Tag Archives: surrealism

The Stirner Approach

Vanishing Individual

Originally published on March 18, 2003

David Westling wrote:
I found your essay provocative, if a little too sweeping; but essentially I agree. What is your opinion of the role of radical egoism (Stirner) in the revolution that dada could have embodied? Is there an archive of postings that I can access to see what threads of discussion there have been? Thank you for your attention.

I write:
Thanks sir, for your interest in the Scenewash Project website. Unfortunately the work has stalled in its present dormant state for more than three years now, a state precipitated by the rudderless and noisy self-interest of several persons of varying ages and backgrounds scattered across the globe joined together as compatriots only to embark on a no-holds barred investigation we hoped would lead us to an "immediate" worldview, a worldview that both interpreted the world as we know it, and one that deployed us with the marching orders surely every proud intelligence would both recognize as brutally honest and timelessly truthful earmarked for the gristmill of the spectacular society with its impending doom of logical and illogical combatants.

I blame our ultimate failure on the impetuous motives of youth. Half of us were still in college. The other half were in our forties and self-learned (forgive the failures of this particular term, since no one learns in a vacuum, but then collective learning is a misnomer as well). We sputted about for a couple of years and finally spun out without much ado. Of course, the collective project's demise was sealed months, even a year or so before September 11. That dreadful day did nothing to bring us any new energies, and so the project, at least in its collective form, ceased to exist. My plans to return the project to its original state as a personal work is moving forward only in small periodic increments.

Provocative? Yes. First and foremost. Nothing if not provocative. A little too sweeping? Ah, another fine visit from the most frequent criticism aimed at me. No harm done however. Indeed, the problem as I've seen it has always been tackling the universal problem of the balkanization of the universal, and yet while loathing cliche and sloganeering as useless placebos of individual freedom, I have not given myself over to the ultimate work, avoiding it as a painful and perhaps worthless departure from the daily toils of tending to my wife's own dead ends.

However, I make no excuses.

As to Stirner, this is all I know...

STIRNER, MAX, was the nom de plume of the German individualist philosopher Johann Kaspar Schmidt. Born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, Schmidt had a poor childhood (like myself). His academic career was long and fragmented. I am uneducated, while sponging from the world of books and media like there is no other purpose to life than to had read tto much to be of any worldly good.

From 1826 to 1828 Stirner, however, studied philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he fell under the influence of Hegel. After brief periods at the universities of Erlangen and Konigsberg, he returned to Berlin in 1832 and with some difficulty gained a certificate to teach in Prussian Gymnasiums. Several years of poverty and unemployment followed, until Schmidt found a position as teacher in a Berlin academy for young ladies run by a Madame Gropius. After this he lived something of a double life: the respectable teacher of young ladies also marked time as the aspiring philosophical writer who assumed the name of Stirner.

The immediate stimulus that provoked Stirner to write his one important book, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (Leipzig, 1845; translated by Steven T. Byington as The Ego and His Own, New York, 1907), was his association with the group of young Hegelians known as Die Freien (the "free ones"), who met under the leadership of the brothers Bruno and Edgar Bauer. In this company Stirner met Marx, Engels, Arnold Ruge, Georg Herwegh, and many other revolutionary intellectuals. In the same circle he also met Marie Dahnhardt, whom he married in 1843 and who left him in 1847. Before the publication of his book Stirner produced only a few brief periodical pieces, including an essay on educational methods printed by Karl Marx in Rheinische Zeitung.

His thought. Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, a treatise in defense of philosophic egoism, carried to its extreme the young Hegelian reaction against Hegel's teachings. In part it was a bitter attack on contemporary philosophers, particularly those with social inclinations. Stirner's associates among Die Freien were rejected as strongly as Hegel and Feuerbach.

Stirner's approach was characterized by a passionate anti-intellectualism which led him to stress the will and the instincts as opposed to the reason. He attacked systematic philosophies of every kind, denied all absolutes, and rejected abstract and generalized concepts of every kind. At the center of his vision he placed the human individual, of whom alone we can have certain knowledge; each individual, he contended, is unique, and this uniqueness is the very quality he must cultivate to give meaning to his life. Hence, he reached the conclusion that the ego is a law unto itself and that the individual owes no obligations outside himself. All creeds and philosophies based on the concept of a common humanity are, in Stirner's view, false and irrational; rights and duties do not exist; only the might of the ego justifies its actions.

There is much in common between Stirner's embattled ego and Nietzsche's superman; indeed, Stirner was seen as a forerunner of Nietzsche during the 1890s.

Stirner has often been included with the anarchist philosophers, and he has much in common with them. However, he differs from writers like Godwin, Proudhon, and Kropotkin in that the idea of a system of natural law, or immanent justice, which human law negates, is essential to their points of view. Stirner, however, rejected the idea of any such law, and in this respect he stands nearer to certain existentialists and the nihilists, Furthermore, while the anarchist seeks freedom as his ultimate goal, Stirner regarded such an aim as always being limited by external necessities; in its place he sought uniqueness or "ownness." "Every moment," he said, "the fetters of reality cut the sharpest welts in my flesh. But my own I remain."

