The Egoist Encyclopedia

 

 [The Egoist Encyclopedia consists of slightly revised versions of columns that I first wrote for Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed. The entries will only appear here after they have appeared in that publication.]

    Writing an encyclopedia is an ambitious project, arguably expressing more egotism than egoism. But I would never deny being ambitious (and perhaps a bit arrogant as well). Nonetheless, I feel it is necessary to explain what I mean by “encyclopedia”. In the 18th century in France, Diderot, along with his friend and occasional intellectual sparring partner D’Alembert, edited one of the most famous encyclopedias of all time. In this work, he explains that this word is made up of the Greek preposition meaning “in” and two Greek words meaning “circle” and “knowledge” (“paedia” more accurately means learning rather than mere factual knowledge, but more on that later).

Diderot concluded from this that the word meant “chain of knowledge” and involved gathering together knowledge from around the globe. But I look at this etymology with a bit more whimsy. In ancient Greece (and in other parts of the Mediterranean up to the late Middle Ages), learning and philosophical discourse often took place in gardens, parks or around the streets of cities where there was still only foot traffic while the students and teachers walked around in circles. Sometimes in my more utopian reveries, I imagine a world where learning, discussion and debate can happen in a similar fashion, on long, aimless walks in an environment without the noise and threat of large machines to disturb the flow of ideas, projects and dreams. These strolls, after the manner of the Peripatetics and the Stoics, would be the “circles of learning” that encyclopedias would record. Well, I am living in a modern city. The traffic, the noise, the lack of adequate space limits the possibility for pursuing discussions of more than two or three people in this manner, and even these small discussions are usually burdened with the need to watch for the potentially deadly traffic. So such encyclopedic endeavors mostly exist only in a metaphorical sense.

     Nonetheless, if I gather most of my knowledge from books, it is the discussions I have in my circles of friends and acquaintance, or among strangers I encounter in my circumnambulations around this town and around the world, that provide me with the capacity for critical thinking that turns this knowledge from mere facts to real learning. Thus, the “circle of learning” remains the source for my ideas, thoughts and reveries.

     In this sense, Diderot is right to claim that one individual could not write an encyclopedia. The process of learning, of developing the capacity to think critically and confront the realities and the ideas one encounters with discernment and shrewdness, always involves lively interactions with others in battles of wits, learning to use thoughts and words with precision and richness. In this sense, any encyclopedia worthy of reading will always be the project of many. But unlike Diderot, I see no reason why one individual cannot choose to bring the results of this process together on paper for his own purposes, making a record of what she has drawn from these “circles of learning” to further her own projects and aspirations. In fact, if one has the arrogance and ambition, I would be surprised if he didn’t do something of this sort even if he calls it by a different name. Thus, it should surprise no one who knows me that I am taking up such a project.

     I have made several references to Diderot and his encyclopedia, because these were among the main inspirations for this project*. Although Diderot emphasizes the collective nature of such a project and describes its purpose as the gathering together of supposedly objective knowledge, many of his own entries in the encyclopedia he helped to edit stand out precisely because he goes beyond these limits. He uses humor and sarcasm to take his own entries beyond the realm of mere rote expression of what is supposedly known to a real critical interaction with the subject matter that expresses his own ideas, his personal confrontation with the world around him. This is what I intend to accomplish here. If learning is not merely about gathering bits of knowledge to spew forth as trivia, but is rather about developing the tools for critically interacting with the world, then it is an intense and playful battle of wits in which critical thinking, humor, sarcasm and mockery combine to heighten our capacities to encounter a hostile world on our own terms.

     In this sense, I intend this encyclopedia not to be a “chain” of gathered knowledge, but rather an intervention in the wide “circle of learning” that the development of anarchist theory and practice could be. So come, if you will, and take a walk with me. We might all learn something, and it should at least have fun.

Encyclopedia Entries

Egoism

Anarchism, Anarchy


* The Encyclopedia des Nuisances from France and John Zerzan’s Nihilist Dictionary also provided inspiration.

 

Egoism

    What do I mean by egoism? Before going into this, I am going to summarily dispose of two misunderstandings of egoism that I have encountered – one that is utterly ridiculous, the other a bit more understandable (especially in light of the lack of modesty among egoists).

