire, and surrealism during the late ’50s/early ’60s.

Poetics and Chaos

The works of Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs, Diane DiPrima and Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara and Leroi Jones, and Charles Olsen, Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan typified encounters that retrieved and enlarged poetic experience through non-conformist lifestyles and unconventional modes of expression. It is all too clear today that convention and conformity are resurgent and many of the sub-cultures and social contexts that sustained these individuals have been destroyed or have lost their liberatory character. In this period of diminished expectations, Bey proposes what could be termed a post-Beat poetics that locates possibilities for creativity in the non-ordinary consciousness of a person for whom “chaos” is a principle that enhances and enriches all Life.

In the second section, Bey addresses aesthetic anarchist and philosophical issues in a series of communiqués and position papers from the Association of Ontological Anarchy.

On the terrain of aesthetics, Bey clarifies his notion of poetic terrorism in a polemic against a school of avant-garde aesthetics that emerged during the 1980s. This school cultivated nihilistic sensibilities and produced artwork which expressed a morbid preoccupation with death, misery, and self-mutilation. Against this tendency and inspired by the Berlin Dadaists, Bey understands poetic terrorism as a creative act of Satori (blissful enlightenment). This aesthetic promotes insurrectionary sensibilities and creates artworks that are realized as transgression, excess, and joy. The purpose of art, says Bey, is not the dead nihilism of self-disgust, but beauty and adventure.

His critical assessments of Surrealism suggest further considerations for his aesthetics. The decline of Surrealism, he maintains, resulted from the links to leftist ideology. Given the left’s commitment to the planetary work machine, it has become clearer (particularly after the “hot summers” of 1967-69) that the left offers only a different management style. The successive attempts by the left to become the new stewards of capital, converted Surrealism and other cultural vanguardisms into commodities for mainstream art, the universities and the advertising industry. Bey notes that poetic terrorism as art must separate itself from politics in particular, and the economy of the spectacle/commodity in general.

On the terrain of anarchism, Bey’s polemic is against the sectarianism of the technology/anti-technology debate and the orthodoxy of atheism; both he feels have frustrated communities and individuals striving to embody anarchist ideals.

It is generally understood that in a primitivist critique technology is seen as a system of social control and ecological deracination. A futurist argument sees technology as a tool that creates conditions of abundance, and convenience that maximize freedom. Bey believes that this dispute about technology is misguided because our present circumstances present neither primitivism nor futurism with utopian guarantees, only provisional options and temporary alternatives. He attempts to synthesize both concerns by advocating that the intrusive reach of technology be met with its subversive appropriation.

Philosophies and Polemics

Bey considers the atheist orthodoxy within anarchism a 19th century carry-over that has become irrelevant because it is shortsighted. He agrees with its rejection of institutional religion but feels it goes too far by jettisoning spirituality altogether. For Bey, spirituality, in one respect, is a meaningful attempt to negotiate the vicissitudes of authoritarian society in the course of one’s maturation as a force of freedom. Atheists usually address spirituality in the context of an ethical humanism that reads the rational into personal conduct and disregards the full range of human experience.

I believe Bey would consider this ethical view a poor means for nurturing spirituality. His self-styled paganism, based on heretical eastern mysticisms, embraces nature and the cosmos in ways that would confound the ethical humanism of atheists. Bey places the spiritual goals of “inner liberation” at the center of any viable anarchist project.

On the terrain of philosophy, Bey attacks the pervasive cynicism that typifies the mood of contemporary culture. He believes that this cynicism stems from everyday, conventional beliefs that continuously enunciate the idea that only power(s) larger than ourselves (god, state, the bourgeoisie) can endow the human existence we live with meaning or credibility.

The 19th century thought of Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner figure in Bey’s response to this cynicism. Nietzsche’s demystifying critique of this cynicism helps Bey unmask how it reinforces the operation of authority in circumscribing the freedom of others.

Stirner’s radical monist view encourages Bey to simply ignore cynicism and concentrate on discovering ways to live freedom fully, in spite of conditions of unfreedom. Stirner elaborated a concept of the self that resisted all efforts to reduce or divide it. He believed consciousness to be whole and continuous so that self-knowledge is possible. Like Stirner’s concept of the “unique,” Bey’s notion of “chaos” is articulated as whole, continuous and subject to its own dynamic. The affinities Bey shares with Stirner help him clarify the importance of the act of perceiving, as a human power that enhances self-understanding beyond external mediation.

New Enclosures and Countercultures

In his last section, Bey discusses the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone.

