LettersTheory & Practice

Molecular Red in Nine Minutes

I am grateful to Maria Chehonadskih for her lengthy review of Molecular Red. However, I do not think she gives an accurate account of my book. That inattention obscures rather than clarifies what might otherwise be some interesting points of disagreement. Her review is in no sense comradely. She seems to prefer to score some quick points. I’ll take responding to it as an opportunity to give a Cliff Notes version of my argument.

I am happy to concede that Chehonadskih may indeed have mastery and ownership of the field of Russian letters and that I do not. Although one might pause to wonder what this might mean give that the authors in question here – Bogdanov and Platonov – were dedicated proletarian internationalists. But if Chehonadskih wants to claim the capacity for “more attentive reading” that can do better than my “bohemian slang,” then this claim needs to be demonstrated rather than merely asserted in authoritative style.

If one wants to charge me with “inexact use of terms” then one has to use one’s own terms more exactly. But Chehonadskih does not do this. In its place we get mere gestures of dismissal. It should be clear without too much reading effort that Molecular Red does not exactly begin with the “over-familiar Deleuzian project of ‘becoming minoritarian.’” On the contrary, unlike Deleuze and Guattari, I take ‘becoming molecular’ literally, and ask about the planetary fate of certain basic compounds – such as those of atmospheric carbon.

Carbon does not, in my account, become an “independent and evil force” and it is hardly a “vitalist power.” I begin simply by noting that carbon is in the wrong place. A rather large amount of it that used to be buried underground has ended up in the atmosphere. This is the sort of thing the natural sciences can quantify quite exactly. This fact of carbon being not where it once was we might describe, after Marx, as metabolic rift.

Marx’s example of metabolic rift was drawn from von Liebig’s studies of soil chemistry, and was a local displacement: compounds of phosphorous and nitrogen extracted from the soil by agriculture end up being pissed down the drains by urban workers, never to return. This was a local metabolic rift, and where phosphorous is concerned still a major problem. But the metabolic rift of carbon is a global problem.

Chehonadskih assimilates this too quickly to the old theme of “cyclical exchange between man and nature.” But these are metaphysical concepts she has interpolated here, and not the place I chose either to begin or end. Chehonadskih has simply not been able to bracket her own working assumptions long enough to attend to those actually on the page here. Hence she ends up saying nonsensical things such as “since the theory of the Anthropocene assumes the continuation of capitalism.” It isn’t a theory and it assumes no such thing. It’s a place-holder name for an ensemble of facts about what I am choosing to call instead metabolic rift.

How would the fact of metabolic rift – and let’s limit ourselves just to carbon as one example – entail a change in priorities for critical though? I’m not talking about the kind that chugs along in the university, although that may be the last place one can actually get such work done. I mean the kind of extra-academic agenda-setting that Marx was able to make. How can we start from the situation before us rather than from the set texts of the curriculum?

Here I thought it useful to turn to Soviet examples, as surely that was a time for taking the situation as the point of departure for thought rather than the text. I found Alexander Bogdanov and Andrey Platonov to be particularly useful, not least because they had already thought about metabolic rift in their own fashion.

My main interest in Bogdanov is that he almost got the metabolic rift of carbon right, which is no small feat for anyone in the early twentieth century, long before the apparatus was in place to confirm such a hunch scientifically. It seems very clear to me in his novels Red Star and Engineer Menni, and in his Tektology that Bogdanov had a keen sense of how rifts can occur a metabolism on any scale, including the planetary one.

At no point do I write that Bogdanov is a “dissident” vis-à-vis Lenin. That is just another of Chehonadskih’s interpolations. I just find his thinking more interesting for our own times than other, more well known thinkers of that period. One who I think is worth rescuing from certain caricatures and guilt-by-association talk which has characterized his posthumous reception.

It would seem, once one strips away the distractions, that Chehonadskih’s main disagreement with me is here: “What if Bogdanov was in fact part of bolshevism and Platonov the most intriguing philosopher of dialectical materialism?” Well, of course Bogdanov is part of bolshevism. He was probably its leading, and certainly most original, thinker from about 1904 to 1909, when Lenin attacked him publicly in Materialism and Empirio-criticism.

