Franco Berardi: Panic Society and the Semiopath

… an abstract machine of mutation, which operates by decoding and deterritorialization. It is what draws the lines of flight: it steers the quantum flows, assures the connection-creation of flows, and emits new quanta. It itself is in a state of flight, and even war machines on its lines.

– Gilles Deleuze/Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

As I read between the lines in Berardi’s precarious rhapsody I am coming to the realization that the perfect citizen of semiocapitalism is not the psychopath but the Semiopath, the infonaut caught in the web of deceitful capital neither fully Borg nor a member of that species we once quaintly called homosapiens. The Semiopath is a voyeur of signs rather than a creator, a semiotician of the death-drive rather than a desiring machine, a cyberzombie of the edge worlds frozen on the cyberscreens of an endless night of civilization. A living semblance of our former humanity glued to the economics of an Occasionalist nightmare in which the mediator of causality is no longer God or Mind, but, as Zizek reminds us, the immaterial software algorithms on those pieces of material hardware we call Computers. Our machinic cousins now arbitrate the virtual subjects of the new cybertariat, those neo-intellectuals of our posthuman era. What modes of composition and recomposition connect us to the lightwaves and digitized byways of cyberspace; its movement of along the lines of consistency we term social composition? Is the mode of composition of this machinic subjectivation formed out of the traumatic zero world of our negative economics? As the modes of its communication among machines stretching across the global networks and assemblages sucks up more and more of the bitter dregs of humanity what will be left to salvage by century’s end? The communication of machine with machine goes on without us in the silent nights and days, while we oblivious to its music dive into the slipstreams idly playing the strings of its throbbing diodes like troubadours of some new alien sound poetry. Will the singularity (possible or not?) come in like a tiger or like the whimper of some bad suicide? Do we play the computer, or does it play us?

In a state of flight or panic, tripping beyond the traumas of the twentieth century we labor under the illusion that there is a future worth moving toward, when, in fact, the future is our terminal zone, the zero point of no return, a dyspeptic dream of utopia turned dystopic: the future is now and we are the dead walking within the hollow tubes of the flickering screens. In the gap between cyberspace and the organic worlds of our physical being is to be found the crux and crisis of our present mutation. “The great majority of humanity is subjected to the invasion of the video-electronic flux, and suffers the superimposition of digital code over the codes of recognition and the identification of reality that permeate organic cultures” (70-71).1 Information overload, the constant blips of bits and bytes flitting among the sparking laves of our synaptic relays, both internal to the brain and external to the virtual global mind, are propelling us into a condition of panic, a diffuse psyhopathology, of desensitization and disaffection that leaves us frozen in cybertime (71).

The key to our sanity lies in cybertime, but as Barardi remarks “cybertime is not infinite”. The colonization of time by this capitalist cyberpatrols has been the fundamental objective from the beginnings of modernity. Capitalist cybertime brings us the militarization of time, a battlefield of warring perceptions, from the ideological propagandizers to the commercial adverts who haunt our sinking civilization. While the new cybertariat struggles to free us from cybertime, the cyberfascists seek to control us and infiltrate the networks under the guise of benefactors. With the loss of organic slowness and the reception and critical appraisal of information we are inundated with intellectual commodities that hook us into the rhythm of the machine networks that manifests itself as panic and depression on the individual level, and as generalized aggressiveness on a collective scale (71).

