McKenzie Wark interview: the democracy of the image

by Richard Mitchell

5 October 2004

McKenzie Wark

I recently had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing McKenzie Wark, author of A Hacker Manifesto,1 which is a disquisition on the new class struggle developing between the creators and users of 'intellectual property' and those who would control it in order to profit from it.

Rsm: How did this book come into being. You told me earlier that you had shopped it around.

McK: As Goethe said, be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid, though I really seriously doubted it for awhile. I wrote it without a contract in Binghamton, New York, in the only building fifteen stories tall. I had an office on the top floor looking out over the whole Susquehanna Valley. So I was in a somewhat detached state. Bush Jr. had just won the election [in 2000] and nothing will take you back to your Marxist roots like watching a sort of coup unfold live on television in all but name. So, yeah, I just wrote the thing. And then I sent it out to publishers and I was getting nowhere, working down a list from the most to the least desirable. I even tried anarchist and alternative presses. Wasn't even getting very far there, quite frankly.

So why not think of everybody who creates as a hacker, why not broaden the term... Why not try and identify our common interests, which is everything we make ends up being property whether we like it or not, and usually not to our advantage.

Rsm: Wasn't the Critical Art Ensemble interested?

McK: Their books are published by Autonomedia, wonderful people who live near me in Williamsburg. But their decision-making process is somewhat anarchistic and I didn't quite have the fortitude to go to every Thursday meeting to get a decision to do the book out of them. They're friends and I thought I could do that if it was really necessary. I sent it to Lindsay Waters at Harvard University Press and got a phone call in four days. That just never happens. Usually you wait two months to get your rejection letter.

Rsm: It struck a chord somehow.

McK: Yeah. And he chose good readers, chose readers carefully because it has to be approved by readers; shepherded it through two boards. It's a very involved process at that press. But I think many people in publishing feel a real crisis over the state of the industry and he grasped that I was trying to look at that in a bigger picture. So the particular interests that publishers have were here framed in a way that makes a little bit of a world-historical process. I've had fascinating discussions with publishers and booksellers, who don't necessarily agree with my position, but see the problem much more clearly because they are at the pointy end of it.

Rsm: How does the vectoralist class emerge from the capitalist class? Is it analogous to how capitalism emerged from the agrarian class?

David Ricardo

McK: I think we have a somewhat ahistorical notion of capitalism, we seem to have bought into it as the end of history, forgetting that it had already had two stages: it's very clear in Ricardo and Marx that there was a previous struggle between landowners and capitalists. So there's a struggle within the commodified economy. It's first stage is based on privatizing land, and its second stage is based on capital, which is the ability to treat physical objects, if you like, as private property, and to accumulate on that basis. So why not a third stage – if you already have two stages of the commodity econony – maybe we've got a third. So what happened was that capital finds a way to dominate the landlord class. Maybe we now have a stage where what I'm calling a vectoralist class finds out how to dominate capital. And its goal is to subordinate the whole cycle of production to the control of information and the realization of its value: meaning patent, copyright, trademark – the control of information and innovation in information as a way to then control the whole cycle. So the manufacturing can be done in China or India or Indonesia and as we all know there is even an excess of that kind of productive capacity, it's no longer the means by which to dominate an economic system. But to control the brands and the copyrights and to control the process of innovation and new products – that's what seems to me to be crucial. So my argument is that that is in the hands of a vectoralist class.

Rsm: That brings up a couple of questions. What role do you think stock markets played in the creation of the vectoralist class? That seems to me to be a first step in the abstraction: the stock of a company is not the company itself but a stand in between the owner and company. Did that play a part? And this leads to my next question. Is this a 'naturally' emerging phenomenon, coming out of capitalism?

