Idealism & exodus in the thought of Max Stirner
by Arran James
Stirner is the dialectician who reveals nihilism as the truth of the dialectic.
– Deleuze, Nietzsche and philosophy.
Beyond the discussions around pluralism, I was in a book stop the other day, sitting with my Guattari and a coffee, when I noticed that there is a new edition of Max Stirner’s The ego and its own. I can only assume this is due the attention Stirner has been getting because of Frederico Campagna, who has been writing about Stirner on Through Europe & in his book. I first came across Stirner when I was a teenager, via the work of post-anarchist Saul Newman. Newman has also recently edited an anthology of writing on Stirner. Both of these thinker will be speaking at London’s ICA on the event of Verso’s republication of Stirner as part of its “radical thinkers” range (& I’m fairly gutted not to be able to attend). I have to admit, Saint Max, as Marx called him, still floats around as part of the obsessional abyss around which my thought, such as it is, circles and re-circles. Stirner: egoist, proto-existentialist, anarchist, fascist, individualist, idealist, atheist, and, above all, unrelenting nihilist. If there was one thinker that I would have described as an intellectual hero, who I would have demanded everyone read, it would have been Stirner. Today, I rarely mention him- and certainly cringe at being introduced at an academic workshop once as “a Stirnerite”. So it seems like an engagement with this egoist is timely right now; besides which, it’s probably well past time I had some kind of reckoning with a figure that always looms somewhere in my own attempts to grapple with our nihilist age.
Max Stirner was born Johann Kaspar Schmidt in 1806 and grew to be, by contemporary accounts, something of a shy, withdrawn type of man. Unlucky in love, and fairly marginalised among the radical Young Hegelians group he hung out with (a group that included Feuerbach, Engels and Marx), Stirner lived a relatively uneventful life and died in 1856 following infection from a mosquito bite. Schmidt the man may have been a fairly insignificant figure but the event of Max Stirner was anything but. The ego and its own has been cited as a massive influence on all kinds of thinkers and movements, so it is odd that Stirner himself has almost been written out of history. Indeed, most of our contemporary thinkers will have never read his only major work, and likely only know his name via Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, in which he uses Stirner to develop the theme of hauntology. Most Marxists are likely to know of Stirner via the infamous critique that Marx launched against him in The german ideology, a critique that ran to the majority of the book in early editions, and which some have claimed to be more vicious and personal than Stirner’s work really deserved. It is often claimed, though without much support, that Stirner is likely to have been influential on the intellectual development of Nietzsche, & is cited as a prefiguration of Sartre’s existentialism. Deleuze gives a passing mention to Stirner in The logic of sense. If Stirner is known to the producers, consumers and distributors of the art-market it is most likely via Marcel Duchamp who named Stirner as the philosopher who had caught his attention. It is hard to see what Raoule Vanigem’s “radical subjectivity” would have been had their been no Stirner. Finally, it is impossible to deny Stirner’s influence on various anarchisms. Emma Goldman, Herbert Read, and numerous American strains of “post-left anarchy” openly acknowledge a debt to Stirner. This latter moment is no more explicitly stated than in Hakim Bey’s quixotic, but ultimately politically vapid (and sexually dubious), TAZ when he declares a slogan for his brand of ontological anarchism to be “Marxist-Stirnerism”. The For Ourselves collective took the spirit of this slogan and used it as a guide to developing an “egoist communism” in their essay The right to be greedy: theses on the practical necessity of demanding everything. The latter can best be captured by this quote from quite early in the text:
The perspective of communist egoism is the perspective of that selfishness which desires nothing so much as other selves, of that egoism which wants nothing so much as other egos; of that greed which is greedy to love – love being the “total appropriation” of man by man.
It should be noted that For Ourselves are the only avowedly communist appropriation of Stirner’s work, the only collective that attempted to wed Stirner’s idiosyncratic philosophy to a revolutionary praxis, and pretty much all social anarchists- whether of the communist or collectivist stripe- have denounced Stirner as a dangerous &/ idealist. This denunciation reaches it’s height with the authors of the book Black flame (2009) who reject Stirner (along with Tolstoy & Godwin) as having ‘no place at all in the broad anarchist tradition’ (18). In their view, Stirner’s entire philosophy was a matter of ‘asserting the right of the individual to do whatever she or he pleased…Unbridled self-interest…’ (2009, 36)- and it is no secret that Stirner is associated with the American insurrectionalist tradition, a tendency that has always expressed nothing but contempt for communism and has aligned itself with reactionary ecological politics & contempt for feminism. The socialist & anarchist Gustav Landauer (himself cited as a kind of proto-Foucault) declared that Stirner was ‘the last of the great nominalists’ for whom nothing but individual beings exist.
Despite this, it is important to realise that at the time he was published, Stirner was every bit dynamite as that other dangerous German; take Engels reaction to The ego…:
But what is true in his principle, we, too, must accept. And what is true is that before we can be active in any cause we must make it our own, egoistic cause-and that in this sense, quite aside from any material expectations, we are communists in virtue of our egoism, that out of egoism we want to be human beings and not merely individuals.
