notes_27 A global economy all at sea; its sinuous embrace of the Arabian peninsula with Laleh Khalili | TT

“Powerful and unconstrained conceptual and poetic tools establish the shorelines of Khalili’s sea, then, and it is here that global capitalism takes its tightly woven place. Sinews narrows its focus to the northerly Indian Ocean world, the Arabian and Red Seas, as well as the Persian Gulf itself … a stimulating read and a surefooted introduction to the subject, with deep pockets of research.”

Guy Mannes-Abbott – Third Text – August 2020

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Laleh Khalili, ‘Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula’

Verso Books, New York and London, 2020
368pp, ISBN978-1786634818

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Guy Mannes-Abbott

Laleh Khalili announces the raison d’être of her new book, as well as its primary call on our attention, in the second sentence; ‘Ninety per cent of the world’s goods travel by ship’. [1]  Within this overwhelming figure, 70 per cent of global cargo by value is carried by container ships, and 60 per cent of oil trade travels by sea. The resulting system of marine transportation is not, she continues, ‘an enabling adjunct of trade but is central to the very fabric of global capitalism’ (p 3). Sinews of War and Trade traces the histories of a fast-developing present, now centred on China as the ‘factory of the world’ and the Arabian peninsula as the infrastructural heart of flows through post-Independence era ports, with ‘Dubai’s Jabal Ali foremost among them’ (p 2).

Khalili is a Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University, London, a sharply engaged speaker and Tweeter who describes her book as ‘untidy’ (p 6) in its attempts to shuck off disciplinary constraints. This appealing untidiness betrays a consciousness of dimensions beyond the academic, signalled by her prefacing Sinews with Derek Walcott’s famous words ‘the sea is history’, amongst many other literary references. I associate Walcott’s words with Dionne Brand’s expansively resonant memoir of a Caribbean childhood in which ‘The sea was its own country, its own sovereignty’, [2] everything beginning and ending in water. I also think of Michel Serres’ contention that water is finite on our planet and more enduring than rock, [3] as well as Christina Sharpe’s painfully exact construction of ‘residence time’, in relation to massacred Black bodies and the Atlantic Ocean, a time that is ongoing. [4]

‘I associate Walcott’s words with Dionne Brand’s expansively resonant memoir of a Caribbean childhood in which ‘The sea was its own country, its own sovereignty’, everything beginning and ending in water.’

Powerful and unconstrained conceptual and poetic tools establish the shorelines of Khalili’s sea, then, and it is here that global capitalism takes its tightly woven place. Sinews narrows its focus to the northerly Indian Ocean world, the Arabian and Red Seas, as well as the Persian Gulf itself, where sinews of war and trade form a knotty profusion around the Arabian Peninsula in ports, free zones and naval bases. These are connected by peculiarly indelible shipping routes and communication infrastructure, as well as interconnected levers of military and financial control described as invisible or hidden here. Khalili took two trips on CMA CGM-owned container ships in 2015 and 2016 that involved variant length journeys to Jabal Ali, ‘the biggest port in the Middle East, and the ninth-busiest container port in the world’ (p 10). Thus, in conception and content, the book approaches its peninsula-world ‘written from the sea, gazing at the shores’ (p 4), only venturing landside on arrival at Jabal Ali Port, with its extended Free Zone, transport infrastructure and labour accommodation a distant haze.

Sinews sets up a further specific question, to be addressed with temporal, geographic, economic and legal scope, well-digested data and startling examples: ‘The emergence of Jabal Ali (and its smaller cousins Khor Fakkan, Port Khalifa, Hamad, and Salalah, among others) in the Arabian Peninsula calls for an explanation: what accounts for such a proliferation of destination ports, when the population of the Peninsula is only around 60 million?’ (p 15) Those cousins are in Sharjah’s Indian Ocean enclave, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Oman’s southern coast, respectively.

Dubai -‘an offshore financial centre for the whole of its territory’, in Keller Easterling’s conclusive phrasing- was the region’s first designated free port in 1904, a model that has since proliferated, not least in the form of Dubai Ports World with its empire of seventy-eight port terminals ranging between Gujarat, Djibouti and London/Essex.

