“Yes,” I said, “I teach –”
“–Computer Age philosophy,” Ben broke in.
“But his students would rather watch TV,” Ruthie finished.
I suppose, had I been on my game, I’d have shrugged and said, “America,” but at least I knew the reference. This started us on a tack about our mutual love of RENT. They’re big fans of the movie, which my wife and I saw a few years ago. We were recently introduced to the musical itself when a friend of ours directed a local production. I got to do a cameo and sit in with the band a couple of nights. Doris was so taken with it that she bought the Best of RENT CD, which we’ve been fairly obsessing over. I never, ever, thought I’d be grooving to the soundtrack of a musical, but I am.
Tom Collins, who sings the lines we were quoting, is probably my favorite character. For one, he’s named after a drink. Granted, he couldn’t have been named after just any drink — “Harvey Wallbanger” wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it, for instance — but still, he’s named after a drink. How cool is that? I also identify with him because he’s a college instructor. Earlier in the song he has the line “I’m sick of grading papers, that I know.” As a writing teacher who gets to grade a lot of papers (and whose “drinking coffee and grading papers” Facebook status updates are the stuff of legend) I’m pickin’ up what he’s layin’ down.
But he really intrigues me because he’s identified as an anarchist. We could have a conversation about whether the anarchist elements in RENT are “real” anarchism or just sentimentalized youth rebellion (a little of both — and what’s “real” anarchism anyway?), but either way, I have this thing for anarchism. This has been on my mind recently because one of our grad students approached me about directing an independent study on anarchist theory and history. I applied for graduate faculty status and got approved, so I’ll be doing my first graduate-level teaching in the spring semester, and I’ll get to do it by immersing myself in anarchist literature. That, as they say, doesn’t suck.
It’s strange, though, because I thought maybe I was an anarchist for awhile, albeit a Christian one, but I sort of gave up on it, consigning myself to being just another liberal. Then I sort of gave up on the Christian part, consigning myself to being just another godless liberal (I’ve thought about getting a T-shirt that says “I’m the liberal professor your youth minister warned you about”). So naturally I’m still going to church, at least partially because our pastor is enough of a Yoderian to be taking the church, slowly, in an anarchist direction (one of the tenets of my dissertation is that John Howard Yoder’s ecclesiology, taken to its logical conclusion and lived out to its fullest extent, is anarchist) and I find that I like that. That’s not confusing at all, right?
I’m reluctant to actually call myself an anarchist, partially because I don’t want to be one of those people who co-opts a sexy sounding word because it supposedly has some kind of cachet. Partially, too, because it is a deeply misunderstood designation, owing not a little to all those people who like to co-opt sexy sounding words because they supposedly have some kind of cachet. I’m not saying that people whose political thinking doesn’t go much beyond Dead Kennedys T-shirts and a predilection for shouting and breaking things aren’t anarchists, but they might be making things confusing for anarchists who construct their anarchism a little differently. I don’t want to be that guy.
Mostly, I hesitate to identify as an anarchist because I don’t really do anarchist-y things. I lack a taste for the theater of protest. I lead a fairly conventional (if quasi-agrarian) bourgeois life. True, I drink fair trade coffee and have latent suspicions of authority and property — as well as a deep-seated disdain for capitalism — but it manifests more in a refusal to take things like authority or property (mine or anyone else’s, on both counts) all that seriously than it does any desire or effort to overthrow anything. Mine is a sort of bemused nihilistic anarchism, and I’m not sure that has much street cred.
Another reason I don’t really embrace the moniker is that I don’t think an anarchist society is practical. I don’t mean to say that “anarchist society” is an oxymoron — one of the horrible clichés people almost instantly reach for — but that a) there’s no way we’re ever going to get enough people behind the idea to make significant progress toward it; and b) it seems like the sort of thing that would be all too easy to fuck up if we did. In this I find myself siding with Jacques Ellul in Anarchy and Christianity:
The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society—with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities—is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible. (19)
Ellul’s assumption that anarchism means “no organization” strikes me as naive, but the gist of things is that the fight (such as it is) is important but somewhat hopeless, at least in human terms. Here Ellul has a theological resource — eschatology — that I don’t: Ellul can look beyond our human hopelessness to a God-centered hope that things will turn out all right after all.
Ellul saw Christianity and anarchism as compatible, but he still tended to hold them slightly apart. There are more nuanced and integrated forms of Christian anarchism, such as that which characterizes the Jesus Radicals, and what I find fascinating is how close this anarchism comes to recognizing its own contingency. Christian anarchism seems uniquely poised to recognize that Empire is not going away. It may change — or merely change hands — and there may even be revolutions, but there is not going to be some glorious revolution that ushers in, finally and fully, the world we long for. Not, at least, through human agency. Not without a divine inbreaking, one that Christians look toward as the telos of history.
