McKenzie Wark | Information-Commodification
McKenzie Wark has written A Hacker Manifesto, Gamer Theory, Telesthesia and other books on net criticism and contemporary culture. He has produced a 3D-printed limited edition Guy Debord action figure to celebrate the launch of his recent book, The Spectacle of Disintegration, and currently teaches Culture and Media at The New School.
Marvin Jordan I noticed that you have been actively engaged in recent debates surrounding Accelerationism — its historical and political significance in the context of our contemporary digital economy. Could you break down the basic tenets of Accelerationism, assuming it to be a more or less singular, unitary ‘movement’? Is it an effective mode of historicizing the internet?
McKenzie Wark The good thing about the accelerationists is the attempt to think historically again, to think and write with a certain scale and sweep. Roughly speaking, there’s two camps: those like Nick Land who think capitalism will speed up and evolve into something else out of its own internal differences; those like Benjamin Noys who think that capitalism has to be confronted and negated from without by a radical social force. Where I differ from both schools of thought is that both seem to think this can still be described as ‘capitalism’. But what if the leading edges of the social totality were already something else? Still a commodity economy, to be sure, but one based less on land or products than on commodified information. I think it’s worth trying to use language more speculatively to come up with more adequate ways of describing what is emerging. That was what I was trying to do ten years ago in what I think of as my ‘accelerationist’ book, A Hacker Manifesto.
MJ You have written that “We need a new language to describe emergent forms of commodity economy. It’s not neo anything or post anything. It’s not late capitalism or cognitive capitalism. Modifiers won’t do. It’s based on an ontological mutation: the historical production of the category of information.” Given your analysis, does the concept of class struggle retain any relevance today? What form does it take in the context of an immaterial, digital landscape?
MK To talk about the biopower of postfordist neoliberal late capitalism seems to me a complete failure of language. Just sticking some modifiers on the old terms doesn’t really capture the strangeness of the times. It helps to imagine that there was one other past mutation in the commodity economy. It shifted from the enclosure of the commons as private property, to the industrial production of the thing as private property. There’s a leap in the form of abstraction there. Not just land and its produce but labor and its produce can be commodified, rationalized, quantified, and so on. Perhaps what we are living through is a second great mutation in the commodity form, from product to information. In Marx’s day, steam and iron were the technical means by which industrialization could proceed. In our time, the integrated circuit is driving a whole new means to capture value, and no longer just from actual work. The commodification of play is another side to this new form of the commodity economy, as I tried to argue in my book Gamer Theory. The question would be then whether new kinds of class relations emerge out of making information private property. Are there new haves and have-nots? Not that this class division over information replaces those over land and industry, but is rather layered on top of them, perhaps even controlling them.
MJ There seems to be a renewed interest in the relationship between surplus value and affect as it is structured in social media. Last year, when Facebook’s IPO capitalized at $104 billion, people were naturally wondering where that valuation came from — that is, people who were active participants in the development of Facebook’s infrastructure (liking, sharing, etc), yet who did not pocket a penny of its massive profit. Is it still exploitation if the work consists of enjoyment?
MK I’m agnostic about the category of surplus value. I think of it more like a social scientist than a philosopher. If it explains something, then use it; if it doesn’t, then don’t. I’m more interested in Marx’s goals than his tools, about which there is often something of a fetish. A way to think about what I call the vectoral class, the ruling class of our time, is that it is based on unequal exchange of information. Facebook ‘gives’ you information, about your friends and so forth. But it extracts far more than it gives. It gives data but extracts metadata. The same is true of Google. It’s increasingly a form that you find in all sorts of businesses.
What is interesting is that it is no longer exclusively based on paid labor time. Google and Facebook make money out of our activities whether those activities are work or not. They pay us in the recognition of our desires rather than in cash. But what they manage to extract is information that has enormous value, at least as this economy measures it. They have information that is a kind of private property. Only Google knows what Google knows. They have managed to turn our free cooperative sharing of information as gift into metadata as private property. That’s why I say we won the battle to free data, but we lost the war, which is the privatization of metadata. It is, if you like, a new kind of exploitation.
MJ Your historiographical work on the Situationist International sheds critical light on how their activities embody a kind of proto-cybernetics and their research typifies a “street ethnography.” Yet if you open any dictionary and look up the word “avant-garde,” you will almost always find it to be associated primarily with art. Why do you think the notion of avant-garde as art has become so utterly irrelevant today?
MK It’s art that’s irrelevant, not the avant-garde. This is a boring age for art, mainly because of how boring the collectors are. These days collectors actually want to buy contemporary art. How boring can you get? It’s like they are buying fantastically expensive bespoke IKEA furniture for their homes. Now, art is not a bad day job if you can pull it off. I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make a living at it, like any other day job. But as day jobs go, it has no more glamour or dignity than doing public relations or corporate law. Not to mention academia! We’re all servants of the most boring and clueless ruling class in a century.
