Expanding the #Marx21c Archive



by McKenzie Wark

A central problem for #Marx21c is that as commodification becomes more abstract, the concrete comes back to haunt it in the form of the metabolic rifts characteristic of the Anthropocene. What resources do we have for thinking this?

It was to uncover some such resources that I embarked on what I think will be a four-book series that reads the twentieth century through its more or less forgotten Marxists. Two of these books will be on Marxists who engaged with the natural sciences, and two with those more interested in the media arts. What unites them are questions of apparatus.

As Alex Galloway has pointed out, one of the surprising features of A Hacker Manifesto is that it is not a blanket critique of the abstracting forces of information technology. If anything it is an accelerationist book that wants to push that process even further. Part of the subsequent project, then, is to find resources for ways of extending the Marxist project that are not about negation or resistance.

In Molecular Red (Verso, 2015), I try to revive the forgotten figure of Alexander Bogdanov, who was Lenin’s rival for the leadership of the Bolsheviks, before Lenin threw him out. Bogdanov constructed an ambitious project for the self-education of the working class in the task of organization. In his utopian novel Red Star he had strikingly anticipated the problem of climate change, and in his Tektology he had already begun to grapple with the idea of a biosphere, and the problem of organizing social forms in relation to their points of vulnerability in an unstable natural world.

Molecular Red also tells the story of Andrey Platonov, a rare modernist writer-engineer of genuine proletarian origins, whose extraordinary (anti)novels tell the story of the Soviet Union from the point of view of everyday, lowly comrades, trying to build the means of production for Lenin’s leap into communism. Platonov, besides his genius as a writer, is to me a great theorist of the basic organizational problems of combining and motivating labor in and against its struggle with nature and techne. In Bogdanov the central question is how to organize as labor; in Platonov, the central question is how to organize as comrades.

In a project I am grappling with at the moment, I want to extend this Marxist counter-narrative through the ‘30s and ‘40s. But rather than look at Marxists whose background and interests were literary and philosophical, I want to look at those whose engagements were scientific and technical. This story centers on three British Marxists, J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal and Joseph Needham. These were all first-rate scientists and original theorists, particularly of the way scientific work was being incorporated into new production processes, able to transform matter on a molecular and even sub-molecular level.

Only a philosopher such as Heidegger could make such a glib announcement that “the essence of technology is nothing technical.” To Haldane, Bernal and Needham, technologies all have very specific properties, understood and produced in a subtle dialectic with the natural sciences. Bridging the gap between what became of Marxist thought and the struggles within scientific fields—by a branch of what I call the hacker class—seems imperative to me in the current historical situation. We know about the Anthropocene, about climate change, about ocean acidification, and so on, only because of knowledge produced in the natural sciences.

The anti-science critique is now on the right: it is in the hands of denialists who knowingly or not work for the fossil fuel industries. It is crucially important to realize that the situation calls for quite different tactics in the politics of knowledge. The fellow travelling of critical theory with Heideggerian late romanticism must come to an end. Hence in Molecular Red and the subsequent work I want to restore that part of the #Marx21c archive where Marxist thought is in dialogue with the sciences, as it is in Helena Sheehan—although my version is rather less orthodox.

The work on the early twentieth-century Marxist archive is about the sciences, while the work I did on the later twentieth century looks at the Marxist-inflected avant-garde. Both are, in different ways, about problems of the “aesthetic,” broadly understood as problems of perception. How do science and media, as forms of techno-industrial apparatus, affect how the world can be known and changed by collective praxis? That question, in my mind at least, is the thread through this body of work.

When I wrote A Hacker Manifesto it had seemed obvious to me that the central category in Debord’s work was not spectacle but détournement. But this did not seem obvious to others, and in attempting to explain it, I ended up writing two and a half books about the Situationist International. They became for me one of the most useful counter-traditions for understanding the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps this was because, at their best, they lacked any interest in either the casuistry of leftist groupuscules, or in the steady careers of those of us in academia or the media. They had a certain license to say and do as they pleased, and they used it well.

I told it as an ensemble story. Besides Debord, Michèle Bernstein had made a valuable contribution to think about love and sex and everyday life outside of the strictures of private property, and without the masculinist privileges of the so-called sexual revolution.

Asger Jorn had already artfully explained the difference between what I would later term the hacker class and the working class, as the distinction between making new forms and filling given forms within the production process.
Constant Neiuwenhuys had, with his New Babylon, created the greatest Marxist-accelerationist utopia of all time. He vividly understood that the second industrial revolution of information technology would redesign the whole geography of base and superstructure. These were some of the heroes and heroines of The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso, 2011).