Despite everything, it seems like Stirner impressed Engels and it is now widely recognised that Stirner’s critique of Feuerbach’s religion of man was a crucial element in Marx’s freeing himself from the vestigial idealism he was still attached to. If you are going to follow me into this examination of Stirner, and there is no reason for you to do so, this being a highly personal encounter, an egoistic encounter if you like, then the critique of Feuerbach is probably the best place to start.
Man, your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head! You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit-realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons to you. You have a fixed idea! Do not think that I am jesting or speaking figuratively when I regard those persons who cling to the Higher, and (because the vast majority belongs under this head) almost the whole world of men, as veritable fools, fools in a madhouse. What is it, then, that is called a “fixed idea”? An idea that has subjected the man to itself.
So proclaims Stirner in the mode of iconoclast against idealism. This is hardly tolerant language. The vast majority of humanity, or at least the intellectual classes that Stirner is addressing, and really this audience is comprised of his fellow radicals, stand accused of a kind of madness. This madness consists of being obsessed by a “spirit-realm” of ideas. The implication is clear: Western philosophy, at this time dominated by the Hegelian system of absolute idealism, is little more than a religion followed by fools. In our contemporary language I can’t help but feel that a more faithful translation to Stirner’s vitriolic barbs, if not to the original German, would be closer to “psychotics”. So Stirner looks to philosophy and finds only idealism and in idealism he sees little but a secularised version of religion, and those who commit to an ontology of Gods and spirits can only be the delusional and hallucinatory victims of insanity. Much later in history a professional at diagnosing and theorising phantasms would declare that all metaphysics are hysteria, but Stirner goes further: all metaphysics are psychotic. The irony here is that another of Stirner’s critics would claim that The ego… itself was the ‘conceptual expression of the paranoid schizophrenic’ (Paterson, cited in Welsh 2010, 34).
During the 18th century, what would come to be known as mental illness was thought to centre on the presence of fixed ideas. Melancholia was always found to be accompanied by some central irrationality that the melancholic clung to and could not be persuaded to renounce. That these obsessions were recognised as possessing what we now call delusional conviction meant that they weren’t amenable to rational discourse or capable of being made subject to doubt. The alienists, those medical men who preceded psychiatrists, thus attempted to deploy imaginative means to “cure” the madness (Tobin 2001, 63-65). The autonomisation of a field of semioproduction such that the intensification of a kind of autoreferential cognitive sensibility- what routinely gets figured as a “being out of touch with reality” but is in true psychosis is in fact a response to a traumatic upsurge of the real- can’t be domesticated by the imposition of a re-schematisation of that sensibility. As such the alienists of the age attempted to make partial semiospheres compete with one another in the hope of an equilibrium being achieved in the cognitive libidinal economy; one imaginary was to sap the energy of the other so that neither could dominate. While he wouldn’t publish his ideas on idee fixe until 1901, it is worth pointing out that Pierre Janet would identify these obsessions as isolated dissociations that could take the form of images, thoughts, or memories, & that operated in the subconscious. Janet crystallises the idea that these autonomisms act independently of the apparently autonomous subject and thus provides a bridge from Stirner to what would flower into the psychoanalytic tradition.
If the alienists were discussing idee fixe as partial semio-automatisms this wasn’t out of some concern that people have the right thoughts. Libidinal investment & cognitive schematisms only become problematic when they are used as heuristic guides to action, when they become prototypes; the problem with these particular typical formations is that they have become frozen or fixed into structures. Against the image of the prototype, a form of model that is always deployed in order to be remodelled based on experimentation in the raw field of action, a structure is a model that has been decided on, constructed from purely theoretical considerations, a universal abstraction that obliterates the singular bodies from which it is composed.The problem with idee fixe is that afferentially alive prototypes ossify & numb into purely efferential structures such that we witness with the contemporary diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (in Stirner’s time OCD wasn’t codified as such and was still regarded as a delerium, or psychosis). In today’s neurologically inflected society we might want to talk about the rigid activation of a certain neuro-circuit whether or not it is appropriate & whether or not there is any discernible stimuli: the brain, like a stuck record, plays the same tune, & activates the same “response” (classically, compulsive hand-washing and other safety behaviours).
This image of the idee fixe bears a proximity to the Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of pragmatic deployment of refrains. What is probably the most famous example of the refrain comes in Anti-Oedipus (2004) in Plateau 11, ‘On the refrain’, which opens with the following example:
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment (113).