After which point his intellectual exclusion from Bolshevism begins, and which by his arrest in 1923 will become mandatory. If one wants to be a dialectician, one has to grasp how Bogdanov is both central to bolshevik thought and at the same time anathema to the emerging orthodoxy of “dialectical materialism.”

For Bogdanov, “dialectical materialism” just doesn’t make any sense. Chehonadskih simply passes over the central dispute between Bogdanov, on the one side, and Lenin and Plekhanov, on the other. There is no first philosophy in Bogdanov. Marxism is not a philosophy. It is, first and last, the labor point of view.

The labor point of view cannot, in the style of Lukacs, be imputed to that class on its behalf by the party, and on the party’s behalf by its self-appointed philosophers. It has to be organized. The labor point of view is not just a theory or a style but has its own class-specific forms of organization. (In this respect Bogdanov’s is not a ‘standpoint theory,’ and he anticipates in advance Haraway’s critique of such).

Unlike Chehonadskih, I don’t see it as a “limitation” that “Bogdanov reduces everything to the elements of experience and their organization, so that the social and natural world are seen as a combination of these elements.” That’s the very strength and originality of his approach. He asks how knowledge and labor are to be organized, rather than asking, in scholastic fashion, after the correct theory.

Nothing could be more remote from “Plekhanov’s determinism of productive forces.” The labor point of view in Bogdanov includes organizational labor, which Plekhanov would consign to the superstructures. There is a sense in which Bogdanov is a vulgar Marxist, he is if anything a much, much more vulgar one that Plekhanov, in that even philosophy is reduced to a form of labor.

As I note in Molecular Red, western Marxism’s attempt to distance itself from ‘vulgar Marxism’ always had more than one competing theory it was trying to combat with this slogan, and Bogdanov’s was one of them. It was not just aimed at the economic determinists among the Mensheviks and the German Social Democrats.

There is a problem with Bogdanov’s (non)philosophy, however, as Chehonadskih notes. In his thinking, “Labor is the metaphysical agent of nature’s transformation.” Yes, which is why I go back to Bogdanov’s source – Ernst Mach – and forward – to Mach’s other inheritors, to undo some of the apparent metaphysical unity and consistency of the category of labor.

One could in a very broad-brush way say that this means reading “positivist” thinkers, but only in the sense that they deny the authoritarian pretensions of philosophy to legislate for all other branches of knowledge. It is of a piece with Bogdanov’s labor point of view that forms of knowledge and labor have to find comradely ways of working together outside of hierarchies of authority.

Hence I am not at all bothered by “uncomfortable positivist and technocratic limitations” to Bogdanov’s thought. Compared to the philosophically authoritarian and technologically ignorant thought that now passes itself off as ‘Marxist’, Bogdnaov has a lot to teach us, particularly in an era when what is accelerating is metabolic rift. One can not even begin to understand this situation without the collaboration between scientific, technical and critical forms of knowledge-labor.

Bogdanov thought the road to proletarian self-knowledge and self-organization passed through both technical-scientific and cultural labor. Hence his idea of Proletkult, which actually did become a mass organization from 1917 until the early twenties, although not quite of the kind he had in mind. Proletkult gets far less attention than certain other Russian avant-gardes, although it had complicated relations with them.

As I write, “Bogdanov wanted to revolutionize the relations of production of culture, not just literary form or affective content.” And as I continue in a footnote: “For example, Osip Brik argues for the uses to the revolution of formalism in poetics, since it deals with the ‘laws of poetic production’ rather than merely agitating for proletarian spirit within the old bourgeois forms. But he does not get far beyond the poetics of the production of poetry, and certainly does not grasp production as poetics itself.” (38, 236).

Hence it simply isn’t the case, as Chehonadskih charges, that I “forget or simply ignore” the other Russian avant-gardes. I simply reverse the emphasis of many received histories of this period as to which matter now for us. An attentive reader would know this, simply by looking up the notes. Just as an attentive reader would notice that when I paraphrase the work of Zenovia Sochor I footnote her – twice. (236-237).

