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McKenzie Wark

Nicolas Lobo

This article is illustrated with stills from Foldit, an experimental video game used to research protein folding. Foldit was developed by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science along with the Department of Biochemistry.

The Miami Rail asked artist and frequent contributor Nicolas Lobo to speak to McKenzie Wark. He teaches at the New School and has published several books including Gamer Theory, The Beach Beneath the Street and most recently, The Spectacle of Disintegration. Here, they discuss the military, technology, and videogames.

NICOLAS LOBO (RAIL): I want to talk to you about the military entertainment complex and some of the things you have written relating to the subject. I am especially interested in your book Gamer Theory, although to be honest I rarely play computer games. I do have a weakness for games that venture into slack-jawed idiocy. For example, have you played “QUOP”? The player attempts to make the legs of a runner work by activating the left and right thigh and calf muscles using the letters Q-U-O-P on the keyboard. I noticed most of the examples of games in your book tended towards the more complex, narrative type, do you think the ultra-dumb games have interesting qualities concerning the ideas in your book?

McKENZIE WARK: It’s curious how the big, long, expensive console games have leveled off in terms of the number of people who play them, while casual games have taken off. Maybe it’s part of a general fragmenting of our space and time. We’re watching GIFs rather than movies, reading tweets rather than newspaper stories. Gamer Theory predicted this, after a fashion, with the idea of game-space, or the inclusion of more and more of social activity in game-like forms. Space and time become a kind of topology, where any point can connect to any other one so long as you don’t break the communicative connection between them.

So if one was to continue the critical inquiry of Gamer Theory today, then yes, one might look at pervasive or casual games, or objects that provide a critical and creative alternative. I would love to try your PurpleGoo, but my phone is out of date! And I think the same critical gambit as in Gamer Theory still applies: to what extent are games a kind of utopian version of the neoliberal promise, where the rules really are fair, the playing field really level, where you win on your merit? And then how does that utopia specific to the game work as critical leverage on a world that does not live up even to its own rhetoric?

RAIL: DARPA recently funded the development of a game called Foldit where the player competes with others to find new ways of folding proteins. For me Foldit crystalizes some ideas you wrote about in Gamer Theory by potentially offering the gaming of the player’s own cellular makeup. What happens to your idea of the allegorithm when it exits Boolean technology and engages a completely biological function?

WARK: I borrowed allegorithm from Alex Galloway, as a way of combining Ted Striphas on algorithm with Fred Jameson on allegory. Too much of the critique of video games was (and is) about them as representations, as if they were pictures or movies. But what matters is not what’s pictured but the algorithm: the procedure for turning inputs into an output. Algorithms in games work like allegories: as parallels of time-space worlds that appear to have a concordance. What is going on in both games and in everyday life is a kind of abstracting from scale. The very big and the very small can now connect directly, without having to go through “channels,” without a Platonist bureaucracy of a hierarchy of types. So not surprisingly the nano turns up a lot in games (Colin Milburn writes about this). And what’s going on is the emergence of a kind of topological space where not only can spatially disparate points fold together, but very different scales as well. Bypassing the level of the organism, for example, connecting gene reduced to code to tech reduced to code, as Eugene Thacker might have it.

RAIL: It’s impossible to discuss the military now without dragging in technology. I’m thinking of a short film made by Harun Farocki titled “Eye Machine I” (2001) in which he suggests that war is now primarily a policy of image-making in which the task of image production and selection is increasingly left to machines. Meanwhile, the most promising developments in the field of computer vision simulate mammalian neural systems of sight and interpretation. This brings to mind what you’ve written about the game experiencing the gamer. What human qualities can be examined with this emulation of our visual function, especially in the service of violence?

WARK: War is now information war. It’s not panoptic, however. It’s not about enclosing and categorizing, as Foucault had it. It’s more a vectoral than a disciplinary power. Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific is a much better guide to this than Discipline and Punish. As Smith shows, the British Navy was already conducting information war in the 1770s, and its scientific discoveries in the South Pacific were what led to an overturning of an order of nature conceived via ideal types in favor of emergent forms of empirical ordering. McLuhan once described the human as the reproductive organ of technology, but in our own time we are its sensory organs as well. We are all bio-sensors for Google and other kind of vectoral business. Perceiving and tagging the world, so that it might extract value from that data. It’s an economy that runs on surplus information more than surplus value. And it’s indistinguishable from its military wing. The military wing is in some sense cruder. It sends us tailored ads based on our data. It’s sending some other people pilotless drone attacks based on theirs.

