Against Social Determinism

by McKenzie Wark on December 13, 2013

Getting anything done generally requires the collaboration of people who do different kinds of work, and whose various kinds of work has shaped various kinds of thinking. It calls for some kind of translation or code switching. It can be hard enough getting people who do different kinds of intellectual labor aligned towards a common task. Collaborations between mental and manual labor, not to mention affective labor, rather complicates the whole endeavor.

So perhaps it would be a start for those of us who do some kind of intellectual labor to practice some code switching. How, for example, are those of us training in the use of language, to collaborate with those who work with code? Both kinds of work involve staring at computers and imbibing too much coffee. How hard can it be? Plenty hard, as it turns out. The division of labor divides also our thinking. We make a fetish of the part of what we organize as if it was the key to the whole.

This was a key insight of a now little-known thinker who has preoccupied me a lot lately: Alexander Bogdanov. He was Lenin’s rival for the leadership of the Bolsheviks, before Lenin forced him out. He spent a chunk of the rest of his life working on the problem of how different kinds of labor might collaborate. He wrote a utopian novel about it, and also something like a philosophy.

Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Bogdanov playing chess during a visit to Maxim Gorky (April 1908)

Alexander Bogdanov and Vladimir Lenin playing chess during a visit to Maxim Gorky (April 1908)

The problem, says Bogdanov, is that we make a fetish of the part of the total labor process that we happen to do ourselves, taking it to be the key part. We compound this error by imagining the rest of the process, the social whole, even the whole universe, according to metaphors drawn from our own particular labors. He called this substitution. Philosophy, says Bogdanov, is any system of thought that takes an image from a concrete labor process and explains the rest of the world by via substituting metaphors from what is known toward what is unknown. We image the rest on the pattern of the part we know. Thus: “The Lord is my shepherd” is a way of understanding heaven and earth – if one happens to be a shepherd.

Closer to home: humanists imagine the world as if what they did was, or ought to be, the most important thing in it; technologists, reciprocally, imagine the world as if what they did was, or ought to be, the most important thing in it. Both imagine that the part they work on is the key part, and the other parts can be thought on the same pattern, and moreover, should be. Humanists imagine technologists are a bunch of misogynistic apes who need sensitivity training. To caricature: Technologists think politics is a broken system that can be fixed with a quick hackathon.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that both sides are right in this. Tech workplaces do have a gender issue; politics is a broken system. How do we negotiate between the two worldviews? Its probably a fool’s errand to look for a grand synthesis. And in any case, from where would such a synthesis begin? There’s no end to imperial claims from one side or the other to explain the other better than the other knows themselves.

Bogdanov had an interesting solution. Perhaps what we need then is not a grand theory or a master thinker, but a labor process which maps the thinking from one labor process onto another experimentally, to see if it really does have an image or a method which could be translated from one field to another. This, I think is what his big project, the tektology, was all about. It was a practice, not a theory, of consciously and experimentally translating the language of one labor process into another, to see if it worked.

For Bogdanov, progress would be a new organization of labor. He was a Marxist. But he insisted very strongly that progress also called for a new organization of knowledge. This would not be the monopoly of a party, however. It would be a new kind of practice of organizing the knowledge that arises out of labor. It would be a practice both poetic and scientific. A form of thought from one labor process could be metaphorically applied to others, but that substitution would have to be tested and verified.

I think there’s a powerful, guiding insight in Bogdanov’s thought here, particularly for our times. A problem like climate change is going to need unprecedented collaboration between kinds of knowledge and labor. Such a challenge may well require of us that we produce new kinds of production relation, new technologies, new kinds of affective culture, new ways of organizing the world.

I also think that there’s a key here to putting some limits on the ambition of thought emanating from the humanities to explain the world all on their own. Us humanists can’t be stopped from imagining the world via our working tools of language. But there may be a way to relate those worldviews to others in a more productive way.

Take for example the way humanists reach so quickly for the insult ‘technological determinist!’ To even think in any constructive way about tech is to risk being charged with this. It shows up, for example, in David Golumbia’s otherwise quite interesting essay on the ‘technolibertarian’ right. One has to be a social constructionist, not a technological determinist, say those whose specialty is the practical knowledge of the social.

But why can’t one be a technological constructionist? Why is that not even a category of thought here? And why can’t one indict social determinists for their unwarranted metaphorical substitution, in which the world is “turtles all the way down”, but the turtles are social forms rather than technical ones? The game is rigged, you see. Against the fetish of the technical, the humanist brandish the fetish of the social. And on that basis pretty much zero progress has been made in thinking the relation between the technical and the social for thirty years.

