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Archive for Reviews

Max Stirner: mixed bag with a pomo twist

AMax Stirner anthology - cover 600dpi descreened005 review by Jason McQuinn

Max Stirner edited by Saul Newman (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2011) 223 pages, $90.00 hardcover.

One more sign of the ongoing revival of interest in the still-generally-ignored seminal writings of Max Stirner is the appearance of the first collection of essays to be published in the English language on the subject of his life and work. You can bet it won’t be the last. The title itself, simply Max Stirner, gives little indication of the specific intent or content of the collection. But the publisher is Palgrave Macmillan, an academic imprint for Macmillan Publishers in the UK and St. Martin’s Press in the US, indicating that the aim here is an academic – rather than explicitly partisan, polemical or critical – work. It has been published as the first text of a series of “Critical Explorations In Contemporary Political Thought,” whose “aim…is to provide authoritative guides to the work of contemporary political thinkers, or thinkers with a strong resonance in the present, in the form of an edited collection of scholarly essays.” Given this ingenuous series description, it has to be pointed out that it is absurd to present the book as an “authoritative guide” to the writings of a man who would likely more than anyone else refuse the very possibility. This is, unfortunately, only the first of many indications of the uneven nature and quality of this collection. By now, rather than empty “authoritative” pretensions, it should be clear that any serious Stirner scholarship requires a large amount of humility in the face of all the historical incomprehension and mystification Stirner’s work has already received from the academy.

The editor of the collection is Saul Newman, an academic known in libertarian circles mostly for his advocacy of what he calls “post-anarchism” (sometimes considered short for “post-structuralist anarchism”). Post-anarchism in practice entails a mishmash of often awkward attempts at a philosophical synthesis of post-structuralist or post-modernist theories – especially Foucault’s – with schematic, heavily theoretical and largely leftist versions of anarchism. Most often in these syntheses, post-structuralist currents end up in the dominant position, in charge of reforming a post-modernist anarchism from a heavily caricatured essentialist, modernist past. Somewhat incongruously, some of Max Stirner’s ideas also often figure in the “post-anarchist” stews, especially in Saul Newman’s variation. However, Newman’s own post-anarchist position (in which Stirner is elsewhere touted as a “proto-poststructuralist thinker”) does not appear to be consistently shared by other contributors to the volume reviewed, thus occasionally leaving rather large leaps in commitments and theoretical positions between any one essay and the next. On the whole this seems to be a positive point for the book, allowing those neither interested in nor convinced by post-anarchist perspectives to share other perspectives on Stirner in this eclectic academic mix. Given the variety of perspectives expressed in the texts that make up this volume, it makes sense to separate them out in order to give each author, however briefly, his and her due, beginning with the editor’s introduction.

“Re-encountering Stirner’s Ghosts” by Saul Newman

Apparently in deference to Derrida’s dominant (though somewhat incoherent) trope in Specters of Marx, the title of Newman’s introduction, “Re-encountering Stirner’s Ghosts,” seems at least in part intended (among other contradictory intentions) to imply that the “ghosts” Stirner exposes in Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (which I will translate here as The Unique and Its Own¹) also haunt and/or obsess Stirner personally² (rather than haunting and obsessing instead only the great mass of deluded individuals who themselves take these “ghosts” for real, external powers instead of imagined constructions of their own self-alienated powers.) Or that even Stirner himself somehow “haunts” readers! However useful and accurate it might be to portray Karl Marx as still haunted by such “specters,” it doesn’t make any real sense in the case of Stirner, as any careful reading of The Unique and Its Own will reveal. And, beyond this, when Newman later (p. 3) suggests: “Stirner has never ceased to be a ghost,” we would do better to read: “Stirner has never ceased being reduced to a ghost” by idealists and religious rationalists of all types – including post-structuralists. It is otherwise clear from Stirner’s own words that he personally has no cares nor worries from all the ghosts that the vast masses of people are always so busy constructing to haunt themselves. In fact, as Stirner announces, his concerns are completely beyond and outside of any ghostly or spiritual concerns. They are purely his own concerns. Nor does it make much sense to cast Stirner himself as a metaphorical ghost for his readers just because we know so few details of his life or because most of his readers show little or no understanding of his texts. Or even because Stirner’s critiques are not so easily dismissed as most of his critics at first seem to believe, often returning to trouble even their most careful philosophical, religious or moral calculations. These poorly-aimed hauntological³ rhetorical moves by Newman will most likely just lead more people into even more confusion that could instead be relieved with a bit more serious, observant – and logical – research and analysis. At the least, it should be realized by commentators that the haphazard blending of Stirner’s careful critique of spirits/ghosts/the uncanny with Derrida’s intentionally vague and capricious trope will never be likely to lead to an increased understanding of Stirner when there are already so many mystifications of Stirner’s arguments that readers must sort through without having any more added.

