An A to Z of Theory | Hakim Bey: An Introduction

Best-known for his concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, Hakim Bey is one of the best-known anarchist theorists of the contemporary period.  In this first part of a new series, Andrew Robinson gives a background to Bey's work, and explores whether he can be considered a post-anarchist.

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Hakim Bey is a quasi-fictional anarchist theorist best know for his concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ).  He has also formulated a type of post-left anarchist theory known as immediatism.  Bey is widely regarded as a pseudonym for the writer and comparative religion specialist Peter Lamborn Wilson.  The works of Bey and Wilson can be found and read for free at a number of websites.  Stemming from anarchism, New Age spirituality and the 60s counterculture, Bey’s work provides one of the most astute recent theories of alienation and capitalism to be found anywhere today.  However his work is also extremely controversial, for reasons that will be discussed in detail in the last parts of the series.

Who is Hakim Bey?

On one level, the relationship between Bey and Wilson is clear: they are the same person.  But on another level, it is unclear.  Bey may simply be a pseudonym, or an alter ego.  For example, Simon Sellars argues that Hakim Bey is not just a pseudonym, but a fictional character.  He cites as evidence the fictionalised biography of Bey provided in TAZ.  Similarly, Greer suggests that Bey was originally a deliberate fiction.  The identity of Wilson, Bey, and the Association for Ontological Anarchy was a closely guarded secret.  When Bey appeared in a video about TAZ, he is presented in a blurred form, using psychedelic colours and patterns.  In this series, I shall assume for sake of simplicity that Bey and Wilson are the same person, although there are noticeable differences in style.

The invented name ‘Hakim Bey’ has two probable sources.  Hakim was a Fatimid caliph admired by Wilson for his heterodoxy.  Bey is a common title given in the Moorish Science movement to which Wilson is loosely affiliated.  Given Wilson’s hostility to the Internet, connotations of ‘hacking’ are probably unintentional.  Bey’s work is described by Simon Sellars as ‘a potent brew of mysticism, historical narratives, autonomous Marxist politics and French critical theory’.  He explicitly sees himself as continuing the struggle waged by Situationism and Italian autonomia.  However, he rejects the class-struggle orientation central to these traditions.  Instead, he theorises revolution in terms of the achievement of altered states of consciousness, in struggle against the dominant ‘Spectacular’, ‘consensus’ or ‘media trance’ worldview. 

In Knight’s biography, Wilson is portrayed as a former hippy and drug-user who converted to Sufi Islam during a period of exile in Iran.  He started out as a so-called ‘white Negro’ jazz fan and marijuana smoker.  He was later involved with the Moorish Orthodox Church, a mainly-white splinter from the black-led Moorish Science Temple. He was also involved with the LSD-fuelled religous activities of Timothy Leary.  When Leary’s activities were criminalised, and with a climate of repression and the Vietnam draft hanging over his head, Wilson fled the country.  He claims that he intended permanent exile.  He journeyed in Bengal, Assam, Balochistan, northwest Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  He eventually settled in Iran, referred to the Iranian Sufis by an Indian Sufi master.  After studying with a number of masters, he became affiliated with the Maryamiyya.  This was a Sufi order founded by western scholars connected to the Iranian monarchy.  Wilson was editor of the sect’s journal Sophia Perennis during the 1970s.  The price for this affiliation was turning a blind eye to the abuses of the last years of the Shah’s rule.  (Bey later associated himself with Ali Shariati, a rebel against the Shah).  At this time, Wilson also saw Islam as providing a penetrating critique of modernity.  Knight suggests that photos from this period show a ‘happy’ Wilson, contrasting with the ‘tired’ man of today.  Bey himself tells us that he converted to orthodox Sufism in 1971.  This cost him ‘seven lean years’, but also taught him a lot.  He is no longer a practising Muslim, but admires Sufism for its emphasis on immediacy. 

In 1979, he was forced to flee Iran due to the rise of Khomeini, and ended up back in America.  Most of his better-known writings appeared after this date.  The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism, appeared in various zines and as decorated fliers on coloured paper in the 1980s.  (Zines are homemade, anarchic counterculture magazines).  These were written by Bey/Wilson, but attributed to the possibly fictitious  Association for Ontological Anarchy. They were compiled, with other pieces, into the book TAZ in 1991.  Bey/Wilson has written around a dozen other books and a greater number of short pieces which have developed and modified his theory.  None of these works are as well-known as TAZ, but many offer important contributions to understanding alienation, liberation, capitalism and autonomy.