Once the refrain is put in play, once the child sings to itself out of terror or dread, attempting via a singing that is drained of joy or the desire for expression to produce an incantation with all the potency of the magical ritual, Deleuze & Guattari tell us that ‘we are at home’, and, crucially, that this homeliness is itself the production of the refrain. The child’s song is a sheltering, a sketching, a calming…it is the production of a zone of homeliness in the open exposure to a chaotic world of uncanny vulnerability, a soothing in the face of dread. The child’s fear is the fear of all kinds of things: monsters, strangers, fairy-tale creatures and woodsmen today supplanted by horror film beasts and paedophilic kidnappers. But a child in the dark, a child afraid less of the dark than what the dark might conceal, has for it’s concrete objects, it’s actual stimuli, the rustling of leaves, the movement of shadows, the familiar sounds of animal life or urban activity made strange by that darkness. But beyond this, an existentially more primal fear: the viscous consistency of an abject darkness that is itself the horrific dimension of materiality as ‘the dark’. This ‘the dark’ that the child is afraid of when she is afraid of ‘the dark’ is correctly denoted by the definite article- whatever other fears the child has it is always expressed by this central, seemingly invariant fear of this darkness that Tom Sparrow, in his discussion of Levinas’s il y a, poetically captures as a ‘tangible darkness’. Another insomniac, EM Cioran, contends that the confrontation with darkness is centred on a paroxysmal ecstasy that ‘wipes out surrounding objects, familiar forms of the world’ and which provides a kind of ‘metaphysical hallucination…[an] immateriality that causes vertigo and obsession’ that can only be turned away from by taking those obsessions and transforming them into ‘metaphysical principles’ (78-79). These augmented phenomenologies of darkness thus go from particular fears to a more total materio-existentialised dread which sweeps one up, dissolves the ordered world, as if order preceded chaos, producing somatic and cognitive (ie. corporeal) affects that can end by riveting one to the incantations deployed as the “pragmagic” of the refrain. The dark as the monstrous thickness and suffocating heaviness of materiality itself stands as the chaos and indifference of the real, in the face of which we all stand as children, is precisely what necessitates the flight into order via the refrain. That the refrain can be denoted as a species of incantation, that it can be figured as a ritual, shows the proximity of such an ordering to the distillation and elevation of the sacred, and so figuratively traces the freezing of the refrain into the idee fixe. In Stirner’s own terms:
Fear makes the beginning, and one can make himself fearful to the coarsest man; already, therefore, a barrier against his insolence. But in fear there always remains the attempt to liberate oneself from what is feared, by guile, deception, tricks, etc. In reverence,[Ehrfurcht] on the contrary, it is quite otherwise. Here something is not only feared,[gefürchtet] but also honored [geehrt]: what is feared has become an inward power which I can no longer get clear of; I honor it, am captivated by it and devoted to it, belong to it; by the honor which I pay it I am completely in its power, and do not even attempt liberation any longer. Now I am attached to it with all the strength of faith; I believe.
This striking onto the terms of faith and belief should be read as decidedly religious & supernatural, far from the perceptual or animal faiths that others would later describe, and forms the central thrust of Stirner’s critique of everything preceding him. Before elaborating on this, I think its worth scurry around in the refrain. Guattari writes that refrains are ‘reiterated discursive sequences, closed in on themselves’ (2013, 207), whether they be facialities, signatures, bird-song marking a territory, a certain mood, a particular kind of pavement, or, to give an example that Guattari doesn’t furnish, the re-enactment of historical moments, personal memories. It is clear that refrains can get out of hand by Guattari’s reference to a ‘manic acceleration’ of enunciative practices that result in ‘liquifaction’ (2013, 207). The accelerations of mania (but equally of anxiety & the rush of amphetamines) in thinking & in other more obvious modes of practical embodied engagement do not admit to the stabilisation effect of the refrain, the rhythm of which races ahead of itself so that it supports no actual “refraining” (in the sense of a musical refrain) & as such breaks down, but which equally moves from x to y to z (or in the rapid repetition of x-x-x-x to the point that each repetition begins to transpose itself on the last in a cascade of “racing thoughts”) so as to blur & make indistinguishable, thereby undoing any sense of territoriality, of homeliness. Likewise, Guattari also provides a sense that the rhythmic-territorial dimensions of refrains that are the machinisms of temporalisation can itself thicken into a sort of darkness:
“I love you, do not leave me, you are my world, my mother, my father, my race, the cornerstone of my organization, my drug. I can do nothing without you . . . What you are really – man, woman, object, ideal of standing – in fact matters little. What counts is that you allow me to function in this society, that you neutralize in advance all the solicitations of the components of passage that could derail me from the system. Nothing will be able to happen anymore that does not pass through you . . .” It is always the same song, the same secret misery, whatever the apparent diversity of the notes and words’ (2011, 109).
This sameness is what happens when you can’t escape the refrain, when the refrain dominates you, when it stands in opposition & externality,a hub that one no longer passes through voluntarily but under the palpable sense of compulsion. The dissolution or blocking up of the passage out of the refrain ensures that whatever materio-discursivity is deployed one remains within the orbit of the same universalities & abstractions as before, & that even worse, given that the capitalist world supplies us all with the same massified ready-made commodity-forms (what Western child doesn’t know the words to the latest Lady Gaga or Mylie Cyrus?), it is certain that we are trapped within a ‘serialisation of assemblages’ (Guattari 2011, 109) that alienates us from our own singularisation. Commenting on Guattari’s sad refrains, Franco Berardi has suggested that depression may the dark refrain’s ‘obsessive repetition’- a formula that we have seen also clearly lend itself to the above. All in all, considered from this perspective it begins to appear as though Stirner’s own critique of idealism might be summed up as a religious flight from the real driven by a kind of terrible awe: the sacred, standing above the ego, is precisely the ghosts that haunt us still…ghosts because we think we had killed God, but a flood of sad & obsessive semioproductions are ready to stand in God’s place.
