Australian-born writer and scholar McKenzie Wark describes herself as an unrepentant modernist; her objective is to do theory in the present, to develop conceptual instruments to perceive and analyse emerging forms of exploitation stemming from technological changes. In this interview, conducted over Zoom in late April this year, Wark goes back to the theories from her now-classic A Hacker Manifesto (2004), describing the rise of a new ruling class whose power comes from controlling flows of information.
When power structures change, so do class relationships. Wark sees the strategies of the worker movements of the 20th century as outdated and encourages us to search for other ways to protect the commons and common interests, emphasising the production and sharing of knowledge. Wark’s thought draws on a rich repository of ideas: she merges strategic game theory with the world of computer games; mobilises forgotten Soviet revolutionary theorists; and defends the wild utopias of Charles Fourier who, at the beginning of the 19th century, aimed to create a society geared to accommodate the broad spectrum of human inclinations and desires.
Wark holds a professorship in media and cultural studies at The New School in New York, yet her oeuvre defies academic norms. Her sexual autobiography Reverse Cowgirl (2020), explores her transgender awakening and reimagines it as an angle from which to approach contemporary culture and philosophy, from David Bowie to Georges Bataille. In line with her ideas of theory as a collaborative effort, Wark has also published two books where she engages with selected contemporary thinkers. The latest of these is Sensoria (2020), which followed up on General Intellects – Twenty-Five thinkers for the Twentieth Century (2017).
You have written about general intellects and how theory can address our general situation, but how about your particular starting point? Where did your theoretical and political interests come from as a young intellectual?
I spent way too much time hiding out in my own head, which as it turned out was dissociation, mostly caused by trauma and gender dysphoria. It’s kind of convenient to tell the stories where one is the agent in one’s life, but I think, actually, I was just driven by circumstances. Being a provincial petit-bourgeois white person with access to education and growing up in a house full of books, the tools were there, as well, to have that way of getting out of childhood and adolescence by making dissociation productive, by becoming a writer.
I was a teenage militant in a revolutionary organisation. It had its own theoretical journal alongside the newspaper and that sort of thing. But I learned when I was college-age that I really wasn’t cut out for politics. I’m not a robust enough personality for that. I’m thin-skinned and much more interested in the pleasures of life than that sort of ascetic commitment to others, quite frankly. I’m not a model person, in that sense. So, naturally writing and art appealed to me a lot more.
The context I read theorists like Foucault in was people organising around gay liberation and anti-psychiatry where people were translating Foucault themselves and copying it. Pirate Foucault was my first version of him. This kind of low theory wasn’t a career, it was a necessity for life. Theory as displacing experience into a conceptual framework so that you have some distance from it to be able to perceive yourself in it and act. So, it’s about both individualising your experience and also seeing it as part of larger structures of oppression and exploitation. And, on the flip side, finding ways in which concepts enable you to think common feelings, common goals, and common struggles.
What topics did you take on when you started writing books?
Two of my three early books were engagements in the culture wars in Australia. And the other work I was doing was about the possibilities in internet communication. When I was involved in the digital avant-gardes of the 90s, free information seemed like an escape from commodification. It was obviously temporary and partial and it involved privileged access to certain systems, but we were able to create a commons of theoretical production outside of commodification, outside the book trade, outside of academia. It was a marvellous time. There’s PhDs and books to be written about what I call the Silver Age of Social Media. It had no Golden Age, but at least in the 80s and 90s there was a space at the leading edge of technical-cultural development for a non-commodity culture. Before the internet got commodified, it was free and wild and fun. But we lost both the culture wars nationally and the free internet transnationally.
How is the culture war related to the war for a free internet – and how are these two defeats related?
The culture wars is about how political advantage is sought throughout the cultural realm. I think in the 90s we hadn’t realised that the technical infrastructural underpinnings of the life of which culture is the felt totality had changed, so that those cultural struggles we engaged in were actually belated. The information war is between those who merely want to extract surplus information, want to use asymmetries of information as a form of domination, while gleefully propagating noise as a means to that end, versus those of us trying to create practices of error-correcting, collaborative, de-commodified information sharing, where we can be different and yet still equal – can be a culture in the best sense.
