The “Who” (not “What”)

My previous three essays have been step-by-step demonstrations of my thinking — each applies specific examples in detail, tailored to specific topics. To answer Andrew Kemle’s question (“Is there a self left to talk about?”) I want a general way of articulating myself. It will hardly be comprehensive, but if I can at least sketch out my thinking, that would be enough.

Kemle’s question, he feels, points to a potential issue with egoism (how can you have a concept of “egoism” without a concept of “self”?). Let me be clear then: There is no conceptual “self” at all, and no conceptual “egoism” along with it. I said I am Nothing — Écoutez-moi!

The General and The Particular

To radically simplify: egoism may be thought of as a way of diagnosing the contrast between a particular and attempts to grasp it generally (via a general, i.e., absolutes, universals, the conceptual, ideal, etc.). The general, in grasping, can assert themself as a “fixed-idea”, an idea which is “higher” (i.e., hierarchically set above other ideas and what it describes). Particulars, by contrast, are always this, this particular thing — they cannot be reduced, diluted, separated, or generalized without no longer being this. Particulars are the serfs of this conceptual hierarchy.

“Egoist” is usually an insult, someone ‘who cares only about themself’ (as opposed to what is “higher”). What are we “attempting to describe if we call ourselves ‘egoists’”? We describe how we are made to be egoists against a fixed-idea, by that very act of hierarchically grasping. Any assertion of “I”, “this”, rather than a “higher general” is an instance of egoism. (The “self”, too, can be something “higher”.) In attempting to grasp at the particular, the particular remains itself, remains an egoist. We are egoists, not in service to some conceptual “self,” but rather in every way that we fail to realize the general, that we are this

Egoism is “involuntary” — not because every human action somehow maps onto a vague notion of bourgeois utility, but because I am always this. To pursue “the Good” is to only ever succeed at realizing this good; to be a “good person”, I only ever manage to be this person; to want “Good”, I only ever know or want what is good for me (however I find it good for me), etc. I cannot escape my thisness. My egoism is “selfish” insofar I place “me” (“this”) over what is “higher”, over what attempts to grasp me. But this leaves us bereft of any concept of self, any way to conceive of selfishness beyond the contrast of particular and general.  All we have is the simple truism that I am this, that everything of mine is my own (realized through me).

Egoism, where it arises, expresses an irreconcilable tension. The particular cannot fully realize the general, as it always remains “this”; neither can the general fully grasp the particular, as it can never be “this”. But fixedness demands something be fully grasped, so the particular is ignored. It is the accidental to what is necessary, the inhuman to the human, the bad to the good, the irrelevant to the relevant, etc. This is what fixed-ideas must equally maintain yet systematically deny [1]. It requires a particular case to grasp, and yet cannot grasp that particular, thereby labeling it irrelevant, profane, sinful — in short, egoist. 

Here is the “Stirnerian Challenge”: Egoism — in the tension between the fixing general and its particular, that tension is either maintained or it tears itself apart.

Conceptual or Nonconceptual

Egoism is not a philosophical system; one does not identify and appease a concept like an ‘ego’ or somehow claim that one ought to ‘rid themselves of fixed-ideas’. One is not asked to take on a fixed perspective, some Bauerian-esque egoist “consciousness” (a fixed way of seeing and interpreting the world). Neither is it a theoretical system (say, psychological egoism) [2]. 

Instead, this “egoist tension” is a way of highlighting how such systems and consciousnesses falter, causing a variety of problems in ways of thinking eager for theses, theories, and dogmas (in short, fixed-ideas). In obscuring thisness, we might say that fixed theories fail to do justice to what they seek to describe. They hinder themselves. Fixed philosophies fail to justify what they seek to justify; fixed anarchies fail to escape the governmentalism they wish to attack. In each case, fixed-ideas are “problematic” (literally: they fail to dissolve the “problems” they seek to resolve or they construct new ones for themselves).  

