Peter Lamborn Wilson, Advocate of ‘Poetic Terrorism,’ Dies at 76
From New York Times By Penelope Green | June 11, 2022
His concept of a “temporary autonomous zone” became an inspiration for protests like Occupy Wall Street and for gatherings like Burning Man.
Peter Lamborn Wilson, a counterculture intellectual, anarchist, poet, musicologist and utopian who coined the term “temporary autonomous zone,” which became a cri de coeur for the organizers behind both Burning Man and Occupy Wall Street — as well as for ravers, cyberpunks and other late-20th-century antiestablishmentarians — died on May 23 at his home in Saugerties, N.Y. He was 76.
The cause was heart failure, said Jim Fleming, his publisher.
Mr. Wilson’s book “T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism,” was a slim volume first published by Autonomedia, Mr. Fleming’s company, in 1991. Mr. Wilson wrote it under a pseudonym, Hakim Bey. (He liked to pretend that his made-up alter ego was a real person.)
The book’s central premise was that one could create one’s own stateless society — the goal of anarchy — with simple and poetic acts like creating public art and communal exercises like dinner parties. It quickly acquired a cult following, particularly among those who frequented the aisles of alternative bookstores looking for inspiration on how to sidestep or disrupt the capitalist mainstream.
When, in the fall of 2011, a crowd of protesters decrying the country’s financial system built an encampment inside Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and declared a movement they called Occupy Wall Street, “T.A.Z.” was in many of the organizers’ backpacks. And when the Occupiers opened their People’s Library there, which swelled to some 3,600 volumes, “T.A.Z.” was one of the first on its shelves. With sales of about 50,000 — a blockbuster for the genre — it remains one of Autonomedia’s best sellers.
Temporary autonomous zones have continued to flourish, and the term gained new currency in recent years: In June 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters in Seattle, and then in Portland, Ore., took over the streets and proclaimed their own autonomous zones.
Mr. Wilson’s book “made anarchism’s ideas accessible,” said Cara Hoffman, a novelist and one of the founders 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.”
“T.A.Z.” seems to take its cues from the Situationist Manifesto and its prose style from Allen Ginsberg. A sample: “Weird dancing in all-night computer-banking lobbies. Unauthorized pyrotechnic displays. Land-art, earthworks as bizarre alien artifacts strewn in State Parks. Burglarize houses but instead of stealing, leave Poetic-Terrorist objects.”
Additional bullet points include exhortations to boycott products marked as Lite; hex the Muzak company; go on strike; dance all night; start a pirate radio station; put up posters; home-school your kids or teach them a craft; don’t vote; be a hobo.
Like the Italian Futurists, or Gordon Matta-Clark, Carol Goodden and the other artists who in 1971 opened the SoHo restaurant Food as an exercise in performance art and community, Mr. Wilson was particularly drawn to the regenerative and creative possibilities of the dinner party. He called it a “union of egoists,” quoting the philosopher Max Stirner, “in its simplest form.”
Mr. Wilson’s background, unsurprisingly, was eclectic. He was a classics major at Columbia University but dropped out. He helped start a psychedelic church, and he pondered, briefly, a career as an antiwar activist (an attempt to bomb a draft headquarters in red paint fizzled) before hitting the hippie hashish trail, as many of his peers did, traveling through the Middle East and South Asia.
He visited all the usual spots and had all the usual adventures before settling in Tehran to study Persian Sufism. With the ouster of the Shah of Iran in 1979, he returned to the United States and moved into an apartment on the Lower East Side.
He worked out his disillusionment with the failed promise of the 1960s — the revolution that never came — in 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 Kathy Acker, the postpunk novelist and performance artist.
By all accounts, Mr. Wilson was erudite about the recondite, a prolific author of some 60 books on topics ranging from angels to pirate utopias and all manner of renegade religions. He was for years an East Village fixture and the host of “The Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade,” a late-night program on WBAI, Manhattan’s countercultural radio station. On his show, he might declaim on higher mathematics, play a selection of esoteric music like Sufi chants or Greek rembetika, and review zines, the D.I.Y. journals that flourished in the late 1980s and ‘90s.
But because his writing often included erotic imagery of young teenage boys, he was controversial.
“I always had a fairly conflicted position about how to handle the issue,” Mr. Fleming said. “Whether to downplay it or try to defend it in some way. He identified as gay, but I never knew him to have a sexual partner, or an actual sex life. His sexual practices were what I call Whitmanesque, imaginal only.”
Peter Lamborn Wilson was born on Oct. 20, 1945, in Baltimore. The only child of Douglas Emory Wilson, a career Army officer and English professor, and Laura (Packwood) Wilson, a high school teacher, he grew in New Brunswick N.J.
No immediate family members survive.
As productive as Mr. Wilson was, his work was not exactly lucrative. He lived on a small stipend from his father, and on the money he made selling pot. He often described himself as independently poor and a “trustafarian,” Mr. Fleming said.
“He was a fascinating character,” said Lucy Sante, the cultural historian and author of books, like “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York,” that tell stories of urban fringe dwellers. Ms. Sante often took Mr. Wilson to lunch — as many did; it was understood that you would pick up the tab — in Woodstock, N.Y., where Mr. Wilson was living for a time.
“He knew a lot about everything,” Ms. Sante said. “The thing we had in common was an interest in dropout culture, in all the 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 also I think what he was doing was scattering bread crumbs for others to pick up.”