Radical Semiotics and The Need For Ontological Anarchism

“radical semiotics can be seen as an existentialist activity for meaning-making”

From Julian Langer

 

“The repression of an individual by the iron machinery of the State has rarely been so powerfully depicted. Yet this is only the beginning of the story.” Fredy Perlman

Anarchists have beautifully and articulately expressed many of the same criticisms and theories of classical anarchist and economic theories (predominantly classical liberalism and anti-state Marxist-style socialism), on repeat, in an eternal return that can appear never ending (and can get extremely boring). What have received far less attention within anarchist discourse are questions regarding what-it-is-we-are-actually-opposing and how do we make meaning while trapped within the culture we supposedly oppose.

This situation is basically that which Walter Benjamin discussed in his essay ‘The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction’, where the perpetual reproduction of the same critiques, ideas and theories leads to their losing their unique existence and presence in time and space.

So this piece might be considered as being an operation in friendly-fire, but as I move on to the following sections I’d like to emphasis the intended friendliness in this piece.

Well Known Feuds: Ancaps vs. Social-Anarchists

As I start this section, I want to get something “off my chest” – I am so fucking bored of arguments between anarcho-capitalists and social-anarchists, and this is largely why I avoid the bother of debating with either of these milieus (in real life or online). My choice to not bother debating them is largely because of the unending moral dogmatism that comes from both sides of this supposed cosmic-dualism, which appears more and more like theological disputes between varying sects of the same religious orders.

What do I mean by this? I mean that both of these ideological variants of anarchism worship the same deity, while remaining unable to agree on the exact meaning behind its teachings, nor the exact dimensions of its facial features. This deity is one we are all abundantly familiar with, as we navigate its body daily, through the business-as-usual of this culture. And whether or not you call it the Leviathan, the state, the economy, the nation, or civilisation, its body, with its means of consumption and excretion, regardless of who owns the means or who doesn’t, who gets paid what or whether or not they are communally shared, remains the same within both of these discourses.

This feature of social-ontics is one that green-anarchists of varying schools, as well as non-anarchist anti-civ schools of thought pick up on, but fail to fully account for; while often allying with Marxist-style and social-anarchist projects, out of a general anti-capitalist ideological commonality.

Christianity, Science, Paganism and Attacks on Wild-Being

Agriculture necessitates civilisation, which then necessitates organised religion and scientific means of technological advancement; both of which largely surmount to the same phenomenon. The unity of these apparently differing social-narratives stems from their both serving as means of violating wild-Being – the transient, organic flow of nature (for a quick definition). In the individual this surmounts to the repression of the self – as civilisation lover Freud identified – and direct technological mediation from naked immediateness, into the dressings of their narratives – the self becomes clothed and adorned with labels and categories of civilisation’s means of production.

Paganism, as a religious order distinguished from animism, arrives as a response to this violation of the wild-Being pagans long to return to. As such, paganism often stems from a desire to live outside of civilisation, but from the gaze of civilisation – so that wild-Being is something separate and not just the unrepressed metaphysical flow of Being. And because of this, while paganism can serve as a means of weakening and challenging the narratives of civilisation, unless pagans complete the process and abandon nature-as-Other, paganism can only be a practice in liberation theology, which doesn’t bring down its target.

The Christianised mask of civilisation is undoubtedly the one that has for the most part won-out, with its humanist dressings elevating science to the level of Christ, where science stands as a bridge for the civilised to cross over, in avoidance of hell on route to heaven. And industrialism and technology stand as means of transcendence from wild-Being, which civilisation attempts to escape, as it is seen as a cosmic evil Other for civilisation to overcome. This is marked by Christian morals regarding rights and scientific narratives regarding progress, whose Christian mirror is the manifest destiny of Christianised civilisation.

The reason why attacks on wild-Being largely go unnoticed is because wild-Being is viewed as the Other, rather than as part of the immediate naked self. As such, embracing the self as an extension of wild-Being, immersed in its transient flow, is of the utmost importance, if we are actual opponents of this culture that seeks to mediate us from this, through narratives that tie the self to the collective and its dressings.

