McKenzie Wark is so in touch with the present that her work often comes off as futuristic. A public intellectual in her home country of Australia, she was schooled in Marxism by the working class miners she grew up around. Following her immigration to the United States, she wrote some of her most significant works, many of which revolve around communism, media, and cultural theory, along with texts on the Situationists International and her auto-ethnography Reverse Cowgirl (2020), which chronicles her years attempting to be gay, and then straight, before transitioning. Wildly prolific, her reach is long, but Wark has been constructing a body of work around something truly novel for decades now: the death of capitalism unto something else.
As a writer, Wark has expressed frustration with the modifiers that we’ve come to see the world through. It is not capitalism we are surviving but neoliberal capitalism, late capitalism, finance capitalism, bio-political capitalism or some other variation. These modifiers signal to Wark that the word “capitalism” itself no longer describes our current condition. In 2004, she published her breakout text A Hacker Manifesto which laid out an intimation of a new world order. Class, she argued, is now being organized through relationships with intellectual property, divvying up “hackers” who produce that intellectual property and the “vectoralists” who eventually own it. In 2019 Wark continued this line of thought with Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? further delineating how a new ruling class, without owning the means of production, have come to dominate the world through data harvesting, patents, brands, and copyrights.
Wark’s new book, Sensoria: Thinkers for the 21st Century, is a syllabus of this present, outlining the contours of the new world order through the work of nineteen scholars thinking within aesthetics, ethnography, and design; or to use Wark’s substitutions, media theory, ethnography, and technics. She asks, critically, “What is the point of scholarship?” in her introduction to the text, and provides a rousing answer through the work of others. The form of domination is the form of the world. To understand the Anthropocene is to begin untangling the way this new economic mode is shaping our societies and planet, how algorithms and other-than-human processes are co-producing a reality we set into motion but have little control over. And still–in recognizing this we are no longer limited to the immovable cage of capitalism, there are new grounds on which to consider the fight for liberation.
I’ve never met McKenzie Wark, not in person. Considering the subject of her work, that may be appropriate. There were some emails exchanged, I got a hard copy of her book, plus some PDFs, some Tweets were liked. We got on the phone together, one hundred miles apart, to talk about the more-than-human world we find ourselves living in.
—Shanti Escalante-De Mattei
THE BELIEVER: The first thing you ask in Sensoria is: “What is the point of scholarship?” Why do you think that question has become so easy to ask?
MCKENZIE WARK: I think there’s several things going on with that. One is, particularly in the United States, the turning of all higher education into a kind of debt based consumer good, like buying a car or a house, which is then perceived much more in terms of acquiring the car and the house. So it sort of gets nested in this debt-based consumption model which makes scholarship completely secondary to what most people think it’s about. It’s clear that that model’s just unsustainable. Fewer and fewer people can really afford it, the cut off point where you really do benefit, even in just straight up monetary terms from having qualification, is shifting. Enrollments have been declining.
The other reason is the attacks from the right. Any knowledge of the world that is reliable at the moment would point to the world being completely unsustainable in the form that it’s in, so therefore we must shut down knowledge, is the response to that.
The third piece would be the way that critical theories about what’s going on in the world hid out in the university as one of the few available spaces where you could get paid to think about things. But it’s really gotten extremely difficult to do that, to succeed at it became a very sort of formalistic process—disciplinary criteria and all that. One really has to ask if the best place for critical theory is university or not.
BLVR: You mention in a past interview that you were educated about Marxism outside of school, and there was a kind of “vulgarism” to the way it was communicated. Once you got to university that was no longer acceptable. And so you ask “Do we really want to be genteel Marxists?” I wonder where one can even go to find these spaces now, where you don’t have to be connected to a network of academia to have a critical education.
MW: I tend to read these high theory books sometimes and I think “My god you need 100,000 dollars worth of graduate school education to read this.” Now look, I’m in favor of complex and difficult writing but often there’s a specific kind of schooling that is implied in that. Literature really had other origins, right? Marx’s famous works were all made outside the spaces of university, same for Spinoza, same is true of Nietszche, Simone de Beuvoir. You could keep adding examples. Conceptual writing comes out of organic processes and I think that’s always been around. That was my experience.