RAIL: I’m also interested in what you’ve written about the Occupy movement, the idea of the vectoral and its uses in the absence of a viable political entity. Thinking about that subject a short paper by Pierre Clastres has stuck with me lately, Archeology of Violence. In the text he talks about war being used as a tool by South American tribes to prevent the organization of states. You suggest in your essay that the state has already been effectively dismantled by the ruling classes. Does it benefit those outside the ruling class to continue this disruption of state formation on their own terms?

WARK: The state is never just one thing. It has archeological layers. Parts of it are in a sense “ours,” and we might not want to see them further undermined. They are residues of past victories by labor, women, the Civil Rights Movement, and so on. One always wants a tactical sense of this. I think there’s a new peak to the ruling class. I call them a vectoral rather than a capitalist class. Their power rests not on land or capital but information. They think they can use information to route around the blockages that the subordinate classes have been able to erect to their abstracting of any and every resource, from spatial and temporal fixity or quality. In The Spectacle of Disintegration I take up Guy Debord’s strategic and tactical thought—he even designed a board game to embody its lessons. I think it’s much more useful to have a rather realist and tactical idea about politics, or more properly, about historical time. Most of the currently popular ways of thinking about it—Žižek, Badiou, Negri, etc.—have a certain magical and surrealist quality. Politics as a great leap, an event, a messianic moment. But that’s not how history really works. It’s a much more mundane business. It calls for another mode entirely.

RAIL: On the subject of the vectoral applied to geopolitics, I want to bring up prediction markets. There is an interesting potential for problems in their application, especially when the market starts to influence itself; the game and player roles get inverted. As the vectoral class system continues to refine itself I wonder: can it choke on its own level of detail?

WARK: Nate Silver took a look at whether prediction markets did better than an analysis of the polls in predicting the last American Presidential election, and as I recall, the answer was not so much. There seems to be a magical belief that prediction markets must work because, well—markets! But we have witnessed a catastrophic failure of the market to even predict the market. So I really don’t know why anyone is taking this seriously any more. But clearly, the vectoral class has reneged on the ultimate responsibility of any ruling class: a responsibility for history itself. You see it with climate change. As Philip Mirowski says, their plan has three stages: deny as long as possible, then cap and trade markets, then geo-engineer ways to get rid of the carbon that the fossil fuel industry will keep producing. It’s the strategy of a rentier class, with old lines of technology and monopoly to defend. The hysterical language of our time about creative disruption and innovation is to cover the complete lack of any real versions of these. So not surprisingly you have a ruling class with no stomach for truth; in actuality with a Nietzschian denial of any and every thing that smacks of truth.

RAIL: I think a discussion of Big Data is boring at this point, but its increasing complexity is a key factor in Gamer Theory. Can a time be imagined when the vectoral exceeds the physical in resolution, kind of a data-singularity?

WARK: It already does. We have financial trading at the speed of light. But the thing is there’s a divergence between the game and what it models. We’re living in a game more real than the world which resources it. The game has more detail, more speed, more resolution. It’s the world that is lacking. And hence we have stacked more chips in the game than actually exist in the world. The resources of several earths are in play. The data-singularity is where we live. Or at least where we live in a proximate sense. Behind the screen is the machine, and behind the machine is the power-cord, leading to a physical reality that is not up to the job. So to update Brecht: the vectoral class has dismissed this reality and appointed another one. One where they always win, where they can live eternally, without history, or what Tim Morton calls the mesh of things.

RAIL: In the introduction of your book The Beach Beneath the Street you urge the reader to escape the 21st century. After reading it I’m still feeling a bit trapped here. Maybe it’s because I like Paul McCarthy’s work, I don’t know. Have you managed to escape somehow?

WARK: That book is about the Situationist International, and I think they did a pretty good job of it, as all avant-gardes do. But the avant-garde function has changed. It’s not our job any more to play, subvert, disrupt or perhaps even revolutionize. That’s what the vectoral class does now when it rules. It bulldozes the social formations accreted over many centuries and establishes little games in their place, where they collect the rent. They have no new ideas, so they’re going after schools and universities, health care, even the military—all the things that some version of the socialized state always did better. It’s all to be contracted out to people who can do it worse and at a higher price. That’s what disruption means. So maybe leaving the 21st century calls for another kind of avant-garde. One that isn’t creative, playful, subversive or disruptive. Rather, one which builds its own situations, its own milieus with their own consistences, practices of everyday life, economies of gift and reciprocity, forms of opaque and polyvalent “identity” and so forth. There are some keys to how to do it in all the old avant-gardes, if you ruthlessly read them in terms of current needs rather than historical context. (And that after all is how avant-gardes always make themselves up out of their own pasts). I think there’s actually a dense mesh of phenomena that are in this sense outside these times. To rephrase William Gibson, “Another time is already present, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

The Rail would like to thank Lori Kelly for her help in researching this article