Leaving the Twentieth Century



by McKenzie Wark

What might a Marx for the twenty-first century, a #Marx21c, look like? Perhaps as different to that of the nineteenth century as this era is from that one. These are some personal, impressionistic reflections on what that might look like.

The Marxism that I know is part of my life through four kinds of experience: the party, the popular front, the avant-gardes and the university. Each offered its own possibilities and limits for Marxist thought and practice.

My apprenticeship was the period from the late ‘70s through to the ‘90s. It was a time of modifiers. The existing language for describing the situation accreted a layer of suffixes and adjectives, but the language itself didn’t change. The situation was postmodern, or postfordist, or it was late capitalism, and a bit later it would become neoliberal.

None of these are adequate descriptions. The situation could only be named structurally, with the modified term denoting only that it was somehow different to the other term, to the recent past. It wasn’t modern, Fordist capitalism any more. Not the least problem for #Marx21c is to create a new language.

Back to the ‘70s: I was really a pretty poor candidate for cadre training, but I learned a lot from party school. The Marxist texts we studied had at one and the same time to be grasped abstractly and also applied to the situation at the time. It was in retrospect a good training for my attempts to be a writer in three quite distinct kinds of media, and as three different kinds of Marxist.

As a journalist, writing for daily newspapers or the radio in Australia, I belonged to the late twentieth-century version of the popular front. The task was first and last to show how certain local and particular struggles connected, how feminism, gay liberation, the environment, anti-racism and the class struggle were not the same, not reducible one to the other, but could be coordinated.

Having read some Antonio Gramsci at party school came in handy. He had already thought the question of hegemony, of rule by consent. He had thought the role of intellectuals, in either maintaining a national culture or challenging it, of articulating a national-popular counter-hegemonic bloc.

Maybe it was because the party no longer existed, or could no longer exist, that I also spent some time in avant-gardes of one sort or another, putting out our little journals and tracts and manifestos. This involved learning quite a bit about the print trades, about how to make video or radio. It was a great education in the tactics and mechanics of communication. Then the internet and computers came along, and it got even more fun.

Having read some Guy Debord in the context of the avant-gardes had its uses here. He had already thought about how to keep a group interesting, how to use theory as total critique, how to use the resources of art for something other than just more art.

But being only a passably good journalist and a quite terrible artist, quite naturally I ended up in the academy. I had the good fortune to fall into teaching media, which at the time could be pretty much anything you wanted it to be.

Having read some Althusser as a student came in handy. He appeared to have a method for working in a specialized academic field and yet assessing work there against a general Marxist method. And yet having never really intended to end up in academia, I had not really educated myself for such a vocation.

As an undergraduate in the ‘80s, I studied with whoever seemed interesting in each department, usually with Marxists or post-Marxists or other aberrant thinkers. I had rarely gone to class. I was too busy being a not particularly effective organizer. I spent my study time in the Current Serials section of the library, following the debates across a number of diverse journals, from New Left Review to Economy and Society to Screen.

In the academy back then it was amusing to talk to the Althusserians, who said that Marx’s theory of alienation was nonsense, but not to worry, as the theory of surplus value was still solid. Then if one talked to the neo-Ricardians, they would then tell you that the theory of surplus value was nonsense, but not to worry, as Marx’s theory of alienation was untouched by this! It was as if each of the disciplines were slowly digesting the whole extra-academic scope and sweep of Marx’s thought, and making it safe for the protocols of their particular field.

To understand how this worked, it certainly helped to read some Foucault. My introduction to his work was an unusual one. Homemade translations were pressed into my hands by self-described “nasty street queens” who had come up through Gay Liberation. This was, among other things, an important avant-garde, with a clear critique of the institutions of knowledge/power.

Having ended up in the academy in the ‘90s, I wrote some popular front books, about the globalization of the news media event, about the culture wars, about the popular as understood in social democracy and popular culture. But these were rearguard actions. We were losing. What could be described provisionally as the neo-fascism so prevalent in in our own times was starting to establish itself already.

The principle affect of so-called neo-liberal culture is that for me to win, you have to lose. It’s a zero-sum game. This is already a blow to any culture of solidary, be it social-democratic or otherwise. Neo-fascism is much worse than that. For me to win, it is not enough that you lose. You have to suffer. Identity comes from the other’s suffering, even death. This was already becoming again a legitimate thought in the ‘90s. If the Balkan Wars could teach the West anything, it was that neofascism was at the heart now of our cultures, too.

