In another life, the Australian media theorist and cultural critic McKenzie Wark was (in his words) a “lapsed Marxist in the pay of Rupert Murdoch”; his provocative column, which ran for nine years in The Australian newspaper, was an Improvised Exploding Device in the salons of the Australian intelligentsia, inflicting collateral damage on–and inspiring fiery blowback from–some of the country’s more reactionary intellectuals. Now he’s an accidental theorist in New York, where he teaches cultural and media studies in Lang College, at the New School University. A critic of uncommon gifts, he views American empire from a parallax angle that is at once Australian, post-Marxian, and ineffably Wark-ian.
Photo courtesy V2, an an interdisciplinary center for art and media technology in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Wark’s most recent book is the critically acclaimed A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004), which the cybercritic Julian Dibbell deemed nothing less than “The Communist Manifesto 2.0.” Additionally, Wark is the author of Virtual Geography (Indiana University Press, 1994), The Virtual Republic (Allen & Unwin, 1998), and Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace (Pluto Press, 1999).
For his 2002 book, Dispositions (Salt Publishing), he took his own adage “we no longer have roots, we have aerials” seriously and reimagined himself as a rootless theorist. Equipped with a laptop and a global-positioning system, he filed a series of philosophical dispatches, each one ID’d by exact time and pinpoint location. Sample transmission:
We’re all soldiers now, and know exactly where our asses are. The luxury of accuracy–the fifth coordinate. Let X equal X. Your ass is where and what you think it is. No wonder they pronounce him Colon Powell. The English ruled the seas with their chronometers; now Americans rule the skies. Hold this yellow ruler and hold with it the logic of empire. Digital sextant. Precision’s cutting edge. The perfect good for a perfect world. It arms me for that other struggle: to find what tiny wavering lines might steal away from all perfected surfaces. An art of digging digits that don’t add up.
Hart and Negri’s Empire crossed with Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Or something like that.
The New Statesman described Wark as “a cross between Jean Baudrillard and John Pilger.” For my money, Wark is a lock-and-load theory jock who can field-strip Marx’s Grundrisse blindfolded and dash off gnomic Baudrillardianisms like “Abstraction is always an abstraction of nature, a process that creates nature’s double, a second nature, a space of human existence in which collective life dwells among its own products and comes to take the environment it produces to be natural” (A Hacker Manifesto) without batting an eyelid.
It seemed only appropriate to kick off our exchange by kicking the corpse of critical theory.
Mark Dery: On November 4, I was in the audience at the New School for “The Parallax of Evil: Domination and Hegemony,” a lecture by Jean Baudrillard, followed by a conversation with his longtime publisher Sylvere Lotringer (whose Semiotext(e) books introduced the New York hipoisie to French postmodernism in the ’80s), ably moderated by yourself.
Didn’t it all seem a bit retro ’80s? The faculty, lining up to ask questions during the Q&A period with that unhappy mix of forelock-tugging servility and killing earnestness that recovering theory addicts reserve for the mandarins of French theory. The crowd, trampling itself in the soccer-mob stampede to be the first to prove their tragic hipness by laughing at JB’s foot-draggingly ironic laugh lines. And J.B. himself, shamelessly recycling ’80s chestnuts with eyebrow fully arched, pulling his best poker face–de Tocqueville meets the Wachowski brothers. What a card! I sank into my seat, letting the billowing clouds of French fog roll over me, feeling as if I was trapped in the Seven Flags version of The Matrix…without the irony, but with the smoke machines working overtime, to compensate.
His call now for art to subvert “the banality of hyperreality” puzzled the room that evening, but he’s always been a Situationist–very anti-“society of the spectacle”–an intellectual black hole aspiring to implode the system from within. They would have known that if they had actually read him. But few people did. His discourse was a fetish; “Baudrillard,” a brand name. That’s what people came to see tonight, and that’s what they got. Most couldn’t follow what the heck he was saying–and not for lack of trying. Some blamed themselves for it. He’s the antifetish fetish, but his brand identity is “difficult,” so…whatever!”
And Larissa MacFarquhar, from her New Yorker review of the same event (a reading at the Jack Tilton Gallery in support of Baudrillard’s new book, The Conspiracy of Art:
After he read, Baudrillard expanded on his theme. “We say that Disneyland is not, of course, the sanctuary of the imagination, but Disneyland as hyperreal world masks the fact that all America is hyperreal, all America is Disneyland,” he said. “And the same for art. The art scene is but a scene, or obscene”–he paused for chuckles from the audience–”mask for the reality that all the world is trans-aestheticized. We have no more to do with art as such, as an exceptional form. Now the banal reality has become aestheticized, all reality is trans-aestheticized, and that is the very problem.”
I’m curious to hear your post-mortem on JB’s lecture, and equally curious to hear your deconstruction of the media commentary on the French philosopher king.
Photo courtesy Salt Publishing, an independent literary publisher.
McKenzie Wark:The Jean Baudrillard gig at New School was so popular, they put the overflow in a second lecture hall to watch it on video. Which was weird, because exactly 20 years ago the same thing happened when i saw him in Sydney. Only back then I was watching him on video; this time I was the moderator.
People asked the same dumb questions and got the same dumb answers, pretty much. Which is the odd thing to me. People keep reading him, but reading him badly. Looking for the wrong things. It’s quite simple. Nietszche said that God is dead. Baudrillard just updates it. He winkles the old deity out in its last hiding place. He says the Real does not exist.
You would think that might be a good starting place for a reflection on the tragedy of American letters. I enjoy The New Yorker as much as anyone, but it’s the most brain-dead publication in the world. It’s based on the underlying principle of American prose: that if you have described something, you have done your duty.
And look where this “fetish” for description gets us. Never mind the James Frey fiasco. That he fabricated a memoir and took in Oprah is a great gag, but not the worst of it. The worst of it was Colin Powell describing the mobile chemical weapons labs Saddam allegedly had driving around Bagdad. Poor o” Colin has to straight-face it through that one–in PowerPoint–before the United Nations. As if description were some magic incantation to evoke the real.
