Pieter Vermeulen, Tom Chadwick

Published: 29/04/2016

Tags: essay science

On McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. This essay was first published in Dutch in nY #29.


That recent literary critical discourse is awash with a term from Earth Science is at first glance surprising. Such a Fremdkörper in the vocabulary of critical theory inevitably generates new potentialities and constraints in the ways we read now. In this essay, we want to map a number of ongoing changes in reading practices, and then zoom in on McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red, one of the most notable—and definitely one of the most widely noted—critical reorientations of literature in geological time. The Anthropocene—the term in question—is the name Paul Crutzen and others have given to the period of geological time in which we are living now. Crutzen is an atmospheric chemist from Holland who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995 for his work on the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer. In the year 2000 Crutzen, alongside the biologist Eugene Stoermer, proposed the term Anthropocene as a new geological epoch that names the impact of humankind on the planet’s biological, chemical, and geological processes.

In the same manner as historians divide human history into ancient, medieval, and modern—and then spend a lot of their energy renegotiating, bemoaning, nuancing, strategically bracketing, etc. these divisions—so geologists carve up the history of the Earth. The cast is very different: rather than kings, battles, and angry peasants, Earth’s time is divided in relation to the ruling powers of rock, water, and life. Also very different is the archive: geological and meteorological data from previous times can be read in ice cores, silt deposits, and fossils. Studying these agents and archives has led to the insight that the most recent shift in geological time occurred 12,000 years ago when the last major ice age, the Pleistocene, gave way to the Holocene, a period characterized by a more stable climate and slower moving tectonics. 


The human species as a geological force

Or so we used to think. The argument put forward by Crutzen is that the human species (the rise of whom is one of the products of the Holocene) is now so great an influence on the environment as to demand a new geological epoch. In short, because the impact of human activity on the environment would be readable in the stratified layers of the Earth’s crust, we should properly be talking of an epoch of the Anthropocene rather than the Holocene. Now even within the field of geology, the Anthropocene is far from a unified paradigm and the term has yet to be officially adopted by the geological community (the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Anthropocene Working Group’s current target date for a decision is 2016). While earlier geological epochs can be explored with empirical analysis of the Earth’s crust, demarcating an epoch of the Anthropocene is more speculative and relies on projecting our empirical understanding of the present atmosphere into a longer geological timescale. There will not be conclusive evidence of the exact human impact on the Earth’s crust for thousands if not millions of years; and moreover—if the predictions of human extinction are correct—neither will there be human geologists to collect it.

Crutzen himself has suggested that the argument for a shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene is perhaps less about precise science and more about proactive politics. ‘Teaching students that we are living in the Anthropocene, the Age of Men, could be of great help’, he writes. ‘Rather than representing yet another sign of human hubris, this name change would stress the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth.’ Even within geology, then, the Anthropocene names not only a period of geological time but is rather part of a wider (and inevitably normative) conversation about the impact of humans on the environment. So it matters when we take the Anthropocene to have started (when we locate what geologists call a ‘golden spike’ in the geological record): with the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 16 July 1945, spreading radioactive isotopes around the world? With the invention of the steam engine by James Watt, kick-starting the ecologically devastating Industrial Revolution? Or with the European colonization of the Americas, which led to the globalization of foodstuff, pollen, and germs? All these moments have been proposed, and they all reflect and shape the ways we understand the role of human life in the ongoing environmental crisis.

In his discussion of the term Anthropocene, Wark notes that ‘the human is no longer that figure in the foreground.’ If the human species is an active geological force, phenomena previously presumed natural such as species extinction, deforestation, soil-erosion, overfishing, and climate change insistently refuse to serve as human life’s stable background; instead, what we supposed to be background is now foreground, and is also partly manmade. Which means the human is now confusingly distributed across foreground and background.

