The Generality of Anarchy: Notes Toward Three Modes of Flexibility and Artaud

by Aaron Dowdy
Apr 25, 2017


So I want to look at the concept of anarchy, and in particular how we might begin to think of it in relation to the concept of flexibility, or even itself as a flexibility: the usefulness of this interpretation and the dangers of it.

Anarchy, on one hand, though always relevant in some capacity — and today perhaps it is needed even more so as a ground on which to generate movement — remains an elusive characteristic that seems hidden, in the background. The word “anarchy” of course immediately carves out space for itself, people flee from it, deride it. This is fine, because the anarchy being expressed here is not a program, not a counter movement. It is the space in which contradictions can be leveled — existing actively. I will get into this. But people shy from it as a concept because even if one adopts a sense of anarchy — a sense of statelessness — any relation within it seems enough to always formulate a sense of rules immanently in front of us, external to us, which is an “-archy.” This is the sort of general space I want to open up: anarchy is a stateless space of relations but the very recognition of a relation — any relation — is often enough to refute statelessness. Thus, anarchy eludes its place as a general theory (of the social, of the individual, for economics, aesthetics, and historically for politics).

Flexibility, on the other hand, is a sort of catch-all, an evasive characteristic, where a beginning to use it requires the noticing of it in far-reaching, unexpected corners. It’s a cockeyed plaything for corporate culture and marketing, a register for the social as a mode of connectivity, and it is a psychological opportunity for repression barriers and inhibition. It is a general theory for the organization of potential in a world, semi-passive, semi-active, but always involved in something.

The question is, then, how can anarchy and flexibility be thought together, and what’s the point? Anarchy is stateless, and flexibility implies that it could be stateless but also could be stateful. My position here is trying to articulate that flexibility has come to serve as a stand-in for anarchy without the affiliation of being so, and also that flexibility’s relation to anarchy is becoming distant, wherein flexibility is a mode of normalization and homogenization: the best example being neoliberalism, but also arts criticism and publishing can be understood as using flexibility as a model to generate infinite variations on a theme.

Thus, it’s important to pull back anarchy and flexibility to a place of resistance. Anarchy, in a state of resistance, is an anti-vertical process: the image of verticality, the power relations in verticality, the sense of transcendence, and the regimes of self-actualization, or higher levelings of being. Instead, anarchy (without the political context, but more as a social theory) is a flat theory of social relations, the horizontalization across any seeming vertical relation. Hierarchy flattened. Thus, a theory of anarchy is a planar theory. It is about relations, intensities, production without the categorical, without the kind of systemic relationality that deals in closures and endpoints. The resistance here is the resistance of forcing all relations into limited relations, or even no relations.

Rolando Perez in his work on anarchy, tries to arrive at its conception through thinking of Nietzche’s “jenseits yen zeit” or “beyond” to get beyond binary opposites — which is Derrida’s project as well — and to ultimately live “no-where” — in short, it is at once to think of a non-political and non-structural anarchy. Otherwise, we are to think hierarchy, or active and reactive forces. In anarchy, there are differentiations, instead, of active forces. This requires, which is the aim of schizoanalysis, an uncoding of the individual — a becoming anarchical. This invites the question: is an individual coded through the presumption of reactive forces? We might not get to this point, but it is worth asking in this context.

So in short, before moving on to a broader discussion of flexibility, I would like to just pause and consider anarchy as a mode of being, as a material network of relations, and especially as non- reactive space, what should be called “no-where.” why is it important to be having a conversation about anarchy, and further — for the critic — is a discussion about anarchy counter to its project? Again, no, anarchy is not a program, it cannot be commandeered; it is not a product of a will to become an Anarch. It is merely a starting point for talking about intersection, temporary opportunities for organization, of a stateless backdrop upon which any unification must be registered. Anarchy is not a structure, not a politics, but a registration of differences. To decontextualize, or to notice samenesses inside of difference — what is primarily being referred to as flexibility currently — is the Spinozian, univocal and anarchical space of attributes infinitely forming and deforming — Spinoza the preeminent anarchist here. This is how we can have dissensus on the same plane. Questions of ethical anarchism — in the vein of Bookchin —would suggest that active autonomy be concerned with finding a space on that plane where one’s actions are more connective — risking ideology, though nonetheless important to the project. To avoid ideology but keeping with the geo-analysis of anarchy as a spatial consideration, I move now to think of flexible anarchy, not as an opposite to ethical anarchy, but merely as a different position on the plane, about that position on the plane.

