attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Felix Guattari on The Function of Autonomy

If we insist on dealing with the problems of a political practice from a classical viewpoint—a tendency, a group, or a method of organization versus autonomous groups that do not want to know about leaders, or to articulate themselves—we shall find ourselves in a total impasse, because we shall be revolving around an eternal debate that sets modes of apprehension of the domain of centralism against “spontaneism” or anarchism, considered as sources of generosity and creativity, but also of disorder, incapable of leading to true transformations. It does not seem to me that the opposition is this—between a supremely efficient, centralized, functional device on the one hand, and autonomy on the other.

The dimension of organization is not on the same plane as the issue of autonomy. The issue of autonomy belongs to the domain of what I would call a “function of autonomy,” a function that can be embodied effectively in feminist, ecological, homosexual, and other groups, but also—and why not?—in machines for large-scale struggle, such as the PT. Organizations such as parties or unions are also terrains for the exercise of a “function of autonomy.” Let me explain: the fact that one acts as a militant in a movement allows one to acquire a certain security and no longer feel inhibition and guilt, with the result that sometimes, without realizing it, in our actions we convey traditional models (hierarchical models, social welfare models, models that give primacy to a certain kind of knowledge, professional training, etc.). That is one of the lessons of the 1960s, a period when, even in supposedly liberating actions, old clichés were unconsciously reproduced. And it is an important aspect for consideration, because conservative conceptions are utterly unsuitable for developing processes of emancipation.

The question, therefore, is not whether we should organize or not, but whether or not we are reproducing the modes of dominant subjectivation in any of our daily activities, including militancy in organizations. It is in these terms that the “function of autonomy” must be considered. It is expressed on a micropolitical level, which has nothing to do with anarchy, or with democratic centralism. Micropolitics has to do with the possibility that social assemblages may take the productions of subjectivity in capitalism into consideration, problematics that are generally set aside in the militant movement.

In my view, it is necessary to try to construct a new kind of representation, something that I call a new cartography. It is not just about a simple coexistence of centralized apparatuses and processes of singularization, because, at the end of the day, the Leninists always had the very same discourse: on one side the Party, the Central Committee, and the Politburo, and on the other, the mass organizations, where everyone does his own little job, everyone cultivates his garden. And between them are the “transmission belts”: a hierarchy of tasks, a hierarchy of instruments of struggle, and, in fact, an order of priority that always leads to manipulation and control of the struggles of molecular revolution by the central apparatuses.

The construction of machines for struggle, war machines, which we need in order to overthrow the situations of capitalism and imperialism, cannot have only political and social objectives that form part of a program embodied by certain leaders and representatives. The function of autonomy is not that of a simple degree of tolerance in order to sweeten centralism with a pinch of autonomy. Its function is what will make it possible to capture all impulses of desire and all intelligences, not in order to make them converge on a single arborescent central point, but to place them in a huge rhizome that will traverse all social problematics, both at a local or regional level and at a national or international level.



Basic Income, Workfare and affirmations of productivity

Desire under neurocultural paradigms

Doing the rounds of reading, going from Guattari and realising its better to begin where he begins, where possible, I move back to Lacan, Foucault and others. I’m back in the territory of French Thought (TM). Speculative whatsoever, and object oriented doings have led me, via the still in development postnihilist praxis, back to libidinal economies. Perhaps we will never really be done with libido and the whole philosophy of desire. After writing the two entries today I couldn’t help notice French antipsychiatry’s relation to fascism. The first wave is defined by its resistance to macrofascism while the second wave is devoted to microfascism, the fascism in our heads. And today we are living through the reactivation of macrofascisms, a tumble into the barbaric reason of Golden Dawn, Britain First, Le Pen’s Front nationale, and so on. And at that same moment, a reactivation of antipsychiatry, or the birth of something new from its remains. This is surely more than a coincidence. What the fuck is going on? It is perhaps a question of precarious consciousness, but also, even more, of precarious desire.

In the 1940s fascism was accompanied by a psychiatry in love with eugenics. Today’s fascism has emerged into a world of neuropsychiatric technologies, one of the more speculative edges of technocapitalism. As Craig Hickman- and now Bifo, in a new book- put it, we are perhaps living at the beginning of a neurototalitarianism, or at least within its possibility, its emergence into our imaginary. The direct control of neurological electrical activity, its stimulation or its cancellation. Today desire is under threat. not particular desires, not homosexual desire or trans-desire, but desire as such. It can be cancelled at the flick of a switch, the passing of a current between electrodes. Transcranial treatments already exist for drugs users. Desire can be made to disappear.

Some questions then: in this brave post-intentional world, do we renounce the language of desire, or do we forcefully proclaim it? If we choose the later, are we just fools to ourselves, held captive by the mirror images of a yesterday that is long departed? Or can we reclaim the technologies of formerly-desire? I believe in the power of psychonauts, of experimentation with pharmacology, and in the possibility of a pharmacosyndicalism in which the drugs are free, produced under the control of the workers in the laboratories. Surely the same can be said of the new technologies? Will we be able to stimulate any desire we want? Should we be able to? Does communism become less about the common ownership of production and more about the common ownership of the production of desire. The production of desire; the production of production. Are we talking about the production of desiring-machines? If so, it seems I begin with a false dilemma. Post-intentionalism wouldn’t necessary destroy desire but might liberate it from so many organic restrictions.

I’ll end it there before I end up saying “accelerationism”, I’d only hate myself afterward.

French psychiatry under occupation: Saint-Alban

In order to better situate Foucault in relation to madness, psychiatry, and antipsychiatry it might make sense to briefly look at the particularities of French antipsychiatry. To that end I’ll give a brief history of the French context, which differs so much from other setting in which antipsychiatry would be born. In this post I want to explore the characters and character of the psychiatric hospital Saint Alban. It is this setting that would colour what came later in France’s history of psychiatry, and it is from this place that Institutional Psychotherapy- arguably France’s answer to antipsychiatry- would be born.

Saint Alban. 