This realization starts to indicate the reason why a term from geology has been rapidly adopted by the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, outside of geology the Anthropocene is perhaps best understood as a cluster of questions and anxieties about the impact of humans on the environment and the implications of an environmental crisis for the relationship between nature and man. Bruno Latour has argued that the geologic self-naming of ‘humanity as a force of the same amplitude as volcanoes or even of plate tectonics’ becomes an occasion for examining ‘meaning’ and creates an urgent demand for ‘an alternative narrative'. The question of the Anthropocene has served as a catalyst for discussions across disciplines such as history, sociology, philosophy, and literature—disciplines traditionally concerned with articulating and policing the way the species describes itself. Here the motivation is not to solve or even complicate the scientific question but to rather reflect an epoch of the Anthropocene back on to the question of what to do with definitions of man and environment, nature and culture, in the face of a genuinely planetary crisis. As Latour suggests, the critical currency of the Anthropocene outside of science is in practice perhaps best understood as a question of ontology, of how to comprehend the responsibility of the species in a world where humans function as both subject and object.



In line with other critical discourses, literature’s adoption of the term Anthropocene can be seen as naming certain anxieties of the present rather than a precise period of geological time. While the study of literature has been swift to pick up on the Anthropocene’s implications for the reframed relations between man and planet, the examination of environmental anxieties in literary studies predates the adoption of this notion, and coincides with the trajectory of the subfield of ecocriticism. If Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) is popularly held to be the first text of modern environmentalism, ecocriticism did not emerge as a fully-formed discipline until the 1990s. Early scholarship was diverse in interests but can be collected around two trends: firstly, a focus on ‘green writing’, be that through a previously ignored canon of nature writing (best exemplified by Lawrence Buell) or the previously neglected perspective of nature within the existing canon (Jonathan Bate); secondly, an optimism centered on a notion of the ‘literary imaginary’ as providing a privileged means to think beyond the current crisis.

Notably, early ecocriticism found fertile roots in the American transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau and in the English romanticism of poets like Wordsworth and Clare. Yet while texts from these traditions have contributed significantly to a certain green literary imaginary, they are typically constructed around a liberal humanist perspective that is most obviously challenged by the notion of the Anthropocene. If the Anthropocene is the culmination of the objectification of natural resources, it is also the moment at which a solid humanist perspective is troubled. As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose recent work is a compulsive touchstone in debates about the Anthropocene in the humanities, has noted, an epoch of the Anthropocene requires a shift from individual agency to species responsibility, and an understanding of human agency on several different scales at once. Furthermore, and with respect to literature more specifically, both the vast scale of geological time and the fact that the Anthropocene will only be fully readable in the Earth’s crust after the extinction of the human species force the collision of the previously distinct realms of human and natural history.

The impact of the Anthropocene on literature is best understood, then, through a somewhat paradoxical extension of scale and contraction of limits. On the one hand, the Anthropocene forces us to think outside of the framework of the individual (or even the bounded community) and move toward the perspective and responsibility of a species—or, at the very least, consider the interaction between the most powerful and polluting populations in the species and those human populations whose impact on the environment is minimal; any reframed understanding of the relations between culture and nature must be wary of treating the human species as a singular effort, and rather conceive it as the ever-shifting effect of complex interactions between different hierarchies of human and nonhuman behavior.

On the other hand, the indelible mark of the Anthropocene on the Earth’s geology demands that the human species think within the limits of the environment that we have created. As the ecocritic Timothy Clark puts it in a recent book: ‘If the Anthropocene entails living in a space of contracting freedom of movement and increased resistance to overview, then a stronger ecocriticism may emerge from one more directly engaged with its own current limits.’ In more practical terms this paradoxical rescaling has led to three major recent developments within ecocriticism: first, a desire to broaden the literary archive beyond the now traditional remit of green writing (a recent book, Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green, reimagines ecological thinking through some fifteen different colors); second, a call for a more self-reflective, self-critical ecocriticism; and third, an increasing consideration of discourses of the non- or posthuman.

As a good example of these three shifts, we can mention Timothy Clark’s recent analysis of a Raymond Carver short story. Carver is not normally associated with ecological themes, but rather with the (at least) mixed blessings of family life and the discontent besetting the lower middle-class in the deindustrializing United States of the last decades of the twentieth century. Clark shows that the focus on human subjects and the ‘methodological nationalism’ of extant literary critical approaches can be complemented by a planetary perspective that resituates Carver’s world on a global scale and in a period spanning several centuries. In this way, nonhuman agents enter the picture: the fossil fuel that powers the American idea of freedom, or the infrastructures that allows Carver’s impoverished protagonists to live a life that, on this expanded scale, appears as unusually affluent.  

