What is Postanarchism? A Brief Introduction

Despite recent interest in incorporating political philosophies into literary studies, one of the most interesting, and potentially most useful, contemporary political philosophies, postanarchism, has not, as of yet, been given adequate attention as a literary theory. Yet elements of postanarchism are not only readily available as literary theories, they also allow incorporation of political activism with criticism of experimental poetry. That the intersections between postanarchism and literary studies have been woefully ignored is probably most evident in the 2011 publication of Post-Anarchism: A Reader, edited by Süreyyya Evren and Duane Rousselle. The text draws a clear link between poststructuralism and anarchism, and between anarchist philosophy and activism, but it seemingly ignores the potentials of postanarchism as a literary theory that would incorporate literary cultural production into an activist practice. As literary studies works to become more practical, and more in line with activist movements of all kinds, it would seem that postanarchism, in its desire to reframe and rethink our ontological and epistemological practices within and outside of the academy, would be an appropriate and effective edition to literary studies on the whole.

The postanarchism proposed in Evren and Rouselle’s reader, articulated explicitly in the editors’ introduction, clearly situates postanarchism as an activist practice, emphasising that its fundamental ideas would be defined not simply as philosophies, but rather as “consequence[s] of actual activist experiences” (3). Poststructuralism, in this reader, invigorates classical anarchism with a rhizomatic, new activism (5), creating a new current in radical politics (15). Evren and Rousselle’s collection is most important, then, because it gives a name (that is, it collects various essays under this name) and a clear set of ideals to postanarchism proper. Additionally, and interestingly, it puts at the centre of its philosophy and activism the essential mutability of human nature and subjectivity, maintaining that classical anarchism, despite contemporary criticism of its inherent utopian humanism,  was actually always convinced of this mutability (13). While I will discuss this notion further in the theorizations of anarchism and postanarchism that follow, it is clear that Evren and Rouselle’s text is both a revaluation and a reclamation of classical anarchism that seeks to bring anarchism’s classical texts into contemporary relevance.

Given classical anarchism’s standing as a political philosophy, and one primarily concerned with government and resistance, it may be surprising for some readers to learn that classical anarchism has actually long been concerned with artistic practice. Additionally, there has been a long-standing and close relationship between anarchist thought and poetry, especially experimental or avant-garde poetry. One need only to look at the popularity of Herbert Read’s Anarchy & Order; Poetry & Anarchism (1938), or recall André Breton’s oft-quoted adage, “An anarchist world … a surrealist world: they are the same,” to confirm this. And, as I will discuss towards the end of this introduction, some recent anarchist philosophers and activists (Jesse Cohn at the forefront) have done substantial work in connecting a renewed interest in anarchism with the seemingly constant popularity of the avant-garde. But, as Evren and Rouselle’s reader suggests throughout, classical anarchism, despite its suggestions of the mutability of human nature, does not adequately account for shifting conceptions of power and the self, and thus cannot keep pace with the changing face of anarchist activism.

My dissertation endeavours to help anarchist philosophies catch up to this changing activism, working to examine, and in some cases, to define, postanarchism as a theory of activism that can and will incorporate the processes of reading and writing experimental poetry into the realm of activist practices. That is, as poststructuralism teaches us, and as I extrapolate in the pages that follow, the new conceptions of power, subjectivity, and authorship that poststructuralist philosophers have elucidated require that we experiment with new forms of “resistance” practices. And, if we understand that diffuse power functions most effectively at the level of ontology and epistemology (an argument made persistently by Foucault and his contemporaries), then surely the cultural artefact, and especially the literary artefact, must come into play as an element of activist practice. To be sure, art has historically played a role in anti-authoritarian struggles internationally, but postanarchism forces us to make a distinction between political art and art as politic; in the latter, the very form (and not simply the content) of the artefact and the process of its production is a political experiment. As such, my project will privilege the formally experimental poem as the subject of postanarchist literary reading practices.

In order to expand on this theorization, I should first explain that, throughout my project, I will define the experimental poetic form as distinct from the avant-garde. While I will work towards a positive definition of the experiment below, in the section entitled “Anarchism and the Experiment: What is an experimental poem?” it is important that I, in setting the textual parameters of my work, meditate briefly on existing theories of the avant-garde. The genre of avant-garde literature has been theorized and studied extensively, perhaps most famously in Renato Poggioli’s Teoria dell’arte d’avanguardia (Theory of the Avant Garde, 1962), and later in Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984). Poggioli’s work emphasizes the ways in which the avant-garde, as an expression of authorial and audience alienation from society, positions itself as anti-traditional, noting that the “avant-garde looks and works like a culture of negation” (107). For Poggioli, this negation is especially focused on notions of individual production and artistic or authorial control over the artistic product as cultural artefact. Bürger develops this argument further, arguing that the avant-garde’s interest in the negation of authorial autonomy is directly correlated with a negation of audience individuality, an attack against bourgeois ideations of aesthetics and art. That is, he writes, “[t]he avant-garde not only negates the category of individual production but also that of individual reception” (53, italics in original). While I will work to complicate the use of the term avant-garde later in this introduction, this preoccupation in theories of the avant-garde with the disruption of creative autonomy is, I argue, the most important axis in the intersection of postanarchism and experimental poetics. But, as I will work to demonstrate throughout this project, the primary concern of the experimental text is to move beyond the discourse of disavowal that Poggioli and Bürger recognize is at the centre of the avant-garde, and to embrace alternative rather than negation, experiment rather than resistance. More directly, the experimental text, as I define it, embraces a multiplicitous strategy of resistance based on alternatives, rather than the binarism of the avant-garde practice of resistance through negation.

