geert lovink on Thu, 29 Nov 2001 21:44:32 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with McKenzie Wark

Everyday Life, Third Nature and the Third Class
An Email Exchange Between Geert Lovink and McKenzie Wark

The New York-based 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 recently and
centers around abstractions such as the masses (I studied 'mass psychology'
in the late seventies), the media and the position of intellectuals.
GL: 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.

MW: 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

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.

GL: 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

MW: 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

GL: 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').

MW: 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.

GL: 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

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

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 th 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.

GL:  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

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 this self, this community, this relation -- the 'virtual republic' of
multiple differences that could be in negotiation and relation. That would
be my 'postmodern' social democracy.

GL: 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?

MW:  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.

Ken's new site:
Geert's new archive:

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