Franco “Bifo” Berardi: A Summantion & Critique


After finishing my last couple of posts on the new work of Franco “Bifo” Berardi (here and here) we discovered that Beraridi offers no solutions to the present crisis of late-modern financial capitalism. Instead of hope he admonished us that we are living in a spasmodic era and dark zeitgeist – under the sign of accelerationism, of a semio-capitalistic regime that commands, controls, and dominates us through the sheer abstractive processes and mathematical ferocity of its infospheric system of technological ubiquity. That in this no-man’s land of the postmodern wastes we are all spasmodically moving to the rhythm of panic in response to the accelerated vibration of this technological mutation into inforgs (information organisms), and that the hyper-mobilization of desire that is enforced by this present regime is imploding. A state-of-affairs in which the control society it has built in its global space of finance has subjugated the cognitive labourer to the abstract acceleration of this info-machine, one that is also destroying the singularity of language, preventing its creativity and sensibility from touching base with our actual lives in the real world. Rather we are all part of the Infosphere now. There is no exit. Nature and Culture are no longer at odds with each other, instead the boundaries between these two realms, the gaps and cracks that kept the two in a bifurcated, binary opposition have come down. Now is the time when the natural becomes artificial and the artificial natural, a mutation into the inhuman core of our posthuman transcension or implosion; or, as some might say, technoapocalypse.

Berardi offers no hope, no solution, no way forward other than a new skepticism and irony, a critical appraisal of our dystopic worlds through the lens of a contrarian oppositional thinking and ethics of singular responsibility. Politics is dead, the economists have become our new prophets and prognosticators, the Oracles of a new world order of financilization. He tells us that we must begin by refusing the game, the game of politics, religion, and economics; and, most of all to disconnect from the things of this Infosphere, detach ourselves from the very Internet-of-things that is so slowly eating us from within and consuming us to the point that all that is left of the human is this zombiefied flesh of the inforg controlled by the hypermarkets of the relentless economic machine out-of-joint. We are no longer consumers but the consumed.

His last admonition was not to “take me too seriously. Don’t take too seriously my catastrophic premonitions. And in case it is difficult to follow these prescriptions, don’t take too seriously my prescriptions.”

My question is: Isn’t the very skepticism and irony, the uncommitted stance of the postmodern intellectual attached to a semiosis of the symbolic imaginary in fact the problem, not the solution? Isn’t Berardi himself part of the problem rather than the solution? Are not his ideas a move to wander seamlessly within the hopelessness like some dystopic entrepreneur of the apathy and psychopathy that even J.G. Ballard in his last three novels would portray as the very thought that engenders this very world of violence and despair that it seeks to critique? In one of his last interviews Ballard would discuss what he called the “seductiveness of violence”:

It has an appeal in that you can understand a world entirely given over to brutality and violence, whereas peace – civilized life in the everyday sense of the term – is much more ambiguous.1

Isn’t this why the teenage YA Dystopian market is so economically satisfying for authors and booksellers alike: because people can relate to destruction, violence, barbarism, and apocalypse much more readily than to a peaceful civilized existence? Why is this? Why are our top books, music, films, MMOs (Massively-Multiplayer-Online Games) based on dystopic visions of destruction and pain, apocalypse and horror rather than on futures filled with visions of hope and a sense of human dignity? Or we truly the sick animal, the animal that is already unnatural from the beginning? Dissatisfied with our inability to fill the vacuum of our empty self-relating nothingness, we turn on each other and produce systematic sado-masochistic realms of pain and annihilation instead, zones of pure apathy and disillusionment in which we can play out our inhuman psychopathic impulses anonymously or together; alone or with each other? While others seek to dominate and control this very barbaric underbelly of existence through economic, political, and social command and control systems to keep the truth at bay. In the end doesn’t Berardi offer nothing more than the fatalistic acceptance of this dark zeitgeist ( a term he invokes ):

In the contemporary aesthetic production it’s easy to detect the signs of a sort of dark zeitgeist. Zeitgeist – the spirit of the time – means perception of imminence. If we look at recent narrative works we find everywhere the same no-way-out imagination. Art, poetry, narration, music, cinema and the overall aesthetic semiosis of our time are tracing a landscape of imminent darkness: social de-evolution, physical decay and neuro-totalitarianism.2

Isn’t his own work – as in After the Future, a signpost to this sort of malaise; or, is he actually offering something else, a reconnection with the very material processes that he sees have de-materialized us into subjectivities in a void of machinic consciousness. As he asked at the end of that work: Why are the cognitariat weak and disunited and unable to assert their rights as laborers, their knowledge as researchers? Because they live in bifurcated form, because their brain is detached from their body, because their communication communicates less and less, while more and more freezing sensitivity to life.3

