. Hakim Bey: Strategies of Resistance | Ceasefire Magazine

Hakim Bey: Strategies of Resistance An A to Z of Theory

Hakim Bey's general strategic perspectives, such as the TAZ, are complemented by a range of tactical proposals for political action. In the eighth of sixteen parts of his series on Bey, Andrew Robinson examines the strategic underpinnings for Bey's political proposals. 

Columns, In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, November 13, 2019 19:11 - 0 Comments


“Nothing is ugly or beautiful if no one is watching it” — Javier A. Bedrina (Photo credit: Javier A. Bedrina/Creative Commons)

Hakim Bey’s general strategic perspectives, such as the TAZ, are complemented by a range of tactical proposals for political action.  In this essay, I will explore the strategic underpinnings for Bey’s political proposals, and will examine his focus on resisting recuperation, his emphasis on “empirical freedoms” as means to liberation, and his theory of immediatism.

Bey’s strategic approach

There is a transformative strategy at work in Bey’s theories, which stems logically from his ontology and his view of the dominant system. He favours a range of tactics which produce altered consciousness and peak experiences. In his theory, peak experiences provide a means to transform values. They are also a challenge to the Spectacle, which is unable to provide them.

This strategy is based on Bey’s ontology of chaos. His approach is driven by the ‘desire for desire, for Eros son of Chaos‘. No ideology or normativity is adequate today. An adequate ethics must be situational. Peak experience is part of this. However, peak experience is not a goal in itself. TAZ is not purely hedonistic, but insurrectionary in intent – seeking to infect or become the ‘social‘. Experiences such as those of a TAZ can serve as the matrix for a Sorelian myth of uprising. (In Sorel, a myth is a mobilising idea which inspires action, regardless of its truth). The point is to provide the hope, the morale, necessary for transformative struggle and personal enjoyment. ‘Whether or not you believe you’re going to save the world, you have to act like you believe it or your life will be crap’.

Chaos is ontologically primary. Therefore, every social order is ultimately illusory.  It is made real only by coercion. Even so, fighting the system’s agents is less important than breaking down the self-alienation which underpins it. There is a danger that fighting the state helps sustain it as an effective illusion.

This leads some of Bey’s critics and supporters to interpret him as opposing social struggle. Despite these concerns, there is a recurring orientation to insurrection, or the ‘Uprising’, in his work. The ‘Uprising’ is a moment, like Sorel’s General Strike, when the TAZ comes to encompass all of social life, and becomes permanent. 

Bey insists on altered consciousness against consensus reality. But it is not necessarily a rare occurrence. Esoteric, mystical and magical forces are found in unusual, everyday places. Ice-cream, for instance, is a mystical mixture of ice, fire, ocean and space, holding natural appeal for children. It has its origins in Persian hermeticism and the discovery of rock-salt.

Resisting Recuperation – Exodus not Revolution

Resisting recuperation is a central aspect of Bey’s strategy. The Spectacle is a trap for revolt, because rebellion can also be turned into an image or a product. People are failing to create an outside because they are too glued to, or hypnotised by, televisions and computers. Visible militancy can become an image of itself and be recuperated by the media.

If mediation is the main enemy, the system’s main means of control, then effective resistance takes the form of disappearance, disengagement, immediacy (instead of mediation) and presence (instead of representation). Refusal to be mediated, or to engage with the Spectacle, creates spaces which are outside the system. While Bey also argues periodically for sabotage, reappropriation, and tactical use of the media, refusal seems to be the privileged tactic. His tactics are similar to the tactics of détournement used by Situationists. In an interview, Bey suggests that a strategy irrecuperable by the system has to involve altered consciousness. Altered consciousness or peak experience is irrecuperable because it cannot be represented, or reduced to mediated forms.

Strategically, Bey opposes a head-on collision with the state for two reasons. Firstly, he thinks it is futile. Secondly, he thinks the state is ‘terminal‘, or dying of its own accord. The system is violently spasming in its death throes. In this context, there is no point confronting a power-system which has lost all meaning and is just a simulation. The best tactic is to avoid this spectacular violence which cannot reach the substance of social life, instead disappearing.

Insurrection and armed action are tragically counterproductive, because they are recuperated by the Spectacle. Also, radical action or organising should not be a sacrifice, but self-liberation with immediate psychological reward. Struggles against the system risk recuperation. As an alternative, Bey proposes personal and cultural actions. His alternative is to live as if the struggle were already won, to realise alternatives immediately, in the present. He discourages purely destructive acts (without a constructive element), and direct attacks on people. Instead, he defines the task of radicals as finding cracks in the system’s power and images, chipping away at the Spectacle and its influence. With enough success, such tactics might cause the system to lose its coherence and assurance, and thus also its power.