But that was the ‘90s. I emigrated to New York in 2000. I no longer had access to a national popular cultural space. As a passably articulate, semi-educated white man from the provinces, there was practically nothing I could not do in Australia. So I wrote for a national newspaper. Broadcast on national radio. Appeared before the Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of a team giving a report on the internet and public policy. I was not so much a public intellectual as a public idiot. It was easy to appear in the hegemonic space and say something idiosyncratic, in and against it.

I exchanged that for a life of teaching in upstate New York all week, and then driving the four hours back to Brooklyn. It was a life of intellectual isolation. But it was a good time to try to tackle two things together: One was an accounting for what the avant-gardes I had experienced in the ‘90s had been all about, and the other was to use that rather marginal but precocious form of practice to rethink what a critical theory might be for the new century.

A word on those avant-gardes. Sydney back in the eighties had been an excellent host for the production of avant-gardes, because it still had a bohemia. It was cheap to live in the city, because in those days, people with money still preferred the suburbs. There was enough work for when you needed it, in commercial media or the “entertainment” trades. You could scrape by on unemployment benefits or the government student allowance so long as you worked on the sly a bit. There were plenty of big, cheap communal households, and not a few squats. So one could devote the bulk of one’s time to reckless living, trying to make art in the media of one’s choice, or trying to change the world.

The down side: Sydney was – and is – provincial. The nearest global capital was Tokyo. Others brought back reports from the old pilgrimage centers of London and Paris, or the more recent one of New York, but it was Tokyo were I went to learn how provincial I was. I never learned the language. I taught myself enough French to keep up with new writing, but it was the psychogeographic study of the everyday life of Tokyo, combined with reading as much Akira Asada in translation as I could find, that for me was an intimation that this could no longer be called “late capitalism” any more. It was early something else.

That was the ‘80s. Then in the ‘90s there was the internet. It was suddenly much easier and cheaper to keep in contact with the bohemian node in the interesting cities of the world, to know of and play with their avant-gardes, or at least those that were oriented towards questions of media. But then aren’t all the avant-gardes that matter not really about literature or painting, but media? The Futurists were about media, and so was Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, mail art, and the Situationist International. And now one could make contact with their successors via dial-up modem.

The avant-gardes of the ‘90s went by many fluctuating names. It helped to have read some Deleuze and Guattari. It really did seem rhizomatic. There were deterritorializations but also reterritorializations. These days it is assumed we were naïve about all this, but look back through the archives and you’ll find this clearly was not so. The internet avant-gardes lived through the Balkan wars, through the first internet stock market  and bust, and through the machinations of state and corporate telecoms. Before Snowden’s leaks about the NSA was Echelon, a global internet surveillance project, rumors of which had leaked.

Among the avant-gardes of the ‘90s, I felt closest in this world to the art, theory, and politics hackers of Nettime, or It was based on a listserv, and deliberately set itself against the atheoretical techno-optimism emanating out of Northern California. In the theory world, there were two extreme positions, both resolutely non-Marxist, but both insisting on a kind of unidirectional liquidation of the old social formation. On the one extreme, Nick Land’s delirious optimism; on the other, Arthur Kroker’s cool pessimism. But more interesting to me were those who were looking more closely at avant-garde practices, and building concepts that might account for the novel features of a world made over by an emerging digital means of mediation.

It was useful in this context to read some Geert Lovink. A Nettime co-founder, he came out of the squatting scene in Amsterdam and Berlin, and spent the ‘90s travelling Europe and the world making connections and writing astute reports on the successes and failures of attempts to build an avant-garde culture or politics on the new tools. He co-founded the listserv in 1995.

Over the next five years, Nettime would host a critique of leftism (i.e. Frankfurt school media theory), formulate the practice of tactical media, spawn and reject, and invent a practice for itself of collaborative filtering of texts. It existed in a prickly series of intersections with cyber-feminist and anti-colonial listservs such as Faces, 711, and Undercurrents, and lists in languages other than English.

And so: after emigrating to New York in 2000, I was cut off from the popular front activities that occupied a lot of my time in the ‘90s. I simply had no intuitive understanding of American cultural politics, and no entrée to its media spaces even if I had. But it seemed like a good time to try to theorize what the avant-gardes had been up to, and what they implied for #Marx21c. This resulted in two books, A Hacker Manifesto (2004) and Gamer Theory (2007).

Essay part 1 of a 6-part series. First published at Arcade | Creative Commons License
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About the Author:

McKenzie Wark is Professor of Culture and Media at The New School. He is the author, most recently, of The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso 2013). His book Molecular Red is out in April 2015.