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McKenzie Wark McKenzie Wark
He was the young turk of Australian cultural studies in the 1980s and an architect of the emerging cyberscene of the 90s. He gave us a lexicon of key terms that shaped our understanding of the last 20 years. Like other notable Australian expats before him (Robert Hughes, Peter Carey), McKenzie Wark has settled in New York City, where he lives with his wife, the actor and writer Christen Clifford, and their son, Felix. Wark refers to himself as a New Yorker, but is quick to add that his roots (or should that be aerials) are still very much in Australia. His moniker has been notably absent from Australian literary pages in recent years and I caught up with him where he can always be found, on the net, to see what he has been up to.

Wark has been living in the United States for 5 years and has taught at a several East Coast universities before recently being appointed Professor of Cultural and Media Studies at Lang College, New School University in New York. He has been busy during this time, publishing 2 books, Dispositions (2002) and A Hacker Manifesto (2004). Dispositions is an experimental text, a kind of meditative travelogue that fuses sensation, memory and theoretical speculation on what it means to be somewhere, to occupy space in the early 21st century. A techno-savvy Rimbaud, Wark wanders in mind and space, mindful of the satellites and other surveillance devices that monitor everyday experience. He records his thoughts on paper, marking their time and exact geographical position using a handheld global positioning device. He refers to the work as a “conscious effort to change the way I write and also an attempt to deal with expatriation.”

A Hacker Manifesto is the culmination of an ongoing work in progress. It too has been influenced by his experience of living in the US. “Well, living in George Bush’s America for a while is enough to send you back to your Marxist roots! A Hacker Manifesto came partly out of observing the naked and intense class conflict here” (A long time columnist for The Australian, Wark was fond of referring to himself as a “lapsed Marxist in the pay of Rupert Murdoch.”). “A Hacker Manifesto is a book I’ve been trying to write for 20 years and it came out of my involvement in the new media scene. Alternative media practices and activism allowed me to map how capitalism is mutating under the influence of the kind of logistics I described in Dispositions.”

A Hacker Manifesto draws on Wark’s critique of the information economy in the light of key Marxist terms such as class and production. The hacker in Wark’s title, though, is not the data thief of cyberpunk fiction, but rather an innovator of ideas, often working in virtual and conceptual environments, but always producing outcomes for the realpolitik of the changing world around us. Terry Eagleton recognised the significance of A Hacker Manifesto as a re-thinking of classical Marxism in the epoch of video games, an age in which the “infoproles” or intellectual innovators are emerging as a new revolutionary class. Writing of it in The Nation, he asserted that the “time has now come for dispossessed innovators everywhere to form a collective class, and Wark’s manifesto is an opening salvo in this fresh form of class warfare.”

Well before he settled in New York City Wark was highly sensitive to the fluidity of terrain in the realm of the virtual, with its blurring of old colonial geometries of centre and periphery, world and antipodes. Wark’s aphorisms (“We no longer have roots we have aerials.” “We no longer have origins we have terminals”) provided the conceptual framework for exactly the kind of networked world we now inhabit—a world in which the internet, once the apotheosis of new media, is looking positively jaded in the face of the current generation of mobile media. Always looking beyond, rather than at the horizon, Wark has consistently prepared us for what we are about to become. He was one of the first writers in Australia to seriously put video games and game culture generally on the critical agenda. It is gaming culture that informs his recent and arguably most innovative project, GAM3R 7H30RY.

Wark was interested in exploring 2 central questions: can we consider games as allegories of the world we live in and is there a distinctive critical theory of games. Bypassing the global phenomenon of massively multiplayer online games, Wark engages with the more “obsolete” single-player console games, precisely because “we can now think of them critically as a classic form, like silent cinema.” However it is the manner in which the book is being written that is attracting considerable international attention. “I got a call from Ben Vershbow at the Institute for the Future of the Book. They explained their idea of the networked book and I suggested that GAM3R 7H30RY was something that could really benefit from dialogue in advance with different kinds of readers.” The Institute for the Future of the Book is an initiative of the Annenberg Centre for Communication at the New York campus of the University of Southern California. The concept of the “networked book” extends the 1990s shift in publishing from page to screen to a broader notion of a collaborative, distributed writing environment, “to see what happens when authors and readers are brought into conversation over an evolving text.” Wark wrote the initial text in a “modular structure” of 9 chapters of 25 paragraphs each. The idea of a “card-shuffle interface” was inspired by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards, which allowed readers to be very specific and detailed about their engagement with the text.

As Wark explains, “I thought it would be interesting to share the book in its draft state to see if these questions are something other people might have ideas on or might want to pursue”. The GAM3R 7H30RY website is the hub of an experimental publishing initiative, acting out Wark’s concept of the writer as a relation, a conduit that “transcribes between readers, editors and publishers” (unlike the author who “authorises” the book as object). Anyone can read the draft chapters of the book online, post comments and critically engage with Wark as the book is being written. Readers can also subscribe to the work in progress and have chunks delivered daily via RSS feed.

As a critical engagement with the concepts of authorship, writing and intellectual property, GAM3R 7H30RY is a book written out of the social software fabric of blogs and wikis, Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia and CiteULike. In other words, it represents a new writing practice that actively decentralizes the text as an object and disseminates it as an ongoing multi-channel conversation. “For the website version I put the title in L33T [leet or gaming speak], partly in tribute to the early MUDs, but also to have a unique search string to put in Google or Technorati to track who was talking about it and where. It’s been very interesting tracking people down on their blogs and lists where they talk about it and engaging with people there too.”

There is no prescribed outcome for what the finished book will be like, given that its incarnation as process, rather than product, is central to the project. Wark is currently in negotiations with Harvard University Press concerning a printed edition, which will include revisions based on the feedback from the website. A version is likely to remain online, but Wark is quick to advise that “we’re all making this up as we go along, so no promises!”

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 36

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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