Photo Credit: Z. Walsh

PART II: SIDEWAY MOVES – creeping out strategies

This two part interview was held on January 28th 2022 with writer McKenzie Wark by Brazilian publication Revista Rosa and the online platform Weird Economies.

You can find the first part here.

RR-W.E: While historically, under free market capitalism, we’ve had a price system model, which , simply speaking, is when value is attributed to supply and demand, currently we are observing  how an attention economy organized by big data is becoming more and more disruptive . Going back to a topic we discussed before,  concerning the production of new forms of subjectivity and the process through which attention has become monetized, could you explain how you see this development of a price system to an attention economy?

MW: To be able to quantify and monetize attention is probably a key piece of that, which rests on the assumption that attention is scarce. You can think of it in economic terms:  information has turned out to be problematic because information, once you have the techniques to do it, behaves in really weird ways in terms of market economies. Information isn’t really scarce anymore. But attention is. So that’s the part that you focus on to create a simulation of the capitalist marketplace. From the point of view of that economy, all forms of attention are created equal. Whatever you can do to attach someone’s attention to something and retain it is good. Regardless of whether that form of attention is good in any other sense. I’m thinking about  the work of Yves Citton, which I find really useful. Yves thinks there are different kinds of attention and ideally you want to balance them, otherwise we can circle back to fascist modes of attention. This is not his term, but [the fascist one is a mode of attention where] being able to draw a boundary is really important.

Fascist attention is all about: “they’re invading”. Whether it means literally the foreigner or gender freaks or whoever it is. We’ve got to push the boundary here. It’s a sort of alertness to where that is. Another kind of [attention] is ambient. There’s a downplaying of that ambient attention where I would let go of my sense of boundaries. I have to feel secure to do that. I just let go of that sense of having to have a boundary. And that’s a whole other way of attending, where I’m not even sure who I am anymore or who the other is. I just merge into it, that state you can’t get to if you’re continually in a state of attention that’s all about panic and boundaries. You can’t get into that state, or either you will attend to familiar patterns that feel like home when you’re anxious about the instability of everything. You lock into things and attend to them because they have familiarity in all of the senses of family and the familiar.

You stay away from strangeness, but again, if you’re not in a precarious place, then attending to things that are strange is beautiful and learning is all about that. I think really learning is about “I have no idea what this point of view is” or “this is turning me into somebody else.” Those are learning experiences. The marketization of attention  flattens [all modes of attention]  into all-attention-is-created-equal. The only thing that matters is the quantifiable value that it generates. This is then sort of dragging you out of the possibility of collectively sensing our environment and being able to act on it and in it. I marvel at the optimism Walter Benjamin had that mechanical reproducibility would help us acquire the tools to perceive and a collective agency over our own world. It didn’t work out that way. <Laugh>. We’re further and further away from it. We can’t perceive environments because we can’t let go of boundaries. We can’t perceive strangeness because we’re too afraid. It’s like humanity collectively lost its mind and lost its senses.

I don’t know what the equivalent Portuguese expression is, but to have lost your senses is bad <laugh>.

It’s not like we’ve ever perceived the world as it actually is. The Lacanians are right about that: that we’re living in this delusional, imaginary relations of the world is pretty true, but you could do it better or worse, and there’s a sense in which we’ve kind of lost it.

RR-W.E: Now that we have access to big data, we are also seeing new discussions around the socialist calculation debate emerge. The idea is that it would be possible to plan the economy, to have a centralized economic planning through the use of big data. How do you see big data and the socialist economic debate right now?  Maybe you could also talk about related concepts, such as web3 and the decentralized economy, blockchain and crypto, and tell us if you believe that either of them is a possible left progressive path.

MW: It’s hard to imagine these things can be [progressive tools] without the mobilizing of social forces capable of making those demands. There’s an absence of the ability to mobilize the kind of class power that makes things happen, but still there’s a tendency to think that the technology might do it on its own if we just designed it right. And it’s not quite going to work. And then there’s even the question of what kinds of social forces you might be able to align. It would still include the farmer and the worker in most of the world, and what I call the hacker class, which are people who design things. But is the hacker class answerable to social movements? Usually not. What would democratic design and implementation of forms of computation even look like?