Jabal Ali’s port, construction of which began in 1976, was only part of the Jabal Ali Free Zone that commenced operations in 1985 and was planned as ‘a symbiotic whole’ (p 113) from the offset, to produce goods, trade and services, and act as an export processing, special economic and free trade zone. It is the largest of the twenty free zones that form Dubai, making it ‘an offshore financial centre for the whole of its territory’, [5] in Keller Easterling’s conclusive phrasing. Dubai was the region’s first designated free port in 1904, a model that has since proliferated, not least in the form of Dubai Ports World with its empire of seventy-eight port terminals ranging between Gujarat, Djibouti and London/Essex.

Khalili offers an authoritative portrait of the Jabal Ali Free Zone, which now hosts 7,000 companies after opening to foreign transnational businesses in 1992, when it also became ‘a hub for US military logistics’ (p 114) during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – warring that also diverted transhipment traffic to Jabal Ali, just as the Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates invasion of Yemen and destruction of the port of Aden does today. Khalili describes the ‘organism’ of Port and Zone as ‘heaving… with pollution, cloaked in secrecy, protected by scrubland and high-security fencing and underpaid Nepalese security men’ (p 115). She concludes that the fact that under one percent of the work force is Emirati ‘speaks to the regime of control at work there’ (p 116).

I know that scrubby hinterland well, especially the Industrial Areas full of labour camps operated by Laing O’Rourke, Arabtec, G4S, and other regional and global household names. I’ve spent days on foot and alone there…

I know that scrubby hinterland well, especially the Industrial Areas full of labour camps operated by Laing O’Rourke, Arabtec, G4S, and other regional and global household names. I’ve spent days on foot and alone there, [6] as well as with Gulf Labor Artist Coalition colleagues, [7] speaking with entrapped South Asian men fresh from servicing the American warships at the port or building the western-branded museological spectacles on Saadiyat Island – including the Louvre and the Guggenheim, just across the border in Abu Dhabi. [8]  Testimony gathered in this way from Al Quoz in downtown Dubai formed the core of a successful International Labour Organization (ILO) complaint on forced labour, which forced the UAE to introduce laws in 2016 allowing migrant workers to change their jobs – just one of the restrictive components of ‘modern day slavery’.

Sinews begins with excellent introductions to the route- and harbour-making that brought transformation, drawing together pre-colonial histories, European domination, post-Independence development funded with oil revenues, and the new century with its gravitational shift ‘eastwards’, even if many financial, legal and engineering services underpinning it remain in old colonial centres like London and Rotterdam. As Khalili remarks: ‘Today’s shipping businesses in the Arabian Peninsula continue to provide a route to comfortably paid jobs for British, Dutch, and other northwest Europeans’ (p 147).

On board her 363–366 metre-long CMA CGM container ships, owned by the French-Lebanese Saadé family headquartered in a Zaha Hadid building in Marseille, the author notes that charts are still kept by hand: ‘a palimpsest of past pencilled routes, erased and replaced on every trip [following] the same latitudes and longitudes’ (p 16). Many routes ‘have a solidity, a durability that their marine ephemerality belies’ (p 14), she adds. Before Europeans stiffened these waves, the peoples of the northerly Indian Ocean world and Gulf had, of course, ‘already developed sophisticated navigational methods for travel across the unruly waters’ (p 19).        

I have watched the last dhows coming in from Dubai to Mandvi on the Arabian Sea, weighing their reduction to flotsam in the massive pre-monsoon waves. Those seasonal winds determined routes throughout these waters until the coming of steam, and the need for coal bunkering to facilitate British merchants and warships.

Kachchh (Kutch) in western India, bordering the easternmost mouth of the Indus, is celebrated for these ancient skills and dhow-making ports that recur across the Gulf of Kutch in western Saurashtra. There is a several hundred-year-old graveyard and mosque for Iranian seamen on its coast, while Greek amphorae have been found buried inland from even earlier trade. I have watched the last dhows coming in from Dubai to Mandvi on the Arabian Sea, weighing their reduction to flotsam in the massive pre-monsoon waves. Those seasonal winds determined routes throughout these waters until the coming of steam, and the need for coal bunkering to facilitate British merchants and warships.

‘Steamships’, Khalili writes, ‘changed the face of navigation and the pathways of trade’ (p 22). Ports were forced to specialise; ‘new monetary and credit regimes were introduced. Racialised hierarchies and various forms of exploitation of labour … were institutionalised by law’ (p 21), territories and floras mapped for extractive value. The years 1839 and 1869 consolidated these changes, with 1839 marking the snatching of Aden by the British to establish ‘the first coaling station annexed to any empire’ (p 23). The latter year marks the opening of the Suez Canal, thus completing the transformation, a process underscored with the coming of telegraph to Aden and elsewhere, ‘technology crucial to the control of the colonies’ (p 25).