In short, the salutary impact of the question of an Anthropocene on literary studies has been to widen the remit of ecocritical enquiry. The Anthropocene has generated interdisciplinary openings, even while it has fostered an awareness that these openings need to be pursued on a limited playing field—without fantasies of infinite growth or self-evident resilience, or even without assuming the same humanist logic that produced planetary crises in the first place. It is within this critical atmosphere that Molecular Red can be read. For Wark, the Anthropocene is not simply a period of geological time, but rather a call for new ideas—and, as his book shows, for new and unexpected literary archives and critical methods. As we will argue in the rest of this text, these critical methods are—more than Wark himself might be aware of—fully compatible with the kind of cognitive capitalism that, so we contend, threatens to neutralize the activist potential that Wark ascribes to his ideas. In light of that threat, it might be a better option not to sacrifice forms of literature and of reading too soon—at least not before we know what battle we are actually fighting.


Low Theory 

Even if Molecular Red is officially dedicated to the question of critical thinking in the Anthropocene, and even if it also spends a lot of pages on discussions of literature, Wark’s concerns are not those of a card-carrying ecocritic: he grew up in Australia where, as he recalls in the book’s conclusion, he worked as a communist activist; he is most famous for The Beach beneath the Street, a book on the Situationist International, and A Hacker Manifesto, which probes the status of property, labor, and politics in the digital age. Molecular Red combines the archival focus of the former work with the manifest urgency of the latter book: its main practice is mining as yet unmined intellectual archives to gather resources for radical critical practice—‘glean[ing] some forgotten histories, neglected concepts, and minor stories that might usefully re-orient thought.’

The radical entwinement of human and nonhuman life that characterizes the Anthropocene, Wark believes, also means that traditional disciplinary silos have to be torn down and knowledge restored to the commons: the Anthropocene spells the end of academic philosophy, Western Marxism, and of high theory (Wark has few scruples about continuing to flog this particular dead horse). In their stead, Wark advocates what he calls ‘low theory’—a promiscuous, practice-minded recombination of conceptual and imaginative resources that, once properly networked, will enrich and fortify critical practice; low theory is an effort ‘to extract from particular labor processes those diagrams of form and relation that might have experimental application elsewhere’; it somehow brings humanist discourse into the orbit of design and engineering, shifting it to the level of ‘secondary ideas’—ideas that ‘should be practical, attaching [them]sel[ves] to the problem of life and inert matter, rather than life and soul.’

Molecular Red retrieves critical resources through a surprising and unprecedented juxtaposition of very diverse archives: the first two parts return to the work of Alexander Bogdanov and Andrey Platonov, two Soviet intellectuals who were only marginal players in the now solidly marginalized archive of Soviet intellectual history (an archive, moreover, whose environmental credentials are debatable at best), while the last two parts move from Russia to California for a discussion of what Wark calls ‘Cyborg Haraway’—a constellation of writers connected to the feminist scholar of science and technology Donna Haraway—and finally Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction Mars Trilogy.

The juxtaposition of post-revolutionary Russia and post-everything California thrives on the shock of surprise, and the same goes for the selection of these particular oeuvres: if Lenin and Stalin now count as the great losers of twentieth-century history, Wark reminds us that Bogdanov—once Lenin’s main intellectual and strategic rival—and Platonov—whose career followed the not uncommon trajectory from favorite of the regime to censored persona non grata—lost against these losers; the book’s wager is that there might be ‘something to glean from the faded tactics of the losers.’ Wark’s retrieval work is an attempt to polish these faded remnants and make them shine again—in the conviction that ‘among the ruins, something living yet remains.’