First of all it is important to understand that in the French context the term antipsychiatry didn’t appear much. David Reggio has pointed out that in France people tended to speak more of a “different psychiatry” or a “reorientation of psychiatry”. In Reggio’s fascinating presentation to the Antipsychiatry and its legacies conference he is quick to point out that French psychiatry had a different evolution to that of its British or American relatives, those countries where the term “antipsychiatry” really took hold. Unlike the UK or the USA France suffered occupation during the Second World War and this obviously affected the development of psychiatry there.

In 1941 the Vichy government formed a new Ministry of Health and placed a Dr Serge Haurd at its head. The new ministry operated to pass a series of laws that would concentrate power over pharmacy, hospitals and medicine into the hands of the state. Mental health was not high on the new ministry’s concerns. According to Chapireau  (2007), some 45,000 inmates of psychiatric institutions died in the period 1939-1945 due to starvation and infectious diseases. This famine didn’t really take effect until 1940, just one year before Haurd’s appointment, and would continue until 1944. The psychiatrists wrote about the conditions in their hospitals but they did so in clinical language so as to avoid censor and recrimination. There are reports cited in Birley (2002) that during the Vichy regime’s lifetime famine and starvation were the single most written about phenomena in the leading psychiatric journal. According to Lemoine (1998) a purposeful reduction of supplies to psychiatric hospitals led to the sky rocketing mortality rate, with his figure of 48,000 deaths caused by the famine. Lemoine went so far as to call the policy one of deliberate ‘soft extermination’, an attempted genocide of the mad, although almost every other source seems to think that Lemoine is going too far with this claim, that this was less an extermination and more a massacre by omission. We could argue that between active slaughter and deliberate mass starvation there isn’t much to separate one extermination from another. Birly goes on to report the existence of ‘The French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems’ since 1941, identifying it as a kind of think-tank that would look into solving the problems of feeble-mindedness, among others, and whose director was a strong advocate of eugenics. Psychiatrists and other workers did attempt to feed their patients by increasing productivity on their own farms, but these were huge institutions with thousands of inmates. Birly reports of one psychiatrist who wrote to the Ministry for additional rations, receieving the reply that


increased rations should only be given to those patients who are likely to recover sufficiently to be discharged and take their place in society.


What does this mean, “take their place in society”? Given that we’re talking about Vichy France in the midst of a war, I think the implications are clear. We should also bear in mind exactly who the Vichy Government supported and were legitimated by. The nazi regime itself was responsible for the active extermination of people with schizophrenia. E Torrey Fuller reports that somewhere between ‘220 000 and 269 500 individuals with schizophrenia were sterilized or killed’ and that this represents between 75-100% of all German schizophrenics. Fuller’s report on the killing of schizophrenics presents us with a systematic genocide of no less horrific industrialisation than was carried out in the murder of 6 million Jews. We must understand that French psychiatry re-emerges from occupation, famine, and war.

There was one notably exception to the grave picture of French psychiatry during the war. At St Alban’s Hospital in the south of France not a single patient died. The St Alban’s hospital had operated not just as a psychiatric hospital but also as a sanctuary for a number of Resistance fighters, conscientious objectors, French intellectuals and surrealist artists. This mixture of therapists, intellectuals, militants and mad people gave St Alban’s a particularly liberated feeling and would help to establish it as a site of autonomy. Indeed David Healy records that the hospital would eventually become a site of ‘pilgrimage’ and that many pilgrims came away with a sense that resistance ‘against tyranny and oppression was not yet over, but had to extended into the rest of bourgeois society’ (2002, 151). To understand the importance of St Alban’s we should ask ourselves whether we could conceive today of a similar situation taking place in a psychiatric hospital- whether in France, the UK, the USA or any other part of the world. Today, to have this kind of situation would be intolerable and forbidden. Psychiatric settings in societies of control are driven by fear, codified as “risk”, and operate on the basis of managing that fear. Better put, we could say that today’s psychiatric institutions are anxious places: there is this fear of the patient, her potential for violence and for self-destruction that in general outweighs the actual likelihood of her carrying such violence out. Today’s hospitals are certainly not hotbeds of militancy and radical action or of intellectual pursuits (I’ve often wondered why not even though the answers are immediately obvious…but under different circumstances: the hospital as the site for the production of embedded intellectuals, a kind of “mad inquiry”). It was only because of the unique circumstances of the war, the necessities it brought with it, and the hospital’s geographical isolation that allowed it to flourish as a zone of militancy.

Opened in 1921 by a Dr Tissot, the hospital had already instituted an open doors policy by 1942. An open doors policy allows psychiatric patients the right to enter and leave the hospital at any time they please, in a move that was purposefully designed to radically curtail the power of psychiatrists over their inmates and to transform those inmates into voluntary patients. In the Italian context Basaglia would begin to do the same at his hospital in Gorizia, and he struggle with the question of this voluntary curtailment of the psychiatrist’s power. Basaglia had some affiliation with Maoist theories of the self-dissolving of power but his anxiety was that if the psychiatrist voluntarily ceded her power this to was an act and so an expression of that same power. If these same concerns arose in St Alban is impossible for me to say, as very little source material has been translated into English (although a book on the subject is in preparation). Certainly Tissot is said to have been inspired by Pinel, the man who “liberated” the inmates of a mental hospital in France and according to one history iinaugurated a new humane psychiatry. We all know what Foucault would have to say about that (for those that don’t, he called bullshit).

Two of the most important psychiatrists to work out of St Alban were Francois Tosquelles and L. Bonnafe. Again, there is not much that has passed into English on what these men wrote, so we largely rely on the reports of others. However, we do have the following transcription of Tosquelles oral description of Tissot:

His discourse resembled that of today’s [1960s] antipsychiatry in many ways. At the time of  the creation of St Alban’s [1821], Tissot had some partisans, for example two peasants, Guazi and Rousset; he sent them to Dupuytren in Paris, a guy who was an anti-doctor we would say today, an anti-psychiatrist, because he fought against blood letting, baths, purges, and all those wild therapies psychiatrists used. And this Tissot sent Guazi and Rousset, Lozere peasants,  to work for a year at Dupuytren, to learn what could be learnt of therapeutic and clinical value. They were the first two psychiatric nurses of France. Tissot was therefore the anti-psychiatric creator of St Alban’s hospital and of 25 others. All this is a strong current that by far preceded the 1838 law, which was already a way of integrating, of recuperating that anti-psychiatry (cited in Postel and Allen 1994, 399).



