Cyborgs and Comrades

Reviewing McKenzie Wark 'new-old' critical theory for the anthropocene, Rowan Fortune finds a rich account of interwoven theories and socialist traditions that merit serious consideration.

10 July 2020

The same elements existing in flows, strata and assemblages can be organized in a molar or a molecular mode. The molar order corresponds to signification that delimits objects, subjects, presentations and their reference systems. Whereas the molecular order is that of flows, becomings, phase transitions and intensities. ~ Felix Guattari

Climate change represents an unprecedented challenge to socialists to reevaluate their traditions. Understanding this, McKenzie Wark begins the spectacular Molecular Red by urging a cautious optimism, ‘the greatest accelerations in the life of our species-being have happened in moments of limit, if never before on such a scale.’ The book then stitches together a ‘new-old’ critical theory for what is dubbed the end of pre-history with the coming of the anthropocene. This is a speculative, multi-disciplinary and challenging work, which draws from the Russian Marxists Alexander Bogdanov and Andrey Platonov to discuss labor and nature as well as Californian theorist and author (respectively) Donna Haraway and Kim Stanley Robinson. In so doing, we get a fascinating if theoretically dense treatment of twenty-first century science and utopia.

What is being put forward is a multivalent historical ark in which ‘the collapse of the Soviet system merely prefigures the collapse of the American one.’ Wark writes of the Carbon Liberation Front, the one liberation movement that succeeded without limit, and the four unconvincing attempts that have so far come to the fore to remedy its effects in the form of markets, technology, social change and romantic-primitivism. In essence, the book is an attempt to offer a rival theory of the anthropocene and to discuss its implications for our future:

The Anthropocene is a series of metabolic rifts, where one molecule after another is extracted by labor and technique to make things for humans, but the waste products don’t return so that the cycle can renew itself. The splits deplete, the seas recede, the climate alters, the gyre widens: a world on fire.

Crucially, the Anthropocene for Wark is ‘not something to leave in the hands of those in charge, given how badly the ruling class of our time has mishandled this end of pre-history’. Bogdanov, the ‘Red Hamlet’, was Lenin’s vanquished rival and the first to posit a view of our crisis that returns power to those below. His main Marxist insight, according to Wark, was that: ‘Our species-being is as builders of worlds.’ And his ideas rested on an understanding nature as ‘that which labor encounters.’ Wark takes on Bogdanov’s monist-philosophy of tektology (ways of organising knowledge, ‘a practice of making worldviews’) and prolekult (practices of culture), conceived in response to the writings of Ernst Mach and opposed to Lenin’s distinct dialectical materialism. Bogdanov’s views are summarised as ‘the worker and engineer alliance, the labor point of view, the neither dialectical nor materialist Marxism, and the qualified optimism about the task of revolution.’ It is a perspective that sees even Marx as too one-sided, a philosophy not of the labourer’s perspective however much it advanced an understanding of production.

For Wark, shorn of his authoritarianism, Bogdanov overcomes ‘the sterile attempts to construct a materialist metaphysics’ of Friedrich Engels and Georgi Plekhanov, permitting instead ‘a realist approach to sensation itself[…] the practice of knowledge as organized sensation.’ For Bogdanov, ‘The philosophy of a class is the highest form of its collective consciousness.’ Therefore the tektology and prolekult of religious or bourgeois ideology are much like outmoded sciences. This was narrativised in Bogdanov’s utopias, Red Star and The Engineer Menni, which chart routes out of capitalism and a as-then speculative ecological disaster, acknowledging that any ‘utopia after Darwin had to be more of a storm-tossed ship than an eternal city on the hill.’ Anti-dogmatic and nuanced about ideology, Bogdanov and his Prolekult movement is Wark’s main point of departure:

Prolekult was a movement with a mission: to change labor, by merging art and work; to change everyday life, by developing the collaborative life within the city and changing gender roles and norms; and to change affect, to create new structures of feeling, to overcome the emotional friction of organizing the labor that in turn organises nature around its appetites.

From Bogdanov, Wark turns to Platonov. Bogdanov developed the notion of the persona of the worker from Marx, but Platonov contributes to this ‘the persona of the comrade. He does not simply assume a universality of the worker point of view, as is sometimes the case in Marx and Bogdanov. He is interested in the struggle to become comrades together.’ Wark reads Platonov’s fictions as historical allegory, through the lens of Marx, Lenin and Stalin; as analysis of everyday life, through Henri Lefebvre, Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord, and as a development of tektology, though Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky and, of course, Bogdanov. For Platonov, ‘comrades are the ones with which we share life’s task of shoring up its impossible relation to a recalcitrant world.’ Wark ends part one with this utopia of camaraderie set against the backdrop of the crumbling Soviet Union.

Part two turns to a now crumbling United States and the accelerationist Californian Ideology, ‘a feral cross between cyber-culture and counter-culture, where the disruptive power of “tech” is supposed to power the freeing of any and every resource for commodification.’ She picks out Donna Haraway and Kim Stanley Robinson as critics of this trend who nonetheless do ‘not seek any refuge from it in resigning to the worn clichés of a bourgeois liberal humanism.’ Haraway is the closest US approximation of a Bogdanovite, especially in her collaborative (tektological) research; Wark therefore devotes attention to her influences and contributors: Paul Feyerabend (who is to Haraway as Mach was to Bogdanov) as well as her colleague Karen Barad and student Paul Edwards. Feyerabend grounds all of these in the principle that there can be ‘no unthinking border between science and folk knowledge, sentience and sapience.’

