What is Postanarchism?: Poststructuralism and Postmodernism

Aside from Hakim Bey, who coins the term in 1985 (and who I will discuss in more depth momentarily), arguably the most important writer on postanarchism is political philosopher Todd May, whose 1994 book, The Political Philosophy of Poststructural Anarchism, paved the way for later texts that sought the inherent anarchism of poststructural philosophy. May’s text grounds postanarchism as poststructural-anarchism, looking especially to the works of Michel Foucault, Jacques Rancière, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to examine how the implicit politics of these philosophers is necessarily anarchic. For May, the French poststructuralists altered the face of activist resistance by shifting the focus from a Marxist one-sided Statism, to a more effective and appropriate micropolitics (3). Postanarchism, then, incorporates aspects of poststructuralist philosophy into its activist practice to achieve two concomitant aims. As I will work through in the paragraphs that follow, May’s postanarchism has two primary concerns: first, it seeks to reject what May sees as the a priori humanism of classical anarchism, and to replace it with a positive definition of power; second, it works towards a rhizomatic resistance practice that uses diffuse power relations as not only something it opposes, but also an important element of its resistance tactic. For these two aims, May relies on Foucault’s work for the former, and Deleuze and Guattari’s for the latter.

After detailing the failures of Marxism, May incorporates Foucauldian conceptions of power relations into classical anarchist thought. He begins by exposing how Foucault’s ideas of power necessitate a revision of anarchist tactics, which typically reject all forms of power, arguing instead for aspirational systems based upon the avoidance of hierarchies. Instead, May posits that poststructuralist anarchism allows for the incorporation of power into its theories by maintaining that power is constraint, but not necessarily restraint (67). Power, as Foucault asserts throughout his work, emanates from innumerable points, is not exterior to relationships, comes “from below” as well as “from above,” and is both intentional and nonsubjective (May 72).   For an anarchist resistance movement, this means two things. First and foremost, it dissolves the false dichotomy of the individual subject and governing structures that individualist anarchism praises; after all, as May writes, “[p]ower does not merely suppress its objects; it creates them as well” (73). Second, it requires an immediate break from the humanism attributed to many classical anarchists[i]. That is, the primacy of a humanist, individual identity must be abandoned once we understand that the political subject is produced at the same time, and in the same manner, as those larger governing structures that anarchism critiques. In this way, Foucault’s assertions about power and the State form the base of May’s poststructuralist anarchism, and they set the tone for his practical, activist politics.

May argues, then, that a poststructuralist activist practice is, at its core, an anarchist critique of representation (98). This critique of representation is linked, he maintains, to the deleuzoguattarian concept of “overcoding” (105). Deleuze and Guattari define overcoding as a series of “phenomena of centering, unification, totalization, integration, hierarchization, and finalization” (A Thousand Plateaus 41). As such, these phenomena are processes that seek to stratify and normalize subjects, and the best way to resist these processes is to “decode,” or to put these processes in flux. For Deleuze and Guattari, this is achieved through a process of deterritorialization that produces the “nomad” figure, which May argues is inherently anti-Statist (Political Philosophy 104-5). May also notes that “[t]he state is not the only operator of overcoding, but it is the operator that makes it stick” (107). Thus, a purely anti-Statist, or classical anarchist, resistance would be largely ineffectual because it does not account for those elements of power that exist external to and a priori of the State. Instead, May looks again to Deleuze, who advocates a tactic of “experimentation” rather than resistance (112). This, along with its rejection of humanism, marks poststructuralist anarchism’s major break with classical anarchist thought. That is, a poststructuralist anarchism values experimentation over resistance because, as May asserts, “[e]xperimentation, unlike transgression, seeks positive alternatives rather than revolt” (114). The revolutionary, anti-Statist nature of classical anarchism seeks this “transgression,” which can neither account for nor combat these processes of overcoding. That is, in understanding power, and thus political struggle, as unidimensional (as transgression/opposition rather than experimentation/alternatives), classical anarchism ignores those “other operators” of overcoding that proliferate those very power structures that anarchism should, and must, look to disturb. In literature, this poststructuralist experimentation places an emphasis on subjugated discourses (116), which Deleuze and Guattari’s refer to as minor literature. It also, importantly, reorients the role of the intellectual, making philosophical, theoretical, cultural, and artistic practice an active engagement rather than a passive analysis of activism (117). That is, “[t]heory does not exist outside of practice; it, too, is a practice” (97). In other words, May’s poststructuralist anarchism prioritizes artistic, and especially poetic, practice, as a part of activism rather than simply a way to talk about political engagement. Thus, it lends itself especially well to studies of radically experimental poetry. And, most importantly for my purposes, it makes my own project (its theorizations, its criticism, its experimentation) an active practice, and, in some ways, an activist practice.

