General Intellects: how public intellectuals of the twenty first century can write and think against their own commodification

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What happened to the public intellectuals that used to challenge and inform us? Who is the Sartre or De Beauvoir of the internet age? The decline of the public intellectual has to do with intellectual labor being absorbed into the production process. General Intellects argues we no longer have such singular figures, but there are, instead, general intellects whose writing could, if read collectively, explain our times. McKenzie Wark presented the idea behind General Intellects at a recent lecture at Virtual Futures in London. This is the first half of his talk.

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When talking about public intellectuals, it is obligatory to talk about their decline. The whole concept of the public intellectual implies a narrative of the fall. Once there were giants who spoke from on high, and now they are gone. There are a variety of culprits. They are extinct because of political correctness or academic jargon or identity politics. Or so the story goes.

I thought it might be more useful just to change the language, for a start. So rather than public intellectuals, let’s talk about general intellects. General intellect is a concept from Marx that I am quite frankly misusing. In the Grundrisse, Marx took an interest in the way what we might now call cognition became a part of the forces of production. Machinery, or what Marx called dead labor, replaced living labor, but machinery also embodied in its iron form the cognitive capacities of our species-being, which he called, in English, the general intellect.

One could say a lot more about the general intellect in Marx, but I want to switch gears and think about general intellects – in the plural. I’m going to define general intellects as those whose work is cognitive more than manual, as with a lot of work in the over-developed world, and whose work becomes part of a general commodification of cognition. As I argued many years ago in A Hacker Manifesto, the property form changed a lot in the late twentieth century, evolving elaborate forms of intellectual property which come very close to being absolute private property rights. What I then called the hacker class are those who cognitive efforts are caught in a mesh of technical and legal forms. 

Now, by hacker class I did not just mean those who hack computer code. The hacker class is all of us whose work is mostly cognitive, and which is captured in the form of intellectual property, where that intellectual property ends up being owned and controlled by someone else. So it doesn’t matter if you work with numbers or language or code or images – it is all rendered equivalent as intellectual property. We belong in the same class even though we do different things and have different and complicated identities. We belong in the same class because another class ends up owning or extracting most of the value from the product of our labor, which is information. 

One of the big stories that we’re still grappling with is how the effort of cognition could be captured technically as information, and how information in its technologized form could be subsumed within the commodity form. But here it’s not just a matter of a monstrous, eternal commodity form expanding to incorporate ever-new things. The becoming-commodified of information also changes what the commodity form is. Whatever this mode of production is, it’s just not the same thing as the steam-driven capitalism Marx confronted in the 1850s when he wrote the Grundrisse notebooks. 

What if this is not even capitalism any more but something worse? I think it’s worth the risk of a new diagnosis of what the mode of production now is, and hence who the ruling class, or rather ruling classes, are these days. Certainly, a capitalist class that exploits labor and profits from the ownership of the means of production still exists, just as a landlord class still exists that extracts ground rent. But if we can acknowledge that there were always two kinds of ruling class, landlord and capitalist, as Ricardo knew, and Marx knew, then why not a third? 

I call the ruling class that emerged in our time the vectoralist class. They do not own land. They do not even own the means of production. Rather, they control the value chain by owning and controlling information. They own the databases, the flows and above all the possible vector of storage and transmission of information, in the form of intellectual property, in patents and copyrights, but more importantly they own the logistics and protocols via which the whole of production and reproduction is now controlled. 

So perhaps this is no longer a world in which we can just apply Marx’s concepts, maybe with a modifier or two stuck on the front: neoliberal capitalism, postfordist capitalism, platform capitalism and so on. It seems a bit unsatisfactory to think there is an unchanging capitalist essence that just changes in its appearances. Perhaps the form of control and exploitation has a new layer to it – the vectoralist class which captures the cognitive effort of the hacker class – to which many of us belong – and uses that captured cognition, that proprietary information, to control value production. 

The vectoralist class arose out of the stagnation of the capitalist mode of production in the over-developed world in the seventies. Organized labor kept pushing wages up, but the productive process could no longer be made more efficient in its existing form. The capitalist class looked for answers to what had hitherto been a minor branch of their own industrial base: the owners of information technology. But this turned out to be a devil’s bargain. Shifting the commodity form away from products to information was in the end to the advantage of the owners of information. Just has capitalists had outflanked landlords with a more abstract form of the commodity, so the vectoralist class outflanked the capitalist class. 

Look at the composition of leading global firms today, and you will find that many of them outsource the actual making of things to subordinate firms. What they own is information – something of which Marx was unable to form an adequate concept. Marx understood thermos-dynamics, a leading industrial science of his time, but not information, the technics of which was barely beginning to exist. 

Maybe Marx can’t help us with this historical epoch if we treat him as high theory, as a master who looked into the essence of the totality. We might need a different kind of intellectual effort even to think it. Conventional intellectual history gives us the fable of Marx as a singular giant, producing the intellectual synthesis and critique of his age alone. But this is misleading. It was a team effort, even if we do not go quite so far as Bogdanov, who said that it was the organized working class that ‘wrote’ Das Kapital, with Marx as their stenographer. In any case, what we confront today may be a weirder and more tentacular beast than the vampire capital of Marx’s imagination. It might take a collaborative effort to even describe in outline the world in which we live, with its relatively novel kinds of exploitation and control.

And so the particular quality I want to assign to the general intellects I chose to wrote about in the book General Intellects is that of not just being a part of this subsumption of cognition, but of trying to theorize some aspect of it at the same time. General intellects are both incorporated into machinic systems of dead labor and regimes of intellectual property, while they also try to think about it, from within. I’m using the term general intellects for that part of the hacker class that is relatively cognizant of the world it now inhabits. 