There used to be political parties, there used to be a kind of para-art space, there were social movements that had their own publications and things. I think that really revived in the last few years. It revived through organizations like DSA and Black Lives Matter. There seem to be reading groups all over town at the moment and a kind of proliferation of para-journals, the little magazine culture has really come back and is really quite strong. It seems to me that all the innovative work is coming out there first.
It also strikes me as important that you don’t get to the interesting stuff until you’re almost through four years [of university]. I don’t know that that’s all that helpful either.
BLVR: Do you teach in an interdisciplinary fashion? How do you make that work for your students?
MW: This is going to contradict everything I just said but, Sensoria partly came out of teaching at a liberal studies program at the New School and it’s sort of been set up as a great books sort of project, to do that sort of linear thing, “Plato to Nato” as it used to be called.
I wanted to do it a different way, which was to go sort of sideways and track the different debates going on in different fields in the present. It’s always that tradeoff: to know one thing is to not know another thing. If you were to spend the time reading the Marx that is the background of the thing you’ve just read, then you would need to read the Hegel that is the background of Marx, then you would need to read the Kant that’s the background of Hegel, then you would need to read the Spinoza that’s the background of Kant, and so on until the Greeks. And then you’d look up and say, Now wait a minute—that’s a provincial tradition in a very big world where India has a whole other set of traditions and so does China, and so forth, and then know nothing of any of that.
I’m trying to do a synoptic view in Sensoria of these different interesting contributions to aesthetics and ethnography and design/technics so you can sort of reach in and grab a handful of concepts. [The aesthetics category] draws concepts from different traditions that would enable you to perceive how you’re viewing the world, secondly, shaped and situated by where you are [through ethnography], and how that’s all kind of embedded in technics whose mission in life is to try to make itself invisible to you. The entirety of the Earth is technic-ly mediated into a kind of spectacular consumer nightmare that will probably kill us all! [Laughter]
BLVR: You also ask, “Does more knowledge lead to higher resolution? Does that lead to knowing the world more?” I was really interested in this idea of being able to zoom out and still having this larger picture that is useful. But it does feel, at times, almost like a personal risk, to say “That’s enough detail. Let me go broader, let me go to a different place.” Did you feel any insecurity around making these big moves, conceptually?
MW: Oh, all the time. It’s the thing that you’re not supposed to do, particularly as a scholar. There’s the old figure of the fox and the hedgehog–the hedgehog digs his hole deeper and the fox likes to jump around between different places. I’m very much at the extreme end of the fox mentality, I kind of get bored and want to go dig something else. You’re not really supposed to do that. There’s been greater and greater emphasis on specialization in academic work–and to some extent you need people to know things in depth–but I think we then got less good at drawing the thread out between those things. How does this particular piece of specialized work in–whatever it is–history, or sociology, how does that fit in with any sort of bigger picture?
We need to be able to interpret the world in order to change it, right? As Marx famously said. But then we gave up on interpreting the world but interpreting specific things, so you lose the sense of the synoptic that for any kind of action in the world is what you really need. You do need specialized knowledge but you do need to quickly apply some concepts to a situation and see what your options are and how to act in relation to it.
BLVR: You mention that technics are built to be invisible—how do we address that?
MW: To me that’s the job of media studies, to make the form apparent so that you’re not just soaking up the content. I’m old enough to be from the broadcast era where television, recorded music, and radio and mass print was the way everything came at you.
I don’t think it’s even capitalism anymore because if what capitalism did was a way to extract a surplus out of labor, whatever this is is extracting a surplus out of, quite literally, our communism. Our desire to feel and be with others is the very thing that they extract.
I think that maybe it’s helpful to start in the present than start with what Marx wrote in the 1850s, a quite different world—Marx was writing in the era of the steam engine where electric light is new and it’s like, I don’t think this quite works that way anymore, there’s been a whole technical revolution. Marx is writing in a wave of technical revolution (which turns out to just be thermodynamics) and now we’re in a technical revolution past that, which is information theory and its implications. That’s shifted the whole horizon for how a political economy works. If you can quantify/manage everything as information and control the whole value chain through that— to directly address that strikes me as the project of the time.