Stirner agreed with the anarchists, however, in regarding the state as the great enemy of the individual who seeks to fulfill his "own will," The state and the self-conscious and willful ego cannot exist together; therefore the egoist must seek to destroy the state, but by rebellion rather than by revolution. This distinction is essential to Stirner's doctrine. Revolution, in overthrowing an established order, seeks to create another order; it implies a faith in institutions. Rebellion is the action of individuals seeking to rise above the condition they reject; it "demands that one rise, or exalt oneself." Revolution is a social or political act; rebellion is an individual act, and therefore appropriate to the egoist. If rebellion prospers, the state will collapse.

In rebellion the use of force is inevitable, and Stirner envisaged "the war of each against all," in which the egoist fights with all the means at his command. This viewpoint led Stirner to justify and even to exalt crime. Crime is the assertion of the ego, the rejection of the sacred. The aim of egoist rebellion is the free wielding of power by each individual.

In Stirner's view the end of this process is not conflict but a kind of dynamic balance of power between men aware of their own might, for the true egoist realizes that excessive possessions and power are merely limitations on his own uniqueness. His assertion is based on the absence of submissiveness in others; the withdrawal of each man into his uniqueness lessens rather than increases the chance of conflict, for "as unique you have nothing in common with the other any longer, and therefore nothing divisive or hostile either." Stirner argued that far from producing disunity among individuals, egoism allows the freest and most genuine of unions, the coming together without any set organization of the "Union of Egoists," which replace not only the state with its political repression but also society with its less obvious claims.

Later years. Der Einzige und sein Eigentum is not just a most extreme expression of individualism, it is also the single manifestation of Stirner's own revolt against a frustrating life that finally submerged him. In his totally undistinguished later years he embarked on a series of unsuccessful commercial ventures and translated English and French economists. His remaining work, Die Geschichte der Reaktion (Berlin, 1852), lacked the fire of discontent that made his earlier works provocative. Stirner's last years were shadowed by declining powers and haunted by creditors; he died poor and forgotten in 1856.

Yet another status quo philosopher, n'est pas? The world is THE WAY IT IS BECAUSE of radical egos at work and at play. The problem with Stirner's (and Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand, and yadda yadda's) brand of ME FIRST AND ONLY ideology (or anti-ideology) is that the world simply is, no matter what we or he or she believes (in ultra-competition or ultra-cooperation or the bastard hybrid we know now), and while Stirner's description of his own sense of freedom may very well describe most of the world's peculiar sense of ascendency, it does not and can not or at least should not describe it wholly. Limitless freedom is hardly freedom at all but mere tyranny (as Stirner but not Rand points out). And isn't it strange that we can find dozens of competing philosophies with which we find ourselves agreeing with on the surface, until we find ourselves in contradiction as soon as we make our first move in the eternal chess game, taffy-pull, or spelling bee down the block?

I am intrigued however with Stirner's language. Thanks for the tip. For now I have recently discovered Karl Popper, a veritable antithesis to Stirner, and so it goes. As for the archive you request, a partial archive can be found at:

[The following, marked in italics, is no longer available but I include it for memory's sake: Click on the SWILL archive link. I'd say that 60% of the original sworgster swill listserv has been archived. Again, I don't know when or how the other chunk will get posted. The server is a bit slow in returning what's already been punched into the database. There's some decent reading there if you can find it via keyword. Have fun. Join the SWILL. Suffice to say it's also dormant at this hour. Tthe other guys have bailed for one failed premise or another (always distilled to self-interest, or vital necessity in schedule, time, finances, strength, the best excuses in the world, since everybody uses them) but who knows what the future holds in store...]
Except the future does not exist until it becomes the present, even in terms of predestination or teleology.

Prelude To Max Stirner


Originally published on February 4, 2003. This letter was preceded by The Stirner Approach. My response to this Prelude is posted here.

Dear Gabriel Thy,

Thanks for replying so thoughtfully to my post. I would like to comment on what you wrote. Your comments pique my interest on just what kind of disagreements might have been responsible for the group's demise. "Noisy self-interest" covers a lot of ground. It seems to me that in the aftermath of the fall of communism disagreements on the left compounded. 1938 brought a similar crisis to the left. For or against Stalin. Three years earlier Breton's Surrealists experienced a similar debacle. There was no bridging the gap between the poet's investigation into experience and the Party's requirements of practical administration. But it arguably brought to light an irreducible toggle at the very core of the revolutionary project: does the collective or the individual have the ultimate say in charting direction of the revolution? The Surrealists never satisfactorily resolved this problem, and even as late as 1952, Breton indicated that his answer to the question "does the revolution require that social liberation must occur before individual liberation can?" was yes. I don't believe he really thought out all the possible implications that attend to this issue.