But the problem for today’s general intellects is that they – we – are subsumed not into the totality of instrumentalized cognition, but only into some part of it. The work of the general intellect becomes part of the general commodification of cognition, but is not entirely able to think this, because the form in which the general intellect’s work is commodified is itself particular. To the vectoralist class we’re more or less all the same, as all of us produce information that can be commodified. But to each other we appear as speaking a babel of different languages and holding up the masks of a carnival of different identities. 

Thus the attempts by general intellects to think the totality of social and historical life ends up being partial and one-sided. The habits of the particular information-extraction process in which one works shapes how one perceives the world, what metaphors one finds most congenial for explaining it, and which form of intellectual practice one thinks ought to be sovereign over all the others. 

Thus, if one is trained in, and works with, language (as I was) one tends to think there’s nothing outside the text. Whereas if one studies politics one thinks everything is political. If one is a sociologist, then reality is socially constructed. If one works in economics, then its economics all the way down. If one is a coder, then everything is just more or less functional code. And so on. Thus the form in which one is subsumed into commodification divides cognitive workers – the hacker class – just as much as the manual working class. We take particular metaphors derived from particular ways of working and thinking as applicable to the whole. Nobody can grasp the totality of social relations from their particular specialty. 

There are a few traditional solutions to this problem. One is journalism. If general intellects are specialists rather than generalists, then journalists will be specialists who specialize in the general. But it’s not working very well. Journalism is comfortable moving between different topics and diving into them to find out what’s at the bottom. But journalism has the habit of fitting the new descriptive material into existing concepts and metaphors about the rest of the world. In the world of journalism, there can be a lot of new particulars but the general is always the same.

Another solution is interior to academic organization – inter-disciplinarity. But it never really worked like it should. It ended up being a way for disciplines to bunker down in their hollow and hallowed conceptual cores and police their borders. They are donut-shaped: hyper-conscious of their doughy edges but hollow at the core. 

A more traditional academic solution is to acknowledge a sovereign discourse. Philosophy has been only too eager to play this role, at least in the context of German, French or Italian cognitive production. Anglophone philosophy famously went the other way and became hyper-specialized on the protocols of the language and logic upon which the whole industrialization of thought supposedly ran. So philosophers either claim to be in charge of the whole, or claim to be indispensable specialists for the language and logic part. And maybe they are very useful in both those capacities, it’s just that nobody else really believes them.

Back in the media world, these days we have thought leaders. The thought leader dispenses with the necessity for academic or literary credentials. The beauty of thought-leading is that one distinguishes a successful thought leader simply by the number of views of their Ted-talk or the size of their twitter followership or the frequency of their blog posts. But it rather vitiates the venerable role of intellectual life in having something to say that is not based on exchange value. The thought-leader format privileges the One Big Idea that will Change the World. It flatters the vanity of the vectorialist class in its philanthropic mode that it alone can be the benefactor of these magical solutions to all our problems.  

Perhaps we need another path. And so in General Intellects I made a compressed map of the territory adjacent to my own field of media theory. General Intellects is a book about other writers of theory. There’s twenty-one sections, each of which is a quick, economical approach to recent or key work. Most are academics. Some are well-known, others are not but maybe should be. 

The book starts with two distinctive takes on the Marxist tradition, from Amy Wendling and Kojin Karatani, which bring out the question of technology, or the forces of production, and try to decenter our Eurocentric view of what to do with Marx. Then we move on to Italian and French writers who owe something to the autonomist tradition and / or the journal Multitudes: Paolo Virno, Franco Berardi, Yann Moulier Boutang, Maurizio Lazzarato. The next two come from British cultural studies: Angela McRobbie and Paul Gilroy. 

There are two psychoanalytically inclined theorists, Slavoj Zizek and Jodi Dean. There’s political theory Chantal Mouffe, Wendy Brown and Judith Butler. And two theorists of corporeality: Paul B. Preciado and Hiroki Azuma. Then there’ my home turf of media theory: Wendy Chun and Alex Galloway. There’s speculative realism: Tim Morton and Quentin Meillassoux. And we end with science studies: Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway.

These pieces are appreciations, but critical ones. The critical perspective is informed by three things. Firstly, attention to how the forces of production have changed. Secondly, as I put it in the subtitle to my previous book, Molecular Red, we really have to be doing theory for the Anthropocene. Call it something else if you like, but call it something, and think it. Not all of our authors get that far. 

Thirdly, something I learned in the digital avant-gardes of the 90s life is too short for arguments. I try in each chapter to map out where I think each theorist is useful and where they are not. I also map them onto each other and onto my own research. But I don’t argue much with them. The problem with knowledge production is that each field tries to make itself sovereign. This book tries to practice the sort of collaborative knowledge production I drew from Bogdanov in Molecular Red

Some – but not all – of the people in the book have those amazing jobs in American universities where you can write and think and do whatever you like. These luxury jobs have a down side, in that what the people with these sinecures produce tends to get a bit baroque. The writing ends up being luxury writing. You can buy their books for less than twenty American dollars, but you need a hundred thousand dollars-worth of graduate school to unpack them. I’ve done what you are not supposed to do with this writing. I have instrumentalized it, stripped it down to the concepts, shown how it connects to writing by others who work without those luxuries. 

General Intellects is a bit compressed, but it’s a book that’s meant to be useful. I stripped out the good bits, so you can grab hold of them and use them to make your own writing, your own art, your own design. Or your own techno label. Here’s a hundred thousand words of high theory distilled into low theory. Do whatever you want with it. Happy travels!