Monday, January 02, 2012

Anarchist Traditionalism: Hakim Bey

Arthur Versluis's recent interview (see below) with the American anarchist Peter Lamborn Wilson, who also writes as Hakim Bey, suggests that Lamborn Wilson’s anarchism is a leftist form of Political “Soft” Traditionalism.

Lamborn Wilson was born in 1945, and after developing an interest in Sufism in New York, dropped out of Columbia University and left the US in 1968. He settled in Tehran in 1970, and stayed there until 1978, editing the journal of Nasr’s Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, Sophia Perennis. It is unlikely that someone in this position would not have been a Maryami, and although Lamborn Wilson has never described himself as a former Maryami, everything about his biography suggests this. Lamborn Wilson certainly became Muslim, and still describes himself as a Shi’i Muslim, if only on the basis that he sees himself as still being everything that he has ever been. It seems, however, that he does not now follow mainstream Muslim practice.

Lamborn Wilson left Iran at the revolution, as did Nasr, and over the next seven years moved from the Maryamiyya to anarchism, publishing CHAOS: The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism in 1985 under the pseudonym Hakim Bey, which he still uses. Quite what happened between 1978 and 1985 is unclear. Part of the explanation is evidently intellectual, and Lamborn Wilson’s later views on Traditionalism are considered below. Another part of the explanation is evidently personal, as Lamborn Wilson participated in the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBA), and his first use of the pseudonym Hakim (though not yet Hakim Bey) was in 1983, when he published Crowstone: The Chronicles of Qamar, a Sword and Sorcery Boy-love Tale (Amsterdam: Spartacus). Although the Maryamiyya is reported to have tolerated some sexual behavior that mainstream Islam forbids, there are no reports of the Maryamiyya considering “man-boy love” acceptable.

Although some critics of Lamborn Wilson dismiss his work as no more than an attempt to justify his own practice of “man-boy love,” in my view that work is too substantial and influential to be so dismissed.

In the Versluis interview, Lamborn Wilson makes clear that what he now values in Traditionalism is its critique of modernity, not its “proposal” for responding to modernity. As an anarchist, Lamborn Wilson gives the state–and especially the all-powerful contemporary state–a prime position in his own critique of modernity. His own proposals lead in a number of directions, none of them revolutionary in the normal sense, given his perception that the state always manages to co-opt revolutions. He stresses that his proposals should be taken in a poetic as much as a literal sense. The most famous of them is the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ),“an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it” (TAZ, quoted in Sellars 2011). A less famous proposal, more emphasized in his interview with Versluis, is a form of “even more traditional Traditionalism” reminiscent of that of Khozh-Akhmed Noukhaev: to go back even further into the past, to before the state, to the tribe, and to the form of religiosity associated with it: individual spirituality. The tribe, Lamborn Wilson, admits, is not perfect: “Violence is real, and it will always be real, and disappointment and death are always there.” But at least the tribe is not the state.

Lamborn Wilson distinguishes between religion and spirituality, between the organized and the individual. He associates organized religion with the state, as “part of the Babylonian scam.” Individual spirituality, in contrast, is associated with the tribe, and with the ever-present rebellion of the individual against the state, which produces “countertraditions or alternate traditions,” some of them spiritual, often Hermetic. Among these  alternate traditions he counts Sufism, which is anarchist in that it  understands that “this social world is illusory.” Lamborn Wilson thus prefers Henry Corbin’s vision of “the medieval manyness of Islam” to “the rigid systems of Neotraditionalism that stem from Guénon.” Guénon, then, stands with organized religion, and so does not stand against the state, and thus Lamborn Wilson stands against Guénon and, by extension, the Maryamiyya.

Although I have described the more traditional of Lamborn Wilson’s responses as separate from the more famous TAZ, the two can in fact be reconciled: the archetype of his TAZ is the  “Republic of Salé,” an autonomous Moroccan city that flourished in the seventeenth century. Salé may be seen as a small-scale human society that resembled the tribe more than the state, and the TAZ may be seen as a transitory tribe.

Lamborn Wilson, then, is Traditionalist in his probable Maryami origins, and partly Traditionalist in the terms in which he sees the modern world–including, though this is not much emphasized, a general pessimism about the direction of history, and an apocalyptic vision of a possible future of “centuries of hideous darkness.” Rather as Evola sees the spiritual as the proper root of political action, Lamborn Wilson says that his proposals ultimately have their origin in “mystical inspiration” and “direct experiential perception.” If not the proper root of political action, the spiritual is the accompaniment of anti-state resitance.

