“We Are All Anarchists”: Frye on Anarchism


Posted by Michael Happy on November 3rd, 2011

OWS Declaration of Occupation: “There is no hierarchy.” The declaration was crafted at a general assembly of all those who wished to participate. It is being recited here by means of the “human microphone,” passed through repetition from the front of the crowd to the back.

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[W]e are all anarchists, wanting the society that interferes least with individual freedom. (“Herbert Read’s The Innocent Eye,” CW 11, 115)

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Democracy is anarchistic in the sense that it is an attempt to destroy the state by replacing it with an expanding federation of communities, a federation which reaches its limit only in a worldwide federation. (“The Analogy of Democracy,” CW 4, 271)

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[T]he residual anarchism at the heart of the Romantic movement is still with us, and will be until society stops trying to suppress it. (“Yorick: The Romantic Macabre,” CW 17, 125)

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[C]ultural developments are quite different from political or economic ones, which not only centralize but become more uniform as they grow. . . If we try to unite a political or economic with a cultural one, certain pathological developments, such as fascism or terroristic anarchism, are likely to result. (“Myth as the Matrix of Literature,” CW 18, 306)

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[T]he art that emerges under the cultural anarchy of democracy may be subtle, obscure, highbrow, and experimental, and if a good deal of art at any time is not so, the cultural achievement of the country is on the Woolworth level. But art under dictatorship seldom dares to be anything but mediocre and obvious. (“War on the Cultural Front,” CW 11, 186)

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Through all the confusion and violence of the late 1960s, the thing that anarchism most wants, the decentralizing of power, has been steadily growing. It will continue to grow through the 1970s, I think, in many areas. For example, the possibilities of cable for breaking into the monologue of communications and giving the local community some articulateness and sense of coherence are enormous. And as real decentralization grows and we get nearer to what is called participatory democracy, the false forms of it, separatism, neo-fascism, the jockeying of pressure groups, and all the other things that fragment the social vision instead of diversifying it, will, I hope, begin to break off from it. (“The Quality of Life in the ’70s,” CW 11, 294)

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When the Korean war began, I wrote in my diary that just as the first half of the 2oth c. saw the end of fascism, so 2000 would see the end of Communism. I was whistling in the dark then, because the Communists had just taken over China. But now I really begin to feel that I’m living in a post-Marxist age. I think we’re moving into something like an age of anarachism: the kind of violence and unrest going on now in China, in the city riots (which are not really race riots: race hatred is an effect of them but not a cause of them) in America, in Nigeria, in Canadian separatism — none of this can be satisfactorily explained in Marxist terms. Something else is happening. . .

There were always two sides to anarchism: one a pastoral quietism, communal (Anabaptist, Brook Farm) or individual (Chaplinism). Its perfect expression, in an individual form, is Walden, in a communal form, News from Nowhere. The beats & hippies with their be-ins and love-ins, the “Dharma bums,” are the faint beginnings of a new pastoralism. The hysterical panic about organization, full employment, keeping the machines running, & the like, is now waning as it becomes possible to do other things that work. The hippies only seem to be parasitic, but the fact of voluntary unemployment, of a cult of bums, is new. In the depression the statement “these people just don’t want to work” was the incantation of the frivolous, trying not to think seriously. But now there are such people, and the values they challenge are equally bourgeois and Marxist values.

The other side was violence & terror, without aim & without direction, like the rioting sweeping the world from Canton to Detroit, Lagos to Amsterdam. These riots are local & separatist: they have no intelligible point or aim; they simply show the big units of society breaking down. They aren’t poor against rich, young against old, or black against white; they’re just the anxiety of destruction against the anxiety of conservation. (“Notebook 19,” CW 9, 98-9)