However, despite the questionable preconceptions and rhetorical conceits involved in Newman’s post-structuralist, post-anarchist perspective, he does manage to provide – for one very brief stretch – what could have been the beginning of an exemplary introduction to the volume when he argues:

“… In marking a break with all established categories and traditions of thought – Hegelianism, humanism, rationalism – and in demolishing our most deeply entrenched notions of morality, subjectivity, humanity and society, Stirner takes a wrecking ball to the philosophical architecture of our Western tradition, leaving only ruins in his path. All our beliefs are dismissed by Stirner as so many ideological abstractions, ‘spooks,’ ‘fixed ideas’: our faith in rationality is shown to be no less superstitious than faith in the most obfuscating of religions. Man is simply God reinvented; secular institutions and discourses are alive with specters of Christianity; universalism is spoken from a particular position of power. Stirner tears up the paving stones of our world, revealing the abyss of nothingness that lies beneath.” (p. 1)

Newman is at his best at moments like this when obfuscatory post-structuralist terminology is left behind for plain old English, and when his cloudy references to obscure (for non-academic readers) French theorists like Lacan, Foucault and Derrida evaporate, momentarily leaving us with relatively transparent prose under clear blue skies. Newman’s remarks above make it hard for anyone familiar with Stirner to object. Stirner clearly breaks with any and “all established categories and traditions of thought.” He certainly demolishes every “entrenched notion.” Stirner even “takes a wrecking ball to the philosophical architecture of our Western tradition” – Newman here interestingly echoes (Stirner-influenced) Feral Faun’s old essay title: “Radical Theory: A Wrecking Ball for Ivory Towers.” (4) (Though Newman also seems oblivious to the implications his own position as one of the minor “philosophers” of that very architecture – himself inhabiting one of the lesser “Ivory Towers.”) Newman’s perspective on Stirner’s “wrecking ball” may also seem somewhat limited if confined to “our Western tradition,” when there should be no reason to regard its effects as being confined to a single tradition, especially since Stirner’s work is not unknown among Eastern philosophers (see, for example, works by members of the Japanese Kyoto School like Nishida Kitaro and Kieji Nishitani), nor was Eastern thought unknown to Stirner.

The otherwise promising opening of Newman’s introduction is unfortunately ruined when he concludes his first paragraph with the standard howler of Stirner (pseudo-) scholarship.

“All that is left standing after this frenzy of destruction is the Ego – the only reality – smiling at us enigmatically, like Stirner himself, across the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to our present day.” (p.1)

Because this howler is so often repeated in so much of the heretofore persistently incompetent “scholarship” on Stirner it requires a fair bit of unavoidable explanation. (5)

This statement might make some sense if Stirner had actually written anything in his masterwork suggesting that a concept of “the Ego” could ever be “the only reality.” But he didn’t. Nor does he ever suggest that such a concept would be “left standing” after his destruction of – and exit from – philosophy. In The Unique and Its Own, Stirner neither speaks of any generic concept of “the Ego” in those words, nor even of “the I” at all in any positive, uncritical way. Nor, for that matter, did Stirner ever suggest that “the only reality” could ever possibly lie in any generic or universal conception at all. Stirner is, on the contrary, quite clear that it is only I, “the Unique,” who am both “all and nothing.” That is, it is myself only as indefinable, nonconceptual, actually-lived I who am all. And there can be no possible concept (thought), even the completely and transparently nominal (and thus “empty”) concept of “the Unique” that actually has any real, independent, living existence for me. In order for academic scholarship on Stirner to finally exit its self-prolonged dark age, it will have to at the very least begin from this minimal understanding instead of perpetually recapitulating the unfounded confusion between I, “the Unique” (Stirner’s name suggesting his entire nonconceptual life-process, including his entire world as it is lived) and “the I” or “the Ego” (as generic, determinate concepts, however they may be defined). Currently we have entered well within the second half of the second century of pseudo-scholarly mystification on this point, extending from Stirner’s earliest critics all the way to contemporary liberal, Marxist, and now post-structuralist critics. Can’t we all at last drop these mystifying references to “the ego” that Stirner never advocated – at least in essays and books claiming to explore Stirner’s writings?

In The Unique and Its Own, Stirner neither speaks of any generic concept of “the Ego” in those words, nor even of “the I” at all in any positive, uncritical way. Nor, for that matter, did Stirner ever suggest that “the only reality” could ever possibly lie in any generic or universal conception at all. Stirner is, on the contrary, quite clear that it is only I, “the Unique,” who am both “all and nothing.” That is, it is myself only as indefinable, nonconceptual, actually-lived I who am all. And there can be no possible concept (thought), even the completely and transparently nominal (and thus “empty”) concept of “the Unique” that actually has any real, independent, living existence for me. In order for academic scholarship on Stirner to finally exit its self-prolonged dark age, it will have to at the very least begin from this minimal understanding instead of perpetually recapitulating the unfounded confusion between I, “the Unique” and “the I” or “the Ego”.

