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NOYS, Benjamin. The Savage Ontology of Insurrection: Negativity, Life, and Anarchy
Article published on 14 January 2012
last modification on 29 November 2015

by r-c.
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Instead of the brokering some kind of forced liaison between anarchist thought and poststructuralism, what I want to do here is to probe a shared origin, a common genesis, of certain currents of insurrectionary anarchism and contemporary theory (to avoid the loaded word ‘poststructuralism’). Insurrectionary anarchism is that ‘strain’ (to use an appropriately viral and violent term) of anarchist thought that dictates the rejection of existing organisations, uncompromising negation, and the immediate destruction of all external forms of power and control in violent insurrection. [1] I want to trace how this thinking emerges from the same post-Hegelian legacy that also forms and structures contemporary theory: a legacy constituted by the rejection of Hegelian ‘synthesis’, the valorization of the power of the negative, and a radicalized discourse of life. In particular, what is shared is Michel Foucault called, remarking on 19th century thought, a ‘savage ontology of life’, in which ‘Life’ exceeds and erodes all forms of constraint and representation. [2] Therefore, the proximity of insurrectionalism to contemporary neo-vitalist theorisations is not a matter of serendipity or chance, but instead the result of a common problematic, even if the responses take wildly divergent forms.

To be clear, I do not endorse this ontology. The ‘disjunctive synthesis’ between insurrectionalists and politicized neo-vitalists seems to me an impasse and not a way forward. As I hope to demonstrate it certainly poses a coherent theoretical and political response to the limits of Hegelian thought, one anchored in the powers of life as excessive over all codifications and all instances of ‘State thought’. The motivational power of such thinking should not be underestimated, hence its persistent attraction. What I do wish to indicate are the risks of such a reliance on this discourse of excess and attack, especially in relation to the political and economic forms of capital. In a sense it is precisely the disregard for such forms which gives these discourses their revolutionary and theoretical élan, but when they do try to engage with the negations of those forms the limits of invocations of a ‘savage ontology’ become evident. In particular, hymning ‘Life’, qua destructive and excessive force, does not so much challenge the fundamental tenets of capitalism as risk replicating the molten core of its own contradictory ideology.

An Ontology of Annihilation

In The Order of Things (1966) Michel Foucault notes that in 19th century thought ‘life becomes a fundamental force’: one of movement opposed to immobility, time to space, and the secret wish to the visible expression. [3] The power of this ‘savage ontology’ lies in the fact that the mobility and excess allows it to encompass and fold within itself all that which would seem opposed to life. In this ontology Being and non-Being, Life and Death, Positivity and Negativity, are melded together. The pulsing force of life is not one that simply invigorates and instantiating forms, but also saps all forms from within, eroding and destroying them. Contrary to the usual alignment of life with growth and development, Foucault argues that it is an ‘ontology of annihilation’ that overturns and revolutionizes everything it confronts. [4] In particular, contrary to the thinking of political economy, this excess of life refuses and destroys any discourse of need, limit, and individuality. Life is an infinite duration, a ruptural intervention, the dissipation of consciousness, and so departs from a discourse of political economy. What we can see here is life opposed to all the illusions of consciousness, all the limits of economy, and all the reified and static moments of power (Potera), in the name of the Power of life (Potenza).

Notes :

[1For a critical discussion of contemporary insurrectionary anarchism see Leonard Williams and Brad Thomson, ‘The Allure of Insurrection’, Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 1 (2011); 226-289,

[2Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1974), p.303 (trans. mod.).

[3Foucault, Order, p.303.

[4Foucault, Order, p.303.

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