     First of all, egoism has nothing whatsoever to do with Freud or Freudianism![1] In fact, the egoist theorist best known in both anarchist and philosophical circles, Max Stirner, wrote his central work, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum[2], more than eleven years before Freud existed and died in the year of his birth. Unlike Freud, Stirner had no interest in dividing an abstract notion of the human mind into parts in order to map it out. Stirner’s “Ich” (translated “I”) often refers to himself and always to specific, concrete living individuals, whereas Freud’s “Ich” (translated “ego”[3]) is merely one part of an allegedly three-part psyche. Hopefully, this is sufficient to dispense with such silliness…

     Secondly, egoism is not the same thing as egotism. If some of us egoists consider ourselves to be among the most intelligent, most talented, wittiest and sexiest people existing on the planet today, this doesn’t stem from our egoism, but from intensive self-analysis grounded in the cold, hard realism of our immodest dreams and boundless aspirations. And besides why would we succumb to the falsehoods of humility when, in this case, the truth serves our interests much better?

     Having dealt with both the ridiculous and the sublime, I now want to begin meandering toward the heart of the matter: what is egoism?

     Of course, the egoism I describe will be my egoism. Anything else would not really be egoism. But like all that is my own, I have taken my egoism from many different places, a few of great enough influence that they indicate a line of thought and a way of encountering the world that has developed historically and theoretically since at least the time of Stirner. So it is worthwhile to look at some of the basic ideas in this line of thought.

     A distinction is sometimes made between descriptive egoism and prescriptive or ethical egoism. The former simply declares that human beings always act in what they perceive, on some level, as their own interests. This perspective makes no claims that this process is always conscious or that the decisions are based on real knowledge of what one’s interests are; it only claims that there is always a factor of perceived self-interest in our decisions.[4] Thus far, I don’t really think that this perspective says much of interest; it’s a banality that, though unassailable, is nonetheless inadequate in itself for fully explaining religious, patriotic, maternal and similar sacrifices. Left at this point, descriptive egoism leaves an essential question unanswered: what leads people to see their interests as something external to and greater than themselves?

     Ethical egoism proclaims that if we were to consciously and willfully create our lives on our own terms, each of us would tend to live more fully and probably more enjoyably than we do when we let life happen to us. While most ethical egoists accept the basic premise of descriptive egoism, they also realize that most people live unconsciously most of the time. When people are unclear of their real interests, the latter become alienated, standardized and crystallized into values and ideals perceived as greater than any individual interest. In this form, these interests come to dominate the individual to whom they once belonged. But they don’t dominate an individual as abstractions, but in the social, institutional forms into which they solidify: the state, private property, religion, the law, rights, etc. (as well as various petty obsessions that express the deformed interests behind these institutions on the level of our individual daily lives[5]). Thus, the decision to become consciously egoist, to begin the project of grasping one’s life as one’s own, is also a decision to rise up, to create one’s life against the ruling institutions.

     The reason The Ego and Its Own stands out as the central text of egoism is that it was the first, and perhaps still the best, book to develop an egoist critique in depth. It actually wrestles with the questions raised by descriptive egoism in a forceful way and in the process develops one of the strongest critiques of ideology. And in the process it develops an egoist method that goes beyond either “descriptive” or ethical egoism, a method that uses phenomenology and dialectics in both a critical and constructive way.[6] Unfortunately, this has not prevented some people from misreading the book and developing doctrines from their misunderstandings that undermine the core of egoism.

     One such doctrine that I have occasionally encountered in Stirner-influenced literature is that which sees the “unique one” as an essence to which we must aspire, thus turning it into another spook. This reading of Stirner misses one of his central points: that our uniqueness does not exist outside us as an essence, but within us and our relationships as our existence. Thus egoism, as Stirner understood it, is neither the petty economic self-interest[7] that early political economists spoke about as a central impetus to social relationships, nor is it essentialist individualism. Rather it is an idea about how real individuals do and could interact with and in their worlds. I am going to try to clarify this – hopefully, like a clear, clean magnifying glass, and not like a mudball in your eye.