So we see Tosquelles citing St Alban’s as an antipsychiatric institution, and its founder as an antipsychiatrist. This is significant coming from the man who was called “the red psychiatrist”, a man who had fought against Franco in the Republican Popular Front in the Spanish Civil. We have been told that antipsychiatry wasn’t spoken much in France, so when it appears we should pay attention. The description of both the institution and the man with this term is more important for it reveals about Tosquelles than it does about St Alban’s or Tissot themselves. We have no way to know is Tissot would have considered himself antipsychiatry, even if it seems clear that St Alban’s could easily be considered to meet with the concerns for the creation of disalienated spaces that would mark the antipsychiatry to come. It also tells us something about the misunderstood name of antipsychiatry. While many people still see in that name something like a total negation of psychiatry, we can see that Tosquelles saw antipsychiatry as a movement that worked to end the abuses of the psychiatric system, its excessive power, and its role in subjecting mad bodies to what amounts to torture. Given this, we can assume that Tosquelles saw himself as part of the same antipsychiatric movement.

Tosquelles arrived in St Alban’s in 1941 and it was under his tenure that the open door policy was put into place there. It was also Tosquelles who oversaw the demolition of the walls around the hospital, by this point renamed a “psychiatric centre”, and the removal of the prison bars from the windows. Before fleeing Spain, Tosquelles had studied Freud, Marx and Reich and, most significantly, had become well versed in Lacanian psychoanalysis. According to Tosquelles himself when he fled Spain he carried with him only two texts, one of which was Lacan’s work on paranoia. In Roudinescu’s (1990, 199) insightful turn of phrase, Tosquelle became convinced of the need to introduce into clinical practice ‘a couchless variant of Freudianism’. Roudinescu also reports that while he had been fighting in Spain, Tosquelles had become convinced that a number of psychoses had resolved themselves spontaneously because the people caught in their grips had become “useful to their comrades”. In other words, the fight against fascism was linked to the psychic condition of militants and thus antifascism could be seen as a moment of political therapeutics. With Toscquelle’s communist antifascism and Lacanianism we also see an early example of Freudo-Marxism coming to France. In fact, Toscquelle’s clinical practice would come to be known as Institutional Psychotherapy and would dominate the French scene. If there is a reason that the French didn’t speak very often of antipsychiatry it is because they spoke instead of Institutional Psychotherapy, which involved a radical reorganisation of the asylum and clinical work.

I don’t think it is possible to stress the heady environment of St Alban or the significance of its milieu, to use a term that would become important in Institutional Psychotherapy. Francois Dosse speaks of an ‘interweaving between the Resistance and the hospital’ (2011, 42), noting that weapons drops for the Resistance had to be organised for around the hospital’s grounds, and that much of its staff were in fact Resistance fighters. The director at the time of Toscquelles arrival, and whom the he would succeed, Bonnafe wrote that central to the hospital was the spirit of ‘continuity and fidelity’ that emerged from a shared experience of resistance to Spanish and German fascism. Among those who would seek refuge or train at St Alban are listed Tristan Tzara, Paul, Franz Fanon (who spent two years training under Toscquelles), Georges Canguilhem (whose discussion of normality and abnormality would be pivotal to Foucault), and Jean Oury. For my purposes here, it is the last of these who stands out among the crowd for the simple reason that Oury would go on to found what is perhaps the most important site in the history of French psychiatry: La Borde. Leaving St Alban for the moment we can conclude in the words of Felix Guattari that it was there ‘a new attitude, a new militant approach to mental illness was born’ (1972, 40).

In the next post in this brief history I’ll have a look at the formation of La Borde, the radical practices that were put in place there and its importance for shaping both French psychiatry and the militant psychiatry that would come. At this point I don’t think that it is at all impertinent or premature to say that without the experience of La Borde there would be no Guattari as we know him, and certainly no Deleuze and Guattari. La Borde would be a revolutionary experiment in psychiatry that would take what was developed at St Alban and go further, fundamentally reorienting the routines, organisation and purpose of the psychiatric institution in France.




Birley, JLT. 2002. Famine: a distant shadow over French psychiatry. Online.

Chapireau, F. 2007. La Mortalite des malades mentaux hospitalises en France pendant La Deeuxieme Guerre Mondiale. Here.

Dosse, F. 2011. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: Intersecting lives. new york: Columbia University Press.

Guattari, F. 1975. Psychoanalysis and Transversality. 

Postel, J., and Allen, D.F. 1994. History and antipsychiatry in France. In: Micale, M.S., and Porter, R. eds. 1994. Discovering the history of psychiatry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Most of this text is available online.

Roudinesco, R. 1990. Jacques Lacan & Co: A history of psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985. London: Free Association Books.

Background for Foucault’s Lectures on Psychiatric Power

Antipsychiatry, in general

By 1973 the antipsychiatry movement was well etablished. Although not an antipsychiatrist himself the work of Jacques Lacan had already been challenging psychoanalytic orthodoxy for decades, and he had laid the basis for a theoretical movement that would proclaim psychosis as intelligible. In the 1960s there would be an explosion of theoretical critiques of psychiatric theory and institutional practice, most of which would focus on the Aslyum as a what Erving Goffman called a  “total institution”. Thomas Szasz had challenged the entire edifice of psychiatry in his The Myth of Mental Illness, and the American sociologist Thomas Scheff developed the idea of labelling theory that almost all high school kids are now aware of. In the UK RD Laing and David Cooper- the later of whom had coined the name “antipsychiatry”- had already written extensively on madness as an understandable reaction to society, an existential response to impossible situations, and had gone on to experiment with new forms of psychiatric care.