That’s where one wants to pick up some Baudrillard. He has a great essay in The Conspiracy of Art called “Radical Thought,” which is the most direct statement of this iconoclastic, or rather logoclastic, idea. What if language and the Real have nothing to do with each other?
I don’t think what I do has much to do with Baudrillard. He’s read A Hacker Manifesto and we’ve talked about it a little, but it’s not his sort of thing. But I admire his integrity and his courage. He’s been an outsider to French letters for half a century. An unrepentant militant in thought.
MD: The New Yorker‘s tendency to let description stand in for deconstruction has less to do, I think, with “the tragedy of American letters” than it does the vacuity of American journalism. We’ve reduced the Orwellian dictum “good prose is like a windowpane” to an absurdity. Then again, MacFarquhar specializes in the deadpan drive-by; her profile of Chomsky (“The Devil’s Accountant,” March 31, 2003) is an exercise in bloodless bloodletting. Maybe she’s just giving JB enough rope to hang himself, here. In other words, critiquing by merely quoting, without comment. It’s either the driest form of irony or, as you suggest, intellectual brain-death. You tell me.
I haven’t read he Conspiracy of Art. When it comes to art criticism, I’m more inclined to Dave Hickey, Ralph Rugoff, old-school critics like Calvin Tomkins, or even the determinedly un-P.C. Robert Hughes, who for all his blowzy bluster and scurrilous anti-feminism at least retains the saving graces of humor and a hedonistic appetite for retinal pleasures (the guy seems to actually like art, always a liability in a critic). The writers I’ve named are a bracing corrective to the thin, gray theory-gruel that passes for art criticism in Artforum or the investment tips for Ladies Who Lunch that passes for art journalism in ArtNews. You say “Radical Thought” is “the most direct statement of this iconoclastic, or rather logoclastic, idea: What if language and the Real have nothing to do with each other?” Isn’t this the very idea JB and the other French postmodernists have been arguing into the ground for decades now? I mean, isn’t the post-structuralist and postmodern assault on meaning all about questioning the epistemic function of language? In that light, “Radical Thought” doesn’t sound all that radical. What am I missing?
Any thoughts on the cultural politics of prose style, French postmodernist, American journalistic, or otherwise? You’ve returned to the subject, with some heat, time and again in your online writings, so I’m interested in hearing you delve deeper into the subject. As well, anything to say about the current state of art criticism, as practiced in the citadels of high theory by Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, and the October and Artforum crews, or in the popular press (Hughes, et. al.)?
MW: I admired Robert Hughes as a prose writer for a long time. He’s great over short stretches. Great with a sentence, good with a paragraph, but there’s no larger structure to his writing, and consequently to his thought. Met him a few times. The man knows how to cook crusteceans. He’s from the bosom of Sydney’s Catholic elites, which is not my part of town, but now that my countrymen have decided to despise him as an ungrateful expatriate I’m much more sympathetic.
Critics are what institutions make them. Hughes lucked into that great job as art critic for Time magazine, which had international pretensions, a budget to burn, and no art advertisers to worry about. Academic art criticism is exactly what you would expect from the American university system. It’s highly specialized, ruthlessly “rigorous,” fantastically elitist. Exactly like the universities that make it. It’s the prestige cultural goods business.
But I’m only tangentially connected to the art world, so what would I know? I did enjoy Chris Kraus’s book Video Green, which seems to me to nail that particular branch of the bespoke spectacle. And I did have the idea once to do a parody of October, and call it November (after the “November revolution” of 1989). Same typeface, but with the title in blue.
The problem for writing is always to escape its own institutionalization. Is there a way to write across the limits imposed by genre, discipline, “demographic,” and all that? My favorite writers these days are mostly bloggers. It’s turning into a mainstream form right before our eyes, but like all new forms, it has its interesting edges.
In my own writing, I try to invent a form for each book, a style for each book, a readership for each book. Each one so far had a different publisher, and that was also an aesthetic choice. It’s a materialist approach, I think. I’m interested in how all the heterogeneous layers connect, how “text” is connected to design, to the marketplace, to book production and distribution, publicity, and so on.
And for me, that approach comes partly out of a reading of Deleuze and Guattari. They talk about the book not being a representation of a world outside it, but a continuation of its processes, a part of the whole. As an inky fingered wretch who came out of print production and design and so on, that made a weird kind of sense to me.
And, incidentally, it is only in America that one could lump all these things together as “postmodern theory,” because that is how it was marketed here. But the way Deleuze approaches language is completely at a tangent to, say Derrida. It just makes no sense to lump them all together, other than in the most general way.
Most of the people one would be talking about (Baudrillard excepted) trained as philosophers. And for philosophy, the question of the relation of word and world is basic. It’s not a fad, it’s a tradition that goes back to the invention of writing. But where philosophy tends to take it up as a purely theoretical question, I was interested in this question of word and world as a media question, a question about the materiality of communication.
In the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates wonder about whether the problem with writing is that it can be “orphaned.” You can’t control who will get to read what you write. In an oral culture, you can control who hears what; in a literate culture, you can’t really control the circumstances of reception. And of course, that’s its virtue. Writing is perhaps the first durable medium for cutting across social hierarchies.
In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin updates this thought. Unlike Plato, he is no cultural aristo. He is on the side of the people. And for him the mechanical reproduction of the image is a good thing, since it means the image can escape from ownership, from property, and create a whole new economy of sense with which to discover–and remake–the world.
So for me, those are two crucial points through a very long and involved tradition, but which is about the medium of thought, rather than just “thought” in the abstract. You could amend Kant’s three principles of critical inquiry along these lines: What can I know (via media)? What should I do (about media)? For what can I hope (from media)?
MD:All right, I’ll bite: Who are your favorite bloggers, and why? How are they pushing the envelope of writing–destratifying it, in Deleuzean terms (if you agree that’s what they’re doing)? Was Montaigne the first blogger? I wonder if you’re dreaming of writing your way out of writing, by which I mean: writing in a way that tears free from the gravitational pull of the awful “writerliness” that afflicts so much writing? (The New Yorker is a case in point! Have you ever seen more self-consciously “writerly”–and I don’t necessarily mean “literary”–writing?)