In the rather more bleak sequel, The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso, 2013) I tell the story of what the Situationists did when the revolution of the ‘60s did not come to pass. They dug in for the long haul. Debord and Viénet made some very fine Marxist-Situationist cinema. Alice Becker-Ho constructed the elements of an alterative to semiotic theories of language, one that emphasized not the free play of the sign but its fugitive, constrained, and secret qualities. Raoul Vaneigem revived Charles Fourier’s utopian vision of the everyday.

The spectacle is no longer the centralized, planned extrusion into the world of images of the production process. It fragmented and disintegrated into the pores of the everyday. As Debord predicted, it no longer even much pretends to promise the good life. But here, in the later lives of his comrades, were strategies for hiding in plain sight.

Apart from Constant’s brilliant reading of Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics, the Situationists did not pay a lot of attention to science and technology. And so to complete this raid into the byways of the archive, in Molecular Red I paired the chapters on Bogdanov and Platonov with a late twentieth-century story, the central figure of which is Donna Haraway. What is unique about her work is that it combined a close reading of Joseph Needham’s organicist biological thought with Marxist critical theories and the practical experience of feminist struggles around reproductive technology and the life sciences.

Particularly useful in my mind is her careful unpacking of the promiscuity of metaphors of race, gender, and class as they pass between social and technoscience domains. And yet for all that, Haraway is able to hold on to a sense of the sciences as kinds of real knowledge, telling constrained stories within strict disciplinary protocols.

On my reading, Haraway and some of her students, collaborators, and followers have unknowingly revived something of a Bogdanovite-Marxist theory and practice of knowledge—one that is alive to the way metaphors pass between domains, but where this in itself does not disqualify research from being knowledge. The task is not to expunge metaphor, but to use it better.

In the Harawayesque work of Edwards, Karen Barad and Beatriz Preciado, there is an understanding of how knowledge/power emerges out of not only metaphoric and conceptual work but also out of a specific apparatus. The particular kind of realism that this line of research might support is a realism of the sensations produced by controlled experiments in a given situation with a given apparatus. The knowledge of the sciences is both real and historical in this view, and the result of collective effort with a means of production—as it should be in any Marxist theory of knowledge and science.

This strikes me as a more promising line of work for #Marx21c than the more rationalist approach which takes mathematics to be a sort of essence of science and which no longer has anything to say about the forces of production of science, namely the apparatus, and the relations of production within which they function. I have chosen to emphasize the forces of production, but I think this line of thought can be placed in dialogue with those more interested in the relations, as in the work of Philip Mirowski. It does however point away from that hyper-rationalist line that descends through Althusser to Badiou and Meillassoux, not to mention the latter’s hyper-rationalist critique in François Laruelle.

The historical situation thus calls for versions of a Marxism that can account for three things:

Firstly, new forces of production, particularly in information.

Secondly, new kinds of class interest, relation, and conflict that stem from the evolution of the private property form to subsume information.

Thirdly, new kinds of knowledge about the world, based on the application of information as a means of production in the sciences, about the totality of effects of global commodity production on the biosphere. Hence the subtitle of Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene.

My attempts at actually writing Marxist theory in A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory depended on drawing together experiences of avant-garde practices with what existed as the canonic Marxist and critical theory texts of the time. That was a body of work which brought Marxist thought into the domain of media theory, in dialogue with others who were trying to think what came out of the Nettime years, including Wendy Chun on control, Alex Galloway on protocol, Lisa Nakamura on subjectivity, Lev Manovich on formalism, Coco Fusco on empire, Eugene Thacker on biomedia, Richard Barbrook on strategy, and Trebor Scholz on digital labor.

My later, historical works are a kind of dialectical complement, bringing a Marxist media theory and practice perspective into the received ideas about what the canonic Marxist works actually are. It is in effect a rewriting of that canon as one finds it, for example, in Fredric Jameson, Perry Anderson, Martin Jay, or Goran Therborn. Those versions of an archive seem to me to have been determined by the objectives and experiences of the postwar new left. Those are no longer our perspectives and experiences.

A new past is called for, as a resource for a new situation. Or rather pasts. Razmig Keucheyan has offered one useful remapping, but there could be others. Rather than posit another apostolic succession, maybe it is a question of trying to map what Needham would see as a field of possible permutation and elaborations on Marx that differentiate in all directions from his work but are still organized by it. But to do that, perhaps we could take another look at the resources of the archive, and think again about ways to access it.

Essay part 3 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.