Newman goes on to correctly stress that “Stirner is a thinker who defies easy categorization” (p. 2) and that he has had a profound impact – an “often shattering impact – on the trajectory of social and political theory.” (p. 2) But just as Newman opens an opportunity to expose not just Karl Marx’s squirming attempt in The German Ideology “to exorcise the spectre of idealism from his own thought by claiming to find it in Stirner’s” (p. 2), but more importantly Marx’s ultimate failure in this attempt, he stops short. Newman shows no understanding that although Marx might have attempted to escape from his humanism and idealism due to his “encounter with Stirner,” he in fact failed to escape, succeeding only in masking his humanism and idealism in a more obscure and mystifying manner. Given the inclusion of Paul Thomas’ expectedly pro-Marxist and anti-Stirner interpretation of the Stirner-Marx encounter in this anthology, it isn’t clear how much Newman’s subtle whitewashing of Marx is just being politic with a contributor, or how much Newman himself remains in thrall to (ultimately idealist) Marxist categories of philosophical or dialectical materialism. As is so often the case with commentators on Stirner, Marx escapes any but the most toothless of criticisms when any half-way consistent application of Stirner’s critique to Marxist categories would easily expose their pious nature.

Newman states that he “…prefer(s) to see Stirner as a tool to be used, as a means of forcing apart the tectonic plates of our world and destabilizing the institutions and identities that rest upon them.” (p. 4) And this is a perfectly good use of Stirner’s work. Yet, Newman also makes it clear over and over again in his introduction that he will not allow himself to understand Stirner (or use this “tool”) outside of the categories of post-structuralist philosophy. The (minor) “tectonic plates” of post-structuralism and post-modernism must not themselves be destabilized. Stirner can and will be used by Newman as a tool in their service, but never as a source for potentially autonomous criticism outside of – and far more radical than – the philosophical and religious preconceptions and limits of post-structuralist and post-modernist ideologues like Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze. Newman will “…conjure up Stirner’s ghost,” but not allow that such conjuring is a recuperation and mystification of Stirner’s exit from every category of religion, philosophy and ideology, not just from the range of categories that Newman himself is currently ready to leave behind.

“A Solitary Life” by David Leopold

To whatever extent David Leopold’s condescending – and at times bizarre – biographical sketch of Max Stirner’s life is actually meant to provide a “Historical Context” (p. 19) for understanding Stirner and his texts, as the book’s section title would appear to indicate, it certainly fails in reaching beyond fairly immediate circumstances. What can be said about a biography – of a widely misunderstood, occasionally celebrated though often denounced or reviled, but incredibly creative, controversial and powerful figure in the history of ideas and their criticism – that ignores just about every avenue for exploring the relation of the historical context of Stirner’s writing to the meanings and understanding of his texts besides those few already well-traveled? Leopold could have at least attempted to give readers a brief picture of the social, economic, political, or at least the philosophical and cultural context of post-revolutionary Europe, Vormärz Germany, and especially Berlin in which Stirner lived and wrote. Instead, Leopold is content to merely summarize the standard biographical details easily available from John Henry Mackay’s works on Stirner’s life, along with emphasizing a few relatively salacious tidbits of unsubstantiated gossip and rumor about the author’s marriages, sex life, occasional penury, and even the location of his skull! In addition, he occasionally adds a few of his own speculations along with the extraneous comments of others concerning side questions whose relevance to an account of Stirner’s life and writings might better have been left for footnotes. Any broad consideration of the intellectual context of the times is especially absent. Although Leopold could hardly have avoided mention of contemporary Hegelians and post-Hegelians with whom Stirner associated, there is not a single mention of the German Romantics; of important German philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte or Schelling; or even of such an epochal event as the French Revolution in this account. Leopold uses more space to recount and speculate about the life and bitter comments of Stirner’s ex-wife (made more than 50 years after their separation!) than he does to recount the history and content of all of Stirner’s sixty articles published immediately prior to The Unique and Its Own! Leopold seems somewhat uncertain here whether he’s writing for a scholarly tome or the tabloid press, and thus succeeds at neither. Readers hoping for more light to be shed on Stirner through an examination of the “historical context” of his life and works will be left wondering what Leopold was thinking when he wrote this essay. We can only hope that the next person to take up the challenge will approach it more seriously.

“The Mirror of Anarchy: The Egoism of John Henry Mackay and Dora Marsden” by Ruth Kinna

Ruth Kinna examines the real-existing “egoism” of John Henry Mackay and Dora Marsden within and at the margins of the libertarian milieu at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries. She further situates her examination within terms of recent differences between Alan Antliff and Saul Newman regarding the relation of anarchism to post-structuralism. Although both Mackay and Marsden are interesting figures with genuine achievements, they are also both marginalized – when not completely ignored – within ideologically leftist, including left anarchist, accounts of libertarian history and thought. Despite Kinna’s seeming enthusiasm for Newman’s narrowly post-structuralist reading of Stirner, she shows a welcome openness to the lives and texts of Mackay and Marsden that allows them to speak for themselves rather than as puppets of post-structuralism or of the “Stirnerism” that they represent for her. Kinna, citing Antliff’s critique of Newman, takes a step towards exposing the importance of the wide-ranging and broadly multiplicitous forms and expressions anarchism has taken throughout its existence. But, though these examinations of Mackay and Marsden are genuinely interesting and a pleasure to read, they actually shine little light on the understanding of Stirner’s writings. Kinna indicates this herself when she ventures: “How far either Mackay or Marsden faithfully interpreted Stirner is a moot point.” This can also be a warning for those not already alert to the fact that egoism is not a settled, agreed phenomenon and not all self-appointed or alleged “egoists” share anything like the same perspective. But even non-Stirnerian egoists can hold a “mirror to anarchy” and provide worthwhile, sometimes life-changing, insights.