What is the word “egoism” doing in this story? It reminds us of the “this” (“I”, “you”) permanently obscured by fixity. Further, it does so without saying what “this” is, what “I am” (to do so would entail constructing a “that”, ironically setting “this” up as egoistic against it — I am this person in this coffee-shop; if I were said to be elsewhere, one would show not a “this” but a “that”!). Even the word “Unique”, in describing “this”, refers to something totally novel every time it is used. Descriptions of the Unique, then, describe the word and its grammar (how the word works discursively, how we interact with it, how it brings the Unique into view, etc.), not the Unique. 

Dissolution or Resolution

To assert egoism is to dissolve its tension; it dissolves itself. Note how I do not say the tension is resolved. Stirner does not present another idea to counter one he is attacking with the intent of resolving the contradiction between them, unifying them into a new, third concept (a conceptual unity). It has been dissolved into a nonconceptual disunity

Stirner’s work is not a form of “criticism;” he does not “resolve” problems and so engage in further conceptual development [3]. Instead, he can be better thought of as engaging in a kind of Wittgenstein-esque “clarification”, identifying features of a situation that have been systematically obscured or overlooked. Egoism draws our attention to that which a fixed-idea, in obscuring, admits. This is the importance of the Spuk (“Phantasm,” “Spook”) [4]. Stirner does not say that morality must be denied because it is a “spook”, by which he means it “doesn’t exist”, is “not empirical”, or is “not objective”. Existence, empiricism, objectivity, etc., are not entirely relevant to the Stirnerian Challenge [5]. Instead, the Spuk identifies how fixed-ideas obscure “this”. 

Egoism is, in this way, a means of drawing emphasis: in drawing attention to this, one decenters an idea that has been fixed by emphasizing the excess, the multifaceted thisness of the Unique. Fixity fails to maintain itself and the Nothing comes spilling in [6].

Stirner’s approach resembles a “yes, and…” — rather than simply criticizing ideas, Stirner might be said to draw attention to the Unique that has been systematically obscured. ‘Yes, I am what I am said to be, and so I am this. I am more than what I am said to be, even if only by simple virtue of my thisness.’ The fixed-idea implies the Unique: needing (but always failing) to conceive the particular case, they are a necessary facet of conceptual development which that development must systematically deny. When no longer obscured by the “Spuk”, those facets exceed their restraints and the entire hierarchy crumbles into non-conceptual disunity.

When asserted, egoism dissolves that fixed-idea — and egoism (there is nothing “higher” against which you are “egoistic”). One is simply this, themself, their measure, cause, and value-giver. One takes all as their own, asserts their own as owner. Egoism reminds us of the presence of “I”. Reading through my previous essays, rather than saying there must necessarily be no God, or no morality, or no complexity, I am more excited to point out all of the ways that these ideas are mine. So I call the Unique “all-consuming”; “the good” is “my good”, e.g., whatever is “good” for me, however it is “good”, whenever it is “good” — i.e., no clear concept of “good” at all. And so on with every other idea I tackle.

So too does the particular dissolve. Under the rule of a fixed-idea it appears singular (an isolated, atomic individual). But now? It is this, i.e., beyond any conceptual atomism confining it. The individual gives way to the Unique, the creative Nothing after which my third essay is named. Nothing not in the sense of emptiness or abstractness, infinite re-inventability or pure freedom — but immediacy and indeterminacy, non-essentialism and ownness. The Unique lacks any center or border: it is not merely the “general” as it is always this; neither is it merely the individual “particular”, as it is always more than any singularity conceived around it. To say otherwise is to reintroduce egoism. In its full complexity and diversity it is the unknowable this, as “to know” is to know “that”. I am not a “what” but a “who”, not conceived but viewed!

Andrew Kemle notes (correctly) that “it’s hard not to think that the very notion of “I” loses every meaning that the word has carried for likely its entire existence.” I say “of course!” as, if we kept them, I would be made to be an egoist against them! It’s not just that, as Kemle puts it, I believe “any description of the world incompatible with or actively ignoring who people really are is a harmful description,” any theoretical description at all is catastrophically wrong.

