An A to Z of Theory | Hakim Bey: The Temporary Autonomous Zone

In the latest in his essay series on Hakim Bey's work, Andrew Robinson examines Bey's best known concept: the Temporary Autonomous Zone, TAZ.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, December 12, 2018 20:20 - 0 Comments



Counterculture guru Hakim Bey is best-known for his concept of TAZ – the Temporary Autonomous Zone. Previous columns have reconstructed Bey’s immanent ontology and his critiques of capitalism and the state. In this sixth of sixteen parts, Bey’s seminal idea – the TAZ – is finally examined. I also explore other types of autonomous zones found in Bey’s work, and his later theories of small-scale group formation.

The Temporary Autonomous Zone

Bey’s best-known concept is the Temporary Autonomous Zone, usually abbreviated TAZ. This concept originates in his works of the 1980s, and especially the 1991 compilation of the same name. When the pieces appearing in the book were first written, the figure of Bey was not yet associated with Wilson. Many pieces appeared as typewritten, sigil-covered leaflets on coloured paper, before being reprinted in a bewildering array of zines. Many were first collated as a book in 1985, and posted on the Internet – a process Bey claims he had ‘nothing to do with‘.

Bey deliberately avoids defining the concept of TAZ, which he sees as self-explanatory when experienced in action. However, it is not a meaningless concept, but one with imaginal resonances. If someone has experienced a TAZ, they will be able to tell a TAZ from a non-TAZ. Once the phrase is lodged in someone’s mind, Bey predicts they will begin to see TAZs everywhere. Roughly speaking, a TAZ is a deliberately short-lived (or else precarious) spatial zone in which peak experiences and altered consciousness are realised, in a context of ‘autonomy’ or the absence of hierarchy. A TAZ is necessarily immediate and present, rather than an ideal which fuels sacrifice for the future.

The idea of TAZ is an attempt to exploit cracks in the power of the Spectacle. It is based on the limits of broad-brush representational practices. The possibility of TAZ is grounded in the gap between the map and the territory. A map, or other representation, is never a perfect representation of the territory. It always simplifies and leaves things out. This means that there are spaces where chaos can re-emerge. People can practice autonomy, without being represented.

Bey draws on the cyberpunk idea of ‘islands in the net’. He suggests that a collapse of centralised control will lead to a proliferation of experimental communities and zones. The map is closed, but the TAZ is open, expanding along molecular lines invisible on the map. A TAZ is open because it is not ‘ordered’. Even if it is planned, it is the spontaneous ‘happening’ which defines it. TAZ is festive, and fighting ‘for the right to party’ is not a parody when enjoyment is usually mediated. It is a kind of endlessly replicating, temporary revolution.

One finds spaces where TAZ’s can be formed by looking for spaces and times neglected or unnoticed by the state. Bey portrays TAZs as occupying gaps in time as well as space, like medieval festivals. The conditions for TAZs are like ‘strange attractors’ in chaos theory, arising outside observable causality and seeming almost arbitrary. A TAZ is a place where revolution has actually happened, even if only for a short time, for a few people.

The experience of a TAZ is similar to a potlatch or a festival. It involves an experience of excess, intensity and abundance. A TAZ is a zone of peak experience and sensory intensity. Bey, following Baudrillard, argues that the system values simulation, not substance. This means that TAZs can invisibly occupy the zones of substance neglected by the system. The TAZ is thus a ‘tactic of disappearance’. It is thus rather different from the confrontation typical of revolutionary politics. However, disappearance cannot simply entail ‘never coming back’. It must be possible to conceive of everyday life in a liberated zone. A TAZ provides the peak experience of insurrection without the risk of martyrdom.

There is not a specific way to create a TAZ. Rather, TAZs have been and are being created in different ways. From a strategic standpoint, Bey is not expecting an imminent explosion of anarchist culture. However, he sees TAZs as a step in this direction, prefiguring an anarchist culture in microcosm. The world might change because of a TAZ, or it might not. The focus should not be on such effects. Rather, Bey suggests that we should ‘keep on the move, and live intensely‘. TAZs are connected by open information networks. They are based on indiscriminate syncretism, not exclusion.

