Sensoria is a conversation with twenty or so thinkers. The back cover calls them “the radical thinkers and ideas reshaping our world.” Each chapter of the book is a close but concise engagement with each thinker, and related thinkers and clusters of concepts. It’s packed in a pleasantly dizzying way, offering multiple points of entry, connection, and association. It is broken into three general sections: aesthetics, ethnographics, and technics, but each section contains more than any one title can indicate. Animated by the claim that “all forms of knowing come to know only a part of the world,” (3) the book is a bold attempt to introduce (partial) ways of knowing to each other—to put them into conversation, to encourage collaboration, and “to produce a knowledge of the world made up of the differences between ways of knowing it.” (4) This is a book worth our attention, however mediated and fragmented our attention might be these days.
All that said, I don’t want this to be a book review. I don’t see the point of attempting to summarize one person’s analysis and synthesis of—and care for—the urgent, crucial work of twenty or so intellects. And I don’t want to pretend to possess some kind of journalistic distance from the books and the concepts at play. But I will recommend this book (as I already have, to friends and loved ones online and in person), and I will offer some points of connection and some reflections, in the spirit of the book itself, without “pretensions to mastery” or totality. Wark offers a blueprint for such an endeavor in the book’s introduction: “I’m looking for ways to compress and condense by focusing on concepts. If a good fact is mostly true about something in particular, a good concept is slightly true about a lot of things. Both fall short of the common task of knowing the world. That can only be begun by lacing concepts together from different labors.” (8
I received a copy of Sensoria not long after lockdowns began in the US. I do not know what makes for good pandemic reading, but I know that I found myself carting Sensoria around with me from room to room, to the park, into bed after saying goodnight to my kid, absorbing it slowly, page by page or section by section. My circumstances prevented me from reading more than a few pages at a time, and although I have come to prefer long stretches of uninterrupted time for reading and processing, I found that a little-by-little approach was fine with Sensoria. More than fine. Life inside the pandemic was providing me with an opportunity to learn some new things about how my attention can be shaped, about how economies and ecologies of attention are complex—both fragile and durable—like all living systems.
If you have spent any time with Wark’s previous work, you know that she has a gift for taking up complicated, elaborate concepts in a generous, illustrative, and accessible manner, and that when she creates new concepts in her work, they are not bound by “philosophy” or “media studies” or “cultural theory” or “gender studies”—they are general in a rich and generative sense. General intellects, according to Wark, “manage to generate out of their particular ways of working some concepts that can be connected or contrasted with others derived from other kinds of knowledge work.” Via email, I asked Wark what sets Sensoria apart from her other work, for her.
She responded: “It comes out of a particular practice of reading, particularly of books a bit outside my area of expertise, where I’m looking for where I can connect it to what I do know, and connect it to other kinds of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking about producing knowledge from the edges, from the connecting points, rather than thinking from the center of a field, or thinking the ‘interdisciplinary’ as the center of one field addressing the center of another, which more often than not isn’t there to listen. Both Sensoria and my earlier book General Intellects do this. Sensoria is a bit bolder in how far afield it wanders and what edges it connects.”
A brief (illustrative) detour: I finished a Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2015. It was a minor miracle that I finished. Not because I’d moved overseas while writing my dissertation (though that took me off-track in significant and meaningful ways), and not because I’d had a premature baby after life-threatening complications during pregnancy (though that certainly shook up my sensorium for a couple years), and especially not because I didn’t love my research. I loved my research, I loved the questions I was asking and attempting to answer, I loved what I was trying to create. The trouble was that at every turn I was told (by people other than my (very supportive) advisor) that the questions I was asking or the ways in which they were grounded or the philosophical figures I called on to support my arguments were not properly philosophical.
I was holding Georges Bataille’s concept of nonknowledge up to the light (and following it into the darkness), asking with urgency what an open economy of knowledge might look like. I linked nonknowledge up with crucial work being done in epistemology that asks how and why knowers are constituted. I subjected Bataille’s line of thinking to questions posed by the world of Anglo-American epistemology (something that is typically not done by those working in the “Continental” philosophical tradition). I asked questions about who and what patrols the borders of knowledge, offering nonknowledge as a kind of test case. Again and again I heard “These are not philosophical questions.” The questions were illegible. Or illegitimate.