“The Multiplicity of Nothingness: A Contribution to a Non-reductionist Reading of Stirner” by Riccardo Baldissone

One of the two most interesting contributions – one of the two real reasons for picking up this book – is Riccardo Baldissone’s “non-reductionist reading” of Stirner. Even though it’s actually not a “non-reductionist” reading except through a strange and playful bit of pomo logic. It’s actually an anachronistic reading of Stirner according to more common logic and word usage. But I won’t quibble too much here, since the result is a sophisticated, sometimes insightful, and most often enjoyable romp through history making connections in both directions – forwards and back – between Stirner and later forebears or his earlier successors. Precisely because of its explicit playfulness, Baldissone can get away with revealing revealing connections that may not technically exist in our usual reality, but still can exist just the same by his and our making them. However, just as Kinna’s examinations of Mackay and Marsden (while interesting for unraveling a few of the complex relations of egoism and anarchism) don’t add much to our understanding of Stirner’s writings themselves, Baldissone’s anarchronistic connections are read loosely enough that what they reveal doesn’t always add that much either. Except that Baldissone already begins his reading from a more profound understanding of Stirner’s Einzige (“Unique”) that allows him to focus on far more interesting aspects of these connections than we would otherwise expect! Especially worthwhile here, are his discussions of the nonconceptual nature, the radical openness, and the “multiple monstrosity” of Stirner’s egoist critique, which most often demand that he be at least fundamentally misunderstood, when not outright ignored, ridiculed or demonized by all those complicit in the culture of modern slavery. Among other authors, Baldissone covers – sometimes all too briefly – connections between Stirner and Gilles Deleuze, Ivan Illich, Michel Foucault, Carl Schmitt, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Marx, Sorel, Hegel (here mentioning Lawrence Stepelevich’s “truly remarkable essay ‘Max Stirner as Hegelian’”), Kant, and the “western Church Fathers.” In passing Baldissone argues that “Stirner’s implacable indictment of ideas cannot be brought back under the umbrella of critique,” though in doing so he ignores that Stirner does make a distinction between ideological (“servile”) criticism – which always involves substituting one fixed idea or presupposition for another – and “own criticism.” But in the main Baldissone has launched a nicely provocative attack on (the generally sub-) standard Stirner scholarship in a very encouraging manner!

“The Philosophical Reactionaries” translated and introduced by Widukind De Ridder

The other major reason to pick up this book is the inclusion of two contributions from Widukind De Ridder – the first an introduction to and translation of Stirner’s response to his critic Kuno Fischer, and the second a longer commentary on “The End of Philosophy and Political Subjectivity” a bit later in the collection. De Ridder’s introduction, by giving no opinion, is much too easy on skepticism about Stirner’s authorship of “The Philosophical Reactionaries,” (which was originally attributed to “G. Edward”). Given that the essay was published by the same person (Otto Wigand) who published Stirner’s Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum itself, his publisher could hardly have been unaware of the identity of the “G. Edward” responding to Stirner’s critics, yet never gave (nor did Stirner himself give) any indication it wasn’t Stirner. But De Ridder shows the most insight into the intentions and implications of Stirner’s writings of all contributors to this volume. So it is only fitting that he has provided the first full English translation of “The Philosophical Reactionaries” here, a very valuable and essential text giving a final response to a critic, following the original “Stirner’s Critics” reply to Feuerbach, Moses Hess and Szeliga. As De Ridder indicates, the timing of this response offers “a unique insight into Stirner’s own appraisal of [his] book in the wake of the ultimate demise of Young Hegelianism.” (p. 89) An appraisal that allowed Stirner “to emphasize how [his] criticism of humanism was eventually a criticism of philosophy itself.” (p. 92) Stirner makes short work of the young Fischer in the text, with slashing wit that leaves Fischer and all of philosophy abandoned in the dust.

“Max Stirner and Karl Marx: An Overlooked Contretemps” by Paul Thomas

“Stirner’s work has always been a special target for Marxist damnation, given its overt challenge to every form of ideology, including all Marxist ideologies. But ever since Karl Marx’s German Ideology was published the clash between Stirner and Marx has taken on ever more importance.”

Stirner’s work has always been a special target for Marxist damnation, given its overt challenge to every form of ideology, including all Marxist ideologies. But ever since Karl Marx’s failed materialist attack on Stirner in The German Ideology was finally published in 1932 the clash between Stirner and Marx has taken on ever more importance for defenders of Marxism. As a result we have seen a continuing stream of (usually off-hand and well off-base) Marxist critiques of Stirner appear, most of which borrow heavily from Marx’s own early misinterpretations of Stirner’s work. Paul Thomas’ critique of Stirner is little different – though a little more intelligent than most – in this respect. Thomas has at least a small ability to occasionally give Stirner some token credit for a few of his critical contributions. In general, though, Thomas insists on agressively following Marx’s lead in reducing Stirner’s work to an idealistic caricature constructed from dialectical materialist categories. Rather than ever allow Stirner to make points on his own, Thomas slavishly interprets Stirner’s every move in terms of an original Marxist incomprehension that defies logic, but serves the purpose of protecting Marxist ideological clichés from Stirner’s actual criticisms. There’s really no excuse for including this completely out-of-place text in this collection.