If social liberation is primary, doesn't it follow that individuals are reduced to an instrumental role? This question goes to the core of the entire Marxist project. My reference to your manifesto being "a little too sweeping" should be explained, I suppose. What I meant was that to assert that nothing of note has happened since the, what? The 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition perhaps?

Was going a bit too far. Personally, I find some of Matta's 1960's works a real extension of the Surrealist outlook. Even Pop has a role in furthering our ideas of personal liberation. Of course, I look at the best of Pop as being heavily laced with irony, so that it can be read as a critique of commodity capitalism. I agree with you the the "balkanization of the universal" is something we need to transcend. I too am an autodidact, to a large degree. I do have 24 semester hours' credit from Roosevelt University in Chicago dating from 1972-74.

My first great epiphany came at attending the Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in March 1974. His work and life showed me that formal education provided more obstacles than opportunities. I find academia to be one of the principal obstacles to both individual and social transformation. My second great epiphany came from understanding the intimate connection between Duchamp and Max Stirner in 1989. My course has been set ever since. The bulk of the fruits of my interest in this connection is forthcoming, but it won't be too long now.

Collectives that legislate what’s good for the others against their consent is no good. Self-directed anarchism could avoid these problems if brutality could be expunged form the consciousness of the millions. That if is so big you can drive a truck through it, I know. But the revolution is impossible without it. Start small, get bigger. Revolution from below.
You really shouldn't lift whole sections of material from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Stirner and present it as your own thought, although you chose a reputable source. George Woodcock, although prone to some of the same collectivist biases as so many other commentators on Stirner, did do a pretty good job at characterizing his thought.

I guess you're already surmising that I vehemently disagree with your characterization of Stirner as "yet another status quo philosopher". Your evaluation sound a lot like Karl Marx's ideas on the subject, and I am painfully aware that the situationists used Marx as their basic philosophical substrate. Do you know a book that came out in 2002 by Kristin Ross called "May '68 and its Afterlives"? She, too, decries the "creeping individualism" that has seeped into the discourse on May '68 and related phenomena. But that is material for another post.

The thing that is important now is to indicate just why Stirner is not just another apologist for the small-time shopkeeper. The key point has to do with the irreducible toggle in the individualism/collectivism question: can I keep my own prerogatives intact if I allow a collective entity to be primary in my own mind and, by extension, in the world?

The answer, I'm afraid, is no, and if this is true, then my own instrumentalism at the hand of the collectivity is inevitable. This engenders what Stanley Milgram (yes, that Milgram) calls the "agentic state", in which I sign away my right of decision in favor of one "in authority". I presume you are aware of the infamous Milgram experiments of 1960. One look at the results of these experiments should be enough to convince that ours is not a world in which "enlightened" egoism rules, only the debased kind, the infantile kind. Where vulgar egoism leaves off, Stirner begins. It is possible to trace a trajectory of an increase in "affective individualism" (as the historian Lawrence Stone terms it), beginning in the late 17th century and continuing up to the present time. Kinship ties have weakened, and individual prerogatives strengthened, in a fairly unbroken progression ever since this began. One of the main problems, in my opinion, is that this process has only gone halfway through its cycle.

Individual empowerment is what we all need, not a centralized plan of forced income redistribution. This will only result in endless counterrevolution. It is moralism run wild, what confounded the French Revolution and the communist one as well. Collectives that legislate what's good for the others against their consent is no good. Self-directed anarchism could avoid these problems if brutality could be expunged form the consciousness of the millions. That if is so big you can drive a truck through it, I know. But the revolution is impossible without it. Start small, get bigger. Revolution from below. Because there will always be struggle. Civilization is not a given. Each generation struggles anew with different, and if not different the same exact variables as the generation of their fathers. Without the foundation of the individual, a civil structure cannot be retained for long.

I believe we are not so very far apart philosophically. Breton, as well as Picabia, Max Ernst and Duchamp, all found Stirner to be quite compelling. It is only a question of continuing to resolve all the inconsistencies attending to the implementation of collectively constituted projects that keeps us from moving forward. Only.

We are not talking small-time stuff here, n'est ce-pas? Please respond if you care to.


David Westling

Apologia From Gabriel
Apologies to Mr. Westling for taking the liberty, a liberty he may indeed characterize as overreach in re-publishing our short tet-a-tet without his expressed permission. But I find our brief work here worthwhile in pointing up a few crucial ideas central to any thriving philosophy which, by definition, must thoroughly engage the contemporary situation (where the individual finds himself threatened and made inert) at every level in both leaping tall buildings like storied men of action and crawling upon hands and knees thorough the filthy sewers of a collpasing infrastructure like rodents of an unrepentant generation, if we are to move beyond the fine words of old heroes and other remarkable curvatures of the spine.