:: Article

The Hacker

Interview by Richard Marshall

You can trace a through-line from the eighties to the present, and in retrospect Trump was always one of the minor avatars of a certain business model, all through that time. One based on branding, celebrity, and exploiting certain quirks of media form for fun and profit.In some ways he is not all that exceptional.

I was also curious about why we are so wedded to the idea that this is actually still ‘capitalism.’ As a concept, it has turned into an eternal essence which only changes in appearances. So in A Hacker Manifesto I wanted to explore the idea that there was already a different kind of political economy growing out of, and on top of, capitalism. Just as it had grown out of, and on top of, a prior moment of the commodification of land.

Games are in a sense more real than the world. Games more perfectly structure the ideal form of technologically augmented market-based competitive play, in which the stakes are always information. In a world awash in devalued information, some piece of it magically seems to have value again for no other reason that you won it from someone else in a game.

The Situationists were a brave little band of monsters who tried to stay away from the art world, the media, academia, the Communist party, and invent their own forms of collaborative action. Its great stuff to teach because it was all started by young people, even if their motivations and even way of life is now close to unintelligible within the contemporary structure of feeling.’

The opening move is to suggest that there can’t be public intellectuals like Sartre and de Beauvoir any more, as the conditions under which the production of information has changed. Nobody gets to be the spectacular embodiment of the conscience of our species-being any more, but more for reasons embedded in the mode of information production than in any philosophical ‘turn.’ ‘

McKenzie Wark is an Australian-born writer and scholar. Wark is known for his writings on media theory, critical theory, new media, and the Situationist International. He is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at The New School in New York City.

3:AM: You’re a cultural critic and public intellectual with particular interests in the Situationist International, the avant-garde and communication, globalisation and the media. What was it that got you interested in all this?

McKenzie Wark: I would describe myself as a writer and a student of media. If there’s a central idea in media theory, it’s to take media as form. It might grow out of philosophical aesthetics or the study of literature and visual art, but the various strands of media theory converge in treating all of those as subsets of the study of media as form.

The interesting things to think about and write about might then include what appear to be moments in which the forms change, or particularly effective and popular uses of a given form, or distinctive attempts on the part of avant-gardes to use existing forms in a novel way. So I have ended up writing about both national and international media phenomena as well as emergent forms such as games or singular movements such as the Situationist International.

3:AM: You have an interesting take on globalization – it’s not as clean or stable as it is sometimes presented and it’s something that seems to frame a deal of your thinking. It’s also an idea that is recently beginning to look less obviously definitive of what the future and the near present may look like – I was reading about how some economists are beginning to talk about nationalist economics again – so first can you give us a sketch of where your thinking is about what globalization and its media space is today and how it may have changed since you started writing about it in the 90’s. Has the nature of its chaos changed?

MW: What makes ‘globalization’ even possible in the first place? One answer would be that it requires the regularization of some kind of media and communication infrastructure. When you have that, you might get globalized economic trade within some political or imperial framework, but it is likely you’ll get transnational cultural flows as well.

This was clear when I was in China in the late eighties. Deng Xiaoping had mandated, at one and the same time, the ‘open door policy’ on trade and a campaign against ‘spiritual pollution’ on culture. It turned out that when you open the door to one you’re likely to get the other whether you want it or not.

So it might be best to think about both kinds of border-crossing vector – economic and cultural – at the same time, and as dependent on the same media and communication form. Then you find that they can interact in all sorts of interesting ways. Globalizing trade can lead to a cosmopolitan culture, but also to all sorts of nationalistic or racist or patriarchal reactions to those as breaches of imaginary communities. And the relation can be reversed. A reaction against the free flow of culture can contribute to a nationalistic turn in political-economy.

3:AM: You’re Australian and have written about Australian culture wars. These were about how national identity and global media interface and how the market and the media combined to shift social democratic ideals were morphed into popular culture. Can you say how you see this trend, identified back in the late 90’s, has progressed?

MW: Well, these days, I’m an Australian-born New Yorker. Back when I was an Australian ‘public intellectual’ – or maybe public idiot – I was more concerned with thinking the fate of Australian social democracy in an era of accelerating transnational cultural and economic flows.