McK: Well, two things. As the economy becomes, in my terms, more abstract, it becomes more speculative. It's not naturally occurring in the sense that there is a natural history. But I think there is an irreversible tendency towards abstraction. A kind of threading of the globe together in ever more abstract terms. The form it takes is always the product of a struggle – whose going to control that next step and what the terms of that control will be. So it wasn't given that we would end up with what I would say is a rise of a vectoralist class. It partly comes out of a defeat of organized labor in the western world and a kind of freeing up of productive resources from being partly captured by working people and kind of then spreading out into the globe.

Rsm: Can you explain that a little more, how that could happen? Perhaps give an example?

McK: Well, in the United States, Europe, and Australia and many other places, Japan, the twentieth century was a long century of struggle. At mid point the people had started to win. It wasn't that anybody overthrew capitalism but some share in the surplus started to be diverted back towards people. We got the Welfare State. We got wages that could actually buy you a few things above and beyond subsistence. In order to free itself from that, capital then starts to transform itself along vectoral lines. This is where the new technologies of communication, of movement become very, very useful and necessary for extracting yourself out of national spaces and into a much more open, global space, to restart the whole cycle of accumulation elsewhere. Where, of course, it's ended up in our time is China. Isn't this a marvelous irony that the future of the commodity economy seems to hinge on Chinese communists. You couldn't have picked a more ironic result out of a hat. Extraordinary.

Rsm: Yes, that occurs to me too. Ok, let's talk about hacking, your notion of hacking – hacking is the production of production or what might be called a meta-production. I was wondering: 'Every hacker is at one and the same time producer and product of the hack, and emerges in its singularity as the memory of the hack as process.' I don't really see a connection here but it sort of ... the notion of the artist has changed over the centuries, this notion of the individual creator, that's a fairly recent, an early modern idea. Did that play a role in your thinking at all, this evolution of our notion of the creative individual?

McK: One of the sources for my thinking was definitely that avant-garde tradition from Dada, Surrealism, Situationists, Fluxus. And one thing I think is crucial to that is a critique of the idea of creativity as an individual property. Underlying all of that is the sense that creativity belongs to the people as a whole, that it's a kind of social result. But, under capitalism, we assign it to individuals – we would make creativity the product of an individual. But its real source, it seems to me, is the dreams and desires of the people as a whole. So I wanted to use 'hacker' as a way of encapsulating, a way of thinking about that process. And of course I drew it out of things like Stephen Levy's book about MIT in the '50s and '60s.2 It struck me as worthwhile trying to name this general force of creativity after one of its leading and most contemporary forms: programming. And what comes out very much from that story is how much of a collective process it was. Now, of course, from the collective process everyone is seeking recognition; everyone wants to be the coolest hacker of the moment. But you very much rely on this collaborative process to get this individual reward. So it's a kind of virtuous circle based on vanity, if you like, where you are contributing to a collective effort in order that you be recognized.

Rsm: So individuality isn't suppressed, it's just not privileged in any way.

McK: Exactly. Yes, it's not anti-individualist, it's not submerging everyone in some kind of Khmer Rouge collective or anything.

Rsm: Like the 'Borg'.

McK: Far from it. That you get your recognition from participating in a collective process. Now, of course, many art forms are like that already. It just seemed to me to be particularly obvious in this particular and now somewhat romanticized moment of hacking. So why not think of everybody who creates as a hacker, why not broaden the term. And rather than be divided by 'oh we don't talk to those people because they talk a different language and we don't like the way they wear their trousers', the sense musicians don't really talk to writers and writers don't talk to programmers and scientists don't talk to poets – to hell with all that. Why not try and identify our common interests, which is everything we make ends up being property whether we like it or not, and usually not to our advantage.

Rsm: It strikes me that many artists, myself included, much of our production does not go into the corporate mill. It just sits on a shelf. Many of our readers are artists. This leads me into the education issue: getting an art school education is not quite the same as typical business school education.

McK: You know, I wonder if it's all that different frankly.