When I wrote Capital is Dead , one of the questions there is: Why do we love capitalism? Even Marxists love it, perversely! The negative theology of Marxism is believing at all costs that this must be capitalism. Why? What if there’s something that’s not captured by that concept – and what if it’s worse? How would you think that? How to do what Marx actually did, which was come up with concepts adequate to the time rather than simply repeat the end product of the thinking that Marx gave us?
I think there are a lot of consumers of Marx’s product and fewer people actually doing what Marx did as praxis, which is trying to think the historical tendency of advanced forms of exploitation that are emerging. To do theory in the present is my main objective. I’m an unrepentant modernist in that respect. Trying to be the antenna that’s detecting, that’s picking up signals of imminent futures, but where you’re very likely to be wrong.
When we go back and read A Hacker Manifesto (2004) now, it still seems it came out – I shouldn’t say too early, but it was certainly timely and ahead of most people’s mindframe.
Sometimes I can’t believe I wrote that book. Sometimes you just have this visionary moment. A Hacker Manifesto is both prescient and dated in a lot of ways. I wrote Capital is Dead as an update, since there was this stage in the development of what I call vectoralist class power that came after it was written.
What is the vectoralist class?
Simply put, it is a class that emerges late in a historical sequence. There was feudalism. The decay of that gave rise to a landlord class, which privatised land and turned serfs or peasants into tenant farmers. After that comes capitalism, which is based not on the ownership of land, but ownership of the means of production in the sense of the factory and the railroad and all that. Capitalism emerges out of a jump to a more abstract form of ownership that you see play out in law. A whole series of legal fictions have to happen to make what it is capital owns actually be things you can own and that would give you power and that you could treat as property. So, my question is: What if there’s a third mode of commodity production, a third stage after rule by landlords and capitalists? What if there was another supersession of what was the dominant mode of production and what was the dominant ruling class?
Now, of course, the new one doesn’t make the old ones go away. There’s always different modes of production nested on top of each other or entwined with each other. Rather than a compromise between landlords and capitalists, it’s a compromise between landlords, capitalists, and what I call the vectoralist class, meaning the owners of the vector of information. The internet, for instance, is vectoral, with all its privately owned platforms. Of the probably trillions of possible vectors the internet as infrastructure could make, it is currently connecting me to you so we can have a Zoom call. The vectoralist class owns that, and also stocks of information. It owns brands, it owns patents, it owns logistical systems. What if that’s what the dominant form of power now is? And it makes even capital a subordinate exploiting class to itself, as capital did to the landlord class.
Who are they, apart from the usual suspects like Google, Facebook, and Amazon?
Not all of the vectoralist class is in tech. It’s probably relevant to mention drug companies here, because the companies whose vaccines we hopefully get to put in our arms don’t actually make the vaccine. They produce the intellectual property. They control the value chain of the vaccine as commodity through ownership of information in the form of the patent and the brand. A bunch of subcontractors – capitalists – are needed to be able to actually physically manufacture it, in India, for example. At the base, all of our social needs depend on extracting minerals and food directly out of nature. Nonetheless, power no longer rests in owning land, or now even in owning the means of production. It rests on controlling information. The more abstract forms of power tend to trump the more particular and specific ones in the long run. So, basically the argument is: What if there’s a new kind of ruling class and it’s not really amenable to the strategies with which the labour movement tried and failed to defeat capital?
The hacker class, which struggles with the vectoralists in your theory, involves of course not only the classic hackers, like computer and bio hackers, but also artists and theorists.
Yeah, anybody whose work takes them directly into the heart of technology tends to get A Hacker Manifesto and Capital is Dead. They’re written from the point of view of people who work with information in advanced industries. Marx wrote for the factory workers who superseded the artisanal craftsman and reimagined a class-based movement on that basis. I was trying to do the same: think from the point of view of the most advanced engagement with technics.
Because if there’s a new ruling class, there are new subordinate classes. And maybe the class that produces information that it doesn’t own is a new kind of exploited class. Sometimes it has been a privileged one, but often it’s not. I’m living in Brooklyn surrounded by people who produce information for a living but live precariously and are only marginally better off than service workers around us. They might be making better money, but not if you factor in the debt from having to buy an education, since the commodification of education is part of the rise of the vectoralist information economy too.