Australia was a bit anomalous in the eighties in that the economy was modernized by a social democratic government that knew the old protectionist economic policy was failing, and formed an uneasy partnership with the trade union movement to open up the economy, in exchange for expanding the social wage, the main part of which was a pretty good system of socialized medicine. As such, it’s not quite explicable as ‘neoliberalism’.

In the nineties this got harder and harder to sustain. I wrote my two ‘popular front’ books in that period. One was about how, in the spirit of Gramsci, to mobilize the social democratic as an articulation of the popular and even folkloric material embedded with the culture, but in contemporary media form. In today’s terms, you could say it was a book about affect theory.

The other book was an attempt to negotiate a way through the culture wars, which were about what one would now call memes. These were hatched in right wing think tanks and designed to colonize the journalistic imagination with a new spirit of reaction. According to which, hilariously, people like me were at one and the same time postmodern (too lax!) and politically correct (too strict!). But the way culture works has little to do with logic and everything to do with affect.

3:AM: You’re living in America now. Is Trump a figure who you see as embodying your ideas about celebrity, culture, cyberspace and popular politics?

MW: You can trace a through-line from the eighties to the present, and in retrospect Trump was always one of the minor avatars of a certain business model, all through that time. One based on branding, celebrity, and exploiting certain quirks of media form for fun and profit.

In some ways he is not all that exceptional. He appears to some as too simulated, too much a spectacle. But all authorized politics is spectacle. He just does it in a different style. It’s not conservative, its post-liberal. Rather than make hypocritical gestures towards the just, the good and the true, it’s about making hyperbolic gestures about their absence.

It has taken a long time for such a form of media performance to go mainstream. One of its great architects is of course my countryman (and former employer) Rupert Murdoch, who has been building what in American parlance would be a post-liberal media space for fun and profit all through this period. Although these-days he has been outflanked by others who stole his modus operandi.

3:AM: Is Deleuze someone important to you? How does he help us grasp your perspective?

MW: I think we should all have our ‘master thinkers’ tattooed on our arms so people can just look at your arm. In my case, when you rolled up sleeve, it would be Marx and Deleuze. I was influenced by Anti-Oedipus most. It’s the great inversion. It’s not about boundaries; it’s about flows. It’s not about grand conflicts; it’s about quiet infiltration. It’s not about representation; it’s about production or expression.

I was particularly interested in what Anti-Oedipus did to Marxist anthropology in the later part of the book. But the problem with Deleuze is that philosophy remains a master-discourse, and it remains a prisoner of the vices of the philosophers it ingests – vitalism being an obvious example. One has to de-stratify philosophy’s relation to other ways to knowing and acting in the world. Deleuze became doxa, particularly in the ‘new materialism’, so one has to counter-program against that now.

3:AM: Your A Hacker Manifesto identifies a new class division – one between those who produce intellectual property and those who own in. So can you first sketch for us your ideas about the hackers and the vectoralists just so we can see the geography of this.

A Hacker Manifesto was in today’s terms a left-accelerationist book, but a decade too early. It is still my best-seller; it’s in about a dozen languages. Toward the end of Anti-Oedipus is the astonishing proposal: what if we have not become abstract enough? What if, rather than negate or resist, one hurried capitalism along to its grave? This, it turns out, is an idea with a long pedigree. JD Bernal was already thinking along those lines in the late twenties, for example.

But I was also curious about why we are so wedded to the idea that this is actually still ‘capitalism.’ As a concept, it has turned into an eternal essence which only changes in appearances. So in A Hacker Manifesto I wanted to explore the idea that there was already a different kind of political economy growing out of, and on top of, capitalism. Just as it had grown out of, and on top of, a prior moment of the commodification of land. The commodification of land threw up the antagonistic classes of farmer and landlord. Then the commodification of energy systems threw up the antagonistic classes of worker and capitalist. What if the commodification of information generated new classes as well? I called these classes hacker and vectoralist.

