Interview with McKenzie Wark

Everyday Life, Third Nature and the Third Class. An Email Exchange With Australian media theorist McKenzie Wark

The Australian media theorist McKenzie Wark and I have had a number of exchanges over the years, ever since we came across each others work, around 1995 when I read his first book Virtual Geography. Our topics of conversation ranged from ‘Englishes’ and the role of language on the Net, German and Anglo-Saxon media theories to the changing role of cultural studies. Most of the material we compiled has not been published. The following dialogue took place in January 1999, got updated in November 2000 and centers around abstractions such as the masses (I studied ‘mass psychology’ in the late seventies), the media and the position of intellectuals.

You seem to be attempting to redefine our relation to the masses, the everyday day, normalcy, indeed, media. These things are related in such an odd, new way, so complex, so banal at the same time. Words do not fit together anymore. They do not belong to their original, common meaning. They start drifting. Take my favorite punching bag, the concept of ‘masses’. They’re not gray anymore, they shine, in flowery colors, silver (for the corporates) and green/yellow for the sporty types. Masses celebrate, they no longer bow towards the ground.

I don’t know that I’m attempting to redefine our relation to the masses, rather it’s a questioning of whether there ever were masses for us (whoever ‘we’ are) to have a relation to. The idea of the mass has a particular history, going back to 19th century concepts of the mob and the crowd, which were supposedly domesticated by ‘mass’ media. The postmodern narrative about the breakup of the mass seems to me to rest on the fantasy that these prior concepts described something real.

What I think makes more sense is to question whether there ever was a mass, other than as a fetish object via which communication professionals, in public relations, advertising, spin doctoring, or mass communication studies, could claim to have an object of expertise that was amenable to analysis and control. The idea of the mass assumed an object on the other end of a technology, via which the expert, who has knowledge of the object, can assist power, which owns the means of communication.

Look around, however, and what do we find? WE don’t find the masses, if by masses we mean something that is homogenous, but distinct from the media technology that instumentalises it. We find a patchwork of intersections, or more interestingly, non- intersections. Often media and people just share the same space, having nothing to do with each other. Often it seems we are looking at what Guattari calls ‘subjective machines’, in which it is impossible to unscramble the human and tech elements.

There was a moment when English-language cultural studies, in its revolt from the old communication paradigm, reversed the poles, saw the people as active and sovereign users of media, rather than media as a technology via which the powerful caused something to happen to the powerless. ‘The people make meaning, but not with the media of their own choosing.’ Rather than a tool of domination, media became a tool of resistance. But what if it isn’t a tool at all? What if, rather than reversing the relation between media object and human subject, one considers the two together as a productive machine?

One way of describing the field in which techno-media and human culture co-evolve and co-produce is ‘everyday life’. Everyday life might be a site where the ‘second nature’ of our built environment is traversed by media vectors — our ‘third nature’. An environment which we come to think of as ‘natural’ out of the habit of inhabiting it. My first book was called Virtual Geography, a term which might be another way of describing this zone of potential events and relations within which the subject experiences its distinctness out of its struggle to cohere amid the lines of force that produce it.

Both ‘us’ and ‘them’ (whoever we are, whoever they are) are all always situated in this same virtual geography. There’s no outside. So in terms of method, we proceed empirically, inductively, within this material immersion. There is nothing outside the vector. There’s no way to separate us from them. No ‘intellectuals’ versus ‘masses’, other than as a fantasy. A fantasy in which intellectuals receive their identity out of their resentful hostility to the masses, who appear as a homogenised ‘other’.

But this is just a pathology of subjectivity. A fetishising of the self. The masses, it turns out, are not homogenous, but come in all colors and flavors. So while I agree that ‘masses celebrate’, it may be not that ‘they no longer bow towards the ground’. Maybe they never did. The perception of this change may be derived from the mismatch between a previous theory and a current reality, rather than between a previous reality and a current reality. Maybe the theory didn’t apply then either, let alone now.

