Re-Imagining Our World Together: On McKenzie Wark’s lecture in Oslo

By Riccardo Biffi.

In his public talk presenting the themes and theses tackled extensively in his book Molecular Red, author and professor McKenzie Wark invited the audience to rethink the challenge of imagining our world, both in the aspect of Nature and mankind, to accommodate a proper analysis of our times: the so-called epoch of the Anthropocene, in which human activities impact the natural being of the world and its ecosystems to a point of irreversible alteration. Considering the continuous depletion of natural resources, climate change and its disruptive effects on the ecosystems that have been feeding humanity since its dawning times, considering the universality of global supply chains and new unheard-of ways of labor exploitation, once trusted but now old disciplinary models of world-understanding can no longer suffice, and the pressure is on us to produce an adequate – even if late – response. A re-orientation of our intellectual grasp of the state of the world is no easy task, but Wark suggests taking a glance at past experiences and experiments in the field, resorting to Marxian intuitions and early Soviet literature and revolutionary thinking, for enlightening comparisons with contemporary phenomena and inspiration for a change of pace in the discourse on the Anthropocene.

Thus, Wark invites us to consider: what can we learn from history’s losers? What is the nature of class society in the 21st century? What if this isn’t even capitalism anymore, but maybe something worse? What are the current modes of production that have given rise to a new ruling class, one that isn’t even textbook-capitalist anymore, or human? What if information is the new ‘control of the means of production’? These are some of the questions we should ask ourselves in order to understand our place in the world, in the global economy, and our position towards and within Nature, Wark suggests.

And what are our answers? According to Wark, we live in the time of the complete defeat of the international labour/proletarian movements and of the once compelling but now outdated narratives on the world they brought to light. Today’s modes of production and sustainability are working exclusively on a global scale and are profoundly fossil fuel dependent. Looking back, we can notice that Marx introduced the intuitive notion of Metabolic Rift, a phenomenon that consists of a productive process that disrupts the distribution of a natural element in ways that undermine the productive process itself. In his case this effect regarded the distribution of nitrogen and phosphorus during the mass urbanization that took place in England in the 18th century, but this concept is applicable today to carbon and its global extraction, consumption and release in the atmosphere, ending in climate change. At the same time, a new prevalent means of production seems to have reached the top of the wealth-making chain: the commoditisation of information, especially online – which energy demand, one might add, is equal to France’s – bringing along new ruling and proletarian classes, and new ways of labour management and exploitation. It sure doesn’t look appealing, and as the metabolic rift, it can’t end well.

Then, if this is a brief and certainly incomplete glance at the contemporary world, with many more problems left out, how can one make sense of all this and much more that can be noticed in describing the times we live in? To bring together all of this knowledge, information and descriptions one would need not only a theory, but a way to globally understand, “circulate and coordinate knowledge itself”, argues Wark. We should find an international language and space, maybe even a new ontology of information. Better, who could be coming up with such thinking? Who could accomplish this service of public imagination? Once again, it’s the artist, to use the term as broadly as possible.

Indeed, Wark suggests that we turn to some early Soviet heretical Marxist and their writings, especially novels, given that we are looking for some insight on how to rethink our spot in the Anthropocene. The first relevant case can be represented by Aleksandr Bogdanov, an early 20th century Bolshevik intellectual whose background in natural sciences and medicine was no limit for his interests in what could be called “sociology of knowledge”. Bogdanov’s critique of the imaginative phenomenon of “substitution”, that is thinking of the world as akin to the processes of one’s own field of expertise, or understandable only through the models of one’s own discipline, is still extremely applicable today. Furthermore, Bogdanov advocated strongly in favour of the de-centralization of information exchanges for better results in bringing to light the then needed new, revolutionized aesthetic of the world created in 1917. This approach ended up in the initial realization of Bogdanov’s cultural project: the Proletkult, short for proletarian culture organisation, created to support and favour the cultural advancement of the proletariat through the promotion of its own local proper proletarian art and aesthetic creations, for a genuinely revolutionized imaginary of the new world. The project wanted to foster truly proletarian art, made by the proletarians, for the proletariat, to express the new founding ideas and imaginative conceptualizations of the world, without a single touch of bourgeoisie culture. Bogdanov’s Proletkult met obstruction from the central government and the Party in the twenties, though, and was soon abandoned. An outcome that could be interpreted as a clue of the incompatibility between a dispersed network of independent cultural centres and the dreadfully strict central monopoly on cultural planning and information that characterized the Soviet Union in the successive decades.