Of these the most famous are probably RD Laing’s Kingsley Hall and David Cooper’s Villa 21, emphasising an approach to care that attempted to systematically subvert the features of the asylum. Similarly the US saw the emergence of Loren Mosher’s Soteria model of mental health care in the 1960s. What Laing, Cooper and Mosher’s experiments had in common was the idea of providing a genuine space of sasanctuary from the world, a disalienated-disalienating space in which people could go mad safely, without an emphasis on restraint, either physical or chemical. But perhaps no part of the antipsychiatry movement went further than Franco Basaglia’s reform of the Italian psychiatric system. Preferring the name “democractic psychiatry”- almost all the antipsychiatrists would at some point or another reject the name- Basaglia’s Law made it illegal to build any more hospitals, and started the process of deinstitutionalisation in Italy. Basaglia’s experiment might have been the most radical of all, given as it took place within an existing psychiatric facility. He and a team around him set about desegregating patients from staff, and progressively handing over more and more control of the his ward’s treatment and administrative powers to those patients. In many respects Basaglia’s experiment in Gorizia is closer to Guattari’s experiences at La Borde than any Laing and Cooper attempted. Guattari himself became involved in the network for an alternative psychiatry that Basaglia was also a member of, and all these experiments would be profoundly important to his development as a thinker of political therapeutics, as well as in his capacity as Deleuze’s accomplice in writing of capitalism and schizophrenia.

Of course throughout all this there was also grass roots movements outside the walls of the hospital and the academy. Among the most dramatic examples of this were the gay rights activists throughout the world who challenged the idea that homosexuality was a pathology. Arguably one of the high points of gay militancy was the Stonewall riots of 1969. The riots broke out in Greenwich Village after the police raid of a public meeting of “homophile” groups, the name for proto-gay liberation organisations. The riots accelerated and radicalised large amounts of the young gay community, many of whom turned against the previous homophile acceptance of the idea that homosexuality was a medical condition, a psychopathology. In 1970, during a film screening about the use of ECT as a treatment for same-sex attraction (ie. ECT as a cure for homosexual desire), a number of gay activists began to shout “torture!”, “barbarism!”, and rushed the stage to yell and, eventually, to explain how psychiatrists were complicit in the torture of gay men and women. The film screening was an event held and hosted by the American Psychiatric Association. This, and other similar protests, eventually led to homosexuality being dropped from the nosology of mental disorders in 1973.Similar fights are still ongoing in relation to trans people, but that exceeds the context setting of an immediate potted history prior to Foucault’s 1973 lectures.

Elsewhere, the Socialist Patients Collective- a group heavily influenced by Hegelian Marxism- was a group of people founded via a therapy group run by psychiatrist Wolfgang Huber. It was Huber’s belief that his patients were only mad because of the pathogenic effects of capitalism and that only a communist revolution could effect a cure of their condition. Huber’s higher-ups would try to fire him and his patients would form the SPK as a group to protest this. The SPK occupied the hospital, held protests. They also produced some of the most militant communiques and manifestos of the antipsychiatric period, and even secured Sartre’s approval (he wrote a preface for their manifesto). By the mid-1970s most of the SPK had disbanded- although it exists today in an attenuated form- and had joined the Red Army Faction. By this point the SPK had already begun engaging in acts of terrorism.

At the same time, this period of history also saw the abuses of the Soviety psychiatry coming to public attention, a topic I hardly need to elaborate on here.

For the sake of space I’ll leave it at that. I’m not trying to give a history of the antipsychiatric movement or attitude or orientation, but to give some context as to what had been going on around the issues of madness and politics before Foucault took to the stage to lecture of Psychiatric Power at the end of 1973. Of course, Foucault had already penned Madness and Civilisation by this point, as well as numerous other essays and interviews (notably the paper on dangerous individuals).

Foucault’s antipsychiatry, in general

By 1973 we see Foucault wanting to distance himself somewhat from Madness and Civilisation. This is the period in which Foucault is moving from his archaeological/structuralist methodology to the genealogical/post-structuralist period. Or, if we prefer, he is moving towards what he will call in the first volume of the History of Sexuality, “the law of immanence”. This transition in his thinking marks a movement from an analysis of institutions towards a pragmatics of dispositifs. In the Lectures of Psychiatric Power Foucault is keen to point this out:


Here, in this second volume [on madness], I would like to see if it is possible to a make a radically different analysis [than that of Madness and Civilisation] and if, instead of starting from the analysis of this kind of representational core, which inevitably refers to a history of mentalities, of thought, we could start from an apparatus (dispositif) of power. That is to say, to what extent can an apparatus of power produce statements, discourses, and, consequently, all the forms of representation that may then derive from it (2008, 13).


Without going any further into this quote for now, we can see Foucault himself identifying the relevant shift in his thinking: away from representation and towards that from which representation is assembled. We are on the move from the inherited image of power as constraint and repression, towards that in which power is also seen as productive.

Jacques Lagrange goes explains further in the “Course Summary” that appears at the end of my edition of the Lectures. For Lagrange, the Foucault of Madness had been concerned with ‘putting psychiatry on trial and accusing it of concealing the real conditions of mental pathology behind nosological abstractions’ (2008, 350). It is arguable that this has always been the main stock of the antipsychiatry movement. Even today the bulk of the critiques (at least the more academic ones) are focussed on a critique of the nosological noumenclature of the DSM. Its not exactly that this work is unimportant, that such critiques shouldn’t be carried out, but that they operate at the level of representations, of ‘mentalities’, and so on the terrain of psychiatry itself. The more interesting question, and the one that is much more in the spirit of Foucault’s Lectures, and of the work of Deleuze and Guattari, is the question of what these diagnoses do, what function they perform, what tactics they enact, how they come to operate between the body of the patient and the body of the psychiatrist on the field of battle. Foucault’s new approach, that both Habermas and Deleuze would identify as functionalist, although functionalism of a different kind, would emphasised what went on beneath the level of these representations, asking the questions of how they emerged, which conjunctions they emerged from, to whose benefit, and to whose loss?