Likewise, an attentive reading shows that I do not argue that a twenty-first century proletkult would be one composed of hackers. As I have argued for many years now, it’s a problem of the relation between what I call the worker and the hacker, where the former has to do things within a production process and the latter has to come up with new components of a production process. Where Bogdanov is interesting on this point is that he was very attentive to the problem of the relation between industrial and scientific-technical labor.

The term “immaterial labor” appears nowhere in the book, nor have I ever used it as a concept. Chehonadskih’s hand-waving about it entirely misses the mark. It is striking how much her review works by substitution. Rather than read the words on the page, she substitutes a more familiar metaphor, preferably one that has gone out of fashion, and charges me with it. Hence ‘vitalism’ and ‘positivist’ and ‘immaterial’.

In a way I find quite strange in a reader of Platonov, Chehonadskih attempts to think through such slogans. Hence: “Another way in which Wark smoothes the edges off Bogdanov’s positivistic technicism is by invoking the pessimistic negativity of Andrei Platonov.” Well, yes, I do think there’s ways to read them through each other, but Chehonadskih imposes her readings of them onto me here.

Bogdanov’s thought has its own pessimism. As I quote the man himself: “The struggle between classes, groups and individuals precludes both the idea of the whole and the happiness and suffering implied by the notion.” (11) That’s the tragedy of the totality. Even on his red-utopian Mars there’s a problem with climate change and an energy crisis. This is not an unalloyed “positivistic technicism.” Hence I cannot agree that “there was no tragedy in Bogdanov’s theory.” If he has a key obsession, its how organizations die in spite of themselves.

I made only a weak claim for the influence of Bogdanov on Platonov. The latter was a member of a Proletkult organization, and we know he attended a conference at which Bogdanov spoke, and that’s about it. Platonov’s early writings are in a promethean spirit that I think is a bit alien to Bogdanov, although quite common in Proletkult. But I thought a (vulgar) Marxist and Bogdanovite reading of Platonov might be a timely foil to his otherwise rather predictable reception as a master of modernist literature and so forth.

Hence I am quite happy to accept that there are other ways to read him. Its always the case with very good books that they will support more than one reading. And I can almost agree that Bogdanov’s tektology “doesn’t have anything to do with artistic production,” if by which we mean the bourgeois idea of art. But it might have a lot to do with how language works.

Bogdanov insists that the metaphors we use to organize meaning are derived from the labor processes through which we organize the world. And so tektology might have a few things to say about how to read a text. And so the way I read Platonov is to pay attention to labor, to what his characters do.

To deal with some minor mis-readings. Firstly: I am well aware that Platonov has a relationship with the productivist avant-garde. But I think he does something interesting with it. As I write: “Platonov reverses the tenets of productivism, perhaps the most radical artistic tendency of the time. In Platonov’s version, rather than artists bringing the aesthetic to labor, he has workers bringing their labors to the point of becoming art.” (81)

Secondly: Chehonadskih seems to think she scores some point by noting that Platonov’s ‘Factory of Literature’ was written before socialist realism became official doctrine. I might point out it came after what would retrospectively be claimed as one of its models, Gladkov’s Cement. But it seems she has simply missed a moment when the text turns to another topic. Socialist realism comes up when I talk about some of Platonov’s later novel-length texts.

Again and again, I find that Chehonadskih looks for a quick way to make authority-claims, rather than to do patient labor over a text. This undermines my confidence in her readings of texts I don’t doubt she knows so much better than I do, such as Platonov. As Marx put it, hic Rhodus, hic salta: here’s a text, show me you really can read. If she cannot read a poor introductory book such as mine, why should we take her claims to read masterpieces such as Platonov seriously?

Her Platonov, unlike mine, is dialectical. Hers is about “the negation of thinking in labor and the negation of labor in thinking.” But I think what happens in both Bogdanov and Platonov is that the relation between labor and thought ceases to conform to so neatly symmetrical a chiasmus.