I should have known. But I was naive. Though I was also not naive. I had come to graduate school after four years of working as a classroom teacher, teaching and observing young students for 7 or 8 hours, 5 days a week. I understood that knowledge-creation and knowledge-acquisition and play are inextricably linked. I was insisting on play—on the freedom to play—and I was insisting on making the claim that nonknowledge offers a model of knowledge in which play is integral. To do so, I needed to “lace together from different labors,” to use Wark’s words.
When I did finally produce an acceptable enough dissertation, going through the motions to defend it, I needed a break from the world of academic philosophy. And there was little to no hope of finding work in the field—something I understood before signing on to the Ph.D.—but no matter, I was accustomed to working multiple jobs to make ends meet. I could not leave thought-play behind, though. On the recommendation of a friend who had also hit the limits of academia, I picked up a copy of A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark.
Do you remember the last time you encountered a concept that made your heart race? I’m serious. It’s a real high and it is really, actually felt in the body—the rush of understanding something newly, or in a new light, for the first time. When the high itself tapers off, I find, there’s a rush of gratitude. Someone has taken the time and the care to explain some aspect of the world, and being able to hold that explanation (gently! and with additional care) makes existence more bearable. The trick is to then interrogate both the high and the gratitude, to catch ourselves if we start thinking in terms of hierarchy, inheritance, debts owed to the father or mother. (If you have spent any time in the world of theory, you know how much of a problem this is, and how it can be more challenging than you’d think.)
Sensoria offers many of these highs and opportunities for interrogation. There are so many concepts and so many intellects featured in its pages that I wondered about its construction—how all of the material was managed, if there had been a plan. So I asked Wark about it:
LL: “As I was reading Sensoria, I kept thinking about the formal challenges I imagine it posed. How to achieve the right balance of breadth and depth for each thinker, each suite of concepts? How to thoughtfully or carefully remove some concepts from their aesthetic or epistemic meshwork? (How to talk about Mbembe without talking about his wrestling with Bataille’s notion of sovereignty in relation to colonization, e.g.) But you make it work. Did you have a kind of plan for each thinker—a sense of what was most crucial to include, and what could be left for readers to investigate on their own? I’m curious about what felt to you like productive creative constraint or what was more of a challenge, a limit.”
MKW: “It helps to not think too much in terms of lineages, of intellectual father begetting intellectual sons. Which is why for example I’m not interested in Mbembe as ‘son of Bataille.’ I’d rather think about filiation and inheritance: how can Mbembe’s concepts be filiated laterally, and where? The readings are oriented toward where I want to make connections. To me that is what it would mean to uproot the patriarchal structure of knowledge-making, in a way that doesn’t just replace it with a matriarchal one, where only those women with a lineage in recognized foremothers are valid, or where they are always considered reducible to lineage. I took this further in Philosophy of Spiders, my book on Kathy Acker that Duke are doing soon. I did my best to not even mention her literary and intellectual ancestry at all.”
My first book was published last year. It’s a novel, not an academic book, and so I entered the world of unlocked “public-facing” social media accounts as an “artist,” because my publisher is small and independent, and our well-being and thriving are interconnected—interdependent. I don’t know what I would have done, or how I would have managed all of it, without Wark’s concept of the vectoralist class in my front pocket—a concept that first appears in A Hacker Manifesto.
What is the “vectoralist class”? To answer this question, just ask yourself who makes up our contemporary ruling class. Who owns our data, who owns information and our ability to access it, who has perfected the use of data to shape our tastes, our desires, our psyches? “I call them the vectoralist class. Where the capitalist class owned the means of production, the vectoralist class owns the vector of information. That is the ruling class of our time.” (55-6) This argument has not received enough attention. It just hasn’t.
In this particular respect, Wark reading and writing alongside Hito Steyerl is exceptionally illuminating and harrowing. The combination of both thinkers (a thinking assemblage) lays out how each of us is tricked into believing that if we can cozy up to the vectoralist class with enough followers, enough of that elusive thing called “influence,” we will be able to join their ranks or meet them in some vibrant Valhalla. But we won’t. If you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you feel about parties), the most you’ll get to do is party with them for a night, scam some free drugs and drinks.
