- Low Theory for the End of Pre-History: A Review of McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene
McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red is a provocative call for new critical theory – or “new-old” (Wark xii), given its roots in marginalized strands of the Marxist tradition – for the age of the Anthropocene. The “Anthropocene” is a “term widely used since its coining by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to denote the present time interval, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities” (“What Is the ‘Anthropocene’?”). Although the term has not yet been formalized as an official geological epoch, the Anthropocene Working Group —tasked with developing a proposal for such formalization to be considered by the International Commission on Stratigraphy —deems the concept as “geologically real. The phenomenon is of sufficient scale to be considered as part of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, more commonly known as the Geological Time Scale” (“Media Note”). Although Wark is wary of the term “Anthropocene,” his book is informed by the realization that the planet has entered a new period of geological time and, thus, that we need new conceptualizations of the relationship between humans and nature. We are now at a conjuncture that Wark defines as the “end of pre-history,” when mankind comes to understand that “the God who still hid in the worldview of an ecology that was self-correcting, self-balancing and self-healing —is dead” (xii).
Drawing on Marx’s notion of the metabolic rift, that is, the rift between production and nature, Wark identifies the Anthropocene as “a series of metabolic rifts, where one molecule after another is extracted by labor and technique to make things for humans, but the waste products don’t return so that the cycle can renew itself” (xiv). A key and global metabolic rift in the age of the Anthropocene is what Wark, referring ironically to various liberation movements of the past three centuries, calls the “Carbon Liberation Front”: “carbon bound within the earth becomes scarce, and liberated carbon pushes the climate into the red zone” (xv). Wark thus calls for a “low theory,” attentive to the “molecular” order – a notion Wark borrows from Felix Guattari (xvi). In the era of techno-science, in which “life itself has been disaggregated and brought under forms of molecular control,” a molecular theory implies the emphasis on subtle and hidden processes, the flows and becomings of everyday life and, in particular, of labor (151). Wark’s objective in Molecular Red is to suggest ways to reorganize knowledge, in order to construct a “labor perspective on the historical tasks of our time” —addressing the disastrous effects of the Carbon Liberation Front (xx).
At a conjuncture in which apocalyptic pronouncements over climate change are in the news daily, accompanied by equally troubling political and corporate refusals to acknowledge the reality of the dangers, it is no surprise that interest in the Anthropocene is on the rise within the academy and beyond. Broadly speaking, academic explorations of the Anthropocene outside of the scientific realm can be divided into three categories. One, books that consider cultural responses to the Anthropocene, such as Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change and Sam Solnick’s Poetry and the Anthropocene: Ecology, Biology and Technology in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry. Two, studies that problematize the concept of nature, such as Jamie Lorimer’s Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature and Timothy Morton’s studies, from Ecology without Nature to Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Three, books that interrogate the notion of the Anthropocene itself, together with its political, ethical, and philosophical implications, such as Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil, and François Gemenne’s The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch and Frank Biermann’s Earth System Governance: World Politics in the Anthropocene. Wark’s intervention in the field compellingly combines these three strands by considering science fiction (both Soviet and American); the nexus between nature and the human, especially through human...