McKenzie Wark on Sun, 15 Mar 1998 09:08:07 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> All That is Solid Melts into Airwaves

All That is Solid Melts into Airwaves
[For the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto]
McKenzie Wark

"The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly 
revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby 
the relations of production, and with them the whole 
relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of 
production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary the first 
condition of existence for all earlier... classes. Constant 
revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of 
all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation 
distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All 
fixed fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and 
venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away. all new 
formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All 
that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and 
man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real 
conditions of life and relations of his kind...1

This beautiful passage is open to at least two kinds of 
reading. The first is a prophetic one, where everything 
hinges on the direction  of the passage -- its inexorable drive 
towards that last climactic phrase "and man is at last 
compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life 
and his relations with his kind." At last! In this concluding 
flourish, Marx declares and declaims that the violence of 
capitalism's destruction of culture is not without meaning. 
The long, barren trek across the desert, across the barren 
wastelands of capitalism are not lost peregrinations, but a 
purposive, goal directed, long march forward. It will be 
worthwhile in the end for this negative, destructive process 
has ends, a determinate momentum. 2 

The unity of this momentum reveals itself at the end -- at 
the end of this passage of writing no less than at the end of 
the movement it thinks it describes. Capitalism here 
progressively reveals its essence. In this way, Marx 
summons up a sense of narrative closure, a sense of destiny. 
Marx's text stands like a monument, erected at the 
beginning of an epoch, on the lone and level sands, 
announcing the coming of the next. 

It is this rhetorical quality in the passage cited that allows us 
to extract it, as so many have done before, as a monumental 
quotation that will stand alone, as if carved from a sheer 
block of solid language. In it the writer appears to stand 
outside history, transcending it through his mastery of its 
laws, subject and goals. This is a reading which could be 
made germaine to both a scientific and a philosophical 
version of Marx. In the scientific version, the certainty of the 
text is a mark of scientific authority; in the Hegelian reading, 
a sure sign of a correct interpretation of the unfolding of the 
essence of capital. Either way, the passage assumes a vantage 
point which is somehow not quite engulfed and overcome 
by the very process it describes. 

Perhaps at the time Marx wrote, the extension of commodity 
relations and the techniques of industrial production to 
communication had reached a point where Marx's own 
practice was facilitated but not yet overwhelmed by the very 
flows of information it relied upon. The collection and 
interpretation of data on capital appeared to make things 
clearer, to provide sober sense with which to guide action. 
Capital was vast and expansive, but its relational form was 
simple and clear. Yet just around the corner, flowing on 
from the separation of communication from the transport 
and production of goods, was not clarity but excess. 

Consider Regis Debray's comments, in his Prison Writings, 
on Marx's Capital: "To get some idea of the absolute 
originality (and no-one since has attempted anything like it) 
of Book I, we might imagine a rigorous analysis of the same 
kind in our own day, considering the most recent 
technological, scientific, demographic, financial and political 
events, the latest trade statistics, the parliamentary 
statements of the past year or two, and so on, none of which 
we see as having any theoretical status, or even any 
particular significance, since these very disparate elements 
are not linked with any structure or organised movement 
which would account for their appearance at this moment, 
or in this particular form."3 

Such a project today would probably be impossible, and 
perhaps it already was when Marx attempted it. The volume 
and velocity of such information is that much greater, the 
texture and grain of events that circulate within it that much 
finer, that no one theorist could articulate such a body of 
data, let alone propose a theory of how such events are 
constituted and constructed as well. For this reason, we 
cannot say with Marx that 'man is at last forced to face his 
relations with his kind.' In the absence of information one 
can only guess in the dark. In the presence of a little 
information things and their relations begin to take on the 
outline of a definite form. Add more and then more 
information and the outline blurs in a blizzard of opaque 
data, and outline slips from view again.

So what happens if one takes away that last governing 
clause? The one that says "...and man is at last compelled to 
face with sober sense, his real conditions of life and his 
relations with his kind." What if 'man' is not  compelled to 
face with sober sense his real conditions of life and his 
relations with his kind; and at last all that is solid melts into 
air, and all that is sacred is profaned -- and that is all? What 
if, rather than sobriety and clarity comes a melting away of 
sense itself, into complexity and flux, a loss of sense and of 
place? What remains now of our contract with modernity 
and modernisation? Rather than Marx's revolutionary 
pledge, is it not now more like a Faustian bargain? The text 
loses its sense of closure, but not its sense of the opening up 
of possibilities, of change, of dynamism. What is left is an 
indeterminate negation: the revolutionising of social 
relations remains, but the status of the text changes. No 
longer a monument to a prophesied future, it acts rather as a 
document, situated in  history. Nothing else remains. 