Lagrange returns us to the question of Soviet psychiatry in order to point out that this placed a severe limit on what French antipsychiatry could achieve. The psychiatrists of France didn’t want to draw too much attention to their own practice in case they too would be accused of committing crimes against humanity, of abusing the status of their profession, of political torture. As we saw above, the APA had been getting accused of exactly that in the United States, so the French psychiatrists were probably not being paranoid in fearing the same. Foucault comments that French psychiatrists ‘found themselves blocked by a political situation…taking place in the Soviet Union’ (cited in 2008, 352) and goes on to state that psychiatrists could thus ‘struggle against medicine and the administration without being able to free themselves from either one or the other’ (cited in 2008, 352). In essence, Foucault’s problem with his old form of analysis- although he stated in Madness that he wasn’t doing a history of psychiatry but of madness itself- was that it to remained caught within the medical-administrative problem. That is to say that the old critiques remained focussed on the institution of the asylum and so were operating within a territory that was demarcated and set out in advance by the institution itself. The question of psychiatric power, of what it is composed and how is operates, can never be raised when one’s focus is a critique of the institution and the attempt to discover a new institutional arrangement. Left to their own devices the psychiatrists could never really question their own power. This wasn’t simply because they were corrupt agents of domination- a position still in keeping with institutional analysis- but because they were themselves ‘state employees’, as Foucault notes. To challenge psychiatric power effectively would be to dissolve their own positions in relation to the mode of production. A true antipsychiatry would produce superfluous psychiatrists, plunging them into the mass of the relative surplus population and unemployment and poverty with it.

As we saw above almost all the other radical antipychiatrists took the institution as their target, and many of them attempted new institutional modalities. Even Szasz attempted to defend a particular model of the consensual contracted psychotherapeutic relationship (and completely misunderstood how psychotherapy works in the process). In a certain sense Foucault believes that his critique of psychiatry goes further than the others because it refuses to speak on its grounds or about its problematics. Just as Foucault would announce that he had yet to cut off the king’s head, so to he thought that we hadn’t truly left the asylum. As long as we remained within and with the institution we would not be able to really expose the multiplicity of operations of power that lay beneath it, upon which it rested, and which could not be confined to the institution itself. In later entries we’ll see that Foucault is keen to see that the institution had always been in the process of an immanent auto-deinstitutionalisation insofar as its principles and strategies of functions and operations were also bleeding beyond its own discursive and concrete walls:



The first consequence [of the psychiatric colonisation of childhood] is that psychiatry will now be able to plug into a whole series of disciplinary regimes existing around it, on the grounds of the principle that it alone is both the science and power of the abnormal. Psychiatry will be able to claim for itself everything abnormal…The generalisation, diffusion, and dissemination of psychiatric power took place in our society by way of this carving out of the abnormal child (2008, 222).

This moment in Foucault’s text can hardly be underemphasised. Foucault is one of the few antipsychiatristic theorists who is not a psychiatrist or psychotherapist of some order. When he critiques the emphasis on the institution I think we have a legitimate reply in the form of asking Foucault what he would see happen to people who go mad in capitalist societies. Does he not think that they deserve any kind of refuge or care? For those of us who are mental health workers and those of us who have experienced mental suffering understand that there will also be a need for a place to go. Even within utopian conditions of full luxury communism do we really expect madness to disappear? Suffering is part of the human condition- dreams of its eradication are just that…dreams. We can reduce the amount of unnecessary suffering we undergo but we can’t expunge suffering as such. Of course Foucault would probably shrug at this question: “I’m not suggesting the mad should be left to go mad, unattended, alone, that suffering should just be allowed…but that isn’t my question; my question is more along the lines of how your question even comes to appear as a problem, and about how has tried to answer it, with what technologies, by what techniques, in what circumstances”. This is the way of Foucault, and its what causes many of his critics to regard him as a flake who can’t pick a side. I think that’s the wrong way to reprimand Foucault.

At any rate, if Foucault doesn’t provide us with an alternative form of psychiatry, or an alternative to psychiatry, he does provide us with a theory of psychiatric power that sees it functioning beneath and beyond the asylum walls even before the movement of deinstitutionalisation. Foucault’s grasp on psychiatry thus offers us a very important insight: that deinstitutionalisation, the closure of the hospitals and the creation of community psychiatric organisations, was already occurring in a much more subtle form within psychiatry itself. The ongoing dissemination of psychiatry reaches a fever pitch in our society- even as the asylum seems to be coming back into fashion: we are forced to defend hospital closures, bed losses, and find it necessary to gather around calls for the reinvention of the asylum. Foucault predicts all this. Psychiatry will always have us defending it, he seems to suggest. And it becomes more and more mobile. Foucault never lived to see the emergence and the massive over-prescription of compulsory treatment orders, but if he had I’m sure he would agree that they are little more than a fractal of the institution circulating openly in the fabric of society itself, rendering the patient’s home into an institutional space without the institution having to exist. Speaking otherwise, Foucault already begins to present us with a history of the psychiatric movement from discipline to control.

Who are the militants?

Foucault disregards many of the antipsychiatrists then. His antipsychiatry is different. It has different concerns. We see this also playing out in where Foucault identifies an authentic antipsychiatry. For Foucault the ‘front of resistance ‘ (2008, 253) to psychiatric power is to be seen in the figure of the hysteric. Foucault is unamiguous about this:


The hysteric has magnificent symptoms, but at the same time she sidesteps the reality of her illness; she goes against the current asylum game and, to that extent, we salute the hysterics as true militants of antipsychiatry (2008, 254).

Foucault’s Lectures are thus important for another reason. He doesn’t identify antipsychiatry as a phenomena led or even comprised by psychiatrists and other mental health workers, although he doesn’t deny their place in it. Instead Foucault asserts that the mad themselves, specifically in the form of the hysteric, are the militants. In the course of looking into the Lectures more deeply I think this will become very important for today’s nascent antipsychiatry. The question becomes, who are today’s hysterics? And a number of candidates come to mind. The most obvious that comes to mind are those people who are diagnosed with personality disorders, among the most spurious of all diagnoses. Personality disorder, especially histrionic personality disorder, has a clear historical continuity with hysteria, actually being a rebranding of the DSM-II entry “hysterical personality”. The hysteric is always suspected of faking-it, or “simulation” in Foucault’s terms, and this is quite clearly the case with personality disorder. Almost everyone that works in mental health will tell you, PD really means “I can’t work with you/you’re an attention-seeker/ you’re a cunt”. But hysteria also has links to anorexia, which may have been a subset of hysterical illness in the 19th century, and to self-harm.

It may well be that Foucault would regard people subjectivated via these diagnostic categories as today’s true antipsychiatric militants. Certainly they all share with the hysteric not just a common history but also occupy a similar position in relation to psychiatry itself (are they “real” disorders? are they treatable? are they actually forms of resistance to power? are they faking it?) as well as sharing a certain series of strategies with the hysteric, not least of which is the capacity for magnificent symptoms. Of course, we would have to be careful in these articulations not to run away with ourselves and forget the suffering that the experiences codified as these conditions also bring with them.