Undersea cabling now under-scored established shipping routes; this concretised ‘the British Empire’s claims to rule the waves and transformed the less visible pathways of its dominion into materially substantial subsea passages’ (p 26). Today the peninsula is tightly ringed with cable infrastructure and Khalili cites the Falcon network, part of the Ambani family’s Reliance empire in India with its links from port to port across the region. Falcon even makes a suddenly crucial landfall at Al Ghaydah, on Yemen’s eastern coast, now occupied by the Saudi/UAE coalition, picking up where European colonisers left off.

‘“The music of the world”’ is confined to ports or creeks where the dhows still thrive, as they did until recently in Sharjah’s downtown Creek and as they do in Dubai’s founding Creek. Dhows inhabit realms beneath official containerised networks but are complementary to them, making connective runs between ports and deploying their ‘fine-grained knowledge of local conditions’, cannily adaptive to changing circumstances.

Sinews reproduces the inglorious photograph of Lord Curzon arriving at Kuwait on his Viceregal tour of 1903, fresh from Bandar Abbas and Sharjah, carried to shore by Arab porters in order to be able to ride horseback into Kuwait City in more characteristic pomp. Today, the same site is occupied by Shuwaikh’s thriving cargo port. In 1925 Walter Benjamin visited Genoa’s cargo port on a freighter, and ‘was titillated by the sensory profusion’ of orchestral clanging and rattling, which he called ‘“the music of the world”’ (p 76). This musicality is now confined to ports or creeks where the dhows still thrive, as they did until recently in Sharjah’s downtown Creek and as they do in Dubai’s founding Creek. Dhows inhabit realms beneath official containerised networks but are complementary to them, making connective runs between ports and deploying their ‘fine-grained knowledge of local conditions’ (p 42), cannily adaptive to changing circumstances. After the 2008 crisis, dhow trade boomed, the size of the boats grew and new exchanges developed; cars and white goods headed from the Gulf to Zanzibar, goats and charcoal flooded back.

Labour Power, fr Companions, Guy Mannes-Abbott, 2014 (The Gulf: Hard Culture/Hard Labour, 2015)

Meanwhile, ‘today’s container ports: vast, distant from the town centre, and thoroughly and entirely secured’ (p 64) are automating the musicality of unruly humans away in service of an economy dominated by ‘petroleum and chemical tankers, offshore loading and unloading platforms, and the importance of bunkering to the economies – at least, of the UAE’ (p 76). Aden was the major bunkering port in the region but lost that traffic to Dubai and other Gulf ports. Fujairah, near Khor Fakkan on the UAE’s eastern coast, is now the world’s second largest refuelling stop, serviced by a pipeline from Abu Dhabi. The deliberate inaccessibility of these complexes ‘not only shapes landscapes but labour regimes and living and working conditions for those who work there’ (p 78). Yet, and this is the value of Khalili’s informational blizzard of a book, even at Khor Fakkan she admires the gracefulness of men at work, noting the way the ‘contrast between the complex gantry and the stevedores’ rudimentary poles embodies the tension between automation and cheap labour’ (pp 189–90).

The problem with settling exclusively for the view from the sea, mirroring exactly the approach that British colonisers took to the Arabian coast of the Gulf, is that you don’t get close enough to the storied realms of humans – the often overwhelming majority of whom are migrant here – and their potent anecdotes.

So, finally, to labour and the real potential for untidiness in a book which proceeds with steady flows of data and incident that tend inevitably to mirror the steady flows of global capital, imperial and post-imperial event. Khalili uses the word ‘story’ ten times in the short introduction and says the book ‘wanted to tell stories’ (p 6). However, the problem with settling exclusively for the view from the sea, mirroring exactly the approach that British colonisers took to the Arabian coast of the Gulf, is that you don’t get close enough to the storied realms of humans – the often overwhelming majority of whom are migrant here – and their potent anecdotes. So when Khalili mentions Walter Benjamin, it reminded me of Benjamin’s contrast between the marching of narrative history and the insurgent force and spatiality of the anecdote, or ‘story’. [9]

Post-1948 Palestinians were in high demand, making up 17 per cent of the workforce for Saudi Arabia’s Aramco in 1951. By 1970, 140,000 Palestinians were living in Kuwait, until they were expelled after the first Gulf War.

