Late summer 2019 -a plague and a bit ago- I conducted a written exchange with McKenzie Wark around Capital is Dead which was published in TANK magazine’s Autumn Issue. It was a privilege to do and peculiarly intimate as well as inherently exploratory if not aleatory. Wark’s work has a promiscuousness which I wanted to engage across its liberating range, and more clearly establish what that is. I had not been the interviewer rather than interviewee for a decade and it happened to take place during Wark’s transitioning; she later remarked upon the strangeness and no doubt unwelcome intrusiveness of this first interview…
TANK is a wonder for having the capacity for a piece like this and the process produced some interesting digressions, which distracted from the main conversatonal thrusts and so we nipped them out. I was seeking dissolution -if not end- points of certain intellectual trails (some of which Wark set out on in her General Intellects series, which emerged from her teaching practice), towards the muddying world of rivers and related planetary concerns and work of my own through this period. I’m always interested in where lines of thought and allegiance spill over or expire…
Amongst other qualities, Wark is rigorous in her concretising of situation. She has affecting loyalties to what she calls ‘my people’, and is naturally suspicious of non-Marxist thinkers like Michel Serres. You’ll see some other cusps regarding Haraway and Latour, which you can probably guess. Timothy Morton had published Humankind not long before, with its updated insistence that solidarity is literally meaningless without understanding it to include all living and companion species. It’s not solidarity, not even a substantive politics, without that urgent scope anymore. I agree (because, or anyway, it is productively complex in actuality).
MW impressed me by how comradely and/or clear certain distinctions were in their thinking. It’s not a matter of my having any juice here; she is razor sharp of course! But, I enjoyed (again) her respect for the work of others, and this is the character of the kinds of repair we need to engage with, versus the old world of correction and delineation and various forms of declamatory possession of territory. Textbook trifles. Boring af. Which is exactly what I understand by the formulaic panto produced by what Wark calls ‘genteel Marxists’.
The poetics of planetary-thinking is at the front of my mind as I complete my book on a river, its riverworld and the world (of) rivers and eye where the next three years or so take me; plunging deeper into related areas to run myself and thinking into the concreteness of forested urban futures to construct that vision from ‘here/now’. How we think, talk, write about the symbiotic actualities of our being here and extrapolate to other kinds of future human formations is critical to write the central object of the forthcoming work but also coin ways of thinking and speaking what I will just refer to as a kind of cyborg commons… Again, this is not Wark’s specific interest, and I was deeply impressed by her clarity about her worlds and their leafier outer reaches…
So here follow the scraps marked, I have just noticed in the piece, by green graphic elements! I’ve pasted some of the published text to hold with the sense of things and asterisks mark the extras!
The New Vulgarian, MW/GMA, TANK
London, 10.1, Autumn 2019, pp 212-216
Excerpt plus *excised scraps*
GMA This reminds me of Molecular Red and its conclusion about building “the new living world within the ruins of the old one. We all know this civilisation can’t last. Let’s make another.” This is fabulously optimistic, would you still write that now? Also, I wonder what you make of Anna Tsing’s “new values” in the ruins of the old ‘civilisation’, symbolised by her magical Matsutake mushroom?
MW I’m an urban creature, one who will live and die by the city. I really value Anna Tsing’s work though, because it’s about building a new world in the ruins of the old in a very different way. She would probably not say we’re building another ‘civilization’ as she thinks they’ve all been terrible. But we have to build something in the ruins. Although I’m a lot less optimistic about that than even a few years ago.
GMA In your last book Molecular Red you detail Andrey Platonov’s tales of urban futurism which include irrigation schemes and much grubbing in the ground. At one point he refers to the “subsoil of the body” in terms of art-making, because art is organically linked to the body like sweat…
MW Platonov is important as he is a Marxist writer who witnessed the collapse of a whole society. His communism is one of bare necessity. But these days I’m more interested in myself as belonging to that class of humans who remake themselves out of matter extraneous to us. I came out as transgender while writing Capital is Dead and these days I’m interested in trans people as a kind of avant-garde whose media is the body. Whether our kind can outlive a collapse I don’t know. Although I hear it may not be that hard to make hormones. I’m not someone who could live without the city: being crip, queer, trans, whatever. I’m not interested in identities. But I am interested in situations, and for me, self-making communities within the city is my habitat.
GMA Marx, you write, tasked himself “to understand the situation of his times from the labor point of view.” I enjoy the ways you hold to this and note that ‘the labour perspective’ is linked explicitly in Molecular Red to ‘city situations’. Isn’t this the key to your own approach here?