For Stirner’s age, the idee fixe was explainable by reference to neither the brain nor it’s immaterial counter-part “mind”:
In our view this is the false idea which humanity has held for several hundreds of years, and which it still holds, namely, that the origin of the false notions of patients suffering from melancholia, which are just that and nothing more, is being erroneously attributed to the intellect. Here the intellect is not at fault; it has not strayed or lost itself in meditations or speculations. It is the disposition which is seized by some depressing passion, and then has to follow it, and since this passion then becomes the dominating element, the intellect is forced by the disposition to retain certain ideas and concepts. It is not these ideas or concepts which determine the nature and the form of the disease; the presence of an idee fixe does not mean that the disease is an affectation of the intellect; the intellect is a mere servant of the sick disposition, and for this reason any definition of melancholia which states that its nature lies in the idee fixe is altogether erroneous (Heinroth 1818).
In an age of Reason, Stirner’s accusation of humanity, & especially the philosophers, being dominated by fixed ideas has the ring of suggesting that they are held in the power of those passions that reason is supposed to vanquish. Against the Enlightenment vision of philosophy being a discipline of rationality that could discover the mechanistic order of the world & which was aligned to progress, Stirner sees only the tumultuous fury of the emotions crystallised into clean conceptual language. If Hegel had proclaimed that the real was the rational and the rational the real, Stirner’s rebuttal was that Hegel’s entire philosophical system was itself the product and expression of irrationality. If Stirner has been accused of being a romantic, it appears as though he himself was accusing all philosophy of a kind of subterranean Romanticism:
Does this perchance apply only to the so-called pious? No, it applies to all who belong to the departing period of history, even to its men of pleasure. For them too the work-days were followed by a Sunday, and the rush of the world by the dream of a better world, of a general happiness of humanity; in short by an ideal. But philosophers especially are contrasted with the pious. Now, have they been thinking of anything else than the ideal, been planning for anything else than the absolute self? Longing and hope everywhere, and nothing but these. For me, call it romanticism (284).
The pious are those that Stirner thinks of having “haunted” heads; they are the obsessives, the compulsives, the irrational, the delusional animals, typified by the philosophers. The pious are all those Romantics captivated by passionate longing after their chosen Ideal, their chosen Structure. They are the religious of all stripes- even, or perhaps especially, the atheists he found himself among with the Free. In a turn of phrase that remains as salient now as it did then when we consider the vapidity of the New Atheists: ‘Our atheists are pious people’. And these pious are lunatics: they are ‘great lunatics’ whom Stirner counter poses to the ‘little so-called lunatics’ in a move that makes it clear that there is a metaphysical psychosis & a banal one, & that it is those possessed of metaphysics who are the real madmen (& not those who would today be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder), even going so far as to call the world itself an open Asylum. Among the fixed ideas Stirner isolates are popular morality, legality, Christianity, the idea of the State, the ‘sacredness of marriage’, and he even implicates the epistemic sovereignty of dominant semiostructurations, the semioproductions that act as redundant existential anchors & counter-coping mechanisms, the entire field of linguistic majority:
‘Language or “the word” tyrannizes hardest over us, because it brings up against us a whole army of fixed ideas (102).
There is perhaps no word that appears more often in The ego…than “sacred”. In a dialectical strategy designed to break the magic spell of fixed ideas, Stirner relentlessly mocks everything that is sacred, everything that is lofty & elevated & which is supposed to convey some degree of sacredness or dignity on man. Whatever is sacred is a spook, a ghost, an apparition. With the sacred we are in the spirit-realm or ‘the realm of essences’, as Stirner puts it. Thus the sacred is the incorporeal essence divorced from the corporeal realm, the worship of which Stirner considers to be the definition of religion (Badiou et al’s “Idea of communism” is thus thoroughly religious). In the section of The ego…entitled “The Possessed”, Stirner further characterises the sacred as eternal, alien & uncanny, but above all as a “higher being”. In the language of a flat ontology the sacred is whatever is taken as a vertical being; in the language of immanence, it is characterised by transcendence. The pious mad are easy to spot, gripped as they are by a fanaticism that leaves them ‘possessed and prepossessed’ in the full & dual sense of the terms. Above all the sacred is whatever stands opposed to the living corporeality of the individual; it is an exteriorisation, an alienation, & the desingularisation of the capacities and particularities of the flesh & blood individual. Craig Hickman recently cited Iain Hamilton Grant & co as defining idealism as a realism of the idea. It is precisely this attitude that Stirner is attacking, with more force, more brutality, although assuredly less style & cunning, than any Nietzsche.
The word idealism appears in The ego…only once, & it does so in connection with the critique of Feuerbach that I had said we would start with:
It is well that Feuerbach brings sensuousness to honor, but the only thing he is able to do with it is to clothe the materialism of his “new philosophy” with what had hitherto been the property of idealism, the “absolute philosophy.” As little as people let it be talked into them that one can live on the “spiritual” alone without bread, so little will they believe his word that as a sensuous being one is already everything, and so spiritual, full of thoughts, etc. (455).
So Stirner isn’t messing about. Look, he says, we all know Feuerbach claims to be a materialist but he’s just an idealist of the sensuous, a realist of the idea of the material! From the preceding discussion, we can go further. Stirner’s book has been accused of argument by assertion, & of laying the insults on thick but he’s done well not to proclaim openly what the accusation of idealism boils down to: Look, Feuerbach’s alright…but he’s a complete lunatic! From our vantage we know the importance of Feuerbach’s materialist philosophy, it’s return to the sensual domain out of the supposedly pure abstraction of the Hegelian system, as a movement out of the constructivist/contemplative supersubject & back to the object itself. Feuerbach thus marked a re-turn to the kind of thinking that had driven the mechanistic materialists like Hobbes and Locke before him. As Engels sums it up, the importance of Feuerbach seemed to be the rediscovery that
that the material, sensuously perceptible world to which we ourselves belong is the only reality; and that our consciousness and thinking, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter (Engels 1886).
