On Hakim Bey and online life

JULY 22 04

I came across a mention of Hakim Bey's book 'Pirate Utopias' (written as Peter Lamborn Wilson, but he's always been Hakim to me) on a blog somewhere, which led to me reading some of Hakim's work again, like Millennium and Radio Sermonettes (aka Immediatism). And I was thinking about Hakim, and how much he influenced me and taught me, so I thought I'd write about that time.

It was in 1985 when I first wrote to Hakim, I sent him a copy of KAOS (then CHAOS) and asked him to write for it. Back then he was virtually unknown in the UK and Europe, maybe a few people in Amsterdam knew of his work. Hakim had just brought out his 'CHAOS: Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism' at this time, and was following it up with serially issued 'Communiqués of the Association for Ontological Anarchy' printed on a Gestetner stencil duplicator from a manual typewriter master on a selection of coloured papers and distributed through the mail. (The text of these was published later in TAZ.) The sheets were illustrated with Sufi calligraphy and other curious graphics. The 'mail art' scene was pretty vibrant then, my post at my old BM UTOPIA box (no longer in use) was full of it from all over the world, anarchistic collages and creative xerox art in personally decorated envelopes. It was one of my joys of life to travel into town every week to collect my mail at British Monomarks in Old Gloucester Street. I'd sit on a parkbench at lunchtime in nearby Queen Square, or at a table outside The Queen's Larder with a pint, opening up a stack of letters and packages from anarchists, punk rockers, occultists, assorted weirdoes, and other marginals from around the globe seeking a swap of their wares for my KAOS magazine or just writing some words of appreciation. The web seems so flat in comparison. Utterly non-tactile. No feel, no scent. I haven't entered a post office in months, which now seem to be places for old age pensioners who know nothing of the web and don't care to know.

Hakim's Communiqués, because they were so beautifully written and offered without copyright, were starting to get printed in small zines in the States, but you were fortunate indeed to be on the receiving end of the originals. They smelt of fresh ink over which cannabis smoke had wafted ('sacrament' as Hakim referred to it). They reminded me of a dodgy schoolteacher's hand-outs, which of course is a comparison that would have appealed to him. Hakim lived in New York, and gave every impression of living in a room full of books and papers, playing crackly records evocative of Arab bazaars, with a stack of moth-eared fading vintage erotica of naked boys jumping into the ocean attempting to swim to pirate galleons.

Of course, Hakim was an enigma, an old romantic, a 'poetic terrorist', and still is, particularly with his utter denunciation of the web – which my about page seems to be the only place on the web to mention in the 18,700 results that come up in a Google search for "Hakim Bey", not that I've looked at them all but somewhere along the line you get the gist that it's true what he told me, that there's not one word he's uploaded himself. Even as early as 1993 in front of a live audience in San Francisco he was writing off the Internet as incapable of bringing him anything he truly desired, to the incredulous disbelief of the audience, who like many do today doubtless saw it as some wild Utopian frontier he would surely approve of.

Hakim started writing me great literary letters typed on the same typewriter he did his Communiqués on. Half a letter to me, half a letter written in the knowledge I would publish it completely unedited – not that he ever held back, quite the contrary. To this day these letters remain off the web, the little-known Hakim Bey.

Marcus Aurelius said you should acknowledge who your teachers were and what they taught you. Well Hakim was certainly one of my teachers. The thing I picked up from him immediately was the sheer breadth of his knowledge, the stuff he knew about and could write about with ease was startling and impressive. He made the love of knowledge exciting and gave it a purpose – to free oneself by reading the works of those who had sought to free themselves, by the power of the mind. He had not only read a tremendous number of books, he had understood them too and had a sound opinion of their contents he revealed in just a passing sentence or two. His writings were littered with learned literary references and allusions, yet not in such a way as to seem like he was merely showing off his knowledge; no, he was using it to place his own ideas in a progression of thought for those who might wish to trace this development themselves. He was mapping out territories that were fresh and alive, reclaiming them from the dusty past and giving them new meaning, conveying his discoveries with an infectious enthusiasm.