MW This is what I got from Bogdanov. He was very insistent that the dogma of “dialectical materialism” would be harmful and would function as a law to be policed. Marxism to Bogdanov has no necessary content other than the labor point of view. All I added to that is that in the past the labor movement had to ask about other subordinate classes and this was a big innovation. Thinking the peasant, the slave, the indentured laborer, women’s domestic work, and so on. Marxism can be the points of view in the plural of subordinate classes. And then my additional question: what if there’s a new subordinate class? One that produces information? A subordinate class within forces of production that produce information as a thing, and within relations of production that make that thing a special kind of commodity.
*GMA On a sort of different tangent in Molecular Red you write that “nature is the enemy of our species world”, when species world usually means human population in your writing, no? ‘We’ are builders of worlds by definition, you write. It reminded me of Michel Serres’s warning in The Natural Contract (1990) of the inevitable consequences of the ‘war’ that humans have launched upon the planet (never called) Earth. With General Intellects in mind, is there a reason why you have not engaged his thought?
MW There’s a lot of people I could write about and haven’t. The thing about the General Intellects book and the forthcoming sequel to it is that I just wanted to model a kind of conceptual reduction of an author. How do you take someone’s work and reduce it to about 4000 words that can be used in an instrumental way as a conceptual armature? It’s the opposite of that sort of scholastic completism where you can only be an expert on a single Great Writer. But its more intensive than journalism. I was trying to write something completely different to those Terry Eagleton reviews I grew up on that have a lot of wit but don’t really make an author available as a use value.
Serres is for someone else. I don’t think there are compulsory thinkers. Even Marx has to be taken as optional. You could say it’s partly just a matter of taste that I prefer to think through the Marxists. They are my people. I was educated in the party and the movement. I’m also committed to them because I think that they’ve been subject to far too much erasure and selective reading. The cold war massively damaged creative and intellectual work and play in both east and west, except that in the west this has never really been acknowledged, let alone has there been any atonement. So I do my best to put the comrades back into conversation with the present.
GMA In Capital is Dead you quote a poem by Drew Milne about preserving future symbiosis which turned my mind back to Donna Haraway, in particular, whom you embrace warmly as a ‘vulgar Marxist’ in the new book. Your Haraway is generally Cyborg-Haraway, and yet to me she is first Symbiotic-Haraway -focusing “ongoingness” on the 90% of the human body that is not human- a continuation not conflict, of course. Is there a reason why you have not addressed this latter Haraway more?
MW I do prefer an earlier moment in Haraway, where I think she was articulating a writing practice that was interested in a revised version of the labor point of view. She crucially showed how to pluralize and ironize that point of view. I’m less interested in what I see in the later Haraway as an attempt at a general metaphysics. I’m not interested in claims to produce a kind of sovereign language that trumps the others, whether of a philosophical or poetic cast. I think she edges a little too close to that.*
GMA Another frontier might be the work of Tim Morton, whom you engage brilliantly in General Intellects. You describe his work as poetry or a poetics, but it reminded me of the occasional poetics of your writing, if not thought; its quite frequent resort to poetic punctums, conclusive reference to poetry and poets; Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Ponge. EM Cioran had a notion about the “sincere confessions” we make when we talk about other people, implicitly fellow-writers. Can you identify any of yours?
MW I’m a writer. I’m interested in what can be done with language. I think of my own writing as a kind of art form, minor though it might be. For marketing purposes, the books are sold as if they conformed to certain academic or trade book genres, but to me that’s just a way to make them visible and accessible. I’m more interested in how one can play within the constraints of those generic forms. I’m a prose writer only, and not of fiction. But that still leaves a lot of room to experiment with what form can be. So naturally, I respond to the poetics of Morton which I think very fine. I just have a rather different concept of the praxis of the poetics of writing. I think of our differences as comradely, however.
GMA I take your critique but want to reconcile it with Morton’s overt, perhaps flamboyant, declaration that solidarity implies solidarity with nonhumans. “Solidarity requires nonhumans. Solidarity just is solidarity with nonhumans”, at the very end of his Humankind (2017). This echoes Bogdanov’s Tektology, Platonov’s “molecular account of everyday proletarian life, among rocks, animals, and plants, as comrades”, and you also in Molecular Red; “Living things are each other’s comrades”. Is this where poetry might trump prose in a disintegrating spectacle of metabolic rifts?! Or, would you like to expand on that comradeship of living things?
MW Yes, Platonov is a truly extraordinary writer, and not least because his vision is of universal comradeship. One of his sources of that may have been Bogdanov. (There surely were others, that’s just the connection I made in Molecular Red). Comradeship is the other side of the labor point of view. The labor movement aims at wage labor’s abolition – but to achieve what? The possibility of collective life as comrades. Marxism is the conceptual and creative practice of the subordinate classes, which have to imagine and try to create an entire world outside of exploitation. Collective activity outside of exploitation is comradeship. It has to be practiced not only with all other subordinated people but with all subordinated agents, living and nonliving. Otherwise the world ends.