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Frye: There are other things in the Canadian tradition that are worth thinking about.  Thirty years ago [in the 1930s] the great radical movement was international Communism, which took no hold in Canada at all.  There were no Marxist poets, there were no Marxist painters… The radical movement of our time is anarchist and that means that it’s local and separate and breaks down into small units. That’s our tradition and that’s our genius. Think of Toronto and Montreal (I know Toronto better than Montreal, but I think the same is true of both cities): after the Second World War, we took in displaced persons from Europe to something like one-quarter to one-fifth of the population. In Toronto in 1949, one out of every five people had been there less than a year. We have not had race riots, we have not had ethnic riots, we have not had the tremendous pressures and collisions that they’ve had in American cities. Because Canada is naturally anarchist, these people settle down into their own communities; they work with other communities and the whole pattern of life fits it. I do think we have to keep a very wide open and sympathetic eye towards radical movements in Canada, because they will be of the anarchist kind and they will be of a kind of energy that we could help liberate.

Chiasson: How do you explain materially the fact that there is not a serious breakdown in the country if the base is anarchist?

Frye: Well, I think that the ideal of anarchism is not the shellfish, the carapace, the enclosed, isolated group. It’s rather the self-contained group and feels itself a community and because it’s a community it can enter into relationships with others. At the moment we are getting some mollusk or shellfish type of radical movement — I think certain forms of separatism are of that kind — but I think we’ll get more mature about this as we do on, a more vertebrate structure. (“CRTC Guru,” CW 24, 92-3)

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Thirty years ago, during the Depression, the last thing that anyone would have predicted was the rise of anarchism as a revolutionary force. It seemed to have been destroyed by Stalinist Communism once and for all. But we seem to be in an anarchist age, and need to retrace our steps to take another look at our historical situation. One reason why the radical mood of today is so strongly anarchist, in America, is that the American radical tradition just referred to, especially in Jefferson and Thoreau, shows many affinities with the decentralizing and separatist tendencies of anarchism, in striking contrast to orthodox Marxism, which had very little in the American tradition to attach itself to. There are some curious parallels between the present and the nineteenth century American scene, between contemporary turn-on sessions and nineteenth-century ecstatic revivalism, between beatnik and hippie communes and some of the nineteenth-century Utopian projects; and the populist movements of the turn of the century showed some of the revolutionary ambivalence, tending equally to the left or to the right, that one sees today. Again, today’s radical has inherited the heroic gloom of existentialism, with the doctrine that all genuine commitment begins in the revolt of the individual personality against an impersonal or otherwise absurd environment. The conception of the personal as inherently a revolutionary force, which, as we saw, began in a Christian context in Kierkegaard, was developed in a secular one by French writers associated with the resistance against the Nazis, this resistance being the direct ancestor of the more localized revolutionary movements of our day. (An Essay on the Context of Literary Criticism, CW 17, 95-6)

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Now we are in a different kind of revolutionary situation, one that in many respects is more like anarchism than the movements of a generation ago. The latter, whether bourgeois or Marxist, were equally attached to a producer’s work ethic and to the conviction that literature was a secondary social project. The unrest of our time is partly directed against the work ethic itself, and against the anxieties and prejudices of an affluent society. In other words, it is a situation in which one kind of of social imagination is pitted against another kind, and hence it is a situation in which those who work with their imaginations, such as poets or artists, ought to have, and doubtless increasingly will have, a central and crucial role. This last situation is also contemporary with the rise of communications media other than writing, which have brought back into society many characteristics of oral cultures, like those out of which the Bible and Greek philosophy developed. As in all revolutionary situations, society is under great pressure to abdicate its moral responsibility and throw away its freedom. Such pressures exist in every aspect of the situation: there is no side devoted to freedom or to suppressing it. The critic, whose role in the last two decades has expanded from studying literature to studying the mythologies of society, has to join with all other men of good will, and keep to the difficult and narrow way between indifference and hysteria. (“Literature and Society,” CW 27, 278-9)

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In most of the best Victorian novels, apart from Dickens, the society described is organized by its institutions: the church, the government, the professions, the rural squirearchy, business, and the trade unions. It is a highly structured society, and the characters function from within those structures. But in Dickens we get a much more freewheeling and anarchistic social outlook. For him the structures of society, as structures, belong almost entirely to the absurd, obsessed, sinister aspect of it, the aspect that is overcome or evaded by the comic action. The comic action itself moves toward the regrouping of society around the only social unit that Dickens regards as genuine, the family. (“Dickens and the Comedy of Humours,” CW 17, 296)

