McKenzie Wark on Technological Constructionism and Tektology

Excerpted from McKenzie Wark:

This was a key insight of a now little-known thinker who has preoccupied me a lot lately: Alexander Bogdanov. He was Lenin’s rival for the leadership of the Bolsheviks, before Lenin forced him out. He spent a chunk of the rest of his life working on the problem of how different kinds of labor might collaborate. He wrote a utopian novel about it, and also something like a philosophy.

The problem, says Bogdanov, is that we make a fetish of the part of the total labor process that we happen to do ourselves, taking it to be the key part. We compound this error by imagining the rest of the process, the social whole, even the whole universe, according to metaphors drawn from our own particular labors. He called this substitution. Philosophy, says Bogdanov, is any system of thought that takes an image from a concrete labor process and explains the rest of the world by via substituting metaphors from what is known toward what is unknown. We image the rest on the pattern of the part we know. Thus: “The Lord is my shepherd” is a way of understanding heaven and earth – if one happens to be a shepherd.

Closer to home: humanists imagine the world as if what they did was, or ought to be, the most important thing in it; technologists, reciprocally, imagine the world as if what they did was, or ought to be, the most important thing in it. Both imagine that the part they work on is the key part, and the other parts can be thought on the same pattern, and moreover, should be. Humanists imagine technologists are a bunch of misogynistic apes who need sensitivity training. To caricature: Technologists think politics is a broken system that can be fixed with a quick hackathon.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that both sides are right in this. Tech workplaces do have a gender issue; politics is a broken system. How do we negotiate between the two worldviews? Its probably a fool’s errand to look for a grand synthesis. And in any case, from where would such a synthesis begin? There’s no end to imperial claims from one side or the other to explain the other better than the other knows themselves. Bogdanov had an interesting solution. Perhaps what we need then is not a grand theory or a master thinker, but a labor process which maps the thinking from one labor process onto another experimentally, to see if it really does have an image or a method which could be translated from one field to another. This, I think is what his big project, the tektology, was all about. It was a practice, not a theory, of consciously and experimentally translating the language of one labor process into another, to see if it worked.

For Bogdanov, progress would be a new organization of labor. He was a Marxist. But he insisted very strongly that progress also called for a new organization of knowledge. This would not be the monopoly of a party, however. It would be a new kind of practice of organizing the knowledge that arises out of labor. It would be a practice both poetic and scientific. A form of thought from one labor process could be metaphorically applied to others, but that substitution would have to be tested and verified. I think there’s a powerful, guiding insight in Bogdanov’s thought here, particularly for our times. A problem like climate change is going to need unprecedented collaboration between kinds of knowledge and labor. Such a challenge may well require of us that we produce new kinds of production relation, new technologies, new kinds of affective culture, new ways of organizing the world.

I also think that there’s a key here to putting some limits on the ambition of thought emanating from the humanities to explain the world all on their own. Us humanists can’t be stopped from imagining the world via our working tools of language. But there may be a way to relate those worldviews to others in a more productive way.

Take for example the way humanists reach so quickly for the insult ‘technological determinist!’ To even think in any constructive way about tech is to risk being charged with this. It shows up, for example, in David Golumbia’s otherwise quite interesting essay on the ‘technolibertarian’ right. One has to be a social constructionist, not a technological determinist, say those whose specialty is the practical knowledge of the social.

But why can’t one be a technological constructionist? Why is that not even a category of thought here? And why can’t one indict social determinists for their unwarranted metaphorical substitution, in which the world is “turtles all the way down”, but the turtles are social forms rather than technical ones? The game is rigged, you see. Against the fetish of the technical, the humanist brandish the fetish of the social. And on that basis pretty much zero progress has been made in thinking the relation between the technical and the social for thirty years.

My claim is not that this social determinism is wrong, but that it is partial. The social determinist makes a fetish of what she or he knows, and what she or he knows is an metaphorical substitution built out of what he or she does. To someone with a hammer, everything might look like a nail, but to someone with the idea of a hammer, everything looks like an idea of a nail. Everything looks like it is made of language and ideas to people who mostly work with language and ideas.

Social determinism comes in many flavors. Most recent ones do not , for curious reasons, actually emanate from sociology. Two more influential ones, at least in my world, have been culturalist and political. The former had its high water mark at the end of the twentieth century. A representative thinker would be Gayatri Spivak. Its code word was difference. Its métier was language. Looking at anything and everything as language, it found difference everywhere. The ‘politicalist’ version of social determinism became popular at the start of this century. A representative thinker would be Alain Badiou. Its métier was thought rather than language. Looking at the world armed with a rigorous training in abstract thought, it found the universal again, rather than difference.

This is crude, of course. The well trained humanist is already thinking ‘But…. But…’. But stick with me. I would argue that if we can’t shorthand a mode of thought, articulate it quickly within a particular moment and for that moment, then thought can never be a practice. This is why, I think, that Bogdanov was drawn to consider a poetics of metaphoric substitution and verification. It sounded like a kind of knowledge practice that could step out of the time of the seminar and into action. “

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