*GMA Can we take one step further to conjoin with those like Stenger and Serres in their pleas to think like the earth (Gaia! Biogea!), or like a river? You know, Serres -who worked the river barges with his father as a boy- asks; “What philosopher thinks like a river?” What does that mean if anything to you, given your adherence to a praxis that requires the human body working the matter of the world?
MW There’s still too much investment in creating a sovereign discourse for me in Latour, Stengers and more occasionally in Haraway. As if this language, this poetics, this way to parlay had to be agreed on first. I’m not interested in theory that tries to be the judge, or the legislator, or in Latour, the diplomat. Theory is just a kind of knowledge-praxis alongside any other. Maybe its specific work and play is to make selective connections between different kinds of praxis. That’s all. Theory is interstitial. It does not fly, like Icarus, above it all. The theory I’m less drawn to tends to have bourgeois figures, or even religious ones, in back of its model of its own praxis.
GMA Capital is Dead *performs a self-détourning by assembling and rearticulating recent pieces from e-flux’s Supercommunity project and a ‘theory opera’ with Raqs Media Collective.* Does it feel like a final, complete iteration of the Vectoralist and Hacker or can you conceive other applications?
I might be done with that cycle of work, at least for now. It’s been twenty years. In Capital is Dead I got it into a writing style I rather like. I have a few things I could elaborate but I might leave it for others. I’d like to write in other ways and as someone else for a while.
This long section was edited cleaner, but there are a couple of other parts that were excised from the reordered conversation, too.
First, this discrete question:
*GMA “The production of counter hegemonic knowledge can really only be comradely and collaborative.” This seems a key note throughout your work, and important here, as we will see. If this were once possible, how is it now in a world (currently/suddenly/rapidly) gripped by competing barbarisms? Or is this a ‘hope, but not for us’?
MW It’s a mistake to try to get your optimism from your analysis. Get that somewhere else. Analysis has to begin with the defeat of all of the factions of the labor movement. There’s things to learn from all of those defeats. But I think the production of Marxism as a kind of knowledge is best when it is itself comradely. Which means giving up the fantasy of a kind of knowledge which is sovereign. For example, treating philosophy or social science, or political economy as a trump discipline that makes the rules for all the others. Finding comradely relations between heterogeneous kinds of knowledge production outside of the subordination of all information to an elaborated and modified commodity form is one of the main fronts of struggle and innovation.
Then, finally, this run of questions that ran on after the published end:
*GMA Let’s compare the anecdote about Henri Lefebvre all at sea, which is an important reference in a number of your books. Lefebvre swam out and was caught up in the terrifying depths; “a shifting totality, roaring, buffeting, overwhelming: the sea”, but saved himself by noting the pattern of waves and using that to get back to shore. He found “space-time”, you quote in The Beach Beneath the Street (2011). Order (equilibrium) too, we might say. Serres famously worked the river barges on the Garonne with his father as a boy and has written of the storms and muddy eddies they worked through -where”the planet, inhuman, reveals itself”- and which came to describe the world we now inhabit, with its metabolic rifts. Is there no merit in Serres’ muddling/eddying when conceptualising/engaging everyday life now?
MW The Serres I know is The Parasite. The concept of abuse value I think I might work with sometime. There’s a good model there of serial parasitism, and of good and bad parasites that’s a really good analytic for the Anthropocene and for the vectoralist mode of production.
GMA Relatedly, you refer to Haraway insisting “on including nonhuman actors in what would be an otherwise relentlessly human category of that-which-labours” (p.135 MR) I can see the appeal in her modest witness “in situated knowledges”, being in the action; “one must be finite and dirty, not transcendent and clean.” The task you say in conclusion is one of “making new kinds of labour for a new kind of nature.” This links through your superb analyses of Situationist thought, your own detourning of elements of it, and through your writing about the difference brought by the hacker. Are we still talking here about the hacking class, the hacker?
MW Well I think it would be helpful to have a name for that class that produces information but finds the fruits of that effort appropriated and commodified by another class, a ruling class that lives off what Randy Martin might have called a ‘derivative’ from it. Naming is an art. But we’re stuck with these generic labels: neoliberal, postfordist, and so on. It’s just not very good poetry.
And that’s it, but these tightly conceived scraps got me thinking. I found them as stimulating as anything else published, though they belonged elsewhere. Here! There is a problem with the poetics of ecologically-driven thinking (thinking is* ecological, as such, as Morton once put it) and writing, but it is an emerging ground which will generate new thought and language. Strictly systemic approaches may be precisely what no longer works, indeed that must be the case.
The central conundurm is that we creatures will have to learn very fast how to live and work with but, at least from here, any such horizon will involve more human intervention and management. Thinking this elemental paradox through is the urgent difficulty of the early to mid-twentieth century, involving epistemic revaluation as well as the coining of new language, which may include refreshing old ones…
Meanwhile there is time, and certainly occasion to read or re-read everything that McKenzie Wark has published…