If artists and theorists belong to the same hacker class, then might that teach us something about how art and theory relate?
In some way, the art world is the last bit of public sphere standing. There’s very few spaces for conceptual thinking. There’s a history of the erasure of conceptual thinking, certainly, in the Anglophone world and probably elsewhere. There were the blacklists of the 50s. The instituting of an anti-conceptual, hyper-specialised academic culture. The erasure of the conceptual from literary and journalistic writing and standard models of the novel and memoir. So, there’s a way in which the art world is the last place you can practice kinds of writing that aren’t really possible in the Anglophone literary, intellectual, and academic spheres. Sure, there’s scholarship about theory in the universities, and I’m grateful for that and depend on it. But it’s not actually theory. So its hard to find a material base for the hacker class to articulate its common interests and objectives as theory in the university doesn’t really do that.
You talk about this as high theory and, in the context of Marxism, as genteel, scholarly Marxism, which you contrast with vulgar Marxism, vulgar or low theory. Do you tend to favour the latter?
I’m all in favour of close readings of Capital, but I think the theoretical project has to extract itself from that scholastic tendency to be commentary on an inherited canon of great works. Rather, let’s appropriate that mercilessly, for tools to refashion and understand the present, to directly begin with the conceptual problem from the point of view of a particular category of the oppressed, exploited, or marginalised.
The job of theory is to connect those things and show them from this particular praxis in which I’m embedded, where I’m exploited this way or marginalised that way. That particularity can give me a way of understanding what abstraction is now, and how we’re all caught in it. So that, to me, is always the theoretical task. It was what the labour movement did; it’s what gay liberation did: it’s what post-colonialism did – just to give three examples of movements connecting the particular and general. This relates to what I’m calling the general intellect. The function of the general intellect is found in a few privileged niches in information production these days, where you get to think beyond your niche or time and are able to do that without losing your day job. And increasingly I think it’s not going to be in academia that we’re going to be able to support and provide that. We need more low theory.
Are the general intellects to be understood as spokespeople that set the agenda? Or more as providers of tools? You seem to be sceptical about the notion of public intellectuals.
The figure of the public intellectual now belongs to the past. We’re out of the mass broadcast age and thrown into a whole new regime where it’s all about extracting surplus from information workers. So, who gets to have intellectual leadership or capacity for addressing theoretically what the condition of information workers are? It changed quite a lot from the era of, say, your Sartre, or your Foucault, or your Fanon. And then maybe there is a way in which the hacker class is a way to rethink the history of the avant-gardes, as a series of struggles around what it means to be a media producer in any form at all. So, I was interested in the Situationists not as an avant-garde of art, but an avant-garde of media production in general, and whose work I think gets chopped up and misunderstood if you think of it as art or literature or theory.
You go back to the Situationists in two of your books:The Beach Beneath the Street (2011) and The Spectacle of Disintegration (2013). Is there a sense in which the strategies of the Situationists are related to what you call the “general situation,” which you see defined more than anything by the ecological calamity of the Anthropocene plus technological disruption in the digital realm? What do you hope to gain from going back to the loose ends of the avant-garde project and the attempt to radically transform life through new forms of communication?
The key to Guy Debord’s writing, for me, is not the concept of spectacle; it’s détournement. It’s related to the English word for detour, but it’s essentially what he describes in an early manifesto as “literary communism,” the idea that all culture is collectively produced and belongs to all of us. And that its appropriation and modification in the direction of hope is a political practice in itself. The Situationists were advancing thinking about a kind of practice, a political and aesthetic and cultural and technical practice, around information as something that belongs to all of us.
There’s a way in which that is something radical scientists from the 30s to the 50s were thinking in a different way. And where, incidentally, I also really honour scientific and technical workers in the West who leaked information about nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union. They’re heroes to me, who probably prevented atomic war from happening. That helped the Soviets maintain at least the illusion of parity, which lead to the policy of “mutually assured destruction” as a deterrent to war on both sides. I want a statue to the Rosenbergs, who were executed for leaking information about nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union. They and others like them were the ones that saved us from American nuclear aggression. So, free information, détournement, seemed like a radical strategy.