The difference between the successive modes of production has to do with the material properties of the thing commodified. The commodity form is not a universal one that simply subsumes all of the material world into the same unchanging exchange value. The commodity form mutates as it comes in contact with progressively more abstract materiality: firstly, the matter of land, then the most abstract energetic systems of classical capitalism, and then information, which is where we’re now at. Each is parasitic on the last. And each is internally divided between a class of producers and a class who extract a surplus: farmer and landlord; worker and capitalist; hacker and vectoralist.

3:AM: I’m conscious that things seem to shift very quickly – so over the last thirteen or so years since this came out, how have these classes panned out? Has anything surprised you in this?

MW: We won the battle and lost the war. What Debord called détournement became not just an avant-garde but a popular cultural practice. As I wrote in A Hacker Manifesto: Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains. It broke free from the commodity form. Information is not ontologically compatible with private property. And so it escaped, once the forces of production had developed to the point where it could. We won. Not just pop songs and movies but more importantly patents for drugs or manufacturing processes escaped into the wild.

We won that battle, but lost the war. Commodification regrouped at a higher level of abstraction. The commodity form seems always dependent on some form of gift economy that recirculate what it separates. The vectoral class found ways to commodify that too. It commodified not the data but the meta-data – the information about where and what the information is.

That’s the basis now of practically any successful global corporation: it controls information about information. It controls information as form rather than content. Same for the state. Everything people freak out about the NSA doing is pretty much what Wal-Mart or Google are also doing. They have us by the meta-data. The vectoralist class won – for now.

3:AM: Gamer Theory likened the world to aspects of online games – these games were idealized versions of what the world was becoming. Can you unpack the metaphor for us?

So after some delay I published my left-accelerationist book A Hacker Manifesto in 2004; I published my critique of it, Gamer Theory in 2007. I had written something about games as form in the nineties, which got me an introduction to the avant-garde of game designers, which proved most stimulating.

Most writing about games was interested in content – whether they are ‘violent’, whether there are women avatars and so on. Important questions, but I also wanted to think also about games as form. The basic proposition is that the game perfectly simulates an imperfectly game-like world. We are all supposed to be ‘players’, looking at our screens for ways to score from the information presented to us. But these everyday contests always seem rather unfair. The playing field is never ‘level.’ It’s ‘rigged’ against us, and so on.

But a good computer game is not like that. There the ‘neoliberal’ promise really is kept. If you won, it really was on your merits. Games are in a sense more real than the world. Games more perfectly structure the ideal form of technologically augmented market-based competitive play, in which the stakes are always information. In a world awash in devalued information, some piece of it magically seems to have value again for no other reason that you won it from someone else in a game.

So that might be a way of thinking about how the promise of the information vector, to accelerate us out of the commodity form, was stuffed back into it, but in relatively new kinds of form. The game as form creates artificial scarcity – and thus things to fetishize – out of nothing much but information.

Perhaps games have a salience as a form for our time that the novel had for the time of the landlords, or cinema for the time of capital. For example, one can’t understand the so-called alt-right without understanding the ‘Gamergate’ thread within it. Games become a form within which are played out cultural conflicts about all sorts of value.

3:AM: How far is this world one that seems like a game and how much is it really like that? I guess part of the question is whether by making the analogy you were actually making it easier for people to accept that life is like a game and therefore undermine their ability to resist it. It’s quite a cool, glamorous idea – cyber punkish and Ballardian etc etc – but do you think it’s fed the metaphor rather than exposed it?

MW: Language is always ambivalent. Its forms mutate and connect in unexpected ways. It’s hard to instrumentalize language. But I think it’s better to explore linguistic potentials than to keep on using language that’s past its expiration date.

To ‘resist’ seems to me to invoke a mechanical metaphor. I suspect Foucault put the term in circulation, but one forgets that it’s not especially a ‘political’ thing for him. Bodies ‘resist’ and generate friction within the disciplinary harness. Making it some sort of political touchstone-word may no longer be all that useful. Perhaps it also draws too much on a romantic tradition which wants figures that are aberrant, strange, outside, de-formed, transgressive, and so forth.