I liked that Hakim rejected many things thought by some in the Underground scene to be 'cool', such as a fascination with Manson, he'd write it all off as 'Nazi shit-eating' and 'art-creep death nerdism', and there was little doubt his opinion carried weight and swayed a few people who might otherwise never have thought for themselves, just tagging along with the 'Apocalypse Culture' crowd without ever challenging it. Suddenly here was a guy people respected denouncing a whopping chunk of happening Underground culture as shallow crap, and with it a whole raft of people who had found their niches in that milieu and enjoyed a certain cult status. It was music to my ears, this lack of doubt and no need to consider it any further on his part, since it was more-or-less what I thought too, though many I knew seemed overly enamoured of the poseurs associated with that scene.

Certainly those years when I was in regular contact with Hakim were formative ones for me, and I learnt a lot from him. I think overall the thing that really touched me was that for the first time in my life here was someone who was not only on my wavelength but was way ahead of me. He became a sort of mentor, though he never took any kind of formal role, and the furthest he would go in conceding any kind of hierarchical relationship was to draw a comparison with martial art rank and to acknowledge the usefulness of a 'short-term personal guru', who might be, for instance, a tramp who says something passing by in the street that you find enlightening.

He spoke with a practical wisdom about how people who are alive are far more important than anyone who's dead, no matter how great they were in their time. We can learn from them (and of people who are dead probably Nietzsche had the most to say to people alive now), but fundamentally they're dead and gone, and we're alive. It was an immensely empowering teaching. We're here, make it real. Hakim impressed this point on me so completely that I realised that it was purely reality he was after, rejecting outright and vociferously mere representations of reality. He has always been clear-sighted on this. So people shouldn't be surprised he has written off the web, it's what he's about, it's where he has always been coming from. To accept the web for him would be an unforgivable dilution of the way he's lived his life and what he's had to say.

Certainly the web is not real life, but for many it passes for real life, increasingly becoming a state of being rather than what it actually is and can only ever be, a source of information (think 'tribes', 'online communities', 'Friendster', 'MSN Messenger', 'ICQ', 'AIM', 'IRC', 'Livejournal Friends', and other subtle persuasions to accept meagre online existence as a legitimate way of life). Hakim seems more resigned these days to 'the demise of the physical world' and I expect to him his determination to have nothing to do with the web is a gesture of pure refusal, a last stronghold of physical reality, a true Temporary Autonomous Zone the sharp definition of which is being eroded every day and is maintained only by this refusal to collaborate with cyberspace in a one-man resistance movement.

Of course, when you're off the web, do not seek it out, and do not own a computer, avoiding the temptation hardly seems something requiring a constant effort. But there is a sadness in watching the world turn virtual about you, like watching the colour drain out of the world. Those who are firmly locked into this virtual world just don't see it, not really see it, though they may 'appreciate it intellectually', which as we all know is not Zen. Myself, though I am here on the web, I still persist in seeing it as something akin to prison bars I will one day escape, when I'm good and ready. Perhaps for me this is a way of stopping myself forgetting, when I see so many who have forgotten, or because of their youth and social isolation have never known much of any other reality.

I expect there will come a time when I will abandon the web. And that abandonment may seem like turning back to a world where there aren't many people left. It may require going other places, wildernesses, islands. It may actually become paradoxically easier to become free when so many no longer are – subsumed by the media they have accepted into their lives – simply because you are outside of their terms of reference and have become invisible, off the map, forgotten about. When everyone is looking at the web and television and newspapers, but you're not, then you're living in a different world. The Temporary Autonomous Zone is autonomous by virtue of so few people turning their heads in its direction. The Ironic Revolution, it comes by just using the off switch. Going away from the web may seem to those left on it deprived of your 'presence' akin to a disappearance and death, to such a degree is online life starting to be perceived as the only life. People will deny they are involved in it to that extent, but in their hearts they must know something has changed and is overcoming them. I know this from my own experience, so I gladly give them the same advice I give myself: Get out before there is hardly any other way you spend your time apart from sitting in front of a computer. Get out before most of your friends are people you have never met, other countries are nothing more than jpegs, and reading blogs defines your day.


[UPDATE: A new interview with Peter Lamborn Wilson (curiously referred to as 'née Hakim Bey') has appeared in 'The Brooklyn Rail'. Interesting to see his rejection of the web is just as staunch as ever.]