Find Freedom in Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone”

Photo by Thierry Ehrmann http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hakim_Bey,_painted_portrait_DDC_3021.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hakim_Bey,_painted_portrait_DDC_3021.jpg
Portrait of Hakim Bey

In a 1991 essay, Hakim Bey laid the groundwork for “The Temporary Autonomous Zone,” a philosophy-cum-tactic for liberation from the dominant order.

Bey purposefully leaves the TAZ undefined, opting rather to illuminate some of its primary characteristics: freedom from the state (chiefly), mobility, “psychotopology,” festal culture, immediacy, horizontal communication for both practical and desirable purposes, “pirate economics” (“living high off the surplus of social overproduction”), etc. He illustrates these characteristics with some historical antecedents and inspired quotes (including a few from “Omar FitzGerald”).

By way of both recommending the bookand mentioning some of the potential elements of the TAZ, I’d like to hone in on a few of the prototypes Bey discusses in the section “Gone to Croatan.”

The title of that section stems from the historical circumstances surrounding the 16th-century colony, Roanoke. As Bey explains, these expeditions to the New World were “conceived from the start as an occultist operation. […] The alchemical view of the New World associated it with materia prima or hyle, the ‘state of Nature,’ innocence and all-possibility (‘Virgin-ia’), a chaos or inchoateness which the adept would transmute into ‘gold,’ that is, into spiritual perfection as well as material abundance.”

The colony is renowned for the mysterious circumstances surrounding its colonists. When Governor John White arrived in Roanoke from England with supplies, all 100-plus members of the colony had mysteriously disappeared. The only clue he found was a carving on a tree: “Gone To Croatan,” or “Croatoan.” Though the whereabouts of the “Lost Colony” have been disputed, Bey, along with perhaps a majority of historians, believes its inhabitants merged with the the native Croatans. The colonists, thus, took the alchemical return to nature one step further than he had anticipated.

By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Great Dismal Swamp

Bey continues tracing this course through history, through antinomians and “pirate utopias,” before approaching a series of noteworthy autonomous peoples, beginning with the Great Dismal Swamp maroons. Bey says that they “persisted through the 18th- and 19th-centuries, adopting runaway slaves, functioning as a way station on the Underground Railway, and serving as a religious and ideological center for slave rebellions.” Their religion was “HooDoo, a mixture of African, native, and Christian elements.” While they lived a relatively free existence outside the boundaries of “society,” they did so at the cost of living in the tough climate which the name implies.

Moving geographically northward and historically onward, we find the Ben-Ishmael Tribe. The Ishmaels made use of an interesting variety of practices and ideas. According to Bey, they “made their living as minstrels, intermarried with Indians and adopted their customs, and were so devoted to nomadism that they built their houses on wheels. Their annual migration triangulated on frontier towns with names like Mecca and Medina. In the 19th-century some of them espoused anarchist ideals, and they were targeted by the Eugenicists for a particularly vicious pogrom of salvation-by-extermination.”

The ire which they aroused in the eugenicists makes one wonder how much it had to do with race and how much it might have had to do with expressions of freedom which the dominant society found too unusual or threatening.

Getting back to the bigger picture — and one of the main reasons why I wanted to trace this particular line in Bey’s historical survey — the commonalities between these groups underline a natural-spiritual tradition that could be relevant today. Specifically, these groups used what they most responded to in nature and spirituality as a means to escape persecution, oppression, and various types of devastation.

I believe this model could be used, at least as inspiration, as a tool to combat the most negative aspects of what might oppress us, whether they be related to the environment or the impingement of freedom. While Bey wisely avoids defining the TAZ, his illustrations of it begin to open the doors through which we might venture further.

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.