Saturday, July 09, 2005

Book Report: Immediatism

Hakim Bey is as free as water and as undefinable as the taste of absynthe. The pen name of Peter Lamborn Wilson, Bey has written a number of essays on topics varying from pirate utopias to pederasty to Irish hashish users. There are deep strains of anarchism and sufiism running through his work, tied together by an interest in spiritual growth outside of hierarchical structures. Bey tries to attest to all the sorts of freedoms we would be allowed in a world if Nietzsche and the mystics were equally correct and his works are about as challenging as that might suggest.

Here Bey continues picks up on some of the themes from his book Temporary Autonomous Zone, trying to figure out how to live an unmediated life in a mediated society. His argument is that artists have a particular responsibility to eschew the further mediation of high-technology and capital and should be aiming for a more secretive way of exchanging art, similar to a clandestine quilting bee. The idea that all experience is mediated is, of course, nothing new; in fact, it goes back, at least to the Romantics. In recent years, it has become something of an accepted fact in the academy, due to "French theorists" such as Michel Foucault or Jean Baudrillard. Bey shares some ideas with the theorists, but completely sidesteps their more dismal conclusions. He yearns not for the "peak experiences" of violence, but for the peak experiences of intoxication or religious or sexual transcendence. There's a pragmatic aspect to Bey's work. He seems to believe that, okay, we will never live in a way that is unmediated or completely free of someone else's control. But, there are numerous cracks, uncharted regions, in which true ludic freedom can occur. If we chose not to explore those spaces, we can blame no one else. Unlike Foucault, whose ideas seem to offer no hope aside from the delirium of random violence, Bey sides with the secret societies, potlucks, potlatches, gypsies, home schoolers, Kallikaks, and countless others who have lived outside of control without even realizing what they were doing. He'd rather be a smuggler than a sadist. Therefore, his work is infinitely more enjoyable to read than the theorists.

Essays here include the title essay Immediatism, Bey's manifesto calling for a sort of art that would be free of capital or technology, and therefore all-but invisible to most of society. He explores secret societies by detailing the little-known Chinese organization The Tong and plans An Immediatist Potlatch. There's a humor to these essays, but their goal is serious; Bey is not ironic and actually rightly describes Baudrillard as "an ironic hyperconformist". Bey wants real freedom; right here and now, and has little time for cynical jokes or boring meetings to discuss and plan the new society that will never come.

This has put Bey at odds with several leftist writers. Murray Bookchin wrote a devastating review of T.A.Z. in which he argued that Bey's ideas amount to lifestyle choices with little outside impact. This is valid, but I think Bookchin overlooks the aspect of the writing that corresponds more with centuries old gnostic religious ideas than 1950s leftist organizing. Bey has no interest in a "dictatorship of the proletariat" or a dictatorship of any sort. He has no interest in the clashes that are always called "inevitable" or even in the (always postponed) revolution. His books seem to most anarchists to be about "lifestyle" because they're about living.

A second criticism of Bey's work is much more difficult to answer; namely, he takes Max Stirner's position that the libertarian should exorcise all his own moral beliefs to its logical, but troubling conclusion by advocating gay male relationships that are indeed common in certain Sufi tribes, but which amount to pederasty. There is no mention of "boy-love" in this collection, but some have argued that... well, Wilson really meant what he said is T.A.Z. and is indeed a pedophile. The question troubles me because I find molestation repellent, but to this date, Wilson has never been accused of any actual incidents and the book can still be read for its own merits.

This is a fascinating book, and perhaps the easiest way into the oeuvre. The writing is gorgeous and reads much more like Ginsberg than Kropotkin. Bey is the spiritual heir to the beats, the surrealists, the shaman and the cave painter. Like them, he challenges us to recreate our own reality in a more vivid key. Bey believes that art has the power to remake the beholder, and attempts to teach the reader how to remake himself however he would like.

1 comment:

Robert P. Helms said...

This a very fine review of Immediatism. As a longtime critic of Hakim Bey I'd like to add that neither Murray Bookchin nor his opponent in argument (L. Susan Brown) were aware of Bey's pedophile writings when they angaged in their well-known debate on "lifestyle anarchism" during the mid 1990's. I asked both directly. Both were disgusted by the revelation.