Some TAZs are persistent, interconnected, underground nodes. A well-formed TAZ is clandestine, invisible, not represented in the media or the Spectacle, and undefinable in the system’s terms. It is therefore able to avoid being recuperated or repressed by a system which cannot see it. However, Bey does not wish for TAZs to be temporary moments of excess which quickly burn-out. Rather, they are most effective as islands in the net.

We don’t know where the process of intensity will lead – for instance, whether it will be high-tech or anarcho-primitivist. However, we can trace the direction to move in – ‘successful raids on consensus reality’, increases in abundance and intensity. Bey argues that a TAZ is more than simply a bolt-hole within the system, sustained by parasitism on it. If TAZs expand past a certain point, they become an entire alternative world, similar to that portrayed in the anachist utopia bolo’bolo. TAZ is also a learning process, a growth from tameness to ferality or wildness.

Aesthetics is important in realising an effective TAZ. Economically, a TAZ might be based on what Bey calls the ‘surplus of social overproduction’ or ‘pirate economics‘. This involves extracting part of the surplus left over from consumerism and capitalism. Bey suggests that the question of land is a recurring problem for anarchy. The central question is how to separate space from control, so as to create liberated spaces.

The TAZ as a strategy is prefigured in Bey/Wilson’s historical examples. These were more-or-less permanent communities of resistance established in remote or secluded geographical regions. Historical examples of TAZs include most of the cases discussed by Bey – Maroon and ‘tri-racial isolate’ communities, revolutionary moments like the 1919 Munich Soviet and the 1871 Paris Commune, short-lived occupations like D’Annunzio’s Fiume, pirate utopias, Fourierist experiments, the Assassins of Alamut and so on.

However, modern technology makes such autonomous zones unlikely. We are now, for the first time, in a world without unmapped zones. Bey posits the TAZ as an alternative which already exists. It provides a possibility for action even when it seems hopeless. At least, one should seek to cultivate insight, love, freedom and justice within oneself and one’s few close friends, to the greatest degree possible in one’s context. 

TAZ twelve years on

In a 2003 introduction to the book TAZ (which is a collection of several 80s pieces), Bey looks back on TAZ with nostalgia, describing it as a very ’80s’ book, from a more erotic and romantic time. However, he also suggests that the TAZ seems the ‘last and only means of creating an Outside‘ or space of resistance to the system. He denies that he invented the TAZ. Instead, he insists he merely gave a name to ways of maximising some conception of freedom that come naturally to those who resist.

In another later piece, Bey disavows the claim that TAZ abandons past and future to an eternal present, or replaces concrete politics. Rather, it is a way to maximise autonomy and pleasure for as many people as possible, as soon as possible. TAZs have existed, and will exist in the future. Furthermore, TAZ is not the end of the line, but simply the only manifestation of radical conviviality visible today.

Bey looks back on the book as surprisingly anti-pessimistic. He suggests that the ‘hippy/punk anarchism’ underpinning TAZ is one of an array of third alternatives (to capitalism and communism) which seem to have failed or disappeared after 1989. However, he argues that TAZ as peak experience or existential condition remains important to revitalise the social. He now sees the TAZ as the last way of creating an outside, at least in the core countries. 

Bey particularly criticises the Internet, and his earlier writings on this, suggesting that it has now become a commercial/surveillance network, and emphasising the need to resist mediation. He also suggests that TAZs can be periodic (e.g. camps and holidays) or permanent (e.g. communes and enclaves). There are even ‘degrees’ of TAZness in phenomena such as hobby groups. At this point, he predicts a new movement against capitalism and the simulated or spurious world of spectacle. This movement will be spontaneous and experiential, Green, possibly technophobe, spiritual or shamanistic, ‘social’, and probably based in the Fourth World. It will vary between places, and will use guerilla tactics to liberate space and time, avoiding big confrontations. 