Another source could be found in Andrej Platonov, early Soviet writer whose literature hardly landed on the printed page during his lifetime, distinguishable for his narrative style. His unusual perspective takes the reader in stories told from the rock bottom of a transitioning or early Soviet society: orphans, or anybody lacking even the requirements to be considered a proletarian, become the point of view of choice. On top of that, and most importantly for us, his stories dwell on the nature and presence of a non-anthropomorphic protagonist: noise. Noise as the conceptual fog in which the characters are submerged during their struggle to make sense of the world they live in; maybe a representation of how noisy and so complicated it is to plan out our situation and to organize labour in order to face the common danger together. Noise as an honest acknowledgement of the troubles of large-scale imagining and problem solving, realistically counterbalancing the naïve and optimistic narrative of the “we’ll technologize our way out of climate change and the energy or information crisis; someone will come up with an app for that” so common today that hijacks the platforms of discourse upon which serious conversations about our present, the world and our future in the Anthropocene should take place. The kind of much needed, compelling conversations that instead should bring about the so-called “Response-Ability” that Donna Haraway advocates for: “the cultivation of the capacity of response in the context of living and dying in worlds for which one is for, with others”1, as she says. Doesn’t this contemporary concept resonate with the philosophy and aims of Bogdanov’s Proletkult? Lastly, according to Wark’s reading, Platonov is so relatable and relevant today also because in his literature “Nature is never providential, never bountiful: Nature too is poor, has nothing and wants nothing but to be comrades with us and with itself” – a perspective that resonates with one of the core acknowledgements of the anthropocenic view: Nature isn’t an endless resource, and it isn’t ours to begin with.

This isn’t a down-to-the-words reading of Platonov and Bogdanov’s œuvres, and Wark concedes that. Nevertheless, he insists, it is one that makes them newly relevant today. They do speak to the present and echo with late 20th and early 21st century’s understanding of Nature. Maybe the Soviet societal structure collapse in the nineties is just an anticipation of the collapse of our current socio-natural system, which is indisputably unsustainable, and we’ll then meet our own period of complete disorganisation and renewed understanding after the collapse. Nevertheless we want to think that there must be a more pleasant outlook for us, maybe one in which a more suitable and coordinated understanding of the world in the Anthropocene will stir the ship towards milder waters. We don’t know yet.

What we know now is that one huge organisation, the Soviet Union, failed and the other one, global capitalism, is derailing, has lost control of its impact on the same Nature it feeds upon. Wark’s lecture certainly can leave us with more than a few interesting questions open for debate, but surely these following central points and remarks are well argued for: some early and suppressed readings coming from the Soviet intellectual milieu can be relevant (and indeed they are) to show us an alternative way to imagine in coherence and coordination the world we live in. And to stay true to Wark’s vibrant final call to the audience, we should state that it is maybe time for us to stop mourning for the failed and passed era of the international labour movement; it is indeed time to think cross-thematically, to rearrange the ways we intertwine knowledge from various fields, high theory and low theory, hard knowledge and art and literature. Once again and maybe more than ever, we need to expand our horizons of thought and rethink the basis and structure of our understanding of the world to grasp its now still obscure original modes of production and the undeniable situation of the global metabolic rift. It seems like it’s time to move forward from inconsequential lip-service to the cause of a better understanding of the world in the Anthropocene. And in this endeavour, Wark’s final invitation is to convince ourselves that time’s ripe to go beyond words: the contemporary discourse needs to be carried out on a multi-medial, disseminated level and to develop in a cross-disciplinary and cross-modal cultural environment. Ultimately, Wark’s invitation recalls Donna Haraway’s one regarding bringing the ever-outdated practice of play in the spotlight, because of its propositional, experimental nature; because it can be a way to propose new abstraction, to try engaging in new “we”s for the common storytelling to be adopted about our dangerous present and uncertain future; playing with scientific knowledge, with wording and imaginative understanding, the factual, the fantastic, and the metaphorical; because artistic expression, as play, is always a two-ways road of cross-modal communication and active, engaging reception.

Then maybe Bogdanov’s Proletkult represents a methodological intuition that is so relevant to rethink our place in the world today. Maybe what we can learn from Wark’s research and Haraway’s invitations is that we need is to be more like intellectual dowsers, sounding the ground that is history and cultures, our common quotidian life and its experiences, in search of new and unconventional expressive clues, often overseen sources, alive ones – ursprüngen, to pay homage to Walter Benjamin’s verbal intuition on this particular matter, almost a century old – in order to imagine the world anew, and better grasp Nature and humanity from an anthropocenic perspective.

McKenzie Wark’s lecture was held at Litteraturhuset, Oslo, 31st august 2018


McKenzie Wark, FORART Lecture 2018, at LitteraturHuset, Oslo, August 31, 2018 (https://litteraturhuset.no/en/arrangement/forart-lecture-2018/)

Jaqueling Ronson, Capitalism Broke Earth, Let’s Protect Mars, interview to McKenzie Wark, Inverse, October 27, 2016 (https://www.inverse.com/article/22748-molecular-red-anthropocene-climate-change-mars-colony-capitalism-climate-change)

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulhucene, Donna Haraway in conversation with Martha Kenney in Art in the Anthropocene, ed. by H. Davis & E. Turpin, Open Humanities Press, London, 2015 – Quote (1), pg. 257.