Death, the Anarchic and Ephemerality
Modernism and Static Worlds
For the purposes of avoiding boredom we will be ignoring the liberals, with their pithy calls for reform and their constant droning on about moderation, content to sit around in moral certainty while the world burns. Instead the focus here will be firmly placed on those that are more like us(anarchists), those that we sometimes call, although often with hesitation, our allies. We will focus on the dynamic that allows those who consider themselves revolutionaries to engage in pointless activism, and elements of that activism that can inform our understandings and critiques of the radical project as it currently stands.
The political space around us, bombards us with a constellation of ideas, concepts that form the foundations of the modernist political ethos and aesthetic. This constellation forms the political into a special, identifiable space, one filled with pageantry, from electoral rallies to the protest. The activity undertaken in this space is framed around a tireless dedication, which pushes activists to the point of burnout or, in extreme situations, death. Within this universe those who participate, who stand up to power in the very act of their speech, are glorified for their sacrifices. A sacrifice that in the end will shift the political winds and change the system.
The concepts and aesthetics can be seen in the standard imagery that appears on campaign fliers, from that of the candidate or figure head seemingly beloved by a large anonymous crowd, to the smoke filled streets that form the backdrop for those more militant. These are the images of activity motivated by symbolic moral outrage, reduced to spectacular displays and structured to serve symbolic goals. Within this world, politics is reduced to a space in which glorious heroes fight monstrous systems.
In the modernist concept of the political a conceptual universe comes to prominence, complete with grand narrative visions of the future and universal understandings of the present. This zone of abstraction can take a wide variety of forms, from the platitudes of Leninism to the more complex, but no less abstract declarations of the Tiqqunists. These frameworks depart from a series of assertions, with two bodies of assertion rising to immediate prominence.
The first of these bodies lay in the abstraction of the immediate plane of engagement. Far from the tactical analysis found in military theory or the information driven operations of hacker spaces, the modernist political space is one in which the moment and the concept fuse into a singular entity. The moment becomes nothing more than a point in which some universal narrative becomes expressed or inscribed. This is clear whenever we hear a so-called “radical theorist” speak on the correct strategy, discuss the ways in which certain forms of activity carry moral weight or articulate a need to raise consciousness. Underlying this is an assertion that moments, in themselves, are not in any way different; history is nothing more than the expression of a dynamic that is general and explainable.
This comes into contact with the second body, centered around the role of revolutionaries as agents of history. Here we find the motivations that drive phenomena like suicide bombers or the glorified revolutionary martyr. It is here that those who go to boring and repetitive marches can see themselves marching toward an utopian future, with the march serving as a symbol of conflict, and sacrifice, regardless of negotiations with the police. It is the Nazareth where messiah complexes are born. Those that engage begin a process of separation, of defining themselves as political agents within political moments. This understanding is based on a grand perversion of the dynamics of revolutions past, which are never momentary, not based on identifiable figures and only rarely centered on those that identify themselves as revolutionaries.
These assertions then come to combine themselves with the concept of a future that is clear and definitive. The future articulated in modernist grand narratives is not one created through the conflict, but the emergence of a true state of existence from the smoldering rubble of the old world. It takes on a religious tone, veering into the millenarian, in which action is not framed as that which generates the possibility of the future, and becomes an understanding of action in which conflict generates the end of itself, the stable, static, universal utopian future.
These dynamics construct a form of the political which becomes removed from itself. The conflictual space opened by political engagement, the destruction of certainties that follows conflict with the police, the possibilities unleashed in everything from basic illegality to the riot, are all removed from themselves. The entirety of the political is inserted into imaginary spaces in which everything becomes an expression of a narrative. In this everything becomes symbolic; it is no wonder why revolutionaries in the modern age often repeat the same tactical choreography over and over, in the isolated planned conflict of the demonstration, migrating from one moral outrage to another without much impact on the actual functioning of the material operations of the state. A symbolic struggle within abstract spaces.