TAZ and the Internet

The association of TAZ with the Internet and cyberculture has been one of the major lines of promotion of Bey’s work. For example, André Lemos termed Minitel, the French proto-Internet system, a TAZ because it is self-organising and rhizomatic. However, Bey was always hesitant about virtual applications of the TAZ idea. He argued that the counter-net, or network of dissident information, needs to be expanded. The zines and BBS’s of the 1990s are said to insufficiently provide goods and services for everyday life. In a new preface from 2003, Bey argues that the discussion of the Internet is the least contemporarily relevant part of TAZ. He criticises a counterculture which now mistakes ‘a few thousand “hits”‘ for political action, and which neglects physical presence.

In ‘Islam and the Internet‘, Bey argues that the major limit of virtual politics is that the Internet can be controlled from outside. It is diffuse in its internal power-structure, but this is undermined by its connections with the wider context. Therefore, resistance also has to happen outside the Internet. An entirely virtual resistance is only a spectacle of resistance. The body must also be present in effective resistance.

However, communications technologies can organise revolutions. Bey uses the example of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which relied heavily on cassette tapes. He nevertheless argues that technology cannot overcome the cultural or religious forces of power. We need to stop reifying technology, and realise that only imagination creates values. 

There is an ambiguity in the Internet, because it is designed in a structure similar to indigenous warfare (i.e. diffuse power) to avoid destruction. It is ‘designed to be out of control‘. However, this does not render it safe or free. Those who control the means of communication have power over those who communicate. The Internet is not really in heaven, because it can be controlled from outside. As a result, it is a false transcendence of the culture-nature dichotomy.

Since the Internet can be controlled from outside, resistance also has to occur outside. Also, the controllers of the Internet will be reluctant to allow it to spread to the global majority, because of the fear of terrorism. Technology is in many ways a religious problem. The binary of good and evil prevents a technology like the Internet from bringing salvation. Indeed, communication technologies tend to become forms of mediation and separation. 

In a later work, ‘Seduction of the Cyber Zombies’, Bey argues that ‘other nets’ need to be set up alongside ‘the’ Net, otherwise it will simply become another alienating medium. These ‘other nets’ would include other patterns of communicativeness and conviviality. Indeed, the Internet today is so alienated as to be interesting mainly as a ‘romantic ruin’ – a site where old sites, coding languages and webpages are available to bricoleurs. 

In ‘Media-Space! – Opening Speech‘, Bey argues that the Internet raised social hopes because it was out of control. It is still technically out of control, but now socially under control. This is because the tiny free spaces are now dwarfed by massive multinationals. The struggle today over Internet censorship is largely between capital and the state. The Internet suits capital because it is similarly chaotic and decentred. Technologies mirror the society and economy that generate them. The Internet should be used as a tool, not imagined to be a magical answer to political problems. The Internet is molecular, but molecularity can be used against us.

In ‘A Network of Castles‘, Bey compares the Internet to Alamut. He suggests that the network aspect of horizontal politics is now easier. But the problem is in creating castles from which to network. It is no longer possible to create defensible positions, given modern military and surveillance technology. Instead, Bey suggests that unused sites may be occupied in periods of confusion and collapse, and will then be unassimilable but also irrelevant. There will be little reason for capital or the state to waste effort destroying them. (In other pieces, Bey speculates about survivalist hide-outs, underwater or underground facilities, or outer space, though he concludes that none of them seem feasible).

In an interview, Bey argues that the military made a mistake in inventing the Internet. The Internet is a machine of indigenous war (in Clastres’ sense of diffusion of power), not classical war. The Internet is decentralised, and therefore reproduces the structure of indigenous war. However, the military and corporations are seeking to control the Internet. The Internet can reproduce mind-body separation. If people don’t think about the body, desire, and pleasure, they are stuck in a mental game without real resistance to oppression. Real resistance is embodied resistance. 

Bey predicts the fusion of television and the Internet into a single, final medium which encloses and censors/moderates all discourse. More recently, Bey is reported to want to smash the Internet with a hammer. According to Knight, Wilson can’t use a computer, and doesn’t understand that the Bey identity is no longer a secret. However, in his more pro-Internet period, Bey/Wilson was reportedly involved in the Ong’s Hat hoax

Temporary, Permanent, and Periodic Autonomous Zones

Initially, TAZ is temporary for a particular strategic reason. In the book TAZ, temporariness is connected to the need for struggle against an adversary to produce intensity. ‘Successful’ revolutions risk collapsing into habit and boredom. The temporariness of TAZ is thus a way to prevent its encrustation into institutionalised socialism. Even then, Bey recognised that certain causes remain semi-permanent, if only because their adversaries are so awful. 

