Peter Lamborn Wilson, advocate of ‘poetic terrorism’, dies at 76
Peter Lamborn Wilson, a counterculture intellectual, anarchist, poet, musicologist, and utopian who coined the term “Temporary Self-Governing Zone,” which has become a shoutout to the organizers behind Burning Man and Occupy Wall Street — as well as for ravers, cyberpunks, and other late 20th-century anti-establishment — died May 23 at his home in Saugerties, NY. He was 76.
The cause was heart failure, said Jim Fleming, its editor.
Mr. Wilson’s book “TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism”, was a small volume first published by Autonomedia, Mr. Fleming’s company, in 1991. Mr. Wilson wrote it under a pseudonym, Hakim Bey. (He liked to pretend his invented alter ego was a real person.)
The central premise of the book was that one could create one’s own stateless society – the goal of anarchy – with simple, poetic acts like creating public art and community exercises like dinner parties. The book gained a cult following, especially among those who roamed the aisles of alternative bookstores looking for inspiration on how to circumvent or disrupt the capitalist mainstream.
When, in the fall of 2011, a crowd of protesters decrying the country’s financial system set up camp inside Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and declared a movement they called Occupy Wall Street, “TAZ.” was in many of the organizers’ backpacks. And when the occupiers opened their popular library there, which swelled to some 3,600 volumes, “TAZ” was one of the first on its shelves. With sales of around 50,000 – a blockbuster for the genre – it remains one of Autonomedia’s bestsellers.
Temporary Autonomous Zones have continued to flourish, and the term has grown in popularity in recent years. In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters in Seattle and then Portland, Oregon took to the streets and proclaimed their own autonomous zones.
Wilson’s book “made the ideas of anarchism accessible,” said Cara Hoffman, novelist and founder of The Anarchist Review of Books, a print journal. “It explained anarchism in such a way that people could understand that in everyday life most of us already practice some of its core principles.”
“TAZ” seems to be inspired by the Situationist Manifesto and its prose style by Allen Ginsberg. An example: “Weird dancing in computer bank lobbies all night long. Pyrotechnic shows not allowed. Land-art, earthworks like bizarre alien artifacts strewn across state parks. Rob houses but instead of stealing leave poetic-terrorist items.
Additional bullet points include urgings to boycott products marked as Lite; bewitch the Muzak Company; go on strike; dance all night; start a pirate radio station; Display posters; homeschool your children or teach them a trade; do not vote; to be a wanderer.
Like the Italian Futurists and artists who opened Manhattan’s SoHo Food restaurant in 1971 (Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden among them) as an exercise in performance art and community, Mr. Wilson was particularly drawn to the possibilities regenerative and creative dinner. He called it a “union of egoists”, quoting philosopher Max Stirner, “in its simplest form”.
Mr. Wilson’s background, unsurprisingly, was eclectic. He was a classics student at Columbia University, but dropped out. He helped start a psychedelic church, and he briefly considered a career as an anti-war activist (an attempt to bombard a headquarters project with red paint failed) before hitting the hash trail. hippie, as many of his peers did, traveling through the Middle East. East and South Asia.
He visited all the usual places and had all the usual adventures before moving to Tehran to study Persian Sufism. With the Shah’s ouster from Iran in 1979, he returned to the United States and moved into an apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Mr. Wilson worked his disillusionment with the failed promise of the 1960s – the revolution that never came – into provocative writing that appeared in avant-garde journals like Semiotext(e), where French intellectuals like Michel Foucault mingled with American beats like Ginsberg and William Burroughs and radical feminists like Kate Millett and postpunk novelist and performance artist Kathy Acker.
By all accounts, Mr. Wilson was a scholar of secrecy, a prolific author of some sixty books on subjects ranging from angels to pirate utopias and all manner of renegade religions. He was for years an East Village staple and the host of “The Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade,” a late-night show on WBAI, Manhattan’s countercultural radio station. On his show, he could rant about higher math, play a selection of esoteric music like Sufi chants or Greek rembetika, and review the zines, the do-it-yourself journals that flourished in the late 1980s and 1990s.
But because his writings often included erotic images of young teenagers, he was controversial.
“I’ve always had a pretty divisive stance on how to handle the issue,” Mr Fleming said. “Whether to belittle it or try to defend it in some way. He identified as gay, but I never knew him as having a sexual partner or a real sex life. His sexual practices were what I call Whitmanesque, purely imaginal.
Peter Lamborn Wilson was born on October 20, 1945 in Baltimore, the only child of Douglas Emory Wilson, a career army officer and English teacher, and Laura (Packwood) Wilson, a high school teacher. He grew up in New Brunswick NJ No immediate family members survive.
As productive as Mr. Wilson was, his work was not exactly lucrative. He lived on a small allowance from his father and the money he earned selling weed. He has often described himself as a poor independent and a “trustafarian”, Mr Fleming said.
“He was a fascinating character,” said Lucy Sante, a cultural historian and author of books like “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York,” which tell stories of people living on the urban fringes. Mrs. Sante often took Mr. Wilson to lunch – as many did; it was understood that you would pay the bill – in Woodstock, NY, where Mr. Wilson lived for a time.
“He knew a lot about everything,” Ms. Health said. “The thing we had in common was an interest in dropout culture, in all ways of not participating in the charade of modern life. And he was encyclopedic in his knowledge of all that material. He was an eccentric , but I also think what he was doing was scattering bread crumbs for others to pick up.