BLVR: And there’s such a difficulty in evaluating this world because it’s so dissociated from material, from labor, it feels like you can just put the price of your liking to it.
MW: Right, it’s an exploitation not just of labor anymore, which still happens, but of non-labor. Just walking around with your cellphone is generating data for whoever your phone is communicating with. All of the things that you do because you want to, motivated by desire, value can be extracted from them. It’s very different from the old culture industry where you didn’t really do that at all. In the old culture industry you had to make things and make you pay for them. Now we sort of just entertain each other for free. The culture industry [becomes] the vulture industry for extracting a surplus out of us entertaining each other for free because we like to.
BLVR: The finance bro’s motto of passive income.
MW: Right, I mean I don’t know how many two dollar, five dollar subscriptions I have to things anymore… they’re just collecting the rent. You have to pay to access your own information now and that’s pretty novel. Novel in the sense that it’s developed over the past ten years, and it’s something for which we need a new language. Particularly in Capital is Dead I wanted to ask the question of how have we innovated language—god, I hate that word, innovate. All these words have been poisoned, right? What’s the art, if I can say that, what’s the literary dimension of writing theory? It’s a genre of literature, Marx is a literary genius. We sort of lose track of that, creating language to describe new situations but in ways that don’t lose track of their genesis and genealogy. To write theory as a literary genre, to tackle that, rather than recycle these terms we picked up from the great famous names.
BLVR: You mentioned in a previous interview that words just aren’t doing the work anymore and if they’re not doing the work we need to be creating new ones.
MW: I think to call it “bio-political-capitalism” or “neoliberal capital” or “post-fordist capital” or using a modifier that has a modifier on the front of it—it just strikes me as bad poetry. It’s the kind of thing an editor would strike. Here’s three words–what’s the one word that would do that job? If you keep using this old language you see how it’s connected to the past. There’s kind of an aesthetic dimension to theory as a genre of literature, and I want to make it fresh, make it new. A language of surprise. What I wanted to do in Capital is Dead is reinvigorate that sense of to write theory is a form of literature.
SED: And then of course naming what comes next “Something Worse” retains it’s agility and nascent quality in this really interesting way.
MW: Well there’s also a little bit of strategy. I’ve been making this argument for twenty years and I’ve met every counter argument over that time, I’ve got a bingo card of all the things that people have told me, that “there’s nothing new it’s just finance capital”–actually it’s not, what Google does is something different. There were a set of arguments, particularly during the cold war that was like “This is not capitalism–it’s something better!” And it’s like no it’s not better. We didn’t make the class struggle go away, maybe there’s a new kind of ruling class, maybe there’s new forms of subordinate class. So to say “It’s something worse” is to get out of that [association].
SED: We have whole aspirational worlds built off of data-harvesting-Silicon-Valley-accumulation and it’s hard to counter these aspirations and talk about them using a language and theory, that as you said, is referring to a different technological era.
MW: The economics of information is quite weird. There seems to be this problem within the information economy which is like “Oh people aren’t paying for it…?” and so you had this whole era of the ramping up of intellectual property regimes trying to recapture [lost value]. But the other strategy is like “Good, wow right, free information–let’s just go parasite off that and extract value out of it ‘cause people are gonna wanna know stuff.” So they’ll give you a bit of information but “it” gets all of it, it gets all of the pattern recognition and all that data and not just to figure out how to advertise to you but how to plan it’s future in the world. It’s kind of this massive privatization of knowledge, culture, feeling, and it’s not just Google. Everything you interact with now is extracting that in one way or another.
To me this is faithful to Marx in the sense that Marx was looking at this thing [and said] “Wow, this thing is just so different to what I’ve been raised to think is the order of the world” and it just needed a new language, but then also locating the points of intervention. Where are the points you can change that and he thought “Ah, industrial labor, it’s this whole new thing because of factories, let’s address that as a constituency and create a theory of what they could possibly do.”
SED: And where do you think a point of intervention is for this new world?