Rsm: It is just as expensive as a business school but you come out of it and you don't ... there is some element of knowing the right people. There are no jobs, no job market. No one is recruiting artists.

McK: I think there are two ways to proceed as an artist. One is to look for patrons immediately. So the first thing you are trying to identify is what can be commodified. The other approach is to construct your own audience, independently. That has always struck me as where the more interesting work comes from. The artist goes out and constructs a relationship with somebody else and you build that first. At some point we all need a patron or a sponsor, a gallery or a publisher or whatever. But if you've constructed your own relation to others first, then you've got much more leverage in the way that you do it.

I wrote this book really collaboratively on a leased server called 'nettime'. All the ideas in here are things that came out of discussions with a sort of shifting group of maybe sixty to a hundred people, with a readership of around three thousand. So there's a kind of ready-made discussion. The book is a filtering, my particular filtering from it. So, even in this example, it's trying not to get caught up in that sense of lack. 'Oh, I lack the resources.' Bullshit – you've got your own mind. Any artist can work on constructing ...

Rsm: A collaboration.

McK: Yep.

Rsm: That to me seems to be the chink in the armor of the notion of the individual creator who entirely owns the 'property' of their creation. Everything we build is built on something somebody else has done. Nobody has a thought that's one-hundred percent original. Perhaps an original application, or a new way of looking at something. It's not entirely new – I think that's very rare.

Hugo Ball and Dada poster

McK: I don't think that at the Cabaret Voltaire in the early days they were too worried about, you know, who owns anything. Of course, later on it's what destroys Dada. They all fought about who coined the word, when obviously the answer is you would never know. It came out of the relation between Hugo Ball, Hans Richter, and all these guys who were there, Emmy Hemmings. It doesn't have an author. It's the space in between that was important.

Rsm: I have an early book on computer art from the 1970s and it's interesting to see there were some people early on who were holding their code close to their chest. But they sort of stand out. Most of the people were sharing their code and their processes: if they found a new way to draw.

McK: I think the general ... the path to me is clear. You build the gift economy so that your recognition comes from what you contribute that others find useful or interesting.

Rsm: Have you seen that new on-line game – what's it called – you earn meat ... [Kingdom of Loathing ]3 ... the monetary unit is meat and if you join a clan you gain access to the clan cache but only up to the amount you've given into the cache. So you can't go and take everything. This seems to parallel your notion of what you bring to the table determines what you can take away.

McK: I think on-line games are going to be interesting, sort of quasi-utopian experiments because we are so inculcated to think that everything revolves around commodification that they always have to have some marker of value. And yet why would you go there if it just reproduced your ordinary, everyday life. There's this desire to escape into a world where the rules are different. There's a potentially interesting space opening up there, I think. And of course some people want to go on there and hack each other up or kill monsters. Every fantasy has its space there.

But that on-line communities exist at all strikes me as very interesting. We have these new, abstract spaces of sociality that we haven't yet learned to use effectively.

Rsm: Have you got any ideas how they might be used? I'm afraid of that being abused, like government sponsored on-line communities where conformity is encouraged or enforced.

McK: It's already happening: America's Army,4 for example, which you can play as a multi-player game. You always appear to yourself as the good guy and to the other as the bad guy. It has a weird reflexive structure to it.

Rsm: That seems to be not quite what I had in mind. That's a kind of moral relativity I thought they wouldn't want to encourage.

McK: Well – you'd think. Of course, obviously you can't have people go on it to be bad guys.

Rsm: Well, why not?

McK: It's supposed to be a recruiting tool for America's Army as the name suggests.

Rsm: And when they arrive in Iraq suddenly the good-guy bad-guy label kind of passes back and forth in the minds of the soldiers; they're not sure if they are the good guys anymore.

Your comment about education – we touched on that a minute ago – you feel really strongly about that, don't you?

McK: Yeah, I wanted this book to be something every hipster-slacker student would consider toting around in their backpack. So I thought it needed to be fairly strongly worded.