Screw Society, We Want Situations and Events

Anarchism generally values society above all else – even pseudo-individualist ancap ideologies. But with this rejection of the social-ontology of civilisation we’ve arrived at as green-anarchists, society needs to be rejected too. This need not be vulgar misanthropy that deifies humans to the level of demons to be exorcised. No! Society has very little to do with those who inhabit it.

Rather, society is a set of mechanical means of perpetuating its own existence, whose physicality is the very social ontology we oppose. This might be maintained by active human participants, but their activity is largely of a passive nature and any invading force would likely see the same technological-mechanical apparatus perpetuating the same processes – so it largely doesn’t matter who it is operating it, just that it exists in-itself is the issue.

Wild-Being is the transient flow of situations through events, which are produced through the emergence of differential geo-spatial vectors – the active creation of new geographies, new topologies and new sets of relations between living beings. Semiotically, these are defined in a fluid state of ever changing meaning, which each living being will interpret based in their own subject-sensitive rationality, which makes them far messier for discussion, but makes discussion far more honest.

Neither Reform Nor Revolution: Involution (or Fuck Dialectics and Fuck Conservatism)

Time and history have largely consumed life into the slow meliorist project of progress, whether or not that is via reform (loved by liberals) or revolution (loved by anarchists and Marxists). Improvement of conditions via progress is always marked by an ideal that we remain alienated from at all points, but must strive towards. And under the name of civilisation, technology and the conditions of living in society, life is abandoned in favour of the historical project of progress.

Liberals, leftists and the right wing are all consumed by history and its slow march. History is shaped by politics and history needs to be abandoned.

History relies on a form of metaphysics, where the future exists as a destination to arrive at, whose form exists as an idealist truism, to become actual. Wild-Being is entirely physical though, and as such contradicts this notion. Rather wild-Being exists prior to time and history, in the transient present, which authentic consciousness perceives egoistically.

Because of this metaphysical rejection, our green-anarchist ontological anarchism needs to be based outside of time, in a transient-egoistic-presentism – the immediate phenomenology of the now.

This will largely involve collapsing the project of progress, in ways that are desirable in the immediate moment, so as to work towards the involutionary collapse of history and civilisation. This could be done through acts of poetic terrorism or eco-radical acts of direct action, but will ultimately look like something and be something very different from the projects of leftist revolutionaries or liberal reformists.

Meaningless Civilisation: Totalitarian Signs

The crisis of meaning currently underway within this hyperactive “stage” of civilisation, this “dialectic” of mass-technological mediation, daily terrorist violence and nuclear horror, is the totalitarianism of a semiology whose signs dictate nearly all aspects of lived experiences.

It is easy enough to recognise the construction of meaning through mediums such as the media, education, television, the internet or many other well known examples. But everyday totalitarian semiotics largely go unnoticed.

This is least noticed through the material dynamics of ideology, where the physicality of the social-environment of the techno-sphere and its means of consumption infect consciousness, so as to produce a world where meanings are nothing more than the perpetuation of its Symbolic ideology. And it largely goes unnoticed within groups and movements, unless an outsider remarks and upsets the semiotic field  (Christian means of meaning-making are unquestioned within Christianity, liberal means of meaning-making are unquestioned within liberalism etc.) and we arrive in a totalitarian situation, where other semiologies are considered as threats to be stamped out at any opportunity. The shallow dogmatism of this ideological narrative is obvious to individualists, non-conformists and other “outsiders”, but remains something unchanging within this culture.

If we are to challenge this culture, we need to challenge totalitarian semiotics and actively create our own signs and means of meaning-making.

On Radical Semiotics and Ontological Anarchism

The inescapable potentialism of what I am to write about means that I will never be able to do justice to the topics of radical semiotics and ontological anarchism.

At the very least, these projects are based in a sense of self, value and allyship drawn from wild-Being, an involutionary rejection of history and progress, the active creation of situations and events and the rejection of totalitarian semiotics and their dogmatisms.