Theory or Poetry

Stirner’s method may be thought of as a kind of therapy. It identifies the futile dis-ease caused by a fixed-idea, and, through egoism, identifies how that dis-ease may be dissolved [7].

To apply my perspective positively so that I do not re-assert egoism against myself, I do not seek to commit myself to theses (statements about essences and necessary truths, attempts at fixing) [8]. Building off Stirner’s understanding of names [9], I mean to articulate one particular mode of presenting my topic; drawing attention to, without drawing borders around; tying connections without obscuring differences. I want to describe poetically, without permanently obscuring (i.e., without re-constructing fixity). Even if I have not always succeeded, I mean to take into account that “any description at all is catastrophically wrong”, to not commit myself to theses of what ‘must be’ and so re-assert the egoist tension [10]. The result, I argue, is a novel tool (although I know I am not the first to notice this, and Stirner is not alone in this novelty). 

Andrew Kemle argues (and I may agree) that the word “self” is an “inaccurate and limiting abstraction,” that “the term ‘Unique’ typically emphasizes rather clear-cut separations of one thing from another.” True, but this isn’t the only thing that the word “Unique” emphasizes, it draws attention to particularity for example (and in using a word in new ways, can it not emphasize new things?). But all this is to say is that the term “Unique” is not universally practical — but I don’t claim that. I preferred “Nothing” in my third essay to emphasize my complexity and “thisness” here to clarify Stirner’s “egoism”. Yet neither is it universally practical to emphasize my “complexity” — it, too, can be a “limiting abstraction” and there may be cases where a way of perceiving myself as a single, bodily agent may be more useful. These terms’ “inaccuracy” is relevant only when they are set as a fixed-idea (such as a thesis of what is, or is essentially so) such that they obscure “this” as permanently inessential or out of focus. 

“Egoism” itself is not a fixed perspective and Stirner pains to describe the ‘joy of losing sight of oneself’. I am not forced at all to filter or perceive my world and experiences through some “egoist focus.” Egoism is merely one method to release us from fixed perspectives, highlighting a contrast between a “who” and a posited “what” such that we may be released from undue or dis-easing commitments to that “what”. It is not universally, but locally practical. It is local to the problems it dissolves. Only by extending it beyond this — letting our thoughts get away from us — does it become a Spuk, a fixed-idea. My method is not to replace one view with another but to release us from fixed views and their problems, to point to ‘ways of perceiving’ as locally practical, bringing that locality into focus. I mean to say “yes, and…” — it is not that ‘we ought never unduly universalize’, but rather that we are released from the need to. 

An Application of Stirner

This was how I meant The Anarchist and The Nothing: to see the world as my property — to say my bones are mountains and my veins, rivers — is to point, if poetically, to how a particular, environmental interest might be sparked in me [11]. The “Stirnerian” approach I use — one among many — is meant to highlight topics of potential interest, to sketch out ways of perceiving (using). I meant to construct a local way of perceiving which does not claim its own necessity or universality; a sufficiently anarchist anarchy [12].

The aim to draw attention to, relate, make useful, etc., rather than theorize is part of a difference I feel exists between myself and Andrew Kemle. I believe he misunderstands some of my point, but that’s my own fault for misunderstanding his:

I’m merely stating that if selves aren’t completely indistinguishable, then it’s rational…for a selfish person to work towards the interests of others if they want to maximize their utility, but that’s a normative statement, not an ontological one. People can act ‘irrationally’ as much as they want without that necessarily undermining the normative thrust of saying that you should act in Y way if you value X.

By recontextualizing “selfishness” (understood through an economic utility) vis-à-vis “complexity”, Kemle effectively resolves problems presented by bourgeois, conceptual selfishness. His focus is on this selfishness, as he points out, not Stirner (so my first response to him, if useful for myself to distance Stirner from accusations of anti-sociality or solipsism, is delightfully irrelevant!). 