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I have used the word “anarchistic” in connection with Dickens’s view of society, but it is clear that, so far as his comic structure leads to any sort of vision of a social ideal, that ideal would have to be an intensely paternalistic society, an expanded family. (“Dickens and the Comedy of Humours,” CW 17, 300)

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Morris’s original associates in his socialist activities were Anarchists, and the journal Commonweal, which he edited, was an Anarchist publication. After he left that position and broke with most of the group, he remarked in a letter that experience had taught him that “Anarchism is impossible.” That sounds like a shift to a more orthodox Marxist position: it has even been suggested that he may have been in closer touch with Engels, who had inherited Marx’s manuscripts, than is generally thought. But Morris was all his life a pure anarchist, with a lowercase “a.” His News from Nowhere was written partly as a protest with Bellamy’s socialist Utopia Looking Backward, a vision of Boston in the year 2000 where everyone is drafted to serve in an “industrial army,” and where recreation consists largely of listening to government propaganda over the “telephone,” or what we now call the radio. Communist movements since Morris’s time have followed Bellamy and not Morris, and have also followed the course that Morris hated: economic centralization, concentrating on mass production and distribution, setting up a rigid chain of command throughout the whole of society. Even the curious Janis-faced attitude to violence that gives anarchism both a terrorist side and a peaceful side recurs in Morris: he says that he has a religious hatred of war and violence, yet News from Nowhere predicts the rise of the counter-ideology of fascism much more clearly than most socialist writing of his day did. (“The Meeting of Past and Future in William Morris,” CW 17, 317-18)

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The affinities of News from Nowhere are with Anarchism and not Communism: the extreme Jeffersonian local-rights view connected with Shelley’s suggestion that decentralizing England would put its culture on a level Medician Italy. . .

Evidently it’s factually wrong to call Morris an Anarchist: he was a Marxist, or tried to be one, and apparently he was in closer contact with Engels than is generally realized. I suppose what attracted him in Marx were the remarks about pre-capitalist direct contacts between worker and consumer. They’re mainly in the Manifesto. But he is certainly what we should call an Anarchist now: that is, his Jeffersonian local-option England in News from Nowhere is certainly like nothing that ever developed from Marxism. (“Notes 54-13,” CW 15, 321-2)

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[T]he Marxist form of radicalism, of the kind that helps to shape the dramas of Brecht and Gorky, is rare in American literature, there is the type of anarchism in it which is far more common. The figure of the individual who will not play the silly games of society, who seems utterly insignificant but represents the unbreakable human force, runs through its literature from Rip van Winkle and the romances of Cooper to the present day. The patron saint of this tendency is Thoreau, retreating to Walden to build his cabin and assert that the only genuine America in society of those who not throw all their energies into the endless “vacuum suction of imperialist hysteria and of consumer goods” ["Conclusion"]. Huck Finn, drifting down the great river with Jim and preferring hell with Jim to the white slave-owner’s heaven [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, chap. 31], is a similar figure, one of the bums, hoboes, and social outcasts who reach a deeper level of community than the rest of us. This outcast or hobo figure is the hero of most of the Chaplin films; he also finds a congenial haven in the comic strips. The juvenile delinquent or emotionally disturbed adolescent may in some contexts be one of his contemporary equivalents, like the narrator in The Catcher in the Rye. Sympathy for the youth who sees no moral difference between delinquency and conformity still inspires such Utopian works as Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd. An earlier and very remarkable Canadian work of this anarchist kind is Frederick Philip Grove’s A Search for America, where the America that the narrator searches for is again the submerged community that only the outcast experiences. (The Modern Century, CW 11, 42-3)

