The Molecular and the Molar

Last week I finished McKenzie Wark’s latest book Molecular Red: Theory For the Anthropocene. It’s been getting a lot of attention online in the last few weeks, including a review by Zizek, Wark’s response to that review, this review, and Andre’s post at Intra-Being. All of the discussion has been very interesting and illuminating, and the book itself (as well as the free Molecular Red Reader) has given me more encouragement to think than I’ve experienced with most other recent theoretical texts. In these discussions a lot has been made of Wark’s Molecular/Molar distinction, which, I suppose, is one of the (perhaps the) primary points he is attempting to make in the book, though the path he takes to get there is just as interesting and engaging as the end result.

The molecular/molar distinction goes hand-in-hand in Wark’s book with a high/low theory distinction. High theory, he claims, operates on the molar level – the level of masses, “big theory”, etc. Low theory, by contrast, operates on the molecular level – what he describes as “the labor point of view.” High theory works through abstraction, low theory through tektological metaphor and situationist “détournement” – interjecting concepts from one field into another in order to work through the resistances of “nature.” Zizek, in his review, undertakes his own détournement and (to add another to the mix) stands Wark on his head:

“We should thus move beyond the Deleuzian opposition between molecular and molar, which ultimately reduces the molar level to a shadowy theatre of representations, in relation to a molecular level of actual productivity and life-experience. True, the metabolic rift is operative and can only be established at a “lower” molecular level, but this molecular level is so low that it is imperceptible not only to “molar” big politics or social struggles but also to the most elementary forms of experience. It can only be accessed through “high” theory—in a kind of self-inverted twist, it is only through the highest that we get to the lowest.”

He accuses Wark of reductionism wherein the molecular and molar are taken to be primarily associations of scale. The molar becomes simply the emergent manifestation – the shadowy representation – of the “real” molecular processes.

However, I’m not sure that the distinction Wark is trying to make is primarily about scale. None of the theorists he draws upon in Molecular Red could be argued to be theorists of the “small scale” and, if it were simply about scale, then the molecular/molar distinction would be just one more way of defining a polemic that has been going on for ages. In that case, Zizek would, of course, be right to accuse Wark of reductionism, and this reviewer would be (and is) right to suggest that we need both the “high” and the “low” – a molecular tektological (post-nihilist) praxis takes what it can get and assembles what it can out of the scraps.

But I think something is lost in the metaphor when it’s reduced to the issue of scale. In order to understand what Wark is attempting, I think we need to delve more into the chemistry of the metaphor – literally. My experience with chemistry is limited – I took one class back in high school, and worked for a year as an assistant in a geochemistry laboratory processing samples and trying to keep the machines running – but my notion of the molecular and molar in chemistry is that, yes, it is about scale, but it is also about processes. In other words, molecular chemistry deals with the processes of molecular interaction – the enzymatic, energetic dynamics of molecules combining, breaking apart, recombining, and transforming from one to another. Molar chemistry assumes these processes, and instead deals with the interactions between masses of molecules – the way that different chemicals combine or don’t when interacting as masses. For example, it doesn’t make sense to talk about the dissolution of salt (NaCl) in water if you have one salt and one water molecule. It’s only by combining them in mass that a solution can be created. Talking about mass versus molecule, then, would seem to suggest that it is about scale, but it could also be argued (and I think Wark’s take on Barad and Bohr should suggest) that the scale is the product of the kinds of interaction we use to engage with these materials:

“If you want to measure the position of a particle, you need a fixed point of reference. If you want to measure the momentum of a particle, you need something movable, which can absorb that momentum and measure its force. These are different kinds of apparatus, one producing position-sensation, the other momentum-sensation. They are determined by mutually exclusive apparatuses. We can’t subtract the practice of measuring from the phenomenon measured. But the larger consequence is that there is no good way of discriminating between the apparatus and its object. No inherent subject/object distinction exists. There is an object-apparatus-phenomena-observer situation.”

By interacting with various chemicals in different ways, the molecular and molar produce the scales in which they operate. In a similar way, the distinction between molecular (low) and molar (high) theory could be said to be more about the process of theorizing than it is about the object of theorization. What kinds of engagements and processes are undertaken. Here I think Wark’s notion of the “secondary idea” – which he draws from Platonov – is helpful.

“In order to protect and not to exhaust his communism, Dvanov cultivates the secondary idea: ‘Now he feared the expansion of his calm spiritual sufficiency and wished to find another, secondary idea by which he might live and which he might spend and use, rarely for his happiness.’ So he works on irrigation, on food security. No matter how spiritual the communist leap of faith, it only lives on in people’s bodies, and bodies have wants. The secondary idea preserves against the melancholy that attends the first, whether it be the impossibility then of achieving communism – or the impossibility now of confronting the Carbon Liberation Front. The secondary idea does not dream backwards from the absolute time of a future horizon. It works outward, from a particular present situation, looking for lines out of cramped spaces.”

This could lead us down the path of an academic/applied distinction, but I don’t think that’s what Wark is trying to go after either. Rather, I think he is making a point about the process of philosophy and the kinds of philosophical processes that are necessary to confront the “Carbon Liberation Front” and the problem of the anthropocene. Here I would argue that molecular theory is theory that works – not in the sense that it is “functional” but in the sense that it is a theory that labors through and with various engagements with other fields of knowledge and practice. It is the “labor point of view” that Wark emphasizes – theory that is conscious of itself as the product of a kind of labor. By contrast, “high” theory – what he eventually refers to as “hypo-critical” theory – is theory that forgets or obscures its own labor through its abstractions. Either kind of theory could produce large-scale abstractions or small-scale pragmatics, but molecular theory is unique in that it is theory that works through engagements with other fields of knowledge and practice in a process of assemblage rather than attempting to legislate them from afar.

From there it could be argued whether Zizek and Badiou are deserving of Wark’s criticism. It could also still be argued that both molecular theory – theory that works – and molar theory – theory that obscures its work – are still necessary to the struggle against the Carbon Liberation Front. But I think this distinction has to be about more than just the scale of operations – it also has to include the labor processes by which the theories are produced. As an anthropologist, and one who deals directly with scientific practices, this kind of theory that works is much more useful, engaging, and interesting to me than a theory that operates only through abstraction and legislation. I’ve found much more to work with in Wark’s book and in the people he references (Haraway, Barad, Edwards, Robinson, etc.) than I have in other recent philosophical texts. I look forward to working through these concepts as I engage with modelers and write my dissertation.

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