So let me re-work my relationship with Andrew Kemle as a Stirnerian intervention on anarchy: I still believe a reliance on morality and normativity muddle the work ‘complexity’ can do for anarchism. I see Kemle’s project as a theoretical project, i.e., in some way reliant on theses and fixed-ideas, conceptual development and resolving problems. I believe he has resolved the “problems” presented by a simple, bourgeois selfishness. But, remaining within a fixed-system, asserting a normative theory, etc., his resolution remains “problematic” (as I have previously used that word). In this sense, I am not merely questioning the kinds of premises he is holding, I’m questioning their necessity. 

The point of mine I mentioned Kemle misunderstanding is that I am not saying he fails to construct a normative claim, but that this claim rests on a prior descriptive one. He says, “if you value X”, yet why do I value X? Because I am a complex subject! But — enter egoism — nobody values X, they value x (this “x” particular to them); nobody can do Y, they do y; Nobody is Z, they are z [13]. Egoism presents normativity, and all theses, with a problem much more slippery than merely skepticism or nihilism: the particularity of each case asserts itself via its own particularity (thisness); each general is particularized. These theoretical approaches are then left with the difficulty of being incapable of grasping in the way their method (theory) demands they do so; their result is doing injustice toward their subject matter, failing to apply themself meaningfully, or simply recreating what they sought to resolve.

This is how Kemle, too, might be taken to be “catastrophically wrong.” I am not saying it is factually incorrect to say that we are complex, that he is factually wrong. Neither is it universally impractical to emphasize complexity. Instead, wrongness (injustice) creeps in where a description like this transforms into a thesis, a fixed-idea, such that we can make a normative statement in the first place.  

If a person is said to be Thing A (a Complex Agent), their thisness demonstrates that they exceed their “A”-ness. Yes I am “A”, and I am this “a”, I am more than “A”. I am only ever capable of x interest, and y action; I exceed any complex interests (conceptually fixed). This egoism is not a problem for the Stirnerian, one whose descriptions don’t “get away from them”, as they are seen solely as local ways of perceiving and (while remaining this) do not permanently obscure the Unique, reasserting egoism. But it is a problem for any thesis of what ‘must be’, any assertion of a fixed-idea. Returning to my third essay: this ‘complex interest,’ when limited and shackled within a conceptual hierarchy [14], remains an oversimplification that fails to do justice to actual complexity. Harking back to my handling of reason in my first essay: Neither can we derive from it any normative claim that actually has any bite to its bark. 

If people are not (or are more than) what Kemle says they are, and are not (or more than) capable of acting the way he says they should, his normativity — even if logically coherent — is redundant. Bringing in egoism, I mean only to show this “more than”. I am not saying Kemle fails to accomplish a coherent logic of “if A then B”, “if you value A, do B”, etc. Rather, I ask if we actually “value A” and challenge people’s capability to answer his normative call in the first place if they did. I am not saying “you shouldn’t care about anyone else”: I am casting doubt on what the point of rendering that (or anything else) as a normative claim would even be for anarchists. Of course we can conclude morality from Kemle’s premise — but why would we want to? His description does not fully describe, so its normative ends don’t actually graft onto those sought to be described [15]. His emphasis is fixing, whereas I argue we do not need it to be.

Stripped of its fixity, ‘complexity’ becomes solely an object of comparison — a locally practical way of conceiving or seeing the world. But we cannot derive from this any clear notion of normativity, let alone morality. It is not a thesis of what the world ‘must be’. I don’t see much sense in anarchists rooting themselves in this style of thinking (especially not when a premise like complexity seems to lead us out of it). A normative claim doesn’t seem to be anything more than an expectation, but one with the caveat that, when not met, the failing party is categorized as a deviant. As an Anarchist, I find this suspect. But we are not stuck with this style of thinking: we can achieve Kemle’s ends without committing ourselves to fixity, and so avoid the problems normative and absolutive claims bring when we attempt to link them to anarchist ideas.

