Sunday, July 20, 2003

Tongs & Secret Societies
by Hakim Bey

A Tong can perhaps be defined as a mutual benefit society for people with a common interest which is illegal or dangerously marginal--hence, the necessary secrecy. Many Chinese Tongs revolved around smuggling & tax-evasion, or clandestine self-control of certain trades (in opposition to State control), or insurrectionary political or religious aims (overthrow of the Manchus for example-- several tongs collaborated with the Anarchists in the 1911 Revolution).

A common purpose of the tongs was to collect & invest membership dues & initiation fees in insurance funds for the indigent, unemployed, widows & orphans of deceased members, funeral expenses, etc. In an era like ours when the poor are caught between the cancer of the Insurance Industry & the fast-evaporating welfare & public health services, this purpose of the Secret Society might well regain its appeal. (Masonic lodges were organized on this basis, as were the early & illegal trade unions & ``chivalric orders'' for laborers & artisans.) Another universal purpose for such societies was of course conviviality, especially banqueting-- but even this apparently innocuous pastime can acquire insurrectionary implications. In the various French revolutions, for example, dining clubs frequently took on the role of radical organizations when all other forms of public meeting were banned.

The intensely hierarchical structure of the traditional tong would obviously not work, although some of the forms could be saved & used in the same way titles & honors are used in our ``free religions''. Non-hierarchic organization appeals to us, but so too does ritual, incense, the delightful bombast of occult orders--``Tong Aesthetics'' you might call it. Among other things, the Tong should be a work of art.

The strict traditional rule of secrecy also needs modification. Nowadays anything which evades the idiot gaze of publicity is already virtually secret. Most modern people seem unable to believe in the reality of something they never see on television --therefore to escape being televised is already to be quasi-invisible.

If a Tong is organized around a special interest (especially an illegal or risky or marginal interest) it certainly has the right to compose itself according to the ``affinity group'' principle. Secrecy means (a) avoiding publicity & (b) vetting possible members.

In building a Tong, style may not be "everything", but it certainly cannot be considered merely secondary or inessential. The Tong must be "a work of art" in itself. Therefore the myth of a legend for our Tong is no petty business. It concerns the surface but is far from being "superficial". Taste here assumes a "life-or-death" seriousness, as when one speaks of the "style" of a martial artist.

In the old days secret societies would appear in times & spaces forbidden by the State, i.e. where & when people are kept apart by law. In our times people are usually not kept apart by law but by mediation(Media) & alienation. Secrecy therefore becomes an avoidance of media, while conviviality changes from a secondary to a primary purpose of the ``secret society.'' Simply to meet together face-to-face is already an action against the forces which oppress us by isolation, by loneliness, by the trance of media.

In a society which enforces a schizoid split between Work & Leisure, we have all experienced the trivialization of our ``free time,'' time which is organized neither as work nor as leisure. (``Vacation '' once meant ``empty'' time--now it signifies time which is organized & filled by the industry of leisure.) Most parties are devoted only to loud music & too much booze, not because we enjoy them but because the Empire of WORK has imbued us with the feeling that empty time is wasted time. The idea of throwing a party to, say, make a quilt or sing madrigals together, seems hopelessly outdated. But the modern Tong will find it both necessary & enjoyable to seize back free time from the commodity world & devote it to shared creation, to play.

I know of several societies organized along these lines already, but I'm certainly not going to blow their secrecy by discussing them in print. There are some people who do not need fifteen seconds on the Evening News to validate their existence.

Neo Tongs do not concern themselves with power-relations;-- they desires neither to be ruled nor to rule.

If a Tong begins with groups of friends trying not just to overcome isolation but also to enhance each other's lives, soon it will want to take a more complex shape:-- a nuclei of mutually-self-chosen allies, working (playing) to occupy more & more time & space outside all media structure & control & WORK.

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