Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 26, 2015

McKenzie Wark, Bogdanov, Zizek and gold-plated bullshit

Filed under: Ecology,Zizek — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Žižek muses on a new Verso title

Today my eyebrows rose to their maximum height when I ran into a Verso blog post on Twitter. Titled “Ecology against Mother Nature: Slavoj Žižek on Molecular Red”, I fully expected another helping of the anti-Abbeyist ideology that permeated Christian Parenti’s Truthout interview. Of course, there is an obvious provocation here. Since ecology and “mother nature” are not terms normally thought of in contradiction with each other, you have to ask what Žižek has in mind. As a past master of the outrageous, you can expect him to fuck with your mind—at least if you are the sort of person who takes the Elvis Superstar of Marxism seriously.

Žižek’s commentary targets a new Verso book titled “Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene” by McKenzie Wark. The Verso blurb states that it “creates philosophical tools for the Anthropocene, our new planetary epoch, in which human and natural forces are so entwined that the future of one determines that of the other.” Without knowing anything about the book in advance, I was reminded of Parenti’s dismissal of John Bellamy Foster’s “nature/society” dualism with the reference to “human and natural forces” being entwined. Of course, if you don’t go beyond the anti-Cartesian abstractions (that ultimately put you in Leibniz’s camp, for what that’s worth), you don’t have a clue about what the fuss is over.

It turns out that despite being represented as an anti-Cartesian, Wark has much more in common with Foster than William Cronon. Žižek describes him as concerned with the metabolic rift that Marx identified as the root cause of a soil fertility crisis (ie., animal excrement flowed into the Thames rather than fertilized the crops)—the very same point that Foster has made in numerous articles. However, Žižek dismisses the possibility of a rift but at the same time praises Wark for rejecting the notion that nature was ever in balance:

Notions like “rift” and perturbed “cycle” seem to rely on their opposite: on a vision of a “normal” state of things where the cycle is closed and the balance reestablished, as if the Anthropocene should be overcome by simply re-installing the human species into this balance. Wark’s key achievement is to reject this path: there never was such a balance, nature in itself is already unbalanced, the idea of Nature as a big Mother is just another image of the divine big Other.

Of course, it is a bit difficult to figure out where Wark stands solely on the basis of Žižek’s précis. Short of reading his book, the best source would be a long article on E-Flux titled “Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (On Alexander Bogdanov and Kim Stanley Robinson)” where he speaks in the name of the Carbon Liberation Front, a group with just one member—McKenzie Wark.

The Carbon Liberation Front has a number of enemies with those advocating markets as a solution in first place. He also warns against “a romantic turn away from the modern, from technology, as if the rift is made whole when a privileged few shop at the farmer’s market for artisanal cheese.” Uh-oh, I’d better fill the fridge with Kraft’s to stay on Wark’s good side.

Expecting an alternative to these dead-end approaches, you might reasonably expect something in the way of strategy, alliance-building, slogans, etc. But Wark is far more ambitious. His advice is to read Alexander Bogdanov’s “Red Star”, a science-fiction novel that posits the Martians as having advanced scientific knowledge. (Did Posadas read this, I wonder.) He also recommends his “The Philosophy of Living Experience”, a book that helped him formulate answers to the environmental crisis:

Bogdanov takes his distance even from materialist philosophy before Marx, for it still posits an abstract causation: matter determines thought, but in an abstract way. Whether as “matter” or “void,” a basic metaphor is raised to a universal principle by mere contemplation, rather than thought through social labor’s encounters with it. The revival in the twenty-first century of philosophies of speculative objects or vitalist matter is not a particularly progressive moment in Bogdanovite terms.

The labor point of view has to reject ontologies of abstract exchange with nature. Labor finds itself in and against nature. Labor is always firstly in nature, subsumed within a totality greater than itself. Labor is secondly against nature. It comes into being through an effort to bend resisting nature to its purposes. Its intuitive understanding of causality comes not from exchange value but from use value. Labor experiments with nature, finding new uses for it. Its understanding of nature is historical, always evolving, reticent about erecting an abstract causality over the unknown. The labor point of view is a monism, yet one of plural, active processes.

I think the one thing that rings truest in this excerpt is that Bogdanov took his distance from “materialist” philosophy. In trying to rescue Bogdanov from obscurity and turning him into a prophet of ecosocialism, he seems to have missed the main point, namely that Bogdanov had abandoned Marxism when he was developing his main ideas. This was Lenin’s take:

Why has it become impossible to have A. Bogdanov as a contributor to workers’ newspapers and journals that adhere to a stand of consistent Marxism? Because A. Bogdanov is not a Marxist.

