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