     In recent years, it seems that the very existence of individuals, of “I’s” has come into question – at least in certain theoretical circles. I am not referring here to the tiresome puritanical leftist litanies that condemn the so-called “individualism” of the most boringly conformist and standardized society to ever mar the face of the planet. These strident sermons, calling for yet more sacrifice, deserve no more response than our sneers of contempt. I am rather talking about the idea that the individual is merely a social fiction, since we are all merely products of the social reality that surrounds us. There are a number of fallacies in this. I will only briefly mention a few: 1) Those who make this argument will also generally argue that “race”, “gender” and similar categories don’t have an essential existence, but are rather merely social products. Nonetheless, they don’t consider these categories fictions, but rather social realities that have to be taken into account. Only ideological considerations can explain why the same recognition is not granted to the individual. 2) This way of thinking conflates the actual individual with the concept of the individual put forth in essentialist individualism – in other words it assumes that “individuality” means the existence of an essence in each of us that is separate from our relationships and other activities. There have been other, far more nuanced ways of thinking of the individual, among them those of Stirner. 3) This perspective forgets that society itself does not have a concrete existence of its own. It is merely a product of the activities of individuals interacting and relating in specific, generally standardized ways. In fact, it may be more accurate to say that “society” is verbal shorthand for describing the more standardized, formalized and institutionalized aspects of how we relate and interact, of how we create life together, particularly in their current, unconscious, habitual forms. In other words, this perspective is a classic example of reification, which turns the activity done into the actor, and the actor into the product. And like all examples of ideological reification, this one seems to be aimed at undermining the will to act in the world.

     I have brought up this perspective because it helps me to clarify my own egoism. Each one of us is an utterly unique being, beyond description, beyond words. This does not mean that we share nothing with any other, but rather that even the way in which each of us encounters the shared thing is unique. This uniqueness does not stem from some individual essence – that would be metaphysics and imply the possibility that we might fail to live up to this essence. Thus, it would transform uniqueness into a power above us to which we must conform, and this would require the creation of a shared, value-laden language to describe what uniqueness was, destroying it as uniqueness. My uniqueness, your uniqueness, every individual’s uniqueness originates from the fact that the endless interweaving of relationships that go into creating each of us in every moment is unique to each of us. No one else could possible have precisely the same fluctuating patterns of acting, perceiving, consuming, transforming and relating as you or I going into the creation of who she is in each moment. This has a few implications. First of all, it undermines any concept of an essential self, since the relationships that make me unique in each moment change from moment to moment. This doesn’t deny continuity, which is necessary for self-consciousness (and the ability to make decisions and act), but makes it clear that this continuity exists as a relationship with my previous uniquenesses, in other words as an action I take, a choice I make in how I interact with the world, not as an essence, a “soul”. Secondly, it makes it clear that not all relationships are social in nature. In fact, I think that the term social relationship is best applied to those relationships that seek to standardize and institutionalize our interactions in order to minimize the effects and experience of the uniqueness that is the one thing we all share in common. Thirdly, it implies not only the possibility of becoming aware of our uniqueness, but also of choosing to become its conscious creator. This is the most important factor. Within the context of society as we know it, our uniqueness seems to be an accident that happens to us. We could describe society as a buffer to prevent the negative aspects of this apparent accident, as it encounters the same apparent accident in others, from causing too much damage (at least to the larger network of relationships). This buffering process takes the form of the imposition of standardization and institutionalization upon the broader relationships that exist.[8] This creates a social system in which nobody actually gets what he desires, but rather everyone compromises to varying extents in order to minimize pain. Everything is measured; survival dominates over life. This is the petty world of the economy in which egoism is shrunk down to the atomized competition for material goods. This competition has the effect of hiding our uniqueness behind identities, the most important of which are worker and consumer (citizen runs a distant, but necessary, third).

     But we are not all content with the dominance of survival over life. And there is only one way to overturn this way of “living”. Each of us has to become the creator of her own uniqueness in each moment, making it her own. This is an ongoing activity that would continue even after the institutions that rule us have been destroyed Since this uniqueness is an interweaving of relationships that is specific to each individual, it is necessary first of all for a person to take his past as his own, using it as a tool for understanding the possibilities of the present. Then she also needs to grasp and begin to create present relationships, learning to make affinity, complicity, mutuality and solidarity, as well as hostility, enmity, contempt and hatred into conscious choices reflecting the desire for the fullest, most intense and beautiful life, a desire that insists on creating itself in each moment. And if each of us, or even a substantial minority of us were to truly begin this process of creating our lives on our terms, it would upset the stability of standardization and institutionalization. It would be an insurrection against the ruling order.

     When I speak of egoism, I mean precisely this desire to make my uniqueness, the relationships through which I come to be, my own in rebellion against the institutions that seek to standardize our relationships, to bury uniqueness under habit. Thus, I will always begin my analyses from this desire and meander with it down various paths through cities and gardens and jungles, exploring the possibilities for realizing this desire. And believe me, I’m egotistical enough to believe that I can realize this insurgent egoist dream here and now, in every moment.


