Metabolic Survivors: On McKenzie Wark’s “Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century”

By Travis DiehlNovember 25, 2020

Metabolic Survivors: On McKenzie Wark’s “Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century”

Sensoria by McKenzie Wark

ON THE COVER OF McKenzie Wark’s new book, Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century, hundreds of silver points condense into a picture of an elephant. Wark turns to the parable of the blind scholars and the elephant in her introduction: each scholar, touching tail or tusk or trunk, misapprehends the whole. But even in concert, she writes, no number of scholars can ever know every fold and organelle of the animal — or even if elephants as such exist. Wark expresses this problem in the structure of her book: each section is a close reading of (usually) a single major work by one of 19 contemporary thinkers (interlaced with citations of dozens more). These critical digests are grouped under Aesthetics, Ethnographics, and Technics, although their subjects work in diverse fields, from art and philosophy to sociology and tech. The shape of Wark’s own project emerges only gradually, as she shunts among and spars with each new thinker. She doesn’t absorb their theories into her own, nor does she reconcile their differences. Instead, she pursues a kind of theory-praxis that explores the “edges of ways of knowing,” assembling them into a broad but low-res image, a tensile structure of points and counterpoints — Wark’s own perspective included.

This diverse assemblage of thinkers corresponds to what Wark described in a previous excavation of contemporary class relations, A Hacker Manifesto (2004), as the “hacker class,” the producers of novelty and the intellectual laborers of the information economy. These programmers, musicians, artists, academics, and other “creatives” are exploited by the “vectoralist class” who, like capitalists in the industrial world, control the distribution of cognitive products. Sensoria’s omnivorous scope implicitly discounts the dualism of Marxist class relations that Wark has explicitly disputed elsewhere. Wark seeks to slip through the neoliberal notion that “there is no alternative” to capitalism, while at the same time foreclosing the almost mystical resolutions put forth by accelerationists and traditional Marxists. Wark sees in the vectoralist/hacker dynamic an opportunity to rewire the machine of “industrial” academia into a livable future. If there is an alternative, it will be fractal, derivative — it will come not after or before capitalism, but from within it; or from within, as Wark often puts it, “something worse.”

And so, the incomplete, irreconcilable image of the world of capital as an elephant must be qualified: blind scholars or otherwise, we are not feeling the elephant’s leathery skin, but living inside it. As Wark argues in General Intellects (2017), a book with a similar “survey” format, “public intellectuals” can no longer make a living as such, and so join an increasingly financialized academia, where they must do their work amid the toils of commodity production. What Wark’s selection of thinkers, in both Sensoria and General Intellects, share is their embeddedness: they begin with the system’s viscera, gore, and bone, and work horizontally, peripatetically, even humbly, to describe its larger structures and their interfaces. Sensoria holds out a way for cultural laborers to survive amid the carnage through a sense of common cause. She starts with Sianne Ngai as an example of someone who moves beyond the “eternal” Marxism of the Frankfurt School to derive a theory of the contemporary commodity, pushing past Kant’s antiqued categories of the sublime and the beautiful to a fresh taxonomy of the zany, the cute, and the interesting. A “zany” or “interesting” approach, Wark argues, might allow critique to “still influence public judgment, crossing the border between general and specialized.” Crucially, this influence occurs not against the commodity form but through it.

Each thinker in Sensoria likewise imagines alternatives without imagining the escape, erasure, or end of capitalism. Wark attempts the same in her own discipline — call it critical theory or media studies — by ranging over the terrain surveyed by these other scholars. Unlike A Hacker Manifesto or even General Intellects, Sensoria does not assert a new theory. Quickly but calmly demonstrating the concept of nondisciplinary symbiosis elaborated in Wark’s previous books, Sensoria attempts to recruit contemporary thinkers to the “common task of enduring in the world provisionally, incompletely, named the Anthropocene.” For Wark, the term “Anthropocene” has too much of the tang of crisis, whereas the condition it names is rather simple, and more profound: the inextricability of human life and ecology, the collapse of one following from that of the other. There is, in fact, no alternative to Earth.

Theories of human catastrophe and postcolonialism occupy the middle of Sensoria’s three sections, “Ethnographics.” From Wang Hui’s analysis of “China’s Twenty-First Century,” to Jackie Wang’s anatomy of the American prison-industrial complex, to Achille Mbembe’s ironically Hegelian appraisal of the “contingent, dispersed, and powerless” subjectivities that arise in African ex-colonies, the thinkers Wark surveys in this section draw unflinching diagrams of what a previous generation of scholars tended to treat as monolithic, abstract evils. Wark points out that some cultures have already endured the apocalypse. “Now that the world most of us have known is ending,” she writes, “it might be time to pay more attention to the experience of those whose world has already ended — indigenous peoples.” Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s 2009 book Cannibal Metaphysics explores Amerindian myth as a way to detach “the human” from “the human species,” thus allowing us to think in the gap between human and natural worlds — or, in his terms, between different forms of nature. For Wark, this entanglement, the fact that endings and “the end” coexist, is both a dragging doom and a way to approach the ruins.