The Imaginal World

The central innovation of Bey/Wilson’s approach to anarchism and transformative politics is his focus on the domain of images and spirituality.  Bey/Wilson suggests that a Mundus Imaginalis (world or images or imagination) exists.  In this world, there are ‘imaginal personae‘ or archetypes.  This idea of an imaginal world comes from the work of comparative religion scholar Henry Corbin.  ‘Imaginal’ means that something exists in the world of images and archetypes – it does not mean ‘imaginary’.  For Bey (and Corbin), we can have relations with this realm.  In his discussion of archetypes, he suggests there are three realms – the level of oneness of being, the imaginal level, and the material level.  Myths are not authored, but fished from the imaginal realm.  As in Jungian theory, Bey maintains that archetypes express structural universals of the human condition.  For this reason, ‘lost’ religious and indigenous traditions can often be reconstructed by interpreting them through archetypes.  Such texts are not fictional, so much as polemics for imaginal initiation, which manifest a process of such initiation.  Imaginal links are actual – both material and spiritual – and not simply symbols or metaphors.  Bey’s own writing (and the Bey persona) are in this style, a type of mythopoesis or deliberate invention of a mythical system, which channels imaginative energies through images.  In one piece, Bey/Wilson advances the slogan ‘all power to the imagination‘, which he argues it still emerging as a paradigm despite setbacks since the 1960s. 

Stylistically, Bey’s writings tend to be poetic and elusive, though easily comprehensible to someone who has experienced the kind of intense altered consciousness they summon.  Even his longer works are composed of fragments.  They are suggestive and inspirational, but not particularly difficult to read.  This style is based on an ontological orientation to the imaginal realm.  Discussing mystical poetry in Scandal, Bey/Wilson argues that insight starts with a moment of pure intuition of the unity of being.  This happens at the level of the heart or spirit.  It quickly begins to form into archetypal images, which the poet then arranges into organised form.  This process both crystallises and memorises the intuition, integrating it into the self, and transmits it to others.  The poet seeks to draw the listener towards the altered state of consciousness the poet wishes to invoke.  He admits seeking to be entertaining as well as instructive.  He also writes that he has little interest in dialogue, and none in disciples – seeking instead ‘co-conspirators‘.  His style is as important as his content in conveying his ideas.  He offers readers a playful, poetic style of politics in which nothing is fixed in place and everything is open to re-use.  Indeed, he seems to offer his work to readers in this way – as a collection of items from which readers can borrow or steal at will.  His writing style sometimes imitates William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique.  Hence, something goes missing when I summarise his ideas in prosaic form – unlike some theorists, there is no substitute for reading the original. 

As readers will have noticed, my own preferred writing style is direct and literal.  I sometimes criticise academic writers for unnecessarily complex, poetic presentation which interferes with communication.  In Bey’s case, however, his style complements the substance of his work.  In Scandal, writing as Wilson, he suggests that representational language is too easy, and says too little of importance.  It activates one area of consciousness to the exclusion of others – intellect rather than intuition.  Only poetry and story can speak to consciousness as a whole.  Art is the language of rebirth or transformation.  It is associated with open-mindedness.  On the other hand, prose writing is associated with closed systems of thought.  Once an idea or image acquires representational or prose forms, it tends to fixate on categories.  It creates polemics, dualisms and definitions.  It stops expanding percpetions.  Dogmatic systems are composed of ideas, not images.  If Bey/Wilson is right, then the difficulty with some poststructuralists is not their use of poetic style as such.  It’s the fact that the style is image-light, and seeks to frustrate readers rather than open their minds.

Despite his preference for a poetic style, Bey/Wilson has also written a number of more empirical works in a more direct style, usually under the name Wilson.  These are usually histories of particular past examples of autonomous zones.  These works are closer to academic style than most of Bey’s works, but still rely heavily on imaginative reconstruction.  They often deal with areas of history where evidence is limited.  Bey’s work deviates from usual norms of historical scholarship by using imagination and interpretation to fill in the gaps.  Bey’s renderings of past autonomous zones are perhaps best read as affective interpretations. They attempt to reconstruct the zone’s lifeworld from similar autonomous affects today.  Similarly, his translations of historical texts are often approximate, and include anachronistic contemporary elements. 

Bey’s analysis of the social world follows from his emphasis on the imaginal realm.  Each group or individual lives under certain signs by which they are known, which connect the Imaginary and Real realms.  Bey sees modern power as rooted in ancient forms of magic and spirituality.  Money, television, writing and so on are forms of magic because they involve action at a distance.  The Spectacle, or the capitalist system, is a kind of trance-state produced by forms of mediatised magic or representation.  Bey often explores the ancient or esoteric meanings underpinning current institutions.  For instance, in his book Abecedarium, Bey explains the symbolism behind each letter of the alphabet.  He also provides explorations around these imputed meanings.  On a similar note, Bey does not wish to dispense with origins.  He views origins as mythological or imaginal, rather than real.  He encourages his readers to stack up or combine different origins or conceptual elements from different sources. 