The history this text finds itself within is a double history: a 
history of territory redoubled and anticipated on the map of 
a burgeoning flow of information. As already mentioned; 
the sense of temporal certainty in this passage is a product of 
its rhetorical construction, its construction as text. Its 
effectiveness does not lie in the accuracy with which it 
'predicts' a history in the process of becoming. Such a view 
would rely on the metaphysics of a history with a subject 
and a goal, no less than a history which is unitary and not 
subjected to the separation of the information landscape 
from the territory of social relations. Its effectiveness lies in 
its very nature. It is an exemplary rhetorical text, and one 
put into circulation with remarkably effectiveness, 
particularly given the rather modest resources of the 
Communist League of the time. 

The Manifesto has come to have a dispersal and a longevity 
on the information landscape way out of proportion to the 
resources of those who launched its career there. Of course, 
this text comes to have effects in the territory of local 
struggles as well, to the extent that it is archived and 
circulated by organisations tied to the territory and its 
relations. Indeed, it is even put in circulation these days in 
universities. It resides in the archive. Nevertheless, its 
major career is as pure information, not tied to any given 
place, circulating far more rapidly and far further than the 
forms of organisation which nurtured it. The Manifesto 
itself succeeds to the extent that it became -- and remains -- 
pure information in circulation on the information 
landscape. It fails to the extent that this very mobility 
prevents it from taking root.

This writing belongs, not to a monument outside the history 
it narrates, nor to a philosophical system of the kind Marx 
was striving to leave behind, but to a practice of 
communication, a process of writing and rewriting, what the 
Situationists called "detourning", or the appropriation and 
retooling of phrases, terms, polemics. Which is why, as the 
Situationists said, "Marx needs to be detourned by those who 
are continuing on this historical path, not idiotically quoted 
by the thousand varieties of recouperators."4 As the famous 
passage makes clear, overcoming of Marxist texts, 'before 
they can ossify' is a necessity imposed by the dynamics of 
capitalism itself. This is why one must return to the text and 
recuperate Marxism at a faster rate than the normal pace of 

Marxism is a discourse which tries to pass into the 
information landscape of its time, and as such act as a tool, a 
stylus, for inscribing the social relations occupying the 
territory of capital beneath. Marxism hypothesises a dynamic 
capital, capital as an abstract form of relation which achieves 
its precarious unity only at the price of a ceaseless process of 
separation and division. That process of separation has come 
to split the social relations of information from those of all 
other kinds of production. The information landscape 
emerges from this division of labour as a sphere with its 
own process of development and its own speed of 
movement.5 The form and style of intervention in the 
information landscape and its possible relations with the 
social relations of the territory are thus also subject to this 
dynamic process. This is why the hypothesis of the 
postmodern is significant to Marxists. Not as a new object for 
the same old kinds of textual speculations, but because it 
would announce the necessity of new forms of information 
practice, of praxis per se. 

When he writes of all that is solid melting into air, Marx 
describes the movement of capital from the point of view of 
appearances, from the point of view of the information 
landscape. In this passage from the Grundrisse, the same 
movement is described from the other side, as it were, from 
the side of capital's movement over the territory.
" drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as 
much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, 
confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present 
needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive 
towards all of this, and constantly revolutionises it, tearing 
down all the barriers which hem in the development of the 
forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided 
development of production, and the exploitation and 
exchange of natural and mental forces. But from the fact that 
capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets 
ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has 
really overcome it, and, since every such barrier contradicts 
its character, its production moves in contradictions which 
are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited. ... 
The universality towards which it irresistibly strives 
encounters barriers in its own nature, which will, at a 
certain stage of its development, allow it to be recognised as 
being itself the greatest barrier to this tendency, and hence 
will drive towards its own suspension."6

Once again Marx characterises capitalism as a dynamic, 
modernising force, one which, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix 
Guattari would say, "deterritorialises".7 Capital overcomes 
barriers, sets in motion flows of people, money, 
commodities, cultures. He characterises capital as a 
universalising tendency which gets caught up in its own 
complexities, which in attempting to overcome external 
barriers, becomes its own internal barrier, "constantly 
overcome and constantly posited". The idea is a powerful 
one, but ultimately rhetorical: capital overcomes barriers, 
that it needs to overcome barriers becomes the barrier. 

Here again is the danger of imposing a narrative line on the 
future direction of capitalism -- as if something so dynamic 
and mutable could have ends that could be given in 
advance. There is also a danger in seeing this process as 
something transparent, something graspable as a whole. 
While capitalism liquidates old ideological forms, 
transmitting itself through walls, rendering them 
transparent, it also fabricates new ones, no less opaque than 
their predecessors. Moreover, capitalism seems to ceaselessly 
add to the complexity of the division of labour, not least of 
intellectual labour, thereby making a transparent rendering 
of the whole more and more difficult. 