Thus Feuerbach resembles our own contemporary materialists: there is to be no admission into our ontologies of actually existing supernatural beings, & there can be no understanding of phenomenality that isn’t itself also nothing but the resultant of the biophysical processes as understood by the natural sciences. For Feuerbach, the idea of a pre-existent immaterial supersubject called spirit or God is ludicrous; what has been mistakenly appropriated as God was only ever the projection of human capacities and qualities into an ideal being & as such could only ever have been the repression of the potentialities of our species-being. But for Stirner this move doesn’t go far enough & although God might be dead He nonetheless returns via the essence of that very same species-being: the religion of divinity dialectically retained in the divinity of Man. As far as Stirner sees things Man repeats God insofar as it accomplishes a ‘split into an essential and an unessential self…[through which] we go back into the dreary misery of seeing ourselves banished out of ourselves’. The Feuerbachian contention that I should find myself in my generic humanity is just another projective fantasy that I- the singular ego- must submit myself to, & as the other side of this relation humanity (or Hegel’s Giest) alienates me from myself. Stirner isn’t being an anti-realist on the point of whether I am a human being but only on the question as to whether humanity itself is a transcendent principle that stand beyond the ego. In Saul Newman’s Lacanian “post-anarchist” reading of all this the core of Stirner’s critique of idealism lies in the way it diagnoses the individual’s alienation within the Symbolic because she is ‘subjected to a series of signifiers’ that could be even more mutilating than the overt religious symbolic order (2001, 58).
Stirner’s critique of idealism undoubtedly makes him a potent nihilist from an age when nihilism was still an intellectual project rather than the very material condition that threatens to demolish the infrastructural ecologistics that determine the coordinates & viability of our existence; a literal deterritorialisation across all ecologies that is already under way with partial & uneven rhythmicities. For all that, it is clear that his critique is one that still bears repeating today- perhaps with renewed urgency precisely because of what flight from the real is costing us. However, while the negative moment in Stirner might be worth championing I am unconvinced that he fully escapes from idealism, or that he really escapes the politico-ideological essentialisms that post-anarchists take his critique of idealism to have left behind.
Postanarchism & Essentialism
Among the most politically useful readings of Stirner’s exorcism is the one connecting it to later critiques of essentialism. This connection has, to my knowledge, been most regularly & most cogently argued by post-anarchist Saul Newman. At this point it might be beneficial to outline what post-anarchism “is”. First of all, it can be seen as a loose assemblage of thinkers & activists who work on drawing together post-structuralist theories of power & critiques of human nature with the historical anarchist tradition. The theoretical operations that postanarchists perform are often those of placing historical anarchism & post-structuralist theory into mutual exposure to one another so as to transcode each with the other, producing what they argue is a more nuanced anarchism whilst, according to those such as Todd May, providing post-structuralist theories (esp. Foucault, Deleuze, & most recently, Ranciere) with a coherent ethico-political framework. In the introduction to Post anarchism: a reader this endeavour is identified as emerging from the anti-globalisation movement that erupted with events like Seattle, but that today we might better recognise by the term horizontalism & more readily identify with movements like Occupy. For Todd May & David Graeber alike this “new anarchism” appeared at the time of a putative collapse of the Marxist party-form at an historical moment when resistance had become creative again. Graeber has written extensively about the spectacular forms this creativity took & has outlined how this new anarchism was centred on consensus decision-making processes that were embodiments of the prefiguration of the future society. The contemporary epitome of this movement has been researched from the inside by Mark Bray in his Translating anarchy, so I won’t go further with it here.
Of core concern to contemporary anarchists, autonomists and Marxists are a couple of key theoretical developments: firstly, the rejection of a nebulously defined “classical anarchism” as possessing an essentialist ontology of human beings, & a reading of Marx/ism that appears as caricature at times (cf. May’s claim that Marxism is ‘a failed project'[1999, 18], Lewis Call’s claim Marxism is a ‘dialectical dead-end’, promoting Baudrillard as the most radical radical [2002, 65] & Uri Gordon citing every movement as ‘way ahead of Marxism’ [2008, 5] in ways that flatten the Marxian horizon that is itself essentialist). At the same time the varied anarchisms are flattened out to a more or less monochrome collage. Key elements the violence done to anarchism present in postanarchism, although it should be said not all, is it’s flattening to an ahistorical antiauthoritarian impulse, a meta-ethical theory, a naive faith in the fundamental goodness of people- itself based on a shallow understanding of power- & a kind of depoliticised epistemic &/or ontological disposition. This last is best represented in Simon Critchley’s reading of anarchism as an-arche, or rejection for first principles, flowing out of Infinitely Demanding‘s (2009) Levinasian ethics that in some ways echoes the profound passivity of Hakim Bey’s ontological anarchism (itself a Stirnerite innovation). In what I take to be the best- & therefore maybe least representative- of these work , Todd May endorses a the view that anarchism is a ‘”generic social & political idea that expresses negation of all power”‘, rendering a tradition of praxis & theory alienated from itself in the image of being a pure timeless idea. Most importantly though, postanarchism almost always seems to dispense with class. It should be noted that this is brief overview that will miss nuances, but the point was merely to establish a general postanarchist schema.