Part of the exercise of Gamer Theory was to counter-program against the romanticism (and vitalism) that still lingered in A Hacker Manifesto. Anyone who ‘hacks’ new information out of the old, but sees it captured within commodity forms owned by others, is a ‘hacker’ in that book. It’s a class rather than cultural category. Hackers can be in the arts or sciences or anything in between, so long as their efforts can be captured and rendered equivalent as intellectual property. But, the hacker is still a recognizably romantic avatar.

I thought the ‘gamer’ was more interesting because the gamer is totally within the game. Even the ‘cheat’ is internal to it. What does it mean to think about a praxis that explores systems from within rather than resist or break or subvert or hack them? Like the hacker, the gamer participates in non-labor. Play is not quite the same thing as work. The time of the hacker is not easily measurable; and the gamer will play for entirely imaginary stakes.

And if you know your structural linguistics, you’ll expect that once you have three terms, you’ll expect the fourth: worker, hacker, gamer – and maybe ‘hustler’ is the fourth. Everyone has ‘side-hustles’ now, at least in millennial American English that takes its cues from Black speech. So I think I’d work (or play) with four avatars of who one is when engaged in any kind of praxis. I think this is a moment in which to do some work on the language we habitually use and maybe experiment with it. In that sense I think of theory as a genre of experimental literature, connected to the avant-gardes.

3:AM: Which takes me to your interest in the Situationists and those who wanted to build cities and environments suitable to the deployment of new passions, as Debord might have put it! You express pretty much contempt for many of our contemporaries in art and theory – I particularly like your summaries of the ‘new demi-Gods…. ‘Alain Badiou the Maoist of the metheme, Giorgio Agamben the pensive-pedant, Slavoj Zizek the neuro-Hegelian-joker’…- what is your interest in the Situationists driven by?

MW: It started just with sheer admiration of Debord’s prose. Particularly In Girum and Panegyric. And yet he was such an asshole. Which was also interesting. Monsters are far more fun than saints. But the Anglophone literature was divided between Debord fan-boys and what I thought were more interesting and avant-garde practices built out of dethroning him and working through other figures. Particularly Asger Jorn, who I came to think of as a more interesting character. I wanted to put the so-called minor figures into the story, particularly the women, and non-Parisians – and the fuck-ups.

I have lived through minor versions of ‘bohemia’ and the avant-gardes they incubate, and so I know about who gets forgotten and erased. With the Situationists, I really wanted to get the North Africans into the story, although I failed there. I got some of the women back into the story. Hopefully I helped open up some space for others working on all of this rich material. The Situationists were a brave little band of monsters who tried to stay away from the art world, the media, academia, the Communist party, and invent their own forms of collaborative action. Its great stuff to teach because it was all started by young people, even if their motivations and even way of life is now close to unintelligible within the contemporary structure of feeling.

3:AM: What options do you think are still on the table for continuing the Situationist revels?

MW: As Debord said, theories are made to die in the war of time. They are of their era. There’s no shortage of cranky pro-situs who claim ownership of the Situationists, like petit-bourgeois shop-keepers. But I think it’s better to treat it as material to refunction rather than repeat. It’s not for imitating, it’s for treating as raw material. That’s why the hardcovers of my books on the Situs come with comic strips that I made with Kevin Pyle, as a bit of a hint about how to repurpose the material now.

3:AM: Another backdrop to your critical thinking is the notion of the Anthropocene which you see as ‘a series of metabolic rifts.’ Can you say how you see this – is it bigger than the French revolution as a world historical moment -, and in particular why a Marxist perspective is your critical tool of choice?

MW: Debord was already on the case with this, in his ‘Sick Planet’ text and in the televison show he made with Brigitte Cornand just before his suicide. And it turns out Marx was also already on the case, with his concept of metabolic rift. John Bellamy Foster drew attention to Marx’s writing on nature, and I’m really following in his footsteps, but I thought it worth unpacking some of the moments in that archive a bit more than Foster does.

And just as I thought looking at the avant-gardes through the question of media form might be revealing, I thought one might do something similar with Marxist versions of science and science studies. Science and art can then be two versions of a praxis and a technic, of collaborative labors of knowing the world or proposing modifications to it. So while Bogdanov, Debord, Jorn and Haraway are very different writers from different situations, one can bring a media theory approach to all of them.