In Bogdanov, this takes the form of replacing this supposed dialectic with two kinds of labor which are of different kinds: the labor of organizing the world of objects and the labor of organizing the world of subjects. Their relation is not dialectical. It is more a homology dependent on the historical mode of production in question. He thinks there are three successive organizations of both objects and subjects: authority, exchange and comradely.

In Platonov I think its more interesting. Practically all his characters are workers of one kind or another. Their way of understanding the world comes from their orientation to it through labor. For example, in Happy Moscow, the physician gets a whole theory of the subject out of examining the corpse. (93-94)

As I read it, time and again there’s a disconnect in Platonov between the organizational languages coming from the superstructures and the daily experience of labor which tries to interpret those alien metaphors through labor. I read him (anti)novels as historical novels, not so much as history from below, as history from below the below. His characters do not even have kin and hence are hardly even proletarian. He is a rare literary witness to life and labor under conditions of disorganization and collapse of the forces of production in the Soviet period.

I quote the engineer Prushevsky from Foundation Pit, contemplating the ever expanding demand for a bigger and bigger foundation pit for an ever bigger plan for a House of the People: “he could see how the topsoil rested on a layer of clay and did not originate from it. Could a superstructure develop from any base? Was soul within man an inevitable by-product of the manufacture of vital material? And if production could be improved to the point of precise economy, would it give rise to other oblique by-products?” (84-85)

Prushevsky starts with what he knows: the composition of the earth on which the house has to be built. He parses that through Marxist language of base and superstructure. Then he extends that, metaphorically, to the thinking whether soul is a surplus, over and above life thought as the production of the means of existence.

It is the case that ‘life’ emerges as a central concept in Molecular Red, as Zizek pointed out in his account of it also. But I reject the notion that there’s anything vitalist in this. I take vitalism to be a class of theories in which life has some special essence, irreducible to material explanation. If that’s what’s meant by vitalist, I am not one. Living things might have forms of organization than non-living things do not. But they are made out of non-living matter just like anything else.

The science, and in particular the life sciences, have always been a problem for Marxists, and this is particularly clear in Zizek today. After Engels’ attempt at a dialectics of nature came to be considered a failure, western Marxism gave up on the attempt and retreated to a mere philosophy of social and historical life. But there’s still the temptation to impose a dialectical philosophy metaphorically on the science and claim in authoritarian fashion to be in possession of a first principle. (In Zizek it is ‘void’).

Bogdanov does something quite different: rather than imposed philosophical metaphors onto the life sciences, he asks what can be extracted from the life sciences themselves as diagrams or forms that might explain certain classes of organization. His tektology levels all of knowledge from a hierarchy (in which philosophy imagines itself on top) to a horizontal plane, where any knowledge of any experience might generate a diagram or metaphor that could be tested experimentally in another field.

Bogdanov grasped early on that the advent of modern science could not be accommodated within the ‘dialetical materialism’ that Plekhanov was inventing in Marx’s name without rendering it too vague to meaningful. So he gave up the attempt. His training in the life sciences had shown him that nature was not “spontaneous” as Chehonadskih has it, but was highly organized, and that one could learn from that organization. That in short is his blueprint for comradely cooperation. It isn’t ‘positivism’, and it isn’t ‘vitalism’. But it is a vulgar Marxism, in that it takes the knowledge produced by a particular acts of labor to be the starting point.

My reading of Platonov is a vulgar Marxist one. I take his enduring obsession to be the insufficiency of the base that is supposed to support the vaulted superstructures of Soviet ideology. He had first-hand experience of famine and civil war. Not surprisingly, he has things to say about whether ‘soul’ – a concept he tries to bring down to earth – can be thought as a surplus only possible when the body itself has had its means of existence.