We’ve seen that central to postanarchism is a rejection of essentialism. Much of what gets dubbed “Theory” spent time coping, critiquing & reviving essentialism. For Saul Newman, ‘essentialism is the political problem of our time’ (2001, 4). As Newman (2001, 3) has it:
Essentialist ideas seem to govern our political and social reality. Individuals are pinned down within an identity that is seen as true or natural. Essentialist identities limit the individual, constructing his or her reality around certain norms, and closing off the possibilities of change and becoming.
It might be tempting to disregard this problem as yesterday’s luxury. What is the problem of essential identities in comparison with economic & ecological collapse, the accelerated nihilism of the materiality of the Anthropocene, tinged with the echoing void of no future & the rampant precarity, poverty, & apparent race towards annihilation? In the objective nihilism of the present it may well be hyperbolic to call essentialism the political problem of our time, & it perhaps points to the hubris of a period of radical thought that was subsumed under an obsession for language- the “linguistic turn”- but it would be excessive to discount these problems altogether. The power of essentialism, albeit understood in conjunctions with material assemblages, is still a live political problem with pressing immediacy for survivors of racism, psychiatric oppression, LGBTQphobia, patriarchy. All those postanarchists who draw on Stirner deploy his critique of idealism as the first critique of the sociopolitical operations of violent discursive essences. At its core, anti-essentialism is a theoretico-practical form of ideology critique that diagnosis all identities a given subject might be think of themselves as expressing their being as historico-socially constructed identifications.
This idea appears in Stirner, Foucault, Deleuze, Butler, Grosz & many others to varying degrees. What is important about Stirner is the way that he refuses these identifications in toto seeing them as essentially repressive, limiting, ascetic. These essences too are spooks erecting the law of the sacred to which the ego is made to bend. Again, let me stress that it is this which is Stirner’s problem with what would become called essentialism long after his death: it is bad for the individual. Stirner has no critique of racism, barely mentions patriarchy, &, while he certainly does write of work & workers, has no real concept of class. At root the morphogenic mutation across philosophico-political territories that converts the content of the critique of idealism into that of identity is one that liquidates any claim to abstract universalities, a pure & thorough nominalism without reserve that amounts to a ‘a radical critique of ideology, of any ideology’ (Bonanno 1998).
As such a two fold problem remains: an obscuring of the materiality, & a formulation of a postideological world in which the individual is free to determine their own identifications. It is as if language & thought (the semiotising processes of subjectivation) themselves produced these forms of domination & violence ex nihilo. In Stirner we find only regard for the metaphysical mutilation of the individual with nothing much in the way of consideration of the bodies, & their material supports in the Earth, the economic, the need to eat, etc. This is particularly strange insofar as what remains after one has stripped the individual of all essentialist identities is ‘this bodily “I” with its thoughts and decisions and passions’ (Stirner 2002, 156). There remains a fundamental ambiguity about how it is that sacred identities attach themselves to corporeal individualities as semiosomatic compacts determining subjectivation. This is closely related to the first problem regarding materiality & is essentially the same problem spotted by Marx: Stirner critiques libidinal-ideological formations (he thinks we desire our own servitude) without ever discussing the problem of where from & why they emerge in the first place. This obsfurcation of the diachronic ecologistical chains of onto-specific sites of the real shares more in the contemporary myth of a post-class, post-racist, post-sexism, post-ideological age than it does with any radical, let alone revolutionary politics in which the individual is sovereign.
The Ideal(ism of) Ego
Stirner has been criticised for being in love with a particular spook himself: the ego. Yet as the quote above shows, & as others in The Ego… & ‘Stirner’s Critics’ make clear, he is not interested in an abstract self. As many have already pointed out, translating Stirner’s book & central term as “Ego” places him at an immediate disadvantage. Stirner is writing before Freud & should not be weighted down by the burden that that word has become invested with after the psychoanalyst. A more proper translation would be simply “I”, although the preferred translation among Stirner readers remains ‘the unique’. The charge that Stirner is an idealist of the Ego would seem to be incorrect, a misunderstanding that overlooks those passages where Stirner does pay attention to human corporeality. For instance:
Not isolation or being alone, but society, is man’s original state. Our existence begins with the most intimate conjunction, as we are already living with our mother before we breathe; when we see the light of the world, we at once lie on a human being’s breast again, her love cradles us in the lap, leads us in the go-cart, and chains us to her person with a thousand ties. Society is our state of nature (2002, 271).
