Luxury Writing
Mckenzie Wark

The luxury of writing, writing of luxury, luxury as excess in relation to an economy of utility: it is along these lines that this article by Australian McKenzie Wark, professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the New School in New York, and author of A Hacker Manifesto and Love and Money, Sex and Death, unfolds.

The want that makes me write is always caught between kinds of excess. One is easy to explain. It’s the desire always for more. For more attention. More sales. More fame. More glory. For each book to exceed the last. It’s a frustrating desire, because so often frustrated.

It’s a desire for a kind of luxury, for a displacement from ordinary life. In modern times luxury means something like comfort beyond necessity. I’m on the road, on book tour. In Venice the hotel is an ordinary one, and on the bed there are two pillows. In Rome, a luxury hotel, so on the bed there are six pillows. Luxury expresses itself through sensory details that communicate additional time and expense. In this kind of luxury, quantity expresses quality.

There’s an older sense of luxury as sensual, frivolous, sexy life. A life not devoted to the reproduction of more of itself. A life displaced towards difference rather than more of the same. A luxury you can’t quantify, can only feel. Sometimes I want that other luxury, in life, and in writing.

Writing itself can be a luxury, but what kind? Roland Barthes writes in The Pleasure of the Text: ‘does luxury language belong with excess wealth, wasteful expenditure, total loss? Does a great work of pleasure (Proust’s, for example) participate in the same economy as the pyramids of Egypt?’1 The commodity form recuperates writing. Its luxurious uselessness becomes a thing of market value. Is that recuperation complete? Is it reversible? Maybe writing can be the writer’s dance with luxury, turning it, and being turned by it.

There is also the writing done out of necessity. I can pay the rent because I can write. Then there is the writing one does that is free, that comes from enjoying some minor surplus of life. What kind of luxury do I want for this writing? I’m torn. I fantasize about writing that’s a commercial success, but I’ve never been any good at that. My writing always ends up compromised, somewhere between freedom and necessity. Maybe it’s a place of negotiation between rival desires for kinds of luxury.

My guide to this dilemma has always been the writing of Georges Bataille, and not least because of how excessive it was. As he writes in The Accursed Share: ‘it is not necessity but its contrary, luxury, that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems.’2 Luxury for Bataille is the condition of all life, as it draws energy, directly or indirectly, from the sun, using it to develop, grow, expand, proliferate. Everything over and above mere survival is luxury. ‘In the general effervescence of life, the tiger is a point of extreme incandescence. And this incandescence did in fact burn first in the remote depths of the sky, in the sun’s consumption.’3 Life is the unreturnable gift of the energy of sunlight folded into teeming forms and foaming flourishes which blaze across the eons.

"Luxury as quantity overwhelms and subsumes luxury as difference, diversion, creation, all of which finds a subordinate place on the bohemian margins, or reified in the form of art."

Sue Williams

Sue Williams, Excessive Digits, 2003 © Photo: Scala, Florence / The Museum of Modern Art, New York


The various forms of social-technical human life are also made of burnt sunlight. In its abundance, solar energy generates the historical problem of what to do with excess. Bataille: ‘beyond our immediate ends, man’s activity in fact pursues the useless and infinite fulfillment of the universe.’4 Writing in the late 1940s, he already saw energy as the crucial planetary problem. He classifies societies by what each does to burn off the surplus it produces. Pyramids or war; art or conquest. Crusades or festivals; churches or colosseums. Growth or waste; glory or disaster. Writing or racing cars.

The problem of luxury becomes acute once the commodity economy becomes dominant. This begins before industrial capitalism. To tell an excessively simplified story: it begins with diverting surplus towards colonial conquest, the theft of land, the transportation of slaves to work it, all of which generates yet more surplus. Once land and life become commodities, a colonial ruling class diverts most of the surplus toward making more surplus, deferring, and expanding the problem of excess.

Capitalism draws on the surplus accumulated by a colonial landlord class and diverts it again, towards industrial production; towards the extraction of value from ‘free’ labor rather than slaves. Capital has but one desire and it is accumulation, making more and more. This accelerates the luxury of the quantitative, dissipated from time to time in mechanized war. Luxury as quantity overwhelms and subsumes luxury as difference, diversion, creation, all of which finds a subordinate place on the bohemian margins, or reified in the form of art.

The mutation of the commodity form didn’t end there. The extraction of surplus didn’t stop with organizing slave and land, or ‘free’ labor and factory. There’s a third stage. Now even nonlabor yields a surplus, a surplus of information. Every time we open our laptops or use our phones, every time anything passes through zones of surveillance, we generate surplus information for a new kind of ruling class, no longer the colonial landlord or capitalist manufacturer, a class which controls the extraction of surplus through the vectors of information technology – what I call a vectoralist ruling class.

Luxury as ever-expanding sameness can take many forms: the corporation, but also the state, and also the family. There are tensions between them, but these versions of luxury can align in the desire to extract and accumulate surplus energy to create more and more of the same. More offspring for the family. More money for the corporation. More territory for the state. The decorations might change, but the form remains the same.


1. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang, 1975, p. 23.
2. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Zone Books, 1992, p. 12.
3. Ibid. Bataille, p. 34.
4. Ibid. Bataille, p. 21.