This strategic perspective declines after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with neoliberalism claiming to be the only possible world. As a result, recurring and permanent TAZs become conceivable. In ‘Periodic Autonomous Zone‘, Bey discusses festivals and carnival as varieties of recurring TAZ. They create a liminal (inbetween) zone between culture and nature. This sometimes reflects ecological and economic cycles. For instance, summertime gathering seems like play compared to spring/autumn farming. In this piece, Bey also argues for the re-emergence of camps, as sites for autonomous zones. Such ‘neo-camps’ will need to be disguised from the state, and provide a month or two of temporary freedom. This is better than no autonomous zones at all, giving a taste of autonomy.

In the paradoxically titled ‘Permanent TAZs‘, Bey responds to the expansion of TAZs at the time of writing. People are dropping out, disappearing, or at least creating their own networks in urban folk-culture. For instance, much passion and creativity goes into hobby networks. Furthermore, swathes of the world are now empty of substantive power, besides media and a few police. In this context, some TAZs are no longer temporary.

Autonomous groups still terrify the state – as in cases such as MOVE and Waco. Groups which can stay invisible are able to survive and avoid persecution. At this stage, Bey maintains that the system might already be dead, and spasming violently. It becomes possible to wait out the storm in autonomous zones – perhaps ‘a nice anarchist monastery somewhere’.

One variant on the TAZ is the Pastoral Autonomous Zone discussed in E(c)logues, an anti-tech type of TAZ set up for ‘ecstatic communion with Nature’. Wilson suggests that, by experiencing this state before it’s too late, we can contribute to bringing immanence into the world. Pastoralism does not necessarily imply peace. Indeed,pastoral cultures sometimes practice indigenous warfare.

In extreme cases, people end up living in stone towers and guarding their flocks with weapons. Remote mountainous regions also have their own cultures, which often involve special forms of intensity. Sometimes, everyone is considered noble. Urban pastoralism is also possible in some cities, such as Benares (Varanasi). In a poem, Wilson suggests that ‘Scythians without horses’ are like centaurs cut in half, ‘half human half nothing’, wasting 12,000 years of co-evolution.

In ‘Back to 1911: Temporal Autonomous Zones‘, Wilson argues for the reconstruction of alternative experiences based on past historical periods. This is achieved through restricting oneself to technology that existed or was possible in the period. The period he proposes is 1900-1914, the era of the ‘dawn of modernism’ which never came. The experience of this period can be reconstructed by using technologies and techniques of the period, such as letter-writing, and avoiding other technologies, such as television. 

Tongs, Bees, and Other Groups

In works written after TAZ, Bey has increasingly focused on small-scale, immediate, often clandestine groups, with the terms ‘tong’ and ‘bee’ often recurring. In ‘The Criminal Bee‘, Bey argues that TAZ and related structures rely on illegality, even when they break no laws. They break the framework of consensus reality. He advocates ‘bees’, or small-scale, task-focused groups, as the ‘only viable immediate means of realizing passional series in real-time, everyday life’. They are based on evasion and nomadism, rather than confrontation and seizing power.

However, Bey argues strongly against the reading of TAZ as an evasion, postponement or substitute for revolution. Instead, he argues that uprising, on a model similar to that of Sorel, emerges from the TAZ, which is a ‘matrix’ for it, and a prefiguration, a ‘pre-echo’. In Sorel, revolution is theorised as ‘general strike’, which is at once a future event and an organising ‘myth’. Particular uprisings and strikes serve as instances of the same energy, or as prefigurations, of the general strike. An effective TAZ in this sense should be both enjoyable and political. Bey argues that most groups are one or the other – either joyless politics or apolitical lifestyle events.

The tong, or secret society (a term for a certain type of revolutionary or criminal group in pre-revolutionary China), is a similar type of group. In ‘Black Thorn Manifesto‘, Bey celebrates ‘certain anarcho-Taoist Chinese tongs’ and expresses a wish to reproduce their ‘mutual aid webworks’. In ‘Tong Aesthetics‘, Bey suggests that the City of Willows was an imaginal space of the Chinese tong.