In this extract Stirner is clearly acknowledging the original interconnection between the maternal & embryonic/foetal bodies that pre-exists their separation into distinct individual bodies. But this acknowledgement is neither an acceptance nor an affirmation as he quickly moves to pronouncing that the child’s dependency becomes loosened over time as it matures, & that this maturation is a dissolution of society that ends in the ‘intercourse’ of free-standing corporealities. The embodied self is thus not only to be totally liberated from ideological constructions- an impossible & ultimately undesirable retreat from the semiological- but is also read as achieving an ontological separateness from the evidence of a purely subjective phenomenality marked by an experience of such a separation. In other words Stirner is unable to grasp the continued mutual grasping of bodies, their sensible crossing over, into, onto, & their passage through & via one another that I call their ontological transcorporeality: the immanent exposure of all bodies that Merleau-Ponty captures gesturally with the concepts of Flesh & Chiasm. Following from this is the idea that all bodies are always opening to each other that can never attain the kind of skin-bounded uniqueness that Stirner posits in his idea of the flesh-&-blood “I”. In the Deleuzo-Guattarian language Stirner is unable to make perceptible the imperceptible molecular assemblages that go towards the production of singularities: my body is a machinery of subatomic particles, organelles, foreign & endosymbiotic bacteria, empty spaces, articulations, sinew, cognitive biases, neural repetitions, junk DNA, prostheses. Further to this, my mind & potency extend beyond the surface of my skin via the inherited languages of others, the evolutionary recapitulations of organic functions, learned rituals, & all those other parts of me that are not me. Stirner also fails to appreciate the way in which I myself am part of assemblages larger than myself: hyperobjects coded mysterious sometimes as Earth, World, Society, but also the more obvious everyday ensembles of material relations; the economic & political units, the family systems, the institutional positions, etc. Owing to the length & focus of this article I can only recommend that readers who are unfamiliar with these ideas explore this blog further. Suffice to say, if Stirner is not entirely idealist about the “ego” than neither is he entirely materialist, & some residual idealism is carried over into his conception of the unique one.
The point can also be expressed going via Jean-Luc Nancy’s critique of the idea of self-enclosure. For Nancy the possibility that a singularity could attain the kind of separateness that Stirner grants to the unique is an impossibility because any such completely self-enclosed being would have to enclose the site of its own enclosure, descending into a logical nonsense & an empirically invalid situation. As he puts it,
the separation itself must be enclosed, that the enclosure must not only close around a territory, (whilst still remaining exposed at its outer edge, to another territory, with which it thereby communicates), but also, in order to complete the absoluteness of its separation, around the enclosure itself. The absolute must be the absoluteness of its own absoluteness, or not be at all (nancy 1991, 4).
The above is perhaps the closest that we could get to a formal definition of the transcorporeal exposure to other bodies of any given body. For nancy separation is also an incomplete separability that implies the communal being of being-with. The project of individualism, shared by Stirner & classical liberalism & contemporary neoliberalism, is a political ontology that attempts to produce the very individuals it describes, identifying the human individuality as the sole locus of agency of politico-economic life, albeit with varying codifications across time. In total contraction to Stirner’s idea of a ‘union of egoists’- a kind of contractual coming together over mutual self-interest of self-contained individuals who share no commons, a la capitalism- this idea sets forward that each subjectivity is populated by it’s others.
How could a body have any metabolic exchange, any sensible contact, any ontological grip or perceptual affordances if it were a perfectly atomic bubble-universe, a fundamentally & completely withdrawn being without any contact with other beings? By what process would a being that originated in a co-dependence autonomise its being to the point that it no longer made contact? Such an enclosure would be a perfect subtraction from the plane of consistency, an negative theological disappearing act that would, like God, render the unique one an impossible combination of flesh-&-blood & spectral lack. It is for this reason that I do not to read Stirner’s injunctions that the self can’t be exhausted by any identities as a claim to some concealed abundance that renders it finally inexpressible but as an admission that the self is either an illusion or delusion generated by the body in conjunction with the alterity it can never successfully domesticate. It is in this way that we should read Stirner’s proclaiming that ‘They say of God that “names names him not’. That holds true of me…myself for myself…transitory, mortal creator (2002, 324). Embodied in the flesh-&-blood or not, this amounts to the idea that phenomenal subjectivity is itself a kind of idee fixe- an obession that one could crystallise into the existentially empty idea of “ownness”.
There is another, more undeconstructed, to use the term anarchonistically, element of idealism in Stirner that is much harder to ignore. In the introduction to The Ego…,a commentary on the text, this dimension is referred to as ‘an idealist sociology’ (2002, xxvii). As the commentator notes, it is Stirner’s contention that the State, & indeed any oppressive form that dominates the individual, can only operate successfully based on the renunciation of will & subsequent voluntary subordination towards that form by the individual. This is why Stirner famously rejected revolution in favour of insurrection. Undeniably seductive, Stirner set out that:
The revolution aimed at new arrangements; insurrection leads us to no longer let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on “institutions”. It is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself; it is only a working forth of me out of the established. If I leave the established, it is dead and passes into decay (2002, 280).
