“For Bogdanov, a political revolution is not the solution to anything. It merely enables the problem of organization to be posed. There can be no victory over the sun.”
A week or so back I got myself a copy of Molecular Red by McKenzie Wark and basically just worked my way through the whole thing. I found the book tremendously stimulating, though not without reservations. I think my favourite parts were those about Bogdanov and Platonov (definitely get to know about them if you don’t already!), probably because they were completely new to me. I wasn’t as enthralled by Wark’s treatment of either Donna Harraway or Karen Barad (perhaps because I am already familiar with their work), but appreciated the move of trying to tease out a common tektologial kernel (if not thread) spanning almost a century (a century that witnessed some very dramatic changes in scientific knowledge and practices and the overall development of capitalism). Perhaps it’s also because I couldn’t help feeling that Isabelle Stengers was missing from the mix (particularly considering her work on articulating an ‘ecology of practices’ and her ongoing thinking-with Donna Harraway)! Moreover, I found the book resonated with and made me ponder many aspects of my experience of living collectively over the last couple of years or so.
In this post, I share a few highlights and reflections that Molecular Red has triggered for me.
“Part of Bogdanov’s originality was to insist that the central tenet of Marx’s work is not dialectics or materialism or the critique of political economy, but the labor point of view.”
Central to Bogdanov’s thinking, as Wark presents it, is the idea of ‘the labour point of view’, something which he takes to be the condition of possibility of Marx’s exposition of capital (which, incidentally, Bogdanov translated into Russian though his name was later deleted as he was a rival of Lenin). Here ‘the labour point of view’ is not (as I understand it) taken to mean ‘how all members of the working class see the world’. Rather it reflects a critical engagement with reality that shifts away from the traditional bourgeois class seat of theory-production and instead asks what it would look like from the position of the working class – i.e. not as parts to be organised in a production process but as people who must live and struggle in and against an order that is, more or less, hostile to them. Bogdanov believed that Marx’s work only began the work of advancing the labour point of view. He was convinced that the high-theoretical dogma of dialectical materialism that framed the dominant trajectory of Marxist theory-production, smothered the more ambiguous, open and sensual development of social organisation based on the labour point of view.
Based on this, Bogdanov proceeds to develop two key concepts: tektology and proletkult. Tektology, in brief, is Bogdanov’s conception of the potential articulation between diverse fields of knowledge-practice through a kind of anological experimentation. Concepts abstracted from one field of knowledge-practice can be transferred to another to permit the enactment of new knowledge-practices which may give rise to new possibilities of technical knowledge-practices. Proletkult, more or less, was the name given to a form of organisation amongst labourers through which tektology could be put into practice. It imagined knowledge-practitioners engaged in close experimentation, learning and co-labor-ation to stimulate exchanges and strive for the incorporation into forms of organisation of ever more advanced/sophisticated incarnations of the labour point of view: a sort of praxological inter-disciplinarity moving toward trans-disciplinarity…
Platonov, was someone whose thinking was formed by his experience of being involved in one of the proletkult ‘schools’ of learning. Besides the absolutely fascinating themes of his proto-‘sci-fi’ work and its accounts of lived/ground realities of the early Soviet period, he really unpacks a very critical question.
What Platonov will add to this persona of the worker [i.e. from whence the labour point of view originates] is the persona of the comrade. He does not simply assume a universality of the worker point of view, as is sometimes the case in Marx and Bogdanov. He is interested in the struggle to become comrades together. For Deleuze, personae carry with them possible modes of existence. While Platonov writes both appealing and terrifying comrades, they are all integral to his thought, which is precisely the thought of the space between these various incarnations of the comrade. To understand Platonov, then, is to understand what is between comrades as a plural but not universal point of view.”
At least one of the challenges before us, then, is that of becoming-comrades. Once we factor in the odd assortment of idiosyncratic cranks that we all are, and the differences that multiply in profound and seemingly incommensurate ways as we move across cultures, classes, theoretical commitments, disciplines, ‘personae’ (as in Deleuze) or ‘psycho-social types’ (as in Stengers), becoming comrades proves harder than we thought. To become comrades abstractly in the domain of theory production, or the shared exercise of digitally enabled communication is one thing. To do so under the pressures of bodily proximity, the negotiation of emotional ups-and-downs and who will sleep on which bed, of childhood traumas and adult complexes, of the dystopian realities of the unfolding crises (now in the foreground, now in the background), of basic necessities of reproductive labour: of getting food in the fridge/cupboard, of cooking, eating, cleaning, caring for each other, of paying rent and earning money and navigating our own extreme economic disparities, our respective privileges (or disadvantages) of race and gender, our perplexing caste and class composition, and our not-always-convergent views on what constitutes meaningful political engagement… that is quite another. It is in this, that Platonov’s work, as relayed by Wark, resonated with me so strongly.
