Postanarchism and its critics: a conversation with Saul Newman.

Author:Rousselle, Duane


Slavoj Zizek discovered a certain logical movement in the acceptance of a new theory:

[F]irst, [the new theory] is dismissed as nonsense; then, someone claims that the new theory, although not without its merits, ultimately just puts into new words things already said elsewhere; finally, the new theory is recognized in its novelty. (2) Is this not the path that critics of postanarchism have adopted over the years? First, postanarchism was dismissed as obscurantism, nonsensical, academicism, jargon-laden, and so on; next, Jesse Cohn and Shawn Wilbur, among others, claimed that postanarchism was not without its merits but ultimately just put into new words what was already said by the classical anarchists themselves; (3) finally, postanarchism was tolerated and both sides have accepted their losses. The final stage has not been a divorce of postanarchism from classical anarchism in order to usher in a new edifice but precisely the reverse: there has been a consolidation or marriage of the two theories. In other words, it is now obvious that postanarchism has passed through two of these major phases in the development of its theory over the last three decades. First, postanarchism was criticised as an attack on the representative ontologies of classical anarchism. Second, postanarchism was defi ned as a re-reading of the traditional anarchists to reveal their quintessential post-structuralist nuances--always avant la lettre. It seems to me that (a) anarchism was always already postanarchism, and (b) postanarchism has itself always been a form of anarchism.

Viewed in this way, we may say that postanarchism functioned as a 'vanishing mediator' between an old and a new version of anarchism. Vanishing mediators occur between two periods of stasis. But postanarchism does continue to be used as a descriptor for a particular type of anarchist project insofar as that project cannot be satisfied by recourse to tradition. In this case, I am more inclined to describe postanarchism as a 'displaced mediator' that can be revived at a moment's notice to reconfigure the normal anarchist discourse. After postanarchism we latch back onto the displaced mediator and explore its potential in the emerging stasis of postanarchist scholarship. The new terrain is defined by a reconciliation with what currently counts as postanarchism, particularly in the anglophone academic scene. After postanarchism, the marriage, and along with it both sides of the debate, are displaced, to make room for something new.

The coming displacement can be summed up in the joke about the philosophy professor who recently got married. The professor was confronted by one of his graduate students: 'Professor! I need to tell you something immediately!' The professor paused, looked at his wife for a moment, and then responded: 'Wait a moment, before we go any further I want to make sure that what you are going to tell me is worth my time'. He continued, 'Will your message refer to a moment of truth?' The student replied without waiting a moment: 'No, not exactly'. The professor posed another question: 'Will your message refer to something good?' The student replied: 'Not at all'. The professor asked a final question: 'Can your message be put to productive use?' The student answered without waiting a moment, 'Not immediately; perhaps it will even be destructive'. The professor stopped a moment to think. Dissatisfied by the student's responses and by his own inability to frame what the student might then want to say to him, he grabbed his wife by the arm and marched off into the university to prepare his next peer reviewed article. As the professor walked off he yelled out to the student, 'I do not want to hear any of it!' This explains why professors rarely understand the potential of a revolutionary philosophy. It also explains why the professor did not know that his student was secretly having sex with his wife.

Cunning students of traditional philosophy have been quick to point out: 'So, what comes after postanarchist philosophy?' The answer, which of course they already know, comes: 'It is postpostanarchist philosophy!' This has been the most naive way to attack postanarchism. But we ought to take it more seriously than they do; the laughter we express over postpostanarchism might very well be an expression of our inability to come to terms with the possibility that postanarchism might not be enough. Postpostanarchism is a joke because it disembodies us--traditionalists and postanarchists alike. It exposes us to the possibility that there might still be something else out there. The problem of postanarchism today is not one of exclusive disjunction--of either traditional anarchism or postanarchism--but precisely their conjunction or marriage: anarchism and postanarchism. In this conjunction we have failed to recognise the next operation: the discovery of the superset that displaces the conjunction against an emergent set. In other words, in the marriage of anarchism and postanarchism, we have failed to see that the emerging students of political philosophy have been having sex with our wives.