The best chapters here are the two that attempt to make up for that, ‘Landside Labour’ and ‘Shipboard Work’, and it is a pity the book was not organised around them. The chapter on port labour concentrates around pre-Independence histories of organisation and strikes, and the tailing off of such possibilities as autocratic regimes crushed any protest with ‘deportations [that] were brutal, rapid, and irreversible’ (p 199). In the 1960s and ’70s, Khalili reports that migrants in Dubai and the Gulf were from Iran, Baluchistan or Pakistan. By 2015, foreign workforces ranged from 33 per cent in Saudi Arabia to 88 and 90 per cent in the UAE and Qatar respectively. ‘In all these countries, South Asians outnumbered all other foreigners, with 7.2 million Indians, 3.3 million Bangladeshis, and 3.2 million Pakistanis’ (p 200). In highly concentrated passages Khalili describes the transformation of ‘“native” workers’ into ‘“migrants” after such categories were invented by modern states to classify and control workers’ (p 194). Post-1948 Palestinians were in high demand, making up 17 per cent of the workforce for Saudi Arabia’s Aramco in 1951. By 1970, 140,000 Palestinians were living in Kuwait, until they were expelled after the first Gulf War.

I like Khalili’s story about protests against autocratic British rule in Bahrain during the Suez War in 1956, when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt. ‘The leaders of the strike were detained, put on a show trial and exiled to St Helena’ (p 204)! Meanwhile, in Aden, Antonin Besse, a ‘ruthless businessman’ (p 71) and a powerful agent of Shell (Trading and Transport Company, founded by an Iraqi Jew born in Whitechapel, London), made a founding donation to St Anthony’s College Oxford, which generated a strike in protest at the size of the gift.

Khalili reminds us of Michel Foucault’s description of the ship as ‘the heterotopia par excellence. In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates’ (p 220). Rhetorically spicy, it is almost laugh-out-loud funny and wrongheaded in equal measure. I write that as an occasional sailor, picturing Timurid Emperor Jahangir, taking his 400,000-member court to the coast of Gujarat to stand in the sea for the first time. However, the reality of labour at sea is all too often ‘mind-numbing, boring, repetitive labour for everyone, including the officers, and back-breaking toil for the seafarers’ (p 220). Khalili found that port visits are exhausting and stressful for crew on understaffed ships, often unable to go landside in peninsula ports. In contrast comes a Foucauldian paean to the ‘copious artisanal skill’ witnessed in the engine room ‘always hot and loud and throbbing with the motion of the cylinders and the rotation of the massive one-metre-wide drive shaft where the handful of people who work in the engine room are engaged in reparative or regular maintenance’ (p 221) hand-machining damaged pieces of the ‘awesomely powerful engines’ (p 222).

Khalili writes movingly of crew members tasked to watch the horizon for anything that the Automatic Identification System (AIS) doesn’t pick up. The watchers mystify her with their ability to detect the slightest of movements through the ‘haze and heat and shimmer of the Indian Ocean’. It is a world that Bombay-based studio CAMP brought alive in their film of dhow traders on these routes, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013)

Khalili writes movingly of crew members tasked to watch the horizon for anything that the Automatic Identification System (AIS) doesn’t pick up. AIS monitors all shipping movement across the world, with wikis on every vessel it picks up, but various clandestine actors, smugglers or pirates, escape it. The watchers mystify her with their ability to detect the slightest of movements through the ‘haze and heat and shimmer of the Indian Ocean’ (p 222). It is a world that Bombay-based studio CAMP brought alive in their film of dhow traders on these routes, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013), [10] triangulating Gujarat, Dubai or Sharjah and Zanzibar via Salalah, etc. The sweet camaraderie, layered cargo, praying, exercise and strangely liberated unofficial status that crews enjoy even in the Gulf is highly affective.

I made a film with CAMP for the Folkestone Triennial in 2011, [11] called The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories – which did something similar, working with amateur coastal watchers who filmed and spoke over clips from their bunker above Folkestone’s harbour, recording exactly the same flows of global capitalism as Khalili writes about, with all the same names: CMA CGM, Maersk, the IAS, and flags of convenience. The latter identifier ‘transforms the ship into a quantum of sovereignty of that country’ (p 236) with ‘absolutely no restrictions’ (p 237). Flags of convenience began in Panama in 1916 and were taken to their abstract extreme in the ‘Liberian registry’ headquartered in the US state of Virginia.