What nonfiction writers “write across the limits,” for you? Deleuze and
Guattari in Milles Plateaux? Bataille in Tears of Eros? Steven Shaviro in Doom Patrols? Donna Haraway in her “Cyborg Manifesto”? And (since, long, long ago, in a universe far, far away, you were a journalist toiling in the Fields of Murdoch) what about rock critics like Lester Bangs, or New Journalists like Wolfe or Didion, or public intellectuals like Sontag or McLuhan?
MW: One blogger I read religiously is called k-punk. He seems to be in his 30s, and teaching in the English equivalent of community college. He’s probably the only person writing about music who can get really, really upset about something like the success of the Artic Monkeys, and why it is the end of civilisation as we know it. I miss that kind of committment, wherein there could be something at stake in aesthetics.
I asked him once why he doesn’t write a book, and he said he doesn’t have the time. But he does have the time to tear off thousands of words of blog. There’s less inhibition. In that sense blogging has been quite liberating. Of course most blogs are shit. Most people did not need this technological laxative and did not need to loose the inner thought from the bowels of their minds. But when you find a good one, that very excess makes it seem even better.
k-punk is just one example for me of how this new gift economy can actually work. Someone who is not going to get a contract to write a book for Verso any time soon, but who is terrific to read in this medium, which unlike The Book inspires no fear. You just have to be better than The Huffington Post and already you’re canonic.
I’m too old fashioned to embrace blogs wholeheartedly. Blogs can be more narcissistic than listserv culture (if that’s possible). A blog is your property, whereas a listserv is always in-between, always in transit. So I’m not a blog booster. But I am interested in creating new circuits of meaning.
I always read and reread what I want to be influenced by. So lately I read Guy Debord’s late works and film scripts. I read Adorno’s Minima Moralia. I’ve been reading a lot of John Berger, of all things. I want to pick up certain things the “high critical” establishment regards as bastard offspring.
There was a time when I read Sontag, but not lately. I don’t know who I should be reading among the current critics. I read enough Klosterman in a book store to be sure it was complete shit. I read N+1 with interest
but I hate The Believer. I’m an unbeliever.
I just finished Caetano Veloso’s memoir, which has to be the best book by a pop star ever. It is fairly honest but also well-observed, modest but not too falsely so. His favorite words are “delicate” and “delicious.” The pop star as intellectual, but with feeling. He claims to be an irrationalist who loves reason. Delicious indeed.
“Writing one’s way out of writing” seems like a good project to me. I’m interested in anti-literature: Stewart Home, Luther Blissett, Bernadette Corporation. Avant-garde mixed with trash. That’s always worked for me.
But I was never in “writing” in this country, so for me there’s nothing to write myself out of. I sort of come at it from outside and find readerships whereever I can, for a sort of fictional nonfiction. All my books are nonfiction, except for the fact that they’re not true. But then that’s one of the ways to resolve the tensions of a decadent age,
in which what is real is not true, and what is true is not real…
MD: You say you “always read and re-read what [you] want to be influenced by.” What are the guiltiest pleasures on your bookshelves? And I don’t mean so-lame-they’re-cool ironic pleasures, in the Throbbing
Gristle-in-Abba-T-shirts sense. I mean tragically unhip books that you curl up inside, closing the covers behind you, when you need to flee the world, into some mental Fortess of Solitude. I’m talking painful lameness, here; the literary equivalent of Foghat. No, wait, Klosterman has made Foghat ironic-cool. How about critical theory’s answer to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Love Beach? You get my drift.
MD: Well, I did read all of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars novels: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Very techie, sciency sci-fi. And of course I have a ton of books about toddlers, since I have one. And there’s nothing cool about two-year-olds. Oh, and I’m addicted to Maureen Dowd–how tacky is that?
MD: On the subject of blogs, any thoughts on flickr (admittedly, not a blog, but an emergent, group-mind phenomenon, rather like Wikis)? What do you make of this tendency, on the more confessional blogs and on
flickr, to extrude one’s innermost self into the public sphere, like a starfish extruding its stomach? I’m baffled by the utter lack of selfconsciousness on the part of people who post their Kodachrome Moments with friends or family or who write nakedly revealing true confessions on their blogs. (I just stumbled on a blog by some random
guy chronicling the slow-motion implosion of his marriage; the readership seems to consist entirely of a pack of anonymous jackals rolling their jaws at the prospect of the poor sap’s impending divorce). Are we witnessing the emergence of a new mass psychology, midwifed by self-publishing and the death of privacy?
MW: Yes, it is a new kind of subjectivity, I think. In a world that oozes with pungent gushes of pure signage, people have figured out that one strategy is to ooze back. If one’s work life is all about massaging
other people’s information, at least on myspace or flickr you can create your own tabloid story. I find it interesting, the way people cannibalize the media and extrude it as their own, sometimes in wild, unpredictable mixes.
MD: You write, “All my books are nonfiction, except for the fact that they’re not true.” Meaning what, exactly? As well, what (precisely) do you mean by “what is real is not true, and what is true is not real”? I’m having a Baudrillard Moment…
MW: To paraphrase Robert Crumb: An aphorism is like doo wah diddy–if you have to ask what it means, you ain’t never going to get it. But one can say something about an aphorism’s pedigree.
Hegel said that “the false is a moment of the true.” Meaning that it is in the struggle against what it is not that the true comes into being. Debord inverted that to say: “the true is a moment of the false.” Meaning that the world has been falsified by commodity and spectacle, but that something persists against it from within.
Hegel again: “The whole is the true.” Meaning that it’s totality that matters, how everthing connects and moves together towards its goal. But Adorno says: “The whole is the false.” Meaning that the way the commodity makes everything equivalent connects everything into a totality–but a false one.
I just changed the terms a bit. “The real is not true.” The signs we take to be our world have falsified it. “The true is not real.” There is a possibility of the good life, but tis is not it.
In everyday speech, we just take words like “true” and “real” for granted and use them interchangeably. One of the tasks of writing is to peel words away from automatic use and then show how they could be used differently. To get a perception of the world into language you have to tweak it.