Modernism, in this sense, creates a dead barren space. It is a space devoid of the complexities of life, the difficulties of tactical and material conflict, the possibilities of a future determined through our actions within the dynamics of other activity. The world is replaced with a story, whose happy ever after has nothing to do with who we are or what we do. Not only dose this lead to political ineffectiveness but also the colonization of the political by a totalizing vision of the present and future that robs us of any agency. It is in this sense that modernism is a machine in which the world is always produced as a dead thing, an inert and understandable object, until the millenarian conflagration, at which point the determinist future is ushered into existence. It is the politics of a death cult, of the religious order, of the grand historical fiction, and one that we must conspire to escape with everything we have, shooting backwards the whole way.
The fundamental problem is that this line of flight, this route of escape is entirely uncharted. All past attempts have fallen into the same platitudes, such as the existentialists collapse into a politics of authenticity. Escape must mean to chart a route of egress defined not through its own limits, but through the destruction of limits; not through the embrace of new universal ideas, but through the destruction of universality, the concept of the utopian future and even the concepts of victory that populate the modernist imagination. This line of flight will only emerge by embracing a new language and new forms of action, without singular meanings, but framed around multiplicities, paradoxes and tensions; a trajectory that does not see itself as an end, but as a point of departure, as a beginning.
The Anarchic and the Indiscernible
The concept of the revolutionary project lies a wager, one that is simultaneously simple and infinitely impossible to ever resolve in a way that provides satisfaction or peace of mind. Within the concept of the revolutionary, or any concept that indicates the destruction of an understanding of social order, the question of how we exist in the world comes into focus.
The existential implication is not merely an outcome of the question of the future, the sort of life one should live or want to live. It is of the resistant, the destruction of current forms of life, and the discourse around future moments that carries with it the entire weight of our understandings of ontological space, the ways that we understand existence. This is abundantly clear within the trajectory of modernist political thought, in which the narrative of the past, the narrative of what existence is, constructs an understanding of the issues of the present moment and leads to the formation of the question of the future, a sort of eternal future in which life becomes joined with abstract thought. It is on this point that the discussion within Anarchist Tension begins its engagement.
The point of convergence between the moment and the concept functions as a point in which thought occurs, in which the act of thinking and the thinking of the act happen in parallel. This convergence point is also the point in which a decision must be made, one of innumerable decisions that must be made within any given moment, but a decision that comes to form the condition of possibility for the others. We have to decide, and this is going to sound odd, how we understand the concept of meaning.
In one understanding, the one that forms the foundation of the modernist understanding of the political, meaning becomes something that is, and that we can possess. There are numerous formulations of this body of ideas, but they tend to center around an ontological understanding in which meaning and the understanding of meaning are grounded in universality; that there is universal meaning, and that life derives meaning from this universal meaning. Within the traditional linguistic forms we would refer to this understanding of existence as the archic, as the positing of a world with necessary order.
This is a comforting concept, one that posits the universe as understandable, knowable, stable and ultimately meaningful. It is a framework in which we can sleep comfortably, with some semblance of certainty that the universe will not pull itself apart in the middle of the night, and that there may be some purpose to everything after all. This understanding though, is a strange point from which to derive revolutionary ideas and activity. By positing some essential meaning to everything, that there is some truth that can be known, that we can evaluate ideas in relation to, that we can ground our understandings of certainty within, we are also positing a universe of inevitability. The world becomes predictable, and ultimately meaningless in relation to this ultimate truth that would have to continue in the same form, even in the face of the catastrophic destruction of the entirety of life and existence itself. This is not only a universe in which the grand catastrophe is an ultimately irrelevant event, it is a universe that, along the same lines, renders the historical shifts latent in so many ideas of the destruction of prevalent forms of life similarly irrelevant.
Meaning can be understood in a different way, as something that is done, as an activity or something that is made. In this understanding of the concept of meaning we have to think of the universe in a completely different way, not as something that is in itself meaningful, that provides or imposes meaning, but as something that is formed in moments. This formation of the universe requires a shift away from traditional Western forms of thought. Existence in this constellation ceases to be something that is an object that can be thought, both in the sense that existence is not a singular thing, and that existence is neither given nor stable.
