The Australian culture critic, author of over ten books, is one of the intellectuals dismantling the ways of thinking and producing knowledge today, in times which, he says, academia needs to reformulate language and strengthen the networks of fellowship in order to face a future that is as uncertain as it seems dark. In this interview he talks about the challenges of intellectual work in the 21st century, and, in passing, suggests as Žižek as a symbol of the death of the figure of the old public intellectual.
By Evelyn Erlij
“We used to have intellectual public figures, but perhaps that’s not what we need in the digital age”, says McKenzie Wark (1961) in a video by the North American collective DIS, famous for their art projects that question the relationship between culture and capitalism. In the video the commentary is a voice over, and on screen only a hand is shown, writing on a blackboard concepts such as “society of control”, “democracy”, and “them/us”. The shot pans out and we see a headless body: the head lies on a table next to the body; the head talks to the camera. This, in part, is how the Australian theoretician sees the future: the dislocation of knowledge, the disarming of preconceived ideas, the deconstruction of ways of understanding the body and knowledge; as well as forcing language to create different realities, beginning with their own. To refer to themself Wark prefers to use “they”. The “singular they”, it’s worth noting, is used in English for not specifying gender.
They moved to the US more than 20 years ago, and now teach at the Faculty for Cultural Studies and Media Communication at the New School for Social Research, where they are known as one of the most interesting Marxist philosophers and essayists of recent decades. Several of their books have been published by the prestigious publishing house Verso Books –the same that at the end of the ‘70s was publishing authors such as Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Eric Hobsbawm and Judith Butler. Among McKenzie’s texts published by Verso are A Hacker Manifesto (2004) in which the philosopher writes that hackers form a new social class in times in which power is held by those who control information; The Beach Beneath the Street (2018), an essay about the legacy of the SituationistInternational, the organisation of intellectual radicals founded in 1957; and Molecular Red: Theory for The Anthropocene (2016) that deals with the climate crisis, positing a crossover between science fiction, post-humanism and Marxism.
One of Wark’s favourite subjects is new technologies and the socio-cultural changes that they have provoked in the ways we communicate or inform ourselves. So he is omnipresent on social media, often bringing up discussions on Hegel or debating with the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek –king of the media philosophers– about one or other of his comments in his public columns. The way in which public intellectual figures have changed is the theme of their last book General Intellects (2017) in which, as well as selecting twenty-one thinkers who are assembling the puzzle of the 21st century –including Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Judith Butler, Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway, Chantal Mouffe and Paul B. Preciado– Wark proposes replacing the concept of the “intellectual public figure” with “general intellect”.
The book ends with a fragment from Marx’s 1858 work The Fragment on Machines which places intellectual work within an economic system that extracts from it commercial value and seeks to traffic it like any other commodity. “By general intellects I mean people who are, for the most part, employed as academics, but who try with their work to examine general problems linked to the state of the world today”, while at the same time looking for “ways to think and even to act against this commodification that has even found a way of integrating them”, writes Wark. Sartre or De Beauvoir, he writes, could make a living from their writing at a time in which there were education systems capable of producing a mass of readers, but today “it is practically impossible to write intellectually stimulating books and to live from that. One needs a job, and on the whole that means a university”, he argues in General Intellects.
“The narrative about the public intellectual has always been one of decline, going back to Julian Benda’s influential formulation of it as a type. It is always framed as a story of a fall from grace. I think it’s more helpful to think in terms about changing intellectual practices that are shaped by the political economy of making and filtering what we would now call information. This changes a lot over time, and in part because the technics of extracting information out of human bodies changes. I lived through the transition from analog to digital technics, so that was always of interest to me. Back in Australia, in the nineties, I was a ‘public intellectual.’ I had a column in a national newspaper. But it was already late in that era and I could see that the internet would change all that, in both good and bad ways”.
—In the book you argue that the universities have become businesses because academic work has to be undertaken within systems that assess and rank it, and you assert that intellectuals should find ways of reacting against this system of commercialisation. What are the consequences for intellectual work of existing within this contradiction?
—I don’t think there was a golden age. Academic work has for a long time been in the service of state and capital. The particular functions change, however, as this is no longer industrial capitalism. I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that being an academic is labor and the demands on that labor change through time. The demands now are much more fine-grained than they used to be. As the economy moved in the over-developed parts of the world from manufacturing to information business, the place of the university in that political economy changed a lot, and in some ways became very central in a way it was not before.
—How would you describe that change?
—Scholars how are not reporting on the world from outside of it but are inside the very thing that generates the possibility of information having value. Its weirdly true of both technical and cultural commodification. The university is research and development for both. I think there’s a tendency to focus on the content of academic publishing which can be esoteric, rather than the form, which increasingly looks like any other ‘work product’ in the information economy. And perhaps there’s a tendency to want to work on esoteric content precisely because in every other respect the form of labor is just information labor like anywhere else. And like anywhere else, subject to the encroachment of algorithmic evaluation and all the rest.