MD: Well, I find asking exactly what philosophers mean to be a highly effective way of piercing the linguistic Cloud of Unknowing that sometimes envelopes discourse. And in the case of lesser minds, it acts like a flick of the Bic to a big ball of methane. I’ve seen high-theory poseurs melt down spectacularly when asked the fatal question, “What, EXACTLY, do you mean by that”?
Let’s use your observation that “the signs we take to be our world have falsified it” as a jumping-off point. You were at pains to point out, earlier, that your work and JB’s have little in common, and I take that point, but this is such a Baudrillardian formulation that I can’t resist returning to him and our abiding subject, critical theory, its popular reception, and the power politics of theoryspeak. (Don’t worry, we’ll get around to A Hacker Manifesto in a few terabytes, I swear!)
In an interview with First Monday magazine, you said, “My interest is in praxis–in the relationship of knowledge to action.” Conservatives, and even those on the Naomi Klein/No Sweat/Battle of Seattle flank of the Left (what ’60s radicals used to call the Direct Action school of sociopolitical activism), roll their eyes at what they perceive as French theorists’ tendency to substitute cloud-dwelling theory for engaged critique, the sign for the thing. JB’s preferred mode, the oracular pronouncement, epitomizes this sensibility in its Olympian omniscience, its arched-eyebrow aloofness, its airy insistence that Everything You Know is Wrong and There is No Fixed and Final Truth (except the ones I, and I alone, am about to reveal).
Here’s an apposite quote from The Observer:
“But the French love affair with words has its drawbacks. A Swiss journalist friend spoke of the ‘logorrhoea’ of the French, which is unfair, but does indicate the degree to which words are favored over action. There is a strong sense that if the ideas are there, and expressed in the right words, then actions are superfluous. So, during the riots of last year, which pitted angry, unemployed, alienated, disenfranchised youth from ethnic minorities against not angry, employed, fully franchised white policemen, the refrain ‘the Republic is not racist’ was everywhere. This was true: the principles of the French Republic are inspiring, the institutions are impartial, the laws are stunning in the simple elegance of their justice. But there is liberte, egalite, fraternite and there is realite. As another French friend commented: ‘We are interested in pourquoi (why), the Anglo-Saxons are interested in comment (how).'”
Yes, conservative Babbitts have been rolling their eyes at pomospeak for years–”French fog,” they call it–and yes, the historical subtext of English anti-Gallic jingoism is just beneath the surface, here. But I never fail to be surprised at the virulence of English and American intellectuals’ contempt for JB, much of which springs from his allegedly blithe disengagement from the muck and mire of The Real. Few of them have ever gotten over JB’s ironic declaration that the Gulf War never happened. I had lunch with Mike Davis and the late Mike Sprinker, both unswerving lefties, and they excoriated their then-publisher Verso for publishing Baudrillard’s America, a book that many left-wing American intellectuals regard with a lip-curled revulsion usually reserved for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (Personally, I find the book delightful: The funniest science-fiction novel Ballard never wrote.)
Two questions: How do you square your dedication to praxis with your obvious love of high theory? And: What do you, as an Aussie Alien Among Us, make of the American reaction to JB?
MW: I really don’t have much patience for any of the “camps” supposedly at war over this stuff. I don’t care if high theory is alive or dead, as I never wrote in that vein in the first place. I’m not much interested in the anti-theory position either. It’s usually semi-literate at best.
Within the theory world, what you mostly get is commentary. Its home is the archive. It is sometimes useful to me, but it’s not what I do. I’m interested in how everyday life can yield moments of reflection, and moments of possibility.
It was clear to me in the ’90s that there was a whole social movement going on around new ecologies of information. New ways of creating culture, new ways of sharing knowledge, new ways of writing or making art. The Internet made it possible, but it wasn’t all that much to do with technology. It was more about new kinds of social relationship.
Issues would come up: copyright, censorship, and so on. A loose network of people formed–activists, artists, theorists. New ways of collaborating and convening were tried out. It was all very exciting. The central node for me was Nettime. It had a good mix of theory and practice, was more European than American in flavor. It was trying to extend its networks, most successfully toward the east.
So I sat down one day in a coffee shop, on a visit to Boston, I think, and tried to articulate a theory about what it was we were doing. That’s the genesis of A Hacker Manifesto. I took one of the key works behind this whole movement–Debord‘s Society of the Spectacle–and I rewrote it. I read one of his paragraphs, then I wrote my own. Plagiarism plus correction, or what he would have called detournement.
That, to me, is low theory. Don’t start in the archive, start in the street. Then ransack the archive for anything of use, and repurpose it. I don’t think I was the only one who thought we were both continuing and abolishing our avant-garde longings. But there’s a certain tension between the various ways you can go about it.
You can read A Hacker Manifesto alongside Geert Lovink’s book Dark Fiber, which is a more post-anarchist, pragmatic approach to laying the ghosts of what Geert would call “leftism.” Or put it alongside Matt Fuller’s writing, or Brian Holmes’s, or Faith Wilding’s; I can’t speak for them, but for me I thought we were doing something different to either “high theory” or leftist dogma.
MD: The inevitable, determinedly pragmatic question, and one that will doubtless brand me, in your eyes, as a hopeless vectoralist.
(Editor’s note: “Vectoralist” is Wark’s term, in A Hacker Manifesto, for the Third-Wave captains of industry who strive, everywhere and always, to copyright and commodify the intellectual innovations of the hacker class. Here’s chapter and verse: “The vectoralist class wages an intensive struggle to dispossess hackers of their
intellectual property. Patents and copyrights all end up in the hands, not of their creators, but of a vectoralist class that owns the means of realising the value of these abstractions. The vectoralist class struggles to monopolise abstraction. For the vectoral class, ‘politics is about absolute control over intellectual property by means of
war-like strategies of communication, control, and command.’ Hackers find themselves dispossessed both individually, and as a class.”–Thesis 021, A Hacker Manifesto.)
