Interview with McKenzie Wark


© McKenzie Wark and Figure/Ground
Dr. Wark was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. December 15th, 2012.

McKenzie Wark is Professor of Media and Culture at Eugene Lang College the New School for the Liberal Arts and Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. Working in the traditions of British Cultural Studies, German Critical Theory, and French Poststructuralism, he is the author of A Hacker Manifesto,Gamer Theory50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International, andThe Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, among other books. His most recent book isTelesthesia: Communication, Culture & Class.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

It was an accident waiting to happen. In terms of class origins it was possible but not likely: my father was an architect and my mother a psychologist, but we had lower-middle class ideas about university. You were supposed to aim at becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

Given that I was pretty much innumerate, I was supposed to become a lawyer. So I was enrolled in a combined Bachelor of Arts and Law degree. But law only interested me conceptually; I had no interest in practicing it.

After that I did a Masters degree in communication at the legendary program at the University of Technology, Sydney. It was a really jumping place at the time. I did a bit of tutoring, and then fell into a full time job. I only applied for the job for the practice. I wasn’t supposed to get it. But the ‘inside’ candidate had a bit of a breakdown (If I remember this at all right), and I got it by default, given that I knew the material from tutoring in it.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

Well, I’m from the punk era, so refusing to be mentored or to learn anything was probably more my style. I’m sure I was very snotty and unpleasant to have as a student, if I even bothered to show up. I spent a lot of time in the ‘current serials’ section of the library and knew all the debates. So I guess what I learned was to have patience with different people’s learning styles! Most of my teachers were extraordinarily patient with my delinquent approach to learning.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

As an undergrad in Australia in the 80s I paid about $140 per year in compulsory student union fees, and after that it was free. So there’s really no comparison to American higher education in the early twenty-first century. In those days university was a place you could just hang around for years. Take some classes, drop out, take some more. Or spend the year in the bar or on the student newspaper or doing political organizing. It was an education in life, during which, almost accidentally, you might actually graduate. In some ways I learned a lot more from writing and editing the student union journal than from anything else.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by attention deficit and information overload?

Well, who said I was a good teacher? I certainly try to be one. People in their twenties have always been distracted by one thing or another. One thing you can do is make their distractions part of the curriculum. Not hard to do in the humanities. Learning the art of one’s own drives and appetites is what that part of life is mostly about. Well, that’s what the Greeks were talking about. That’s what Spinoza is talking about. That was the whole project of the Situationist International.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

My advice is never listen to advice from people like me.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?

Everybody always likes to think there’s a crisis because it’s so much more exciting than to have to deal with business as usual. The university survived several changes in the mode of information. It actually invented several of them – including the internet. Gotta love those B-school idiots who are saying – in 2012 – that the internet is going to ‘change everything’ in higher education. Where were you clowns twenty years ago?

There are always several tensions within universities, including between different kinds of scholarship. For example, there’s the fox-to-hedgehog ratio. Isaiah Berlin (a fox himself) sees the foxes as jumping from one thing to another, scratching about here and there, while the hedgehogs just dig one big hole, deeper and deeper. There are usually more hedgehogs than foxes in a university. They are less prone to breathless language about the big new thing. On the other hand, they can be digging that deep hole in a very uninteresting place. It’s good to have a certain tension between those positions.

I think universities are inherently conserving institutions, particularly on the humanities side. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned,” as Marx said of capitalism. Well, in universities, that goes a little slower, so we keep our bearings a little bit. As much as I love McLuhan, he was more fox and hedgehog. Few of his more concrete ‘predictions’ worked out, but he had a genius for probing the relational aspect of what media makes of the world.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow sub-discipline. In short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

Well in Fukuyama’s case, tenure was a waste. It is not as if his pop philosophy ever dazzled his century. Elite American universities have a bad habit in the humanities and social sciences of collecting people who just articulate the ruling ideology of the times in serviceable prose. And who tend to not be good gauges of what’s actually going on.

In this case, it’s obvious that the main issue is the casualization of academic labor. Now, there’s some teaching that should be done by part time people (practitioners in the field, for example). And it is also the case that part time teachers can be dedicated and excellent teachers. But the problem is when core teaching is casualized. It erodes living standards and in the end teaching standards. Managers replace professors. Nobody is really in charge any more of the quality of the curriculum.

The problem is that a real education is expensive, and the ruling class no longer wants to pay for everyone to have access to that. Let’s just not pay our taxes, not invest in future generations. Let’s just clip the rent where we can from what’s left of the commodity economy. That’s the current plan.

There will be enough legacy slots in the Ivy League schools for the children of the plutocracy. Everyone else will get this pretend education. Powerpoint slides narrated by adjuncts with a multiple choice test at the end. Maybe even that can be automated.