What we are coming into contact with here is nothing short of history, wholly separate from the Leninist concept of history as a coherent historical arc. History in this sense begins to function as a circulation, a dynamic in which each and every moment that comes to be is simultaneously the convergence point of the entirety of everything that has ever occurred before, as well as a divergence from this trajectory. The moment, the activity, begins to circulate in a space of possibility, the possibilities presented within the moment, and in turn comes to generate other dynamic possibilities in effect. The moment becomes one of innumerable simultaneous moments, not in the sense of there being infinite universes, but in the sense that innumerable activities and events are all occurring, all of which impact the resonant effects of one another.
This concept of the universe is one that is much less comforting, it is one in which we must entertain the possibility of the end of existence at every moment. It is one that we cannot fundamentally understand through the conceptual generalities that populate thought. Thought functions along the lines of static conceptual objects, symbolic objects that we name, and that through this naming bring into relationship with other objects. If we understand existence as a grand ontological chance, as a dynamic space framed around action and effect, then the very form of thought becomes incapable of grasping, encompassing and inscribing itself onto and within these moments. This is not only a universe of chance, it is a universe in which the very act of thinking exists as both one of these activities, but also at a fundamental separation from action itself, as a conceptual attempt of making sense, in vain.
As Bonnano argues, it is this understanding of existence that we can come to grasp life, not as an idea, but as a phenomena. It is from here, from the anarchic that we can begin to think not only of the political, as this interchange of action and effect, but also of the relevance of the anarchist project, one grounded not in defined worlds and futures, clear ideas and truths, but in possibility itself. This is not a concept of the anarchic that is based in building anarchy, constructing some defined future that can be termed anarchist. It is not one that provides for the sanctity of the idea or the sanctuary of simplistic ideas of the world. It is one that forms around complexity, chance, risk, possibility and the dynamism of existence in itself, and in this a tension rises to the surface.
The Tension of Speaking of the Anarchic
It is from this position that we can begin to understand the concept of the anarchist tension. The tension not only of thought and activity, but of the concept if anarchism itself. To grasp this tension it is important for us to begin with an injunction that is presented within the piece, to not separate thought from action. If the analysis presented earlier is the case, and the anarchic is being understood as a space of possibility within a world in which truth is absent, and in which moments are generated through the dynamic interplay of activity, of life itself. Then the injunction cannot be to come to some true understanding of action as such, as if such a thing existed. If this were the case then this would not be presented as a tension, but rather as an anarchist certainty.
One element of the initial layers of this concept of the anarchist tension lies in the rejection of modernism, and the ways in which this removes action from the particularity of the moments in which action occurs; this dead concept of life. This element is a call to shift the point of departure away from the conceptual smoothness and simple explanations that can only come from absolutist understandings, and to embed oneself in life. Within this element of the anarchist tension we come into contact with an understanding of life that functions to undermine the understanding of life. This functions to the degree that we recognize that life, in its complexities, and concepts, in their simplistic frameworks, are not something that can be reconciled, and that in the face of this unbridgeable chasm we choose to embrace complexity, and not subsume it to the concepts that we have about complexity.
The second element of the anarchist tension is the necessity of thought. Within the traditional Western canon thought functions as a practice in which firm, clear, coherent concepts form the foundations of true understandings, departing from the Aristotelian tradition. As we would have every good reason to not accept the patently absurd assertions underlying this arrogant understanding of thought, we then have to reconceive of thought itself. Not as a formation which exists in relation to truth value, but as a fluid process of making sense of things. In this framing of the concept of thought the conceptual becomes nothing more, and nothing less, than the attempt to make sense of a world that we can never actually understand. This is not a detriment; rather, in this formation of thought can become a constant process of becoming, a process of developing a constant re-evaluation of events as these events themselves develop.
The final element, which both separates and reconciles these other elements of the anarchist tension, is the interplay of thought as an action and thought as conceptual exercise. In other words, the formation of thought itself can exist as what it is, an activity, one which, like other more overt actions, has effects. We can see this in other thinkers, such as Sorel, in which thought itself becomes an act, one capable of overturning regimes, one which is measured, like any other act, through its effectiveness, as well as its power to motivate the insurgent project. In this sense thought becomes both the foundation of the motivations of activity, as well as an activity itself.
The convergence of thought and action that Bonnano speaks about here is not about bringing thought and action into absolute alignment, which would undermine the entire anarchist project through the positing of a correct thought about action. It is instead the convergence of thought and action that exists on the level of speed and fluidity; of reconceiving of thought as a constant process and action in itself, as well as the process of making sense of a world formed in activity.