What is to be done? How to free ourselves from this dark truth of capitalist panic and depression? “One answer,” he tells us, ” is that the intellectual, and thus radical pedagogy, must learn from this gap between cyberspace and cybertime.” (71) He goes on to say:

It is only by freeing the cognitarians from the subordination to its virtual dimension, it is only by reactivating a dynamic of slow affectivity, of freedom from work, that the collective organism will be able to regain its sensibility and rationality, its ability to live in peace. (71)

Science and education itself must be separated from the capitalist world of corporate pressure. Is such a thing even possible? Isn’t this just a pipe-dream? Science depends on funds from both government and private grants. The whole system is bound to the ever expanding markets that drive the capitalist agenda. What’s Berardi on about? He tells us: “Capital is a cognitive framework of social activity, a semiotic frame embedded in the social psyche and the human techne. Refusal of work, temporary autonomous zones, open source and freeware, all this is not the new totality, it is the dynamic recombination allowing people to find their space of autonomy, and push capitalism towards progressive innovation” (72). What he seeks is a new social class of intellectuals, the cybertariat, freed from work and the struggles of capital gain to survive: the “social liberation of the cognitariat is also their appropriation of the techno-social effects of knowledge. (72)”.

All fine and dandy, but what use is it? He gives us a short history of intellectuals from the Leninist as professional intellectuals who serve the cause of the proletariat, on to the organic intellectual of Gramsci who oversees the plans, and on through the Frankfurt school who relies of the critical measure, until we get to the fragmented world of our new digital economies where “intellectual labor assumes the configuration that Marx, in the Grundisse, defined with the expression of ‘General Intellect’. Some have called it collective intelligence (Levy), others connective intelligence (Kerkhove). All of this leads us to drop all talk of Subjects or the Subject, and speak instead of subjectivation:

Subjectivation takes conceptual place of subject. This conceptual move is very close to the contemporary modification of the philosophical landscape that was promoted by French post-structuralism. Subjectivation in the place of subject. That means that we should not focus on identity, but on the process of becoming.(75)

As we give up subjecthood for this processual subjectivation we enter an era of new social relations and investment in social desire. As I read Berardi I’m reminded of the American cybernerd, Mark Dery, who through a series of books from the early nineties to now has chronicled the edge cultures of our age. Yet, in this time of the semiocapitalist the only hope left is to escape the fate of the Borg: the Borg function as a “hive mind,” or collective entity, their nervous systems linked via the meta– nervous system of their monolithic conclaves. Zombie flesh meets sadomasochism in metalloid dreams of ever more assimilation: “Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated”.  Yet, in this hypercapitalistic era of accelerated returns to zero where the future instead of coming at us kicks us from behind till we catch up we realize that what we’re seeing is not some dream of escape but the last immersion in Cyberzombieville. J.   G. Ballard once called the death of affect  “the greatest casualty of the twentieth century”. In the 21st Century it’s normalcy.

Karl Marx himself once alluded to the economic system of capitalism as the Frankenstein monster, the creature that had escaped control of its human masters, and was running wild in the streets: a vampire that fed off the living body of history, like a dark stain upon the face of existence. Yet, it was Lenin who laid out the conditions necessary for a society to enter into a “pre-revolutionary crisis”:

  1. The regime is split; there is a crisis in the regime.
  2. The middle class is wavering between the revolutionary forces and the ruling class.
  3. The working class is ready to fight and make the greatest sacrifices.
  4. The existence of a revolutionary party and leadership.

I think we can all agree that there is a crisis in the regime of semiocapitalism, and in parts of the world the middle class is wavering, and that the working class of whatever stripe is ready everywhere… but, can there ever be again a revolutionary party and leadership? Berardi reminds us that the intellectual decisions of Leninism were so powerful because they were capable of interpreting the male obsessions with voluntarism as it faced the depressive worlds of its own wastelands of modernity. In the 21st Century he tells us we have no future, that ours is the time of dystopian visions as the horizon of art and culture: contemporary poetry, cinema, video-art and novels (YA, etc.) all show the hallmarks of an epidemic of psychopathology proliferating. The Semiopath wanders both our streets and cyberlanes in search of a lost object. But the object he seeks is his own blind subjectivation. The new artist of the cybertariat offers us only a “postponement of the holocaust”, Barardi remarks. We wait in the dark for something to move us, for something to tell us when to begin, when to open the Dead Files of our own dead lives and heal the wounds of our post traumatic subjectivities. But as we sit in the darkness we do not hear anything but the great War Machines outside our doors, and the cries of Third World in its rage as the economic war machines suck up their dead earth for profit and gain…

As Berardi admits: the “Artistic sensibility registers this shift and is incapable of opposing it.”