My claim is not that this social determinism is wrong, but that it is partial. The social determinist makes a fetish of what she or he knows, and what she or he knows is an metaphorical substitution built out of what he or she does. To someone with a hammer, everything might look like a nail, but to someone with the idea of a hammer, everything looks like an idea of a nail. Everything looks like it is made of language and ideas to people who mostly work with language and ideas.

Social determinism comes in many flavors. Most recent ones do not, for curious reasons, actually emanate from sociology. Two more influential ones, at least in my world, have been culturalist and political. The former had its high water mark at the end of the twentieth century. A representative thinker would be Gayatri Spivak. Its code word was difference. Its métier was language. Looking at anything and everything as language, it found difference everywhere. The ‘politicalist’ version of social determinism became popular at the start of this century. A representative thinker would be Alain Badiou. Its métier was thought rather than language. Looking at the world armed with a rigorous training in abstract thought, it found the universal again, rather than difference.

This is crude, of course. The well trained humanist is already thinking ‘But… But…’. But stick with me. I would argue that if we can’t shorthand a mode of thought, articulate it quickly within a particular moment and for that moment, then thought can never be a practice. This is why, I think, that Bogdanov was drawn to consider a poetics of metaphoric substitution and verification. It sounded like a kind of knowledge practice that could step out of the time of the seminar and into action. And so: back to the shorthand.

If Spivak subscribed to the great slogan, “there’s nothing outside the text,” Badiou offers instead “mathematics is ontology.” In relation to each other, these seem like such incompatible perspectives on what’s beyond the labor of the humanities thinker and worker. But from a Bogdanovite point of view, its versions of the same thing: substitution. One takes some part of one’s labor – phonemes or mathemes – and by a chain of substitution makes them the fabric of the knowable world.

The corresponding culturalist or politicalist program of action proceeds along the same lines: the subaltern ‘speaks’, after a fashion, or else there’s a universal postulate of communist equality. Same or other. Modes of action are extrapolated by substitution out of categories that make sense in the organization of intellectual labor, although not perhaps anywhere else.

In neither case is the technical a real object of inquiry. It is something fallen, quotidian, not an object to be thought. Its something about which to direct only a hermeneutic suspicion. The mode in which the most general sphere of action is understood is either as culture or politics. Technology has no margin of interest; politics and culture do.

On closer inspection this seems quite fantastic. Isn’t culture the domain of the culture industry? Isn’t politics the domain of administered domination? Oh, its not that culture or politics that is invested with value. Its an imaginary, other culture or politics. The good kind! One that looks like, well, intellectual labor. Self-reflective modernist culture, for example, or a political party under an intellectual rather than affective leadership.

But notice how the political or cultural can be domain with a utopian side, whereas technology is to be denied this affordance at every turn. Its only cyber-libertarians of the right who find a utopian margin in tech. For leftists, it must be elsewhere. This is why it was such a scandal for Bernard Stiegler to suggest that technology is a ‘pharmakon’, an undecidable cure/poison. (I made a related argument in Gamer Theory). So we are enjoined to have a cultural imagination or a political imagination, but not what Anne Balsamo calls a technological imagination. Culture and politics, apparently, are on the left; technology (and economy) on the right.

The absurdity of this is readily apparent. OK, so the right wing technological imagination of the techno-libertarians rules out a left wing one. Then would not the presence of right wing cultural and political imaginations rule out the left there too? For surely these exist and are powerful forces. The right has its humanist workers too, after all. They too substitute things from their immediate labor process for the texture of the whole. And what they see there is either binding authority or free individual agents. The ‘benevolence’ of the clergy or the ‘self-made’ petit-bourgeois are their models of the universe. And sometimes, it turns out – ours as well.

If we can acknowledge that technical workers are not just drones, in every sense of the word, but thinking, feeling, ethically challenged beings like ourselves, then how can our labors for a better world combine with theirs? Its interesting how, on both sides, very similar movements have sprung up.

On ‘our’ side, it’s the return of the teach-in, the various free universities, open access blogospheric autonomous discourse. Everyone involved in this thinks there’s problems with how knowledge and labor are organized, and are in a small way doing something about it.

But wait: on the tech side, the same thing is happening! It’s the hackspaces. There are technical workers too who know the current organization of knowledge and labor is broken, and want to build something else. What if we could have more of a dialog between these movements?

Of course, there are hackspaces and hackspaces. Some are genuine attempts to create a little base of shared technical knowledge. Some are just adjuncts to the start-up racket. But before we humanists start throwing stones at start-up culture, let’s take a look at our own rather sordid economy. We’re in a sort of prestige management system, a vast hierarchy of art and education institutions, where everyone is trying to get a toe-hold, and if lucky enough to get that, to trade up through the ranks.