When John Perry Barlow first started televangelizing, in the early ’90s, about the Death of Intellectual Property As We Know It (see “Selling Wine Without Bottles: The Economy of Mind on the Global Net“), it was never clear to me how the long-suffering hacks of the world were going to survive in a gift economy. To a one-man Chautauqua and A-list networker like Barlow, the presumption that we’d all survive by spinning ideas into gold on the lecture circuit was a no-brainer. But to those of us who had to make a living peddling piles of atoms (also known as books), the Napster-izing of publishing offered, as an alternative to corporate publishing’s usurious contracts and the slave-wage purgatory
of the midlist author, the end of the evolutionary line. Given the alternatives of wage slavery and species extinction, most writers would choose the former.
Thus, I’m intensely curious to hear your thoughts on this point, the very point where crypto-Marxist rhetoric meets personal financial reality for a book author such as yourself. In the promo interview archived on the Harvard University Press website, your publisher asks, “So what from your own experience led you to this book?” And you reply: “Signing contracts with publishers! I’m not kidding. I realized, as many people do, that you have very little control over the terms under which you sell the product of your own mind. The ‘intellectual property’ laws,
which pretend to protect the interests of the creator, really protect the interests of the owner. And since most of us don’t own the means of production, we don’t stay owners for long.” An artful dodge, but it still doesn’t tell me how authors make buck in the gift economy (of the sign) you imagine. Nor did the book. Care to clarify?
MW: In medieval times, the ruling doctrine was “no land without a lord.” In our neo-medieval times, it has been updated to: “no information without an owner”. The dominant doctrine for “intellectual property” is now that it should all be privately owned. Against that trend the quite modest proposals of Creative Commons are treated as if they were something radical, when all Lawrence Lessig wants is something short of what the Founding Fathers created.
In that context, I wanted to go to the extreme other case. Is it possible to imagine an information commons without ownership at all? What would be the consequences? On the technical side, digital technologies separate information from its material substrate. Information never exists without a material form, but that material form
can now be arbitrary. We can finally escape from scarcity, at least where information in concerned.
The two things that remain rare are, firstly, material forms wherein information can reside. I can give you the contents of my laptop at minimal cost, but the laptop itself is still worth several weeks if not months earnings for most people, even in the ‘overdeveloped’ world.
The other thing that is rare is the critical intelligence to sort through all this free-flowing information and discover what is really of value in it. The new information labor is not in producing “original content”–both words of which are absurd. There is no originality and no content. Rather, what really has value is selection, editing,
reduction, analysis, variation, combination.
It’s tempting to think that so-called “intellectual property” is on our side. But most of us don’t own television networks or publishing houses. We have to sell or lease intellectual property to others–what I call
the vectoralist class–owners of the means of distribution of information. Most of what we do ends up in their hands and most of the profits in their pockets.
MD: In your interview with Richard Mitchell, you explore ideas that later coalesced in A Hacker Manifesto. At one point, you refute the capitalist assignation of intellectual property to a sole creator, arguing that “creativity belongs to the people as a whole, that it’s a kind of social result. […] But its real source, it seems to me, is the dreams and desires of the people as a whole.”
Now, obviously, this is so in the canonical instance of the early computer-programming community chronicled in Steven Levy’s Hackers, where ideas were open-source things, freely circulated and collectively lathed into shape. Programming lends itself to group beta-testing and collaborative editing. As you’ve noted, A Hacker Manifesto is, likewise, a sort of shareware, deeply indebted to the Euro-lefty cybercrit listserv Nettime, where you published the source code, so to speak, of many of A Hacker Manifesto‘s essays, inviting critique and
incorporating ideas generated by the tough-minded responses of Nettime’s highly distributed network of artists, activists, and theorists. And, finally, all creativity acts are (arguably) “social results,” inextricably interwoven with the author’s social world and herhistorical moment. Foucault touches on this idea, in The Archaeology of
Knowledge, when he writes, “The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, othersentences: it is a node within a network.”
Now, hackers deal with code, and code is almost pure content. Yeah, yeah, there are elegant hacks and crufty hacks, code that accomplishes the most with the least and sloppy, buggy code that takes forever to execute the simplest task. But computer programming is math, by any other name; zeroes and ones. Highly creative? At its best, no question. Yet, chopping code is utterly unlike writing a book, where form and meaning are often indissoluble, especially in those writers whose style is their substance–who articulate their meaning in the grain of
their voices, to sample Barthes. Is the open-source metaphor truly fungible across discourses?
MW: A Hacker Manifesto came out of my experience with nettime.org and other instances of what we used to call net-criticism and new media actvism. It doesn’t really add much–it distills and reduces that experience. As Zizek would say, I “overidentified” with the ideology of nettime. The book is sort of a bastard child of nettime that it knows as its own but doesn’t quite acknowledge. It pushed the radicalism of “information
wants to be free” to the extreme.
Another longtime nettimer, Felix Stalder, has been asking this same question about how the “open source,” or rather “free software” metaphor might apply to other media. There’s a lot to be done to think this through, and a lot of experimenting to be done. Each medium has its own technicity, its own economy, its own culture.
Did you invent the English language? Did I? Did you make up the words you use? I did, actually. I coined some new ones–and the thing A Hacker Maniesto is most criticised for is precisely this “originality”! But mostly, writers kick around the same language as everyone else. Language which, as Baudelaire said, is the “collective genius of a people.”
I think we seriously overestimate our God-like powers of creation as individual creators, and underestimate the extent to which language is always escaping from individual will, and escaping from regimes of property. It is by definition collective, a commons.
And as for style: it’s just a question of editing differently. Of leaving different things out. As Oscar Wilde said, “every artist has their limitations. Those limitations are called style.”
