Starting From the Practice: Rethinking Anthropocene Through Low Theory

Updated: Sep 23, 2018

By Filippo Greggi.

McKenzie Wark is an eccentric guy. Casual clothes, painted nails and a baseball hat aren’t the first things which you imagine a university professor could dress. Unless you are facing a man for whom life, theory and practice are at one, and this is the case. In some sense we could say that his weird features follow the centrifugal and original instances of his critical thought. His studies touch different fields - such as ecology, situationism, hacktivism and contemporary art – and he has always added to his works a significant political activism. This is probably the reason why he has still something relevant to say about our times by means of a multi-faceted book (Molecular Red: A Theory for the Anthropocene, Verso 2015) which has already been released for three years. A book that gave the subject for his lecture held in Oslo at Litteraturhuset in the end of august.

As the subtitle reports, Molecular Red was intended to give adequate tools for a better understanding and a more proper answer to the Anthropocene – the new era in which humankind and nature have entered. A term coined to indicate that destinies of both human beings and the earth have never been so strictly dependent from each other. Human production, pollution and exploitation of natural resources dramatically interfere with non-human world (whether it be organic or inorganic) framing doomsday scenarios. Nevertheless, the beginning of this detrimental relation between humanity and nature has not to be undertaken as a sudden break, rather as a long path (parallel to the capitalism’s one) filled with warning signs, premonitions, criminal policies and defeats by those who had already discerned their disastrous consequence [1].

The question that the author, in a particularly hot summer afternoon in Oslo (climate change attends the event too), addressed us is: “What can we learn from history and losses?”. Or, in a more explicit way, he is questioning us how we can deal with a capitalistic economic system that, in the name of profit and consumption, put species at the edge of the extinction. Taken from this point of view, the greatest defeat thus occurred, in this field of opposing forces, is the one of the international labour movement, across the XIX and XX centuries, with his efforts of creating a new kind of society, more equal and sustainable. As Wark says: “Sometimes to take three steps forward one has to take two steps back, to find the materials for going on, but in a new way.”

A key notion, taken by Wark from the past for a better explanation of the thread that binds industry, production and environment, is Metabolic Rift, as it is outlined in the third volume of Marx’s Capital: a break which occurs between human and nature as an effect of the abuse of the latter perpetrated by the former. What we extract from the soil, for instance, has not sufficient time to breed and, in parallel, the waste of our production - which is obtained from natural elements as well - ends up in the atmosphere and oceans not being reintegrated in a proper biological process.

When Wark talks, you feel captured in an uninterrupted flux of ideas, concepts and references, seeing in action an overflowing thought that can hardly be defined and fixed in a precise branch of knowledge. As a result, his main interest is, as he claims, in low theory - speculative writings that emerge outside the formal centres - rather than high theory - formulated in academies and entailing a dogmatic interpretation of the world. Molecular Red, therefore, is centred on this kind of authors, such as Alexander Bogdanov, Andrei Platonov, Kim Stanley Robinson, Donna Haraway: great thinkers, little-known, all with a certain propensity to imagine new utopian possibilities and used by Wark to find common alternatives raised within the two greatest empire of the twentieth century.

For practical matters the lecture focused on the Soviet ones, which are also the principal references of the first part of the book. Through them we can clearly see Wark’s idiosyncratic method of following subterranean streams of thought that can still be relevant for us at present. We thus have Bogdanov’s radically new configuration of society and knowledge based on the belief that knowing is made through practice. A refrain followed by the assertion that collective labour is, at the same time, in and against nature and it transforms the latter at the level of the totality. The conclusion is clear: in order to create a harmonic co-existence with nature, humankind has to reorganize labour within a collective and self-organized framework where practice is sustained by an interdisciplinary theoretical work, while theory is driven by practical needs. A collective operation in which hierarchy and command are not included.

These are the guidelines assumed by a human colony sent on Mars in the Bogdanov’s utopian novel Red Star. An idea that particularly fascinates Wark, who has an original conception of utopias. They, according to him, are real, based upon current situations and they give different and practical ways of thinking into problems. They propose radical and apparently impossible alternatives, when concrete political attempts are defeated. Bogdanov, who was Lenin’s rival in the Bolshevik party, had first-hand experience of this kind of loss when he was expelled from the faction he co-founded and, some years later, got arrested for having criticized the Soviet political regime.

Andrej Platonov, the other Russian author mentioned by Wark, faced a similar fate. Involved in Proletkult (an experimental Soviet artistic institution founded, by the others, by Alexander Bogdanov), he started his career as journalist and novelist. Even though he was a talented writer, he abandoned his main activity to study hydrology and engineering as proof of his interest in environmental issues, born of the devastating famine and drought occurred in Russia in those years. From this experience he probably derived his conviction that nature is not providential.

Is there something that Anthropocene made more clear than the fact that nature does not fix itself by the passing of time? A tough awareness which requires a common response. Following Wark’s reading, in Platonov’s books is still present the myth of revolution for which only those who share the same danger can be comrades. The challenge for us is as follows: given that we are in the same danger - a potentially disruptive climate change – how can we face it in a collective and effective way? Whether it be your answer, it is not hard to recognise the effort operated by Wark in outlining an original critical tool for the Anthropocene, which could involve a broader active reaction, based upon a radical rethinking of work organization and human position in nature.

When I listened to him I could not avoid thinking about Charles Saunders Peirce, the father of pragmatism, and the maxim of this philosophical movement for which the whole conception of an object is nothing but the conception of its practical effects [2]. I don’t know if pragmatism is one of the many subtexts Wark had in his mind during the writing of this book. However, I think he moves in that direction, trying to give consistency to a notion, as the one of Anthropocene, often conceived as abstract, only able to provoke a vague feeling of indignation not followed by proper actions. In this, I guess, lies the importance of this book: in Wark's attempt to enucleate the several practical effects that Anthropocene, as object of our conception, could imply, in order to prompt a concrete stance in the world.

Someone could be destabilised by the way these reflections are presented: several references and theories borrowed from a vast range of domains, such as music, linguistic, internet culture, philosophy and science fiction utopias. Someone else could even say that all this is too elaborate, if not absurd. Wark actually reflects the complexity of our times, totally engaging into them both with his body and thought.


[1] Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us (New York: Verso 2016)

[2] Charles S. Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878): 294, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_12/January_1878/Illustrations_of_the_Logic_of_Science_II.