Small scale activity reminded me of the intimacies of the dhow world in the Gulf, in whose vessels I have also admired the engine rooms, accessed via rough wooden steps, below the water line, and stifling hot even when the engine is being fixed. A beach beneath globalisation’s spanking new public realm.

From the bunker above the English Channel, activity at the Port of Dover was visible to the east, Dungeness nuclear power station to the west and the Sangatte ‘refugee camp’ over on the French shore. In between a world of socio-political complexity bloomed, including boats cheating fishing quotas, P&O strikes, aggregate dredgers, and the Algerian, British Royal and Belgian navies. Small scale activity reminded me of the intimacies of the dhow world in the Gulf, in whose vessels I have also admired the engine rooms, accessed via rough wooden steps, below the water line, and stifling hot even when the engine is being fixed. A beach beneath globalisation’s spanking new public realm.

Sinews ends with a short chapter that draws together the bounties of war since the age of independence, like the tripartite invasion of the Suez Canal and the Israeli assault on Egypt in 1967, both of which disrupted movement through the canal with significant impacts, and maps an ongoing geopolitical shift. The canal reopened in 1975, by which time Khalili claims that regional power had already shifted from Cairo to the Arabian peninsula, a process that accelerated during the Lebanese Civil war, which saw most major international companies moving their headquarters to Dubai and Sharjah. A ‘massive rerouting of petrodollars from Beirut to the Gulf resulted in a frenzy of construction and consumption’, she adds, plus ‘wholly new ports’ (p 249). Desert Shield/Desert Storm consolidated these trends, the main beneficiary of which was Jabal Ali.

A new race is now on to access or develop ports and naval bases along the Red Sea coast and beyond that ‘echoes the European competition over footholds in the Gulf a century ago’ (p 256). The so-called War on Terror generated a US naval presence at Jabal Ali, Fujairah, and the Musandam Peninsula in Oman proper, as well as Kuwait and especially Bahrain. Nevertheless, Jabal Ali is, of course, ‘the US Navy’s busiest port of call, receiving up to 200 warship visits per year’ (p 260). US forces lurk offshore in massive vessels, their AIS turned off. The Saudi/UAE invasion of Yemen and belligerence towards Qatar has hurt Jabal Ali, Khalili writes, but they have achieved ‘total domination of navigable harbours and port structures’ in Yemen; ‘future strategic bases for commercial and military control’ (p 268). She concludes that Al Ghaydah may become a future version of the Gulf oil terminals.

Sinews is a stimulating read and a surefooted introduction to the subject, with deep pockets of research. It performs a task that multiple books should have done already and ought to inspire further correction of that kind. It might have been sufficient to add a chapter or two here to develop landside connections, given the inherent human hinterlands but also the classic colonial framing and missed entanglements. It is a lament made in a comradely and writerly way, given the enormity of the patch of sea Khalili has taken on so ably.

There is something elemental in this paradox that resonates throughout all that Sinews offers, as well as in my own experience of its peninsula, which is a generator of deep ambivalences, for sure, but which also possesses an entangling dynamism that resists a firm, or fixed, grasp.

My own view of the region is the all-too commonly constrained one of the Deportees Room at Dubai International where I was detained last time I was invited to the UAE, and despite a Residency and Production Award contracted by the Government of Sharjah to develop a work focused on the landside consequences and residues of port activity. [12] Abu Dhabi is the power centre in the UAE; its autocratic regime’s insecurity is unlimited when it comes to organised migrant labourers, artists, writers, academic researchers and Emirati reformers, as well as human rights workers who challenge their abuses and the failing western institutions that profit so shamelessly from the enslaved migrant labour building their container-scaled spectacles.

Khalili reminds us that the Persian Gulf is a young sea in geological terms, yet its ‘world’ will be significantly impacted by climate change. Change is not something that fazes the region; Sinews details a scale and speed of changes over the last couple of hundred years that is mesmerising. I am struck by the simple fact that the port- and Free Zone-addled UAE only acquired a concrete plant in 1975, the year before work on Jabal Ali’s port began. Yet, weirdly, wind-worn desert sand is the ‘wrong sand’ for its purposes: ‘Concrete mixing requires angular sand, which is either marine or riparian, mined from beaches or rivers’ (p 83). There is something elemental in this paradox that resonates throughout all that Sinews offers, as well as in my own experience of its peninsula, which is a generator of deep ambivalences, for sure, but which also possesses an entangling dynamism that resists a firm, or fixed, grasp. You wouldn’t want to miss out on that.
 