Because one thing that has changed is that ‘we’ (whoever we are) see and hear what these people who are (not) masses see and hear. It’s no longer the case that the media are stratified into different environments — one for us, one for them. The vectoral property of the media means it traverses every fence, every wall, every skin. Second nature is everywhere doubled by a ‘third nature’. It crosses all boundaries and borders, including those of self and community, of self and other.

But that’s just a theory. It has to be tackled from the other end, from observation, and from conversation. It’s about geography — working out the virtual geography of the overlay of second nature (the built environment) with third nature (the media environment). Knowing the lay of the land that the masses do not inhabit, because there are no masses, but in which rather the everyday exists, as a virtual world of potential interactions. By identifying the contours of the everyday, a space is defined within which it is possible to experiment with new kinds of liberty.

The masses never existed, one theory says. They have always been phantoms, or rather Projektionsflaechen, objects of common fears and desires. But this also means that they never have disappeared, or can be re-invented. The same can be said of everyday life. I am not much of a supporter of this idea. Of course, all concepts lack reality, and can easily be taken apart into numerous smaller parts, which again fail the reality test.

Perhaps, but I think Marx was right to counsel us to look always for the line of abstraction that is at work in the world itself. Abstractions are not just concepts in people’s heads. Abstraction is a force at work in the world. Modernity is the will to abstraction made concrete. Marx identified commodification as one abstraction, made possible by the general, quantitative equivalent, money, by its accumulation, as capital, by the relations of private property that underpin it.

But I think there is another abstraction, what I would call vectoralisation. Relations of production can become more complex, spatially disagregated, because of communication vectors. What holds it all together is not just a quantitative equivalent, the circulation of money, but a qualitative equivalent, the circulation of information. And information, no less that land, labour and capital goods, has become a form of property.

I think those are abstractions that are not just concepts, but are at work in the world. Our understanding of them is always imperfect, but one explains more phenomena with fewer concepts if you follow the lines of abstraction that produce the experience of modernity itself in everyday life.

Marxists rather say: classes, not masses. I have not heard that for a while either. Masses must have become unpopular somewhere in the 1970s. Classes have actually disappeared not much later, in the mid-eighties. It was a courageous act from Kroker/Weinstein to come up with the term ‘the virtual class’ (in their book Datatrash, 1994). Of course there were some Marxists still using the term, even refining the terminology (within their system of scientific socialism). I can also think of such diverse Germans like Robert Kurz, Joachim Hirsch, Elmar Altvater, the Frenchman Etienne Ballibar and of course the Italians around Antoni Negri. Still, they have not come up with a dynamic, actual image that would fit into the academic-artistic circles of the nineties (an exception could be the concept of ‘immaterial labour’).

Marxists always say that the concept of class will make a comeback — and for once I agree. In much of the ‘overdeveloped’ world, the labour movement cut a deal with capital within a protected national market. While the envelope of the nation appeared relatively secure, people worried instead about the envelopes of communal or self identity. But media vectors have gone beyond troubling the boundaries of self and community, and now trouble national boundaries just as much. The proliferation of ever faster, cheaper, more flexible media vectors with a more and more global reach makes possible the colonisation of more extensive spaces by commodity relations. The national space, and the national compromise between labour and capital has come undone.

This shifts the anxiety toward one of two options. Either towards a resurgent nationalism, or towards a resurgent class awareness. Either one tries to fend off one’s anxiety about the permeable borders of the nation, community, and self by hardening the national boundary against the other. Or one follows the vectoral line that traverses self, community and nation and discovers the class interest that potenitally forms along it. One either demands more boundary, or one starts to question who owns and controls the vectors that both traverse and incite the boundary.

This is the problem that bedevils the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement which, even on the left, falls into anxiety about borders rather than seeking a new deal for the vectoralisation of space, one that abandons the dialectic of self and other and takes up instead one based on embracing the vector but seeking a global, vectoral world with plural forms of ownership, not just private ownership, in which justice and wellbeing has a place alongside profit and ‘productivity’.

