Some Quick Thoughts on Anarchist Theory After the Decline of Symbolic Efficiency

It has become a common argument among a certain school of political theorists to claim that there has been a decline in symbolic efficiency within recent political and social history. These scholars go on to argue that this period of decline is marked historically and it presents itself as a movement inward toward the political ontology of drive and away from the political logic of desire. Moreover, it represents the disappearance of the subject-supposed-to-know, that is, the subject who, because of his place within the structure of ruling, knows the answer or the deep secrets of our lives as political agents. However, what has been less highlighted by these scholars is the role that Lacan’s later work played in the formation of this theory. For example, these scholars seldom acknowledge that Lacan’s later work – which provided the foundation for this theory of the decline of symbolic efficiency – also offered a solution.

So, rather quickly, here is the problem: symbolic efficiency, for the early and middle periods of Lacan’s teaching, was an essential ingredient for the constitution of the speaking being. The subject cannot exist except as a consequence of the paternal function, a function which was expressed also in the French homophone: non-du-pere (nom-du-pere). First, for example, there was one non-du-pere which structured the subject, and then, there were perhaps many names of the father, until, finally, one could do without the names of the father. For the early Lacan the foreclosure of the name of the father results always in psychosis, madness – a fundamental impossibility at the level of speaking and language. But for the later Lacan the name-of-the-father could very well be foreclosed but only if the subject makes up for that missing father through a particular know-how (savior-faire), a know-how to make use of the semblance of paternal authority.

It is this theory of ‘know-how’ and of ‘semblant’ with which recent political theorists have seemed to avoid. This brings me, finally, to my point: anarchist theorists today stand to benefit from this missing “affirmative” component of “know-how” within the theory of the decline of symbolic efficiency. However, before addressing this possibility I want to highlight the movement of anarchist theory in the last few decades. What I am offering here is a truncated version of that history. First, during the time of ‘classical theory’ anarchists believed that there was one place of power, it was the State. This was a unitary place of power, and it was the place from which one might trace a line, a line moving in one direction, toward the great mass of people who were robbed from their freedom and autonomy by this place of power. Consequently, the political task was only to remove the place of power so that freedom and autonomy may be restored. Let us refer to this as the first moment.

I want to be clear: during the first moment the concept of “autonomy” was not at all present within the classical texts of Bakunin or Kropotkin or others. This word, and indeed this reading of classical theory, was only made available in the second period, retroactively, as it were. The modern anarchists wished to highlight the concept of autonomy and inject it into the classical texts. They wanted to present a critique of the classical concept of power, a conception of power which was no doubt present within the classical texts but which was buried, or latent. The second moment, then, was precisely this critique of the logic of “autonomy,” the logic of spontaneous self-organization, the logic of a battle against the State. However, it also became clear that there were many places of power during the classical period; it was not just the State, but also the Church, and so on. However, one thing is most certainly clear: there was a finite amount of enemies, a finite array of places of power, and, nonetheless, power was thought to move unidirectionally and only to repress. The second period was the ‘third wave’ or the period of ‘modern’ and ‘post-anarchism.’ It was the period of critique.

The period of critique found its way toward a secondary internal moment: affirmation. After the critique – and, this is essential, it was only after the critique was made that it became possible – there was a moment of rereading the tradition. The second moment took hold of the classical tradition and transformed it into a modern moment: new theorists were introduced, new readings of Bakunin and Kropotkin (and others) were introduced so as to highlight the way in which they subverted classical theory. Stirner became central, and so too did Landauer. What is most interesting is that even those who critiqued the critique of the post-anarchists, that is, even those who critiqued the reading of classical theory for having an essentialist understanding of power and human nature, joined in the spirit of the time. It was important then for all anarchist theorists to demonstrate that power is productive as well as destructive (e.g., Bakunin’s infamous claim in his political letter that destruction is also a creative passion), and that there are infinite and ever-changing zones of political contestation.

And so, the concept of ‘autonomy’ was abandoned. In the current moment, when, finally, anarchists are beginning to offer affirmative ontologies of multiplicity (fractal ontology, anarchic metaphysics, etc), we have retained a concept of political contestation that subtracts from itself any notion of a central revolution and that embraces, against any logic of spontaneous and autonomy action, only a revolution of dinner parties, friendship networks, diverse cultural production, and so on. The world is complex and the only thing that will save us is to make it even more complex, networked, fractal, and, finally, inclusive. Finally, we return to the wider frame with which I opened these notes: the decline of symbolic efficiency.

It is my claim that we are in a unique historical moment which permits us to return to the concept of anarchist autonomy and revolution with a new focus. When the nom-du-pere is no longer functioning it is possible to introduce a theory of the know-how of the anarchist: auto-nom-me. Recall that for Lacan, in his famous seminar on James Joyce, asked the question: was James Joyce mad? In other words, was he what today Jacques-Alain Miller might label an “ordinary psychotic” (or what others refer to as an ‘untriggered’ psychotic)? There is significant evidence that points in this direction, however, instead of reviewing it I will only ask my readers to consult Lacan’s seminar on Joyce, a seminar which included a prominent Joyce scholar who spoke at length about “A Portrait of THE artist as a Young Man.” For my part, I presume the thesis to be correct – Joyce stabilized his psychosis and kept it in check precisely through the production of a certain know-how, a certain know-how to make use of the semblant of a name of the father.

The anarchist knows how to make use of auto-nom-me, that is, a spontaneous affirmation of the self, which, precisely through contestation, also presents itself as an auto-non-me, demonstrated most effectively during times of contestation with police. Moreover, the anarchist, who, like the ordinary psychotic, is alert on matters concerning fashion, also knows-how to make use of the au-ton-numbre. The logic of autonomy, in any case, may be unearthed, once again, in the work of Max Stirner. Recall that Stirner invented a name for himself, a name, in fact, given to him by those around him – and he internalized it. His real name, as well as the extent of his authorship, is an enigma. Johann Schmitt did not sign his name to his major political works. Instead, he invented a name for himself, a name, as well as a figure – a figure which marks his body there on the brow. Names name me not, claimed Stirner, and, what we learn from this, is that the proper names – the names of the law – are inadequate to the task – the only adequacy results, finally, from the self-naming, which, we might suggest, is a self-naming completed very early in the life of the man.

In any case, I do not wish to partake in a detailed examination of Stirner’s project. This would no doubt be a fruitful task (e.g., take, for example, the fact that the German word for “name” appears in the most unlikely places through the text, for things that have, in many cases, nothing to do with names at all). In any case, Stirner’s entire work consists of an attempt to create a sense of self for himself, to defend, in a sense, an Ego worthy of the name, that is, a “unique” Ego which may find a place for itself in the world and which may be the supreme Ego, that is, the Ego which Neitzsche may have stolen from him. I want only to begin to mark out the new moment within which the anarchist project may be renewed, and renewed precisely by rereading the concept of autonomy. It is no longer fashionable to merely critique the concept, as we did in the second period of our scholarship, but we must rather know-how to make use of it during a period of symbolic decline.


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