The opportunity here is to recognize that anarchism and radical Christianity and other forms of resistance to Empire are nevertheless parasitic upon Empire as the thing they need to kick against. There is no pristine or primordial anarchist site that has been obfuscated by Empire; there is only the negative space that is always already defined by Empire. The Christian anarchists may not agree with this (it probably doesn’t sit well with theological realism), but I think they can nevertheless help us to see it. Christian theology veils this in apocalypse, which allows us to draw closer to it.
What this suggests is that if anarchism isn’t practical, in conventional terms, it is a least practicable, in small communities and small ways. In fleeting and furtive moments. In the refusal to wield power or the decision to use power outside of approved channels to help those with no access to power. When our pastor was a junior staff member and thought things might be headed in the direction of him taking the helm, he balked a bit; being “in charge” was antithetical to his vision for the church, and even being in the kind of church that had positions of power was already problematic for him. I encouraged him to take the mantle as a way of occupying the place of power, which the community sees as necessary, in order to give power away. It’s a little like having an anarchist mayor in Reykjavik; it sounds oxymoronic, but it’s not, necessarily.
Another illustration that comes to mind is an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [special H/T to Tony Hunt for helping me remember the details of this episode]. In the story, an unfamiliar ship docks at the station in need of repairs. The ship’s lone operator, of a previously unknown species called the Tosk, manages to strike up a friendship with the station’s chief engineer, O’Brien, but also gets in trouble for snooping around the weapons stores (for which he refuses to offer an explanation) and lands in the brig.
Eventually another unknown alien vessel comes looking for the Tosk. They are not the same species, and it turns out they they are hunting the Tosk, not in a law enforcement or bounty hunter kind of way, but in an English-gentlemen-out-with-the-hounds kind of way: the Tosk is their prey. The Tosk are bred, in fact, to be exciting quarry and honored for their cunning in evasion. The captive Tosk is bound by social custom to be the hunted, and in getting caught alive (facilitated, of course, by his being held in the brig) he faces humiliation. The station is prepared to hand him over to his pursuers.
O’Brien is scandalized by this; he realizes that the Tosk was interested in the weapons as a possible hedge against his pursuers, and finds the idea of hunting a sentient race repugnant — but the Prime Directive (which, in some ways, represents the logical outworking of liberal “tolerance”) prevents him from interfering with the social customs of these other races. The Tosk could ask for asylum but he refuses; it would only be further indignity and a violation of his code. He would rather die with honor than evade his fate, even though the means for that evasion are available.
O’Brien takes things into his own hands and launches a plan to help the Tosk escape. The plan succeeds, and the Tosk is freed, in not in O’Brien’s sense of what freedom would be, but to continue the hunt without further loss of honor. O’Brien, however, must be reprimanded for violating orders — for violating the Prime Directive, in fact. He is called into the station captains’s office for a dressing-down. As he accepts his reprimand, he pauses to admit puzzlement over one aspect of the plan: at a certain point he was certain it would fail, but the force field system he thought would stop them was curiously slow to engage. The captain, Sisko, says suggestively, “I guess that one got past us,” and the two exchange a knowing look.
The Tosk’s escape is a violation of the law but not of the social code by which the Tosk lives. He cannot accept asylum but he can accept O’Brien’s offer of outlaw justice. He is restored not to freedom as we might think of it but to the life for which he is bred and to which he seeks to return. Sisko is required by the law to reprimand O’Brien and does, but in the process it becomes clear that he not only secretly approved of O’Brien’s actions but also played a role in making sure those actions were successful.
Of course, there are ideologies and social constraints that are upheld, to a certain extent precisely through this violation of the law (Žižek would have a field day with this), and in no sense are O’Brien or Sisko enacting an anarchist society or articulating an anarchist theory. But they are working in the negative space of empire to offer aid to the oppressed on the terms of the oppressed. It is a fleeting anarchical moment.
I’m not one for affectation, and I’m a bit stubborn. I’m not going to try to be something that doesn’t seem organically a part of the life I’m actually living. But already this is a problem: that life, and my sense of what might be “organic” to it, is already enculturated, already formed and shaped by middle class America, by liberal democracy, by neoliberal capitalism. To go with the flow is to accede to it, to be caught up in it, to be held in bondage.
Maybe I need to take myself a little more seriously as an anarchist thinker instead of hiding behind nihilistic bemusement. Maybe my dissertation can be — or be parlayed into — a contribution to anarchist thought. Maybe I need to open myself to praxis: especially those fleeting moments, but also opportunities to show solidarity with other making similar efforts, and even when those efforts make me feel vulnerable or require me to publicly take sides (or, God forbid, a stand on something).
This is the sort of thing I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s not running naked through the Parthenon or anything, but it’s something.