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Chaplin’s tramp is an American dramatic type, and Rip Van Winkle and Huck Finn are among his ancestors. The tramp is a social misfit, not only because he is too small and awkward to engage in a muscular extroverted scramble, but because he does not see the point of what society is doing or to what purpose it is expending all that energy. He is not a parasite, for he possesses some occult secret of inner freedom, and he is not a bum, for he will work hard enough, and still harder if a suitable motive turns up. Such a motive occurs when he discovers someone still weaker than himself, an abandoned baby or a blind girl (students of Jung will recognize the “anima” in Chaplin), and then his tenderness drives him to extraordinary spasms of breadwinning. But even his normal operations are grotesque enough, for in the very earnestness with which he tries so hard to play society’s game it is clear that he has got it all wrong, and when he is spurred to further efforts the grotesqueness reaches a kind of perverse inspiration. The political overtones of this are purely anarchist — I have never understood the connecting of Communism with Chaplin — the anarchism of Jefferson and Thoreau which see society as a community of personal relationships and not as a mechanical abstraction called a “state.” But even so the tramp is isolated by his own capacity for freedom, and he has nothing to do with the typical “little guy” that every fool in the country has been slobbering over since Pearl Harbor. (“The Eternal Tramp,” CW 11, 117)

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This idea of the original sin of the state, this reckless and instinctive anarchism, is in Jefferson’s theory of decentralized democracy, in Thoreau’s program of civil disobedience, in Emerson’s idea of self-reliance as trust in God, in Whitman’s myselfishness, in Hawthorne’s and Melville’s pagan and diabolic allegories, in Mark Twain’s intellectual nihilism. . .

Since Mark Twain, no anarchist of the full nineteenth-century size has emerged since Charlie Chaplin. . . For all its plethora of revolutionary symbols, Modern Times is not a socialist picture but an anarchist one: an allegory of the impartial destructiveness of humour. Put into the perfectly synchronizing machinery of a factory, a jail, a restaurant, this forlorn and willing Charlie wrecks all three, not by trying to but by trying not to. He very nearly accepts the highbrow’s compromise with society by singing a song no one understands and dares not admit ignorance of, but even this does not work. He gets, however, an insight into love, courage, and sacrifice with the foremen who bully him and the cops who beat him up no more understand the nature of man than a bedbug understands the nature of a bed. We are left with a feeling that the man who is really part of his social group is only half a man, and we are taken back to the primitive belief, far older than Isaiah or Plato but accepted by both, that the lunatic is especially favored by God.

This, of course, is not fully intelligible without some reference to religion, and it is in this that The Great Dictator shows its chief advance on Modern Times. To the Nazi the Jew sums up everything he hates: he is of a different race, he is urban, he is intellectual, he is often undersized, he has a sense of humour and tolerance. For these reasons he is also the perfect Chaplin hero: besides, a contempt for this big-happy-family racialism is the first principle of American anarchism. Imagine Huckleberry Finn without Jim or Moby-Dick without Queequog, and you can soon see why Chaplin had to be a Jew. But the picture itself is not Jewish, but Christian to a startling degree. The parallel between the dictator who gains the world but loses his soul and the Jewish barber on one hand, and Caesar and a Jewish carpenter on the other, is very unobtrusive but it is there. Chaplin knows well enough what the Jew Freud and the Christian Pope Pius agree on, that anti-Semitism is a preparation for, and a disguised form of, anti-Christianity. But his conception of Christianity is one conditioned by his American anarchism. What attracts him about Christianity is that something in it that seems eternally unable to get along with the world, the uneasy recurrence, through centuries of compromise and corruption, of the feeling that the world and the devil are the same thing. Hence the complement to his Jewish barber is a dictator who is also an antichrist. The picture opens with a huge cannon pointing at Notre Dame. ‘Oh, Schultz, why have you forsaken me?” [c.f. Mark 15:34] Hinkel blubbers at one point, and when his counsellor whispers ‘god’ to him he screams and climbs a curtain. At probably the same moment Hannah says that if there is no God her life would be no different, which recalls Thoreau’s remark that atheism is probably the form of religion least boring to God. The horrible isolation of the will to power makes its victim not superhuman but subhuman: “a brunette ruling a blond world.” When Hinkel explains that he is shaved in a room under the ballroom with a glass ceiling, it sounds like a very corny gag, but it is quite consistent with his scurrying up the curtains, mangling nuts and bananas, and dashing about in the futile restlessness of a monkey. Hinkel may not be the historical Hitler, but he is, perhaps, the great modern Satan Hugo and Gide and Baudelaire longed to see, though he would have disappointed them, as Satan always does. Opposite Hinkel is the inarticulate, anonymous, spluttering Jewish barber, who hardly speaks until a voice speaks through him, and with that voice the picture ends. How anyone can imagine that it could have any other end is beyond me. (“The Great Charlie,” CW 11, 100-2)