MD: Aren’t you fudging the (in my opinion vast) difference between creative works spawned in the social ecology of a listserv or a blog, such as A Hacker Manifesto, and works written in the monastic
isolation of the library cubicle? Clearly, you prefer work that springs from, and speaks to, the street, rather than work that stinks of the lamp (“the archive”). That’s your Inner Debord talking (not to mention your Inner William Gibson!), I think. Regardless, isn’t there a world of difference between a work whose “creativity belongs to the people as a whole” because it’s the “social result” of a networked community of minds, versus a work that is only a “social result” in the sense that the author bears the stamp of his society and his times and breathes the
same media air you and I breathe? To be sure, all creativity is indebted to the culture around it, and to the historical continuum in which it sits; hyperlinked media have made this truer than ever. But I question your assumption that all creativity is equally a “result” (in what way?) of the “social” (which is what?), an a priori that elides the difference
between a book forged in dialectical smackdowns on a listserv and one borne of conversations carried on, in the writer’s mind, with the ghosts of “the archive.”
The subliminal subtext, here, is my abiding suspicion of our era’s (ironically post-Marxist) fetish for collectivist paradigms–flickr, friendster, folksonomies, Wikis, del.icio.us–and the “wisdom of crowds.” Given your earlier comments that “most blogs are shit” and “most people did not need this technological laxative and did not need to loose the inner thought from the bowels of their minds,” I would imagine you’d share some of that suspicion. Or do you? I wonder how you reconcile your obvious faith in social ecologies and gift economies with your no less obvious doubts about the inherent wisdom of the wired million. On which note, any thoughts on James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations?
MW: Well, unlike Surowiecki, I’m still on the side of the philosophers, who have maintained for millenia now that even a smart crowd can be wrong. There are criteria for what constitutes the good, there is an
aesthetics, an ethics and an epistemology, other than what the market decides. It’s a good thing that the general intellect is coming into being and into an awareness of itself, but it is not the same thing as the market.
Unlike most journalists who have covered it, I think the supposed scandals about wikipedia prove that it is working very well. Malicious information on it gets exposed and corrected. It works. But only because it is developing its own hierarchies. It’s a system for producing hierarchies of authority from the bottom up. People who make a gift of their knowledge and do it ethically end up with the respect of the community and the authority to decide on knowledge. In that respect wikipedia is not unlike collaborative “open source” programming. These
things are not “anything goes.” They produce their own criteria as they go. They are, in short, philosophy in action.
Marx said that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.” In a way he anticipates exactly how this could come to pass without realizing it. Famously, when he was exiled in
London, he used the resources of the libtary of the British Museum, a fairly unique “open access” source of knowledge–the wikipedia of its day. What he didn’t realize was that this was the commons that was
achievable–the commons of information. In which we can all be philosophers.
MD: You said:
The other thing that is rare is the critical intelligence to sort through all this free flowing information and discover what is really of value in it. The new information labor is not in producing “original
content”–both words of which are absurd. There is no originality and no content. Rather, what really has value is selection, editing, reduction, analysis, variation, combination.
Are you saying, then, that critique has displaced the object of critique? That the only “value added” (corporatespeak hacked!), in our age of data shock, is generated by those–suspiciously like ourselves,
Ken (insert emoticon grin)–who can Explain It All For You? This, of course, is a commonplace among new-media wonks who believe that reality editing, winnowing out the signals from the noise for us, is a growth industry. But I’m surprised to hear you say this, since just a few years back, you wrote, in a Nettime post, “Let’s be blunt: I think criticism is useless. Finished. And a bad idea in the first place. […] No longer able to ground itself in any one secure vantage point, from which to see everything as other, as a false double or copy of the true, criticism has become free-floating, relative, pervasive. It is everywhere and no where. It’s the nagging, self-defeating echo of every attempt to make something happen.” Of course, this was largely a spasm of pique at that species of academic Stalinism that wants to line wrong-thinkers up against a wall. Still, it seems to indict deconstruction per se, and therefore strikes an odd dissonance with your current belief that critical intelligence is our last, best hope.
Then, too, aren’t the objects and ideas generated by your recombinant culture of rip, mix, and burn “original”? Pardon my semantic headbanging, but as every student of modernist (and postmodernist) avant-gardism knows, the keystone assumption of the last century, and this one, is that suturing together fragments of unoriginal content–say, a bicycle wheel and a stool (Duchamp) or a stuffed goat and a tire (Rauschenberg)–yields something rich and strange…and new. As in: original. In other words, can’t content–even critique–created through “selection, editing, reduction, analysis, variation, [and] combination” be original?
MW: There’s still new information to be made, but it shrinks in proportion to the act of recombination. The postmodernists were right, in other words, but underestimated how profound their discovery was. But new
information is till being made in the sciences, and sometimes even in poetry (understood very broadly). “New” information is a very strange concept, however, and I wouldn’t pretend to understand it. The science of information isn’t much help, vaulable as it is, because it is mostly about measuring the stuff. It has little to say about what it is.
“Originality” is mostly a matter of playing out the possibilities of existing codes, however. If I roll a a pair of dice and it comes up snake-eyes, did I “originate” this result, or is it is a product of the combinatory possibilities of the dice? If I choose lines from George Perec’s “20 Billion Sonnets,” did I write it, or did he? After all, he wrote all the lines, but there are so many combinatorial possibilities that it’s unlikely he ever actually put the same lines together.
Or try this thought experiment: let’s say I created an absolutely original work of art, and I presented it to you. Would you even know it exists? After all, it would have no familiar elements at all–and do we not always recognise the “original” element through their contrast with familiar ones? In short, originality is much more troubling than the romantic theory or its everyday declension would have us believe.
Mark Dery: I’m still chewing on your distinction between the new and the truly original, a distinction that underwrites your earlier assertion that “there is no originality.” Help me reconcile that notion with your rather Romantic vision, in A Hacker Manifesto, of “new things” sprung from the hacker brow: Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colourings, we create the
possibility of new things entering the world. [Italics mine.] Not always great things, or even good things, but new things. In art, in science, in philosophy and culture, in any production of knowledge where data can be gathered, where information can be extracted from it, and where in that information new possibilities for the world are produced, there are hackers hacking the new out of the old.”
McKenzie Wark: It is perhaps an attempt rather to rethink the modern via the classical, and bypass the romantic and the postmodern. A classical aesthetic is all about mimesis, about the copying of an ideal form. A modern aesthetic is all about overturning one form and replacing it with another. But rather than a romantic modernism, which privileges the unique subjectivity of the artist as the source of the difference, I think rather that the new
appears as an effect of coping, but that copying is not mimetic. The paradox of plagiarism is that it produces a difference, it makes things new.