Lamborn Wilson is furthest from Guénonian Traditionalism in the anarchism in his proposals, which derive also from thinkers in whom the Guénonians have no interest, notably Charles Fourier (1772-1837). He criticizes Guénon’s own proposals to the point of dismissing them. But even so, Lamborn Wilson can probably be seen as a Soft Traditionalist.

Leftist Traditionalism is rare, if only because the left generally stresses the practical sovereignty of the whole people, while Traditionalism stresses that the people as a whole are mostly wrong. Though a leftist more than a rightist, Lamborn Wilson does not see the whole people as mostly right, however. Membership of the TAZ is self-selecting, not universal.

Lamborn Wilson links up to two further aspects of the phenomena in which this blog is interested. One is the music scene, or rather the rave scene: for some, a rave is a TAZ. Another is contemporary Western Sufism: Lamborn Wilson is enthusiastic about the possibilities of the “Green Hermeticism” project, in which connection he has good relations with Zia Inayat Khan, who helped produce Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne, 2007, ed. Lamborn Wilson, Christopher Bamford, and Kevin Townley), for which he also wrote the introduction.

The main sources for this post are Arthur Versluis, “A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 4, no. 2 (Fall 2010) pp. 139-165, from which all quotations are taken unless otherwise indicated, and Simon Sellars “Hakim Bey: Repopulating the Temporary Autonomous Zone,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 4, no. 2 (Fall 2010), pp. 83-108. Most of Lamborn Wilson’s writings are available at My thanks to Jean-François Mayer for bringing the Versluis interview to my attention.


Christian Greer said...

It deserves to be said that Versluis' interview with Wilson is the crowning jewel of that issue of the Journal for the Study of Radicalism (vol. 4, no. 2) insofar as it was devoted to the academic study Wilson's work. Having had a back-burner interest in Wilson/Hakim Bey for a few years, it is gratifying to see more scholars pay attention to a figure I consider too important to over-look. Hopefully my comments on your blog post will give some indication as to why I believe this to be so.

You mention that not much is known about Wilson between 1978 and 1985 and to this point it is instructive to mention Wilson's relationship to Allen Ginsberg, Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs, and the rest of the figures associated with the Beats and post-WWII North American esotericism. A number of clues in TAZ indicate (Burroughs' promotional blurb on the back cover being one of the most obvious) that he was working in close contact with these figures on literary and political matters at this time. One such example is his and Ginsberg's work which appears in the NAMBLA bulletins. Another important aspect of these years- which is directly related to his work with NAMBLA but also far more expansive- is his profound influence in the grossly under-researched "zine scene" in America during this time. Essentially, this was an underground literary counterculture that emerged from the desktop publishing revolution and, in short, used the mail to form a international network of radicals of every stripe. Central here is Mike Gunderloy's zine Factsheet Five as it organized the unwieldy glut of homemade periodicals, which often contained censored or simply wildly counter-culture materials. The "zine scene" is where TAZ first appeared (as it was itself serialized in a number of zines), and similarly, the same is true for Chaos Magick, Discordianism, and The Church of the Sub-Genius (to name only a few). Of note, is his collaborations with Robert Anton Wilson, Kerry Thornley and Timothy Leary at this time and in the years that followed. Notably, that the social formations that comprised the "zine scene" was the direct ancestor of the internet relay chat that was to replace it, and study of the former would illuminate the prehistory of how the computer has come to dominate the dissemination and perhaps even practice of esoteric religion in the current period.

Christian Greer said...

My response is already violating length conventions, so I will simply say that one cannot have a full discussion of Wilson's work (which spans over thirty books, countless zines and poetry chatbooks, CDs, etc.) without mentioning the his concept of "Immediatism". His text of the same name is a wonderful amalgam of Situationist theorizing and Traditionalism which goes far in explicating his preoccupation with critiquing "technopathocracy" and the overtly "Luddite" perspective that dominates his work now.