I think I’d back away from having specific hot takes on particular technologies. I’m just going to be a neutral observer of blockchain. It’s kind of a brilliant invention and as to what you might do with it still seems very open, but mostly heading in the direction of speculation at the moment. It’s like, “oh, great, those guys showed up” but that’s not to say it has to be that <laugh>. Maybe it could be other things. But in the absence of the capacity to contest what a ruling class does, it sort of designs technology around its own needs for super extractive relations to pretty much everything, and the flattening of the question of value into its extractive ability. That’s kind of where we are.

RR-W.E: What do you see are the most prominent asymmetries of information, infrastructure and labor today, and how can we subvert those forms of domination into tools of subversion? We are thinking here of tactics such as strikes that we have seen in Brazil, with platform workers that have a particular effect. Or if, on the other hand, blockchain projects that work as cooperatives, and also act as tools that subvert those domination asymmetries.

MW: My colleague at The New School, Trebor Schultz, is trying to think about what he calls platform cooperativism and reaching out to the cooperative movement globally. In some parts the cooperatives are actually pretty massive institutions. However, usually not dominant ones. The legal and financial structures seem skewed against cooperative forms of ownership in the Capitalist world–not surprisingly–so it’s hard to get cooperatives to scale up usually. But there seem to be particular niches where it’s always worked well, and with the implementation of new kinds of infrastructure might work again. There’s energy around successful life-scale cooperatives in different parts of the world, seeing themselves as part of a global movement, connected to investigating how they might be tied to being able to use new tools, grow and develop.

Let’s try everything. All of the 20th century strategies have failed. There’s no point in being invested in factional arguments about whether you’re a council communist or what. It just doesn’t matter, everybody lost. How do you pick through the ruins? Cooperatives still exist, so let’s keep doing that. The strike still works, let’s keep using that as a tool. How do you persuade digital labor or intellectual labor or the hacker class that [what they do] is also like labor? It’s a little different in some ways, but we need to be able to think outside of one’s profession, to be able to think instead about our class interests. That withdrawal and capacity can really matter.

You need to get outside of thinking that if you are doing creative intellectual labor, that’s somehow different to technical or scientific ones. No, all of that value gets extracted pretty much the same way, it’s pretty much the same platform. What’s our class interest and who do we want to be aligned with? All of our jobs are getting proletarianized under all sorts of ridiculous surveillance and control. Universities are being hollowed out and now they’re just basically software platforms. So that’s not as much fun as it used to be. So, yes: to think as a class, to think class alliance.

How do you intervene in the development and implementation of technologies to broader social movements? A broad antifascist alliance is clearly a thing that we’re going to need, a little bit like the thirties, but with some new wrinkles. What if you think that maybe fascism is the default political apparatus, and we’ve sometimes had exceptions to it? This probably makes a lot more sense outside Europe: to think in these terms that social movements are able to push fascist systems out for periods of time, but it’s very hard to sustain that. It’s fragile precisely because it’s built on top of the exploitation of commodified economy and so on. I’m sorry. I’m not optimistic to be honest, but that’s the agenda as I see it, parts of it at least.

RR-W.E: Now, thinking about the role of art and culture in relation to this, In your work you usually bring to the forefront artistic avant-garde movements as a way to discuss how this vanguard movements have been essentially thinking about/through media, as well as taking cues from the political economy of our media systems and the material resources the system needs to function, in order to reveal the invisible cultural technics that mediate our social experience. What are the most interesting artistic / cultural movements today that embody this media strategy ethos?

MW: Avant-Garde is a problematic term in the 21st century because it’s a military term meaning advance of the main force. It became a way to try to escape whatever the dominant, social, and cultural political organization was by anticipating something in advance of it, which would then, recuperate it. That’s now built into the system. I think the vectorialist class loves avant-garde as self-appointed test markets for things that might then get absorbed. Maybe we need a sideways movement to think of how to creep out. There is a way in which avant-gardes used to draw attention to themselves. They had media strategies; all avant-gardes are actually media avant-gardes rather than art. Questioning whether visibility is such a great thing starts to become a separate strategy. 