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Contemporary radicalism may use, as it often does, the same arguments, the same Marxist jargon, the same tactics, the same violent denunciations of the evils of capitalism. But, even when it calls itself Maoist or Trotskyist, it is really an anarchism that no longer identifies revolution with seizing control of production. There have always been two kinds of anarchists, the peaceful kind and the violent kind. Violent anarchism does not want to take over production so much as to smash and sabotage it. Its tactics have the plausibility of the argument that the one really effective way to stop a car is to aim it at a tree. The more thoughtful anarchists differ in tactics, but not in ultimate aims. The tendency of technical change is towards greater centralization, and anarchism is a decentralizing form of thought. It is in the long run a doctrine of organizing society so as to provide for the greatest possible amount of stability and the slowest rate of change.

To understand this mood, we have to remember that it is really, from its own point of view, counteranarchist. The really anarchist force, it feels, is the productive machinery itself, which has got out of control of society and has become autonomous, or is acting as though it were. Government, it feels, is a sorcerer’s apprentice compelled to stand helplessly by while all the technology of war rolls into Vietnam, because it has to go somewhere. The United States, it feels, is the worst country in world, precisely because it is the most efficient and productive country in the world.

We should not condemn this view without realizing how much of it the most conservative of us share. For instance: capitalism produces automobiles; then it mass-produces automobiles; then it saturates the country with automobiles; then it chokes the landscape with ten-line highways, clover-leaf intersections, parking lots, used-car lots; it develops enormous police forces to cope with the resulting chaos; it kills hundreds of people every holiday weekend; all over the land the incense of tons of carbon monoxide rolls upward into the nostrils of a stinking and murderous god. Perhaps we should control the production a little, but that would wreck the economy: what’s good for General Motors is good for the country, and the production must go on and on and on. The Spadina Expressway must be built in Toronto. All reason and evidence seem unanimous that this expressway was a bad thing to have started and a worse thing to finish. But what are reason and evidence against a compulsive neurosis? All such projects cut down the amount of taxable land: this means a harder squeeze on universities, schools, churches, libraries, and everything else at all likely to improve the quality of life in the 1970s. It doesn’t matter: you can’t stop progress.

If I wanted a single phrase to characterize the late 1960s, I should call it the age of undirected revolution. There have been all kinds of revolutionary movements, of blacks, of women, of students, of unions, of any group whatever that can work out an argument to distinguish itself from the “establishment.” Many of these movements have been split by internal dissensions before they could get off the ground. But many of them did not really care about getting off the ground: their motives cannot be interpreted by the old revolutionary standard of seizing power. These outbreaks now seem to be giving place to a more serious commitment to such things as pollution and population control, but the principle remains the same. We can no longer assume that the automatic production of anything, even human beings, is necessarily a good thing. Production has to meet certain moral criteria frist, to answer questions about its relation to animals and plants, to pure air and water, to housing and town planning, to the landscape and historical landmarks, to the balance of human society itself.  (“The Quality of Life in the ’70s,” CW 11, 288-9)

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[T]he more I think about McLuhan’s obiter dicta, the more the exact opposite of what he says of what he says seems to me to be true. As I say earlier in this notebook, the oral tradition is linear: we’re pulled along by it in time, & at the end there’s nothing. Writing provides a spacial focue: the process of reading a book is linear, but at the end you have the “simultaneous” possession of the whole thing. Also in a newspaper. That’s why writing is democratic, potentially: the oral tradition is much closer to the mob, with its easy access to “lend me your ears” rhetoric. Its revival today goes with anarchism, and also with unscripted improvised dramas, music, and socio-political “happenings.” (“Notebook 12,” CW 9, 237)

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The domination of print in Western society, then, has not simply made possible the technical and engineering efficiency of that society, as McLuhan emphasizes. It has also created all the conditions of freedom within that society: democratic government, universal education, tolerance of dissent, and (because the book individualizes its audience) the sense of the importance of privacy, leisure, and freedom of movement. What the oral media have brought in is, by itself, anarchist in its social affinities.