It is in this concept of a closeness that we see a constellation come into focus. The conceptual becomes that which we assemble to make sense of a constantly shifting terrain of activity. The conceptual is also firmly constructed from a perspectival limitation, spatio-temporal embeddedness and historical positionality. The conceptual is tenuous and speculative, as well as the grounding that we have for the act itself. The act then results from a conceptual calculus and comes to change the terrain, starting the process all over again.
As such, rather than the contemporary American insurrectionist conceptualization, in which categories like the revolutionary subject and notions of desire come to form the grounding of action in itself, the only connection between the action and the concept become the relation to terrain itself. Both find a grounding in the immediate, rather than some sort of odd unity of thought and activity in a totalizing sense. The expression of desire in the act, the assertion of existence in the moment, is not grounded in an abstract desire, or an abstract existence, some removed concept, but is rather firmly rooted in the notion of an immediate existence, an immediate concept of meaning, an immediate desire in this moment, in this immediacy, which Bonanno calls life.
Down with Modernist Projectuality
The questions raised by the anarchist tension are not questions that can be addressed in the traditional western form of discursive engagement; the positing of conceptually consistent universes. In so much of conceptual discourse the game becomes whether one is able to answer the difficult question, overcome the challenge, outsmart the discursive adversary, at which point the adversary must submit to the inevitability of the correctness of a specific conclusion. Not only is this engagement the work of the cloistered niceties of academic spaces, but it is a discourse in which life never actually functions. To escape the trappings of the narrative of correct conclusions, truth value, and the entire ontology implied therein, we have to completely destroy intellectual meaninglessness, as well as run as far away, as fast as possible, from useless discussion.
Rather than the smooth, unstriated spaces of intellectual discourse and the arrogance of truth value, we have to embrace limitations, possibility, chaos and complication. It is not only that we have to reject any conclusion that breathes fascism and fictional worlds in the same breath, we have to reject the questions that presume these conclusions at their point of origin. This is not only a question of a new language, it is a question of realigning the totality of the ways that we understand the political. This tension must remain a tension, an irresolvable dynamic without utopian eliminations. It is the tension, the paradox, the contradiction that preserves the dynamic of construction and destruction that prevents the end of history, the state, from being imposed; it is the tension that leads to the destruction of modernist certainty, both conceptually and, if weaponized, in the materiality of existence as well.
The overthrow of the modernist order is not something that could lead to predictable, easy to grasp and certain outcomes. As in the destruction of any thing, including the past in the construction of the present, destruction always leads to possibility, and as such, is the very foundations of risk and uncertainty. The very concept of certainty is the basis of the fascist order, a utopian ideal of a certain future grounded in smooth, atemporal concepts. If we are to understand the world as something that we build, if we are to understand history as something that we construct through activity, then the very possibility of this activity occurs to the degree that comforting notions, like certainty and truth, are entirely abandoned.
The concept of the anarchist tension is not important because it is “anarchist”, but due to the inherently anarchic ontology of tensions, of conflict, itself. In departing from tension, from conflict, from the insurgent, it is not about resolving the conflict, but becomes how we prevent it from resolving. It ceases to be about correct strategy, an approach which inherently removes the strategic from its immediacy, or about correct politics. It becomes about the choosing of sides, of deciding whether one is going to attempt to realize the living death of the modernist end of history or reject it. That is, whether one will side with the state or fight, and after that, whether one will sit back and decide that we have reached utopia or perpetuate the conflict against utopia.
Once we abandon the concept of the movement, ideology, the necessity of political identity formed around concepts of the future, the need for such absurdities as agreement, programs and recruitment all become obsolete. Without the weight of having to take power, of having to manifest a certain future, the question of whether we are popular, whether our ideas hold sway, ceases to matter. If the tension exists between the reasons for the choice in the war and the materiality of the tactical situation, then the only question becomes one of destroying the state, eliminating the logistics of force, of burning the prison. At that point it doesn’t matter whether our names go down in history, or whether anyone knows them at all; the task has been set in motion, in a process that never comes to an end.