[1] Sadly, this is a real misunderstanding that I have encountered. Judging from the way it is expressed, I can say with some assurance that those who make this false connection are to a person (how do I say this nicely?… fuck it, I don’t) deluded feminist ideologues who find their ideological enemies everywhere, since that is the only way to assure themselves that they are right…

[2] Which would translate as The Unique and Its Property and The Unique and Its Own, but unfortunately entitled The Ego and Its Own in the English translation.

[3] Neither Stirner nor Freud use the word “ego” in their works, but Stirner does refer to egoism and egoists.

[4] For example, the good christian is convinced that her willingness to give up immediate pleasures here on earth will help him build up “treasure in heaven” by pleasing god. Thus, though his perception of his own interests is delusional, she is nonetheless making her choice based on perceived self-interest.

[5] Stirner describes the obsession with acquiring material wealth as this sort of domination: “…an avaricious man is not a self-owned man, but a servant; and he can do nothing for his own sake without at the same time doing it for his lord’s sake – precisely like the godly man.” (The Ego and Its Own, p. 266, Cambridge University Press, 1995). I would say the sexual drive as portrayed by Sade is also such an obsession – an interest that is no longer one’s own.

[6] The phenomenological aspect of Stirner is essential to understanding what Stirner is pointing to when he uses the term “der Einzige” (“the Unique”), a reference to each of us as the creator/creature/consumer of our self and our world in each moment.

[7] Although Stirner talks about “property” quite a bit in his book, he so subverts its meaning (quite explicitly declaring that private property requires the permission of the state to exist and is thus hostile to the unique one and its “property”) that he turns it into an anti-economic relationship. This is another reason way I consider his work significant – he broke egoism loose from the economic values to which it was (and, unfortunately still is) often connected, opening the way for expansive, boundless dreams…

[8] I won’t go into how this serves a specific minority here, but if we consider that each one is acting in her own interests as he perceives them, it should come as no surprise that the process of control acts in the interests of specific people.

Anarchism, Anarchy

        As an egoist, obviously, I have no desire to be ruled. And considering the obligations involved, I would also never want to rule. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that I, like most egoists, am an anarchist. But what does this mean. What is anarchism? What is anarchy?

      In recent years, there has been a trend in certain anarchist circles to reject the term “anarchism”. This stems from a kind of lazy, quasi-magical thinking that ascribes special powers to certain words or even syllables, so that their mere presence or absence can transform reality[1]. Anarchism is automatically seen as an ideology simply because of the “ism” at the end. By replacing this “ism” with a “y”, far too many anarchists think that they have magically freed themselves from ideology. In fact, they have simply added to the trend of reducing and impoverishing language. I find both words – anarchism and anarchy – far too useful to give up either one in the name of some “anti-ideology” ideology. Yet another (real) effort, my friends….

      Etymologically, anarchism and anarchy come from a Greek word meaning “no ruler”. In their modern usage, this meaning is expanded to recognize that rule and authority have developed complex institutional forms which increase social control, and thus domination while at the same time lessening the power of any single individual to rule. So anarchism and anarchy now refer not just to the absence of a ruler, but to the absence of rule, of authority, as such.

     For me, the word anarchism refers to the history and the theoretical and practical development of all of those who have consciously pursued the destruction of all rule and authority and the creation of a world in which all individuals are free to create their lives as they desire. The term is useful, because it points out that this pursuit has been conscious and has involved specific interrelationships and influences among those involved, which has led to a flowering of ideas and practices that can critically interact and sharpen our capacities for carrying on this pursuit.

      It is possible to find ideas, events and movements, throughout the history of rule, that have opposed it. But before the 19th century, they tended to be far-flung in space and time without the means to easily bridge the gaps. This is why anarchism is usually traced back to the early 19th century when certain “socialists”[2] began to see the destruction of the state and all forms of authority as essential to the radical social transformation they desired and fought for.

     One of the first people to call himself an anarchist was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and France was the source of some of the earliest anarchist revolutionaries and thinkers[3]. It was probably also where Bakunin first encountered anarchist ideas. The ideas quickly attracted the interest of rebels throughout and beyond Europe. Both Spain and Italy developed strong anarchist movements with a flourishing of ideas and practices in many directions.