Surprisingly, then, considering the emphasis here on radical, experimental uses of language, May deals comparatively sparingly with Jean-François Lyotard, whose work focuses heavily on these concerns. May does note that Lyotard agrees with the Deleuzian preference for experimentation over revolt, and, more importantly, that Lyotard discusses the same power relations as Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari, yet on the level of language itself. If, as May argues, a poststructuralist anarchist practice is at its core a critique of representation, then it would seem that Lyotard’s work would inform this text much more. This is because alongside Lyotard’s now famous “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Postmodern Condition xxiv), he maintains throughout his work a critique of representation, and especially linguistic representation, as an element of metanarrative. In his 1974 essay, “Beyond Representation,” Lyotard argues that, taken as representational, all art performs a substitutive or vicarious function (158). More important for my purpose is the fact that he goes on to describe a new affirmative approach to criticism that sees the cultural artefact not as representational – that is, not as standing for something – but rather as just standing (158). For Lyotard, who here is aiming his critical distaste at psychoanalysis and its mythologies of self and desire, this new affirmative approach sees a productive capacity of artistic labour beyond merely the substitutive articulation of libidinal desire (that is, lack) (167). May articulates the same concern, albeit taken beyond psychoanalysis and into an ethical realm. This is to say that, for May, the primary ethical concern of poststructuralist anarchism is critiquing this substitutive representation, and that “practices of representing others to themselves … ought, as much as possible, to be avoided” (Political Philosophy 130). It is this critique of representation that makes postanarchism especially well-suited as a literary theory, and one that lends itself particularly well to experimental texts that seek to problematize the same processes of representation. Additionally, noting the importance of Lyotard’s work on May’s postanarchism allows this political philosophy to be more effectively adapted into a literary theory, and especially a theory that privileges experimental form.

[i] This humanism is perhaps most evident in anarcho-syndicalists following in the tradition of Max Stirner, or the staunch individualism of William Godwin, and, much later, Emma Goldman. It is also clearly evident in the deference to human nature of anarchists like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. But, elements of a primal humanism are still present even in the most communal of anarchism, such as the anarcho-communism proposed by Peter Kropotkin.

2 thoughts on “What is Postanarchism?: Poststructuralism and Postmodernism

  1. I asked in the previous entry “what is postanarchism” post of? Insofar as you point out that “postanarchism” is a term that derives from the collision between “poststructural” and “anarchism” I am curious (and suspicious) of all of the “posts” and “nons” that swim around in contemporary theory nowadays. I think of these “posts” as Deleuzo-Foucauldian folds in which the “non” or “post” epistemes are always folded into the previous ones (this is not a new thought). I like your invocation of Deleuze and Foucault and appreciate that their theorizations of capitalism and power necessarily require a radically new formulation of “anarchism.” How can one do away with the chief when the the system has no head? If capitalism is rhizomatic and diffuse – a system in which dispositifs function laterally and multi-vectorally, then how can anarchism function today? I like your suggestion that experimental poetry can be the solution to this problem and I think it really works in that experimental poetry features many of the same representational conceits as the rhizomatic, capitalist, and hegemonic. A pharmakonic Molotov cocktail indeed!


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