And on both sides, labor confronts the same precarity. The start-up world is just another kind of adjunct labor, paid in lottery tickets rather than wages. People caught up in it can be as invested or cynical or pragmatic as people in the humanist’s quaint old feudal racket. The real problem, if we could get over our fetishes about how special our kind of expertise is, will be how to create solidarity between secure and precarious workers. The system is built, on both sides, to drive us apart.

I see the free universities and hackspaces as spontaneous versions of Bogdanov’s idea of a proletkult, but in a twenty-first century form. How would we start to organize ourselves, to the extent that we can, on another basis, for another way of life. Rather than have endless pissing matches where each tries to claim the special, totalizing knowledge, rather than try for some grand synthesis of everything, perhaps we need a kind of practice of translating between them.

In some sense that is a humanist kind of task. This is why I have very little time for humanists whose speech just aggravates the divide. Its our job to translate! But the key to that is ‘listening.’ Not to mention ‘close reading’. Can we hear and see what our co-workers in other fields are thinking and feeling and doing? To speak about tech as a humanist requires this effort, this teasing out of nuance.

Can we just concede that there’s no non-tech place from which to treat tech as an object of critique. We’re made of the stuff! As Donna Haraway said, we’re cyborgs. This too should be a given from all we have read and taught this last twenty years. Any self-other relation is bound to be complicated. Isn’t that lesson the reason we kept making students watch Bladerunner? And can we just start from the premise that any ‘critique of technology’ posted on the internet is inherently self-refuting, and move on?

One of the great themes of that earlier, culturalist version of social determinism was the idea of listening for who or what is being silenced. Can the subaltern speak? Can the cyborg speak? The silencing by erasure of critical, creative, leftist technologists is of a piece with this. If those voices are not part of the discussion then what exactly is this discussion? Why does David Golumbia mention the libertarian Eric Raymond but not the red diaper baby Richard Stallman? Can we not keep passing over in silence the struggles of Norbert Weiner, Mike Cooley, Stafford Beer and so many others, in and against the machine?

The work to be done then, is in part ethnographic. Let’s trace out the practices, modes of thought, emotional mappings, of different kinds of labor. Let’s – prima facie – do our informants the credit of assuming that they have their own ethical and political modes. But let’s go beyond the mapping of the incommensurate ways of working, and work on how they might collaborate to build another world.

This is where Bogdanov’s experimental practice might have a place. Can we experimentally transfer, not whole worldviews, but particular functional concepts, from one sphere of labor to another? In retrospect, it is perhaps what I tried to do in A Hacker Manifesto. What if we thought of all kind of activity that produces intellectual property as related – related, in actuality, by a property form that makes them exchangeable on the market? What if we thought of us humanists and cultural workers too as hackers? It was an experiment that didn’t really take. Humanist acadamics now want to see mostly the ‘bad’ side of hacking – as if hackers were not also well acquainted with the ‘bad’ side of academia! If it wasn’t so serious these shenanigans would make one laugh.

It has to be conceded here in advance that Bogdanov’s thought is not entirely free of its own kind of fetishism: the labor point of view. He argues, provocatively, that what is distinctive about Marx’s achievement is not his materialism, but the labor point of view. (That’s an argument for another time.) For Bogdanov, labor has its own worldview. It does not see the world as authority or exchange, for its experience of the makings and doings of the world is not that of an aristocrat/clergyman, nor that of the bourgeois. The labor point of view is comradely, it is cooperative and collaborative. Bogdanov’s project is the organizing of both labor and knowledge from that point of view, and from there to the organizing of the world. While its not something he stresses, and we might stress it more, for Bogdanov, labor is not just a subject. It is always imbricated into the technical, and into a world that resists its efforts, his name for which is ‘nature.’

Of course there’s more than two kinds of labor: humanist; technical. But I think we have to make progress on this before claiming to speak with, let alone for, manual labor. Not to mention affective labor, or something like sex work in its broadest definition. (On which, see Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie). This is really a story about multiple forms of labor and the worldviews to which they give rise, rather than just two. But one has to start somewhere. So let’s start by both acknowledging the achievements of our social determinists – Spivak, Badiou and all – while understanding them also as harboring a fetish for their own modes of doing and knowing.

None of this is either/or. Collaborative labor is an and-also kind of play. We have to get out of the grad school habit of treating everything as an argument between rival positions, where advocating X must be at the expense of Y. That’s the language of exchange, the market, of touting rival products, each excluding the other. Or that other bad habit, of thinking that X is by origins higher in rank than Y. That’s the language of authority, kind of zombie feudalism that just refuses to die. Those, least of all, are the labor point if view.

So to be clear, I’m not writing against my colleagues from the culturalist or politicalist worldviews, even if some of this sounds harsh. What they do I value. What I do not value so much is this antiquated organization of labor and knowledge which actively prevents us actually being comrades.

(Originally published at Public Seminar)

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