In Defence of TAZ – A Response to Jonny’s Review

by , under Church, Economics, Emerging Church, Politics, Theology

Jonny has posted a very comprehensive review of ‘Other’ on his blog, which is well worth a read. He admits that he found it tricky to get right given the back-and-forth we’ve had recently over the issue of institutions, but I think he’s done a good job.

It seems that the book is causing quite a stir, which I’m very happy about! There’s little point writing something that everyone can just nod along to, so I really welcome the disagreement, and it may be that Jonny and I will get together and have a conversation in public about the issues the book raises, which would be brilliant.

Having set out loads of reasons why he loved the book – ‘creative, provocative…  since reading the book i have thought about it a lot which i can’t say for all the books i read…’ – he moves into a lengthy critique of TAZ as a mode of engaging ‘the other’ within society in a practical way, which I want to respond a bit to here.

TAZ is a concept I picked up from the American anarchist writer Hakim Bey (or Peter Lamborn Wilson, depending on the day.) Jonny summarises it well:

In a regime of power people find gaps in the maps away from the authorities to create something short lived, temporary, that dissolves before the authorities can latch on to it and it dissolves to re-emerge elsewhere. the rave scene, festivals, flash mobs and so might be examples.

It is, to quote Bey, a ‘penetration of the marvellous.’

Avoiding the Violence of the Permanent

The first thing I want to flag up in defence of TAZ is about why TAZ has emerged at all: as a way of subverting the violence of the permanent. In our desire to create new worlds I strongly criticise the utopian instinct to try to clear and build perfect spaces, which then need defending. In the book I use the example of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, and try to show that any attempt to turn what was a temporary and marvellous penetration of the Kingdom into a permanent system would inevitably lead to violence: who was in, who was out, who deserved the bread, what about those who were trying to make a living as bakers? The questions and problems multiply as we try to take Jesus’ miracle and extend it into everyday life.

Jonny quotes Bauman on this, and talks about the political implications:

Bauman suggests that individualism has won out over community – people are simply not engaging in institutional life, in the political processes, in community, preferring instead this sort of temporality. but actually research suggests that the numbers doing anything in the way of activism a la TAZ are far less than even those in political parties – really where does it lead in effecting real transformation of an unjust society. probably nowhere near where committed engagement does.

Now, if Bauman has does his research I’m sure he is right on the numbers. But I don’t think that this proves that TAZ is worthless as a tool for engaging in justice. Far from it. What I believe it shows is the life-reducing, all-encompassing reach of consumer capitalism. People aren’t joining political parties because people feel that politics is over, that institutional politics has failed. That’s not to say that people have moved from that to an effective engagement in TAZ, and I’d totally support Jonny in saying that the weak-TAZ notion of pick-and-choose, of deciding when to opt in and out of the carnival – which totally lacks any engagement with the other – is utterly useless. But I believe the idea is not only stronger than that, but essential in a world where people have become so jaded, and where institutional processes have also failed to bring justice. Indeed, it has been my common experience that people can hide behind permanent structures in order to avoid engaging the other at any meaningful level.

Permanent Relationships, Temporary Structures

This leads me on to the second, and most important point, something I feel I’ve probably failed to communicate well enough in the book as both Jonny and Ben appear to have missed my point. TAZ is not about temporary relationships. Far from it! The temporary is about the structures that form around those committed relationships.

Going back to Jonny’s point quoted above: ‘where does it lead in effecting real transformation of an unjust society. probably nowhere near where committed engagement does.’ Jonny is contrasting TAZ with committed engagement. I am contrasting TAZ with permanent institutional structures. Again, Jonny – having really liked the ideas I throw around about ‘becoming father and mother to others’ wants to set them up as opposing ideas:

Isn’t temporality as a tactic avoidance of taking up this call to parent? clearly kester doesn’t think so. i do.

TAZ is not a tactic of avoiding the call to be father and mother, because the temporary is not related to the relationships themselves, but to the formal ways in which those relationships might be expressed.

Again, the feeding of the 5000 may serve as a good example here. Jesus’ temporary and miraculous feeding of all these hungry people does not serve to show that he is not engaged in a committed way to them. Quite the opposite. At many different levels of reading – from the traditional connections to the Old Testament to the economic critique – this is Jesus manifesting his commitment to these people in a temporary way as part of an on-going committed engagement. And this is what I believe good parents do. They remain committed to those relationships in the context of secure homes, but move from there to provide TAZ moments to challenge, extend and grow their children. (Schools ought to be learning more from this model, but it’s what Ofsted always called ‘awe and wonder’ in the classroom.)