Can we say that just like protecting the atmosphere as a commons is a step toward handling the crisis of the Anthropocene, free sharing of information – an informational commons – becomes a step towards a solution to problems rooted in technology?
The social movements to free information drove a section of the vectoralist class to find ways to recuperate that collective activity at a higher level of abstraction. One of its strategies is to harvest free information through platforms that actually encourage sharing. Social media is based on extracting a surplus out of the will to share with others. So, if the capitalist class exploited labour, the vectoralist class perversely exploits communism. It exploits our desire to have immediate contact with each other. The vectoralist class harvests free information and then uses that as an engine for developing information asymmetries which becomes a form of control. Theft of information is the basis now of grand, global, unprecedented fortunes. We mere information producers just have to look for strategies within and internal to that to create our own commons again.
Already in A Hacker Manifesto you describe that temptation of every hacker to profit on innovation and go corporate or make themselves a strong brand. The temptation is there also for artists. So, you have self-exploitation, which is when you overwork completely to establish yourself in the field, and once you get a name for yourself, you stop sharing freely and try to find a way to capitalise to make up for your efforts.
Right. I’m not a huge fan of the language of describing everything as neoliberalism, but thinking of yourself as capital rather than labour was definitely a kind ideological sea change, where you look at your own body and mind and your education as capital to invest and from which to extract a profit. The thing is, I’m only interested in the avant-gardes. I think our people always come up with the new stuff first. Same with the sciences. The vectoralist class isn’t actually interested in innovation. It just wants the low-hanging fruit, the way to turn existing tech to exploiting some other field of activity. It’s risk averse. I was just reading about the woman who came up with the current strategy for designing vaccines, which was resisted for a long time. There was a whole established funding model for research that incrementally improved existing vaccine techniques for the benefit of that part of the vectoralist class that patents pharmaceuticals.
There is this general tendency in your work that you seem to be very aware of where experimentation and invention – the free play of possibilities – gives way to a sort of game that creates binary choices, creates winners and losers and which imposes itself as necessary, unavoidable.
I wrote Gamer Theory  after A Hacker Manifesto as its, I wouldn’t say dialectical compliment, but as its other. And that’s a much more pessimistic book, to do with the enclosure of possibility in a gamespace, where the value of every move you make is extracted to your disadvantage by the vectoralist class as owner of the platform, the infrastructure, the game. And we think not so much like we are human capital, but like we are players in a zero-sum game. We have to play this game to win. Once you start to win, you can turn on your teammates – a now standard move in reality-TV gameshows, for example. And the constraints of the game also enable the extraction of our play as free labour for the benefit of the vectoralist class.
You say in Gamer Theory that the escapist world of the game is experienced as being somehow superior to real life because you always get your reward. Things make sense. There is a plan, a plot, so you know what you’re doing, which is existentially comforting. This escapist utopia can twist back to gross discomfort when our real life is mixed up in the virtual and made into a game that creates winners and losers, where missteps have real consequences. Here, we could think of the Chinese social reward system, which gamifies social life, so that if you have the wrong friends, you lose social credits and might lose your job, your right to ride trains or planes.
There are other versions of the observation that our labour and our play is being extruded out of our activity and transformed into a world that turns against us. In Capital is Dead, I use Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason  to explain this. We produce the practico-inert, as Sartre calls it, which then becomes the thing that forces us into relations of seriality, where we no longer have agency over anything and freedom really is constrained. It’s no longer the case that being unfree is an illusion, an act of bad faith where we pretend that we’re not free to act: We really are not free in this situation. Sartre’s famous image is people lining up waiting for the bus. They have no relation to each other besides as a series whose order is determined by the practico-inert of the world they’re interacting with.
The practico-inert in Sartre, as you describe it in Capital is Dead, comprises all our products, things, ideas, institutions – the human that is often experienced as anything but ours,but rather something inhuman, alienating, and oppressive. With respect to the global situation, this means the momentum of the world we’ve created around us overrides all our attempts to actively change our circumstances.
It’s a sort of inter-passivity where one loses all agency. In Capital is Dead, it’s about ways to understand how we know exactly what needs to be done to avert climate chaos and we’re not doing it. And the juggernaut continues on because we’re forced into inter-passivity and serial reality by the practico-inert that just rambles on to its own doom. It’s kind of where we are at the moment.
