In her latest book, Wark reflects on 19 writers rethinking the effect and evolution of technocapitalism on human consciousness
McKenzie Wark opens her introduction to Sensoria by asking, ‘What is the point of scholarship?’ Wark’s answer is that scholarship ‘is about the common task of knowing the world’. This seems a sound definition as well as a worthwhile project for humanity in the twenty-first century, and Sensoria collects essays in which Wark summarises and reflects on the writings of 19 contemporary authors who are obsessed with the development and overarching influence of technology, of the future of global capitalism, how the two intertwine, and their effect on human life and human consciousness.
Sensoria is a wide view of the hybrid intellectual culture that has formed somewhere across cultural studies, philosophy, art and the internet in the last two decades, with the texts grouped in three sections titled ‘aesthetics’, ‘ethnographics’ and ‘technics’. Wark’s essays on aesthetics range from her discussion of the fading (Western) ideal of beauty in Sianne Ngai’s aesthetic categories of contemporary online attention – the ‘zany, cute and interesting’ – to Kodwo Eshun’s writing about Afrofuturism, Detroit Techno and Black culture (in More Brilliant than the Sun, 1998), in which Wark finds a seminal example of an aesthetic that dissolves the limits of bourgeois (and white) humanism.
In ‘ethnographics’, Wark takes a global tour of how politics and governance are being mutated by the power of information systems. Here she sets discussions of race and algorithmic policing in America (in Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, 2018) alongside the history and future of China’s Communist party-run capitalism (in Wang Hui’s China’s Twentieth Century, 2016), before turning to postcolonial writers who take issue with the intersection of the West’s philosophical tradition of Enlightenment and its imperial imagination – such as Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony (2001). Meanwhile, in ‘technics’, Wark zooms in on writers who theorise the new cultures shaped by technology and capital, such as Cory Doctorow on private property and digital creativity, Lev Manovich on software, and Benjamin Bratton’s planetary-scale vision of information and governance driven by computational networks, not nation states (in Bratton’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, 2016).
Running through many of the texts (or Wark’s attention to them) are two recurring preoccupations: the first is that we might be witnessing the end of capitalism, and the supersession of the commodity, or at least its total dematerialisation into information. It has to be said, though, that for all its Marxian-sounding talk of capital and commodities, Sensoria doesn’t really go for actual economic analysis, preferring the breathless, apocalyptic hyperbole of Accelerationism (to which, her misgivings and counterarguments notwithstanding, Wark seems enduringly indebted). This links to the second main line: that the status of human being and subjectivity found in both Enlightenment thinking and the politics of liberalism are dissolved by this tech-determined mutation of capitalism. ‘The tech itself authors ways of being’, as Wark aptly summarises Eshun’s position, or, quoting Bratton, rather than being in charge of the system, we are merely ‘human hood ornaments’.
In this, Sensoria is very much in thrall to an outlook in much contemporary thinking that is indifferent to human beings, or what we might want, since we’re only really the product of processes – economic, technological and environmental – that we never determined from the start. As a counter to the Accelerationist and Speculative Realist thinking she can’t quite shake off, Wark’s alternative is to look for a more holistic, pre-modern erasure of the distinction between humans and nature, in which the old Western philosophical subject-object opposition disappears; ‘a structure for thought that… does away with attempts to find what is special in a human development out of the animal’. Marx once wrote that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world… the point is to change it.’ For Wark and her associates it’s humans who are going to be changed, since they’ve done enough of changing the world. The irony is that if that’s the case, scholarship, or the task of knowing the world, seems largely futile.
Sensoria: Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century, by McKenzie Wark, is published by Verso ($24.95 / £16.99, softcover)