Two ideas seem to be vying for our metalloid souls: the Communitarianism Idea of the Right and the Communist Idea of the Left. In the Rightwing Idea of Communitarianism or Community we see the coming world of a totalized capitalist State in which there is no Outside, in which everyone is part of the great arc of an identitarian community, wherein the collective identity is closed off without cracks, without rupture and without an exit. Gated Cities and Psyches in which the inhabitants are enslaved by the machinic algorithms of implanted and psychopharmaceutical neuropathological subjection and subjectivation. Here, as Gerald Raunig (A Thousand Machines) suggests, we are members one of another in the old Christian myth, in “service to the communal unity, control and self-control interweave as modes of subjectivation and form a new dispotiff” (94).1

In the other, the Communist Idea of the Left we see a counter-world, anti-state and anti-communitarian as typified by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. A few questions arise: What type of machinic lifeform will our posthuman collective subjectivation be beyond the identitarian system? What are these abstract machines, in which the post-subjectival singularities could become concatenated instead of becoming stuck in the identitarian containers of the community and striated by the state apparatus? (98) “What is the nature of the new, unbounded tie that is actualized not as a homogenizing coherence, but rather as a multiple concatenation, ‘tied together by the lack of a tie’?”

From its beginnings the question of composition and organization has demarcated a site of contention between communist and anarchist contenders for a viable solution to our present ills. The battle over the multitude and the mass collective and the formulation of a “class for itself” opposed to a “class in itself”. In our age Marx’s  “disassociated precariat” and the “lumpen proletariat” have given way to the telematic precariat dispersed among the fractured lines of flight that flow among the precarious multiplicity we term the multitude. The machinic mode of social composition and concatenation should be seen, not in the within the purview of domination, but under the Foucaultian banner as a “relation of forces”. In this sense the telematic precariat is not a subject embodying power, but as a differential relationship, an assemblage that provides impulses for specific modes of subjectivation (106). This process is situated within the notion of abstract machines, and abstract machines are to be known as “transversal concatenations that cross through multiple fields of immanence, enabling and multiplying the connections in this field of immanence” (106). As Raunig remarks:

Abstract machines are neither universals nor ideals, they are virtually real machines of possibility. They do not exist before or beyond, but rather on this side of the separation of assemblages of signs and assemblages of bodies, forms of expression and forms of content, discursive and non-discursive dispotiffs, what is sayable and what is visible. They exist on this side of the separation, yet they do not exacerbate the opposition of bodies and signs, but rather enable them to flow together. (107)

But how are we to imagine such a living abstract machine? What are its qualities and intensities, what are its components? Raunig tells us that the power of the abstract machine as a living machine resides in the ambivalent notions of diffusity, virtuosity, and monstrosity:

1. The diffusity of the abstract machine means being dispersed among the most diverse production locations, modes of production, and social strata.

2. The virtuosity of the abstract machine means its quality as abstract knowledge, cognitive and affective labor and general intellect.

3. The monstrosity of the abstract machine means its dispostition as a formless form. (108)

Caught up as we are between the two poles of capitalist labor and the freedom of a new cybertariat, we should not delude ourselves and forget the power of governments and corporatism to enslave us in the mediatainment of online life with its “imperative of life-long learning and the irresolvable merging of business deals and affects” (112). Knowledge production and cognitive work are at the heart of both systems, but the one is born under the sign of death and an economics of enslavement; while the other is born under the sign of life, and creativity. Raunig ties this all back to the Italian thinkers such as Barardi and Paul Virno, bringing us home to Marx’s General Intellect. Quoting Virno: “We should consider the dimension where the general intellect, instead of being incarnated … into the system of machines, exists as attribute of living labor.(114)” It’s in Virno that Marx and Deleuze/Guattari are brought together. The General Intellect is no longer to be seen as objectified in the collective mind of some abstract totalized machine (cyberspace encyclopedic databank ), but as living part of the “immeasurable and boundless cooperation of cognitive affective workers” (116).