[1]    Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade, Verso, London, 2020, p 3

[2]    Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, Vintage, Canada, 2011, p 7

[3]    See Michel Serres, Biogea, Univocal, 2012, in which he makes these references in the context of asking ‘what philosopher thinks like a river’ or the earth

[4]    ‘they, like us, are alive in hydrogen, in oxygen; in carbon, in phosphorous, and iron; in sodium and chlorine. This is what we know about those Africans thrown, jumped, dumped overboard in Middle Passage; they are with us still, in the time of the wake, known as residence time.’ Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke University Press, 2016, p 19

[5]    Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Verso, London, 2014, p 45

[6]    See Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Utopian Dust or Perfumed Amplification: Object Lessons from Saadiyat Island and Gehry’s Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi’, in Future Imperfect, Anthony Downey, ed, Sternberg Press, 2017, pp 292–309; an early online version can be found on Ibraaz

[7]    See Gulf Labor’s campaign handbook, with essays by Andrew Ross, Paula Chakravartty & Nitasha Dhillon, Greg Sholette, Mabel Wilson, Mariam Ghani & Haig Avazian, and myself plus statements, by Hans Haacke, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, and others: The Gulf: High Culture, Hard Labor, Andrew Ross, ed, OR Books, 2015

[8]    See Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Laboring One to Seven (Island of Terror)’, in Supercommunity: Diabolical Togetherness Beyond Contemporary Art, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle, eds, Verso, London, 2017, pp 247–253; online version available at supercommunity.e-flux.com (NB the names used are not, of course, real)

[9]     ‘The constructions of history are comparable to military orders that discipline the true life and confine it to barracks. On the other hand: the street insurgence of the anecdote. The anecdote brings things near to us spatially, lets them enter our life.’ Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 2000, p 545; this is a reference that has arisen often in my work – see, for example, Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Forting’, AA Files 42, London, 2001, pp 2–21

[10]   From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, exhibited at Sharjah Biennial 2013, Sharjah, UAE, and as part of The Boat Modes installation at dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany

[11]   See CAMP, The Country of the Blind: Photolog; and reviews by Colin Perry in frieze, 1 November 2011, and Adrian Searle in The Guardian, 26 June 2011

[12]   See Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Tales from the Deportees Room, Porting One (DXB)’, di’van, issue 4, 2018, pp 46–64


Guy Mannes-Abbott  is the London-based author of In Ramallah, Running (London 2012), whose work often performs in visual art contexts. He once taught theory at the AA School of Architecture, London, and is a core member of the Gulf Labor Coalition. His cultural criticism has been widely published in multiple volumes and journals.

Download a PDF of this review HERE

notes_26 McKenzie Wark, conversational leavings on green poetics (more of The New Vulgarian, TANK, 2019)

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.*

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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…

note_22 With McKenzie Wark for TANK; radical vulgarity vs “genteel Marxist… cops” ;)

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McKenzie Wark’s Capital is Dead (Verso) launches in New York on October 9th and later in the month in London (21st TATE Modern, 24th Foyles). This note is just a small celebration of that fact, linking to the conversation published in the current excellent issue of TANK magazine and here: https://tankmagazine.com/issue-80/features/mckenzie-wark/

Capital is Dead is an urgently rewarding read, as well as a summation of sorts for the author and much of her work in this century. This clip from the published text should alert you to the unorthodoxies it engages and the energy applied too!

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The New Vulgarian came out at about 4000 words in the end, Continue reading “note_22 With McKenzie Wark for TANK; radical vulgarity vs “genteel Marxist… cops” ;)”

note_16 #Rivering 2014-2019 (scraps, almost there…)

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Rivering the Roding started in the mud above; September 2014, as you can see if you scroll to the bottom (this one of many* returns!). These tweets are obviously incidental scraps but they do suggest or ghost if not exactly tell a story (again; bottom up). It’s a story about London, thinking like a river, which requires articulation (#rivering) and for me to show what such ‘thinking’ might be. I am coming in to land (circling back and now very close to the muddy confluence), and yes, you can start to hold your breath. Please 😉 Continue reading “note_16 #Rivering 2014-2019 (scraps, almost there…)”