Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 10, 2015
Michalis Pichler The Ego and Its Own Brooklyn and Berlin: Ugly Duckling Presse and "greatest hits", 2015. 464 pp. Paperback $14.00 (9781937027544)
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Michalis Pichler’s The Ego and Its Own takes ownership of Max Stirner’s philosophical incantation of the same name originally published in 1844. Appearing four years before the Communist Manifesto, Stirner’s text aimed at “not an overthrow of an established order but . . . elevation above it” (Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own, New York: Benjamin R. Tucker, 1907). Both books are split into two parts: part 1, entitled “Man,” considers the ways in which an individual defines her or his substance, be it citizenship (“Political Liberalism”), labor (“Social Liberalism”), or critical activity (“Humane Liberalism”); part 2, entitled “I,” is beholden to Stirner’s directions for self-mastery and the way that one might make “things, people, ideas, even spirit and world history mine” (Patrick Greaney, “The Universal Library of Appropriation”; slipcase essay from Pichler’s The Ego and Its Own; emphasis in original). At its core, Stirner’s manifesto revolves around appropriation (ibid.), which Pichler takes one step further by reducing Stirner’s 412-page volume to the German first-person pronouns only, including any punctuation that comes directly before or after them. Pichler revitalizes The Ego and Its Own by simplifying, sifting through Stirner’s original to consider the alteration of text over time and the momentary irrationality of language.

The Ego and Its Own is accompanied by three contextual essays—Greaney’s “The Universal Library of Appropriation,” Annette Gilbert’s afterword and Craig Dworkin’s epilogue each provide insight into the several versions of appropriation that Stirner’s text has already undergone. The book was banned shortly after its publication in the mid-nineteenth century, fell into oblivion, was re-published between 1893 and 1922, then again in 1968. Despite revolutionary gusto in each respective era, the publishers were roused to share Stirner’s words more out of fear than sheer adoration. The version published in 1893 by Paul Lauterbach was censored and framed by a scathing preface, while Hans Helms’s 1968 version cut the text nearly in half. Helms even compared Stirner’s vision to Adolf Hitler’s in Mein Kampf, claiming Stirner’s words were a variation of “the same fascistic demons” (Gilbert, afterword, 444). Striving to make a classic out of controversy, in 1972, Reclam Publishing House released the original text in its entirety as part of their Universal Library series. According to Greaney, this series centered on reawakening obscure German writers, paying close attention to a “funnier, more transgressive” attitude and accessibility. Rather than physically distort Stirner’s text, the series strove to reframe the work as one that was educational and intellectual rather than instructional. Pichler adjusts Reclam’s wholesale version of the text, maintaining the typeface, jacket design, and spacing, and erasing (nearly) everything that does not fit his grammatical parameters.

Pichler’s engagement is courageous in its attempt to reframe the text without emotionally censoring the intention of the text. The essence of Stirner’s theory is inviting: “I am not nothing in the sense of emptiness, but I own the creative nothing, the nothing out of which I myself as creator create everything” (quoted in Greaney, “The Universal Library of Appropriation”). Why, in fact, did The Ego and Its Own notoriously frighten Stirner’s peers and subsequent philosophers? What Pichler calls the “Bible of egoism” supports a life dictated by “momentary knowledge” rather than attachment of any kind: “Good Cause . . . God’s cause, the cause of mankind, of truth, of freedom, of humanity, of justice . . . the cause of my people, my prince, my fatherland . . . even the cause of mind, and a thousand other causes” (Gilbert, afterword, 442). Lifting these shackles has an obvious link to anarchy, which may be what his editors were so fearful of in the subsequent generations in which his text reemerged. Pickler’s text renders this selfish nebula of existence with clarity. Stirner’s critics have historically had to alter his text in order to poke holes in the force field he weaves with “simple tautology” (ibid.) around his radical theory—Pichler dissolves it with tact.

Pichler’s mechanical disrobing of Stirner’s text captures the absurdity of his proclamations without tempering the text. Although his musing is not preserved with a majority of the text missing, Pichler exacerbates Stirner’s egoism. Stirner is transformed into a toddler recounting a fairy tale: he hits the landmarks of the narrative and illuminates the fruitless obsession with self-fulfillment. The ebb and flow of pronouns fabricates the cadence of Stirner’s theory, as his interludes, his comparisons, and his demands are slyly established. Dense areas of pronouns render an imagined climax of an argument. Like external noises that penetrate sleep and manifest in dreams, the tone of Stirner’s vision emerges without the link to reality. Ich mich (I myself) appears often as a compound, leaving the reader to speculate whether it is declarative, defensive, or a determination of responsibility. Stirner demands his disciples offer more of themselves (meiner) yet specifies actions for “my sake” (Meinetwillen) and “on my account” (Meinetwegen) rarely, often in italics or flanked by an unwieldy quotation that counterfeits the sentiment. Pichler’s use of punctuation parallels Stirner’s support of a life devoid of the structures that traditionally sculpt one’s concept of self. As the punctuation is stripped of its function, the fact that the reader is missing something that renders conclusions incomplete and impossible is accentuated.

There are twenty-one completely blank pages where the ego sinks into oblivion. This absence of narrative and interference with Stirner’s text crafts a score of words and sounds that resembles concrete poetry. Pupils widen as Ich (I) jumps off the page like popping corn. Mir (me, to me, myself), Mich (me, myself), and Mein/e/n/m (my) jumble into the percussion of a human beatbox or middle-school tongue twister. Reading begins to take unnatural forms—a sparse page forms a diagonal path, and denser pages cause the reader to cherry-pick italics or odd punctuation. This intuitive reading pairs well with the irrationality of a text grounded only in its reference to the self. Pichler must have chuckled when three Mir outlined an isosceles triangle pointing toward the reader with a blank opposing page (51), or when a quotation beginning and ending with Ich similarly generated a triangle pointing skyward or forward depending on one’s point of view (91). Despite these poetic and even magical compositions, Pichler’s arrangements emerge from the kind of robotic manipulation that Stirner himself would have demanded of his disciples.

Stirner’s desire to dissolve all attachments was intended to endow his followers with personal ownership: the purging of values and morals, of history and preference, would substantiate conceptual and physical property. These individuals supported nothing but expected everything. Like the text, they exist solely in conversation with themselves in a vacuum of Stirner’s construction. In Stirner’s time, just prior to the March Revolution of 1848, there was a demand for human rights in the wake of feudal traditions and corrupt government in the Germanic states. Stirner’s battle cry was confrontation fueled by zombies—people who had nothing to live for yet sought the booty of battle. Stirner wants his disciples to deny history and live as detached entities while taking over the world. Emphasizing apathy and isolation, Pichler’s self-obsessed text reveals the ways in which Stirner’s principles deconstruct and restrict communication. In doing so, Pichler reminds the reader of the speed with which doctrine transforms into drivel, and how a snowballing sermon can be devoid of all relevance when it confronts reality.

Lynn Maliszewski
independent scholar

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