In short, if there’s a problem it’s not technology. Universities have always navigated technology changes. We invented most of them anyway. The crisis is with the social order. In the ‘overdeveloped’ world we are in this decadent phase where the ruling class maintains itself by raiding the commonwealth rather than by genuine innovation. So the relevant question is: why this ‘tenure system’ on Wall Street? Why have we tenured a ruling class that can’t rule?

Are there any viable options in the fight against intellectual property rights for digital activists, beyond the open source argument? Are there any techniques that can be used in practice that have not already been appropriated? Could there be a digital détournement?

Well, as the situationist international used to say, “our ideas are on everybody’s minds.” Digital détournement, in the form of rip and mix, file sharing, mash-up, memes — it’s everywhere. The genie is out of the bottle. Millions and millions of people are now taking possession of information, of culture, as something that belongs to everybody.

This pushes the new ruling class – what I call the vectoralist class – to try new strategies. One is all the secret treaties, to the negotiation of which advocates of the public are always excluded, which make intellectual property (that oxymoron!) an absolute private property right. This consolidation of a new kind of property – ex nihilo – has been going on for a few decades, but has reached the point where we can say it is founding a new class relation. It’s the owners of information versus the rest. They will even try to control the whole value chain with it.

But intellectual property is just the half of it. The other is the properties, plural, of the intellect. The formation of big data as a private domain, the formation of a mode of production premised on its management. While détournement continues a not unsuccessful struggle against intellectual property, this second development takes the struggle to a whole new level. It’s based actually on a kind of cease-fire in the first struggle. Google or Facebook don’t really care that when we do all this voluntary labor for them, it’s with other people’s IP. All they care about is the set of sets, the data and how it can be valorized. Against that, I think the strategies that might work are more like Anonymous, deliberately mudding the waters of our data trails. Or, you can be a cypherpunk, but I suspect that just makes you even more resonant on security databases! So perhaps a little opacity, a little queerness, a little invisibility. Let’s just agree never to be ourselves online, but to follow Rimbaud’s advice: I is another.

What role do you see apps playing in the future? Many theorists talk about the death of the Web and the rise of new multi-level, semi-closed and controlled networks. Do apps contribute to this change or do you see them as liberating, as creating new approaches to ontology?

Well, it’s both. It is about the recuperation of the internet back into the commodity form. It’s about the cellphone as the model of the device, rather than the general-purpose computer. It’s about a transopticon rather than a panopticon. A distributed monitoring and commodified feedback, with no central node, necessarily, but autonomous and automated feedback loops, where every impulse is met with purchase options. And where it is no longer even a goal for the ‘subject’ to internalize the perspective of visibility. We are no longer subjects with desires; we are organisms with appetites.

On the other hand, it’s not uninteresting to watch the unravelling of a whole series of ontological givens and their replacement with new ones. How bodies and information are mediated and distributed. How labor and play become indistinguishable. How the market as calculus is doubled by a kind of set-theoretic data management system. Are there components in that for new kinds of systems? Ones that don’t exhaust the planet? Exhaust desire? Exhaust the lifeworld? One has to at least imagine such things are possible, as nothing else keeps us from nihilism any more. There’s no private garden to which to retreat.

The information theorist Luciano Floridi has asked the question “Can information be naturalized?” In your opinion, could it be correct to view information not as something sent and received – although it can be – but instead as something that is already “out there” that individuates us and that makes up the stuff of our world?

Information is not about how something represents the world to itself, but about how it defines its boundaries and survives against something external. Or in short, we live in a Plato’s cave of game play rather than cinema spectatorship. But we have a problem with this information that comes to us from without. What could guarantee its veracity? God is dead. Nothing assures us that what we take to be information is actually information about anything. It could just be whorls of noise. I take Floridi’s project to be one of constructing some modest avatar to take the place of the God that once guaranteed the meaning of the world. He thinks of philosophy as a kind of conceptual engineering, to both debug and recode the procedures via which information is admitted, assessed and acted upon. Hence an “information turn” in philosophy, to push against its scholastic tendencies to repeat its old patterns of signal processing. It’s a fantastic project, one I’m not qualified to say much more about. My only query would be whether or not it concedes too much to philosophy as a pre-existing entity. It is as if the ‘something’ that is desperately playing this game, in and against information, is philosophy itself rather than the ensemble in which the human as a whole is embedded. Is our goal to save the world? Or to save philosophy? I notice too that the information turn brackets off the media form in which information is mediated. That strikes me as the very source of the problem. There is no God, because there is media.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to McKenzie Wark
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Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “Interview with McKenzie Wark,” Figure/Ground. December 15th.
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