Thinking of getting into the art world? According to Hito Steyerl, here’s what you may find: ‘Public support swapped for Instagram metrics. Art fully floated on some kind of Arsedaq. More fairs, longer yachts for more violent assholes, oil paintings of booty blondes, abstract stock-chart calligraphy. Yummy organic superfoods. Accelerationist designer breeding… Conceptual plastic surgery… Bespoke ivory gun handles. Murals on border walls.’ (Steyerl 185)
‘Good luck with this,’ she concludes. ‘You will be my mortal enemy.’ […] What she sees is planetary civil war, sharpening class conflict, and the enclosure of the informational commons into proprietary theme parks. (Wark 47)
Sometimes we can’t quite opt out, so we’ve got to work hard to understand the limits of what we’re opting into. For me it must be a question of how to practice an open, rigorous, playful politics of creation and knowledge. Walking blindly into traps won’t do—they’ve got to be seen and negotiated, as much as possible. The trouble is that they abound. I asked a question about it:
LL: “Today I’m reading Yvette Granata and Bogna Konior’s brief piece on feminism-without-example (here) and thinking in a loose way about how much work in the world of theory at this moment has to do with minding traps, crafting escape routes, cultivating something like an exhaustive hyperawareness of capital’s flows and shapes and technics. We know the stakes are always high if theory is going to be liberating, and I appreciate how so much of Sensoria is almost wrestling with whether and how this ‘moment’ in global history has made some stakes more visible, more real, more in need of urgent attention. I’m wondering how—or in what particular ways—this was on your mind as you wrote a book that aims to look beyond the confines of the academy (as I think you put it), without pretensions to mastery or totality?”
MKW: “I don’t think it’s an in or beyond the academy question. I think it’s about thinking, and practicing, the politics of knowledge without assuming that the university is somehow its sole protector or reference point. The general orientation to the politics of knowledge I mapped out in Molecular Red is practiced a little more widely in General Intellects and in Sensoria. Now I’d think about it as collaborative care work, the work (and play) that is care for the concept. The university doesn’t always care about conceptual thinking and writing, let alone practices. But one does need its resources sometimes.”
I still scan the index of every book of theory for the word “nonknowledge.” I don’t do this because I care all that much about nonknowledge itself or because I want to see what’s being done with the concept; I do this because I am looking for signals that I might be in the presence of another person who understands “the work (and play) that is care for the concept.” I do it because I’m searching for writers whose collaborative care work on the page is limitless and open.
I’ll end with Wark’s words, in the hope that they serve as an invitation to think with her—to think with her in “reliable and testable” ways, and to hold what we think lightly:
LL: “Of course I have the results of the election and what comes next on the brain/in the body as I write this. But also on the brain is the fact that I’m someone who works on the fringes of the academy, in community colleges, or as an adjunct lecturer online, or sometimes leading creative writing workshops (in my capacity as someone who writes fiction), and in each of those registers I’m continually struck by how theory is experienced by most students (many of whom are sophisticated consumers and analyzers of culture) as a kind of brick wall. My job as a teacher is to transform the wall into more of a room, somewhere that can be entered (maybe this isn’t the best metaphor), but it’s a continual challenge. I see books like Sensoria doing something important to open theory up. I’m curious about how you think your relation to audience when you’re writing. Do you have a kind of dream scenario in mind when it comes to your role in knowledge production and distribution?”
MKW: “We all think in concepts, among other things. And yet we get very little training in it. Theologies are always highly conceptual, but they tend not to be speculative. You have the concepts drilled into you as non-negotiable. In the secular world there’s a similar sort of blackmail. You just have to accept that when people talk about ‘the market’, for example, that this concept is real and as described. With the 2020 American election in mind, one can say the same about ‘democracy’ as a concept, or the one-word slogans Biden and Harris were projecting when they did their victory speeches. I can’t remember them all, but ‘science’, ‘truth’, ‘hope’, ‘unity’ and ‘decency’ were I think some of them. Those are all concepts. They are not words like ‘cup’ or ‘table.’ You can have feelings about them but with the possible exception of hope are not feelings. In the Anglophone world we’re not good at taking an empirical approach to concepts, even though there is supposed to be an empirical bias in our general orientation to knowledge. You’re supposed to take concepts as ‘self evident’, as traditional, as God-given, as anything but distillations of observation, sensation, experience, filtering. A good fact is mostly true, but about something in particular. A good concept is slightly true but about a lot of things. The thing is to learn how to make your own in a reliable and testable way, and hold them lightly. There’s a lot of highly speculative concepts floating around these days, but they turn into conspiracy theories when we don’t hold them lightly.”