Armed attacks are ‘tragically counterproductive’. What counts today is personal/cultural action and ‘bearing witness‘. Attacks like 9/11 are ‘automatically recuperable‘ and always produce the opposite of their intended effect, because they are incorporated in the system’s internal image of the enemy. On another occasion, Bey reportedly expressed disapproval of the mass murders, but called 9/11 a ‘brilliant piece of artwork’ falling into the broad category of ‘bad shamanism’ which underpins reactionary movements. 

Bey feels there is an obligation to feel joy, and not postpone it until the future or the afterlife. Feeling joy is necessary both to do justice to oneself, and to deal fairly/beautifully with others. Bey seeks to tap the energy of insurrection, without risking martyrdom or capture by the image. Insurrection must relate to the media today as it used to relate (in Bey’s historical examples) to religion as heresy. It is effectively a heresy against the Spectacle.

Resistance to the Spectacle occurs mainly through images and imaginaries. Simply being conscious of the Spectacle, sameness, and alienation cannot overcome them. Rather, opposition needs ‘counter-imagery‘ and a kind of spirituality or marvel. In Millennium, Bey suggests that there is a lack of an inspiring ‘myth’ or ‘metanoia‘, a focal point for dissident energies, both in above-ground radical movements and in countercultures and underground groups. The present task as he sees it is to build an anti-capitalist resistance movement out of the remaining fragments of radical movements.

In line with this perspective, Bey proposes a range of different tactics, the goal of which is to free desire from a state of capture or bondage to the system. Everyday life is the main field for insurrectionary self-empowerment against the system. Bey suggests that everyone knows what is going on and what to do, provided s/he can break free of ‘false consciousness‘, the Spectacle, interpretation, or scarcity. Bey calls for a type of resistance which melts into the wider resistance of the excluded. It avoids confrontation on unequal terms, but breaks down the system’s monopoly on violence. It occupies cracks in the system of control and reproduces techniques of indigenous warfare.

Viewed as a general strategy, this is not a strategy of resistance at the level of theory or art alone. Rather, it seeks dis-alienation through the strategic use of images, culminating in an alternative consciousness geared towards the Uprising. However, some of the tactics do focus on theory or art. Before the world can be changed, we need to destroy the dominant archetypes, the ‘cops in the head’. This is the only practical insurrection possible today.

Bey suggests that it may also change the landscape around us. An insurrection against false consciousness will sweep away the power, the technology, of oppression. Attacking power is no longer possible because it is no longer ‘there’ – is is pure spectacle. The state, as an outer institution, is increasingly irrelevant as a focus, because of the spread of virtual capital. Yet spaces cannot be neutral. Either a zone is part of capital, or it is in opposition.

Bey’s position leads to certain general propositions. In ‘Post-Anarchism Anarchy‘, he provides a nine-point manifesto which includes ‘Zerowork’ or anti-work, opposing the education system and the ‘serfdom of children’, promotion of sexuality, and addressing the issue of land in the context of de-spatialisation of capitalism. However, Bey also critiques single-issue politics as playing into the commodification of opinions. Specific oppressions cannot be separated out from the general problem of the system.

Strategies and Contexts

In some ways, this is a consciously anti-strategic strategy. Politically, Bey criticises the idea of revolution as a goal, instead valuing insurgence, uprising, or insurrection as an inner process of rejecting power. There is no overarching programme for revolution. Worthwhile struggles are always for ‘empirical freedoms‘, rather than ideology. ‘Strategic autonomy is made up of tactical incremental empirical freedoms not ideology’. He theorises uprisings as an equivalent at the social movement scale of peak experiences at the individual level. The aim is to get outside mediation by creating different ways of being

In this context, the TAZ is not only a tactic, it is also a ‘psychospiritual state’ or ‘existential condition’. The physical TAZ is a way to sample this state of being. It is a way to create a psychological and political ‘outside‘ – from which resistance can happen. Sometimes the insurrection itself is a zone of freedom, regardless of whether it is successful. Its temporary nature can be a virtue. The process of revolt is arguably preferable to the sleepiness of a realised social form.