In reviewing the history of American drop-out cultures, Bey describes the margins of early American history as filled with radical and rebellious colonists, renegade buccaneers/pirates, transgressive religious heretics/mystics and nonconformist triracial communities who, even before the formal establishment of the U.S., resisted and refused to accommodate the forces of capital, state and religion (see the anthology Gone to Croatan from Semiotexte). He notes that these drop-out cultures were motivated by the desire for self-realization and self-fulfillment. Their duration was usually short-lived due to organized social aggression. He says contemporary autonomous zones are committed to similar goals, but subject to new limitations and challenges. The new challenges and limitations arise from what he calls “the closure of the map” and “the closure of revolution.” The closure of the map refers to how the planet is being increasingly subjected to the influences of modern empire. The ubiquitous processes of capital coordination and state administration place all of us at the mercy of market forces and law enforcers. Bey recognizes that this new reality of closure is a challenge requiring new anti-authoritarian tactics.

One of his new tactics appropriates science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling’s idea of the autonomous zone as a virtual reality (computerized information-space). Within this information-space the autonomous zone becomes a high-tech guerrilla encampment whose location and activities are much less susceptible to state surveillance and control.

The closure of revolution signifies, in Bey’s words, “that not only should we stop waiting for the revolution,” but that we should stop wanting it altogether. His judgment is the product of a critique which shows how the project of revolutionary change dismantles the “old regime” only to replace it with a new one. This persuasive insight leads Bey to promote the spontaneous and tactical act of insurrection over the organized and programmatic strategy of revolution, to support social upheaval growing out of desire rather than politics.

In the autonomous zone, insurrection not only involves engaging in poetic terrorism or computer hacking, but executing negative gestures of refusal to politics, work and education as well as positive movements of direct action in the form of nomadism, festival and ferality. To Bey, social upheaval is not something we wait or martyr ourselves for, but a subversive operation whose aim is self-realization and self-fulfillment here and now.

Toward New Conversations and Consolations?

Aside from his stimulating critique and inspiring commitments, Hakim Bey’s important book carries implications which deserve discussion among anti-authoritarians. For me, three are significant: Stirnerism, the issue of primitivism vs. Futurism, and the question of production in the age of simulation.

Writing in the 19th century, both Nietzsche and Stirner had a profound understanding of power and authority. Forerunners of existentialist thought, they were concerned about the condition of the self and acutely aware of its fate in a society and culture in which authority was being codified and consolidated in ways which disrupted and destroyed traditions that had once permitted autonomy and valued the personal.

Nietzsche’s revolt against authority left open the possibility for community beyond authority as we know it, in his affirmation of a new community that went beyond the limitations of the old. However, Stirner’s revolt against authority precludes the possibility of a community beyond authority as we know it, in his affirmation of self even outside the mediations of community. Bey recognizes this yet questions remain as to whether his approach (grafting ideas from mysticism) resolves the issue of the appropriate relation of self to community. The question of how we affirm the self and create community in the battle against authority merits ongoing discussion among anarchists and anti-authoritarians.

The debate about technology is a crucial one. Bey understands what reservations a primitivist or Fifth Estate perspective would have of his futurist vision of the autonomous zone. Rather than reiterate those criticisms here, one could note the aspects of the autonomous zone most appealing to primitivists. A primitivist vision of liberated space would be a feral and festal eco-anarchist “bolo”(intentional community) that affirms itself in part through direct action against authority and hierarchy, and that places a premium on social relations which cultivate and nurture self-realization and self-fulfillment. On the other hand, Bey fancies futurist possibilities. Computer technology, he may reason, enables the sabotage and piracy of totalitarian high-tech networks as well as a means to enrich anti-authoritarian community in the face of state intrusiveness.

Lastly, Bey responds to critics who charge that computer piracy of capitalist largesse by autonomous zone hackers amount to little more than parasitism. Following the post-marxist thinker Jean Baudrillard, he asks “What does production consist of in the age of simulation?” and responds, “Perhaps we’ll be forced to admit that these terms seem to have lost their meaning.”

In cities like Detroit, we are definitely experiencing the “end of production;” and the reasons may be meaningless (unimportant) from a zerowork perspective, but are not totally meaningless (unintelligible) with respect to an anti-authoritarian critique. In other words, I believe the theoretical horizon that Baudrillard has drawn still allows us to assess the lingering consequences of production as well as the emerging costs of consumption in our everyday lives. To the question of what production consists of in the age of simulation it can be said first, as sociologist Stanley Aronowitz argues, production has lost its meaning to the extent that it has been “deterritorialized” from the centers of empire (where it now consists in the proliferation of simulacrum) to areas that form the second-tier (Southeast Asia, South America and Eastern Europe) in the planetary work machine. Second, the concept of simulation not only de-privileges the real, but evokes a sense of shifting boundaries and divisions in the regime of daily life. Both these processes, some argue, form the core of a program of social reorganization now underway in post-industrial societies; what the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze refers to as “societies of control.”

In light of these new developments and the crucial issues he raises, Hakim Bey’s advocacy of ontological anarchy is one of the few significant attempts to circumvent the impasse stifling the creative potential of anarchism. His aim is to sidestep dogma and orthodoxy in favor of liberatory acts that build on traditions of autonomy and desire in a world pervaded by centralized authority and hierarchical power.