Rsm: It's red!?!

McK: It's designed to be an attractive object, given that you can get these ideas free off the Internet, either offered by me or by the people I sort of borrowed them from. So why would you want a book? It had to be an attractive object that was worth the twenty dollars just in its packaging. Someone's consolidated its information in a worthwhile thing. But – I wanted to distinguish education from knowledge and to argue that one doesn't always produce the other. There's a tension between them. And we're tending much more to view education as a kind of hierarchy of prestige, as a kind of commodification to within a inch of its life of the value of knowledge. That tends to be counter-productive; it's all about scarcity then; it's all about who has the access to something.

You know, sometimes I pick up books in the bookstores and I read a bit of the book and I look on the back cover and it says that the price is, say, twenty-nine, ninety-five, and I think to myself that the real cost of that book is sixty thousand dollars. That's how much graduate school you need to understand it. It's a sixty thousand dollar book I've got in my hand. I didn't want to write one of those. I wanted to write a theory book but one that provides its own tools for decoding. I wanted to write a book – I'm not Michael Moore, it's not a book for everyone, but it could be a book for anyone and you can kind of pick it up – to think about how knowledge could have other networks that pass through higher education but they're not limited to or captured by it. You can have other kinds of conversations elsewhere. Create a heterogeneous space for knowledge; you don't all have to be in the same discipline to get it.

Rsm: Absolutely. I don't know if you've heard this controversy here, but it came out that the main goal of public education was to educate the citizenry enough to be able to vote and serve on a jury and that was it. There's no higher goal, like to teach people how to learn, life-long learning. Does that surprise you that in the United States you're only expected to learn enough to sit on a jury?

McK: Education is constrained by questions of class, it seems to me, and we're making education an ever more exclusive property. The public school system is increasingly being pressured to give up on excellence; that's its goal really is child minding. I think that's a real shame. And I know a lot of school teachers fight against that and try to do really good work in the public sector. I'm just saying that the pressure that's on them is really to give up on that, as if to say why do we need a skilled work force.

Rsm: Explain to me virtual. You say that the virtual is the true domain of the hacker. Do you mean virtual in the sense that people use it in 'virtual reality' say as opposed to the actual?

McK: Well, virtual reality was a bit of a contradiction in terms. It was, from a philosophical point of view, a bit of a misstep. The roots of the word 'virtual' which is connected to among other things the word 'virtuoso' and to the word 'virtue' is that sense of the domain of the possible but not actual. There are things that are real but are not currently manifesting themselves in actuality. So that was the sense of the virtual that I wanted to get to. So, the hacker is anybody who stands at that kind of threshold and finds new things to actualize, proving that the world is in fact far more extensive than our everyday experience might lead us to believe. There's more to it than what you see.

Clearly technologies could useful for realizing the virtual but they're not essential; it has no necessary relation to any particular technology. An artist can realize the virtual in any medium whatsoever. You can do it with a stick in the sand, as Joseph Beuys used to do.

Rsm: The simplest form of sign making is simple mark making.

McK: The virtual is also a realm of non-identity; and the squeezing of everything into a commodified form might have the effect of flatting out the space of the virtual. So, for the philosophically inclined, there's an argument about ontology in my book that what we might be doing is flattening out the space of what can be, what can exist. That would be a terrible loss.

Rsm: Speaking of ontology, there's an epistemological aspect to what you are saying about abstraction: what you can know about what is and what you can actually say about what you know.

McK: Um – as Guy Debord once said, theories are made [only] to die in the war of time. One can get a little caught up in trying to do a theory of knowledge where you get the theory right before you attempt to test it. It seems to me that if you look at it on an iterative basis, that knowledge works by experiment. We may hold something to be true up to the point where it collapses in on top of us. We realize our theory was not adequate. I don't want to get too – those of us who read too much Althusser in the '70s were so caught up in 'we've got to get the method'. I prefer Feyerabend, there is no method. One experiments in on the edge of the possible and one tries to find what might lie behind it.

