[The Egoist Encyclopedia consists of slightly revised versions of columns that I first wrote for Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed. The entries will only appear here after they have appeared in that publication.]
Writing an encyclopedia is an ambitious project, arguably expressing more egotism than egoism. But I would never deny being ambitious (and perhaps a bit arrogant as well). Nonetheless, I feel it is necessary to explain what I mean by “encyclopedia”. In the 18th century in France, Diderot, along with his friend and occasional intellectual sparring partner D’Alembert, edited one of the most famous encyclopedias of all time. In this work, he explains that this word is made up of the Greek preposition meaning “in” and two Greek words meaning “circle” and “knowledge” (“paedia” more accurately means learning rather than mere factual knowledge, but more on that later). Diderot concluded from this that the word meant “chain of knowledge” and involved gathering together knowledge from around the globe. But I look at this etymology with a bit more whimsy. In ancient Greece (and in other parts of the Mediterranean up to the late Middle Ages), learning and philosophical discourse often took place in gardens, parks or around the streets of cities where there was still only foot traffic while the students and teachers walked around in circles. Sometimes in my more utopian reveries, I imagine a world where learning, discussion and debate can happen in a similar fashion, on long, aimless walks in an environment without the noise and threat of large machines to disturb the flow of ideas, projects and dreams. These strolls, after the manner of the Peripatetics and the Stoics, would be the “circles of learning” that encyclopedias would record. Well, I am living in a modern city. The traffic, the noise, the lack of adequate space limits the possibility for pursuing discussions of more than two or three people in this manner, and even these small discussions are usually burdened with the need to watch for the potentially deadly traffic. So such encyclopedic endeavors mostly exist only in a metaphorical sense.
Nonetheless, if I gather most of my knowledge from books, it is the discussions I have in my circles of friends and acquaintance, or among strangers I encounter in my circumnambulations around this town and around the world, that provide me with the capacity for critical thinking that turns this knowledge from mere facts to real learning. Thus, the “circle of learning” remains the source for my ideas, thoughts and reveries.
In this sense, Diderot is right to claim that one individual could not write an encyclopedia. The process of learning, of developing the capacity to think critically and confront the realities and the ideas one encounters with discernment and shrewdness, always involves lively interactions with others in battles of wits, learning to use thoughts and words with precision and richness. In this sense, any encyclopedia worthy of reading will always be the project of many. But unlike Diderot, I see no reason why one individual cannot choose to bring the results of this process together on paper for his own purposes, making a record of what she has drawn from these “circles of learning” to further her own projects and aspirations. In fact, if one has the arrogance and ambition, I would be surprised if he didn’t do something of this sort even if he calls it by a different name. Thus, it should surprise no one who knows me that I am taking up such a project.
I have made several references to Diderot and his encyclopedia, because these were among the main inspirations for this project*. Although Diderot emphasizes the collective nature of such a project and describes its purpose as the gathering together of supposedly objective knowledge, many of his own entries in the encyclopedia he helped to edit stand out precisely because he goes beyond these limits. He uses humor and sarcasm to take his own entries beyond the realm of mere rote expression of what is supposedly known to a real critical interaction with the subject matter that expresses his own ideas, his personal confrontation with the world around him. This is what I intend to accomplish here. If learning is not merely about gathering bits of knowledge to spew forth as trivia, but is rather about developing the tools for critically interacting with the world, then it is an intense and playful battle of wits in which critical thinking, humor, sarcasm and mockery combine to heighten our capacities to encounter a hostile world on our own terms.In this sense, I intend this encyclopedia not to be a “chain” of gathered knowledge, but rather an intervention in the wide “circle of learning” that the development of anarchist theory and practice could be. So come, if you will, and take a walk with me. We might all learn something, and it should at least have fun.
* The Encyclopedia des Nuisances from France and John Zerzan’s Nihilist Dictionary also provided inspiration.