Regarding radical semiotics, these signs cannot be limited to the dictates of socially-normative Symbolic-culture, that seeks to define all of life into the categories of its signs. Rather they are best served challenging these signs, in ways that do not become amalgamated into the Spectacle of progress and history.

In this sense, radical semiotics are largely a nihilist project; or rather they would be, if it weren’t for the fact that they include the creation of subject-sensitive signs, whose beauty is found in the authenticity of the aesthetics of the poetry of the creator. As such, radical semiotics can be seen as an existentialist activity for meaning-making – an existentialism that arrived ultimately at eco-radicalism (rather than humanism) in embrace of the responsibility of our condemnation to freedom.

The project of ontological anarchism, following from all of this, then becomes one of the active creation of radical semiotics, so as to collapse civilisation by undermining its own means of meaning-making – in the sense described in the second paragraph of this section. And ontological anarchism becomes an activity of metaphysical-terrorism, working towards collapsing civilisation/history and its social-ontics.

Within my own lexicon, the project of radical semiotics is a feral activity and the project of ontological anarchism is an iconoclastic activity. So what I am describing here I choose to call feral iconoclasm and seems to me to be the project of eco-radicals and guerrilla ontologists, within the horrors of our contemporary situation.

“In the horrible extremity of today we can see the need to return all the way to the earth, to the multi-sensual intimacy of nature that obtained before symbolisation made living a reified, separated caricature of itself.”

John Zerzan


Julian Langer

Writer of Feral Consciousness: Deconstruction of the Modern Myth and Return to the Woods, blogger at Eco-Revolt, and has been published on a number of other sites. Eco-anarchist and guerilla ontologist philosopher. Lover of woods, deer, badgers and other wild beings. Musician and activist.

The Way Of The Violent Stars

“The only way for humanity to make itself immune to violence is to allow the creation of a vast authoritarian system that protects individuals from personal violence through the endless impersonal violence of the state.”

This essay, by Ramon Elani, originally appeared in Black Seed 5, along with an essay by Rhyd Wildermuth. Black Seed 5 can be ordered at this link.


“I hate the word peace, as I hate hell.” ~William Shakespeare

“I shall try to make plain the bloodiness of killing. Too often this has been slurred over by those who defend hawks. Flesheating man is in no way superior. It is so easy to love the dead. The word ‘predator’ is baggy with misuse. All birds eat living flesh at some time in their lives. Consider the cold-eyed thrush, that springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails. We should not sentimentalise his song, and forget the killing that sustains it.” ~J.A. Baker

As green anarchists and anarcho-primitivists, we have utterly idealized indigenous or so-called primitive people. In doing so we have failed to understand precisely the reason we should follow their path. Most discourse around primitive life is drawn from western anthropology, though from the conclusions most anarcho-primitivists and green anarchists have drawn, it is clear that very few of them have actually bothered to read the texts they are referring to. Even given the Eurocentric bias of most anthropologists, those texts paint a much richer, more complex, and more conflicted view of primitive life than one finds in the vast majority of anti-civilization writing and discussion.

The most egregious assumption is that primitive life is supposed to be happy and easy. This is, of course, drawn from notions of primitive abundance and leisure. The fact, however, that individuals in primitive communities only worked for a very small amount of time per day does not mean that there were not other difficulties and hardships to be faced. Anarcho-primitivist and green anarchist writers suggest that modern humanity’s neurosis and pathology is entirely a product of the alienating forces of techno-industrial society. Indigenous communities now and in the past had their own ways of understanding and addressing anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Of course, it is likely that they experienced these conditions differently than we do or to a lesser degree but clearly they still exist regardless. To avoid essentializing primitive or indigenous lifeways, we must understand that they experienced as broad a range of emotional states as we do.

In other words, the old assessment that ancient hunter gatherers were happier than we are is irrelevant and likely untrue. It is important here to acknowledge the distinction between the terms anarcho-primitivism and green anarchy. While green anarchy presents a wide range of conceptual apparatus for confronting techno-industrial society, Anarcho-primitivism dogmatically insists on a prescriptive vision of non-civilized life. For anarcho-primitivists, the only communities that count are ones in which no power structures or symbolic culture exist at all. In this vision, since there is no oppression of any kind or rupture with the non-human world, there are no social or existential problems. It is, of course, unlikely that such a community has ever existed.