Haraway and Robinson, in their turn, are included because of their particular location in California (Haraway has long been associated with the History of Consciousness program at the University of California in Santa Cruz; Robinson lives in California): they confront the particular blend of countercultural cool and techno-optimism that makes up the ‘California Ideology’ head-on, and reveal the ‘latent destiny’ that erodes California’s manifest destiny from within as it heralds a radically altered future— ‘an undoing of that time in which the future was like the present, only more of it.’ Haraway and Robinson move beyond the capitalist realism—which sees the only response to environmental degradation in more markets, more technology, or in an aggregate of individual changes—that exhausts the contemporary imagination; in the same way, Bogdanov and Platonov sidestep the constraints of socialist realism (the dominant literary template in the USSR) and intimate hidden potentialities in the cracks and fissures of its literary Potemkin villages. All four intimate what Wark calls an ‘alternative realism’—a mode of engagement with the drastically changed assemblages of the human and the nonhuman that make up the Anthropocene present.

So a solid 75% of Wark’s archive is made up of writers who are (among other things) novelists; he is officially interested in new and less exhausted forms of realism; yet if we want to conclude from this that literature is a privileged imaginative resource for Wark, we have to add that it is a particularly non-literary version of literature. If Bogdanov is a novelist, he is also a scientist, doctor, and theorist; and if Platonov wrote novels, he also worked as an engineer. It is this versatility that allows Wark to marshal these figures as exemplary border-crossers and post-disciplinary explorers; yet making that claim means focusing far more on these thinkers’ methods and critical attitudes than on the substance of their ideas. What Wark especially admires in Bogdanov, for instance, is his ‘tektology’. Tektology stands to dialectical materialism as Bogdanov’s alternative realism stands to socialist realism: it is ‘[n]either a theory or a science’, but rather ‘a practice which generalizes the act of substitution by which one thing is understood metaphorically via another. It is a practice of making worldviews.’ Tektology uses ‘metaphor’ and ‘conjunction’ as ways of ‘organizing knowledge for difficult times.’ Tektology is ‘a poetics of producing alternative analogies’; it is, in other words, the very thing Molecular Red wants to be—a combinatory practice that replenishes existing debates on the ethics and politics of the Anthropocene. Yet what it aims to recombine is exemplary instances of recombination—Bogdanov’s tektology, Platonov’s ‘factory of literature’ (a practice of ‘borrowing and correcting ready-made elements’ in which the writer does not create but selects and assembles like a ‘critic-engineer’), all authors’ practices of détournement (‘taking all of past culture and knowledge to be a commons, as always and already belonging to all of us’)…; while Molecular Red does engage with its authors’ take on topics such as labor, sensation, and community, it can’t hide that it is most interested in methods, attitudes, approaches, postures.

This focus at times threatens to obscure the substance of Wark’s own tektology. This is perhaps to the book’s detriment, because beneath the frantic surface of Wark’s text, at least two aspects of his borrowed thought stand out in relation to the existing canon of ecocritical theory: the location of his optimism surrounding collective effort; and his pragmatic and rigorously unromantic understanding of nature. Optimism leaps from every sentence of Molecular Red and often descends into a frantic soap-box rhetoric that fills pages with a call to arms in the first person plural: ‘Let’s take this world historical moment’; ‘Let’s not despair.’ But beneath the urgency, it is worth noting that Wark does not locate his optimism in the traditional purview of environmentalist thought. Wark shares traditional environmentalism’s refusal to subscribe to the notion that ‘the market will take care of everything’ or that capitalism need simply innovate its way out of the crisis; perhaps more innovative is his dismissal of both the suggestion that we simply need ‘social change in which we all become individually accountable for quantifying and limiting our own carbon ‘footprint’”, and the conviction that our future can only be preserved through a ‘romantic turn away from the modern.’ These positions start to distinguish him from the existing canon of ecocritical theory. Wark is on the lookout for something that will save the many not the few, with none of the attendant naivety about markets or romanticism of wilderness. Moreover, Wark is determined that traditional answers from both the perspectives of climate-change denial and existing environmentalism are not simply problematic on an ethical level but also ineffective on a practical one.