So what comes after postanarchism? It is now clear to me that speculative realism is grappling with many of the same problems that postanarchism finds itself quickly approaching. For the sake of introducing this problem early, I shall borrow the phraseology of the object oriented ontologist Levi Bryant: what we are dealing with in the eventual displacement of the current marriage is the problem of the hegemony of epistemology. To put matters even more simply, I will state immediately that this is the problem that postanarchists face in the third decade of scholarship.

Admittedly, a great deal of what I have discovered about postanarchism's 'next move' emerged from an early and premature attempt to formulate a response to criticisms of postanarchism. What I discovered was that the criticisms of postanarchism paralleled the informal fallacy outlined by Freud in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. A neighbour borrows a kettle and returns it damaged. The neighbour constructs three defences: first, that he returned the kettle undamaged; second, that it was already damaged when he borrowed it, and; third, that he never borrowed the kettle in the first place. These criticisms reflected the very same concerns brought to bear against postanarchism: critics were mostly criticising in postanarchism what postanarchism was criticising in classical anarchism, namely the political strategy of reductionism and/or essentialism. The critics were reacting against postanarchism's reduction of the classical tradition. The critics argued the following: first, postanarchism represented an attempt to abandon classical or traditional anarchism; second, postanarchism represented an attempt to rescue classical or traditional anarchism from its own demise, and; third, anarchism was always already postanarchist.

For two decades postanarchism has adopted an epistemological point of departure for its critique of the representative ontologies of classical anarchism. This critique focused on the classical anarchist conceptualisation of power as a unitary phenomenon that operated unidirectionally to repress an otherwise creative and benign human essence. Andrew Koch may have inaugurated this trend in the early 1990s when he wrote his widely influential paper 'Post-structuralism and the Epistemological Basis of Anarchism'. (4) Koch's paper certainly laid some of the important groundwork for postanarchism's continual subsumption of ontology beneath the a priori of an epistemological orientation. His work continues to be cited as an early and important venture into postanarchist political philosophy. The problem is that Koch could not conceive of an anti-essentialist and autonomous ontological system, one not subject to regulation or representation by the human mind. Consequently, he was forced to assert a subjectivist claims-making ego as the foundation of a poststructuralist anarchist politics.

It seemed to me that Saul Newman was indebted to this heritage insofar as he also posited the ego (extrapolated from the writings of Max Stirner) and the subject (extrapolated from Jacques Lacan's oeuvre) as the paradoxical 'outside' to power and representation. Todd May fell into a similar trap in his book The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism when he wrote that '[m]etaphysics [...] partakes of the normativity inhabiting the epistemology that provides its foundations'. (5) Newman's approach did not necessarily foreclose the possibility of a metaphysics, at least to the extent that he began with the subject of the Lacanian tradition (wherein the subject is believed to be radically barred from das Ding). On the other hand, it seemed to me that May completely foreclosed the possibility of any escape from the reign of the epistemological. There laid the impasse of yesterday's postanarchism. This impasse at the heart of the project of postanarchism has forced Koch, Newman, May, and many others, to come to similar conclusions about the place of ontology in postanarchist scholarship. The postanarchists have all formulated a response strikingly similar to Koch's argument that any representative ontology ought to be dismantled and dethroned in favour of 'a conceptualization of knowledge that is contingent on a plurality of internally consistent episteme'. (6) This is precisely the problem that we are up against: by dismissing all ontologies as suspiciously representative and as incessantly harbouring a dangerous form of essentialism, postanarchists have overlooked the privilege that they have placed on the human subject, language, and discourse.

Ontology must now be distinguished from representation. We must shift the terms of the debate and interrogate the hegemony that epistemology has been afforded within postanarchist philosophy...

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