Avant-gardes, on the other hand, are always interesting, but they are not really about art, whatever some silly art school textbooks might say. Avant-gardes are about media, about social relations, about property-forms, but they are only ever incidentally or tactically concerned with art. The most interesting ones around at the moment might be about pharmacology or horticulture or even ‘business models’.
MJ Central to your research on the situationists and the historical avant-garde is your conceptualization of the notion of strategy as it relates to the social function of these collectives. More specifically, the idea of games and gaming feature quite prominently in your work, particularly in connection with the tactical nature of everyday life. In an age of Second Life and Candy Crush Saga, do games still possess the strategic capacity to stimulate revolutionary creativity?
MK What’s dead is the notion of play as some kind of ‘outside’ to work that escapes commodification and disciplinary society. Play and game are fully incorporated into the engines of control and value. We are all supposed to be ‘playful’ and ‘creative’ all the time. Which basically means this: nobody knows how to get maximum value out of information-based work, so you have to figure it all out yourself, ‘creatively’, but the results will all be measured and you will compete with all your collaborators for the prizes — whether real or imaginary.
But then if game is no longer a peripheral but a central aspect of contemporary life, then perhaps we need to pay more attention to the avant-gardes of play, to the theory of play, to experimental practices of play, and so on. Hence I thought it timely to re-read the Situationists as game-players and strategists rather than as crypto-Hegelian Marxists. To read them through Clausewitz and Fourier, the two key thinkers of the ‘grand game’ in the era of Napoleon.
MJ Alongside today’s hyper-personalized market of highly customizable commodities, in which every consumerist choice entails a micro-branding manifesto, we are witnessing the rise of the TED Talk moralist who preaches “The Paradox of Choice” while remaining an apologist for the system that creates it. How did Debord predict this consumerist anxiety with his concept of the diffuse spectacle, and in which direction do you think the spectacle has developed today?
MK Ted Talks are a sort of experiment in pure ideology. The emerging ruling class is actually very thin skinned and easily insulted. So they want a kind of private public sphere where only nice things are said about them. They don’t want books or universities, or any art that isn’t decorative. Nothing that ventures beyond affordable critique. It is perhaps a new stage in the history of the spectacle.
Debord initially thought the spectacle came in two kinds: concentrated and diffuse. Both begin around 1919, and make the last great challenge to the commodity form — the radical working class — appear as a kind of spectacularized double of itself. The concentrated form is the bureaucratic pseudo-socialist states; the diffuse form is the west, where the labor movement was incorporated as an image of itself, as the social democratic party.
Debord later thought there was a third form of spectacle, the integrated spectacle, which fused aspects of both. He had in mind the corrupt and secretive French and Italian state from the 70s onwards, which were formally ‘free market capitalist’ but where the state had become involuted and the secret police were no longer under any central control. As Snowden’s revelations about the NSA show, there’s certainly an element of the integrated spectacle about the state-form of today.
In my book The Spectacle of Disintegration, I propose a 4th kind of spectacle, the disintegrating spectacle. The incorporation of labor as an image of itself leaves the state without a coherent external enemy to negate, and hence leaves it without an orientation within historical time. The state no longer knows how it is supposed to marshall the forces of commodification towards ‘progress’. There is no real promise of a better tomorrow to make the pain and boredom of commodified life seem worthwhile. The disintegrating spectacle is where we are now. So while there are indeed new social movements that point beyond commodified life, the state no longer knows how to coopt them and make them affirmative forces pushing commodification forward in ways that diffuse dissent. Hence our era, which speaks hysterically about ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ — precisely because there really isn’t any.
MJ In your latest book, Excommunication (co-written by Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker), the title of your section is “Furious Media, A Queer History of Heresy.” How does a specifically queer perspective on history offer new insights into the development of media and communication?
MK I think now that I have always been interested in heretics. It’s striking how many theorists want to resurrect some long dead authority or other. We are supposed to bow down again at the altar to Lenin or Mao — God help us — or even Saint Paul. As if these sorts of gestures of deferral were not themselves part of the problem. So: no more master thinkers! Thought will be genuinely collaborative and comradely, or not at all.
So rather than read Saint Paul, I’m with Vaneigem, who wrote about the heretics. It turns out that what proto- and early Christian heresies tend to have in common is distrust of authorities who seem to claim control over the ‘portals’ to a higher reality, a taste for common property, and alternative models of organizing sexuality. I take ‘queering’ to be a practice that includes all three of those things. It’s about low theory, the conceptual practice of everyday life. Of these three elements of a queer practice, I have rather neglected the third, the alternative models of organizing sexual life.
So my contribution to Excommunication is among other things a bit of a gesture towards that aspect. There’s a bit in The Beach Beneath the Street about Michele Bernstein’s games of love and sex without property and in The Spectacle of Disintegration about Fourier’s queer theory utopia. And in Telesthesia I take up Tiqqun’s “Theory of the Young Girl” a little. But I think there’s a lot more to be said and done about what Béatriz Préciado calls ‘gender hacking’. There’s a lot more work — and play — to be done there.