“Max Stirner: The End of Philosophy and Political Subjectivity” by Widukind De Ridder

The second of Widukind De Ridder’s valuable contributions to this volume makes the hard-to-avoid argument that Stirner’s critique inevitably leads to a refusal of philosophy. Although this refusal was mostly implicit in Stirner’s The Unique and Its Own, Stirner made it impossible to ignore in “The Philosophical Reactionaries.” This means that it is at least problematic to include Stirner as one of the “Young Hegelians,” as though he shared an essentially similar relation to Hegelian philosophy as the others so classified, like Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer. And it certainly means, as De Ridder argues, that Stirner’s “ideas cannot be reduced to a traditional philosophy of the subject (existentialism),” and that his writings “not only question the revolutionary subject in a strictly Marxist sense, but eventually any form of (political) subjectivity.” (p. 143) De Ridder further notes that “For Stirner the crisis of the estate order [in Vormärz Prussia] calls neither for a new synthesis nor a new philosophy of the self, but necessitates new ways of transcending the political and societal horizon as a whole.” (p. 145) And Stirner does this by “dissolv[ing] existing philosophical categories by contrasting them with concepts that lay explicitly beyond philosophy.” (p. 145) These latter “concepts” outside philosophy include the “Unique,” “ownness” and “egoism.” The bulk of De Ridder’s arguments cover the conflict between the development of Bruno Bauer’s immanent philosophical critique of Hegel and Stirner’s “parody of the Young Hegelian quest to identify a modern political subject.” This makes fascinating reading, especially since Bauer himself has been so rarely translated and studied in English-language scholarship, despite his great importance for post-Hegelian critiques. De Ridder concludes that Stirner’s Unique “is fundamentally extra-conceptual. Stirner’s radical nominalism places the concept of [the “Unique”] outside of philosophy and destroys the subject-object dichotomy.” (p. 157)

“Why Anarchists need Stirner” by Kathy E. Ferguson

Kathy Ferguson uses Schmidt and van der Walt’s ill-conceived Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (already notorious for its extremely narrow and ideological syndicalism) as a foil for arguments in favor of a Stirnerian theoretical and practical autonomy. But she works at this, rather peculiarly (for an anarchist), through use of analyses of the somewhat popular (in leftist circles) post-Stalinist Slavoj Žižek. Thus, while the initial impulse seems worthwhile, the value of “Why anarchists need Stirner” is somewhat mitigated for those who know Stirner well, because Ferguson both undercuts the premise with widely misplaced praise for the “otherwise excellent book on global anarchism and syndicalism, Black Flame,” at the same time that she insists on using an anti-anarchist, pro-Leninist critic (Žižek) to help explain a Stirner with whom he is completely at odds. Still, despite these problems, the essay is largely successful despite itself. But this is probably because (except when Stirner is successfully misrepresented) anti-Stirner arguments are almost guaranteed to fail when directed at anarchists who value their theoretical and practical autonomy. Ideologists like Schmidt and van der Walt, and all the others whose leftism far outweighs any commitment to libertarian values, might as well give up their crusade. Until they can fully detach practical autonomy from anarchism – an impossible feat, without destroying the anarchist impulse itself – they are doomed to a self-delusionally revisionist battle against any and every actually-existing anarchist.

“Stirner’s Ethics of Voluntary Inservitude” by Saul Newman

Saul Newman saves his own most valuable work for the final contribution to this volume, in which he compares Max Stirner’s arguments for insurrectionary insubordination to Étienne de la Boëtie’s earlier critique of “voluntary servitude,” although, unfortunately, Newman once again misrepresents Stirner by focusing on “the singularity of the individual ego” instead of on Stirner’s nonconceptual “Unique.” Despite the clear exposition of Stirner’s critique of philosophy raised by Widukind de Ridder in his two contributions to this book, Newman still insists on describing “Stirner’s philosophical project … as one of clearing the ontological ground of all essential foundations.” (p. 204) But he clearly has no “philosophical project.” As he tirelessly repeats, his is not a project of the individual or the ego, but of his own! Newman is at least correct, though, that one of Stirner’s big contributions “is to point out the futility of founding political action on metphysical ideas of human nature, science, historical laws and assumptions about a shared rationality and morality.” (p. 206)

Notes

1. This is the title for a current CAL Press project-in-process to publish a revised (corrected) edition of the Steven Byington translation of Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum that dispenses with the disastrous confusion between Stirner’s “Einzige” and “the Ego” that Benjamin Tucker’s title and Byingon’s text have introduced and reinforced. Also underway is Wolfi Landstreicher’s completely new translation, which should also help immensely to clear up this confusion, slated to appear under the more literal title as The Unique and Its Property.