Ultimately, my project sees this theory of alternative and experimentation in action in experimental poetic texts that are either implicitly or explicitly concerned with an anarchist activist practice on the level of the disruption of the author-function. We can see the intersection of postanarchism and poetry in the way John Cage reappropriates source texts in “62 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham” (1973), or the way Jackson Mac Low writes to and rewrites Gertrude Stein in The Stein Poems (2003): both authors seek to defamiliarize language for anarchic ethical ends. This intersection is represented differently in Denise Levertov’s call for readerly responsibility in The Jacob’s Ladder (1961), or in Robert Duncan’s call for readerly community in his Passages sequence (in Bending the Bow [1968] and Ground Work [1984,1987]). It becomes radically feminist in the experiments with authorship seen in the revisionist appropriations  of Susan Howe (Bibliography of the King’s Book, or, Eikon Basilike, 1993), the indeterminacy and transelations of Erin Mouré (Pillage Laud, 1999, Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, 2001), the racialized LANGUANGE work of Harryette Mullen (Sleeping with the Dictionary, 2002), and communal politics of Juliana Spahr (Response, 2000). And it gets complicated both in the form and in the content of contemporary conceptual poetics, as in Kenneth Goldsmith’s emphasis on the authorship in Soliloquy (2001), or the lack of it in Day (2003), Christian Bök’s dramatic use of constraint in Eunoia (2001), and Darren Wershler-Henry’s emphasis on process rather than product in the tapeworm foundry (2000). Working to establish a nascent but important postanarchist literary theory, this project reads and writes through each of these texts to show that postanarchism can and should be used as a literary theory that works, above all else, to make the acts of reading, writing, and thinking about experimental texts parts of an anarchist activist practice.

While I have selected texts that explicitly challenge the authorial role and its concomitant political problems, it is my hope that my project brings to light the availability and importance of postanarchism as a theory of reading, and thus, of reading all literary texts. Ultimately, this project argues that these authors or individual texts in themselves are less important to my project than the way that my readings (rather than interpretations) of them help to illuminate the shortcomings of a critical literary theory that, as of yet, has not and cannot account for the changing face of popular resistance movements (anarchist or otherwise). For this reason, while I have, for the most part, selected texts that actively seek to disrupt the conventions of authorship and authorial intention, I have also chosen to examine both poets who are explicitly anarchist (Cage, Mac Low, Duncan, and, to an extent, also Howe) alongside political authors who are not anarchist (Levertov, Spahr, Mullen). I have also taken special interest in uncovering a latent politics in seemingly apolitical or politically disinterested texts (such as the works of Bök, Goldsmith, Wershler). It is my hope that this selection of authors exposes both the necessity and the limitless possibilities of postanarchism as a literary theory.

5 thoughts on “What is Postanarchism? A Brief Introduction

  1. This introduction is very exciting: a Molotov cocktail of postanarchism! I like that the word “poet” originally comes from “poiein,” meaning to create – indelibly etching a poet as a creator. Whether this label of “creator” has any deistic connotations (and it certainly does not have any economic ones!), I find that your invocation of “anarchism” – a term that originally means “without a chief” I believe – inevitably troubles the etymology of poet-as-creator. The poet-as-creator becomes a sort of humanist “chief” if you will: a shaman of western communities, economically marginalized, but nonetheless visionary. A postanarchist criticism would try to de-chief the poet. Also, what exactly is “postanarchism” post of? (This question relates to the “Post-Non-Post” panel we saw last week).

  2. Yes, anarchy = “without a chief”! I like this line of thinking very much, and I absolutely agree that postanarchist criticism would try to “de-chief” the poet! (A process which can never be complete, of course — but we should keep trying!)

    What is postanarchism post? An impossible question, too. I prefer to think of the prefix as revisiting and moving away from classical anarchism. Doing both at once. An after-anarchism, but also a theory that uses anarchism as a post — a load-bearing beam.

  3. Dear Dani – I can’t tell you how excited I am about this project. Jesse Cohn directed me to this site and I’ll be reading through your postings over the next few days. Perhaps you address this later in your project, but right now I’m wondering how you define the difference between “readings” and “interpretations.”

    1. Hi Jessica, and welcome!

      Sorry for the extreme delay in responding to these comments. It’s been a very busy couple of weeks!

      I think that the difference for me between “readings” and “interpretations” is exegesis. That comes out more in the John Cage plateaus on this site, but I agree that it has to be made more clear further up. I think that it’s possible to read and enjoy and even understand a text in some ways without delving into the realm of the exegetical or even the hermeneutic. Hope that makes sense. Looking forward to tackling your other comments now.

  4. Dear Dani – I can’t tell you how excited I am about your project. Jesse Cohn directed me to this site, and over the next few days I’ll be reading through your posts. For now, I’m wondering how you define the difference between “readings” and “interpretations.”


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