Yet there is much in this passage that seems a fabulous 
commentary on recent events. The "exploitation and 
exchange of natural and mental forces" has indeed been 
preceding apace, but at different paces. Mental forces, the 
spectacle has been proliferating apace, even where the social 
relations of the territory it covers have not yet become 
modern. Thus the "expansion of needs" outstrips the 
expansion of production, and the revolt indeed occurs, but 
in favour of more expansion, not its suspension. The 
'ideological' appears, not as a distorted reflection, but a 
narrative anticipation of the expansion of the infrastructure. 
It appears to lead, not follow. The infrastructure may be 
determinate in the last instance, but the ideological appears 
to be prior and leading. The barriers we have all just 
watched being overcome appear to include a rigid and 
dogmatic Marxism, one which ossified, which has now been 

In the movement of the abstraction that is capital, its great 
unification of the world under the sign of the world market 
takes place as an endless process of overcoming which is also 
an endless process of division and separation. This division 
and separation, as it becomes more and more complex, 
requires more than markets to thread it together. It requires 
an information network which precedes the movement of 
labour and materials and goods around in its abstracted 
territory. Or in other words, the partially abstracted territory 
requires a fully abstracted information landscape in order to 
function. As suggested previously, this separation is 
significant enough to warrant the speculation that it entails 
a further development of the division of labour that is 
qualitatively distinct, and which may have given rise to a 
new class. 

As ought to be clear by now, the aspect of Marx that I would 
want to bring back from the archive in this time machine is 
his writing practice, rather than any particular writings. 
Detached from their original context as mass pamphlets, or 
printed in fabulously inventive forms of newspaper, one all 
too easily loses sight of Marx's communication practice. This 
practice was always a search for what was modern: leaving 
poetry for philosophy, philosophy for journalism can be 
read as a search for the modern form. 

As Marshall Berman shows in his magnificent book All 
That is Solid Melts into Air, Marx was optimistic about the 
modernisation of society and the modernity of culture.8 I 
think it fair to say he was straining for a communication 
practice appropriate to it. The tragedy lies in the fact that 
Marx did not take his own analysis of the dynamic 
movement of capital quite seriously enough. It was a 
remarkable feat of research to discover, in a tiny corner of 
the globe, a kind of social relation which would devour the 
whole the world in the eyeblink of a century. 

Now that capital is so well on the way to digesting the globe, 
bringing east and west under its law of perpetual change, 
and perpetually changing law, perhaps its time to turn to a 
no less gifted writer in the European revolutionary traditon, 
Guy Debord, who rephrases "all that is solid" in a rather 
more sardonic and contemporary tone:
"It has become ungovernable, this 'wasteland', where new 
sufferings are disguised with the name of former pleasures; 
and where people are so afraid they go around and around 
in the night and are consumed by fire. They wake up 
startled, and, fumbling, search for life. Rumour has it that 
those who were stealing it have, to crown it all, mislaid it. 
Here then is  a civilisation which is on fire, capsizing and 
sinking completely. Ah! Fine torpedoeing!" 9


1 Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, Penguin in association with New 
Left Review, London, 1973, pp70-1. 

2 At this point we can note that Marx's view of modernity and 
modernisation is unequivocably an Hegelian one, in the sense that the 
destructive impulses of capitalism are seen as a negation in the sense of 
determinate negation - the transformation of a thing into something the critical discussion of determinate negation and the unity of 
movement in Michael Rosen, Hegel's Dialectic and its Criticism, 
Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 1982

3 Regis Debray, 'Time and Politics', in Prison Writings, The Pelican Latin 
American Library, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1975, p87-88

4Mustapha Khayati, 'Captive Words. Preface to a Situationist Dictionary', 
in Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public 
Secrets, Berkeley CA, 1981, p171

5 See McKenzie Wark, Virtual Geography: Living With Global Media 
Events, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994

6 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin in association with New Left Review, 
Harmondsworth, 1977, p410

7 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and 
Schizophrenia Vol. 1, Athlone Press, London, 1984 

8 Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Verso, London, 1983 

9 Guy Debord, In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni, Pelagian Press, 
Londin, 1991, p. 74

McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie University, and is 
the author of Virtual Geography (Indiana) and The Virtual Republic 
(Allen & Unwin). He writes a column for the Higher Education 
Supplement of The Australian and describes himself as "yet another 
lapsed Marxist in the pay of Rupert Murdoch."

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