Letters

Zizek and me

It is illuminating to have comrade Zizek write about one’s work. I think his comments on Molecular Red highlight two paths among which theory can choose to move at the moment: the high road of philosophy, or the low road of something else, as yet unknown. It is less about the wrong or right path, and more about what kinds of thing the taking of one path over another enables one to do. So let me explain, via the contrast with Zizek’s high road, why I take the low one.

Perhaps the central concept in Marx for our time is metabolic rift. He understood from Justus von Leibig that even mid-19th century capitalism was sending molecular flows out of joint. Leibig’s agricultural science was pointing to deficits of nitrogen and potassium that happen when modern farming feeds an urban population, whose shit and piss end up washing out to sea via that great 19th century infrastructure, the sewer network of central London, constructed under the supervision of Joseph Bazalgette.

There’s an ambiguity in metabolic rift, however. It is tempting to read into it a diversion — rift – from some state of nature whose governing metaphor is harmony and order – metabolism. As if nature were like some self-correcting free market that tended to equilibrium. In this popular image, ecology is a state of balance, harmony and order from which ‘we’ have departed and to which we have to return.

Sometimes, this metaphor is given a feminist coloration, as if ecology meant feminine virtues that had been discarded. Donna Haraway long ago warned us of the limits of this tendency, which locks eco-feminism into some questionable assumptions about what is essentially feminine, such as nature, nurture, harmony, etc. Which sounds great until you notice the things it excludes: woman equals nature but not reason, and so on.

As Zizek puts it in his characteristic language: “One is tempted to add that, if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that under it, Mother Earth no longer exists.” Or as I put it in Molecular Red: it is not just that as Nietzsche says “God is dead,” it is also that the Goddess is dead. There is neither Father spirit nor Mother earth. This whole metaphorical cosmology is no more. And in a double sense: these metaphors no longer apply; but neither is there a stable world to which the could apply. And as we shall see, the means by which we know this is not a stable world are extra-philosophical.

One of the figures for a realization of this passing is the Anthropocene. But one has to read this figure correctly to understand its significance. The Anthropocene does not mean the centrality of the ‘Anthropos’. It is not an anthropocentrism. It is not the figure of the replacement of God and Goddess with Man ruling the world with Reason. It is something quite different. What marks the turning, the break into another kind of time, is that the earth is not marked by human intention but by unintended effects of collective human labor. The Anthropocene is the figure for a series of metabolic rifts destabilizing the world – of which climate change is just one – as unconscious and unintended effects, a kind of latent destiny.

Call it the Capitalocene if you want, as it is indeed the case that metabolic rift is vastly accelerated when capitalism emerges. But bear in mind two things: it is not the case that capital interrupts a prior world of harmony and order. Nature is not always stable, and collective human labor has always had transforming effects. Humans drove many species to extinction long before capitalism was even a thing. Also: the abolition of capital would not automatically solve all our problems. It is not enough to negate capital. That leaves unanswered the question of how to provide energy and shelter and food for seven billion people without completely destabilizing planetary metabolic systems.

So Zizek and I agree that the metaphorical language of return to a ‘natural’ order is unhelpful. Zizek: “Wark’s key achievement is to reject this path: there never was such a balance… the idea of Nature as a big Mother is just another image of the divine big Other.” He offers an interesting gloss on the Anthropocene: “humanity became aware of its self-limitation as a species precisely when it became so strong that it influenced the balance of all life on earth. It was able to dream of being a Subject only until its influence on nature (earth) was no longer marginal, i.e. only against the background of a stable nature.” Which is another way of saying that the Anthropocene is not about Man, but rather the impossibility of Man. Note, however, that Zizek elides the question of how “humanity became aware.”

Zizek gives three accounts of why the Anthropocene puts an end to the figures of nature as homeostatic market-ecology of natural order. The first recodes my thinking into his language, and the second and third add his characteristic worldview to it: Zizek: “Firstly, we never encounter nature-in-itself: the nature we encounter is always-already caught in antagonistic interaction with collective human labor. But secondly, the gap separating human labor from intractable nature (all that resists out grasp) is irreducible. Nature is not an abstract ‘in-itself’ but primarily the resisting counterforce that we encounter in our labor… [Thirdly] Nature is already in-itself disturbed, out of joint…” (emphasis added).

Firstly, in Molecular Red I follow Bogadanov in limiting the concept of nature to that which labor encounters. But this may or may not be an antagonistic relation. Bogdanov thinks that such metaphors tend to come from our own specific labor practices. Intellectuals think in terms of arguments for and against, and hence are inclined to a figure like antagonism as a basic metaphor. But there may be others, as not all labor takes such a form.