Basically Bogdanov was a neo-Kantian, which in the early 1900s meant a follower of Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist with a distinguished career but not someone very useful for explaining society or history since according to Lenin scholar Neil Harding he denied the existence of a material world except as mediated by the conscious mind. You can understand why Lenin’s knickers would get twisted in a knot over this even though the main problem Bogdanov posed was his politics rather than his metaphysics.

In adopting Bogdanov as a prophet, Wark creates a certain difficulty for those of us trying to make an independent assessment since there is not a single English-language version of his work except for “Red Star”, the sci-fi novel that I have heard is unreadable. Some of it can be read on Google Books but the rewards seem vanishingly thin:

“This is an ordinary glass phial,” Menni explained, “but it contains a liquid which is repelled by the bodies of the solar system. Just enough liquid has been poured m to counterbalance the weight of the bottle, so that they are weightless together. We construe all our flying machines on the same principle. They are made of ordinary materials, but they have a reservoir filled with the appropriate quantity of this minus-matter. All that remains is to give this entire weightless system the proper speed. The flying machines intended for use in Earth’s atmosphere have simple electric motors and wings. Such craft are of course unsuited for interplanetary travel, where we employ an entirely different system, with which I shall familiarize you in more detail later.”

There was no longer any room for doubt.

I don’t know if there is much more to say about McKenzie Wark so let me conclude with a few more words on Žižek who if he was in a poker game would be said to see Wark’s hand and raised him several cards of abstractions. Can you make any sense of this?

My only critical point is that Wark’s unsurpassable horizon remains what he calls “shared life,” and every autonomization of any of its moments amounts to a fetishizing alienation: “Our species-being is lost from shared life when we make a fetish of a particular idea, a particular love, or a particular labor”. Here, however, we should raise a double question. Firstly, is such an interruption of the flow of shared life, such a focus on an idea, a beloved, or a task, not precisely what Badiou calls the Event? So, far from dismissing such cuts as cases of alienation, should we not celebrate them as the highest expression of the power of negativity? Furthermore, does our access to the nonhuman molecular level of, say, the quantum universe, not presuppose precisely such a cut from our shared daily life? We are dealing here with a properly Hegelian paradox. Hegel praises the “molar” act of abstraction—the reduction of the complexity of a situation to the “essential”, to its key feature—as the infinite power of Understanding. The truly hard thing is not to bear in mind the complexity of a situation, but to brutally simplify it so that we see its essential form, not its details. The difficult thing is to see classes, not micro-groups fighting each other; to see the subject, not the Humean flow of mental states. We are not talking here just of ideal forms or patterns, but of the Real. The void of subjectivity is the Real which is obfuscated by the wealth of “inner life”; class antagonism is the Real which is obfuscated by the multiplicity of social conflicts.

I would call this gold-plated bullshit.

For a better idea of why Žižek would find the notion of any kind of rift as outside the bounds of his own peculiar notions about ecology, I would refer you to his 2010 New Statesman article titled “Joe Public v the volcano” where he offers this fatuous take on global warming:

When it comes to the risk of ecological catastrophe, we are dealing with “unknown unknowns”, to use the terms of the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge. Donald Rumsfeld set out this theory in a bit of amateur philosophising in February 2002, when he was still George W Bush’s defence secretary. He said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

What Rumsfeld forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”, things we don’t know that we know – which is the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself”, as Lacan put it. To the assertion that the main dangers in the Iraq war were the “unknown unknowns” – the threats that we did not even suspect existed – we should reply that the main dangers are, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns”, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions to which we are not even aware we adhere.

His answer to global warming is a helluva known known:

Humankind should get ready to live in a more nomadic way: local or global changes in environment may demand unprecedented large-scale social transformations. Let’s say that a huge volcanic eruption makes the whole of Iceland uninhabitable: where will the people of Iceland move? Under what conditions? Should they be given a piece of land, or just dispersed around the world? What if northern Siberia becomes more inhabitable and appropriate for agriculture, while great swaths of sub-Saharan Africa become too dry for a large population to live there – how will the exchange of population be organised? When similar things happened in the past, the social changes occurred in a wild, spontaneous way, with violence and destruction. Such a prospect is catastrophic in a world in which many nations have access to weapons of mass destruction.

