Ken Wark’s Hacker Manifesto

He is part one of my notes on Ken Wark‘s book A Hacker Manifesto. All references to Wark’s book are in the form of three-digit numbers referencing the numbered paragraphs. The notes are in ‘Synchronic Read-Time’, that is, I wrote them as I read it, rather than as a diachronic reflection over the reading after it happened:

1) Part one of comments on the “Abstraction” section of Ken Wark’s Hacker Manifesto. Notes produced in synchronic read-time.

2) Wark gives the name ‘hackers’ to the immaterial, virtuosic labourers of the post-Fordist, post-industrial economy. They are not the dominant class, but the privileged class. ‘Privileged’ in the sense of belonging, that is, of being the labourer-wasp to the post-industrial, post-Fordist-flower. Hackers use their skills to maintain an autonomy (005), but from what? The nature of industrial relations has changed since the time of the Autonomist movements in 1970s Italy. The well fought ‘autonomy’ of labour has become the double-edged sword of neo-liberal ‘flexible’ workplace relations; labour is not employed, but deployed according to the whims of capital. The use of ‘hacker’ to describe these workers is provocative; it invokes the info-tech netherworld of the ‘hacker’, plus the subsumed subject position of the journalistic ‘hack’. It is bound to annoy those professionals who just want to get along and be subsumed by the moving equilibrium of hegemony.

3) To ‘hack’ is to create a difference (‘new things’) in the world (003). The hacker methodology requires the construction of a ‘plane’ for the sake of ‘abstraction’. “To abstract is to construct a plane upon which otherwise different and unrelated matters may be brought into many possible relations” (004). A plane of abstraction resonates with the Deleuzian concept of the plane of consistency immanent to which, in Deleuzian philosophy, concepts are created. Wark’s statement that “[a] hacker manifesto cannot claim to represent what refuses representation” (003) reminds me of Derrida’s definition of the pure event, which, contra Deleuze, cannot be expressed as that would facilitate another actualization. Deleuze’s ‘pure event’ subsists in language as infinitive verbs, to die, to diet, etc. and is actualised by a ‘conceptual personae’ as a ‘concept’. Similarly, Wark writes, “To abstract is to express the virtuality of nature, to make known some instance of its manifold possibilities, to actualize a relation out of infinite relationality, to manifest the manifold” (008). Wark’s conceptual personae is the hacker, the methodology is the ‘hack’ and the concept is the ‘abstraction’; he is thinking of and with the hacker. It is an exemplary act of Deleuzian philosophy.

4) Wark addresses the dialogical problem of the relation between becoming and history. Deleuze writes that ‘history knows nothing of becoming’. ‘Becoming’ is the phase space of differentiation and is another way of describing what happens within the Aion of an Event. The time of ‘history’ – Chronos – is the freeze-framing of this becoming – ‘back-formed from cessation’ as Massumi put it. “History is the virtual made actual, one hack after another. History is the cumulative qualitative differentiation of nature as it is hacked” (009). The use of the word ‘cumulative’ here implies the Enlightenment (or, probably, Marxist) notion of a directional temporality or expected to-come. The ‘pure-past’ is subsumed under the name of history through the differentiated abstraction of hackers. Or to put it another way, does this mean that the hackers are winning, if it is the winners who get to write history…?

5) The core problem is one of necessity vs freedom from necessity (009,010,011). The specific block to achieving this goal is the continual emergence of a ruling class that extracts (‘abstracts’?) a surplus over bare necessity (010). Is this not the moving equilibrium of hegemony that Gramsci discussed? Wark is beginning to develop his model for a political economy of ‘hacking’.

6) “Invention is the mother of necessity” (012) is an inversion of the cliché. Negri and Thoburn have discussed related concepts through the innate creativity of poverty and the creativity of ‘cramped spaces’ respectively. Does this mean that Wark parts company with the ‘hyper-Marxists’? Perhaps the ‘necessity’ is a ironic play on words; it is only ‘necessary’ for the ruling class, but it becomes ‘necessary’ in general due to the consent won through hegemonic ‘common sense’. Through the inversion of the cliché, Wark captures the ability – the ‘necessity’ – of capital to de/reterritotrialize any and every difference or ‘invention’ and therefore every and any ‘hack’. The ruling class exerts control over hackers by transforms ‘creation’ or ‘innovation’ into ‘development’ (012): corporate investment as capitalist axiomatization of research. A very important point in the context of debates surrounding the corporatization of the ‘industry-linked’ university. Where is the autonomy?

7) Abstraction has a relationship to nature (015,016). All abstractions are not abstractions from nature, but of nature. (Are we not already and always of the cosmos? Is ‘nature’ the cosmos rendered in anthropomorphic terms? Which folds matter when only matter is folded?) The virtual is the potential of potential to express the possibility of new worlds beyond necessity (014). Each abstraction of nature relies on both the material and immaterial (015) “Information can exist independently of a given material form, but cannot exist without any material form” (015). The interplay between the materiality of information and its immaterial consistency reminds me of Kittler’s post-Foucaultian work regarding the technology of the archive. Wark, on the other hand, is focused on the futurity of abstraction; in a sense Kittler’s work explored and produced a genealogy of the potentiality produced through the specific material form given to information as determined by ‘historical’ processes (mainly war and the military).