But we need a new concept of class to grasp vectoralisation. Marxists still think only of the force of production, steel and concrete, as being material. The forces of communication — media vectors — are also material. And like the forces of production, they and their products can be turned into property — intellectual property. If capitalism starts with the enclosure of land, continues with the accumulation of capital goods as private property, its next phase grows out of intellectual property. I would explain it in the following fable:

First comes the first, who work together to wrest a space of free action and the possibility of free time from the earth. This class builds a second nature out of raw earth. Second comes the second, who quantify and profit by the labours of the first. This class organises the tyranny of second nature over the earth, and over the first, who make second nature. Third comes the third, who qualify and interpret the actions of the others, creating a terrain of referents for every action, a third nature that exactly covers second nature, which rationalises, justifies, questions, idealises, condemns, interprets its instrumental relationship with the earth. This is the class to which we belong, but we are drawn again and again to identify with the others: with the nobility of the first class and its labours; with the power of the second and its Property. And why not? The third class creates the image of the others’ loves for themselves, and even of their relations with each other. (It is for this that they keep us).

We are always a class for others, we intellectuals, (or ‘symbolic analysts’ as Robert Reich calls us), for we make every myth of a group’s roots and origins — even this one. We were never yet a class in itself, and certainly not for itself. We are the class that exists, not by taking the earth as its object, and not by taking another class as its object, but by the making subjective of all that the other classes have made and apportioned as object. Time to get over our crush on the noble worker, or of the bold entrepreneur — for that is simply to love in the place of the other the image we put there for the other, whether they want it or not. We must become the very rifts that traverse us, for we are nothing but the conscious and creative form of relation-to-the-other itself.

And there is nothing ‘immaterial’ about my labour, thank you very much. It’s a hell of a lot easier than a factory job, but it’s still work. Work that never ends — there’s no knock off time for the third class. It’s all work, work, work. Was it Verlaine who, when sleeping, put a sign on his door that said ‘poet at work’?

And here’s the kicker: like any other worker, we have to sell the information we transform to the owners of the means of communication — to publishers, universities, networks, dot.coms. Class is all about property, not status, as Marx shows. The third class is all about intellectual property. Which is why struggles around copyright on the internet need to be put in a class perspective. It’s the enclosure of the commons all over again. And one strikes this enclosure in everyday life: the court cases against Napster, the contracts that force us to assign ‘electronic rights’ to publishers, the worthless stock options of sacked dot.bomb employees along silicon alley.

What is the social within the wider framework of new media? Are we allowed to use, and introduce, such terms as ‘cyber masses’? How about Richard Barbrook’s emphasis on the guild system, when he speaks about the rise of the ‘digital artisans’. The only term which is wide spread seems to be the ‘community’. The term has by now been misused in such a way that we can hardly use it any longer, even pronounce. In some cases, it might even be useful to use it: chat rooms, avatar worlds, mailing lists. But then I doubt whether 10,000 plus users can be a community. I wonder what social term then could there be for us, within the framework of a political critique, useful and lively concepts, that somehow actually exist. They can even be potential constructs, that expire after a while, like ‘everyday life’.

As Guy Debord says, ‘But theories are made only to die in the war of time.’ One theory that won’t lay down and die, the vampire of the left, is its crazy notion of opposing the market with something else. Stalinist bureaucracy, the gift economy, anything. But these alternatives all come with their own terrors. I’m not arguing that there is no alternative to the market. There are lots. They are ways of escaping from capital, rather than opposing it, however.

It’s a question of a diversity of kinds of diversity. The market is good at diversity — there’s no subcultural kink it can’t assimilate to its axioms, as Deleuze and Guattari say. The market chews through radical fashions like any other junk food — it’s a myth to think of opposition to capitalism as outside of capitalism. On the contrary, the oppositional movements merely confirm capital through their resentment of it.

The irony is that it is capital that succeeds in subverting the market, not its radical opposition, which end up being commodified. Through concentration and monopolisation, capital attempts to escape the competitive pressure of the market. Whatever its limits, the market does allocate resources better than monopolies, be they corporate or state bureaucracies. Manuel Delanda is quite right about this.