More interesting stuff now tends to be a little discreet about who knows about it. It was a challenge writing a book about trans rave culture in New York city. I don’t want to draw attention to it. I haven’t named anyone or anything. DJs get names, but I haven’t even named promoters or any of the parties. I don’t name any of the spaces, although some would be well known. It is like: “Here’s this thing, but I don’t want to give you too ready access to it”. There was a famous New York party called Unter that still goes on, it’s one of my favorites, but someone made a tik [tok] on the dance floor that already has 300,000 views, you know, and I am kind of “great…”.

I love that people have access to find things, but that’s a level of attention that wasn’t warranted for what used to be queer themed rave. Collective practices of improvising with body techniques, forms of relation, forms of sensibility, there’s still room for that, but maybe rather than in the avant-garde, we’re trying to creep sideways and have our own little separate spot out somewhere. I was interested in the rave scene for that reason. Because that is thirty years old. It’s not like it’s a new thing. I was doing this in the nineties, it’s just a slightly better technique. I’m interested in gender avant-garde too. There are cheap and easy techniques for modifying the body, or gender devices, but that one seems to be like this huge fault line, everybody’s modifying their bodies all the time, but you’re not supposed to change the gender of it. Other than in the direction of more of the same.

There is a panic around trans men having access to testosterone. No one seems to be panicked about cis men having access to testosterone, which is every gym you walk into, basically <laugh>. They are there on the machine, they do five pumps and I’m like, you’re not doing that just with mechanical action, honey <Laugh> but we don’t seem to freak out about this, you know? I need a psychiatrist letter if I wanted breast enhancement, but cis women can just walk in off the street and ask for it and get it. This is Paul B. Preciado’s territory: what does it mean to think of social cultural aesthetic movements, where gender is in play, and more than that, the sex of the body is, too? Let’s talk about how that’s eminently hackable and kind of fun, and much more widespread and is getting outside the space of medicalization.

RR-W.E: Yeah. The idea is to find collective practices that might be exchanged in a way that’s more mobile. Not exactly looking for some kind of invisibility, but rather acting in the sideways, in the background rather than in the forefront.

MW: Yeah. Eduard Glissant, worked on opacity as a concept in the francophone, anglophone world and it’s connected specifically to blackness, and there are related concepts. It turned out visibility was probably, on balance, a bad thing for most trans people. It’s been great for relatively privileged middle class trans people, but really bad for everybody who’s already marginalized, because people know who to look for to go and attack, you know? [We should] be much more wary about sort of positioning. You need to be visible enough that people know you are there, but not be that visible that it becomes a thing that is attractive to marketize or make into the poster child for what’s wrong with civilization or whatever. The less the fascists know about what we actually do, the better.

RR-W.E: You were talking about this moment of dissociation connected with the transition and how difficult it was to write during this period. It might be interesting to think how those moments in which we need to put our practice on hold might be understood collectively. There are moments in which you realize you cannot just go back doing the same thing, you cannot just go on with the same game. How important can such moments of hiatus be, and what can we make of them? How can they be shared with others?

MW: Yeah. I think it’s a common experience. Both in social [and medical] transition, if you go on hormones and do stuff like that, there are two different kinds of pressure: on being embodied and being a subject. You’re presenting as somebody else in the world, so that will take a while, particularly for people who went through hormonal transitions, and this is probably shared by cis women who went through menopause. We all went through puberty, and you may remember, you’ve probably gone through a whole lot in a couple of years. Any substantial change to how you regulate your body hormonally is going to be disruptive. There were maybe three years that I couldn’t write. I wrote articles, but couldn’t do a book project, partly because I didn’t need it. It really used to be my kind of space. I realized I was writing because I was dysphoric, on some level. I’m just one of those people who needs to work in some sense. What I did was I just created a whole network for myself. I just reached out to all of the interesting trans artists I could find in New York city and took them to lunch and talked to them and learned about their work and stuff. I can’t maintain the level of connection that I had, and then of course COVID happened.