In a sense, even dropping or reforming repressive rules is unnecessary, since rules and the morality of the herd are there to be overcome. They are something to prove and measure oneself against. Bey’s main point here is that one should break the rules, instead of trying to reform them. The imperative to resist does not disappear even in miserable conditions. If rebellion is not possible, then Bey advises what he calls a ‘clandestine spiritual jihad‘, or struggle to disalienate life and culture.

Bey’s strategies vary greatly with context. Each situation has a particular strategic structure and needs to be approached situationally to find sources of power. ‘Situation’ here seems to mean something like a social structure or opportunity structure in relation to which strategies and tactics are formulated to create autonomy or conditions for its emergence. In his early work, Bey cocneived of TAZ in Deleuzian molecular terms, as a tactic used as part of a worldview distrustful of strategy. In his later work, faced with the totalising effects of the post-Cold War ‘end of history’, he suggests that he’s now forced into trying to formulate a strategic position, without the authoritarian implications of strategy (Interview, Sakhra).

At various points, Bey also calls for creating alternative economic institutions, and for anarchist involvement in wider social movements. For example, the strategic position of TAZ changes a lot through Bey’s writings. In the book TAZ, Bey wishes for the ‘eruption of the marvellous into the ordinary‘. This means spiritualising everyday life. For Bey at this time, spiritualisation is the most tumultuous and urgent political demand. In Immediatism, Bey claims that he staked and ultimately lost on this position. He now seeks to find hidden treasure instead. This later position suggests that the marvellous is contained mainly in secretive small groups. In ‘The Occult Assault on Institutions‘, he argues for a strategy to optimise conditions for TAZ’s to emerge. 

There are thus major differences in Bey’s strategic perspective over time. Overall, however, his varying strategies and tactics pursue a consistent goal of immediacy, intensity, and altered consciousness. In Escape from the Nineteenth Century, he argues that capital is based on sameness and separation. The antidotes are therefore difference and presence. In an interview, he counterposes ‘real immanence’ to the ‘false transcendence’ offered by the Spectacle.

In ‘Post-Anarchism Anarchy‘, Bey argues that anarchism is caught between a tragic Past and a utopian Future, but it needs to find a present in ‘true desires’ and things we can do ‘before it’s too late’. It starts from the question, ‘What is your True Desire?’ A first step in ‘utopia’ is always to look in the mirror and demand to know one’s true desire. This requires at least temporarily overcoming anxiety, or fear of one’s shadow.

In some works, Bey redefines the Islamic concept of jihad in terms of the struggle against alienation. The greater jihad is the struggle against the separated self and the suffocation of the true self. The lesser jihad is the struggle against the Spectacle. In ‘Jihad Revisited‘, Bey suggests that he was hoping for a kind of ‘Islamic Zapatismo’ when he wrote Millennium, possibly derived from neo-Sufism. This jihad he imagined has not come to pass and it is ‘probably too late’.

Immediatism: Tactical Resistance to Mediation

Bey sees mediation as a central aspect or cause of alienation. All experience is mediated, but mediation differs in degree. Embodied experiences are the least mediated. Certain sensory experiences – such as taste, touch, and sexual pleasure – are less mediated than others. Live or performance arts are less mediated than recorded arts. Even among recorded arts, there are degrees of mediation depending on how much imaginative participation each work demands. When hearers or readers play an active role in imagination or dreaming, there is less mediation.

Books draw on the reader’s imagination, but involve a hierarchical relationship between producer and consumer. Spirit-possession is less mediated than theatre, which is less mediated than film, and television is especially mediated and in need of overcoming. However, the point is not to do away with any means of artistic production. The more imagination is freed or shared, the more useful the medium. In other words, mediation is a continuum, ranging from the barely-mediated to the extremely mediated, with many shades in between.

The idea of mediation is central to Bey’s analysis of art. Capitalism propels art towards increasing mediation, and recuperates art increasingly rapidly today. Authentic art is play. Play is one of the least mediated experiences. Bey seems to connect artistic creativity with peak experience. Immediatism is a means of creative, liberatory and playful energy-production, without alienation or mediation. Today’s art and advertising promote endless images of death and mutilation.

On the other hand, images of life are sometimes punished. Bey argues that art cannot exist for itself. Art functions as political power, a way of expressing or changing the world. Even if there is such a thing as art without political content, it would still be political in its means of production and consumption. Immediatist art expresses its radicalism in its means of production and consumption. It is kept within a small group of friends and ideally leaves no trace at all, except self-transformation.