2. Newman comments, “…just as we think we have [Stirner] pinned down, he slips away again like one of his own spectres.” (p. 2, my emphasis) Elsewhere Newman asks, “Why, then, resurrect Max Stirner, the thinker who was obsessed with ghosts, “spooks,” and ideological apparitions….” in “Spectres of Freedom: Stirner and Foucault” (Postmodern Culture Vol.14, #3, May 2004).

3. “Hauntology” is one of those pomo jokes you couldn’t make up without feeling deeply embarrassed for yourself, but seem to be taken seriously by (too) many academics. The source is Derrida’s relatively incoherent Spectres of Marx.

4. This essay was originally published in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed #38, Fall 1993 (C.A.L. Press).

5. See my “John Clark’s Stirner,” published in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed #68/69 (undated) as “John Clark’s Spook,” and my introduction to Wolfi Landstreicher’s translation of Max Stirner’s Stirner’s Critics (LBC Books / CAL Press, 2012), “Clarifying the Unique and Its Self-Creation.” (Landstreicher’s translations in Stirner’s Critics include both the first full English translation of “Stirner’s Critics,” as well as a second English translation of “The Philosophical Reactionaries,” which appears to have been completed not long after –and unaware of – De Ridder’s translation.)

John Zerzan’s “Twilight of the Machines”

John Zerzan's Twilight of the Machines

Twilight of the Machines – John Zerzan

John Zerzan’s         Twilight of the Machines

 

Twilight of the Machines by John Zerzan (Feral House, Port Townsend, WA, 2008) 141pp. $12.00 paperback.

John Zerzan is now one of the most well-known of contemporary North American anarchist writers and theorists, along with Noam Chomsky and Hakim Bey (and formerly, prior to his definitive renunciation of his already questionable anarchism, also Murray Bookchin). Zerzan is best known as one of the major proponents of anarcho-primitivism and green anarchy, along with Fredy Perlman and others. Beginning with his essays appearing primarily in The Fifth Estate in the 1980s (collected in his central and still most important work, Elements of Refusal), Zerzan has built an impressive edifice of documentation, critique and speculation ranging over the lifeways of nomadic paleolithic gatherer-hunters to the origins of symbolic culture and civilization to the intensification of contemporary alienation in runaway technology, hyperurbanization and the emptiness of everyday life in mass consumer society and post-modern culture. Twilight of the Machines contains Zerzan’s latest essays from the new millennium, this time primarily collected from Green Anarchy. This new book follows Running on Emptiness: The Failure of Symbolic Thought and Future Primitive, both of which collected essays mostly appearing in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed during the 1990s.

For the most part, Twilight of the Machines is an eloquent call for each of us to face the appalling predicament of the entire human species as the globalizing spread of modern techno-industrial civilization continues to destroy the natural world, degrade what’s left of face-to-face communities, and lead human society towards an impending global collapse. While not light reading by any means, the essays in Twilight of the Machines are all fairly short (the longest seems to be only 11 pages). And although the book might seem a bit thin at 141 pages, the short format, like that of his previous two collections, will most likely make it more approachable for a larger range of potential readers than a more intimidatingly long volume might. One small problem is that since the book consists of a collection of relatively short essays often dealing with similar or parallel topics, there is a fair amount of repetition of arguments. For example, the same general (and accurate) criticisms of postmodernism sometimes appear in one form or another in essay after essay.

        Zerzan’s forte has been the persistent raising of basic questions which have expanded the realm of radical investigation and critique into areas heretofore too often avoided, marginalized or ignored.

Zerzan’s forte has been the persistent raising of basic questions which have expanded the realm of radical investigation and critique into areas heretofore too often avoided, marginalized or ignored. Even, or maybe especially, for those who disagree with his overall speculations and conclusions, this has led to a widening of awareness of the deep roots and pervasive extent of our contemporary predicament. This alone makes John Zerzan’s a highly important voice to be reckoned with by all radicals who are serious about exploring the full extent of what is needed for the abolition of capitalism, the state and the other forms taken by social alienation and enslavement. However, this valuable expansion of investigation and critique has from the beginning been accompanied by often seemingly reified or even Manicheaen conceptions of the origins of human alienation. Following publication of Fredy Perlman’s seminal critique of civilization in Against His-Story, Against Leviathan, Zerzan indicted agriculture, language, art and number as centrally complicit in the origin and development of civilization. And since then, he has continued to focus his critiques more and more tightly on division of labor and the whole range of symbolic culture as the generative principles of human social and natural alienation.

Central to many of Zerzan’s arguments is a scorched earth attitude in which just about any particular aspect of life which has been colonized to any significant degree by capital, state, technology or ideology is deemed to be not accidentally, but essentially complicit with the domination and alienation of techno-industrial civilization and, thus, to be in need of complete removal. No nuanced analyses or shades of gray are allowed. Everything is simply black and white, and you’re either for (his vision of ) life or against it. In many essays, an army of quotations and notes from an array of writers and texts (some revealingly relevant, but others at times rather irrelevant) are marshaled to the particular task at hand of critically destroying whichever aspect of life is targeted this particular time (the essays on the origins of civilization in Elements of Refusal on agriculture, language, art and number are paradigmatic here). If he was a physician, Zerzan’s diagnosis would appear to always be the same, complete corruption, with amputation of the offending body part the only solution ever offered.