Bey’s strategic focus on struggle on the imaginal level has led to accusations of ‘lifestyle anarchism‘.  Usually, such accusations are anathemas thrown by opponents.  However, there are exceptions.  For instance, Leonard Williams sees Bey’s work as exemplary of a shift in anarchism from a focus on the state to a political culture of alternative living and aesthetic practice.  This practice claims to be a triumph of life over dogma.  He suggests that Bey’s theory avoids political and educational purpose.  Instead it draws on artistic expressivism, emphasising themes of art, imagination, immediacy and experience.  Bey’s approach to all belief-systems, including anarchism, is to seek to channel their vital energy – their ‘life-forces, daring, intransigence, anger, heedlessness‘ –  while discarding their spooks, or fixed categories.  This leads to an approach in which he loots or appropriates from different theories and traditions, without endorsing their foundational assumptions.  Bey terms this ‘cultural bricolage‘, or as ‘thieving‘, or ‘hunting and gathering’, in an informational world.  He takes, for instance, passion from revolutionary socialism, grace and ease from monarchism, self-overcoming or higher awareness from mysticism. 

A non-standard type of self or subject is at the heart of this process.  In order to perform acts of bricolage, there must be some kind of selecting self.  But this is not necessarily an ego associated with a spook.  The self is the Stirnerian Unique One, irreducible to categories.  In Bey’s work, the Unique One is associated with the higher Self of mystical and spiritual traditions.  Yet Bey also suggests that the Unique One paradoxically requires the Other, as a witness or key to holism.  In his approach, the ideal is that the process of bricolage is driven by desire.  Bey’s work is deliberately inspirational.  He seeks to cause hearers or readers to reach for happiness, to purge barriers to freedom, and to open themselves to difference. 

Bey and Postanarchism

There are some who treat Bey as the first postanarchist.  This is largely due to his article ‘Post-Anarchism Anarchy’, which arguably pioneered the term.  (The title is probably a play on ‘post-left anarchy’, and suggests the rejection of anarchism as an ideology – although Bey elsewhere identifies with the term ‘ontological anarchism’).  Bey shares with postanarchism a simultaneous valuing of and distance from historical and leftist forms of anarchism.  He also shares with the tradition an interest in poststructuralism (he clearly uses ideas drawn from Deleuze and Baudrillard). 

This said, I would suggest there are important differences between a post-left anarchist position such as Bey’s and the forms of postanarchism developed by academics.  Postanarchists such as Saul Newman and Simon Critchley generally maintain that there is no overarching social system.  They embrace a strong constructivist ontology in which there is ‘no outside’ of dominant categories.  As a result, they orient politically to a practice of small transgressions rather than systemic ruptures.  They are influenced by Laclau, Foucault and Derrida, and see power as partial and diffuse.  They value reformist, non-separatist strategies.  These strategies operate on the inside of a system considered to have no outside.  Revolution and exodus are dismissed with a hundred labels (moralist, purist, abstract, dualistic, irrelevant to the people…)  The point of post-anarchist practice is not to overthrow the system, but to subvert the self, or the authority of the text.  There is thus a negative, fatalistic quality to the poetics of post-anarchism. 

Bey’s work, in contrast, is unapologetically opposed to a dominant system conceived largely as an external force which an actor can seek to resist or escape.  Its orientation is insurrectional even when its tactics are not.  A perspectival or everyday ‘outside’ is always available in the form of altered consciousness.  Derridean and postcolonial approaches also arguably value a kind of shamanic altered consciousness.  They arguably seek to attain it through the failure and dismantling of the self.  They seek awareness of interdependence and holism, the self/ego as a mere appearance, and the ethical call of the whole of existence.  Both Bey’s and the Derridean approach are broadly pantheist, but with different affective and political consequences.  Bey, like Stirner, Deleuze and Nietzsche, derives a politics of affirmation, desire, power, creativity, and ecstasy.  The continuity of true Self and divinity leads to antinomianism and affirmation of life whatever form it takes.  This leads to affects of euphoria, intensity and rebellion.  On the other hand, Derrida and postanarchism tend to produce affects of humility and lack.  They situate divinity mainly in the Other rather than the Self. 

Bey’s work influenced autonomous social movements, particularly in Europe and America, in the 1990s.  The idea of TAZ has inspired groups such as ravers, computer hackers, squatters and countercultural activists.  Events like Reclaim the Streets and Carnivals against Capital, as well as the rise of social centres and small-scale, informal political groups, are partly inspired by the idea of the TAZ.  According to Bey/Wilson’s unofficial biographer, Michael Muhammad Knight, TAZ inspired the early ‘Trips to the Zone‘ which evolved into the Burning Man festival.  There is reportedly at least one intentional community based on Bey’s theories.  There is also an event video based on the TAZ idea.  The video, like Bey’s work, uses humour, image manipulation and appeals to altered consciousness.  It seeks to ‘deconstruct, synthesise and reconstruct’. 

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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.

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