It has often been pointed out that the electronic media revive many of the primitive and tribal conditions of a preliterate culture, but there is no fate in such matters, no nessecity to go around the circle of history again. Democracy and book culture are interdependent, and the rise of oral and visual media represents, not a new order to adjust to, but a subordinate order to be contained. (“Communications,” CW 11, 139)

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The conception of “participatory democracy,” which requires a thorough decentralization, is also anarchist in context.  In some respects this fact represents a political picture almost the reverse of that of the previous generation.  For today’s radical the chief objects of loyalty during the thirties, trade unions and the revolutionary directives of Moscow, have become reactionary social forces, whereas some radical movements, such as the Black Panthers, which appear to have committed themselves both to violence and to racism, seem to descend from fascism, which also had anarchist affinities.  Similarly, anarchism does not seek to create a “working class”: much of its dynamic comes from a bourgeois disillusionment with an overproductive society, and some types of radical protest, like those of the hippies, are essentially protests against the work ethic itself. (“The University and Personal Life,” Spiritus Mundi, 29)

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[T]he radicalism of today [is] closer to nineteenth-century anarchism than to the Communism of Stalin’s era. Like the anarchists, contemporary radicals think in terms of direct action, or confrontation; and their organizing metaphor is not so much takeover as transformation or metamorphosis. Nineteenth-century anarchists showed a curious polarizing in temperament between the extremes of gentleness and of ferocity: there were the anarchists of ‘mutual aid,’ and the terrorist anarchists of bombs and assassinations. The essential dynamic of contemporary radicalism is non-violent, and its revolutionary tactics seem to descend from Gandhi rather than Lenin. When contemporary protest movements commit themselves to violence, they show some connection with the fascism of a generation ago, a similarity which confuses many people of my generation, whose ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ signposts point in different directions. They feel turned around in a world where not only the Soviet Union but trade unions have become right-wing, and where many left-wing movements utter slogans that sound very close to racism. (CW 7, “The Ethics of Change,” 348)

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The prophetic aspect of the arts is reflected in the great difficulty that society has in absorbing its creative people. The fierce persecution of so many of the best Russian writers by the Soviet bureaucracy comes readily to mind, and there are many parallels in the democracies. At the same time, if the prophetic voice so frequently comes from the outsider, it follows that society’s most effective defence against prophecy is toleration. The realization of this, in our society, has helped to create an almost obsessive preoccupation with the subcultures or countercultures of various minorities, blacks, chicanos, homosexuals, terrorists, drug addicts, occultists, yogis, criminals like the holy and blessed Genet — wherever it may still be possible to make out a case for social hostility or discrimination.  Similarly with the revival of Dada and other movements in the arts that spill over into anarchistic activism. We read in the Old Testament of prophets who used various emblematic devices to make their oracular points: “And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made him horns of iron: and he said, Thus saith the Lord, With these shalt thou push the Syrians, until thou have consumed them” [1 Kings 22:11]. There seems some analogy here to the brief vogue of the “happening,” when, for instance, large blocks of ice were set up in various street corners in Los Angeles and left to melt, presumably as an emblem of California civilization. (“The Responsibilities of the Critic,” CW 18, 164)

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One Response to ““We Are All Anarchists”: Frye on Anarchism”

  1. Joe Adamson Says:

    Impressive work, Mike. Thanks for this. I guess we have to re-identify Frye: he’s not a bourgeois liberal social democrat–he’s a bourgeois liberal social democratic anarchist.

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