Rsm: I wasn't suggesting that you make that explicit ...

McK: Yes, which is why in art or filmmaking I've always hated work that tries to illustrate a theory. It just seems to me that it gets the whole thing in reverse. The whole point of being an image maker or artist is to confound whatever the current theory is and to produce these objects that those of us who write about it have got to go 'what the hell is that!?!' You know, I've got to, like, rethink whatever I thought aesthetics was and try and grapple with that. Same as science, although I guess we're in the realm of the pataphysical in art – we're producing things that are true in the singular, rather than true in general, which is what science might be about.

Rsm: So you definitely see a connection between art and science?

McK: Absolutely. You know, as André Breton once said, science is useful for the solution of many problems, unfortunately all of them of secondary interest, which might sound a little insulting to scientists, but ... It's great to have a theory about the origin of the universe, but it doesn't tell you much about falling in love, or changing jobs, or getting married. I think Breton is saying those are the things that we're never going to have a science of, but we could have an aesthetic that could help us.

Rsm: Those are the things that concern the average person.

McK: They concern even scientist, I suspect. Gregory Bateson thought there was an algorithm of the human heart, but I remain to be convinced.

Rsm: I've only read Mind and Matter ...

McK: He didn't really nail it, great though his work was.

Rsm: You wrote about Society of the Spectacle ...

McK: For me that's the great book. You can't really top a book like that. But one should at least aspire to live up to it, the great political classic of the late twentieth century. One would have to lead an equally extravagant life to write an equally extravagant book. I'm not able to do that. But it was very much the model. I go into bookstores all the time and I really don't want to buy anything. I never find anything that lives up to the handful of books that are of that order.

Rsm: In a recent interview5 you mention 9/11 and the nightmare of video footage on endless replay and that there is a certain amnesia in society during a spectacular time, an amnesia about history. I see this in both the right and the left, fixated on 9/11 as an attack on the US. The fact is those buildings were attacked in 1993 and almost knocked down. Everyone seems to have forgotten that. It's always said 9/11 was the first attack on American soil.

McK: My first book6 was about this construction of what I call the global media event, the weird global media event. At the time I had Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, missile [...] in the first Gulf War, and the Stock Market crash for my examples. But I think 9/11 also counts. It's where there's a role for the politics of archiving. If you've got the live feed from CNN on that day, it tells you infinitely more than all the documentaries and replays and commentaries, because what you see is this opening up of this gap in the sort of narrative order where the real just appears and has to be covered over as quickly as possible. The most interesting images are the ones you never got to see again because they couldn't be fitted in to the narrative whole to explain it away. That's the stuff. There's a role for the image gatherers and re-editors, the archivists in being able to keep open that possibility. It's going to take us ten years to make a good film about 9/11, frankly. But as long as somebody kept the archive, somebody had TIVO running to gather the material – so that we're not edited down to those three shots that you now see over and over.

Rsm: Did you notice how quickly the branding and the theme music was created, in just a few hours after the event?

McK: Yeah. The day after I remember seeing tapes of somebody who had a video camera and just recorded live on the scene. That stuff was amazing – someone running around confused. And all of the official people he runs into are equally confused. We don't want to tell that story anymore. Everyone was heroic and all that stuff. I'm sure they were but that also doesn't discount the fact that they were also confused. We can't own up to that confusion. So I think we are going to need an image making practice – it's too soon, but eventually – to try to recover another sense of what time is and what history is and how images are put together to fabricate it, to understand that event. So we'll need something like, dare I say, 'Tribulation '99',7 which for me is one of the great films of its time. It really is an extraordinary work precisely because it's a synthesis of American image making over a good twenty, thirty, forty-year period that reconstructs the paranoid discourse, that threads through science fiction and horror movies into the Reagan administration and its policies in Latin America. I could see it work on a smaller scale; there's a style of filmmaking there that we need to apply to 9/11. It's about the people repossessing the archive; it's not so much storming the reality studio, as storming the archive.