There is a counter-image here, that of fusion, the fused group or the fused class – also a concept from Sartre.
But Sartre is a very pessimistic thinker, and fused group is temporary and implodes on itself, as well. He was trying to understand why the Soviet Revolution failed. So, fused group is temporary, but it’s where collective agency and collective freedom become possible in a situation or situations.
In a book that came out a few years ago called We (2017), Ronald Aronson, a Marxist inspired by Herbert Marcuse, uses this same image of the bus stop from Sartre. He says:Well, if the bus never comes, then people start chatting – and then they might end up calling the company. As they act, they become a fused group with the potential of a movement. You have this great quote in your book on the Anthropocene, Molecular Red (2015), saying: “Only people who are facing the same dangers become real comrades.”
Yeah. It’s from Andrei Platonov, one of the truly great writers. He was present for the failure of the Soviet Revolution and was perhaps the most interesting witness to it – since he lived it on the ground, trying to be a hydraulics engineer in the countryside. So, we’re only comrades if we face the same danger. But the political failure at the moment is that we’re not acting as if we’re facing the same danger.
The strong unity that we hoped for shatters into new constellations of us and them…
There’s always some category of being who is excludable. In the United States, at the moment, it’s trans people. Even to a lot of so-called liberals and socialists and progressives, trans people are expendable. So, we’ll be legislated against. There’s legislation against us in thirty-three states as I speak. And the thing is, it’s going to affect everybody. Because once you start saying things like, “oh, well, trans people don’t matter,” then disabled people don’t matter; then people who are undocumented don’t matter. It’s the doctrine of Stalin when he talked about cutting the salami of opposition bit by bit… slice, slice, slice.
One of the first groups the Nazis attacked was us trans people. Clearly, the Nazis wanted to impose a model of patriarchal straight cis gender. And we see exactly the same thing happening again today, yeah? I don’t want to draw that analogy too strongly. It’s not a return of the Nazis. But I think, just in general, whenever there’s that slicing off of a group as expendable, it comes around. In the 30s, the ruling class was looking around, going, “you know what, it’s not looking good.” So they thought: “Let’s draw up the drawbridge, keep the wealth for ourselves, forget about trying to persuade people that this is the good life. We’ll just return to repression.” And I think we’re in that sort of moment again.
There’s this classical notion that if you have to live up to one model of desire, someone else’s standard of what’s desirable, then that is already oppression – perhaps the very definition of tyranny.
Yes, although, there’s ways in which the model has been modified a bit where they say: “Oh, you know what? It’s okay if your desires are homosexual, but you should still have a steady job and get married and buy property. And have kids. In fact, you’re now obliged to have kids. And you should serve in the Army. Of course, we’ll let you because nationalism is important to family and vice versa.” So, there is this notion of: “Oh yes, we can actually accommodate some different desires, but only if they fit into something where you could extract information from it, treat it as an identity, sell products to it, have its production commodified and controlled, if necessary, and not cause any trouble.” What Jasbir Puar calls homonationalism. But don’t have sex in public! That aspect of queer life is still to be forbidden.
Your colleague Dominic Pettman recently wrote Peak Libido (2020) where he speculates that desire has been so overexploited that it fails to regenerate, like a depleted layer of topsoil. But he also explores desire in utopian fantasies, like in the Frnch utopian writer Fourier , who besides Platonov and Alexander Bogdanov is important in your writing on radical science fiction inMolecular Red. I enjoyed your reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy(1992–1996) and the radically alternative ways of dealing with desire and sex described in Blue Mars. Is there a way in which we can draw on utopian texts without getting lost in impracticable political daydreams?
I think maybe we misunderstood the utopian. What if we thought of the utopian as actually the most practical kind of literature, but it’s just a literature that pursues practicality further than other branches of literature do. So, for example, Charles Fourier is concerned with questions like who takes out the trash? Who processes waste?
It would be the kids, according to him, if I remember correctly – since they love dirt and junk and would have more fun with the job.
