Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tangible Examples

Freedom and authority are ideals, and they serve us well when we're having a certain kind of discussion. That said, we don't live in a world of ideals; we live in a world of practice, material, policy, and routine. So what do freedom and authority look like in this world?

One of the most pleasing analogies for the defender of authority is that of the orchestra. Of course, like all apparent hierarchy, this authority is often misunderstood by the layperson. The performers in the orchestra are each well-trained and well-versed in the material, and their abilities are greater than an unknowing observer might guess. That said, the orchestra conductor does play a vital role.

Does this defend authority, direction, and hierarchy?

If it does, then what are we consider when we see a group of musicians with no apparent leader? What when we perceive a different tradition of musical performance, one in which there is no program--this is thoroughgoing anarchism, not just absent a personal authority but a textual authority, as well! Improvisation in groups is a remarkable example of freedom, order in chaos, the kind of anarchism we might hope to achieve elsewhere.

You can see this heavily throughout the arts. Consider improvised theater, sometimes clumsy but often improved with practice, consider both the authorities of the director and of the text. When can these be checked by the talents of those who do the work, of those who build the set, design new blocking, those who perform, those who assert new interpretations. Consider those who develop new lines on stage, consider their multiple motivations--to ease another's lapse of memory, to play up material that works for the crowd. This is distribution of power! This is real politics, and you can learn from watching it and learn from taking part in it. What if an audience put on a show of its own?

And what if mental health patients, or those who have experienced trauma, or those who are sick from addiction or terminal disease--what if these people conducted their own therapy? This happens all the time. It should probably happen more often, but when you find it you realize that freedom doesn't have to wait until we topple all the top-down psychologizing, the asinine positing of meaning for and about others, or the imperial science of dictation and predetermination. With each display of improvisation, devolution of power, and individual ownership, there is a meaningful example of what I or you or we want to create.

If I talk about freedom, I believe I have a duty to find tangible examples of liberation, increased freedom, and seizure of power and generalize these examples.


  1. I don't know if you're obligated to generalize examples, but I'm a fan of your improvisation on this theme.

  2. I think it's important for anyone interested in anarchism, either to support it or critique it, to recognize one very important distinction first and foremost: authority vs. leadership. Leadership is a conductor orchestrating a performance, because he or she has the vantage point and skill set to hear the piece as a whole. Authority is that same conductor dictating the compensation and terms of the orchestra's labor. Failure to absorb the difference is, I think, why workplace hierarchies are so profoundly idiotic.

    To take that most generic of examples: say you work at a widget factory, and it's widely recognized that one worker is particularly skilled at making widgets. You might want to ask this person for advice and assistance in improving your widget-making skills. Everyone's productivity improves, blah blah blah, so goes leadership in a syndicalist workplace. Capitalist hierarchy takes this particularly skilled laborer out of their skillful role, puts them in an office to sign timesheets, make schedules, boss people around, things this person has demonstrated no capacity for. It boggles the mind that anyone believes this fosters efficiency.

    Also, I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the few true anarchist workplaces in the Western World are found in artistic communities. I'm thinking of places like the Dial House or the Trumbullplex. The artist is often in direct control of his or her resources and creative output from the get go, so it's relatively easy to recognize that no one else need take a cut of your labor.

  3. Thank you, Jack.

    And Dan, this is my short-hand. Leadership can exist if authority is shared. One-way authorship is domination; give and take is mutual authority. This can be found in the right of the led to check the leader, nominate a new one, or devolve and act on their own initiative as the case dictates.

    Thanks for the comment; you make a good bit of sense. There is also a downside to artist anarchy; I believe that a lot of that independence means that you can have a lot of petty dictators, too. After all, they made it, right? (The profoundly talented Kubrick was notorious for this kind of disdain.) That's a dualism that's present to the Romantic roots of modern anarchy, I believe. Authoritarianism is an anarchism for one.

    That said, pitfalls don't invalidate a positive example so long as we acknowledge them.

  4. "Authoritarianism is an anarchism for one." I hate to nitpick, because I actually like this expression so damn much, but for me anarchism, in addition to being freedom from the force and coercion of others, is a freedom from your own force and coercion. Just look at PTSD in soldiers to see how burdensome one's own acts of institutionalized oppression can be on the mind.

    Couldn't agree more about Kurbick, though. I always felt his art suffered as a result of his inhumanity. As much as I love New Wave, auteur theory is total bullshit, and similarly problematic to a lot of workplace dynamics in assuming we can objectively determine whose contributions are more valuable than anyone else's. You'd think especially in the creative fields there'd be an appreciation for the intangible.

  5. I am really partial to the improvisational theater analogy.

    I like to think that I learned from the best, one who imparted the wise and effective tradition of "Yes, and..." This was/is not the dictatorship of acquiescence, but striving for cooperative recognition of the others' contribution to a scenario, and playing to build upon that.

    It is more and less than simply saying yes to whatever is thrown at you. It is less words, and more pinpointing the play within the play at any given moment on stage.

    Conversely, another aspect is status. Status relationships permeate all interaction in theater as well as life. Learning to recognize these in performance is liberating; one can learn to spot all manner of subtle or overt and unconscious or willful power plays.

    It's may not be a group therapy to cure society's ills that some would purport, but the recognition factor alone goes a long way.

  6. Dan, if anarchism means freedom even from the oppression of your own mind, then anarchism can never be realized. We will always be hindered by our own ghosts, myths, and fears, and while we may fight against these in order to liberate ourselves from without, we will never be completely freed from the threats of our own power. That's the danger of autonomy.

    And I don't know if PTSD in soldiers is an apt argument. Does Obama lose sleep in that way? I think that many agents of oppression suffer because they are themselves oppressed.

    Dan and davidly, thank you for the thoughts. I don't believe that art automatically will save us, but I see it as playing a powerful role in our own psychology. It's one of the few rituals we're willing to remake.

  7. Yeah I don't think anarchism means freedom from oppression of the mind, not sure where you got that from. Just freedom from institutionalized oppression, a not insignificant result of which is an end to the mental torment on the agents of institutional oppression themselves.

    Forget Obama's sleep habits, would you feel comfortable sitting atop an "anarchism for one"?

  8. A hell of a lot more comfortable than I would holding it up.

  9. Dan, let me see if I can overcome my confusion here. You wrote:
    "...for me anarchism... is a freedom from your own force and coercion. Just look at PTSD in soldiers to see how burdensome one's own acts of institutionalized oppression can be on the mind."

    And I think it's a terrific example; I just see agents of oppression as likewise caught up in oppression. They have a lot more choice than the recipient of force at the time they deal it out, but elsewhere they are as much subject as any other. The true authority, as I say, sleeps much more easily.

  10. Yeah, I don't disagree with any other that. I would just think the "true authority" sleeps easier because of the emotional and physical distance they put between themselves and their atrocities, not because they themselves aren't oppressed. But of course the reason they can create that kind of distance is because they aren't oppressed.

    Or maybe it's just because they're all a bunch of raging sociopaths.