To conclude, a few short responses to your blog post. Wilson uses the term "radical Paleolithic" to name his “even more traditional Traditionalism”. While your characterization of his work as being marked by "a general pessimism about the direction of history" may not be incorrect, it is important to note that Wilson makes clear, on a number of occasions, that he understands his work as anything but pessimistic:

"I won't say optimism because that sounds so fatuous, futile; but anti-pessimism is a nice phrase. And there's a deliberate attempt at that in the writing. Then again it's a matter of my personality, I guess, inclined towards the notion of the healing laugh to some extent." (Taken from the German preface to Immediatism)

Lastly, apropos of how Wilson self-identifies, it is interesting to note that he considers himself a scholar of the history of religion (and especially Western esotericism) and has taught alongside Ginsberg and Burroughs at Naropa in Colorado.

Once again, I would like to applaud your post and look forward to reading more on this subject!

-Christian Greer

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Thanks for this! Not only was the post fascinating in and of itself, but it also prompted me to track down and start reading Versluis' excellent essay on "Antimodernism".

ricorocha said...

back in the day ong's hat had a certain resonance associated with plw Eventually Matheny admitted that the whole Incunabula/Ong's Hat thing was a hoax concocted by himself, Peter Lamborn Wilson and Nick Herbert - and of course we see the now familiar motives of hoaxing to accomplish some "so-called" higher purpose or reveal some other "truth" which is too myopic, esoteric, illuminated, snobbish, ridiculous or whatever, to just be told in plain english in a straight forward manner. lately he appears in seven pillars guise “The artist is the archetype of the 21st century,” says Deepa Patel of the Seven Pillars House of Wisdom. Seven Pillars will sponsor “Vanishing Art: An Intimate Festival of What May Be” at the Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, August 24-28. The title comes from a series of “poetic actions” Peter Lamborn Wilson has conducted around the Hudson Valley: artworks that literally vanish after being created. In a cemetery in West Park, for example, Wilson erected a tombstone made of ice for Mary Cragin, one of the founders of the Oneida Community, the 19th-century free-love commune. (Cragin’s actual tombstone has disappeared.) This festival will also feature artists and poets: Robert Kelly, Carolee Schneemann, Dorothea Rockburne, Wendy Tremayne, Bisan Toron, Phong Bui, George Quasha, Charles Stein, and others. Each day of the gathering, Wilson will perform a work of “vanishing art,” one for each of the four alchemical elements: earth, air, fire, water.

Wilson, Christopher Bamford, and Pir Zia Inayat-Khan invented “Green Hermeticism,” a philosophy combining the practice of alchemy with the ideals of environmentalism.

Anonymous said...

The idea that not much is know about Wilson between 78 and 85 is silly. He lived in NYC, had a radio show and gave frequent talks at the Open Center.

It may be a good essay in that it introduced some people to some material but it is so full of the idea "may" that it amounts to saying nothing new on the topic and all of its possibilities are unlikely at best, mostly due to a lack of really understanding the subject when trying to fit PLW into the author's traditionalist turf.

N. Wahid Azal said...

Anyone have any opinions about Michael Muhammad Knight's recent book about PLW/HB?

Kemal S said...

When I was an undergrad at George Washington University I heard Dr. Nasr refer to Peter Lamborn Wilson not only as a former student but with a degree of familiarity implying but not outright stating a murshid murid type of relationship, he didn't outright say that Wilson was one of the Marmiyya though.

A buddy of mine who was a TA of Nasr's however did confirm to me Wilson has, at least previously, a connection to that tariqa. I've heard similar things from a couple of other Perenialists I ran into.

Christian, your points regarding Hakim Bet and Ginsberg and NAMBLA, I long ago noticed through Wilson's writings some allusions to pederasty. I was never quite sure if he was simply in jest or was serious.

Abdul Hakim said...

Professor Mark Sedgwick, in this very useful blog you had post some interesting informations about Hakim Bey and American White Converters but I think the Black Islam as a historical moviment starting from the Drew Ali's Moorish Temple of Science and "ending" in a sunni orthodox (Traditional) view (see figures in mainstream American Sunni community like Imam Siraj Wahhaj and shaykh Talib Abdur-Rashid, etc) may deserve some attention. I don't know the if the Black Islam as whole share some Traditionalist background but at least the ideas of Hakim Bey still affecting the Urban Muslim community in USA. I will be pleased to read something about this topic in your blog.