I think we do Platonov a disservice when we don’t take him literally. I am not particularly interested in wandering and homelessness as a mere literary theme in his major works. He is writing in and of a time filled with real wandering and homelessness. Sure, one could extract a “negative dialectics of becoming” out of him. But to aestheticize him thus seems contrary to the whole spirit of a proletarian culture. He responded to the situation of his times, its challenge of natural, technical and human disorganization, not as a philosopher but as an engineer – which was indeed his job.

Hence I am a bit non-plussed when Chehonadskih finds it “remarkable that Wark pays no attention to the fact that it was exactly the economic aspect of the metabolic rift that was crucial for Platonov.” In a sense that’s the topic of my entire reading of him, but with one caveat. I think Platonov is about labor, not the economic, and they are not the same thing. I think he builds up a phenomenology of labor by working through the differences between kinds of labor – and in Platonov unlike in Bogdanov there are far more that two such kinds.

Take this passage that I quote from the utopian second half of Chevengur, where Dvanov thinks of a future communism: “Because of the cultivated grain the earth will be shinier and more visible from other planets . . . and then too the water cycle will get stronger and that will make the sky bluer and more transparent.” (72) It’s a moment of holistic, biospheric thought.

But this is a moment of contemplation. Nature is not provident in Platonov. There’s no connection between this reverie and the disorganized state of labor in the village of Chevengur. Platonov’s communism is an extraordinary thing. As Chehonadskih points out, it extends to animals and plants. But one can’t simply say as she does that “Platonov sides with nature not State capitalism.” Nature is actually labor in Platonov. It is already working on itself in its poverty. Platonov joins a human poverty to that of nature, human labor meets nature’s labor, of which it is a metonymic part, not a metaphorical double.

There are problems with how labor is thought in Bogdanov that Platonov partly addresses. Labor as a mere metaphysical postulate becomes concrete, becomes particular labors. Sometimes these labors produce use values – from solar power to wooden saucepans – outside of exchange value. But labor remains something men do (and rarely women). Its implication in an apparatus remains unclear. The railway worker was for both Bogdanov and Platonov the outer limits of technical complexity.

This is one of the reasons, in the second half of Molecular Red, I turn to the work of Donna Haraway, Karen Barad and Paul Edwards. All of these related thinkers ask questions about what becomes of technical labor in the era of the military entertainment complex. All of them show how Bogdanovite substitution works in a more contemporary setting. For example, through Haraway I show the traffic in metaphors between biological science and political economy.

Chehonadskih seems not to have spent much time on this second part of the book. But if one wants to organize labor in the twenty-first century to confront life-threatening metabolic rifts and build a new mode of production in the ruins of capitalism, I think there’s a lot to be said for paying the close attention to scientific and technical labor characteristic of Bogdanov, and continued in their own way by these more contemporary thinkers.

All of whom, like Bogdanov, refuse to acknowledge philosophy as an authority and work instead with a horizontal and comradely approach to what a twenty-first century organization of knowledge and labor might become. They were not chosen randomly: Haraway, Barad and Edwards are all connected to the History of Consciousness program at University of California, Santa Cruz, and thus part of a quite particular and not unsusccessful attempt to intervene in the politics of knowledge in the American university.

Bogdanov has long been neutralized with belittling insults. Plekhanov even refused to address him as ‘comrade.’ He gets accused of idealism and made a scapegoat for Stalinism. His memory was kept alive in systems theory in both the east and west, but in the process his thought was stripped of its politics. Chehonadskih adds a layer of complete incoherence to this fate by extending the usual guilt-by-association trick. He is apparently at one and the same time a Bolshevik state capitalist central planner and a neoliberal!

But let’s have done with this sort of (non) conversation. Let’s work together to see where our respective labors might generate experiences that we can share and learn from collectively, to produce a form of organization that could be an alternative to the commodity form. For scholars that means letting go of the reflex desire to treat one’s field as private property and kick anyone else off as a squatter. The situation is too serious for those old language games. So while I would welcome a conversation about different yet connected ways of thinking though Platonov in our times, I think we need to respond to each other’s work in a comradely fashion, something I have attempted to practice in my writings here at Public Seminar, but for which there are surely plenty of other models.

McKenzie Wark

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