8) Wark is producing history – hacking the future of the present – to express the coming into being of a new threshold of hackers as a class-formation (013) organised around the historical circumstances of…? Technology? Modes of communication? No, ‘information’ itself as the most ‘abstract’, yet consistent, form. What about the warning of Lyotard (who bemoaned the transformation of the ‘knowledge’ into ‘information’) about the nature of contemporary ‘performance’, where everything is determined by input and output matrices? Is Wark producing a meta-narrative that coalesces the ‘hacking’ of knowledge into ‘information’? ie, Information as abstracted knowledge.

9) Abstraction produces “a collective space of human existence in which collective life dwells among its own products and comes to take the environment it produces to be natural” (016). Echoes of Debord’s ‘Spectacle’ and speaks to the second dimension of the hacker’s privilege. Wark gives the society of the spectacle a positive spin: “A world free from necessity” (011). It marks his project as radically utopian. The servitude of the hacker can be broken by, in part, a release from out-of-date class interests (011). Wark thus underlines the specificity of his Manifesto; he is speaking to those who have specific interests (as ‘hackers’) rather than for the good of all. The ‘freedom from necessity’ is primarily a freedom therefore enjoyed by hackers: “as programmers or artists or writers or scientists or musicians, we rarely see these ways of representing ourselves as mere fragments of a class experience” (013). Where is the shame (in the sense Deleuze and Guattari used the word in What is Philosophy?) of this freedom? The shame of being “geeks and freaks”?

10) Wark expands on the doubling implicit in abstraction (017,018) and develops his political economy of information. It may be useful to use the terminology of Deleuze from Logic of Sense. There is a series called ‘land’ rendered as a second series of ‘resource’ through the stratification/overcoding(/abstraction) of a third unmentioned series (by Wark) of the ‘earth’. The series ‘resource’ is thus entered into a political economy of ‘property’ (017). The process is repeated with the series of ‘resource’ as the new earth. From the series resource is ‘abstracted’ information and rendered into a political economy as the stratified/overcoded(/abstracted) series ‘intellectual property’ (018). Property and intellectual property are both axiomatizations of resources required by capital.

11) Each abstraction produces an antagonism immanent to the resultant classes (019,020,021). Earth becomes land from which are extracted resources by farmers for the land owners. The residue mass of one-time ‘communal land users’ displaced through the ‘legal hack’ of private property (‘earth’ into ‘land’) is then captured by industrial transformations in manufacturing. They become workers who produce surplus value for the owners of the means of production. The hacker is ‘dispossessed’ of their intellectual property by the ‘vectoralist class’. What does Wark mean by ‘dispossession’ here? “Patents and copyrights all end up in the hands, not of their creators, but of a vectoralist class that owns the means of realizing the value of these abstractions” (021). Is there a connection here between ‘realizing the value of these abstractions’ and the axiomatic process of innovation ‘development’ carried out by corporations? Is ‘value’ here meant as a form of surplus value? In that case, surplus value is not produced and extracted through exploitation, but ‘realised’ according to some other mechanism… perhaps exchange? Marx defines circulation as part of exchange and it appears that large part of the labour of hackers is to produce image-commodities for circulation. Is not the value produced by hackers also the ‘machinic’ surplus value produced through the circulation of ‘hacks’ overcoded as intellectual property? Again where is the ‘freedom’ or ‘autonomy’ if the vectoralist class owns the means of realizing value, ie the circuits of distribution and exchange (such as media and retail industries)?

12) The final point in this section is an expression of a paradoxical commonality of hackers with farmers and workers. Although hackers are not yet fully alienated from the ‘hacks’ they produce (by not being “dispossessed of the property rights entirely” [020]) they have something in common with the other producers in the world. Their task is to “liberate productive and inventive resources from the myth of scarcity” (023). I have some deep reservations about this call to arms. Sure I agree with Wark’s call “for new forms of association to be created that can steer the world away from its destruction through commodified exploitation” (023). The problem is that talk is cheap, very cheap, and relatively plentiful just like any other immaterial commodity produced in the tertiary industries, because all you need are a given number of speakers. Human performance as labour and resource, ala The Matrix and Lyotard’s matrices. Yet, the extraction of resources from the earth and transformation into commodities by the primary industries has a radically different aspect. What about fossil fuels? Oil? For me this is a weak commonality between the three levels of the contemporary political economy (primary, secondary, tertiary). There is an elision here in the use of the term ‘resource’. Even though Wark argues that all abstractions are abstractions of nature, and that information has a material dimension, does this mean the ‘raw ingredients’ rendered consistent on the plane of abstraction are of the same im/material quality in all three levels of the economy/labour? Perhaps it is further explained later.

13) Part one end.