Marx, Immanence, and Cybernetics

A close reading of Karl Marx and Mark Fisher on machines

Perhaps one of Karl Marx’s most fascinating texts is one of his least known. Buried deep within Grundrisse’s unpolished notes on political economy; Fragments on Machines is a short, yet altogether revolutionary essay. Written solely for the sake of private clarification, the text reveals a side of Marx at his most esoteric and experimental.

Expanding on the larger analysis of the machine and its role in production, Marx uncovers a startlingly accurate depiction of what we might now call “artificial intelligence”, writing: “Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself… He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor” (Grundrisse 624).

Already we can draw modern parallels. Large swathes of the Midwest, formerly littered with bustling factories, lie empty and jobless. “Bullshit jobs” and the administration of consumer society increasingly overshadows productive labor. The tech industry has largely overcome industrial firms among the top wealthiest and biggest corporations in America. The tendency towards automation isn’t merely an external phenomenon; it arises within capital’s contradictions. “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. It reduces human labour, expenditure of energy, to a minimum” (Gr 625). This antagonism quite unintentionally creates “ the condition of [labor’s] emancipation” (Gr 620).

Let’s be clear: labor will not disappear. Machines require maintenance and human input remains useful. In nature and concrete reality, “man’s activity” shows no tendency to cease. Yet in the realm of value-production, labor is accelerating to the brink of extinction. Consequently, the traditional notion of man’s exceptional essence is crumbling. The base unit of capitalist ideology is the “rational human subject”. Our institutions, systems, customs, and social relations are grounded in the assumption that Man stands above its habitat and creations. Society’s labyrinth of structures rests upon a bed of productive labor and its ideology. With the rise of automation and the reduction of productive labor; this foundation lies fractured and ready to crack. In other words, “conscious labor” and “non-laboring processes” aren’t eternal categories but forces in stupefying motion.

Mark Fisher’s posthumously released book Flatline Constructs picks up where Marx leaves off. The text primarily aims to deconstruct the boundary between organic and non-organic matter; extending both into what Fisher calls the Gothic Flatline. “The Gothic Flatline designates a zone of radical immanence… a plane that cuts across the distinction between living and non-living, animate and inanimate” (Flatline Constructs 2). But wait! you may interject. Machines can’t exist without our input, surely this proves humans are of an essentially different substance! We commonly draw the line between living and non-living at autonomous reproduction. Yet take, for instance, the clover and the bee. We instinctively label both as living, yet clovers fail to meet the standard of completely autonomous reproduction. Their growth in large part depends on bee pollination, likely withering away without its aid. Why is it, then, do we consider clovers to be squarely within life without any room for the machine? Does the machine not rely on human input, much like the clover relies on the bee? Both propagate in differing, but analogous ways. This uncharted territory requires new signifiers: “living” and “dead” are simply inadequate.

To meet this challenge we turn to cybernetics. Fisher primarily approaches his analysis via cybernetics; the study of systems of both positive and negative feedback, defined in Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings as “the property of being able to adjust future conduct by past performance”. “Since all working systems can be described, abstractly, in terms of particular feedback processes — input and output of “information” — cybernetics is able to develop… a “functional analogy” between humans and machines” (FC 22). In other words, cybernetics makes the categories of living and non-living substance immanent. No longer is it a question of how to fit square concepts into round confines: cybernetics opens the floodgates for an entirely new frame of thought.

Marx’s writings contain kernels of cybernetic immanence. He writes: ‘Nature is just as much the source of use-values as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The bourgeoise… falsely ascribe supernatural creative power to labor” (Critique of the Gotha Program). Here Marx demystifies labor, situating it within its natural context. Rather than depict labor as a Promethean force towering over nature, he recognizes labor as within nature. Humans producing commodities, bees building hives, the ocean’s tides, a flower blooming; all exist as modes of one universal substance. Yet, his penchant for immanence continues; speaking of “the machine… a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs” (Gr 614). In other words, capital becomes cybernetic. His personification of the machine, coupled with the demystification of man, clearly implies further immanization. Unknowingly (or perhaps centuries ahead of his time), Marx flirts with gothic-materialist conclusions.

Living squarely within the Victorian era, Marx can’t empirically measure capital beyond its embryonic stage: he can only palpate its trajectory with the tools of inference and critique. “When doctors seek to understand a lesion [wound] they cannot see, they palpate the body. They create a zone of touch where the sense of the lesion can emerge without its being directly experienced” (Giles Deleuze: An Introduction). Just as doctors palpate the wounds they can’t directly perceive, Fragments on Machines roughly palpates a world hidden behind a curtain of time.

More than mere thought-provoking pieces of philosophy, Fragments on Machines and Flatline Constructs carry the potential for a new radical program. Today, Marx is too often read and reread in the same stale light as his contemporaries. The many warring factions of tendencies that claim his project remain trapped in discourses waged hundreds of years ago. Fisher’s incorporation of cybernetics vastly refines Marx’s analysis. The rigid distinction between machines and organisms collapses into an ambiguous zone of fluidity, injecting a long-needed breath of fresh air. If radical abolition is the ultimate goal of the communist left, its theoretical aim must uncompromisingly interrogate the roots of everything. What bourgeois society proclaims eternal we must take as a challenge to historicize, to uncover the tenuous roots that reveal a possibility for change. Challenging nearly every aspect of the established order, cybernetic immanence opens the doors to the creation of new revolutionary concepts.

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