I feel like that also reoriented my interests. I came back to raves through the person I chose as my trans mom. She was a raver, you know? That’s how I ended up back there. There are ways in which transition can itself be a sort of aesthetic practice. And I don’t want to suggest that’s the language for everybody, but you don’t have to think of it in sort of medical, psychiatric terms at all, and that is very important. And then there are all of these languages that you could think of as a practice through and not all choices need to be aesthetic. It’s sort of an aesthetic of becoming somebody else who then is going to write different kinds of books. These last three [books] are substantially different to me in interesting ways. I lost readership obviously, some of my readers disappeared, but I’m getting new ones and that’s interesting too. I was doing this reading a couple of nights ago and somebody had the front piece of Reverse Cowgirl ripped out and the edges singed and asked me to sign this singed page from my book. And I’m like, are you going to hex me with that? Or is it for a shrine? This is a little weird, but okay <laugh>. It was fun, it’s a different kind of reader than the bearded Marxist men who wanted to have arguments about Althusser. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I am kind of having more fun.

RR-W.E: What you were saying makes one think about the notion of time. There are moments in which we might not be able to read things in the same way, nor relate to them in the same manner. Something about time has become different and we are therefore impelled to enter a new temporality, to accept it. That might be challenging. It’s as if we were dealing with several times simultaneously.

MW: Yeah. There’s the idea of trans time: there’s the time since you were born, and then there’s the time since you transitioned. I transitioned very late, so my cohort of people who transition when I did are mostly millennials. I have this language of like 30-year-olds, who will think they transitioned late, you know? And I’m like, honey, please <laugh>. It resynchronizes you with a different sort of cohort, which is a super interesting experience to have. Some people think their transitions end and there is somebody else. Some people think it is endless, there are different ways of thinking about it. It can be a very gradual time. It’s very hard to perceive. It can have sudden shifts of perspective. It’s a whole phenomenology of things that are partly shared with some other communities. I’ve found women who’ve gone through menopause are super interesting people to talk to, because they’ve had these sudden hormonal changes and they sometimes take the same medication I do for that. There are these specific experiences of embodiment, and we should be allowed to talk about it. There’s a whole chapter of feminism that’s based on the capacity to give birth and what that’s like, and that’s important. I respect that, but there are other experiences we could talk about that are knowledges of different kinds of embodiment.

RR-W.E: You also mentioned, in Capital is Dead, that the vectorialist class is actually averse to innovation because it’s averse to risk. Innovation is still being pushed for, both as a practice, but also as discourse. What happens to the risk? Is it transferred to someone? Does it go to the hacker class and how does this risk develop temporarily, but also financially and socially, within those practices?

MW: The biggest risk being born by anybody is probably in the chronically underdeveloped world in agrarian communities: It is climate risk. Are we just going to let whole populations fend for themselves? It’s already happening. There are already parts of the world becoming uninhabitable as we speak. And it’s because it is hitting systematically impoverished people, like for example, parts of Central America which are already on the margins of the levels of temperature humidity that people can systematically deal with, and you just push that to the breaking point and that’s pushing flows of migrants towards the United States, for example, part of that is climate-driven. That is the main risk and there’s no hedging that is already happening. But in general, the ruling classes are risk averse. 

Risk is to be hedged, and where possible you get the states to assume the risk, which is why states used to be in charge of basic science and still are to a large extent, because it’s very risky. You don’t know if any of it is going to yield anything that’s commercially viable. What I call the vectorialist class doesn’t want to assume too much about risk. It does want to be able to get into anything very quickly that’s patentable and possibly a source of value, but so the state has to assume a lot of risk, the hacker class itself has to assume a lot of risk with startups, a lot of which are going to fail. If you’ve got anything of value, you’re probably going to have to sell it to some larger company at some point.

There’s a way in which startup culture uses this outsourcing of risk to let people bear a lot of that on their own and then venture capital will just seed dozens of little things and simply in a portfolio-theory basis. You’ve made all of these different bets and depending on swings and roundabouts it’ll pay off in the aggregate. That’s sort of how it works, or how derivatives work. You’re basically placing parallel bets on all possible future outcomes that seem modellable. I think risk is the thing that gets pushed back onto urban communities, the risk of urban developments is always borne by most marginal populations within it. It’s like: “we’ve decided [the place] where you live is really attractive for people with higher incomes, so we’re going to kick you out, good luck wandering around the city, looking for another home.”