Although I doubt that this would ever enter the mind of the Elvis Superstar of Marxism, when places like the Maldives or Bangladesh become uninhabitable, the poor people will become casualties of floods, starvation, disease and chaos-induced violence. That should be obvious and not require familiarity with Lacan or Bogdanov for that matter.

9 Comments »

  1. I’ll withhold judgment on Wark’s new book since I haven’t read it, but I have appreciated his work on the Situationist International. You may be recall he was on a panel on urban politics that your filmed at last year’s Left Forum.

    Comment by Fred — May 26, 2015 @ 11:14 pm

  2. Short of reading the book? Nicely written and a good defense, but I do have to ask myself, what is the point of writing reviews of reviews without reading the book? 🙂

    Comment by Phillips, Tony — May 27, 2015 @ 8:37 am

  3. It seems to me that these days Žižek is fighting a continual battle against his own ever increasing irrelevance. The psychoanalytical pseudo-materialist shtick may have had a place once upon a time but it just seems a bit embarrassing when applied to matters of ecology, climate, etc. The fact that he’s now referencing Bennett, Barad, etc. only proves this — totally incompatible with his own presumptions at every level but who else can he cite, Lacan again?

    Comment by Philip — May 27, 2015 @ 10:02 am

  4. Louis wrote:

    “Can you make any sense of this?”

    Um, yes, I think I can (given I haven’t read the book). It took me about 10 minutes of careful reading and consideration, but it can be done (and I very much doubt I’m smarter than you). It took me much longer to make sense of Marx’s concept of exploitation from Vol. 1 of Capital (and I needed help).

    (What was it someone said about there being no royal road to knowledge? It was some dude with a beard who said it, right . . . ?)

    “I would refer you to his 2010 New Statesman article titled “Joe Public v the volcano” where he offers this fatuous take on global warming”

    Hardly fatuous if you bother reading the whole article.

    Seriously, Louis, where Zizek is concerned, you sound like some old, cranky fart who has a bug up his ass about someone playing a radio below his second-story window. I can’t understand your anger, and I’m used to seeing you make sense.

    Comment by Todd — May 28, 2015 @ 7:26 pm

  5. It took me about 10 minutes of careful reading and consideration, but it can be done,

    A lot of good this does me. Why don’t you write a two-thousand word explanation and I’ll put it up as a guest blog. As far as Zizek is concerned, if you are okay with his notion that people should relocate if their land gets flooded, there’s not much I can say. Of course, If you want to write another two-thousand word defense of that proposition, I’d be happy to crosspost that as well.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 28, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

  6. zizek is way too frequently shallow when he references current affairs -obama, usa health care for 2.
    aside, kant did not deny the existence of a material world except as mediated by the conscious mind; he said very reasonably, i think, that we only know it through our given sensory apparatus and so what we know can never be the thing as it is since our sensory apparatus is certainly limited. maybe neo-kantians think otherwise.

    Comment by jp — May 29, 2015 @ 2:28 am

  7. Louis wrote:

    “Why don’t you write a two-thousand word explanation and I’ll put it up as a guest blog.”

    Well, thanks, but no time. What with mornings taken up with work, afternoons taken up with seeing/caring for my parents (now that my Mom’s crashed), what little I have of my evenings taken up with trying to get caught up on what I can, and weekends taken up with a rather grim fight to find time for my own space, well written two-thousand word essays are a bit beyond my capabilities at the moment.

    “As far as Zizek is concerned, if you are okay with his notion that people should relocate if their land gets flooded, there’s not much I can say.”

    Oh, come on! Do those words mean that you’re okay with their staying on their land until the water’s over their heads, instead (for the sake of what?)? Did you even read the rest of the article? It advocates measures no bourgeois-minded individual would tolerate.

    Comment by Todd — May 29, 2015 @ 11:01 am

  8. Highly recommend Wark’s Gamer Theory (2007).

    I am writing a response/update to it.
    Wark has backed the project. Help me get the word out?

    Learn more at
    Kck.st/1SV9PaO

    Thanks,
    Colin

    Comment by colin — April 28, 2016 @ 1:32 pm

  9. You’re not fair to Bogdanov – he was not a Kantian (neo or otherwise) and he was a Marxist – Lenin’s excommunication of Bogdanov is a well-researched topic and it had very little to do with philosophical differences and everything to do with political differences. There is plenty of English materials for anyone to read, including Philosophy of Living Experience that Wark cites.

    Comment by EVP — May 15, 2016 @ 2:52 am


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