Primitive life certainly involved hardship and suffering. Contrary to much received wisdom, violence was universal among primitive communities and remains so in those that persist to this day. Primitive life was also not a leftist utopia of perfect egalitarianism. Of course, the fact that pain, suffering, trauma, and tragedy was always present does not mean that joy, happiness, and pleasure were not also always present. Perhaps it is so, as I believe, that the very presence of ubiquitous violence and struggle intensified the feelings of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction that ancient people experienced. But in the end, this is neither here nor there. The point is that primitive life is superior to our own because its impact on the biosphere was minimal and people lived in close contact with the non-human world; that is the only reason and that is sufficient.

People who do not know what it means to fight cannot understand violence. They fear it because they have never experienced it. Aside from posturing and play acting, most anarchists and activists have never experienced violence. This is not to say, of course, that many of them have not been brutalized by the police, etc. Fighting with an enemy is not the same thing as being ruthlessly beaten by an anonymous employee whom you cannot strike back against, or harassing racists and idiots in the streets.

The violence of the mob, of the masses, is a different beast entirely. It is more akin to being crushed by a blind stampede of herd animals than anything else. Traditional people understood the need for ritual combat, for battle enacted under the strictest and most sacred terms: tt make a square within staves of hazel, to tie your strap to a spear plunged into the dirt.

Among the ancient people of Scandinavia the power of the state was weak and in the absence of a police or military to enforce the law, individuals resorted to ritual combat to resolve conflicts without disrupting the community as a whole. This practice, known as holmgang, involved the voluntary participation of both combatants and stipulated that the source of the conflict must end with the conclusion of the duel. In other words, the rules of holmgang were designed to ensure that other family members did not get caught up in the feud. Moreover, holmgang did not require one of the two combatants to die. In many cases the drawing of first blood was considered sufficient to determine a victor. Unsurprisingly, the practice of holmgang was outlawed in the early 11th century as Christian law stamped out pagan ways of life and hegemonic power grew in the region.

Even in such classic works of anthropology as Stanley Diamond’s In Search of the Primitive, we find a picture of traditional life that fully embraces violence. Diamond writes, “the point is that the wars and rituals of primitive society (and the former usually had the style of the latter), are quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from the mechanized wars of civilization.” This is to say, the type of violence, the experience of the violence, makes an enormous difference. As critics of civilization and techno-industrial society we have inadequately accounted for this. Violence and war are not to be feared or condemned. It is the nature of the violence that must be interrogated and reconsidered.

The custom of counting coup, practiced by the tribes of the American Plains, is an important historical example to cite here. To count coup means to demonstrate one’s bravery and courage by achieving a number of increasingly difficult feats on the battlefield. As George Bird Grinnell observed among the Cheyenne and Crow, “the bravest act that could be performed was to count coup on—to touch or strike—a living unhurt man and to leave him alive.” Joe Medicine Crow, the last war chief of the Crow Nation, achieved this feat a number of times as a soldier during World War II. Among his many achievements include disarming and fighting an enemy officer in hand-to-hand combat, as well as stealing 50 horses from a German battalion and riding off while singing Crow war songs. According to his obituary, Medicine Crow felt war to be “the finest sport in the world.”

As ancient people understood well through their war cults and warrior societies, there is tremendous wisdom and meaning to be gained through violence. In the first case you learn that pain is just another sensation in the body, it does not need to be feared. In the second case, to stand proudly against another, an equal, is to test yourself in a way that we have little ability to replicate. It is a form of physical relationship with another that is unique. You learn that you are strong, that you are skilled. You also learn that there is strength in the other. That sometimes your strength and your skill are insufficient and you strive to make yourself stronger. You learn about the world, about the nature of life, grounded in the body. Modern humanity is utterly separated from this. To return to Diamond: “war is a kind of play. No matter what the occasion for hostility, it is particularized, personalized, ritualized. Conversely, civilization represses hostility in the particular, fails to use or structure it, even denies it.”