Twilight of the Machines opens with “Too Marvelous for Words,” contrasting language as “a powerful instrument for technological and social disenchantment” with the alternative of direct, unmediated presence (though he never explains what it could possibly mean for unmediated presence to be – self-contradictorily – “enchanted”). For Zerzan, it seems, everything about language (and symbolization in general) is bad news and not just unnecessary, but even (at least metaphorically) pathological. No attempt is made to chronicle any redeeming qualities of human communication through use of languages. Nor, does it seem, is there any possibility within his perspective for the existence of any worthwhile, freely-chosen, unalienated linguistic communication at all. Radical writers and theorists who might distinguish the ideological debasement of language from more convivial and authentic linguistic communication are simply ignored. In Zerzan’s view it is language itself which is inescapably ideological. At one point he argues that: “The grammar of every language is a theory of experience, and more than that, it’s an ideology.” (p.5) Beyond this, Zerzan repeatedly argues throughout the book that all use of language (and other forms of symbolic communication) is necessarily alienating. But somehow it must be possible to use grammar and language in at least relatively non-ideological ways, else why does Zerzan continue to speak and write his critiques rather than foregoing writing and speech for the more direct communication he advocates? And if Zerzan can make worthwhile use of language for liberatory purposes is there any reason why anyone else should not do the same, while leaving behind the self-contradictory, ideological weight of a dogmatic denunciation of all symbolic culture?

In “Patriarchy, Civilization and the Origins of Gender” Zerzan asks if patriarchy and civilization are “at base synonymous?” He argues that (the history of) “Civilization…is the history of the domination of nature and of women,” (p.11) leaving out the inescapable fact that civilization has always also included the domination of men. In fact, civilizations seem to have involved the progressive institutionalization of political, economic and social domination of anyone and everyone caught in their nets of control.

Inevitably, the critique of symbolic culture in itself as the prime cause and motor of human alienation will continue to be viewed skeptically by most radicals, since the development of alienation is more plausibly described and explained as a larger social process in which particular aspects of symbolic culture are progressively reified, enlarged and turned against the individual and society, just as aspects of every other sphere of human life are progressively reified and turned against us. The identification of a fundamental and seemingly prime cause of human alienation which can be potentially separated, isolated and demonized will inevitably appeal to some of those who prefer relatively easy answers to highly complex questions. But there is no evidence that symbolic culture in itself is necessarily a form of human alienation. However much symbolic culture may involve less direct and more abstract forms of interaction with the human and social world, these forms of interaction are never in themselves necessarily alienating. The systems of symbolization and highly complex forms taken by communication using these systems will certainly always be fraught with opportunities for the creation of ideological justifications and apologies for alienating human activities and relationships. But just as certainly, these same complex forms of symbolic communication can also be used to expose and subvert ideologies. They are not themselves simply and reductively identical with ideology.

Similarly, social alienation does not arise in every instance of the division of labor – at least not in every instance as long as the freely-chosen coordination and division of convivial tasks also falls under this label. (And if it doesn’t, where else is it being hidden in Zerzan’s writings?) There is never a problem if one person enjoys hunting and another leisurely gathers in order to share the fruits of their activities later. Nor is it a problem if one group of people in a community builds a house while another group gardens and others pursue different complex tasks they set for themselves in coordination with their families and friends. Rather it is the forced division of labor that always involves human social alienation. It is when people are enslaved, trapped in their activities, see no way out and eventually stop trying to escape from their prisons that they alienate their activities and lose sight of their original desires to live freely.

The important aspect of truth in Zerzan’s formulations is that as the various forms of human social activity and communication become more abstract, complex and distancing they become less and less likely to be freely desirable or communally sustainable absent self-alienation. The more elaborate and rigid that divisions of activities become, and the more intricately systematic their required symbolic and technological infrastructures, the more likely it will be that these divisions of labor and complex infrastructures will also require manipulation and, ultimately, force to maintain them. In this process their human participants begin to mimic the behavior of machines in order to fulfill their roles in an increasingly alienating division and coordination of tasks. And the more human beings reduce themselves to machinelike activities, the more likely they will then be further forced to do so – rather than participating of their own genuinely free wills – in the ever-intensifying process of self-alienation and its accompaniments, forced labor and its ideologies.

Possibly most interesting in Twilight of the Machines, at least in relation to the general theme of the Modern Slavery journal project, is Zerzan’s essay on “Globalization and its Apologists: An Abolitionist Perspective.” Here he explicitly aims his anarcho-primitivist critique at “our century’s version of slavery.” He plausibly identifies the rise and spread of domestication with the rise and spread of civilization. And he definitely understands that (in his terminology) “globalization” – understood as the latest stage of domestication and civilization – is so overwhelmingly parasitic on our lives that it is now threatening to overwhelm and destroy its hosts. But he is nowhere able to focus on the process of self-alienation itself as the target for abolition, rather than the particular places it happens to inhabit.