This insight is made manifest by the way in which Molecular Red defines nature. Drawing on Bogdanov, Wark dismisses idealist and materialist philosophies that approach the world ‘as an object of contemplation’ and instead views ‘nature as the arena of labor.’ For Wark, neither labor not nature can be conceived without the other because they are ‘historically co-produced concepts.’ What is more, labor only comes into being trying to bend ‘resistant’ nature to its purposes. Wark’s reading of the relation between nature and labor might be drawn in part from a Marxist archive and it might at times sound very much like Marxist rhetoric, but it is more intelligent than a harrowed call for a shift in the means of production. For if tektology makes not only ‘all humans comrades, but all things comrades’ then nature by Wark’s definition is not stable but dynamic.

Thus Wark’s dismissal of another tenet of more traditional environmentalism: ‘We still tend to think that if we stop certain actions, an ecology will right itself and return to homeostasis. But perhaps that is not the case… What if there is only an unstable nature.’ It is in this definition of nature that Wark’s cross-pollination between Bogdanov and Haraway is at its most pertinent. Wark presents a version of nature that is both social and dynamic; he is not seeking a glorious return to the wild, nor does he believe such a return to be possible—‘we are cyborgs’ and we can’t un-cyborg ourselves. This also means that we cannot remain blind to technological and scientific developments; without these, we would not even have knowledge of planetary changes and about the metabolic rift—the tendency of capitalism to destabilize the relations between social and ecological systems—running through human life in the Anthropocene.

It is unfortunate that Molecular Red does not devote more time to this analysis of nature or indeed expand it to other aspects of ecocritical thought, as some of the claims Wark collates from his Soviet and Californian archives do mark a genuine departure from existing ecocritical positions. No one could accuse Wark’s chosen canon of being devoted to ‘green writing’ and more significantly no one could accuse his definition of nature as being indebted to romantic understandings of a stable wilderness to which we must return. In a similar vein, Wark’s optimism is not built around the resilience of liberal humanism but the potential of tektology, of a social organization that sees humans, environment, and technology cohabiting within nature. In that sense, Molecular Red provides an indication of how Chakrabarty’s notion of ‘species responsibility’ might play out. But if Wark rigorously refuses to romanticize either his ecocriticism or to some extent his Marxism, he is, we want to suggest, perhaps unable to resist romanticizing his methods.



Whatever insight Wark might be able to draw from his alternative canon of literary works is always secondary to the practice of drawing together itself. Thus, more than the retrieval of ideas, what Wark’s retrieval work predominantly delivers is a series of historically obliterated re- or pre-descriptions of such retrieval work. If Molecular Red devotes a significant number of pages to discussions of literature, it tends to present this literature as meta-methodological interventions, as meta-critical work (in marked contrast to most ecocriticism, which tends to highlight literature’s mimetic and expressive qualities; it is no surprise Wark privileges works of science fiction, the most speculative of literary genres). Which is to say that the book’s main imaginative resource is, well, theory. Which is to say that for all its focus on low theory, Molucular Red is still very much theory; indeed, such is its relentless focus on method over substance that it actually ends up being more theoretical than a good deal of the high theory that Wark is convinced the Anthropocene demands we discard. Even if low theory, like other forms of what Bertolt Brecht calls plumpes Denken, suggests an attunement to raw reality, it remains first and foremost a conceptual process.  

This conflict is evident in the very style of the work. It reads like a collection of class notes for a graduate seminar. The writing is not very polished: the book consists of mostly fairly short paragraphs that are unsure whether they are really stylistic units or merely expanded bullet points—as if they can’t decide whether they are participating in a scholarly discussion or in a war. There is nothing wrong with this, but it underlines Wark’s impatience with the merely theoretical status of his speculations and his desire for a more activist stance. Also, the mode of argumentation is rigorously undialectical—Wark embraces ‘a pungent dose of vulgarity’ because, as he writes, the vulgar is ‘the common, the ordinary, the multitudinous, the abundant, the coarse, and the indecent’, which are all, he adds, ‘pertinent things’. Most telling is Wark’s habit of introducing quotations with the name of the author and a colon: for instance simply, ‘Crutzen:’. He would have you believe he is inviting the writer into a comradely conversation, but in doing so he is also absenting himself from any responsibility to examine all sides of an argument, more often than not pulling blocks of text from the archive for the exposition of method without critically considering either their content or the context of their production.