3 Flexibilities

Flexibility can be seen as the ubiquitous stand-in for becoming-anarchical. Flexibility can be viewed as an experiment in producing “no-where” actively. But without anarchy as its constitution, we arrive at a constructionist mode, i.e. something like an interpretative flexibility — a central concept of social constructivism in science and technology studies — where objects are formed by makers but do not determine those maker’s actions, rather they allow for flexible accounts of how they are to be interpreted, and subsequently how other objects should be designed for further flexible interpretation. Instead, I want to continue thinking of flexibility as a co-composing registration of difference; by this, I merely mean that flexibility is the act of admitting inconsistency, no matter how minor and especially so, for it is in the minor that we begin to burrow, to differentiate. Otherwise, with major sites of differentiation, flexibility becomes a slower blobbing, a murk. But flexibility has been used also as conceptual frame against that murk, that day to day encounter with slow, impossible drudging — used as a bait, to get excited, to get moving.

I want to explicate three flexibilities now, three modes in which flexibility has come to be known in this way, and then relate them to a thinking of anarchy.

Firstly, there is the definition of flexibility — “to bend without breaking.” Paired with anarchy, this could be read as a flexibility out of a stable state, and into an unstable state: a tense state, a flexibility into the anarchic from a presumably non-anarchic state.

Secondly, there is the definition — to take that which is out of shape and mold it to one’s desire. In other words, make that which is seemingly unrelated relatable — due to its flexibility. Paired with anarchy, we get a sort of inverse of the first, wherein the unformed unstable state is made to seem stable — a flexibility out of the anarchic into the structure.

The issue with these, though they are necessary, is their reliance on pre-constituted conditions: the first must enter into anarchy, the second is anarchic but escapes it. Neither of these flexibilities really commit to anarchy as a general theory.

The third, the most controversial, is the definition — “to yield, flexible enough to take an order.” Now in a political, structural context this would obviously refer to a hierarchy, to a passive recipient of orders and the agility to transgress that order into its intent. Instead, I want to posit a thinking of this into something potentially more radical — this anarchy is about active components, infinitely active components as a basis, stateless because of their activeness; thus, any form they take (meaning order, taking an order from the anarchy of materials) must be flexible to even have form at all, the step beyond flexibility is not static formation, but the void. In short, to take an order is not a matter of subordinance but of material formation — an anarchy — and maintaining that order is itself anarchy, requiring a flexibility to withstand.

Okay, to conclude this, I want to just reiterate a question of “what’s the point of talking about this?” My position is that we are using flexibility as a stand in for anarchy, but also that there is a confusion when doing so. Does it mean that we are flexibly dipping our pen in the anarchy of the world from more regular states of order? Or does it mean that we have anarchy as our base and we flexibly find activity in happenstantial order? Okay, my position is the third flexibility, which has us co-composing a flexibility within an anarchy, taking order and flexibly withstanding it, vis-a-vis Spinoza’s conatus.

Even though I have focused on anarchy and flexibility as physical worldings, they are nonetheless important for our moments: they remain starting points for understanding the temporary nature of organization, and the capacity for those organizations to be intense and affective — not unlike Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, but here I just want to iterate the generality of anarchy, in order to notice flexibility not as a telos, or endpoint, but as a process of withstanding anarchy… it is our ability to wander away from certain absolutes, because it is possible… Thus, I want to end with a less abstract — or perhaps more abstract — consideration of anarchy and its relation to flexibility found in Antonin Artaud who was a great thinker of anarchy and, I dare say, flexibility.