In the 1990s, Bey theorised disappearance as desirable, to avoid recuperation. Disappearance is a way to save something from dying of mediation. Capitalism has created a kind of closure in which a single image of the world dominates. Other images cannot emerge because of the hegemony of this image. This leads to a dead process of endless reproduction of sameness. Any image which ruptures this hegemony would have to come from outside. And it would have to be asserted as a kind of ‘Image War‘.

The ‘outside’ here is presence, or the gift economy, as something which cannot be represented. In Riverpeople, Wilson claims that publication sometimes ‘profanes’ (dirties or despiritualises) secret knowledge which is better transmitted in less-mediated forms, such as manuscript or word-of-mouth. These less-mediated forms retain a small chance of enchantment, of becoming ‘Poetic Facts’ with truth in the archetypal world as well as the real world. In contrast, mass-published facts become mere data or information. They lose any relationship to the imaginal world. Bey also claims that ‘secrets still exist’. Secrets are powerful, against the system’s claims to see and represent everything. Secrecy is central to the tong, immediatism, and Bey’s conception of ‘tact’. 

In ‘Media Creed for the Fin de Siécle‘, Wilson argues that the mass media alienates whatever it captures. One cannot express one’s true subjectivity in the media. Instead, what is expressed is rendered meaningless. Therefore, he calls for a refusal to let the media possess one’s image and extract ‘vampiric power’ from it. Instead, one should invest energies in intimate or subjective media, and either evade or destroy mass media.

Virtual reality failed because human reaction times are faster than vision. VR caused sickness and illnesses by separating embodied and visual experiences. In ‘The Obelisk‘, Bey argues that voluntary self-restraint in relation to the world of representation and images can lead to flows of power to the autonomous imagination. The point is to imagine ourselves, rather than to allow ourselves to be imagined through words or images. Things which are unrepresented and unseen – deliberately or fortuitously – tend to maintain their lived meaning. This in turn creates optimal conditions for the emergence of the ‘marvelous’ in lived experiences (or of altered consciousness). 

In Immediatism, Bey proposes to practice art in secret, so as to avoid ‘contamination’ by mediation. All spectators should also be performers. Artistic products should be shared with participants only, and never sold. Techniques involving physical presence are preferred. This practice is framed as a response to alienation and to the ‘death of art’ due to mediation. 

Art should be created from inspiration, as a free gift, which may or may not be reciprocated. Today, instead, it is produced for money. Art is meant to provide a kind of ‘healing laugh‘, which is serious, but not sober. It is to be a boast, not an excuse. Bey suggests that art which is not produced through alienation is today classified in terms such as ‘insane’ and ‘neo-primitive’. It appeals because of its imaginal presence. 

As an example of an immediatist project, Bey proposes a variety of the potlatch, or ritual feast. It should be made without ready-made ingredients. The main point is to give and receive gifts.  Another piece, ‘A Lunar Garden of Legal Phantastica‘, suggests modern items for creating a Greek pantheon. Priapus could be a garden gnome with a painted-on penis; Mercury a hood ornament from a car, or the Western Union logo.

Similarly, in ‘The Occult Assault on Institutions‘, Bey argues that actions to promote TAZ should avoid mediation, directly realising their goal. They should also add up to more than the sum of their parts. Such actions should both ‘damage or destroy some real and/or imaginal time/space of “the enemy”‘, and create a strong chance of a peak experience. In terms of enemies, abstractions like ‘the state’ are of little use. Resistance must target specific functionaries. The aim is to provide a particular ‘occult effect’, projecting power back at the media.

One way to avoid recuperation by the Spectacle is to ensure that symbolism has depth or ‘fractal dimensions’ which cannot be reduced to the flat imagery of the Spectacle. In such cases, even when others try to recuperate an image, it will continue to carry an uncertain, anti-systemic subtext. Sabotage, for instance, is too easily recuperated by being classified as crime. It might avoid this if combined with information, beauty, or adventure, provided one does not get caught.

For instance, media employees might be sent powerful imagery or magic art-objects which are said to carry a curse. The curse is that it will cause them to realise their true desires. The aim of such a tactic is to infiltrate the images into their dreams and desires, to make their jobs seem boring and destructive. 

For the other essays in the series, please visit the In Theory column page.

Editor’s note: With regards to Hakim Bey’s controversial personal stances, these will be discussed in Part 10 of this series. In the meantime, please read our ‘Note to readers’ at the end of the introductory essay of the series.

Andy McLaverty-Robinson

Andy McLaverty-Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. He is the co-author (with Athina Karatzogianni) of Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (Routledge, 2009). He has recently published a series of books on Homi Bhabha. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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