—Academic work in universities often turns its back on society in general, through a hyper-specialisation of knowledge and a hyper-production of written papers. How can bridges be built between a university and the public space?
—I don’t think it’s helpful to see this as some sort of moral failing of academics. It’s a job. We have to do the job as the job has been designed. No individual scholar has all that much agency about how to do it differently. And these days younger scholars have practically no agency at all about how they get to work. But I think we can engage more with the question of the politics of knowledge. What are these specialized works supposed to be for? Do they accumulate and add up to something? Can they be connected in ways that are useful? Are they supposed to contribute in their own specific ways to a better life? I come from a Marxist tradition where thus used to be a key problem. I don’t however think there some neat reciprocal relation between theory and practice. Nor is there a master-theory or discipline that can assign the roles and relevance to all the others. Those temptations are I think major obstacles. This was why, in Molecular Red I took an interest in Alexander Bogdanov who really was interested in what a kind of comradely relation between different kinds of knowledge, and between knowledge and practice could be. In General Intellects, I was trying to apply that a bit, by showing how different kinds of inquiry can be put next to each other, in their differences, in productive ways.
—The book is made up of essays about intellectuals who are all thinking about very different problems, from the precariousness of work to the commercialisation of emotions. What subjects are most urgent to think about today, when climate change or the robotisation of work seem to foretell a dark future?
—Climate change changes everything. The entry of geological time into historical time is the world historical event in which we’re living. That was why it seemed urgent to me to raise the project of a politics of knowledge. We urgently need collaborative and even comradely practices of relating different kinds of knowledge to each other, and not just across the humanities and qualitative social sciences. General Intellects takes on that part. But it has to extend to the science and technical fields as well.
—More than half a century has passed since May 1968, which was an explosion generated by philosophical ideas, in which various intellectuals took part. In General Intellects you write that nowadays intellectual work “has tenuous and distant relations to social movements and sites of struggle”. How do you explain this?
—You can explain it in terms the sixties as a time of defeat. Or defeats in the plural. 1968 is the year not just of Paris but of Prague and Mexico City and one could say it’s the end of the cultural revolution in China as well. The latter of those is a whole other thing and in the end maybe of greatest world-historical significance. Whole new techniques of transnational production and distribution arose to route around militant workers and counter-hegemonic social movements. The movements of the sixties had an element of embodied and social solidarity and the ruling class responded with a technics that routed around that. This is why I’m not nostalgic for a rehash of 1968. It was a defeat. The romance of it is disabling. I think we need a much broader sense of what liberation movements have attempted and why they lost, across a much wider swathe of history and geography.
—In the much-commented essay “Inventing the Future” (2017), the economist Nick Srnicek and the sociologist Alex Williamson denounce a lack of ideas in politics, where they see an incapacity to imagine the future and inventing new realities. Should there be some sort of an alliance between the world of ideas and politics in order to address this deficiency?
—I have more to say about that in Capital is Dead, which comes out in English in October. Part of it is I think getting wedded to language that is often not thought about much and was not intentionally chosen. Is ‘neoliberalism’ an adequate description of an historical stage of capitalism or does it focus on the strong features (superstructural rather than infrastructural ones, as it happens). Is this even capitalism any more or is it something worse? Is it a new mode of production based on extracting surplus information and controlling both the value chain and populations through surveillance? Has that given rise to additional kinds of class relation and class exploitation? I think these at least have to be open questions. I think we scurry back to familiar language as a shortcut to doing a deeper intervention into the politics of knowledge. That is no longer sustainable. My challenge to Nick and Alex would be though: well if you want something more imaginative, then you have to be prepared to let go of received ideas and habits of language altogether rather than just modify them a bit.
—You include Žižek as one of the twenty-one intellectuals of the 21st century treated like rock-stars because of their fame. Žižek recently wrote in the British magazine The Spectator that “Transgender dogma is naive is and incompatible with Freud”. What’s the risk associated with having “pop intellectuals” pontificating in the mainstream press?
— I got t-shirts made with the trans flag and “Incompatible with Freud” on them. You can see it on Instagram at @mckenziewark3000. That’s all I have to say about that. I just think this model of public intellectual as the white guy speaking for universality is dead and buried. Nobody gets to be the master thinker anymore, who is a proxy for the Real. What we need is comradely knowledge production. I think Zizek was the sign of the passing of that model because he did it in a comic mode. Sartre was not a comedian. It still seemed viable, in his mass media age, to have a single mass media celebrity who was the conscience of the world. Well first time as tragedy, second time as farce. Zizek was the farce.