Novelists rarely talk about that, right? Who takes out the shit in Stendhal? You never hear about it. No one goes to the toilet in these books. Realism is not real in that sense, but utopianism is. Utopian writers say: “Wow, everything is so fucked up. What if we thought through every detail in a way that was just better and more practical and we’d actually want?”
People think utopians have one model for everybody because they’ve never read them. But Fourier says something like, there are twelve passions, and everyone is a different mix of the twelve. So, what would be the way to combine all of these differences in which passions motivate us so that nobody ever had to perform sacrificial labour? Now, all right, maybe that’s utopian in the sense of impossible. But it’s also utopian in the sense of: what a practical way to think! Where you would minimise suffering and sacrifice and useless labour. And so, we’d all just be enjoying ourselves all the time.
Fourier’s most interesting utopia, The New Amorous World (1967), is sexual. How do you combine all of those passions? That itself becomes a vocation that some might have a passion to solve. My favourite in that book is this one: There’s probably some people out there who desire heel scratching, and there’s probably some people who want to be heel scratchers. They could be a transnational network of those people, because their desire is so rare. Connect them to each other. And, so you’re like: “Internet, baby!” One not run for the benefit of a vectoralist class. So, yeah, I think there’s a role for the utopian if we think it differently.
You said that you started out in a militant political group. Where do we stand with respect to that in the information war today?Could we lose in an even more drastic way – just like you described how we lost and keep losing the cultural war – while acknowledging that the loss could get even more fatal? And then there is what Michael E. Mann has called the new climate war, between those who are willing to act and those who really aren’t – and who also tend to be in power. Mann claims we’re on the verge of winning, but we could clearly lose that war for real.
Guy Debord wanted to end the Situationist International a couple of years after 1968. A lot of people thought the revolution could still happen, as if 1968 was just the beginning. Debord saw the opportunists coming – the people who want to join the movement because they think they’re going to win and they’ll get to become commissars. Whereas it’s more the case that there’s something clarifying about defeat. You know who your real comrades are when you’ve been defeated. It’s very testing. And to me, that’s the pathos of the blacklists in America. I have some compassion for people who betrayed the movement. Oh, you would have to make material sacrifices to remain a Communist, and you weren’t prepared to do it because most of us are mere humans and weak in that way? And I know if the revolution succeeded, if it was anything like past ones, my kind would be first up against the wall. There’s usually very little tolerance for weirdo transsexuals like me. We don’t get to win, unless it’s a very different revolution.
So, I think it is really important to think through defeat. All of the versions of the Labour Movement were defeated. The First, Second, Third, and Fourth Internationals were all defeated. To think from the place of defeat, and that victory might not be possible, and to still stand with what we used to call the Grand Old Cause, strikes me as very important as a commitment – solidarity even when things might be hopeless.
What about, instead of battling the powers that be, accelerate them in hope of a breakthrough?
A Hacker Manifesto is a left accelerationist tract. I took leads from the French Accelerationist thinking that happened after the failure of May 1968, and of the whole ‘red decade’ in France, mid-60s to mid-70s. I got it from Deleuze and Guattari, from Baudrillard and Lyotard as well. Oh, well, the intent to negate capital failed, probably for the last time, in 1968. So, maybe there’s only accelerating it to the end. But wait a minute, the acceleration already happened. Capital was defeated, not from below, but from above, by a new ruling class. That was my additional thought. We’re already into something after capitalism – and it’s worse. So, maybe accelerate the vector to the end in the hope that driving free production of information as far as it would go could finally dissolve the necessity for exploitation and scarcity. If you drive it to the absolute end.
Still, I’m pessimistic in the sense that this civilisation is already in ruins and can’t be negated or accelerated in any useful way. We could perhaps attempt to build another one in the ruins. That’s what interests me now. And to not be pessimistic about everything. The most encouraging thing about the COVID-19 year in New York City was more people learning mutual aid, learning the capacity to collectively self-organise without waiting for the government to deliver services to them, or for some political party or whatnot to constitute itself. So, I’ve got to hand it to my anarchist comrades for actually having a better idea about this. And it weirdly connects with trans people’s experience because we have to do mutual aid for each other, as nobody else will.