The violence that we experience, as modern, civilized humans, that we perceive around us in countless ways, brings nothing but trauma. It is utterly, radically distinct from the violence of the primitive societies. It is depersonalized, sterile, and more destructive on a previously unimaginable scale of magnitude. In techno-industrial society we experience the violence of the police, the violence of men against women, the desperate random violence of humans driven to madness and hopelessness, violence against minorities, violence against the poor, and most importantly, no matter where we are, all around us, every single hour of every day we experience unspeakable degrees of violence against the earth.

Moreover, the soldier is not the warrior. The warrior longs for meaning, for connection with the cosmos and himself. The soldier is an automated, anonymous employee. It searches for nothing. It kills because it has been programmed to kill. It has no joy, no sorrow, no thought of what it does. When such emotions do occur they are shoved deep into hidden places in the soul and when they break out they cause insanity and horror. The violence of the soldier is the violence of the machine. It is a bloodless kind of violence, a violence that erodes the soul, no matter what it does to the body. Those pitiful beings that serve as the instruments of the brutality of the machine understand nothing, they are numb and insensate. They are appendages of the thing that annihilates. They have never felt the challenge of facing a foe who is trained and prepared for them, to be joined in valor. They execute. They bomb. They murder. Existentially, they count for nothing. Their lives are nothing.

Peace is understood as little as battle. Peace is not synonymous with joy, nor with righteousness, nor with abundance. Peace has only ever been achieved through history’s greatest atrocities. Peace has only ever meant power to the victor and misery and degradation to the vanquished. We, in the heart of technoindustrial society, are experiencing what peace means. A life devoid of joy. A sterile life. A non-life. And worse still, it is a life maintained perpetually by the slaughter of those on the fringes of our world. As the world-machine continues to expand outward, more and more will be pacified and brought within our life of shopping malls, endless highways, obesity, sickness, despair. And peace will reign. Peace, peace, peace.

What do we long for? A life of joy and passion. A life that is alive, throbbing with blood. A world that pulses with vitality. Do we want the icy porcelain bodies of mechanized gods? Or do we want living animal bodies that break and heal and decay and die? The latter is the body that is shaped by violence, by suffering, by hardship. Just as it is shaped by joy, pleasure, and robust health. Ancient people did not live a life without pain. They suffered acutely and they experienced joy acutely. We experience neither truly. What would you choose? Who would not trade this world of atomic bombs, environmental annihilation, and mechanized dehumanization for a world of primal war?

But let us be clear: the world we have is the world that exists. And wishing will not make it otherwise. Moreover, the skill, courage, and strength of the warrior will never defeat the impersonal mechanized destroyer.

In our greatest manifestations and noblest moments, we are beasts. The myth of human exceptionalism has poisoned us to the core. There is nothing wrong with being animals, in fact it is a far greater thing than the fantasies that humans tell themselves about their supposed superiority. Anything good that has come from human action or thought has come from our animals nature. The evil and vileness we do, contrary to received wisdom, comes the part of us that no other animal shares. To understand this means to understand that the world of beasts involves its own kind of brutality. When lions slaughter hyena babies, it is not because they are hungry. We dislike this because of our human moralizing. We easily perceive that “nature, red in tooth and claw” is not the whole story. But it is an inescapable part of the story.

The only way for humanity to make itself immune to violence is to allow the creation of a vast authoritarian system that protects individuals from personal violence through the endless impersonal violence of the state. If you can’t protect yourself, you will rely on someone else to protect you, whether you realize it or not, regardless of the cost. Humanity is capable of radically limiting pain and suffering. We can live longer and longer. We can cure diseases. We can create enlightened societies with relatively low rates of violence. All of these things come at the cost of the earth, the things of the earth, and our connection to the earth.

Posing a vision of humanity without hardship or suffering denies the reality of the wild world and it distracts us from what is truly important: not the avoidance of pain but our unity with the myriad things and spirits of the world. The strength and the future of the human race lies only in its ability to show proper reverence to the gods of the earth.


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father. Until recently he was a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England

More of his writing can be found here.


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