Yeh well….

So I’ve laid out a little general background, any of which could be expanded on. What I haven’t given much of here is a picture of French antipsychiatry in particular- perhaps that can come another time. But what I’ve tried to give myself here is some way to place Foucault’s theories in the context of his own time, in regards to antipsychiatry, and to identify certain carry overs with our own, certain concerns that are still live for us today. Among those is the question of the place of the child in relation to psychiatry, which I haven’t much gone into in the above. Foucault certainly sees it as crucial, and today we could hardly disagree. Childhood psychiatric disorders have exploded, as have the number of psychoactive drugs being prescribed to children, and the child has become recodified in many instances as an “ulta-high risk” patient. The UHR patient has no symptoms but has been identified as at a very high risk of developing symptoms. This is established via actuarial risk assessment (and maybe by gene-screening and/or neuroimagining screening as the technology improves) and parental concern. Many of these children might never develop symptoms without treatment, but you can be sure the fact that they never do will be attributed to the prophylactic doses of psychoactive substances they’re taking.

At any rate, we’ve got a series of questions to focus on while reading Foucault’s Lectures.

What is psychiatric power?- and all the related questions (how does it operate? when? where? etc).

What is the difference between the apparatus and the representation?

What is the asylum, and how does Foucault depart from it?

Who are the agencies of psychiatry and who are the agencies of resistance?

How does Foucault relate to the rest of antipsychiatry?

These are good questions to bear in mind to begin with…


Foucault, M. 2008[1973]. Psychiatric power: lectures at the College de France 1973-1974. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

note book

As this blog as been pretty dead for a while I’ve decided to resurrect it as a place for notes, or rather for the writing up of notes into readable forms. I’m pretty bad at note taking so this’ll be good for me, if I manage to stick to it. I have one of those post-internet minds that is incapable of sticking to any one or two reading projects. So on here I intend to attempt to stick to two or three. And they’re odd ones given that so much of the work out there today comes “after” the big names of theory as they will focus on at least two of them. I want to do some miniwrite ups on Foucault’s writings on madness, my readings of Lacan (with a view to ground readings of Guattari), and readings on behaviourism. Occasionally- cos I know I’ll be side tracked- I’ll try to make notes of whatever else is significantly of interest. As such this won’t be a space for arguments so much as a space for getting into things.


Glasgow Anarchist Federation

Via Unity:

MayDay bank holiday Monday, 5 May 2.00PM Dungavel Detention Center in SCOTLAND.

On Friday 2 May over 150 people detained in Harmondsworth migration prison staged a sit-down occupation of the main courtyard and began hunger strike. They issued a set of demands protesting against the cruel ‘Fast Track’ system under which refugees seeking asylum are immediately imprisoned before their claims are even heard, as well as further mistreatment in detention.

The detainees have been in contact asking for our solidarity and that we help their voices be heard outside the prison walls. We will hold a solidarity demonstration on the MayDay bank holiday (Monday 5 May) outside the prison to let them know they are not alone. Please bring musical instruments and anything that makes a noise so that they can hear us through the walls.

The Home Office have met with delegates of the protestors and…

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Idealism & exodus in the thought of Max Stirner

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 everythingThe 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 arrangementsinsurrection 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. 




Berardi, F. How to heal a depression. Online.

Bey, Hakim. TAZ: Temporary autonomous zones & other essays. Online everywhere.

Bonanno, AM. 1998. The theory of the individual: Stirner’s savage thought. Online.

Bray, M. 2013. Translating anarchy: the anarchism of Occupy Wall Street. London: Zero Books.

Call, L. 2002. Postmodern anarchism. Maryland: Lexington Books.

Cioran, EM. 1992. On the heights of despair. London: University of Chicago Press.

Critchley, S. 2007. Infinitely demanding: ethics of commitment, politics of resistance. London: Verso.
Deleuze, G. 2002. Nietzsche and philosophy. London: Continuum.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari F. 2004. Anti-Oedipus. London: Continuum.  

Engels, E. 1886. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. Online.

Gordon, U. 2008. Anarchy alive! Anti-authoritarian politics from practice to theory. London: Pluto Press.

Graeber, D. 2002. The new anarchists. In: new left review 13:2002.

Guattari, F. 2011. Machinic unconscious: essays in schizoanalysis. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Guattari, F. 2013. Schizoanalytic carthographies. London: Continuum.

Heinroth, JAC. 1818. Textbook of disturbances of mental life (or the disturbances of the soul & their treatment). Online.

Landauer, G. 2010. Revolution and other writings. Oakland PM Press.

May, T. 1994. The political philosophy of poststructuralist anarchism. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University.

Nancy, JL. 1991. Inoperative community. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Newman, S. 2001. From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-authoritarianism & the dislocation of power. Plymouth: Lexington Books.

Rouselle, D. & Evren, S. 2011. Postanarchism: a reader. Pluto Press.

Stirner, M. 2002 [original: 1844]. The ego & its own. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tobin, RD. 2001. Doctor’s order: Goethe & enlightenment thought. London: Associated University Presses.  

Van der Walt, L. & Schmidt. M. 2009. Black flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism & syndicalism. Counterpower vol 1.Edinburgh: AK Press. 


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. 







a note on abstract machines

Linguistic theoreticians such as Chomsky have introduced the  concept  of  the abstract  machine inhabiting  linguistic  or syntagmatic  machines (Felix Guattari, “On machines“).

I’m not entirely sure what the abstract machine refers to in Chomsky’s work, but the fact that the Chomskian machine is “abstract” leads me to think it can’t be something palpable or concrete; it is nothing to do with the physiological act of saying or the content of what is said. Guattari must be referring to Chomsky’s rules of generative grammar, especially given the reference to syntagmatic machines. For Chomsky these syntactical rules govern all human languages and appears as an innate feature of human neurology, in the first version of the theory, or as a product of the vast plasticity of neural circuitry. The upshot in either case is that from a limited amount of syntactical rules the human brain is able to generate the Babel flora of all human speech, regardless of what language and dialectic the speaker speaks.  Chomsky’s theory is one in which the infinite arises from the finite, the expressive from the constrictive. According to Watson (2009) it was originally Ducrot and Todorov, authors of the Encyclopedic Dictionary of the sciences of language, that named Chomsky’s normative syntactic generator an abstract machine.

