Books

Staying with the Vulgar: A Brief Chat with McKenzie Wark

When we think of the world, we tend to think of it in terms of endings and deaths rather than beginnings. Only a very select few could make the case that they have the capitalism they want and yet, as writer/teacher/influence-peddler McKenzie Wark has continued to wager over the years since A Hacker Manifesto, Molecular Red and now in her latest offering Capital is Dead capitalism has mutated into something worse than expected. As she elucidates in this new book, capital is not eternal, but neither is Marxism in its original gestation. What Kathy Acker described as capitalism’s need for “new territory or fresh blood” hasn’t been enough to satiate it, and as Wark said in a recent interview with Tank mag, it wants to eat our brains as well as our bodies. Relations of information have never been more asymmetrical; labor relations have never been as abstracted as they have become. In Wark’s account, the ruling classes / vectoralist class (Zuckerberg, Bezos, et al.,) own and harvest the information that the hacker class (we, Filthy Dreamers, and everyone we know) play a role in producing and reinforcing. In short, we get our information for free in order to have our own information for sale. Here’s Jessica Caroline’s brief email exchange with Wark, talking all things deadly and vulgar:

Jessica Caroline: During your conversation at Verso with Natasha Lennard, a question was posed about Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse: What is worse? Perhaps it’s necessary to also qualify, what do you mean by dead? Can readers apprehend this not so much in strictly Nietzschean terms and more as a negativity that implies a positive position, and to what degree does this imply a continuation of consciousness? 

McKenzie Wark: There are a lot of things condensed into the title, Capital is Dead. That capital is actually dead labor is key to how Marx thinks about it. But there’s something visceral and corporeal about how he usually imagines labor, and hence how he thinks about capital as composed of the corpses of labor like some kind of spam. 

Whatever this mode of production is, that it eats brains as well as bodies seems key to how it works, and how it is made. Capital extracts the energy out of the laboring body and makes it over as a thing apart, as capital in the form of the machine, which subordinates living labor to it. This other, more recent mode of production extracts information from bodies, and makes of it a thing apart, forms of artificial intelligence, over and against the thinking, feeling body. That this also happened under capitalism was incidental to its functioning. Now it’s the basis of all forms of control and exploitation. 

The commodification of information is now what drives the value chain. And so Capital is Dead in another sense. It’s not the dominant mode of production. It too is subordinated to something else. And so the thing that might need to die is this obsession with imagining that everything is capitalism, as if it were eternal, unchanging in essence. Maybe it has already been historically superseded. If so, how to create concepts for it? That seems to me to be the challenge. Capitalism as a concept is the undead that presses like a nightmare on the critical theory of the present.

JC: I want to pose a “what if” to your “what if this is not capitalism anymore, but something worse?” What if it is not our lack of imagination in terms of alternatives to capital, and what if sociocultural stagnation is, in part, a psychic attachment to capitalism? Is there a certain satisfaction people get with the untenable promises of capitalism? As Todd McGowan and others suggest, what if what keeps us attached to capitalism is precisely our dissatisfaction through which the image of satisfaction is lost? Could an understanding of the mechanics of desire be enough to uncouple us from capitalism? Do you think there is something we can get from embracing lack? Or does it comes down to our failure to imagine a non-lacking future? After psychoanalysis, which continues to tell us a story that we don’t (possibly can’t) act in our own self interest, that contradiction is necessary and unavoidable. What if there was something to Hegel in this regard–was Marx tied up in a logic of salvation, in the belief that class contradictions could be reconciled? 

MW: This is a whole theme I only gesture to in Capital is Dead. Why this desire that this be capitalism, when it is what is so hated? I think there’s a lot of ways one ends up trapped in the repetition and variation on the same basic idea. It’s like how religions work. There’s no one mechanism. It’s a plurality of forms of repetition that block the possibility of perceiving the world otherwise and forming concepts for those perceptions. 

I’m skeptical about whether understanding the mechanics of desire is ever enough to do anything about it. I think the role of that kind of critical suspicion is probably quite limited. It’s a matter of generating and affirming other desires. I came up through the end of the great era of the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” where one used Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as the great unmaskers, finding exploitation, power and desire at work everywhere. But I’m more attracted to a constructivist approach: Well OK then, that’s the critique, now let’s produce other possibilities.

In the Marxist space, that to me takes the form of undoing their ban on the utopian mode, for example. And also paying attention to the vast repertoire of experimental writing techniques going on in Marx’s own writings. He does a hell of a lot more than “critique.” The experimental and constructive sides to the Marx space can be given equal footing with the “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” That’s basically the project I’ve explored over the last few books.