From ‘The revolution’ up to the ‘collapses of itself’, I don’t think that many revolutionaries- at least those who are free of any vestigial commitment to The Party- would disagree. At least, I don’t think they would disagree with the idea that we no longer need to be bound up in a mutually sustaining antagonism & that we need to capture, to liberate, to autonomise both the means of production & of all the fields of authentic collective autonomy. I think today we would recognise the sneer at “institutions” as referring to party-forms…but there is no guarantee. Stirner has been used by anti-organisationalists, & while we might be reticent about institutions today it should be clear that the ecological challenges we face will require institutions of some kind, & that we live on a planet populated by billions of people, billions more animals, many in cities bursting at the seams, large numbers of whom are in dire poverty, who lack the basic calorific intake to survive, & who therefore must be able to feed, house, clothe, themselves…& to do so prior to any subjective valorisation of the uniqueness of their individuality. This requires arrangements (assemblages) & radically altered institutions. Any attempt to circumvent these facts is politically disastrous- ending in another kind of idealism that doesn’t take into account the materiality of coping with being alive. Finally, I have to baulk at Stirner’s use of the term “me”. Here the idealism is complete: we don’t need material revolution, we only require the exodus of individual consciousnesses from the existing subjective machinery. This attitude in American individualist Wolfie Landstreicher’s summation that one needn’t be a feminist if one had already destroyed the patriarchy in one’s head, an abolition of the ideal that leaves the structural relations, the rape culture & one’s own need to engage in self-criticism in untouched: how can I be a manarchist, I don’t believe in gender! This is atheism that knows God is dead, but leaves the Imperial Church in place. Essentially: drop out & rise above it. Or, if you want it stripped of its sex appeal: keep calm & carry on.
I use the term exodus above cautiously with the full intention of linking it to some of the more exciting, useful and, in the end, at times idealist & potentially reactionary thinkers today. The politics of exodus in a number of contemporary thinkers, many of whom have excellent diagnostic analyses of the current state of late capitalism. Paulo Virno has called explicitly for exodus, a leave-taking that is also a fleeing in the face of capital; Franco Berardi has stated we require a poetic insurrection, an embrace of senility, & a withdrawal from politics; Federico Campagnia recommends an explicitly Stirnerite psychic disinvestment from the religious cult of work in order to embrace a kind of adventurism; Tiqqun advocate a similar strategy of disappearance; & Simon Critchley discusses keeping to the interstitial zones; all echoes of the hippie optimism of the Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone strategy of withdrawing into the cracks, letting capital & the state run themselves into the group; the Baudrillardian hope that capitalism really is an entropic system. All of these thinkers have things to offer us (I think Bifo is among the most incisive diagnosticians of the present, & Campagna’s book feels very close to the project of postnihilist praxis), but ultimately each falls back into Stirner’s sociological idealism. If leave-taking is a going-elsewhere, where do we go? What good is a lingusitic-poetic insurrection to a sex-worker, a regular Joe, a literal slave? How does letting Europe sink into senility feed its population, or counter the waves of repression, the ever faster lurch into a barely disguised fascism? What if we do liberate ourselves from the idealism of labour? Do we walk away just like that? Won’t I still have rent to pay, without the actual work of a revolutionary re-arrangement of the material conditions of housing? Can I really accept an attitude of adventurism when the planet is dying? Certainly I don’t think we should be crippled by the despair of a tragic heroism…but a certain amount of depressive realism? The questions multiply, & I can’t pretend to have ready-made answers to them, just as I don’t really expect Bifo or Virno or any body else to have them. Still, the politics of withdrawal, the strategy of exodus, this can only appear as a sociological idealism when viewed from the traumatic and violent aspects of the real.
Unlike the postanarchists I think we should trace these imaginary exit-strategies to Stirner and leave post-structuralist philosophers be. In fact where the post-structuralist philosophers seem to coincide with Stirner is precisely at their least materialist moments. For all that, the ecological entanglements of the various ontological verticalities, those demarcations that nonetheless remain indexed on the horizontal terrain of being, the material efficacy of ideas when coupled to materialities, discursivities, technologies, etc., requires that we don’t burn down the church just because God is dead. In the absence of God, the church become a place to keep out of the torrential rain. It is Stirner’s residual idealism that is problematic in his thought & is what leads to the worst aspects of Stirnerite antipolitics. It is only via the Stirnerite theory of insurrection that Campagna is able to state that ‘power is nothing but crystallised obedience’ & thereby point to an essential paradox of power, that it can only maintain itself parasitically on the obedience of others. But at the same time, this misses the point about the way the circulation of power ultimately comes down to the very basic, very brute facts: if you want to eat, you better do as the ones who control the food supply say. Disobedience on a scale big enough to oppose capital & power is risky & rare precisely because it isn’t & can’t always be an adventure. This isn’t to champion a sad resignation but to begin from a recognition of the situation.
But ultimately, this isn’t a defect in this thinker or that; we, where that we is a kind of stutter, have been gripped by a learned helplessness for too long. It isn’t enough to think we can apply some kind of cognitive-behavioural demystification in order to correct our illusions or to try to take a literal line of flight towards the setting of the West’s sun. After the end of the world, in the catastrophic temporality, the ruins of capital around us, the job should be to begin making small moves to taking back control, to making re-arrangements, but without the hobbling forms of old. So a renewed call for pragmatic experimentation. We’re back at the beginning, at the end of something, & such modest proposals might be the best we’ve got if we’re going to stop being pulled from realism to idealism, autonomy to escape.
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See also on Exodus
Berardi, F. 2011. After the future. Edinburgh: AK Press.
————2013. The uprising: On poetry & finance. new york: semiotext(e).
Campagna, F. 2013. The last night: anti-work, atheism, adventure. London: Zero Books.
Invisible Committee. 2009. The coming insurrection. new york: semiotext(e).
Virno, P. 2010. Grammar of the multitude. new york: semiotext(e).
———Between Disobedience and Exodus. Online.
——–. General intellect, exodus, multitude. (Interview) Online.