What you describe with the trans community seems to be a form of spontaneous self-organisation that springs from one realm of life or experience opening up to broader communities. I was fascinated with your reading of Bogdanov because what he says seems to correspond so closely with your own work. He talks about taking metaphors from the actual work that you do and using those metaphors as an organising principle, which is what you did with hacking. In this case, the act of modifying and re-appropriating technologies becomes the way you deal with the political, how you change the world.
Bogdanov was Lenin’s rival for the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. Lenin won the campaign on every level, including the philosophical. Still, Bogdanov was probably more influential than Lenin at a certain moment in the history of the party. Sometimes there’s things to learn from the defeated, from figures like him. Bogdanov wanted a general intellectual practice of comparing metaphors we abstract from different labour processes with each other, which he called tectology. He wanted a to have a comradely relationship between different kinds of labour and knowledge production, rather than think hierarchically about how knowledge is to be implemented in the world, or to leave the combination of forms of knowledge-labour solely to the market. One thing I love about Bogdanov is, in principle, all forms of labour and knowledge are created equal. There isn’t a sovereign discourse over all others. Not even Marxism, which is what’s truly radical about it. ‘Marxism’ for Bogdanov is the particular point of view of the labouring classes, not a universal doctrine or philosophy. What you need is a practice of knowledge, not a sovereign ideology of it, so that labour can be collaborative and so that we can work together to build habitable worlds. This, incidentally, is why I dislike things like the ‘new materialism’, when they try to play this sovereign role.
These days, we’re continually dealing with the language of engineering and the language of the market being the ones that trump all the others. So, there’s this tendency to pull a Nietzschean will-to-power move, as if poetry or philosophy or something was somehow some higher power. But it’s not. They’re not sovereign discourses. And those ones definitely don’t save you from reaction. There are plenty of reactionary poets and philosophers. We know that. Why do we keep denying it? We’re as implicated as anybody else. And on the other hand, there are radical engineers and scientists. Let’s find each other and figure out comradely collaboration. And think about how to combine these two things: mutual aid and comradely production of knowledge as a set of practices, as at least the beginnings of the way of remediating a planet in danger of being destroyed.
This movement seems to exist somehow. Even independent workers’ universities are emerging, and movements fighting strategically for the commons, especially the informational commons. One of the great things with information and knowledge as a commons is that, as you’ve also pointed out yourself, it is not a zero sum game. Information is not like a pasture, which gets depleted if it is used by many. Scarcity here is completely manipulated and created. The more people share information, the greater its value. It’s not real scarcity in that sense.
The way information sharing is designed today is just so that the vectoralist class can extract surplus out of it, and since noise proliferates more than reliable knowledge, noise is what we get. So, we really have to design our own infrastructure to produce knowledge, or at the very least develop good information practices in and against the vector. I think that the collective production of the means of storing and distributing information since from the 40s until now did ontologically change what information is and how it’s perceivable and what you can do with it. And one of those things is the end of the scarcity of information. As a pedagogy, the Enlightenment project was about increasing the availability of information, to let rational people know and decide to end censorship and mystification. It now turns out the Enlightenment project to get knowledge to propagate produces so much noise that you now have to create less visibility. The problem now is to make most information go away.
How do we do that?
The Situationists were already interesting in that sense. All avant-gardes have a media strategy; actually, they are a media strategy above all else. The Situationists introduced the practice of the partly hidden avant-garde, reversing the self-publicising and public-inflaming tactics of the Futurists, Dada, and Surrealism. Or think of Fluxus as alternate media networks, discreet and non-public. The avant-gardes are ahead of their time to the extent that they are advanced critical practices of the media of their time. For me, that was Nettime and its practice of “collaborative filtering,” a post-Situationist, post-Fluxus avant-garde media practice for the beginnings of the digital, post-broadcast age. The problem for contemporary avant-gardes is to withdraw, and to be visible in your withdrawal. For the avant-garde of gender liberation, this is a key problem: the trap of visibility. How to not be visible so you are a target, but recognisable to our own kind. So, I think what might be the most important thing now are strategies for building systems of communication that make habitable worlds and lives possible – but discreetly. Like a rave that’s just for our friends.
– Anders Dunker is a Norwegian writer living in California. His latest book is a collection of interviews, Rediscovering Earth – 10 Dialogues about the Future of Nature (O/R books).