February 2024

Arts & Letters

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

By Declan Fry

Image courtesy of McKenzie Wark

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”

If you know anything about Australian literature, you know it’s filled with goat fucking. Or, to locate the orgy more precisely: Australian literature is in the hands of compulsive goat fuckers.

Not long before McKenzie Wark left Australia for life in New York City she knew, even indirectly, how to announce a departure. Would Clive James have done it that way? Would Germaine Greer? Wark, in any case, never truly left: once you leave home, you always find yourself coming back.

There are days when I wonder what my feelings towards the accusation of goat fucking are. I suppose at this point I can only say that Wark was perhaps correct at the time to suggest Australia unduly fetishised the novel. Some of us still do, though perhaps to a lesser degree; such conviction is often fleeting, and the essay form has made inroads. At the feast of the goat, the case for the prosecution might nominate the “Text Classics” list, which only includes one work of poetry (despite poetry being some of the best writing this continent has known), no works of literary criticism (though there is a work of cultural criticism, Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness), and, of the remaining backlist, works of fiction (primarily novels), books broadly classifiable as colonial-frontier diaries, and a smattering of history, memoir, biography and humour.

The setting for Wark’s hypothesis was an Australian Book Review symposium: Wark, James Bradley and Katharine English gathered to opine on “The State of Australian Fiction” – and on the state of Australian literature post Mark Davis’s incendiary Gangland. Gangland was a tale of two cities, or rather generations: nepotistic, gatekeeping boomers versus Gen X’s Byronic crowd of the mad, bad and dangerous to know. In Davis’s portrait, authors such as Helen Garner and Peter Craven are pitted against the youth (Christos Tsiolkas, Kathleen Mary Fallon, and a then-38 Wark, among others; youthfulness, in Davis’s book, is more a matter of mindset and intellectual outlook than biology). A somewhat false dichotomy, but an entertaining if not occasionally instructive one: roundtables on the relationship between Australian literature and the goat soon followed.

Is this angst now only liable to be recalled as supplementary embarrassment – Australian literary gossip’s griping and faddish distractions, its mockery kings and queens of snow? What was Davis’s point? What was Wark’s? Well: metaphorical rather than literal, for one (the distinction between virtual and actual is an important one, both in Wark’s work and in the preservation, here, of readerly sensitivities). The goat was the novel, to which other forms of interfacing with the world – experimental essay, poetry, romans both nouveau and less so – were consigned to the status of also-rans. Wark, in short, felt that Australia fetishised the novel form, in its social-realist Anglophone iteration, along with its ways of relating to the world, to the exclusion of other categories. Nothing wrong with a fetish, she said. Just a fetish obsessed with one position.

A fetish is a form of myopia. An arbitrary fixation. Wark’s obsessions have rarely been myopic; the bibliographical throughline has remained consistently generous. Her intellectual trajectory is enviable – and enviably compulsive. (She just keeps putting it out.) A commentator not only on the fetishes of the reading public, she is also a worker across various fetishes and forms herself: there are overviews and appreciations of contemporary thinkers (General Intellects, Sensoria), engagements with the Situationists (The Beach Beneath the Street, The Spectacle of Disintegration), reckonings with Marx’s spectres (Molecular Red, Capital Is Dead), uncategorisable reflections on politics as praxis, gender transition and sexual identity (Reverse Cowgirl, Raving and elements of Philosophy for Spiders, her idiosyncratic appreciation of Kathy Acker), not to mention a volume of correspondence with Acker herself, one that both predates and presages the slew of biography and reflection that has since attended New York’s pirate king.

Then there are the quixotic adventures through hyperreality and emerging technologies: A Hacker Manifesto, Gamer Theory and (a personal favourite) speedfactory, a Y2K-inflected collaboration with poet John Kinsella, author Bernard Cohen and writer-publisher Terri-ann White. Written following Wark’s relocation to New York, speedfactory moves at a woozy Wong Kar-wai pace, its form recalling Tsiolkas and Sasha Soldatow’s Jump Cuts, in which the question of who has written exactly what is left unattributed.

The Virtual Republic: Australia’s Culture Wars of the 1990s, Wark’s second book, arrived in 1997. Today, Wark finds herself again a target of the culture wars. Not as an active participant, exactly, but as one by default. (Targets of culture wars are always and irreparably active; they simply exist as the hated identity. I think here of the words of Imre Kertész, describing the exploitation of identity in the civil arena by politicians – it occurs “with a kind of easygoing shamelessness”.) The hatred of whatever is coded female remains as pervasive and cruel as ever. Perhaps the greatest cruelty is knowing how soon it could all pass, a new enemy be found, and the violence and waste and hurt be as if for nothing – a passing whim and propensity that, perhaps most hurtfully, has no promise or even expectation of recompense.

This background adds a level of pathos to Wark’s latest book, the memoir Love and Money, Sex and Death. Its use of the second-person brings the subject close, but not too much. Vulnerable enough to be seen, but not to be hurt again. It makes the self, too, into an addressee: “I is always an-other”, Wark writes. The sentiment comes from Rimbaud (another an-other), but is varied slightly – an expression of the self-détourned – and thus made other again.

At the start of The Virtual Republic, Wark’s Deleuzian second work – with its roots and aerials, its pulses and virtualities, plateaus and vectors (a word Wark often returns to; in 1997 she said, simply, “I’m very fond of it”) – there is an epigraph from Deleuze himself: “Isn’t this the answer to the question: what are we? We are habits, nothing but habits. The habit of saying ‘I’.”