Mission in the Way of Christ

The question I would like to ask Jonny and others is this: by ministering for only a short time (3 years?) was Jesus failing to act in a committed and engaged way? Couldn’t he have done more? If he had worked for 6 years instead, surely he could have helped more people out of poverty, or done more to expound his new take on the old Jewish teachings? If we are going to reject TAZ, it’s my view that we are rejecting something central to the gospel narratives.

Just to reiterate, TAZ is not about relationships being temporary. It is about structures that form around those relationships not being allowed to ossify. Why? Because its when they do that they begin to lack the flexibility to really serve the poor and the marginalised. Yes, Esther is right – people on the margins to require some permanence and security, and we could parallel that with some of the foundational aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But in order to meet higher needs – which I think is often patronisingly left out of justice projects, ‘because people just need feeding and housing, not to be creative and fulfilled’ – then we need to look to committed, engaged, but flexible and evolving structures. In short, we need to be committed to a path of death and resurrection: to not building structures and claiming that they are good for ever, but committing to dismantling them, looking at what the poor and the marginalised now need, and rebuilding.

But what pains me most at the moment is not the institution of the church – which, contrary to what Jonny may think I think! – is showing some initiative in being flexible in really good ways. What is really hurting people is the steel-thick institution of consumer capitalism that is set up to keep the poor poor, make the rich richer and do so by devouring our planet’s resources. It is against this seemingly unchallengeable, institutionalised, hugely violent, structural system of economics that I find hope in TAZ. And it’s against this that I strongly believe the church should begin a guerilla war in the style of Jesus’ penetratingly marvellous ministry if it really wants to serve the poor. Because if it’s just about converting the poor into good middle-class consumer Christians who can dress well and behave themselves at a garden party (and trust me, I’ve seen it) then frankly, I’m not interested!


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  1. Daniel

    Thanks for this clarifying post.
    Thats the Way I understood your thoughts on TAZ in the book, and thats what made me Love the idea…

  2. Lori

    Kester, thanks for elaborating, and for highlighting the difference between committed relationships and constraining institutional structures. I resonate deeply w/ a TAZ approach to most of life, and love the idea of applying it in the context of faith. A couple questions remain for me, though.
    First, we understand from simple human observation, as well as neurological studies, that human beings develop habits, behaviors, and even convictions in the context of repetition. Transformative as a TAZ may prove to be, in the long-term, we humans seem to be wired for rhythms of life & patterns of behavior. Is it your sense that TAZ might somehow “re-wire” us to a relational orientation that will address our needs for transformation & justice? Or how else might we compensate for the lack of rhythm and consistency we seem to need?
    Second, in the context of a Western pace of life, something that is not scheduled and planned for is highly likely to not happen. A gathering every other week, for instance, is far less likely to draw an audience than one that happens, predictably, each week. How might we address this very concrete objection to a TAZ-style approach?
    Thanks so much for writing this book (which I have yet to read, but recommend as often as I have the opportunity!) 🙂

  3. Mike R

    Hi Kes.

    Thanks for this clarification. You’ve mentioned here, on a slightly side note about the “being a Father and Mother” thing, which is quite a big theme in “Other”. I’m slightly wondering if you might have mixed the metaphors a little too much. I’d said elsewhere that for me “Other” is not sociological enough. Here’s a great example. I think a someone who works with the Transactional Analysis model of therapy would have a real problem with what you wrote there, and at a cursory reading, I’m just wondering if the model actually encourages the patronage that you seem keen to avoid in other parts of the book. Would you be able to expand on/tease that one out a little bit?

  4. KB

    Hmmm, before I do that Mike, could you expand on exactly what you mean… which bit would someone with the TA model have a problem with? Sorry, just need to be clear before I go off on a tangent!

    And thanks Lori – that’s the best sort of recommendation 😉 In terms of TAZ re-wiring us towards a relational mode, I think that this is something that is in constant flux. Healthy human being requires us to be part of formal communal structures, but also to not be bound by them, to be able to break free of them and reconfigure them, and I think that’s always been the case. If the habits that we develop cannot be broken, then there is something wrong in us. But if no habits can be formed then there is something wrong too. We need the balance, and my hunch is that we, as a society that is still struggling to shed the skin of the institutional habit, we need some more TAZ to bring some balance.

