What is Postanarchism?: Hakim Bey and “Poetic Terrorism”

In 1985, when Bey published The Temporary Autonomous Zone; Ontological Anarchy; Poetic Terrorism, he did so, at least in part, out of frustration with an anarchist-activist movement that had stalled, suffering from the aforementioned unidimensional and unidirectional approach that failed to account for a society in which we must understand power as diffuse and pervasive. Instead, he proposes postanarchism (61), an anarchism that is, not oedipal (to borrow a deleuzoguattarian term, as Bey is wont to do), but rather, band-like (95), a carnivalesque festival (96), and psychically nomadic (97). Bey’s postanarchism would be, as such, “a perfect tactic for an era in which the State is omnipresent and all-powerful and yet simultaneously riddled with cracks and vacancies” (93). Bey’s postanarchism is not a temporal term, not an “after anarchism” that picks up where a failed movement leaves off, but an anarchism that always contains within it the lessons learned from poststructuralist conceptions of power and the State, as well as its revolutionary potentials. What differentiates Bey’s postanarchism most from the anarchism that preceded it is its prioritisation of art, and often poetry specifically, as a revolutionary activist practice. Lamenting the fact that art and literature are no longer regarded as threats to an authoritarian regime, Bey insists that poetry become more radical (although he does not specify how), and that other facets of resistance movements take on the revolutionary potentials of poetic language. He writes: “If rulers refuse to consider poems as crimes, then someone must commit crimes that serve the function of poetry, or texts that possess the resonance of terrorism” (TAZ 27). And yet, while this reads as a resounding advocation of (political, corporeal) radical poetics, Bey never fully develops this concept. Instead, his notion of “poems as crimes” remains unclear. Even his own poetry leaves this poetics underdeveloped and unclear. In it, he maintains the mysticism, the politics, and the viscera of his political writing — see, for example, his acclaimed Opium Dens I Have Known — but because so much of his creative work recalls or even works within the confines of lyrical structure[i], it is difficult to see where or how these poems engage with the “criminal” potentials of language. Bey thus provides us with a more effective and tantalizing poetic theory than he does a poetic practice. This is not to say that his postanarchist poetry is ineffective or irredeemable, but rather that Bey’s political writing can, and should, be taken further as an experimental poetics, as well as a practical reading philosophy. And, indeed, my project is, first and foremost, an attempt to do precisely that. Looking to the postanarchism first proposed by Bey, my project interrogates the poetic theory latent in Bey’s work, and develops this into a postanarchist literary theory that shows us not only how to create texts that are crimes, texts that defamiliarize the modes of poetic production, but also how to make the reading and writing of these poems an ontologically activist practice.

Central to the poetic theory Bey proposes is his concept of Poetic Terrorism, an activist practice that occurs at the site of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (hereafter referred to as the TAZ). The TAZ is a philosophical thought experiment that can be, should be, and is often produced literally. Varying constantly in longevity, type, and size, TAZs range from an individual moment of refusal to the widespread “Occupy” movements popularized in 2012. Bey goes to great lengths to avoid or resist defining the TAZ, but he does note that it is a moment when artistic and activist practices convene in an “uprising that doesn’t engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen” (TAZ 92). Similarly, Bey refuses to define Poetic Terrorism in a prescriptive fashion. Instead, he does so indirectly through examples, such as:

Pick someone at random & convince them they’re the heir to an enormous, useless & amazing fortune – say 5000 square miles of Antarctica […] Later they will come to realize that for a few moments they believed in something extraordinary, & will perhaps be driven as a result to seek out some more intense mode of existence. (TAZ 14)

While still obscure and eccentric, this definition by example reveals the hallmark of Poetic Terrorism: it attempts to defamiliarize, but by way of moving the quotidian into the extraordinary, and, in this example especially, by calling into question the taken-for-granted principles of capitalism and Statism. That is, the sudden acquisition of Antarctic territory, for example, brings to the fore assumptions of ownership as economic, as state-sanctioned, and as socially-recognized. Bey’s Poetic Terrorism here begs the question: how does government, in its many forms, limit our ability to believe in and embrace the “extraordinary”? Thus, Poetic Terrorism infringes on the laws of State and logic, patriarchy and normativity, grammar and propriety. These regulating and codifying effects produce, as Poststructuralism insists, the political subject, and Poetic Terrorism works to liberate the individual from these effects.  Bey’s concept of Poetic Terrorism prioritises the poetry of the deed[ii] (that is, the activist practice of disseminating art and beautiful artefact), but my project focuses specifically on how this concept of Poetic Terrorism helps us to understand the experimental and radical poetics of some contemporary poetry at the site of language itself, and to make them activist.

[i] I admit that there can be experimental potentials of the lyric. Canadian poet bpNichol in his acclaimed The Martyrology series, is a good contemporary example. Additionally, the modernists (among them, of course, Eliot, Pound, and Williams) called for, in a gross oversimplification, the experimentalization of the lyric. Indeed, attempts to radicalize the lyric have been, and continue to be, numerous and wildly popular. That said, this project positions the lyric poem, with its irrepressible contemporary popularity, its rich canonical history, and its predominant interest in a unified, singular writing subject supposedly in control of his/her use of language, in opposition to the radical, experimental poem purely in terms of form. The primary elements of experimental form are elusive, as indicated in this introduction, but necessarily work against the primary elements of the lyric.

[ii] Here Bey uses the phrasing “poetry of the deed” in contradistinction from Brousse’s “propaganda of the deed” to refuse the vanguardism attributed to the latter.

4 thoughts on “What is Postanarchism?: Hakim Bey and “Poetic Terrorism”

  1. I have always thought of anarchism as a politically creative endeavour and I like that Bey explicitly relates his “postanarchism” to art. Good question regarding “Poetic Terrorism” and the ways in which poetry can be “criminal.” Criminal to what? Hegemony? Grammar? Can the lyric poem become “criminal” if it describes or celebrates different instances of life – instances that are seen as outside of hegemonic, social, or cultural norms? If Bey does this (and we’ve spoken about our shared concerns about this), then his associations with pedophilic subcultures is worrisome. I like to think of postanarchist criticism or invention as being a practice that disrupts “meaning” systems … more later.

    1. Yeah, Sean. We do need to talk about the pedophilia stuff. I’ve obviously avoided it as best I can, but you are absolutely right that the TAZ does leave us open to the potentials of some really dangerous activity. My response can only be that the TAZ can only function where there is mutual respect and public trust, and considering the very interesting political discussions these days about clear definitions of consent (a foundational aspect of respect and trust in the common), I fail to see how Bey could justify these problematic sexual preferences.

      As this article (http://libcom.org/library/paedophilia-and-american-anarchism-the-other-side-of-hakim-bey) which I think I’ve linked you to before suggests, Bey’s apparent pedophilia suggests that his conception of the TAZ is more opportunist than it is communal, and that is regrettable. But, if we’re de-chiefing, as you mentioned in another comment, then I can just as well discard his sexuality and take his philosophy, sufficiently doctored to avoid it being used to justify the oppression of others.

      * * *

      On the criminal lyric — you are more hopeful about that than I am. Perhaps I have lost hope in the lyric at large. But, perhaps there can be terrorist lyrics out there.


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