In the same short essay, Guattari goes on to also cite Maturana and Varela’s idea of autopoesis, a theory that they originally deployed in the context of the self-maintenance of cellular life:


In the field of biology, the concept of the machine has recently  been  developed  by  such  theoreticians  as  Umberto  Maturana  and  Francisco  Varella.  Here  the  machine  is defined by  the ensemble of interrelations and its components, independently of  the components themselves. They provide a definition which is close to that of the abstract machine and which describes the machine as autopoetic, self-productive and continually reproducing its component parts, rather like a system without input or output.


Where autopoesis refers to living machines, allopoesis refers to all nonliving machine that are required to seek out their components from outwith themselves, and so “rather like” systems that require input & output. The autopoetic systems are operationally closed, whereas the allopoetic  ones are necessarily open to their own exteriority, from which they must scavenge and materially introject component parts. The classic example of the allopoetic system is the car plant which needs to be fed raw materials in order for the manufacture of automobiles to be possible and which then outputs those vehicles. This operational closure sometimes leads people to identify autopoetic systems with the idea of self-organisation, an idea that Maturana is reported to have repudiated as impossible. In his discussion of autopoesis, Levi Bryant (2011) has deemed it a ‘utopianism’ of the object which ‘tends towards a picture of objects in which they are completely self-determining and therefore entirely sovereign’ (Sec. 5).This kind of sovereignty is in effect the extension of autonomy to all objects to the point where their sovereign existence is one in which they birth, regulate, produce, and destroy their own existence and conditions of existence, and that they do so in such a way as to remain perfectly self-enclosed in operational terms (ie. they exist in a state of atomic impenetrability). As Bryant goes notes, this utopianism is strictly an idealism: the object’s world is that of it’s own construction.

In the classic example of the eukarotyic cell- itself typically imagined in physiology lectures as a kind of self-contained molecular factory- the various components (the nucleus, the organelles and so on) are all self-assembled from within. The ribosome for instance, one of the organelles, produces and packages the proteins required for the reproduction of the cellular tissues and membranes, and is powered by the mitochondrion. Interestingly for autopoetic theory mitochondria have been suspected from at least the 1980s of having a non-human origin. In 1980 Eperon et al. reported that ‘human mitochondria did not originate from recognizable relatives of present day organisms’, suspecting that mitochondria may be  a bacteria that set up home in the human body, effectively an organic form of endocolonisation. Going further in this direction biologist  Lynn Margulis suggested that eukaryotes are composed of once independent microorganisms that fused together into functionally cooperative communities . The theory of endosymbiosis dictates that cells such as mitochondria become coupled in and with other microorganisms- and eventually organisms- without ever losing their own reproductive autonomy. Cell components are symbionts that have become so tightly coupled as to have integrated into an operation singularity. In this way, the theory of endosymbiosis goes some way to overcome the objective idealism of autopoesis by fusing it with the processes at work in allopoesis.

As Guattari suggests:

I  think  that we  should go beyond Varela position and establish a  relation between allo‐ and autopoietic machines.
Since allopoietic machines are always to be found adjacent to autopoietic ones, we should therefore attempt to take
into account the agencements which make them live together.


Being adjecent can mean alongside but it can also mean connected-to or in conjunction-with; the theory of endosymbiosis thus appears as an account of the relation between the allo/auto functions, and it does so a manner that is precisely about the way the two live togetherAgencements is the French term that is usually translated as assemblages, but also occasionally appears as simply arrangements. Another way to translate the term would be organisation. Considering the assemblages at work in the ensemble of the allo-auto mechanosphere is thus a question of the construction and organisation of those components. Guattari gestures to how this is achieved by drawing on the idea that ‘machinic systems are interfaces’.

Meanwhile, in The three ecologies, Guattari will state that

But when expressive rupture takes place, repetition becomes a process of creative assemblage, forging new incorporeal objects, abstract machines, and universes of value.



I don’t have the time to expand further in this note, or to push into the question of these virtualites, except to note that abstract machines seem to have a quality of being instances of an incorporeal kind of endosymbiosis. This may be part of why Guattari, in a Humean fashion, denies the existence of physical, biological, economic (etc) laws: there are physical abstract machines, biological abstract machines, economic abstract machines.

I need to leave the note there at the moment. But I’ll publish anyway, because what is the use of thinking if it’s kept to myself?

No child of woman born: nativity and nature

I’ve put this post on my own blog, rather than, purely because it’s the product of an exhausted mind rambling away from the finger-tips. I’m night-shift drunk and perhaps a bit delirious with it already. So rather than sully s_z I’m putting this response to the latest darkecologies post. I should also say this began as a comment, but it got a bit long, and was broken up by many work-related doings, so it may not make a whole heap o’sense. At any rate….

Hickman’s post reads to me as if it segues into the general schema of the ANT/Whitehead/Merleau-Ponty criticism of the bifurcation of nature. If it’s illegitimate to cleave and isolate nature from culture, or nature from society, then it is also impossible to introduce a fissure in being that corresponded to organic-synthetic, human-nonhuman. Increasingly the term “human” seems to appear as a sort of heuristic tick, a way to demarcate “this particular machine”, even as it popularly still enjoys an exceptionalist status.

In some ways this is pertinent to my work, where I administer synthetic chemicals to alter people’s brain states in a bid to have some effect on mood, psychoses or whatever. The problem for me, unlike other’s critical of psychiatry, has never been that medication, pills, are bad because they are synthetic and introduced to the endogenous system, my concern has only ever been that we don’t know enough about how and where these interventions take effect, and that we argue from their effects to disease states that may or may not exist.