    As far as the problem with the western pace of life – well I think that that will need to be broken out of too. The pace is intimately connected with the pressures of consumer capitalism: we need to schedule and plan to make ourselves efficient and machine-like, and this breaks something of our essentially free humanity. To relax this a little and allow more spontaneity is actually very important for our mental health.

  5. Mike R

    Hiya…

    Yes, I’m talking about the Parent/Adult/Child model as popularised by Eric Berne. The idea (and ideal) is that we respond to each other adult to adult. According to the TA model, attempting to “parent” people creates disfunctional relationships.

  6. John L

    “It has been my common experience that people can hide behind permanent structures in order to avoid engaging the other at any meaningful level.”

    Maybe the ultimate expression of this is in our propping up an idea/structure called “God” that we hide behind in every manner imaginable (identity, fear, manipulation-control, insecurity, certainty, etc.)

    The recent Papal decree that ordaining women is “morally equivalent to pedophilia” exposes an unnatural structure that religion has been hiding behind for nearly two millennia.

    http://www.nytimes.com/glogin?URI=http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/opinion/18dowd.html

    ..

  7. KB

    Wow, that’s a tough article to read, seriously. An op-ed piece, for sure, but some very important insights nonetheless. I’ll be pondering what you’ve said about hiding behind the idea of God. Very interesting… Thanks.

  8. KB

    OK Mike, got you. I can see in a psychoanalytic sense that an attempt to parent someone through their problems would itself be problematic. What I’m trying to get at in the book is more about passing on wisdom and experience, and facilitating/releasing other people to begin new things. I suppose I’m partly thinking of the problem of something like NOS (wow, that’s going back a while!) which, despite being brilliant amongst its obvious troubles, actually left very little behind to help others follow after it, or did very little to help others move to similar places. Just thinking of an example in the positive: Greenbelt has recently supported the creation of SOLAS, a small festival based in Scotland. In one way it’s surprising: you’re creating a competitor! but that’s the great thing, there’s not that sense of competition, rather a desire to resource and guide something into being. Hope that helps a bit. As with all metaphors, they’re limited, and if you read the footnotes you’ll see me mention that I struggled with whether to use the parent one at all, as I know so many people struggle to have children. But I felt it was right to push ahead with it simply because of the references in the prodigal son story.

  9. Mike R

    Thanks K.

    I’m aware of the caveats you wrote about the pitfalls of parenting as a metaphor. And all of that is fair enough. However, what something like the TA model throws up is a perfect chance to talk about interpersonal skills which is something that I would have thought is vital in engaging with The Other. When I think about what you’ve written, I feel that you missed a trick there. It would be possible to talk about interpersonal skills (and other things) without being prescriptive about how people work out the lessons of Other.

    I think that your book comes out of a philosophical/theological tradition of writing, which is well and good. My only concern is that in drawing back from being prescriptive and practical, that it becomes a thought exercise. For me this is a danger with too many books at the moment. It’s great to get your thinking right, but this too easily slips into the readership becoming consumers of philosophy. To extend your metaphor a little further, I’m just wondering if you might be teaching people to think about fishing, rather than actually fish for themselves!

  10. KB

    Yep, point taken, and there is a danger there. Obviously I’d have liked to talk about every possible aspect but a) you have to draw the line somewhere and b) I’m aware TA is not a field I’m knowledgeable on!

    I would say though that I hope that our relationships to books is changing, and I’ve wanted to reflect that. It’s not a finished, complete tome, but rather a beginning point for conversation…. which I hope sites like this can serve to continue and extend. Books have long been seen as the finished product, all there is to know on something and that’s it. I want to see them as something more interesting – part of a continuum of knowledge and practice, which can be shared in other spaces. But that may be, as Jonny would put it, ‘romantic tosh.’ LOL.

  11. Mike R

    OK, I have a suggestion then – guest blog posts. A chance for practitioners to show their workings out. I’m not volunteering myself though! My thoughts would be too jumbled and negative!

    But that way you could encourage practitioners you know to feedback on the book via your blog, and stamp out that consumerist tendency to consume books. Maybe line up a few, and do them over a couple of weeks a few days apart. Would love to read anything written by Esther B if she has the time, for example. Or even make it an open invite for people to submit things?