So there may be new things but they can’t be “originated.” You can’t pin down a place, a time and an author wherein the new enters the world. Or in other words, creation can’t be represented. And if it can’t be represented, any claim to own a piece of it is false. So my argument against so-called “intellectual property” is essentially ontological. It is contrary to the very nature of information to claim to have “originated” a piece of it. Information just varies and elaborates on itself, using us as its intrument.
And I think it should be left to its own devices. As Deleuze and Guattari write: “what if we have not become abstract enough?” We haven’t seen anything yet. We bought a one-way ticket on this roller coaster called modernity and there’s no going back. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” I think the dominant tendency in leftist discourse now is conservative, even reactionary. It fetishises roots. It is romantic in its privileging of national cultures. The best strategy it can come up with is “resistance.” It gives up on thinking synthetically and gives in to particular demands, demands which cannot be aggregated in any way, not even in new ways.
So I wanted to affirm a creative, synthetic, and in some senses “modern” view of the world. but one shorn of the romantic cult of genius and the individual.
MD: As long as we’re talking about the new, let’s talk about the New World. I’m interested in your vision of America, critiques of which are very much in the air these days: Bernard Henri-Levy’s excoriating “Letter to the American Left,” published in The Nation, has called down the predictable wrath of the Nation faithful, one of whom reviled the designer de Tocqueville as a “French buffoon in an expensive suit” hissing “vacuous, masturbatory hot air.” Time and again, in your writing, you view our Evil Empire from the bemused, gently sardonic, and sometimes perversely affectionate perspective of an Outsider, specifically, through the eyes of Our Man from the Antipodes. To be Australian is to be far from everywhere, to an American. (Your review of Peter Beilharz’s book, Imagining the Antipodes, is a motherlode of
insights into this subject.) In an exchange with the post-colonial theorist Coco Fusco, on the Netcriticism listserv Nettime, you responded to one of her hectoring posts with a razor-sharp post that, for me, is a veritable psychoanalysis of American pathologies, writ small:
Dear Coco……Unfortunately, we cannot always determine how others
regard us. You may want to present yourself as a CUBAN-America, but i hear a Cuban-AMERICAN. You
presume to tell someone from another culture how to regard their own culture, just like an American. You presume a moral authority grounded in the purity of an interiority that looks out at the world, just like an American. You
adopted the adversarial style of e-mail discourse, just like an American. You privilege the subject as a node of moral autonomy–just like an American.
To me your discourse really is a hybrid, a mix of privilege, wounded pride, genuine anger, rhetorical violence. To you it is node of superiority from which you can correct the failings of the other. Well, to each [his] own hell
I’m glad you mention my home country, Australia. It is precisely through the experience of the struggles against racism and the attempt to think them through in the Australian context that i came to reject the imperial pretensions of a certain kind of transnational postcolonial discourse.
Talk about your sense of yourself as an Australian, and how America looks from that perspective. Since Baudrillard has been the absent presence haunting our discussion, I’ll evoke him again: I’ve always gotten the impression that, as he views New York, so you view America, as “a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, Puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence.” At the same time, you seem to echo his coda to that statement, from America: “…and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe.”
How important is the United States–as geopolitical actor, simulcra factory, or its own wish-fulfillment projection–to you, as a philosopher with one foot in the political?
MW: I love America. I know one is not supposed to say it, but there it is. I love America. That is why I write about it. I’m not entirely out of sympathy with Richard Rorty’s book Achieving Our Country, the title of
which really sums up the struggle, it seems to me. Rorty speaks up for the “old left” and its values. He is anchored in Whitman–and it was Whitman’s Specimen Days that I chose as the book to bring with me when I
emigrated here. I remember holding it in my hands when the immigration officer stamped my visa in my passport when I came in via Canada. He said something like: “Welcome to America. If you have come here under
false pretenses you should know that we will hunt you down and prosecute you to the full extent of the law!” It was like something out of Kafka.
So one ends up attempting to love a country that doesn’t love you back. Which doesn’t love anyone. Least of all those thousands of Delphi car parts workers who are just about to get the sack, and get hired back at subsistence wages, without pensions or benefits. America (the state) no longer belongs to Americans (the people). It’s a government without the people, against the people and for another people. It’s been hollowed out, and its carcass now prosecutes the interests of a new global ruling class. It’s exactly as John Carpenter imagined it in his amazing movie They Live.
I call this “latent destiny.” If manifest destiny was the right to rule through virtue alone; latent destiny is the virtue of rule through right alone. Or in other words, we are living in a decadent time–and of course the Christian right’s mania for moral purity is a leading sign of this decadence.
Americans are a defeated people. They just refuse to realize it. And that’s their charm. There’s something honorable in this complete refusal to confront one’s fate. To just carry on talking about Paris Hilton and Hilary Clinton as if nothing was happening. It’s a moving spectacle.
Australians think they know America, but of course we don’t really. It’s a privileged way to be an immigrant. We speak your language pretty fluently but you don’t speak ours. We can almost “pass.” Not as well as Canadians. but perhaps we have a little more critical “distance” from which to see this new “‘undemocratic vista.”
It’s a dangerous time. Power is shifting back to the East, and the brief heyday of the West is drawing to a close. The United States is becoming the Untied States. It’s armed to the teeth and being used essentially as the base for a mercenary force with no loyalties to anyone. And as we know from Macchiavelli, when the state relies on mercenaries, we’re in trouble.
But then there’s this extraordinary people with their amazing culture, which unlike any European culture you can name, thrives in spite of, rather than because of, attention by the state. And has always done so.
Incidentally, the best texts on the antipodean approach to America, with all its insights, resentiments, misunderstandings, is for me in the novels of Chris Krauss, particularly the new one, Torpor, but also I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia. For me, she nails it.