“Praxis starts and ends with the struggle for life; everything else is just useless duplicity or dangerous theology.”
“Dreams separate us, even when they are dreams of communism. Or rather: communisms, since in Platonov, actual communisms are never a stage in a molar narrative, but are at best proliferating situations in which comradely love prevails, if just for a time.”
“Comradely love and the production of a material surplus, like clay and top soil, rest on one another but are separate achievements.”
And across all of this, our collective’s theoretical commitments, which often inflect our positions in arguments over the forms of protest that we should pursue, or the positions we should fight for or against in public lectures, or what to make of the multiple dramas that constitute the life of heterogeneous left in our little corner of Delhi…
Many, if not all of those who share our collective space, have spent the last several years engaging with philosophy and political theory in one form or another. I, for one, have spent some time now flitting about in the various tunnels of speculative realism. I think I fell in love with the liberating effects of speculative fabulation on my mind. As though I could all of a sudden inhabit a dozen or so make-believe worlds – one, some, many or all of which – or maybe none – might be real, might hold a key. At the very least, I have given my mental and writing muscles a good work-out, made myself a whole lot more cyborg and found myself connected to collections of faceless others who are out there doing similar things. But where has this flirtation with ontology left me? To a large extent it has shown me that there are holes in almost every grand conception of the real. So, has it been a waste of time? Not at all! Each new corridor has been lined with gifts, gems that I have savoured, perspectives that have enriched me, tools that have helped me think and play and do a little differently, accompanied as I by new questions and new hypotheses.
And, perhaps, in a sense, this is why I have felt most comfortable grappling with practices, with the meso-political, with the molecular, with situations and with composition. This is, perhaps, why Stengers’ ‘ecology of practices’ has resonated so strongly for me: rather than attempting to explain once and for all the ultimate nature of the real, it begins from the position of those who are enmeshed as a result of their practices in complex material relations of interdependence that are, at the same time, creators, sustainers and destroyers of myriad jostling cosmoi. It is in the making – with and against others – of our respective yet interconnected corners of the world that anything we think can really come to matter. Our ideas – rousing as they may be – are just temporary (and often flimsy) crutches in our more visceral work of grappling with complex material and social realities that ceaselessly defy us and exceed our simplistic forms of organisation.
“The idea is a sort of impossible crystal, dead and inert, without which boredom and grief weather us. But the idea on its own is only the concept of death, as if it could be outside of the entropy, inertia, and forgetfulness of life in time. Ideas are there as material for experiment and substitution.
Better to live then on a secondary idea, which mediates between the idea and labor, keeping the dead ideal from direct contact with life, where either the idea of death will live and kill life, or life itself will kill the deathly idea, but leave only boring emptiness. The secondary idea should be practical, attaching itself to the problem of life and inert matter, rather than life and soul. The secondary idea is usually a design problem, and hence, in principle, soluble.
There is only one hope, and it is in eternal life, but this endless life has nothing to do with spirit or even the idea. It isn’t universal. It exists only in the sensation of shared existence. Living things are each other’s comrades, even in their struggles against each other. Our species-being is lost from shared life when we make a fetish of a particular idea, a particular love, or a particular labor, as Bogdanov might say. Platonov shows the deadly consequences of fetishes of this type.”
If so, let us return to our fields of labour – of social and political work, of social reproduction and care, of technical production (acknowledging the so-called material in immaterial labour and the immaterial in material labour) – and let us struggle to include an ever wider set of potential comrades in our endeavours, particularly those who occupy more precarious positions, with whom a sharing and co-producing of knowledge unsettles the comforts of our class, our sexualities, our aesthetic sensibilities and our theoretical refuges.
Comradely life, devoted to its secondary ideas, is a homeless, rootless nation, in which each labors for another who labors for another. It is a life done with the death-image of the absolute outside and beyond itself. Comrades are orphans by choice. It is not the parent who has abandoned them, it is they who drift away from the spirit of the paternal idea, and who accept the poor truth that nature is no mother but at best a “step-mother nature”— or even no kin at all. Let’s have done with these Oedipal substitutions.”
There’s a whole lot more I have to say about the book than all this, but I’ll have to save it for another time.