With Artaud, as noted by Leslie Anne Boldt-Irons, his version of flexibility and anarchy (which instead of being called flexibility is here called androgyny) would be to practice an anarchy that is somehow ordered enough to prevent its own death. This the divide of flexibility and the void — no permanence, just flexible withstanding within a void.

  1. “Because it has broken with that spirit of profound anarchy which is at the root of all poetry. It must be granted that everything about the purpose of an object, about the meaning or use of a natural form, is a matter of convention.”

With this anarchy — a total breakdown of reality through poetry — we are working in the realm of a “bend without breaking” flexibility, wherein reality, which seems to be some state that is unbroken down, is being bent. Whether or not is bends without breaking is another question. Another example of this is: “poetry is anarchic insofar as it calls into question all relationships between objects and all relationships between forms and their meanings. It is also anarchic insofar as its appearance is the consequence of a disorder that brings us closer to chaos.” Clearly, in other words, he means to bend, to wander away from the center of meaning.

  1. Here, flexibility is in its second form — a flexibility to mold, or con-form — wherein something external is brought into a desired organization. Here, in Artaud’s way, it is the reverse… order is the unreason, and normal logics are anarchy. This is perhaps a radical point to take from rethinking flexible anarchy over something like ethical anarchy, for the normal logics of organization are “yenzeit,” they are beyond, the introduction of unreason here is our molding of the beyond, a flexibility.

Another example of this is: “In the eyes of youth, it is reason which created the contemporary despair and the material anarchy of the world by separating the elements of a world which a real culture would bring together.” Here, “reason” is the mold, whereas “real culture” is a flexibility with the material anarchy and the process of molding.

  1. “He doesn’t know that the nightmare is the introduction of unreason by way of the void, is the anarchy in the inherent and normal logic of the brain, is the poison put into its well- being, is an intervention from top to bottom”

“Our anarchy, our mental confusion is a function of the anarchy of everything else-or rather, everything else is a function of this anarchy.”

This kind of anarchy is flexible in the third sense — the withstanding of material anarchy through its order — wherein “mental confusion” perplexingly equates “taking order,” or in other words our mental confusion as an anarchy is the engagement with flexibility, with surviving the void, because even the conceptualization’s formation is assembling in an anarchy — unrelate substances, spaces without context, people without interpretive capacities, impossible languages and translations.

In conclusion, Anarchy is a stateless space of relations, and flexibility is the variation in statelessness. I’ve named three: 1. flexibly becoming anarchic from a general state of hierarchy, 2. flexibly becoming hierarchic from a general state of anarchy, and 3. flexibly withstanding anarchy, which is to be understood as a material worlding. Artaud is a great thinker of these modes, which perhaps is best found in his work “Heliogabalus, the crowned anarchist,” which is about the life of the Roman king. When Heloogabalus appoints a dancer to head his Praetorian Guard, he is establishing a kind of “incontestable but dangerous anarchy.” He is flouting the cowardice of the monarchs, his predecessors, the Antonines and Marcus Aureliuses, he is expressing the opinion that it takes no more than a dancer to command a troop of policemen. He is calling weakness strength and theater reality. Heliogabalus may have violated Roman manners and customs in any way he chose, he may have cast aside the sacred Roman toga, put on the Phoenician purple, given that example of anarchy which consists, for a Roman emperor, in adopting the costume of another country. Heliogabalus fired the men from the senate replacing them with women.

I do not want to think of flexibility as anarchy able to be organized, or organization able to become anarchic. I don’t want to think of little anarchic objects, or little organized withstanders. I merely want to assert here a general theory of anarchy which is concerned with how something might flexibility withstand the anarchy of the material world. For Heliogablus, he played with the world: it was theatre. But it can be anything, for all that withstands withstands through anarchy.