MD: I’d like to use as foils a line or two from some of the reviews of A Hacker Manifesto. In his Nation review of the book, Terry Eagleton calls it “a perceptive, provocative study, packed to the seams with acute analysis.” But he also touches on a subject dear to my heart–a recurrent theme in this interview–namely, the politics of language. Eagleton writes,
It is true that one’s faith in the nuanced nature of [Wark’s] judgments is somewhat undermined by statements like ‘education is slavery’ or ‘all representation is false.’ There is an audible clashing of genres here, as the scrupulous academic in Wark does battle with the flamboyant polemicist, New School University meets the Left Bank. On the whole, Wark is at his best when he is not trying to sound like Gilles Deleuze. But then, who is not?
Themes we’ve touched on, here, bob to the surface in Eagleton’s review: the culture clash between French intellectuals and Anglo/American ones and, more interesting, the political costs of The Philosophical Voice. Eagleton implies a (false?) binary of cloud-dwelling French theory and streetwise Anglophone praxis, to use your preferred term–of philosophy, on the one hand, and engaged critique on the other. I’ll tip my hand: I’ve always preferred the Wark of the pithy, sharp-witted, lightly ironic broadside, the public intellectual broadcasting to me, live, from the corner Starbucks. I’m thinking of pieces like “The Lost Art of the Caffeinist,” “Post modern pair: what jeans mean is now more important than what they are,” and, forever and always, your incomparable Netletters, most notably Netletter #1: English and Netlish, Netletter #2: Is Meme a Bad Meme?, and Netletter #8: Critiquing Net Criticism.
I’ll be honest: I’m one of those hopelessly obtuse, follow-the-bouncing ball readers who succumbed to a sort of ontological vertigo while reading A Hacker Manifesto. The near-total absence of illustrative examples, of concrete evidence, of specific historical points of reference results, makes me dizzy. I can’t feel the intellectual ground under my feet. For me (and for a few other critics, I’ve noted), to read A Hacker Manifesto is to wander lost in a fog bank of generalizations and abstractions. Obviously, this is the Way of All Philosophy, and it has its pleasures and its rewards. Still, I can’t help but hear echoes in this voice, which insists that the reader accept on faith generalizations unmoored from specific examples and arguments unsupported by specific evidence, the very “imperial pretensions” you reject in “a certain kind of transnational postcolonial discourse.” It’s far from the street, to be sure. I’m not accusing you of “imperial pretensions,” because I believe you see the Philosophical Voice from a radical perspective committed to engagement with our moment. Which is why I’d like to challenge you to think, here, about the costs–and benefits–of the rhetorical voice you employ in A Hacker Manifesto, versus the public-intellectual voice you’ve used in your pop broadsides, such as the Netletters. What are the costs? What are the benefits?
MW: I’m very thankful to have been reviewed by Terry Eagleton. An irony here is that if there’s a prose style I was copying when I wrote it then it was the Eagleton of The Function of Criticism, although that is a book i think he may these days disavow.
I don’t see it as a flaw, necessarily, that there are different kinds of statements in the text that aren’t reductible to the same genre. I was quite consciously pushing my own writing abilities to the breaking point. Would there be any point in doing otherwise?
One has to think about what the book is supposed to do, in the age of the Internet. Most books I read thesedays seem to be just a bunch of articles bound together, and I don’t really see the point of that. A book has to produce its own milieu, its own consistency.
But this is a big problem for modern thought: form hasn’t caught up to content. We know how to write sentences that express new ideas, but paragraphs? chapters? That’s much harder. The larger forms elude us. So for me a question was: what do you have to do to the form of a sentence or a chapter to bring things together as a book? If there’s a deformation of the sentence, that’s why.
Books can circulate in a different rhythm to articles, and via different networks. I don’t think the articles of mine you mention were really built to last. A second reading doesn’t yield more than a first reading. I still get new things out of reading A Hacker Manifesto. It’s like real chocolate compared to Hershey’s; you don’t want to consume it all at once.
It was also made to be translated. That’s why, unusually for a book in English, the language is highly latinate. The exception is the term “hacker,” which is a good old Saxon word that I wanted to put into trans-European circulation in a different way. The book is coming out in eight languages. I have no idea what the Korean or Japanese will read like, but in French, German, Italian, Spanish, even Croatian, you can see how the text is made of words with much the same roots. A more “Saxon” or everyday English doesn’t work like that.
This is related, of course to the netletter on “netlish.” You could see A Hacker Manifesto as a version of the English written by non-native speakers on nettime in the ’90s, which was sort of abstract English nouns with a German grammar. I thought some of that writing was very interesting, and that was also a model.
There’s an old argument here: the difference between political writing and writing politically. In this case, I chose the latter. It might be closer to the poetry of a Bruce Andrews or a Drew Milne than to, say,
Naomi Klein. The funny thing is, this book has been remarkably popular. If it’s so “difficult,” i’d like to know why it’s selling so well.
Since the first review of the Spanish edition just came out, i’ve been thinking that A Hacker Manifesto was an attempt to write textual DNA rather than RNA. It’s not a text, its a code for making texts (DNA). There’s a separate step for turning it into texts (RNA). That’s done by reviewers. As a writer of books, you can encode it for the reviewers to decode and expand out into ‘useful proteins’ in their own context. Of course if you make reviewers actually do some work, they complain that your book is too hard, and if you don’t make them work they complain that your book is too easy.
It might not be a book for everybody but it is for anybody. One reviewer on Amazon complained that it is “encrypted.” And indeed it is. And the key to decrypt it is in it. You just have to read with a bit of
I do promise that the next book, Gamer Theory, will be more fun. But not without what you call “ontological vertigo”. I’m too old to take drugs, but I still want to read–and write–a good literary high. It does have “examples,” although why anyone with a passing acquaintance with logic would trust examples is beyond me.
Isn’t this the whole problem with, say, Malcolm Gladwell? Terrific descriptions of examples, but we leap straight to the concept and bypass the case. Spot the dog has three legs, therefore all dogs have three legs. It’s what Eco called ‘abduction’ (as opposed to induction or deduction). A promiscuous leap from example to concept or vice versa.
I would rather show how one concept is related to another concept, and another. Once you have a constellation of concepts in place, then you can see how it relates to the world.