The self as fluid object, always capable of becoming another, of becoming more.

In retrospect, one might detect an early scepticism towards gender in Wark’s ’90s critiques of the machismo of Nick Cave and Midnight Oil. “I’m one of the ones who hid, even from myself, for the longest time”, she now writes in Love and Money. Although she has always run from the provincial and parochial – Wark grew up in ’60s Newcastle – she has often recognised its intimacies and strange comforts. (Returning to Sydney late in the memoir, she describes crying at the familiarity of Hyde Park.)

In 2020’s Reverse Cowgirl, the first book Wark published as she/her, she describes learning what to do with the attention of men: “[T]here was another me. The one that came into existence when certain men were watching”. (The attention of women is trickier: “They did not know that I wanted to be them rather than fuck them”.) In the chapter “You Are Your Attention” we are given a potted biography of the author via Facebook’s algorithm. It reads, in part:

Organism | Australia | New York City | e-flux | LGBT community | Bodies | Writer’s Block | Socialism | Capitalism | Alaska Thunderfuck | David Bowie | Lady Bunny | Walter Benjamin | Prince | Lana Turner

A similar series of disclosures occurs in Love and Money. Marriage, gender, family, society, selfhood: each requires different interlocutors. Among them is Wark herself, as a young person and, again, at middle age. We are also introduced to her father, Ross Kenneth Wark, her mother, Joyce Wark, her sister, Sue, a fictional confidante, Veronica, and the goddess of motherhood, Cybele (Wark calls her the “goddess of thresholds, transition”).

The interface between theory and its application to lived experience has always animated Wark’s writing. Structuring the book as a series of letter-like addresses, drawing out the thematic threads of her life, Wark uses different currents and planes to reflect back the self – and to reflect different tangents and aspects of that self, inquiring into what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger. When she describes gender- passing, she describes a kind of interpellation, too. “Those who can hide it do their – our – best at appearing in the cis world. We might even fancy we belong there. Maybe some of us do.”

There is a lot to be said for this self-making, even if it is materially conditioned by circumstance, privilege, luck, identity, history. Wark takes an avid interest in anglophone cultural theory and continental philosophy’s abstract corners, but recognises their limitations:

As a scholar you are supposed to have a “field”. It’s a colonial mentality. Put your stakes in, claim it, “break new ground” … You’ll be tempted to think like this, but it’s not your best impulse. As a writer, you just want to pass through, leave offerings, tidy up a bit, and move on. You’re a vector across institutions, fiefdoms, status hierarchies.

Commenting on the “trans women are women” slogan, Wark writes: “Politically, ‘trans women are women’. But aesthetically, I’m with the t-girls who embrace our difference. Who turn the bad feelings around, revel in our fallen state, become pretty in our own ways.”

In her chapter on “Venus”, Wark writes of a Black woman who struggles to realise what it might mean to become, amid the difficulty of her circumstances, pretty in our own ways:

 It got worse. Chronic, low-level health problems, salved with street meds. And then you became known to the police. You saw where things were heading. Trying to get by on legit jobs, but with no résumé, making minimum wage. The hormones reshaping your face, pushing out tits, making boymode physically as well as emotionally impossible. You taught me a concept for all this: transmisogynoir. The hatred of Black trans femininity, that most fallen thing. You taught me more than I taught you. Which merely extends and reinforces the structure within which you struggled and in which I was mostly left untouched.

For a writer who has staked their claim on not staking claims – on virtual geographies and virtual republics, hackers and gamers and ravers, on unreality and the proliferation of spectacle – seeing Wark’s critical vocabulary put to work on such human loss conveys something new. It feels earnt, in the same way that the insouciance, say, of ’60s-era Sontag – fighting for an erotics of art and the end of her own Manhattan ganglands – becomes, over the decades, something else: a more vulnerable figure, one who discovers that the unhip verities of humanism are worth troubling themselves over again.

The American jurist and legal scholar Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, in reference to revolutions, that they “do not follow precedents nor furnish them”. I’ve written elsewhere that narratives, not unlike revolutions, are contextual, formed from environmental bric-a-brac and circumstantial material. All books are thus a kind of hacker’s manifesto. The reader brings their own sources and acknowledgements, their creative commons; the text becomes a party crasher who can’t help wanting to invite more guests.

Yet texts are also sui generis – derivative forms that, paradoxically, remain unique to their authors. They are capable of setting their own precedents. Art attests to the omnivorous capacity of human creativity, of consciousness and memory. (Even Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” suggests the possibility that, in writing Don Quixote exactly as it exists, Menard might still be its author.) Art institutes revolutions simply by existing. The unprecedented aspect of stories is that they go their own way. They can be followed or copied yet they maintain their integrity, their singular aspect. Whether we assent to them is another matter.

Wark has often quoted, approvingly, the writing of Comte de Lautréamont, seeing in his work an expression of how “all of literature is common property, and so plagiarism is not theft, but merely the application of the principle: to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities”. She wrote this in 2004 in A Hacker Manifesto, which was, in part, a thesis concerning shared knowledge and experience, a way of trying to avoid incorporation into the culture industries. The spectacle becoming neither advertising (hello, Naomi Klein) nor more of the same – a repetition of violence both institutionalised and petty, of endless, futile culture war – but another way of being.

When Wark said she was fond of the word “vector” she probably meant it. A vector suggests possibilities – and, sometimes, a set trajectory. It is about being in motion, and being in motion means always moving. So long as you do, there is the chance they may never catch up.

Declan Fry

Declan Fry is an essayist, critic and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta.

McKenzie Wark

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