     And of course, I wouldn’t want to forget Max Stirner, whose book The Ego and Its Own[4] was perhaps the first anti-authoritarian critique of ideology. Though Stirner is not known to have ever called himself an anarchist, his rejection of the state, law, private and collective property, religion and every form of external and internal authority was to influence a wide spectrum of anarchists from Emma Goldman to Renzo Novatore, from Benjamin Tucker to the Bonnot Gang. But his real importance has been to guarantee that that there has always been at least a tiny amoralist, truly anti-ideological thread in the fabric of anarchist development, a gadfly to harass and when possible counteract the tendency to create anarchist moralities, anarchist rules, an anarchism of easy answers and guarantees.

      It isn’t my intent here to go on with a detailed history of anarchism. But if we can recognize that the various trends within anarchist thought and practice today all reflect extensions of and responses to what anarchists have said and done in the past, we suddenly find that we have a whole theoretical arsenal at our disposal: critiques of civilization from Joseph Dèjacque, Ernest Coeurderoy and Frank Brand (Enrico Arrigoni); critiques of organizationalism from Luigi Galleani and Giuseppi Ciancabilla; critiques of moralism from Renzo Novatore and Bruno Filippi; critiques of politics, industrialism, etc. The fact that these ideas have been developing within anarchists circles for so long is not interesting because it gives those of us with similar ideas a heritage[5], but because it offers us more tools, weapons and toys for developing our ideas and practices. Only an ideologue would give up such a treasure chest, free for the looting.

      If anarchism refers to the history and theoretical and practical development of the conscious struggle to destroy all rule, anarchy describes a situation where there is no rule, where the accumulation of power does not exist, has broken down or has been destroyed. Anarchist practice aims to create anarchy on a global scale, but anarchy is also a method for our lives, our projects and our battles here and now. But what does this mean?

           Anarchists want a world where all the institutions in which power is accumulated have been destroyed and all relationships of domination have disappeared. The very negativity of this desire is what opens the doors to an apparent infinity of possibilities for creating our lives. This is why the anarchist project must be essentially negative, one of destruction. To try instead to define it as a positive project, a program, is to set boundaries and transform anarchy itself into an institution to be built[6]. This bounded “anarchy” would be a mere abstraction. It would be a cause to serve, another form of domination. This is why “anarchist” programs are among the surest ways to undermine the practice of anarchy and transform anarchists into political activists aiming for an end, a final destination, for which each of us is simply a means.

     But the only ends that it makes sense for any of us to pursue are our selves, our lives and our relationships, and these ends are never reached once and for all. They are created constantly as the ongoing process of living. Anarchy is the negative project through which we destroy the social limits that stand in the way of this process of constant self-creation. Thus, it is not a destination, but a practice with which to experiment immediately. The anarchist insistence upon concrete freedom manifests here and now as what Stirner called “ownness” – the process of making one’s life one’s own against all claims made against it. This inevitably brings us into conflict with this society and its endless series of obligations and duties, and the institutions, people, structures and technologies through which it reinforces these obligations and duties. So the negative project of anarchy is a project of active attack against all these institutions, people, structures and technologies.

     And it is precisely the negativity of anarchy that I, as an egoist, embrace. By aiming for the destruction of all the concrete institutional frameworks that uphold the rule of real authorities and of ideological spooks, anarchy opens the way to an infinite world of possibilities from which I can create my life.


[1] This sort of thinking is behind the linguistic puritanism of political correctitude that has done so much to impoverish language in recent times.

[2] At that time, socialism had a far broader meaning than it does now, referring to anyone who saw a need for a radical social transformation that would bring down bourgeois society and the institution of private property.

[3] For example, Joseph Dèjacque and Ernest Coeurderoy, both of whom actually developed critiques of civilization (though not at all primitivist). Coeurderoy also influenced the situationists, particularly Vaneigem who wrote an introduction to an edition of Coeurderoy’s Jours d’Exil in the early 1970s.

[4] The original German title, Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum, literally translates as “The Unique and Its Own/Ownership/Property.”

[5] Heritages are of interest only to those who clasp to identities, and unique ones cannot be identified.

[6] This tendency to try to transform anarchy into a positive project is not limited to those who want to create mass organizations, platforms or federations. It is found wherever people begin to imagine a particular model as the way to live anarchically. Thus, when primitivism becomes more than a tool among many for developing a critique of civilization and is taken as a model, this too is an attempt to make anarchy a positive project, a program, setting boundaries on possibilities.

 

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