continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 2.2 / 2012:

What Comes After Post-Anarchism?

Duane Rousselle

continent. 2.2 (2012): 152–154

Levi R. Bryant. The Democracy of Objects. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press. 2011.
316 pp. | ISBN 9781607852049. | $23.99

For two decades post-anarchism has adopted an epistemological point of departure for its critique of the representative ontologies of classical anarchism. This critique focused on the classical anarchist conceptualization 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 1993 when he wrote his influential paper entitled “Post-structuralism and the Epistemological Basis of Anarchism.” Koch’s paper certainly laid some of the important groundwork for post-anarchism’s continual subsumption of ontology beneath the a priori of an epistemological orientation, and his work continues to be cited as an early and important venture into post-anarchist 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 post-structuralist anarchist politics. 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 Post-structuralist Anarchism when he wrote that “[m]etaphysics [...] partakes of the normativity inhabiting the epistemology that provides its foundations.”1 Whereas Newman’s approach did not necessarily foreclose the possibility of metaphysics—at least to the extent that he began with the subject of the Lacanian tradition (wherein the subject is believed to be radically split between thinking and being)—May completely foreclosed the possibility of any escape from the reign of the epistemological. There laid the impasse of yesterday’s post-anarchism.

This impasse at the heart of the project of post-anarchism has forced Koch, Newman, May, and many others, to come to similar conclusions about the place of ontology in post-anarchist scholarship. The post-anarchists 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.”2 By dismissing all ontologies as suspiciously representative and as incessantly harbouring a dangerous form of essentialism, post-anarchists have overlooked the privilege that they have placed on the human subject, language, and discourse, at the expense of the democracy that the human subject shares with other animals, objects, and beings in the world. This epistemological characterization of post-anarchism has held sway for far too long. It is not by chance that post-anarchism, as a concept, was first formulated by Hakim Bey as an “ontological anarchism,”3 and subsequently repressed by the canon of post-anarchist authors. Perhaps Bey’s ontological anarchism also lacked the ‘rigour’ required of today’s scholarly audience and for these two reasons (at least) he has received very little credit for his inaugurating efforts into post-anarchism. In any case, I want to challenge this reluctance and revive the roots of post-anarchism.

Levi Bryant gives us a reason to believe that we can achieve the promise of Bey’s ontological anarchism without sacrificing the scholarly standard of rigour. Levi Bryant’s newest open-access book, The Democracy of Objects, is a tour de force. His book challenges post-anarchists to take their radical critique of representation a step further by questioning the “hegemony that epistemology currently enjoys in philosophy.” Bryant maintains that post-structuralism, and radical anti-humanisms, only appear to reject the subject as the locus of political agency. Their rejection is actually more of a disavowal, a replacement of the human subject with the equally human order of language or discourse. What post-structuralism attempts to elucidate is the manner in which the subject is colonized by the Other of language, discourse and social relations. What here appears as a movement away from the determining subject of humanism and existentialism is only replaced with the determining apparatuses of structures as they are conceived by astute analysts of political culture. Post-structuralism thus re-enters the anthropocentric discourse to the extent that the cultural analyst believes himself capable of conceiving the determinative structures of society. In contradistinction to the claims of post-structuralism and post-anarchism, the role of the ontologist is not to suture the gap between epistemology and the real but to de-suture it, as Bryant puts it: “[o]ntology does not tell us what objects exist, but that objects exist, that they are generative mechanisms.” Above all else, the role of ontology, for post-anarchists, ought to be a real de-centering of the subject in relation to other objects in the non-human world such that the subject becomes conceived as one object among others within a living democracy of equality. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that objects exist whether or not the subject or analyst is there to represent them: they represent themselves and are autonomous from our dictation, just as each object finds its autonomy in relation to other objects.