JC: You and Jodi Dean, among others, have pointed out how unhelpful prefixes and modifiers like technocapitalism and neoliberalism is, in that these may as well be placeholder terms for alt fascism and feudalism. Setting UBI and other problematic salves aside, Dean calls for partialization, as distinct from localization, to imply a weakening of nation states. We have blockchain and cryptocurrency, and various propositions for ways of decentralizing power and for polycentric forms of governance that break up power associated with territory. With polycentrism you could, for example, pluck your healthcare from the cloud, and opt into different government frameworks of your own choosing no matter where your locale. There have been many propositions to break up power associated with territory, but not many that consider breaking up what Benjamin Bratton calls “the stack”, or Keller Easterling’s Extrastatescraft, or in your terms, the vectoral order. What’s your take on Dean’s take in this regard?

MW: What I like about Bratton’s concept of the stack is that it attempts to grasp what’s strange and unprecedented about planetary scale infrastructure. It starts with that in which we are situated. In Gamer Theory, I called it a third nature. It encloses practically everything, and treats everything as a resource for the extraction of value. It’s a one-way ticket to extinction, apart from the fact that it is also only through third nature, in the form of climate science, that we know that it’s a one-way ticket to extinction. 

One you reach the point of turning the whole planet into a closed system, where there’s no place to dump waste heat, that pretty much ends any idea of ‘the political’ as an autonomous space separate from questions of resource allocation. It also ends any purely local solutions. We are in a truly post-political world. The kinds of hysterical fascism that are overtaking actual politics stem in part from the foreclosure of the possibility of “the political” as the regulative ideal or theology that props any actual politics up. Modes of collective praxis may need to take more inventive forms. 

Whatever its limitations, Extinction Rebellion is really interesting in that regard. It reconnects to the prophetic and even chilliastic cultural material, but repurposes it as a kind of informational virus to spread through the stack, through third nature, along the vector–about the collapse of any possible nature that appears only as a resource. 

JC: During the conversation with Lennard, you discussed the weirdness of ontology and your resistance to assign the ontological to everything. In response to Andrea Long Chu, you reject the claim of femaleness as an ontological category. You prefer to speak in terms of practices, or technics, than ontology. There’s also a tendency in your writing toward thinking in thirds, from your notion of a Third Nature in Molecular Red, to Karen Barad’s object / subject / apparatus, and to circle back to your response to Chu’s work:

“All the human genders assemble themselves via the means of a third. What appears to be in the power of the other isn’t really there. It’s in the apparatus, but the apparatus isn’t something separate and other. We’re woven into it and out of it. Here, contra Chu, I find Donna Haraway instructive. Maybe the transsexual can too neatly become the hood ornament of the political myth of the cyborg. But maybe what Haraway overlooked, and what forms as an autonomous space within which for us to play, is transsexual cyborg aesthetics, where we become pretty, each in our own ways, and together.”

You’ve also spoken about this on social media during your own transition, to the condition of no longer being an autonomous subject. Now, my molly days are long over and I missed your 4am discussion on the Commitment to the Bit at the New School’s night of philosophy. Were there any subsequent revelations or further thoughts on this paper from that seminar? Would love for you to elaborate further on these points if possible…

MW: I see ontological claims as always contemplative byproducts of unexamined practices. Whatever you think being is comes from the ways you produce a thinking of it. Those ways are always in part technical. A technics is always the third thing in between, which generates the effect of their being a difference between self and other. To the extent that the “new materialism” makes ontological claims, it’s no different to me than the dialectical materialism of old. It just ventriloquizes a different technics. 

The interest in third-ness comes from a lot of places. From Charles Sanders Pierce, from Derrida, and also from Asger Jorn, co-founder of the Situationist International, and his rather madcap theory of triolectics. But most often I’m just performing the basic gesture of media theory and asking how an apparent self-other relation is actually mediated. 

As a transsexual, it’s pretty obvious to me how my own body is mediated to me via a technics. It exists as it is due to surgery, hormones, wardrobe, endless bathroom selfies, and so on. From that perspective you see how this is actually the case with all bodies. Cis bodies sometimes imagine they are more natural and unmediated, as if gender were an ontological condition of being. But I don’t think that’s quite the case. The biological basis of life is of course very real and I’m in no sense a social constructionist. It’s just that biology itself is such a wild and variable terrain upon which practices and techniques intervene as a kind of third gender of technics itself that produces the appearance of two human ones. The thirdness of technics also produces the appearance of the sex gender binary. So in short, looking at practices is a good way to perceive how difference comes about in the form it does.

JC: You mentioned your personal experience of our present milieu as that of “mania rather than depression…” can you speak to that some more? In as general terms as you like, can you talk about the analytic / therapeutic process during your transition? Was it a particular analytic approach or moreover talk therapy?