In the case of literary analysis, which takes up a big part of Molecular Red, vulgarity apparently means extensive plot summary—the kind of thing that undergraduate education is designed to help students unlearn, but that Wark apparently wants to reintroduce in the post-high-theory graduate seminar. On Molecular Red’s own terms, this investment in exhibiting and curating literature that would otherwise go unread counts as a deliberate strategy: it is a performance of attention, a practice of updating and foregrounding material that seems worthy of recirculation. Wark’s retrieval work, we could say, makes his obscured Russians available for likes and favorites and retweets—and, who knows, for a viral digital afterlife.

Such practices of recirculation and recontextualization owe a lot to the situationist technique of détournement, which Wark repeatedly mentions and practices with great enthusiasm, and they are vital steps in the imagining and theorization of a program for social change; our problem with this is that Wark often restricts himself to these critical gestures and attitudes, and that it is not clear to us what Wark imagines will happen after that. In general, for all its insistence on the activist potential of its low-theoretical ideas, his analysis thrives on a weirdly abstract understanding of capitalism (organized around Marx’s notion of the ‘metabolic rift’): there is no mention of economic inequality, nor of developments in cognitive capitalism that at least qualify Wark’s activist optimism. This absence of a more fine-grained analysis of capitalism has been detected in many discussions of the Anthropocene, and it has led some critics to propose the alternative notion of the Capitalocene (the term is Jason W. Moore’s).

Wark’s performance and the material he retrieves mirror one another; and as that material is marked by a refusal to honor customary forms of causality or disciplinary conventions, this means that Wark’s performance cannot be judged by customary critical categories. Wark’s term for the kind of assessment he does find appropriate is ‘comradely’; ‘critical thought’, for Wark, is ideally ‘a kind of comradely practice’—strictly amateur and non-professional, it is ‘a practice of comradely sharing among different knowledge practices.’ So when Wark responds to a review of his book by Maria Chehonadski that argues, basically, that his scholarship is kind of weak, his reply is that ‘[h]er review is in no sense comradely.’ By insisting on scholarly standards—such as, for instance, not only basing discussions of Platonov on translations of censored and edited versions of his texts—Chehonadski, for Wark, claims ‘mastery and ownership of the field of Russian letters’ and thus reinstates ‘hierarchies of authority.’ Two things are remarkable here: first, Wark seems to think that such hierarchies do not exist in the digital seminar room he imagines himself to be in (one imagines a picture of a smiling Jürgen Habermas guarding the entrance door); second, Wark’s tendency to immunize himself against substantial criticism and shift attention to critics’ attitude is all too reminiscent of very familiar forms of digital micro-aggression—we can call it concern trolling, we can call it tone policing, but whatever we call it, it gives the lie to the fantasy of an nonhierarchical realm of knowledge production.

While the location of Wark’s optimism in a collective consciousness might distinguish Molecular Red from traditional environmental thought, it is in the final assessment itself not free from illusions of its own. For one thing, Wark’s optimism—which he gave a theoretical basis in his Hacker Manifesto from 2004, and which apparently has remained unaffected by digital developments in the past decade—overlooks that comradely connectedness today takes the shape of computerized and monetized connectivity; it is Facebook, not Proletkult. And while it no doubt makes sense to say that Mark Zuckerberg is not a very comradely guy, it is also clear that just policing his attitude is not going to make a lot of difference (as Zuckerberg’s recent gesture of self-policing in the shape of his ‘99% pledge’ to donate most of his Facebook shares to charity makes clear: the fact that it feels humanitarian does not prevent it from being just more rent extraction). If literature is to engage with other forms of knowledge in the pursuit of new critical practices for the Anthropocene, it is probably prudent not to flatten literature to something suspiciously non-literary, if only because, if these critical practices turn out be neither as critical nor as practical as some believe, it will leave us with a world without any of these things—literature, practice, critique. It might just be, of course, that this is already our world, and that Wark’s work is the not-so-alternative realism that belongs to it.