Bey argues that aesthetics, or style, is also important in the emergence of tongs today. A tong requires a cause and a legend. The legend is similar to a Sorelian myth – something one wishes to manifest in the world. The cause might be the Insurrection, which is prefigured in the TAZ. The legend is a passionate reading or psychological structure of the cause. For instance, it might revive radical millenarian beliefs. 

In Immediatism, Bey claims to refocus from disappearance to reappearance, and, hence, organisation. Capitalism now recuperates artistic intensity almost instantly. The tong is again proposed as an organisational form. Bey defines a tong as a secret mutual benefit group for marginal or illegal purposes. Today’s tongs may be virtually secret simply by means of avoiding mass-media attention. Avoiding the media is crucial for maintaining the power of an activity. A tong may also be selective in whom it admits, and in how much information it shares. Bey denies that this is elitist, because the group does not restrict itself so as to coalesce power.

Overcoming isolation is itself a central goal of a modern tong. Such groups also operate to mutually enhance members’ lives. They would evolve into nuclei of ‘self-chosen allies’ seeking to seize back more and more space and time for play, eventually expanding into a network and a movement, and finally a new society. However, its networking needs to be slow and corporeal

Bey later tries to systematise the different groups he discusses. They are different levels of expression of his project of ‘immediatism’. In ‘The Occult Assault on Institutions‘, he lists a series of increasingly broad groups which he portrays as levels of immediatist organisation:

  1. The gathering – any spontaneous action, such as a revolt, party, rave, or Be-in;
  2. The potlatch, or exchange party;
  3. The Bee, such as quilting bees – a group of friends meeting to work together on a project, or united by a common passion;
  4. The Tong or secret society, or its above-ground equivalent, the club;
  5. The TAZ, which can arise from any or all of the previous levels. A TAZ lasts between one night and a couple of years, but while it lasts, it fills the horizon of attention of its participants, becoming a whole society;
  6. The uprising or insurrection, in which the TAZ seeks to become the whole world.

Of these, the Tong is the highest that can be predetermined. The others cannot be ‘organised’ – at most one can maximise conditions for them to happen. In another passage, Bey argues that the social model implied by ontological anarchism is the band or gang. Whereas families result from scarcity, bands express abundance. This echoes anthropological studies of bands. 

All of the group-types listed above have a similar purpose and function. In ‘Seduction of the Cyber Zombies‘, Bey argues for a principle of group-formation similar to Fourier’s. The purpose of the group is to maximise pleasure or ‘luxury’ for its members. The cohesion of the group stems from passion, which for Bey is the only viable integrative force.

Immediatist groups are not based on ‘group-think’ or a common moral code. They are not meant to counter individuality. Instead, they are meant to enhance individuals by providing a ‘matrix of friendship‘, and combating loneliness and alienation. This type of group is both the most natural possible for humans, and the worst abomination for capital.

An immediatist group has rules of play (as a game), but not laws. It seeks to resist capture, which follows from representation. Immediatist organisations have the goals of conviviality (coming together and enhancing each other’s pleasures), creation of beauty outside structures of mediation, destruction of the ‘ugliness’ of capitalism, and the construction of values through peak experiences.

Forming such groups is itself an act of resistance. Capitalism only allows a limited range of groups, based on production, reproduction or consumption. Simply coming together outside of these categories is already a victory – indeed, it has ‘achieved virtually everything Immediatism yearns for’. This defiance of alienation and boredom will generate play and art almost automatically.

Forming such a group is a struggle, because time and work pressures militate against it. One must overcome the feeling of being ‘too busy’ for Immediatist projects – this is the whole point, to defeat the structure of capitalism which prevents conviviality. Another problem Bey identifies is the temptation to sell the art created through such projects. The temptation is strong, because it allows one to avoid work. However, it risks mediation, and hence being seen, and hence repression of the secret group. 

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.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

Leave a Reply



More Ideas

More In Politics

More In Features

More In Profiles

More In Arts & Culture