In any case, it is abundantly clear that modern divisions of labor, technological systems and their mass consumer cultures have long passed the point of no return for potential desirability or sustainability in any humanly free and consenting ways.

Review by Jason McQuinn

American Uprising: The untold story of America’s largest slave revolt

American Uprising: The untold story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen

Review by Paul Z. Simons

      American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen (Perennial Books, New York, 2011). 276 pp., $26.99 hardcover/$15.99 paper.

So to keep the rhetoric and material in Modern Slavery alive with tales of slave revolts and insurrections, I inadvertently picked this book up while on my way through some airport, somewhere. After looking at the young face of the author, and reading that his alma mater was Harvard, and that he had received a number of prizes during his years there, my worries grew; surely this couldn’t be a book that demonizes slaves for revolt? Harvard is a primitive place – but could it have reverted even deeper into the muck of ruling class snobbery, inbred genetic mutation, and bad nicknames? Finally I relented and bought the damn thing – what the hell, its better than watching the movie on the plane.

Dangerous Cargo
The author begins by focusing on the night of Epiphany, January 6, 1811, and details the extravagant balls, meals and gambling of the local white slave owning gentry who lived in or near New Orleans. Epiphany of course being the kickoff for the entire Carnival season that culminates annually in the liver-ossifying orgy of Mardi Gras. Simultaneously, as the masters were celebrating, he describes the revelry of the local slaves gathered on the Commons in the city. Perhaps as many as 500-600 individuals all told were present, and they danced in large circular formations, drank local fermented products, crowned a king for the event, even as the local gentry crowned their own Rex for Mardi Gras; and also plotted to pull the whole economic and political superstructure down by armed rebellion.

        The real touchstone for the revolt, as it was for John Brown, was the success of the Haitian Revolution in 1803, which, as noted elsewhere freed the slaves, granted independence to the island nation, and as if to put paid to the whole deal banned all French citizens from Haiti – forever.

The planters were men who had abandoned Enlightenment era France for the possibility of huge profit and reward as a result of hacking some kind of living out of the wilderness. Sugar, as it turns out, was the right crop for the areas directly west of New Orleans, that ran along the northern banks of the Mississippi River. This area, named the “German Coast,” was famous for its heat, humidity, snakes, swamps, and many planters justified the use of African slaves as a result of this harsh environment. The transport of slaves to the United States was outlawed in 1808, but it is estimated that in the forty years prior the passage of the law proscribing importation of slaves that as many as 24,000 Africans were disembarked in New Orleans. The mortality rates of the slave trade are staggering. Forty percent of those captured never even made it to the west coast of Africa for transportation, ten percent perished during the Middle Passage, and only about a third would survive through the first four years in the New World. There is another side to this, though, and it shouldn’t be overlooked, many of those transported and who survived were some very tough customers indeed. The two slaves most associated with the German Coast Revolt are Kook and Quamana. The names suggest that the men were Akan, an African empire at the height of its power in the late eighteenth century; essentially a military union of a number of different tribes. The Akan controlled significant tracts of land throughout modern Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana. Many of the Akan slaves brought to the US were common soldiers who had been trained to make up the impressively large armies that African nations at that time fielded in warfare. It is likely, therefore that Kook and Quamana at least knew how to use weapons, and very probably had been trained to fight, even if they had never gone into battle. » Read more..

Egoism versus modernity: John Welsh’s dialectical Stirner

A review of Max Stirner’s Dialectical Egoism by Wolfi Landstreicher

Max Stirner’s Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation by John F. Welsh (Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 2010). 293 pp., $85.00 hardcover / $34.95 paper.

Since its publication in 1844, Max Stirner’s book Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (entitled The Ego and Its (or His) Own in the currently available English editions1) has rarely been dealt with on its own terms. When not simply suppressed, it has been misrepresented or used as a foil to promote agendas foreign to it. Alfredo Bonanno described it well in his book Max Stirner when he says, “The first duty toward Stirner: incomprehension.” Certainly, the few books written about Stirner and his ideas in English in the past century have reflected this lack of even a minimal understanding of what Stirner was doing. This is what makes John F. Welsh’s book distinctive.

I consider much of the “incomprehension” in the face of Stirner’s book to be a choice made by his various critics and commentators. It is true that Stirner’s thinking is difficult, but not in the sense of being hard to understand – and in his masterwork, Stirner presents it in a clear, even blunt, language. Rather its difficulty lies in the fact that it removes every abstract ground of certainty from beneath our feet, leaving us to rely only on ourselves. This is why he begins and ends the book with the cry: “I have set my cause upon nothing.”2 And very few want to face this prospect of total self-responsibility. Welsh seems to be one of those few, and this makes his book worth reading. Unlike all of Stirner’s critics whose works I have been able to read and most of his defenders as well, Welsh comes to Stirner with no obvious preconceptions about what Stirner was saying. Instead he attempts to understand what Stirner’s project actually was and how it might be useful to us now. The flaws in Welsh’s understanding relate to the most difficult aspects of Stirner’s thinking, his attempts to use language to point to the inconceivable, the unspeakable unique, and to the equally non-conceptual union of egoists. I will go into this more later. » Read more..