Wark sees in Feyerabend’s devaluing of a strict scientific method a mirror of Bogdanov’s ‘comradely efforts at collaboration through experimental substitutions between particular efforts.’ Haraway, who shares Bogdanov’s emphasis on the need for surpluses in order to better research what is possible within the remit of humanity, and building on Feyerabend’s anarchic approach to scientific method, is operating within a context saturated by just such abundance. That is, unlike Bogdanov or Platonov. She therefore examines a higher-order set of problems than mere scarcity as a limit; i.e. the dual character of capitalist progress. In this way she overcomes the nature-nurture debate not by stressing a reduction to culture (to superstructure) over biology, but that (in Haraway’s words) ‘the material-semiotic tissues are inextricably intermeshed.’ Culture and nature change one another. This forms the basis of her unique historical development of Marx’s handling of fetishism.

To Marx’s commodity fetish (rooted in private property, whereby relations between people appear as relations between things), Haraway adds the corporeal fetish (rooted in intellectual property, whereby the relations between human and nonhuman processes appear as relations between the code of the gene): ‘Just as the commodity fetish makes all things property to be exchanged, so too the corporeal fetish makes all of life a thing to be commodified through ownership of its code.’ This is how a triumphant postwar liberal universalism becomes a neoliberal and reductive sociobiology. Against this, and rather than attempting to disentangle categories such as workers and women from social and technical relations, Haraway proposes the cyborg as (in Wark’s summary) ‘affinities rather than identities, hybrids of human and other organics, information systems, ergonomic laboring, producing and desiring.’ Wark therefore suggests a move from prolekult to cyborgkult. Wark and Haraway see cyborgkult as a timely utopian extension of Marx:

The disenchanting corrosion of all that is solid into the molecular abrades more than one way. If there is no thing-in-itself, no scientific-realist absolute, then there’s no prior and originary subject for a social movement either.

This eliminates any hierarchy of oppression in which to root historical salvation, and in Haraway’s words means that now robbed ‘of identity, the bastard race teaches about the power of the margins.’ Wark compares the orphan of Platonov’s fiction with the cyborg of Haraway’s philosophy: insiders enmeshed in, but pushing against, ‘reified relations not of their making.’

While Haraway worked on cyborgs, Karen Barad developed another feminist tektology around physics, focussed on the idea and metaphor of diffraction, waves as ‘forms passing through fields.’ In Barad’s words, ‘the relational nature of difference.’ On the question of nature and culture, then, a diffractionalist approach might perceive ‘how they interact, how they might in part be mutually produced by each other, yet not alike.’ Barad’s epistemology is realist, but it is not Newtonian. Instead, Niels Bohr’s understanding of the apparatuses role in producing objectivity is adopted; a broader interaction is accounted for, to explain competing objectivities. Wark explains the two approaches as rival realisms:

To be a realist about the object of knowledge requires putting oneself in a quasi-Godlike position, outside of the process. To be a realist about the process of knowledge requires bracketing off the idea of the noumenal object and engaging closely with practices and their particular points of view.

Mach’s monist Emperico-criticism was sensory, Bogdanov’s tektology was based on labour, and Barad/Bohr focus on the apparatus. None of these are relativist. Wark argues that they focus instead on making knowledge, relations of production and forces of production respectively, but Barad also rejects Bohr’s reification of the apparatus, and locates it in ‘the larger world of productive forces and relations.’ This thereby brings together the different embedded perspectives. It produces Barad’s particular conception of agency, not as a preexisting attribute, but as ‘“doing” or “being” in its interactivity.’ Wark calls this ‘a basic metaphor for comradely cyborg labor for our time.’ This model, however, is challenged by the cataclysmic threat of the Carbon Liberation Front:

The study of climate called into being a whole infrastructure of discrete apparatuses, of distinctive cuts. Climate science thus poses some fairly novel problems as to what a science is or should be, and not least what a comradely, corporative science could be.

It is on this problem that Paul Edwards complements Barad and Haraway. Edwards insists that we must do away with the idea of a divine natural order the excludes us, as ‘cyborgian selves are at last forced to face, with sober senses, our un-kind relations with the real.’ He elaborates a new infrastructure with which this science is conducted, from the different histories (including specifically nationalist and imperialist histories) and developments of forecasting, climatology and meteorology, made ‘embedded, extensive, standardised, modular, and[…] visible when it fails.’ Understanding this provides for a new critical theory of the Anthropocene, which Wark characterises as ‘a revised tektology in which a humanist style of thought might collaborate with science without futile attempts to legislate for them, and yet without accepting a naive scientific realism either.’

The final chapter of Molecular Red returns again to utopia, to a Californian utopianism that itself works through the philosophies Wark has arrived at in Haraway’s collaborative project. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is in many ways a response to Bogdanov’s Red Star, ‘a work about Tektology’, but Wark relates it most directly as an anti-Robinson Crusoe. Wark argues that Daniel Defoe’s book ‘organises the bourgeois worldview with a forward-slanting grammar in which time is segmented and arranged serially. Robinson confronts this, does that, attains this benefit.’ On the other hand, the Mars Trilogy’s ‘ambition is the invention of a grammar that might come after capitalist realism.’ Robinson’s insight, then, is that a ‘new structure of feeling has to come into existence, not after but before the new world.’ That is, the struggle of comradely labour simultaneously reshapes the world and those creating it.

This finally feeds into Wark’s summary, which is a bold challenge for a Cyborg International:

One which already possesses in imagination the means and the will to undo the workings of the Anthropocene. One with nothing for it but to build the new living world within the ruins of the old one. We all know this civilization can’t last. Let’s make another.


Rowan Fortune is a West London activist and student of utopia; his anthology of utopic fiction, Citizens of Nowhere, demonstrates the genre's enduring relevance.

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