Introduction / What is Postanarchism?

What is Postanarchism?: Theorizing Anarchism

At this juncture, I should make a brief note about the explicitly political, activist nature of these theoretical texts, and of the political philosophy behind them. While I maintain that these texts are valuable to literary study (and invaluable to the creation of a postanarchist literary theory), I do not want these literary elements to detract or distract from the inherent activism of anarchism and postanarchism. As such, I would like to note that Evren and Rousselle’s aforementioned reader is preceded by Saul Newman’s The Politics of Postanarchism (2010), a less comprehensive but no less important treatise on postanarchism, which argues vehemently for the merger of classical anarchism and poststructuralism as a way to reinvigorate new anarchist activist practices [i]. While Newman maintains that postanarchism is a response to the postmodern condition (140), marked by a skepticism of metanarratives, an abandonment of essential identities, and a new view of discourse and constitutive power (àla Foucault) (141), he tends to move these philosophical ideals into an activist practice. Arguing that the political is the “constitutive space between society and the state” (169), Newman uses postanarchism to contest borders and border control (172), to advocate non-authoritarian forms of political organisation (177), and to develop a productive disjuncture between politics and ethics (139). For Newman, postanarchism is, at its core, not “tactical” (169) – that is, not thought before action – but rather, a celebration of heretical (anti)politics (180).

Alongside Newman, who problematises my work by enforcing the practical activist nature of postanarchism, I also place David Graeber, a prominent (and nearly Twitter-famous) radical author and activist whose “Anarchism, Academia, and the Avant-garde” (in Routledge’s Contemporary Anarchist Studies, 2009), should be included in every subsequent anarchist-academic work because it poses the important (though ultimately unanswerable) question: what would an anarchist academic do? (107). Graeber argues here that the anarchist academic occupies a precarious position because these two terms are often understood to be incommensurate; anarchists and academics value entirely different and often contradictory ideals [ii](104). Nonetheless, Graeber positions the anarchist intellectual as a sort of litmus test, “provid[ing] a potential role for the radical, non-vanguardist intellectual” (111). While all of his points are important for postanarchism, Graeber’s assertion that the anarchist intellectual must be anti-vanguardist is especially relevant for my work, and for any work on anarchism and the avant-garde (and should immediately recall Deleuze and Guattari’s desire for experimentation over transgression). Rejecting the vanguardism of avant-garde literary and artistic movements such as dadaism and futurism (and, in one fell swoop also dismissing the anarchism often attributed to them), Graeber argues that the anarchist intellectual must be interested in exploring alternatives, not setting a vanguard (109). It should be noted that Graeber’s assertion here marks a sort of break with classical anarchism, making his anti-vanguardism decidedly postanarchist. That is, classical anarchism, despite its vocal denigration of vanguardist ideals, often implicitly believed in vanguardism to a degree. [iii]

As such, the anarchist academic’s task is difficult, but not doomed ab ovo. “Untwining social theory from vanguardist habits might seem a particularly difficult task,” Graeber writes, “because historically modern social theory and the idea of the vanguard were born more or less together” (108). Instead, the role of the anarchist academic is to develop manners of reading, writing, and understanding, not as a “vanguard leading the way to a future society,” but rather as a way of “exploring new and less alienated modes of life” (109). In this project, I argue that, through its defamiliarization, the formally experimental poem allows us one way of doing just this, and that it is indeed possible to work as an academic studying avant-garde literature without necessarily falling victim to a vanguardism oneself.

For more on Graeber’s antivanguardist anarchism, see my review of his latest book, The Democracy Project, up on Political Media Review.


[i] Evren and Rousselle make a distinction between Todd May’s work and Saul Newman’s work by arguing that while May uses anarchism to make poststructuralism more effective, Newman uses poststructuralism to make anarchism better (10), seemingly implying that, in this dynamic, May is the philosopher, and Newman the pragmatist.

[ii] For example, the anarchist seeks to destabilize hierarchy and hegemony, and what could be more hierarchical than the academy and its valuation of tenure? Indeed, the very system of the academy is based on a hierarchy of presidents, deans, assistant deans, full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, sessional or adjunct instructors, graduate students, and support staff of various types. I will admit that classical anarchism does not object to or reject the authority or expertise denoted by specialization; after all, in God and the State, Mikhail Bakunin famously argues, “Does it follow that I reject all authority? Perish the thought. In the matter of boots, I defer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult the architect or the engineer. … But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect … to impose his authority on me” (229). But, the academy, in its hierarchical nature and its concomitant privileging of certain voices, seeks explicitly to impose its hegemonic authority on others.

[iii] As evidence of this anarchist vanguardism, consider the classical anarchists’ interest in propagande par le fait (propaganda by/of the deed), the concept popularized by French anarchist Paul Brousse, and later taken up by mnay activist circles, anarchist and otherwise, that privileged unique and spectacular resistance tactics, both violent and non-violent, as a means of disseminating political statements.

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