3:AM: Interestingly, in resurrecting the thought of Bogdanov and Platonov you reach back to a Marxism before it became a critical theory culture critique and moralism. What’s important about them, and do you think Marxism is best when not tangled with its post-war incarnations?

MW: There’s a certain archive that got created and used, over and over, as critical theory or western Marxism, that seemed appropriate to the problems of the second half of the 20th century, but is not all that useful in our times. Indeed, it’s become doxa. And it gets treated as just another scholarly archive to be an expert on and claim property rights over as one’s ‘field.’

But when times change, so should the archive. It’s not that Bogdanov and Platonov are unknown, but they are the province of specialists, rather than part of the general intellectual resources, as I think they now should be. I found them to be particularly helpful for thinking about the Anthropocene.

They think across the nature-social divide. Bogdanov even came close to getting climate change right. Platonov usefully thinks of nature as something impoverished, rather than as bounty or providence. They knew and responded to what was going on in the life science and engineering, respectively. They are much more useful theorists for our time than some of the old warhorses it is obligatory to quote.

3:AM: Your latest book looks at 21 thinkers who you say could be the new Sartre and de Beauvoir’s of the new century. So these are public intellectuals you presumably feel are important and yet when I look at the list many are obscure and the few I recognize, like Butler and Zizek, you yourself have not always been over-impressed by. So why this list – is it a provocation or are you setting up a canon?

MW: Actually, the opening move is to suggest that there can’t be public intellectuals like Sartre and de Beauvoir any more, as the conditions under which the production of information has changed. Nobody gets to be the spectacular embodiment of the conscience of our species-being any more, but more for reasons embedded in the mode of information production than in any philosophical ‘turn.’

The question now might be one of organizing work around emancipatory projects on the basis of collaborative work among specialists organized – as Bogdanov would say – in a comradely form, rather than looking for the philosophical master-discourse under which other kinds of knowledge are supposed to be subsumed. And so General Intellects looks at 21 writers who are not so much public intellects as what I call – to somewhat misuse a term from Marx – general intellects.

One could think of them as a fairly reflexive fraction of the hacker class, able to articulate in concepts some of the general conditions of our current situation, but limited by the demands of current forms of information production to seeing the world through their own specialized functions. The task is then to find ways to get their respective concepts to work together, to map the situation collaboratively. The book traverses the otherwise fairly separate ‘fields’ of political economy, political theory, cultural studies, media studies, science studies and speculative realist philosophy.

Rather than play the game each of those fields wants to play of asserting its distinctiveness and sovereignty, it makes them agents of a kind of comradely project of mapping the world so we might act in and against it. I’m interested in the conditions of possibility of working together. Which is why I treated the Situationists as a group rather than Debord as some kind of media-theory-star in negative.

3:AM: There are few writers who are engaged in taking up within a lineage that the Situationists are part of – but Stewart Home is one that I particularly admire who continues to do so. You too are impressed by Home – what do you find particularly important and interesting about his work?

MW: What I admire about Stewart is his consistent rejection of bourgeois culture in all its forms, including its supposedly radical or avant-garde ones. It’s a commitment that works through both the form and content of his books. As such, they might as well have been written to be read from a media theory angle. They are a consistent rejection of bourgeois form as well as content. As a mere petit-bourgeois from the antipodes, I can only admire and support that from the margins.

I did learn a lot about the practice of writing from Stewart. Hence I wrote A Hacker Manifesto as if it was translated from an imaginary language called ‘European’, made up of equal parts church Latin, Marxism and business English. And with Gamer Theory I worked with Oulipo-style constraints. Every chapter is exactly twenty-five paragraphs long, and so forth. Reading Stewart’s (anti) novels and (anti) theoretical texts over the years has been enormously suggestive for ways of working.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend – apart from your own – that you think will help us understand better your worldview?

MW:

Marx’s political writings,

Platonov’s Foundation Pit,

Pasolini’s Petrolio,

Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women,

Cesaire’s Tragedy of King Christophe. The list changes all the time, of course.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 10th, 2017.