Wark’s treatment of Afrofuturist thinker Kodwo Eshun (under the heading “Aesthetics”) shows how the images of “low theory” incorporate and inform technology: Eshun networks music, technology, and race via aesthetic forms both actual (techno and house) and imagined (androids). Following the notion that, if Blackness is defined against “white” humanity, then Blackness might not want anything to do with “the human” after all. Wark writes that “what appeals to Eshun” is “that Blackness can accelerate faster away from the human. It’s an embrace rather than a refutation of the slave-machine figure.” Throughout the book, Wark is careful to maintain the materialism of the information economy’s “third nature” (abandoning her claim in A Hacker Manifesto that “information is that which can escape the commodity form altogether”), tethering the “virtual” to both the meatspace of identity and the physical infrastructure of the internet. Her reading of Lisa Nakamura’s Digitizing Race (2007), for example, shows how “the postracial project” of neoliberalism and early cyberculture’s “belief in the separation of online from meatspace being, as if the differences and injustices of the latter could just be left behind,” missed the mutual feedback between virtual and physical space in the new digital vernaculars. The cybernetic appears in Sensoria as a place where images and reality create each other. Even though technocapitalism may be an ethereal, pointillist creature, made up of “data” and “images,” the city and the nation still play a role in controlling access, as Wark makes clear in her discussions of Benjamin Bratton’s theory of planetary-scale computing and Keller Easterling’s study of modular architecture. The materiality and spatiality of the digital are commonplaces in the “overdeveloped” world. The section on Technics is a ready example of the kind of realism Wark advocates, in that artists and sociologists alike should remain aware of the material provenance of their laptops.

Wark concludes the book with a reading of Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media (2015), bracketing the “Anthropocene” that gives Sensoria its urgency with a sense of deep time, while also looping Technics back into Aesthetics and Ethnographics. In the artist Robert Smithson, Parikka sees his notion that media come not from humanity but from the earth. “From the point of view of the rocks themselves,” Wark paraphrases, “computers are a working-out of the potentials of a vast array of elements and compounds that took billions of years to make but only decades to mine and commodify — and discard.” According to Wark, Marx named, but could not foresee, the extent to which the pillaging of ecology would go beyond depleted farmland to include a general terraforming. Parikka and others scale Marx’s concept of the “metabolic rift” to the present: fracking, global warming, mountainous landfills, garbage gyres; the rare metals of smartphones and the coal that powers the smartphone factories; the fine, toxic dust that miners and manufacturers inhale into the media of their lungs — all irrevocably moved from the ground, to the surface, to the air, and beyond.

The concept of metabolism — the metabolic rift, as if shunted — emerges in Sensoria as Wark’s central metaphor for the recycling and reuse of siloed ideas. Wark doesn’t want to give capitalism the satisfaction of being essential and therefore “eternal” — a framework that confines thinkers to retreading 19th-century class dualisms, waiting for the someday negation of capitalism. She writes that thinkers need to forget Marx — just as Marx had to “forget” Western philosophy — in order to observe the novelty of the contemporary world. Wark wants to trade the “bad poetry” of phrases like “neoliberal capitalism” for what she calls, in her 2015 book Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, a “poetics and technics for the organization of knowledge.” Wark insists on an understanding of capitalism as dynamic, always updating itself. She emphasizes that the thrust of Marx’s “general intellect” was the way intellectual labor is harvested to design the next piece of extractive hardware. She wants to be a part of that process.

For Wark, the Anthropocene is a design problem. The role of the general intellect, of the hacker class, of all intellectual workers, is not to smash or accelerate but to participate: to help design new forms, to be incorporated into what comes next. The goal of networked scholarship, she writes in General Intellects, is to “extrapolate from what we know of how metabolic systems of all kinds operate, and design a better one — a survivable metabolism.” The “common task” that Sensoria models is how to feed this metabolism: how to be chewed up and digested, but survive, in a way that allows us to reorganize the elephantine body of capital from the inside out. This is also an artistic problem. Rather than the world-beating theories of the 20th century, the contemporary artist-critic models a humble, symbiotic survivalism, driven by both understanding and ambivalence. A new poetics must produce not just commodities but new meanings, and so make reasons to endure.


Travis Diehl is a writer, editor, and critic. He is online editor at X-TRA.

LARB Contributor

Travis Diehl is a freelance critic and writer and online editor at X-TRA. His work appears in The Baffler, Art in America, frieze, Artforum, art-agenda / e-flux journal, East of Borneo, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital’s Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.


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