Innovation now mostly seems to mean cost cutting and deregulation. All of the things that are promoted as new are variations on things that already exist. The key technical development seemed to have happened during World War II and the Cold War, like socialized scientific and technical research, and we just ate that out. If anything, [ours] seems like an age that doesn’t have a lot of innovation, or that has these like truly insane retro versions of it. For example, let’s keep driving cars because no one’s had a better idea that you could privatize <laugh>,  but will make them self-driving, which turns out to be very, very hard, rather than design an actual transport system that works, which would just logically have to be socialized. Some huge amount of money got pulled into making this model of making the private vehicle that just destroyed cities in this completely logically unsustainable way. One of the biggest workforces in America is truck drivers. And it’s like “there’s all these workers, let’s abolish those workers and the trucks will drive themselves.” That is how the ruling class thinks now. Can you imagine machine driven semi-trailers? <Laugh> Please, there’s enough of that.

RR-W.E: The last question that we have is just a really open question. How can artists, workers, theorists, and the hacker class weird or queer our economies?

MW: Nice way to put it. There are ways in which one has to recognize that one is working in an economic totality where you don’t have a lot of agencies, and not to get too moralistic about that, but we’re all selling labor at some point. Let’s just be honest and non-judgmental about that. Probably don’t work for fascists or the military, right? So, what are collective practices, and how can they scale and endure through time is I think the thing to think about. And there are really interesting histories of collaborative and collective practices, but our training tends not to focus on them. You’re given individuals and movements, but movements are just sort of names for aesthetic styles. But there is also Fluxus, this collective organism that went on for decades and still exists actually, still has a venue in New York city, that thought a lot about the intercommunication between artists and about inter-media in interesting ways, and how it was partially withdrawn. Of course, it all became valuable in the end, but the great irony is that if you really succeed at this, it generates ridiculous exchange value further down the line now that people want to collect it and curate it and write books about it. That’s the devil’s bargain. 

Let’s create our own spaces for our own practices. Let’s not tell too many people about some of them, and on the other hand, sometimes it’s not a bad tactic to create something manifesto-like or a good meme to send little messages out. How did we find our way to wherever we needed to be? It is basically because you caught a meme somewhere. Even before, in previous media regimes, you just see a picture in a magazine and be, “who are those people? Where do I find them? I’m going to go look.” Sending messages a little bit encrypted out is not a bad move, but keeping a little bit out of view, more than one used to, is probably still a good idea.

I’ve been thinking about what I call femmunism, which is neither feminist nor communist. It’s not opposed to either of those things, but it’s not either of them. And how would you build that from the ground up centering trans and non-white people. I don’t know if you construct these things in Portuguese like you do in Spanish. I do like abstract nouns with Latin roots because it works in pretty much most European languages. The Hacker Manifesto is written in this imaginary language that is equal parts business English, church Latin, and Marxism, because they’re these, at least pan-European, languages that you can speak. So how do we center those perspectives? And also, what’s a sort of femme rather than feminist aesthetic, and that’s not all utopian, femmes have rivalries, are bitchy. There’s bad affect in it as well, but there is attention to surfaces, to effective connections and spaces, there’s decentering of certain kinds of aggression. How would we recenter forms of interaction around femme values? That seems to me to be an interesting project.

RR-W.E: And what about the communism part of femmunism ?

MW: Yeah. It is related to what part of our interactions can we subtract from private property? And that can only ever be partial, and that probably has to be okay. You can sort of sustain communism for a hundred people for about eight hours, and that is a good rave, but it doesn’t scale much, and it still has problems. There’ll still be sexual harassment, someone will overdose, there’ll still be bad things happening, it’s not utopia. But maybe it is a better place to have those bad things happen, than certain others. So, if it’s a well-run space, no one will call the cops, you just deal with problems. There are still problems, you just have different ways of dealing with them. Maybe we could sort of evolve a different language for it. This circles back to the very first question: What would be a language for thinking about what we want that attends less to desires and more to drives. Desire is supposed to be something that has a little sacred aura attached to it, but maybe there’s nothing wrong with drives, you know? And how do we collaboratively manage the tension between the drives of mammalian cells is maybe not a bad thing to pay attention to, it is what collective practice can look like.