Secondly, Zizek characteristically emphasizes the gap separating labor and nature, which then becomes always essentially the same kind of gap – an irreducible one. Philosophy revs its engines here, anticipating an open road, based on a concept not amenable to empirical inquiry.

Thirdly, Zizek does want to say a bit more about nature already, by way of a gloss of a passage of mine that includes this: “What if there is only an unstable nature…?” But with the question mark removed, we have rather overstepped the bounds of what I think philosophy can say about nature without deferring to the natural sciences.

Zizek characteristically shifts attention from object to subject: “The rift between labor and intractable nature should be supplemented not only by a rift within nature itself, which makes it forever unstable, but also by a rift emerging from within humanity itself…” Zizek here reinstates his famous gaps, voids and splits as a kind of philosophical constant, covering the whole field of object, subject, and also object-subject relation. Labor’s encounter with nature, which for me is only ever collective and historical, becomes the abstract universal gap between two gaps. Here is that difference that is always the same that so bothered the Deleuzians, even if it is a problem they too could not quite solve.

Rather than the constant of the gaps, I would rather emphasize the historically contingent form of the relations that cross those supposed gaps, and which may actually be what produce them in the first place as a kind of residue. The labor-nature relation is not reducible to a subject-object relation structured as an eternal antagonism. The hunter-gatherer’s relation is not the same as the farmer’s or the industrial worker’s, or the intellectual’s or the climate scientist’s.

For example: How do we even know about a metabolic rift such as climate change? Well, it takes a truly vast infrastructure, including apparatus such as satellites and computers, global scientific organization, and so forth. In short, it is a knowledge that can only be produced via the evolution of science and technology at a certain stage. This organization of labor and nature produces an understanding of nature that is at one and the same time a science but which is also limited by the very form of the labor and apparatus that makes it.

As I see it, following Bogdanov, particular labors produce particular metaphors of the labor-nature relation. Indeed, following Haraway, we can even put some pressure on these categories of labor and nature themselves. Maybe ‘labor’ is also too presumptive, too exclusionary. Maybe there are kinds of action in the world that are neither productive nor reproductive, kinds of ‘queer action’, if you will. Indigenous worldviews might not be reducible to ‘labor’, either. These might produce quite other metaphorical ranges.

So if particular labors (and non-labors) in the world produce particular metaphorical understandings of nature (sometimes even as something other than a nature) then how are different actions in the world to relate to each other? This is where Zizek and I diverge most, and the slight recoding of Molecular Red that Zizek offers in his remarks start to matter.

Zizek: “Wark’s unsurpassable horizon remains what he calls ‘shared life’, and every autonomization of any of its moments amounts to a fetishizing alienation.” Zizek would rather think of such moments as what Badiou calls an Event, “the highest expression of the power of negativity.” Faced with the cut that a particular labor makes with shared life, his solution is the ‘molar’ one of philosophical abstraction: “the reduction of the complexity of the situation to the ‘essential’, to its key feature,” which for Hegel is “the infinite power of Understanding.” Philosophy is that which has the capacity to reduce differences to the same.

Zizek: “We are not talking here just of ideal forms or patterns, but of the Real. The void of subjectivity is the Real which is obsfucated by the wealth of ‘inner life’; class antagonism is the Real which is obfuscated by the multiplicity of social conflicts.” Notice here that the gap between labor and nature disappears. The void of subjectivity itself becomes the Real. Where earlier antagonism refers to the labor-nature relation, here that is forgotten, and only one antagonism matters: class antagonism. High theory then sets itself up as the discourse of what is essential – these eternal, unknowable gaps. The more pressing problem of nature starts to fall away.

This is where I think it is better to follow Bogdanov on another path altogether, which I called low theory, after Stuart Hall and Jack Halberstam for whom theory is not the destination but the detour (or dérive) on the way to somewhere else. Bogdanov was centrally concerned with the question of how to overcome the alienation of particular labors, and hence of their particular knowledge, from each other. He thinks there have been broadly three historical modes of organizing labor: authority, exchange, and comradely cooperative labor. Theologies, philosophies and even popular ideologies can be sophisticated mixes or crazy incompatible admixtures of all three.

From this point of view, Zizek borrows from philosophy a certain authority-gesture, where causal chains stop at a peak term beyond which there can be no questioning. Only that last term is no longer the God or the Goddess, and still less Man, but the Void. Everything ascends and descends from this key term, of which the philosopher is the guardian. The Subject, the Object, even the Subject’s encounter with the Object are always antagonisms riven by the self-same impossibility. The philosopher’s self-appointed task is to show how any and all labors encounter the same limit of which the philosopher is the keeper of its essential names. This is high theory at its finest.