MW: The thing about Marxism is that you quickly realize that Marx was wrong, the working class doesn’t become an absolute majority, and the first thing you need is a theory in relationship to the peasantry. Like there’re two subordinate classes in Marx’s day. All the way through until the 20th century the worker-peasant relationship is a kind of external alliance of two different kinds of class who were antagonistic to the ruling order for different reasons, so it’s a mutli-class alliance you’re trying to figure out. What is the relationship between digital workers now and analog workers would be one way to frame it.
Most people still feel like exploited labor means you work with things but there are some of us whose relationship to exploitation is different because our relationship to the work is different. Our interests can be aligned but they’re not the same. But how do you have the conversation that puts those things together? And there’re ways to do it, like I’m in the 14th congressional district which is central northern queens, which is now represented by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez on the basis of that alliance between a mostly non-english speaking service working class community and a sort of educated anglophone workers who have more money but who have massive debt. We have these common interests around education and housing and that was the agenda and it worked.
BLVR: I also wanted to bring up the chapter on Deborah Danowsky and Viveries de Castro. I know that within environmentalist circles our disconnect from other-than-human kinship is at the center of understanding the taken for granted cruelty that we unleash upon the world. Something that struck me was how almost out of place this chapter seemed, it seemed to clash with the vision of the vectoral class and the almost futuristic world that’s being set up in the chapters on aesthetics and technics. Where does an other-than-human vision fit into this other world? How, where, do these worlds meet?
MW: That’s a really good question. The rub is that they don’t meet. A possible meeting point [would be] between a kind of technics based on information and the resource based relation to the material world that that tends to generate. That’s the question that’s kind of unanswerable at the moment. That’s why I wanted to sort of include voices that at least filtered through the scholarly world that are pointing that out.
[Anna] Tsing writes about these elaborate, philosophically rich, technically rich means of constructing life worlds in relation to other species in particular, I wanted that to be in that middle section to point out that there are other parts of modernity [coming] out of indigenous and non-metropolitan cultures. It’s difficult for me to know what to do with those, like my ancestors have been city dwellers for 200 years as far as I can tell so I’m not in a good position to know what the other is. I’m really wary of speaking in its place but I just wanted to touch the scholarship of people who have. Because that’s the thing, we don’t have a way of reconnecting the technical infrastructures the world runs on to a world that perceives nature as more [than from] which to extract. But there could be other forms of organization than this one we ended up in.
BLVR: It’s my sense that within capitalism there is at least recognition of the world because there is a struggle with the world, a struggle to extract from it. But when it comes to the “something worse” and the vectoral class there’s this refusal to acknowledge its reality. It “floats above” material in the most Bourdian sense, it does not need to be concerned with the world because there is beneath it a mode of capitalism that is dealing with the extraction, right? It seems that there are more degrees of separation.
MW: And there is some media theory perspective—how did that become invisible? I mean I’m from mining country, so I sort of have some sense of whenever I look at a city skyline, when you’re coming in on the train you see the line of the city I imagine a mine that’s an open cut pit somewhere that goes down as far as the city goes up. ‘Cause to build that you dug a hole the size of it, probably bigger, and that hole is still out there somewhere. But the vectors connecting you to it have so many links and it’s so remote that you don’t always see that’s where this comes from.
BLVR: Would you describe your work as futuristic?
MW: It’s probably embedded in a kind of modernism that is always all about a difference between past and future time, so often it’s about futures that happened in the past. My book Molecular Red is about an alternative version of what the Soviet Union could have been, but it’s a future that never happened in the past, yeah?
It’s weird that trying to talk about the present in a language adequate to it gets treated as futuristic, Capital is Dead is not about the future, it’s about the present, about a thirty to fifty year old present—I just don’t want to talk about it in the language of the 1850s. That’s futuristic? The present is here but there are a lot of writers who are trying to live in the past.
BLVR: That connects to what you said, in the book, about people who are still trying to live in the Holocene–we’re not all occupying the same timeline. We’re so firmly embedded in ways of understanding the world that aren’t really made in the present.
MW: And that’ll be the death of us, yeah?