What we should understand is that the General Intellect is no longer to be seen as the competency of the singular individual, but “rather as a transversal, machinic social quality, as abstract knowledge in the sense of the concept of abstraction” (116). And General should not be seen as universal or totalized, but as rhizomatic: open to all sides, multiple entry points and exits. Instead of the capitalistic sense of accumulated knowledge forced into some unified science, we get the open shared capacity of living labor coordinating between cognitive workers in communicative interaction, through abstraction and self-reflection and cooperation.

We should not forget the power of capital to hijack this. Listening to Jaron Lanier last night (thanks, dmf!) I discovered in his lecture this whole panoply of enslavement that goes unsaid within our discourses. The idea that this cyberrealm where we supposedly have the open and free commons of wiki’s and googles and bings and whatever… are not so free, but are controlled and manipulated behind the scenes by monopolies. Google itself controls the analytics and profits from all the data it gathers about what I do on the net using its free portal. We share information freely, but never see a dime for our efforts. Lanier says this is a collapse into the older barter economy where the power is in the hands of a few. Cognitive capitalists can always coopt the Left and enslave the budding machines of creativity. One must always be vigilant!

1. Gerald Raunig. A Thousand Machines. (semiotex(e) intervention series 5 2010)

8 thoughts on “Franco Berardi: Panic Society and the Semiopath

    • Yea, the punk and cyberpunk worlds were always a fav of mine… there was energy then, even if it was frantic and suicidal: at least people were still alive! Now we seem to be falling back into a moralistic age, a deadening policing of our fears and hatreds, a martialing and militarization of our emotions as if Pan had left the stage and we were now all bit players wandering around in a absurd deathworld.

      In fact I’ll admit that reading Berardi is like reading a philosophical sci-fi novel, a mythologist of philosophical ideas rather than a philosopher in the strict sense. He almost seems bound to the older cyberpunk visional world with all his neologisms. Of course that plays right into my own working YA Novel in which the typical post-human world is already formed after the ecological and worldwide disasters of war and famine of the 21st Century are passed. Don’t want to give away too much 🙂 But, yea, it’s fun writing it, like revisiting Gibson, Burroughs, Ballard, and Dick… my own homage to their influence on me.

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  1. On your conclusion, to repeat again, I am with Foucault. What is required is a hyper-pessimistic and hyper-vigiliant activism. We could, and should, add to all this the work of Paul Virilio. Without Virilio there would be no Berardi. The ideas of gated communities-gated psyches is what Virilio calls “cocooning” and it is, for him, the communitarian-individualist symptom, a fantasy, not of organic wholes or the return to sensuous over cybertime but the attempt to produce what we might call anti-pirate utopias.

    Your reading of the situation as one involving communicative flows, cognitive reflection and so forth, I think implies a thinking of flesh. I would claim this is the General that we should look to (indeed, Virno does discuss Merleau-Ponty and, elsewhere, anthropology).

    On the question of the net being unfree, being controlled and manipulable (and on our own cognitive work), I think we should therefore be asking about things like the Dark Net, and the Tor Network. These related phenomena, unknown to most people probably, promise the vision of the internet that Google promises and denies; it is also completely without regulation… not just full of potential revolutionaries, alternative economies, free books, software and so on that no one in power is meant to be tracing (Tor is a peer network), it is also full of criminality of the most disturbing nature (paedophilia is said to be incredibly common on the Dark Net). Is this a kind of semiopathological freedom that reads morality without it ever entering its psychosphere?

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  2. Pingback: The Fourth Revolution: Technology, Capitalism, and the Eclipse of the Human | noir realism

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