There are limits to what markets can do, however. This is the real, ongoing political struggle — to affirm the inadequacy of the market, to affirm the plurality of ways of allocating resources, of existing collectively or autonomously in the world. Not all differences can be reduced to a price. As Lyotard says, justice does not have a common measure. As a card carrying social democrat, I believe in a diversity of kinds of diversity — a ‘mixed economy’. Not the fantasy of doing away with the market. To replace it with what?

Open source software is a good example. For the source code to be free — that’s a good example of the commons at work. But an open source operating system like Linux still needs the market. Programmers make high level tools for each other based on the source code, and exchange them in a gift economy, earning kudos and building a resume with which to get a well paying job. Meanwhile, if you want to actually use Linux, you’re better off with one of the cheap but still commercial versions. Programmers have to be paid to do the dull stuff like build an installer or some tools for the mere hapless ‘user’. So at its best, open source a hybrid — gift economy plus commodity economy — that’s what a bazaar is.

It’s better than that catherdral to monopoly greed, Microsoft, which uses the privatisation of the source code of the operating system as leverage for a monopoly. Like all monopolies, it works by roping off territory. In this case, the territory of the desktop, although most monopolies rope of national territories, like the monopoly phone or broadcast corporations.

The paradox of globalisation is that corporations suffer from it to the extent that it exposes them to the market, breaking open their neat little national monopolies. So you see them all scramble to make deals to recreate their monopoly power. We’ve seen a great wave of this in communication industries in the 90s. Ironically, the progressive policy is sometimes to insist that capital work within the market, rather than subvert it. That, and setting limits to market based resource allocation in the name of justice, equity, liberty — other kinds of good besides ‘efficiency’.

Some business interests resist globalisation — and oh how they talk about ‘community’ when it suits them! They’re all for the national community or the regional or local community when they don’t want to face competition, and of course the workers stuck with some half-assed deal with these local monopolists can easily be persuaded that it is in their interests to put the rights of the local community over the rights of workers elsewhere to get jobs, make a living. They stick to the old boundary, rather than creating their own vector. And the ‘new conservatives’ on the left join the racist, nationalist right in cheering them on. Ralph Nader joins hands with Pat Buchanan in opposing ‘globalisation’

If Marx teaches us anything, it is that there is a little bit of us, our labour, in every commodity, and there is a little bit of every commodity that goes into our own make up. The myth of community is one that severs these connections. It just groups the people on the fetish of their apparent sameness — ethnicity, locality. It does not deal with the real, abstract force of sameness in the world — the rendering of diverse things equivalent in the commodity form. the rendering of diverse spaces traversible by the communication vector.

Everyday life could be a way to retrieve an awareness of this abstract force — which is what Henri Lefebvre was trying to do when he coined it. Its also a way of perceiving what connects the third class with the first — those who work with their heads and hands — where ever they are in the world. It’s a way out of the trap of ‘working class community’ as opposed to the ‘intellectual community’. Both sell their labour. Both work in a commodity economy. Both have an interest in the commons — in the capacity to escape from the market into other economies.

I started to reconstruct the original fascination and (re)discovery of the everyday life in the seventies. There must be an old anarchist/dadaist saying: ‘The enemy is the Public.’ It was on a poster from the Berlin Tiamat publishing house which I had in my room. Similarly, one could state for the sixties: ‘The enemy is Normalcy.’ The hated of the boring, petty bourgeois lifestyle of parents, and society in general must have been unbearable in those days. Perhaps it still is. In this view, normalcy is a void, a black hole, desert of some kind. Now how can this despicable realm ever have turned into some mystique? What is the secret of the everyday life? And are we really sure that we want to reveal its mystery? And does it have one in the first place? Studying the everyday life we will find out how power functions, right? We can thereby understand why resistance and alternatives do not have a real chance. But why not stick to the outside-alien-outlaw position?