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 post-anarchist philosophy. At least two possibilities are now permitted. On the one hand, one could intervene into the reigning mode of philosophy, namely epistemology, by latching onto concepts from meta-ethical philosophy. Meta-ethics allows one to easily separate the ontological from the epistemological and to answer very particular questions about each in order to formulate an overarching meta-ethical position.4 Post-anarchism is particularly adept at this task because of its resounding ability to frame itself as an ethical political philosophy in relation to the strategic political philosophy of classical Marxism. On the other hand, Bryant argues that “[p]erhaps the best way to defeat [the privilege currently held by epistemology] is to shift the terms of debate.” Shifting the terms of debate is also something that post-anarchists have been very good at doing. Thus, instead of asking the question ‘how do representative ontological systems harbour concealed epistemological orientations toward the political?’ one might ask ‘do epistemological orientations toward the political always harbour representative and subject-centred ontological systems?”

The genius of Bryant’s book rests in its ability to convincingly argue for the radical autonomy of being and of objects. This claim speaks to some of the most compelling theories of the political in anarchist and marxist political philosophy (for instance, hegemony, representation, democracy, and so on) and it re-stages the political drama of our times across a much wider terrain. The fallacy of strategic political philosophy in the Marxist tradition, as Todd May quite correctly points out, is that it remains committed to a concept of power that is unitary in its analysis, unidirectional in its influence, and utterly repressive in its effect. Similarly, Bryant’s ontology allows one to argue that there is a fallacy that occurs “whenever one type of entity is treated as the ground or explains all other entities.” Whereas May’s post-structuralist anarchism moved away from the fallacy of the unitary analysis of power, whereby subjects are constituted by the influence of a single site of power, it nonetheless remained committed to a tactical political philosophy which is monarchical in the final analysis. It remains monarchical to the extent that the human world, the world of epistemology, is treated as the yardstick of democracy. Bryant’s argument is quite instructive: “[w]hat we thus get is not a democracy of objects or actants where all objects are on equal ontological footing [...] but instead a monarchy of the human in relation to all other beings.” The real fallacy is thus not against strategic political philosophy but philosophy itself and the way it has played out over so many centuries. “The epistemic fallacy,” writes Bryant, “consists in the thesis that proper ontological questions can be fully transposed into epistemological questions.” The point that Bryant is making relates to the way ontology is today always reduced to an epistemology and thereby loses its significance as a philosophical question.

This book should be applauded for its novelty and its thesis ought to be taken seriously by post-anarchists today. Because of this book, and the attendant post-continental movement that is being called ‘speculative realism,’ we can now distinguish three stages in the life of post-anarchism. First, we can deduce what Süreyya Evren has described as its ‘introductory period.’ The introductory period of post-anarchism is defined by its inability to side-step the ontological problem in the literature of classical anarchism. During this period, post-anarchism needed to distinguish itself from classical anarchism while nonetheless remaining committed to its ethical project. The second period overcomes the problem of the separation of post-anarchism from classical anarchism by re-reading the classical tradition as essentially post-anarchistic. Some of the critiques of post-anarchism—especially that from Cohn & Wilbur5—are included into this period insofar as post-anarchism, for them, was always already anarchism. Whereas the first and second phases have included only explicitly anarchist literature under their rubric of worthwhile investigation, in the third period this no longer holds true. To be certain, the second period permitted the incorporation of post-structuralist literature into post-anarchist discussions (but always with a certain amount of reservation). This third period, the one that is to come—the one that is already here if only we would heed its call—will not take such care with attempts at identification or canonization. Indeed, post-anarchism is already here, like a seed beneath the snow, waiting to be discovered. Levi Bryant teaches us that the third period is already here: and yet where is it?

1) Todd May. The Political Philosophy of Post-Structuralist Anarchism. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1997. 2.
2) Andrew Koch. “Post-structuralism and the Epistemological Basis of Anarchism” [1993] in Post-Anarchism: A Reader. Eds. Duane Rousselle & Sureyyya Evren. London: Pluto Press. 2011. pp. 23-40.
3) Bey, Hakim. “Post-Anarchism Anarchy.” 1987. 
4) I have attempted to do this in my paper on Bataille’s post-anarchism; see Duane Rousselle. “Georges Bataille’s Post-anarchism.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 17(3): in press.
5) Jesse Cohn & Shawn Wilbur. “What’s Wrong with Post-anarchism?” 2010.