Rsm: There is the issue of cost and the ownership of the information you speak of. I foresee it getting tighter and tighter: corporate media won't want to lose control of these images. Artists will have to have their own means of capturing the images and archiving them.

McK: This is where you need the cooperation of your hardware hackers and your archivists and artists, because it's a kind of joint project. But I think there's a struggle that the people have waged against Hollywood; I see the history of cinema as a struggle for and against the private ownership of the image. But Hollywood is clearly in serious trouble. They have to pour now it's hundreds of millions into more and more spectacular versions of the spectacle to keep our attention. When everybody is shooting their own home movies, we'd kind of rather watch that most of the time. I think you see, even in the massive concentration of resources in image making the very weakness of that strategy and the power that the new tools offer for the repossession of that. No wonder they have to criminalize breaking encryption and that kind of stuff. Because clearly anybody with any interest in images can rapidly figure out how to rip a DVD. You can get a tiny bit of software off the Internet and rip any DVD you want. Re-edit it and do whatever you like with it, starting of course with the famous Phantom Edit8 where people took George Lucas's abominable movie9 and edited out Jar-Jar Binks.

Halt darth maul!

Rsm: I've never seen that but would really like to. I hated that character.

McK: Partly because it broke some kind of teenage fantasy, but partly because it was clearly racist. I think that was the basic liberal instinct of smart young kids: 'Oh, this is all wrong so we'll take it out.' That then spawns a whole popular undercurrent of the selective appropriation of the image.

Rsm: Do you have any thoughts on George Lucas and why he went so bad after THX 1138?

McK: You know, he was always a very canny businessman. The contract he signed, I think it was with Fox, was not particularly good except that he kept control of the merchandising. He just understood, he was thinking like a kind of petit bourgeois businessman. So the thing developed into an empire – most people who acquire an empire seem to think they have a right to it.

Rsm: I think when he started out with Star Wars, he almost wanted to make a parody, or half-parody half homage, to early adventure films like Buck Rogers; but it just took off. I think it corrupted him.

McK: This is the great irony. He starts out thinking like a fan, which is that all these images sum up my own unconscious. So I have a right to them and I will just play with them. Of course, unintentionally, he encouraged two generations of fans to think in exactly the same way. All those images of starship troopers, it's just my unconscious on the screen so I want it back. So I'll make a version of it out of Lego or I'll put the images up on my Web site. Or I'll write short stories where some of the characters are gay, if I feel like it. Of course, Lucas himself wants to stuff the genie back in the bottle. But it was his own practice that initiates this democracy of the image.

Rsm: So, lastly, is there any hope?

McK: Oh, there's always hope. Yeah, there's always hope. I wanted to write an optimistic book. Maybe it's only a hallucination but at least it is a positive one. I'm tired of this notion of resistance. It's not good enough to be just resisting something; often it's a conservative gesture.

Rsm: It's a negation.

McK: Yeah, exactly. I wanted to be able to affirm our own capabilities as being in fact a class capability, capable of, if not transforming the world into utopia, at least carving out little islands of sanity within it. And we're doing it.

1. McKenzie Wark. A hacker manifesto. Harvard University Press. 2004.

2. Steven Levy. Hackers: heroes of the computer revolution. Penguin Putnam. 2001.

3. www.kingdomofloathing.com/

4. www.americasarmy.com/

5. Roy Chistopher. frontwheeldrive.com/mckenzie_wark.html

6.McKenzie Wark. Virtual geography: living with global media events. Indiana University Press. 1994.

7. Craig Baldwin. 'Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America'. 16mm color/sound. 1991.

8. dir.salon.com/ent/movies/feature/2001/11/05/phantom_edit/index.html

9. Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace