Book Review : Public Secrets by Ken Knabb


Of the few books I’ve read recently, I was particularly intrigued by Ken Knabb’s Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb 1970-1997. I was drawn to this book by my interest in Situationist theory. Knabb has been a key figure in the Situationist movement in the United States, having translated the bulk of the Situationist International’s works into English.
First, I read “Confessions of a Mild-Mannered Enemy of the State,” his autobiographical sketch, in order to get a better idea of who the person behind all this theoretical writing is — his personal history and development. Throughout the author’s life experience, certain basic themes stand out: his love of learning (particularly self-education through books), and his quest for experience, awareness, consciousness of self and world, and of course, his evolving revolutionary anti-capitalist perspective. It was this critical process that attracted Knabb to the Situationist International in 1969, and later led him to become critical of tendencies within the Situationist milieu. Knabb especially appreciates the S.I.’s dialectical approach. He explains it thus, “The dialectical method that runs from Hegel and Marx to the situationists is not a magic formula for churning out correct predictions, it is a tool for grappling with the dynamic processes of social change. It reminds us that social concepts are not eternal; that they contain their own contradictions, interacting with and transforming each other, even into their opposites; that what is true or progressive in one context may become false or regressive in another.” He emphasizes the importance of dialectics throughout the book.
Knabb introduces the book with an overview of “how we got to this absurd position,” that is, capitalism — what it is, how it is degrading our lives, etc. He goes over some radical history, referring back to Marx’s “primitive accumulation,” in Capital I. He looks at various corrupted attempts at revolution (Stalinism, Leninism) to define what revolution is not. He then mentions some of the more effective revolts through time — Italy 1920, Spain 1937, and France 1968 are a few examples. He suggests problem-solving strategies, including writing pamphlets — getting one’s ideas out there (part of what inspired me to write this zine), and again underlining the need for dialectical analysis, including self-examination.
I was especially enamoured of Ken’s “Affective Detournement: A Case Study,” an account of his several-month-long Reichian experimentations in critical self-analysis. He examined his personal “psychogeography”, on the principle that “you discover how society functions, by learning how it functions against you.” I thought, “wow, here’s an intelligent radical theorist who is actually examining his flaws, criticizing his own past, and trying to break out of his rigidity/‘character armor’ and habitual behaviors. This is something we should all engage in, and often.” I was moved to laughter by such passages as, “I particularly aimed at countering any defensive seriousness by constantly holding up to myself the absurdity and silliness of my ego. Sometimes, when no one else was around, I would walk down the street singing free-associations and laughing at myself.”
After reading that, a friend of mine said, “Ah, but I do this even when others are looking.” People have different thresholds for overcoming their “biologic rigidity.” Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to see those who talk or write about “liberation” actually practicing it (or at least striving to achieve self-liberation).

In “Joy of Revolution,” Knabb enthusiastically puts forth anti-hierarchical revolution as the only sane solution to capitalist insanity. He gives an idea of how this global social change might unfold and also sketches out how a post-revolutionary world could look. He strikes me as very optimistic about what technologies would be retained in a liberated society, when he proposes that, “airplanes would be kept for intercontinental travel (rationed if necessary) and for certain kinds of urgent shipments, but the elimination of wage labor will leave people with time for more leisurely modes of travel — boats, trains, biking, hiking.” Though I agree with the latter part of that statement, I find it hard to believe that a truly rational society would continue to use airplanes, which are highly polluting machines, without significant alterations to make them much less polluting. However Ken does suggest that a lot of technologies would be phased out, ecologically improved, and redesigned “for human rather than capitalistic ends.” In any case, he states that these are merely some ideas of how a liberated society may work out, and they are not an exact blueprint. Knabb’s idea is that, once we’ve finally conquered the mundane stumbling-block that is capitalism, revolution will present us with far more interesting problems to grapple with, “An antihierarchical revolution will not solve all our problems; it will simply eliminate some of the anachronistic ones, freeing us to tackle more interesting problems.”
The latter part of the book is a collection of previous publications by Knabb and other Situationist-influenced people, including critiques of certain non-dialectical aspects of the Situationist milieu — such as the fad it later degenerated into, or its inadequate critique of religion.
Knabb also includes his own critique of religion, specifically “engaged Buddhism,” and an introduction to the works of revolutionary thinker, poet and literary genius Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth is certainly an unusual gem of an individual, particularly in U.S. history, who I had not looked into prior to reading Public Secrets.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone, especially those interested in anti-capitalist/revolutionary theory. It is a clear, straightforward, honest, well-written, and dialectical composition.

—Oliah Kraft, Allergic to This World
(Oregon, 2007)

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