MW: Mark Fisher helped a lot of people by being out about depression, and showing how one can think of it in terms of its relation to working life, commodification, and so forth. There’s whole industries designed around extracting, monopolizing and commodifying information about states of the body, about affective states–and medicalizing them. I just happen to think that kind of extraction of surplus information is just not very well described as “capitalist.” We end up in a double bind in that it helps to be out about our weird affective states just as it helps to be out about being trans or queer. But on the other hand, that information is extracted and commodified. 

In my case, I don’t get very depressed. But I do get manic bursts from time to time. There’s less attention to this, perhaps because it appears as a kind of hyper-functionality from the point of view of “productivity,” even if it isn’t really. It’s racing thoughts, sleeplessness, seemingly boundless energy, obsession alternating with distractibility, launching all sorts of projects, messianic confidence. And then you crash. 

My mania met the standards for some low-level diagnosis of mania when I saw a psychiatrist. I had to see that psychiatrist to get his sign-off for some transsexual surgery I wanted. So I got caught up in the kind of disciplinary apparatus Foucault describes so well. But then I’m now also inside some other regime that he doesn’t describe. About the extraction and commodification of information. 

I also had to get my regular therapist to sign-off. This is for the insurance, by the way. You can get trans healthcare on an informed consent basis in New York without too much trouble. If I know what I need and can say so, there are medical professionals who will give it to me. But it’s the insurance companies that gate-keep. The disciplinary apparatus of psychiatry, psychology and social work are secondary to a kind of vectoral class-owned business that manages costs through actuarial tables and so forth. 

On the other side, as a human dysphoric about its gendered body–I do have a therapist, but with a social work background. I read Anti-Oedipus at a formative age so I’m wary of psychoanalysis, and in particular of Lacanians who I’ve not forgiven for Catherine Millot’s book Horsexe that set my transition back for many years. I may have to hate-read and write about that one. Someone should do an anthology of transsexual writers hate-reading the books that harmed us. 

JC: I wanted to ask you about Camille Paglia, because she’s been divisive in academia and the trans community. How do you respond to her discussing the role of the professor in Provocations: “A professor is there to help students use the mind in a detached, objective way to analyze culture. The moment you attempt to convert, you’ve sold out and become a missionary or ideologue.” Agree or disagree? Any comments about Paglia’s take on reassignment surgery while we’re at it? 

MW: I actually found Sexual Personae to be really interesting and even, useful. It got me through some difficult stuff about my own gender. I found a lot of books I could consider “mine” or “ours” through that book, and ways to read things I already knew. Then she became a sort of public intellectual and was very annoying about it. A prototype of the troll persona of today. It was refreshing to see what I took to be a sort of butch dyke power-bottom ranting on television. But it was the old gambit of getting your place by being a reactionary. It’s an old routine. Predictable given her tastes for decadent writers such as Rachilde. It’s the same move. 

The opposition between detached and objective and conversion is not exactly right. I want to get students to feel things, to get to know their own affective lives, to find works of art they can live through and expand with. On the other hand, I do agree about not wanting to convert anyone. I’m not trying to make students become transsexual Marxist avant-gardists. Quite the opposite. I’m trying to help them become something specific to themselves and their lives. I mostly teach undergraduates so it’s a formative movement. I want my students to grow not only intellectually, but also emotionally and aesthetically. And this being New York: I want to help them figure out their hustle. So they can survive. 

On the other thing: I do not give a rat’s ass what anyone says about gender confirmation surgery who has not undergone it. It amazes me that cis people think they are such fucking experts on gender when they have only attempted to be one of them.

JC: Reading your review of The Young Karl Marx led me to think perhaps the time is ripe for a Deleuze and Guattari buddy movie?

MW: Well, Guattari wrote a screenplay. It’s wild. What the fuck was he on? But I don’t think we need any more straight white boy movies for awhile. I’m not interested in this as a matter of identity or representation. But I am interested in how different kinds of people have knowledge that comes from the practices of their lives and how one can get really distinctive takes on the totality, on the world, from that. The last film I wrote about–at eflux journal–was Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty, which constructs a way to think and feel about the utopian possibilities of queer and trans lives when thought beyond the couple or the buddy duality. It’s about third-ness, I guess. 

JC: And speaking of adaptations, how have your encounters with performances of I’m Very Into You, adapted by Sara Lyons, heightened or intensified your perspective on those intimate email correspondences with Kathy Acker? How does it feel to witness a version of yourself being historicized, in a sense?

MW: It’s evolved a lot as a show. The way she does it is she cut a narrative arc through the emails and in the later versions, she has the cast take turns reading the me parts and the Kathy parts. In between, the cast tell their own stories in monologues about gender, sexuality, and mediation–these days through Instagram and Grindr and things like that. I like this show a lot, and it’s Sara’s show. I just provided some raw material. 