I don’t think there’s any mystery about how we got from the outlaw position of the 60s to the celebration of everyday life. The outlaws got tenure. The outlaws got elected. Danny ‘The Red’ Cohn-Bendit in the European Parliament! The German Greens are in the federal government. This just shows how the outlaw margin is within, rather than opposed the everyday. It is a differentiation within, not a dialectical other outside of it. The interesting outlaws reveal I think what kinds of tactics already exist as a potential with everyday life. Radicalism in art and politics is about the virtuality of the everyday. It is an experimental, empirical way of discovering possibilities. Who knows what the everyday can become? Nobody knows, until the art outlaws, the style avant garde, the sex freaks, the theory wranglers and vector hackers invent new possibilities.

I’m fond of outlaws. I lived through punk. I grew up on the myth of the Surrealists, the Situationists, Fluxus, Warhol’s ‘silver factory’. I wrote a tribute to the Sydney Libertarian ‘push’ of my hometown in my book The Virtual Republic. But I’m trying to shake off a bit of old fashioned bourgeois culture in myself, in my belief that the Big Name Authors in these movements are the sole creators of their own radical otherness as if it were their own private property. I think the everyday culture they work against yet within deserves a bit for credit for creating them. Which is why, in my book Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, I cojoin everyday life, popular culture, and social democracy. All the ‘common’ things, the plurality within which the extraordinary emerge.

The idea of the mass is convenient in that it presupposes an oppositional minority. And it sees these as opposed ‘communities’. But the everyday is all about difference, diversity, multiplicity. Ironically, I think that’s the ‘radical’ position now. Not making a fetish of your semiotic difference, but rather intuiting the vectoral relations that produce the possibility of identity in the first place. If you grasp the relations of production that give rise to identity, both the production relations and the communication relations, then you can see a whole universe of possibilities for envelopes within which to live, rather than just fixed identities. You see, rather than thisself, this community, this relation — the ‘virtual republic’ of multiple differences that could be in negotiation and relation. That would be my ‘postmodern’ social democracy.

The 68-post-leftist-green-social-democratic-realo-pragmatists, now in power in Europe cannot deal anymore with today’s outlaws. What they formerly took to be subjects for them are now mere objects of ‘policies’. Warhol became high art, expelled to museums and private collections. Or don’t you think in those terms of ‘fatal’ decay?

Oh yes, what the band Devo called ‘de-evolution’, the accommodation of the marginal within the axioms of capital, or the capture of difference as something to be administered by the state. But why should this surprise us? It’s only a certain romanticism that leads us to think one can escape the banality of the everyday flux of market and state, society and culture.

The paradox of the most ‘radical’, the most revolutionary movements in art and politics is that it is precisely those which become pure signs, pure spectacle, pure commodities. The Situationists are nothing but intellectual property now — for books and art shows, for building academic or curatorial careers. The digital underground is already entering this process.

What is less ‘soluble’ in the waters of the marketplace, ironically enough, is social democracy. It is a tradition that still functions in terms of organisation, which still can get its hands on the state, can still open little spaces for culture. Meanwhile Che Guavara’s picture is used to sell products. Gramsci is a publishing industry. Punk is a back catalogue. Revolutionary romanticism is just the R&D of commodified desire.

But while it is the role, I still believe, of radical art, theory, politics to be exceptional, to escape the common order, everyday culture and politics are really something else. It’s their business to be mundane. But there’s work that has to be done there. One has to work within everyday life for a culture that doesn’t polarise into an us and a them. Which doesn’t stigmatise or attack the other. Which doesn’t forcible homogenise those who imagine they dwell within its envelope. One has to work for a majority who believe in a politics that respects liberty but uses state resources to create a commons, that makes possible a diversity of forms of economy, that is committed to the step by step overcoming of human misery.

Its a question of accepting the modesty of one’s role as an intellectual, within the space of the everyday, not in totalising — and totalitarian — otherness to it. It’s a question of overcoming the theology of negation — the priestlike power of moralistic refusal. One becomes, yes, an artisan. Selling one’s labour to owners of the means of communication, but also working in a gift economy, in forms of solidarity and exchange that are not commodified. Creating tools, vectors, concepts, narratives, images that affirm the power of mulitplicities and the multiplicity of power.