In these times, it is a discourse in search of a role. If one accepts that God and His mythological sidekicks are dead, then who needs their intellectual keepers? Metabolic rift, as Zizek acknowledges, happens at a molecular level: flows of nitrogen or carbon are out of whack. These flows are as imperceptible to molar “big politics” as they are to everyday life. Zizek: “It can only be accessed through ‘high’ theory – in a kind of self-inverted twist, it is only through the highest that we get to the lowest.”

I am always suspicious of this phrase “it can only.” Is this not the classic move of authority-discourse? It simply asserts its role as the alpha and omega of thought. The Bogdanovite response would be as follows: rather than subordinate the particular labors that produce knowledge of things like metabolic rift to the authority of a first philosophy, let’s take a step back. Such philosophies are themselves products of a form of labor, usually of intellectual labor, of a contemplative kind. Forms of labor produce metaphoric extensions of themselves which understand the world on the model of their own actions.

So: rather than subordinate all labors, particularly new and advanced kinds, to the metaphorical extensions of one particular labor, particularly an obsolete, authority-based one, let’s do something different. Let’s practice a low theory that looks for ways of extending metaphors out of all particular labors, and experimentally test these out as ways of understanding the big picture. A fine example is right here before us: Marx got metabolic rift as a metaphorical extension out of the life sciences and agricultural chemistry of his time, and it still works pretty well. It does not need recoding back into a timeless set of pre-modern concepts built on timeless voids.

Zizek tries to grapple with this problem of advanced scientific labor in the concluding paragraphs of his piece, where he tries to absorb my category of the inhuman apparatus. Building on Donna Haraway, Paul Edwards and Karen Barad, I constructed in Molecular Red a Marxist approach to science which does not try to legislate for it, or fetishize its theories, or recover the totality from its alienated and specific form. In short, I do not want to subordinate scientific labor to a philosophical one. Rather: I think a Marxist approach to science has to ask how it is produced.

We know that the relations of production within which science occurs can act as a fetter: it is subordinated to commercial or military imperatives. But an even more vulgar-Marxist view might ask what its forces of production are: what kinds of labor and apparatus go into making it? Hence from Barad I take the question of scientific apparatus, that cyborg mix of flesh and tech that is generally to be found in the basement of a research institution. And from Edwards I take the particular example of the apparatus that made climate science possible as a sensory apparatus.

Here I was responding to Quentin Meillassoux, and speculative realism more generally. Briefly: There could indeed be objects of knowledge that pre-exist any subject that is its correlate. But what Meillassoux omits is the apparatus via which such nonhuman things are mediated. What is the means of production of a knowledge of the nonhuman? How is the nonhuman mediated to a human which is not its correlate? The most interesting answer, I think, is the apparatus. The apparatus is the inhuman that mediates the nonhuman to the human, each of which is at least in part co-produced by this very relation.

Zizek: “The truly weird element in the triad of humans, the reality they confront, and the apparatuses they use to penetrate reality is thus not an intractable external reality, but the apparatuses which mediate between the two extremes…” The inhuman nature of the apparatus is indeed a curious thing. But I would not say it “penetrates” reality, as that metaphor steers us back to mother nature hiding her secrets from father science. Is that not the very language we were trying to shed? Nor would I say that the human and the nonhuman are extremes mediated by an apparatus. Rather, I would stress the way the terms are at least in part produced by this relation, by the apparatus itself as historical products rather than philosophical givens.

The apparatus – the force of production of knowledge itself – is always historical. The satellites and computers that make climate science possible arise out of a particular cold war history in which scientific and technical labor are embedded. And yet they enable the production of new knowledge about nature. Just as Marx paid attention to the soil science of his time and produced the concept of it – metabolic rift – we can now extend and perhaps modify that metaphor in the light of climate science, which shows carbon to be subject to a global metabolic rift.

These are the two paths here, then: Either high theory, which subordinates labor and science to metaphors from its own past. Or low theory, which experimentally negotiates between metaphorical extensions from various forms of labor and science as they relate to the world right now. I choose the second path, as it seems to me that the key problems to be thought arise out of the particular historical form in which labor encounters nature in our time, summed up in the figure of the Anthropocene.

In the little world Zizek and I share, of Marxist theory and its sources, I think the resources most useful here involve a rejection of Leninist dialectical materialism and choosing the other fork in that historical road – Bogdanov’s tektology, or low theory. On this path, labor and science come first, and concepts are derived as a second order practice to coordinate those separate labors. If this path has one small merit, it is that one’s concept of what labor is, and of what nature is, can be more or less up to date.

One’s thought can then follow the agenda science and labor set, rather than recoding that agenda through one that high theory generates internally, an agenda in which, curiously, nature keeps dropping out. Not least because it is such an historically variable term, changing with each epoch of labor and science, since it is, in the end, just a placeholder term for that which labor encounters.

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McKenzie Wark

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