  1. “Theory of Der Einzige: Stirner, Bataille, and Anarchic Abnormality.” Acid Horizon.
  2. A position which, stripped of any way to define “selfishness”, Stirner renders completely incoherent. To call Stirner a psychological egoist would mean one would need to argue that he leaps from the non-theoretical truism that “my interest is my own” (I am the one who is interested, my interest is this) to the theoretical argument “my (and every) interest is of a specific kind” (that kind being whatever concept of selfishness one wishes to put forward). Ironically, I am an egoist against any thesis of psychological egoism.
  3. The general is not “bad” (Stirnerians need not be critics); neither does the general “not exist” (Stirnerians need not be nihilist). Neither is the particular “all there is” (Stirnerians need not be nominalists).
  4. It is a great tragedy that “spooks” have become the go-to when talking about Stirner. They are simultaneously a lot more interesting than simply “Stirner’s way of saying something doesn’t exist,” while also being an overemphasized aspect of his thinking. They are a kind of “fetishization” — similar to how Marx sees commodity fetishism as obscuring the real human labor behind the commodity, so too does Stirner see phantasmal fetishism as obscuring the actual (that which has power, capability, the multifaceted, disunified Nothing) behind the fixed-idea.
  5. God may very well exist, moral realism obtain, etc. — the challenge is not to the existence of the objective, but its solubility, my ability to turn it from that into mine. I assert an alternate relationship to the objective. 
  6. A fixed-idea can be thought of as a kind of picture. I mean picture both in a late Wittgensteinian sense — a concept, perspective, or mode of presenting things — but also in the sense of an actual picture (like a photograph): here, ideas and concepts are represented by the objects depicted within the image. The picture is not just the presence of those objects, but their arrangement and a particular perspective placed upon them. It serves to differentiate and structure them (a picture in which you cannot tell the foreground from the background would be a poor picture). To “draw attention to,” as Stirner does, is like increasing the saturation in a photo so that everything is white. The picture of “morality” finds itself incapable of distinguishing between any of its objects, between good and bad, etc.
  7. This is how all of my previous essays should be understood. In every single essay I sought to show how each “critic” of Stirner (moral, theological, social-critical) merely fixes, a fixation which can easily be clarified and dissolved.
  8. Kuusela, Oskari. The Struggle Against Dogmatism. P.175 —The statement “egoism is a tension” is not a thesis (fixed perception, perspective) about “tensions” or “egoism,” but rather describes how I will be, for the time being, using the word “egoism” and what I want to bring to focus with it.
  9. “[By] christening you with the name Ludwig, one doesn’t intend to say what you are…the name is the empty name to which only the view can give content. (Stirner’s Critics, p.7)” Names may be used as vanishing signifiers, to point or show (the “view”) that which rests outside of language and concepts: the Unique, the creative Nothing.
  10. Writing this essay, I have emphasized particular aspects of Stirner’s arguments, which are more complex, nuanced, and diverse than I can render here. But this is not a problem, as I seek only to draw your attention somewhere.
  11. A moral environmentalism only has its propositions and arguments to articulate (and enforce) a particular environmental interest; an egoist environmentalism has as many avenues toward interest as there can be. Yes, it has many avenues toward disinterest, too, but as I argued in The Egoist: morality does not overcome the ““problem”” of disinterest.
  12. The anarchism I put forward in The Anarchist I likened to that being explored by thinkers such as Shawn Wilbur — anti-absolutist; in all its senses; spilling out of its hats and boots; without ruling principles. I sought to highlight a link between Proudhonian ‘Absolutism’ and Stirnerian ‘Fixity’. Anarchism, anarchy, cannot be produced or contained by fixed-ideas. Anarchy spills out from the grasp of ruling principles; these principles cannot escape their governmentalist character.
  13. In the face of absolute reason, I am incapable of absolute reason and it cannot be expected of me.” (Part I)
  14. From which we derive a normative claim or an absolutist statement (transforming a description of reality into a statement about what reality “must” be.
  15. My descriptions don’t fully describe either, but they aren’t meant to.
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