As it happens, I saw a production of it last night up at Sarah Lawrence College. It’s confusing to see myself portrayed by young cis women! But in a good way, for me and for the show. I cried a lot. So many feelings. I talked to Sara before this production about how I changed the ending of it, in a way, by transitioning. It’s now really obvious to me how trans I was in what I wrote to Kathy. I think Kathy had gender dysphoria in some sense too, although I’m very reluctant to reduce her work to anything like that.

JC: I wanted to explore more the notion of cruising in the manner of the Situationist dérive. In your essay The Potential of the Queer, you quote from José Esteban Muñoz: “Queerness, as I am describing it here, is more than just sexuality. It is the great refusal of a performance principle that allows the human to feel and know not only our work and our pleasures but also our selves and others.” 

Could you speak more to the relation you draw in this essay between queerness and the Situationists? 

MW: The Muñoz books so great because it’s not about Foucault for once. It’s about utopian possibility, as understood through Bloch. In that, it enables something like the Rovinelli film I mentioned earlier. Muñoz does not talk about the Situationists and in some ways, that’s an antithetical sensibility, but the overlap is around dérive as method. The Situationists were wandering about because they were drunks, but queer people wander about too. Both can discover “another city for another life” as Samual Delany does in The Motion of Light on Water when his pre-Stonewall homosexual ass discovers the cruising scene at the piers. I think also of David Wojnarowicz making art there in their fallen state some decades later. 

Muñoz also comes fairly close to owning up to the femme-phobia of gay culture, which I feel remains unaddressed in certain kinds of queer theory that is built on top of it. It comes up in his writing about Kevin Aviance. But I think one would want to press Muñoz a bit further on this. I think Aviance performed a kind of ritual exorcism of femme out of gay spaces so they could continue on excluding and minimizing it. The femme-phobia and misogyny of gay culture was what drove me out of it in the eighties. 

For trans people in general and for trans women and femmes in particular, I think we are still coming to terms with the extent to which queer theory is just not our friend. Its models of gender, its aesthetic enthusiasms, its constant flirting with romanticism–none of that is very helpful to us. And I note that when NYU did a celebration of Muñoz on the anniversary of that book we were not really included–although drag was. 

There’s a queer theory idea of transsexuality in which trans is just another word for queer, or an emblem of it. There’s a lot I value in the Jack Halberstam or Judith Butler version, to give two examples, but I think that’s the limit. Those versions are not up to thinking what in trans lives is not queer at all. Some of the more interesting recent trans writing–Imogen Binnie, Casey Plett, Torrey Peters–isn’t particularly queer at all in any conceptual sense of the term. 

Actually I think what I’d want to activate for trans theory is not Foucault, nor the Situationists. It would be Henri Lefebvre and Raymond Williams, to activate themes of everyday life and the ordinary. The banality of our interstitial lives is really well expressed in trans literature right now, but is only just beginning to show up in scholarship. And we have no choice but to confront how we’re caught up in this not-capitalism-but-worse mode of production through medicalization and through the kind of pornographic image regimes on which Paul Preciado writes so well.  

JC: You outlined several thinkers such as Angela Davis, Asger Jorn, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Andrei Platonov, as those of a vulgar Marxist ilk, as opposed to a genteel or “proper” Marxism. This as you say is a kind of low theory, bottom-up approach, given your provincial roots with working class militants and union activists through to your entry into journalism, media studies and academia. I want to encourage everyone to read the book as you’ve clearly outlined what makes these thinkers vulgar, but could you share with us some more idols and other contemporary cultural pointers in order for us to lead more vulgar lives? 

MW: What I love about Preciado’s Testo Junkie is that it comes with reading lists. I had to look some of that stuff up! I have my differences with Preciado. I think he’s making an aesthetic preference into a politics, and I’d want to think that differently. But I love the way he invokes a milieu. 

I don’t really have a good answer in the sense that we can see in hindsight what remarkable things Davis or Jorn or whoever were able to think and do. Whereas in the present one can’t make such claims. I think it’s just a matter of looking for milieu where you find people engaged with the new forms of information production, who are working in and against the leading edge of the world. 

One that immediately comes to mind is that the most cutting edge development in science and technics is really just planetary science. In the last thirty years, there’s been a revolution there, drawing on communication, computation and global forms of scientific community. How to actualize the knowledge of the planet as a closed energy loop into the old cultural, political and media forms that are just not designed to handle it? Clearing a space for that was what I was trying to do in Molecular Red.

The other example is for me a bit closer to home. With all due respect to our ancestral brothers, sisters and others, it’s only very recently that there’s been many trans people with the resources to articulate our unique knowledge about the human. We’re both an ancient kind of human–we always existed–and also a very new one–only quite recently did the techniques exist to expand upon the potentials of how we can be.

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