Take opiods; we’ve known for some time that the body produces endogenous opioid peptides, substances such as endorphins and enkephalins. Exogenous opioids, including partially synthetic drugs like Buprenophrine, and totally synthetic opioids like methadone, bind at the same receptor sites as the body’s own opioids. We can also include the opiates whose active ingredient is derived from the ‘naturally’ production process of the poppy, such as morphine. From the body’s perspective, and here I mean the anonymous pre-personal body (such that BBT would suppose is the only genuine brain-body), what is the difference between an endorphin, buprenophrine, methadone, or morphine? While all substances in each category vary from one another, and each category varies from the other generically, in chemical structure and specific effect they all share the same pharmacological profile. That is, they each exhibit similar pharmacodynamics, pharmacokinetics, and metabolic action.

So in the instance of these opioids the distinction of natural from artificial is pretty much identical with the distinction of endogenous from exogenous. If the body makes it we call it natural, if it’s made outside the body we start to get picky. If it’s made in some other organic body, like the poppy, we’ll say it’s only partly artificial, but if it has never been inside a living organic body…well, that’s synthetic. But from the perspective of my opioid receptors, my GABA system, my dopaminergic system, and my phenomenal experience of pain (epiphenomenal illusion or not), there is no essential difference. The only difference is a pragmatic one. But even here it’s interesting, once we’re on pragmatic grounds, because it’s the “partly synthetic” that does the best job- no analgesic opiate can trump morphine for pain relief.

So I’m beginning to see this entire question of man vs. technology, to put it that way, as really a question about the centrality of one’s own body. Certainly Virilian techno-atheism reaches it’s reactionary heights when Virilio talks about endocolonisation as an evil in and of itself (you wonder if Virilio would have balked at Polio vaccination). Isn’t this also at stake in the question of extended cognition… offloaded memory is identical to organically “housed” memory except it’s an externalisation or offboarding?

If that holds any water, even as a speculative hypothesis, then I think it begins to cohere with the problem of subjectivity thought of as a depth interiority. This next bit needs a !spoiler alert!…

At any rate, the revamped TV series Battlestar Galatica could be added to a list of expressions of this anxiety/discovery. In it humanity is at war with the Cylons,a robot race of machines that humans produced and who rebelled in classic sf style. Where the new BSG is interesting is that these Cylons have diappeared for 40 years, and when they re-appear they have upgraded themselves, although they simply say “evolved”, into what the human’s disparagingly call “skin-jobs”. The skin-jobs look like humans, think like humans, feel like humans, and, as the show goes on, we find they believe and love like humans. Of course one of the constant themes of the show is how this makes the humans feels. In one scene, where a human who loves a Cylon skin-job who has only recently been revealed to be such and that Cylon are sharing a cell we get this dialogue:

Cylon- “whatever I am I know I still love you”

Man- “software doesn’t have feelings”.

The irony is [spoilers] that this man gets revealed as a Cylon himself in a future season of the show- and the woman herself had been a ‘sleeper’ herself. Suddenly he finds himself in love with her again, because now it is okay. This clearly demonstrates exactly the kind of anxiety being discussed in this post.

Now [mega-spoiler] later in the show again, towards the series’s finale, when Earth, to the humans of BSG a mythical planet where the “lost colony” is situated, and which they must find after the Cylon destruction of their own colonies, is revealed as itself a nuclear wasteland. Again, it is suggested that the cycle of violence has repeated (the show also plays with the idea of the eternal return a lot, a themeatic repetition being the motto “all of this has happened before; all of this will happen again”), that this repetition was the first. Man is born, evolves, makes Cylons, Cylons evolve, destroy man, destroy themselves: and so on.

For me, a much more reasonable way to read this than as the incredibly disappointing moral lesson about hubris that it becomes (essentially, those who don’t learn from history blah blah blah), is via the question of whether the Cylons are derivative of humans at all. On a number of occasions, and in a number of ways, including the idea that God is a Cylon God (the show plays with a lot of mythology and Judeo-Christian motifs in often infuriating ways), it is suggested that perhaps the Cylon race pre-dates the human.

I think this is the way the show should of gone, and probably was going to go before the writers copped out: the Cylons made humanity, who became dispersed throughout the Galaxy, for some reason lost the other colonies e-mails (the show ends with a kind of back-to-nature primitivist nonsense), who then made their own Cylons, who made their then evolved, and so on.

In my reading of the BSG story, the reality is that [i]all[/i] humans are Cylon, and that all Cylon are Cylon. There is no human race, except via a weird encoded forgetting of Cylonhood. This would then make the story the mythic tale of two Cylon factions fighting over who was the more or less human. Maybe this deflates the whole BSG mythos, but I think that this deflation is precisely the point.

Going back to the above- what was the only real final distinction between the “humans” and the other Cylons? That no Cylon-Cylon pairing could reproduce despite presumably having all the necessary organic equipment required, if youknowwhatimean. Conclusion: conception within another organic body is the mark of the truly human. We’ve seen this before with A Brave New World. We’ve also seen a version of it in Gattica, where everyone bar our protagonist is “partially synthetic”, although with the twist that as he has to fake being a genetically modified human he is the most inauthentic of the lot of them.

Elsewhere, in Agameben’s discussion of the Rights of Man, we find nativity as the foundation of autonomy: the nation-state is “a state that makes nativity or birth (that is, of the bare human life) the foundation of its own sovereignty.” So birth and autonomy are coupled right across our modern thinking. We could ask why organic gestation and birth are so central and posit some temporary make-do answers:

it establishes a lineage

it appears magically (as if from nowhere, a swollen abdomen, then the apparent miracle of life)

it is the turning inside-out of the organic body

There are more candidate answers than these but I stop here because I have this entirely intuitive- or biased- sense that the third of these is key. At once part of the “miracle” but also the horror of birth, the terrifying ambiguity of it, is the way that the ambivalent inside/something inside of the maternal body grows, develops, moves around, and then finally, comes out into the world, into the outside, the out there/over there. Until the cord is cut, and despite the wonder people must feel when they see their child, the infant is still viscerally connected to the maternal body, sharing her mother’s blood supply, oxygen, nutrients, and so on. Before the umbilical cord gets snipped, the infant in the world is still part of the maternal body… it is it’s inside, outside.

As the inside outside, as a becoming biologically autonomous of the once biologically indistinct, the new born is deemed natural- and human- because it comes from and once was part of another body deemed natural- and human. So I wonder then if it will take a true technogenesis, a real life baby born entirely from the machines, before we are capable of accepting that the bifuraction of being is itself just another sf story.