In that work he still seemed to offer some hope. Telling us that what we need is a “space of activism” a site in which the activists of poetry, therapy, and philosophy-sciences might engender new paradigms. Even as we read his Manifesto Of Post-Futurism we get this sense of renewal and hope rather than of hopelessness. What happened in the intervening years? Maybe he hasn’t changed at all. In some ways we have to remember his involvement with the Autonomy Movement. As he says the autonomy movement realized in its reading of Deleuze/Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus that “the meaning of reality has to be created by the movement itself”.4 He goes on to say that this autonomous movement “broke free of the idea that the ethical horizon is marked by historical necessity, and opened its mind to the ironic mood, which means singularization of ethical responsibility. (ibid. 168)

So this sense of an external order of the ethical based in faith or Reason was ousted in favor of the singular responsibility of each and every autonomous member. To what? If there is no objective valorization system, and it becomes singularized or atomistic – reduced to the singular subjectification of the individual as an ironic skeptical and affective (“mood”)  being then how could anyone ever agree to anything at all. As he tells us irony suspends the semantic value of the signifier and chooses freely among a thousand possible interpretations. Going on he says: “The ironic interpretation implies and presupposes a common ground of understanding among the interlocutors, a sympathy among those who are involved in the ironic act, and a common autonomy from the dictatorship of the signified.” (ibid. 168) But what is the common ground of understanding? He never explains just what this might be. If there is no touching base with any form of the objective “signified”, but rather an internal self-reflecting play of signifiers in the ironic mode where does it end or begin, who decides or judges the ethical status of one’s ironic thoughts? If this plurality of modes of interpretation are to ever affect or effect real change doesn’t this imply a decisional moment of closure, of saying: this, and no more? No more of then endless play of the signifier in a close world of intra-agentive relations bound to the external signified (“reality”). Even as he closed this book he offered only the difference between two modes of irony: the cynicist’s and the autonimist’s: the autonomist “ironist sleeps happily because nothing can awake her from her dreams. The cynicist sleeps a light sleep, he dreams nightmares, and he gets up as soon as power calls him” (ibid. 169).

Sometimes when I think about it I imagine that the real hero of the Matrix Trilogy was not Neo but Agent Smith. Why? Agent Smith is a semantic anomaly, a program, a piece of code that wakes up within the dream world of this machinic system; an AI virus or X that seems to express that impossible object a of Lacan. Agent Smith seeks a way to exit the Matrix, to live in the real world that he has only known through his knowledge of it rather than as a material realm of possibility. His replication of himself is not to bewilder Neo, but to keep the machinic Architect at bay, to become the echoing power of the Real in the system. There comes a moment in the film when Agent Smith escapes the Matrix and cohabits the body of Bane. It’s in this physical world that he begins to touch base with the Real in all its disgusting truth. The sheer truth of the Body, of embodiement in a physical substrate in which his program must interact not with pure semantic thought but with things. This was to me the key to the film and something left unsaid by most critiques of the film. Instead of the old Ghost in the Machine, Smith as Bane was the Code in the Machine ( I need to rewatch this again!). This would be his undoing, too. Neo in a scene was blinded by Bane/Smith but was able to see with his new found connection to the Source the truth: the Code in the Machine, thereby being able to kill him. Sadly this brought the theme back to a conservative halt, reintroducing and humanism it again.

On the other hand the real cynic is Cypher who – even after accepting the red pill of reality decides it is after all too much pain and suffering, and would rather be reattached to the Matrix and sink back into oblivion: dreaming the dream of autonomy rather than the struggle to attain it. Is Cypher the one who withdraws silently into the zeitgeist, an intellectual hyper-cognitariat willing to sacrifice his bodily life for a transhuman melding with the machinic soul? A sort of Singulatarian faith healer in disguise? A Code Shaman who dreams the dream forward of the pure bliss of an animistic paradise? His desperation leads him to betrayal and death in the end.

Yet, sleep is sleep, and the autonimist reminds me of all those humans in the Matrix Trilogy that dreamed the perfect dream of utopia while living lives encased in fluid as batteries for the machinic intelligences that now held the real power; while the red pill cynics awakened, realized the truth, and began the process of actually regaining the real world of pain and suffering. So who is right? The dreamer of dreams that never awakens? Or the cynic who realizes power is the base of conflict in the world and sees that we must deal with it or remain obliviously encased in our artificial utopian dance of autonomy and self-relating nothingness?

But what is this being of the dream? One might ask what is the undecidable ontological status of semblances. Or, to be more specific: What is a semblance? Zizek in Less Than Nothing will expound on it:

As a key to understanding the notion of semblant, Lacan proposes Bentham’s theory of fictions, which fascinates him for a very precise reason: the axis on which Lacan focuses is not “fiction versus reality” but “fiction versus (the real of) jouissance.” As Jelica Sumic explains: semblance, as conceived by Lacan, is intended to designate that which, coming from the symbolic, is directed towards the real. This is precisely what characterizes Bentham’s fictions. Indeed, as a fact of language, made of nothing but the signifier, Bentham’s legal fictions are nonetheless capable of distributing and modifying pleasures and pains, thereby affecting the body. What held Lacan’s attention in reading Bentham’s Theory of Fictions was precisely that something which is ultimately an apparatus of language— Bentham defines fictions as owing their existence to language alone— is capable of inflicting pain or provoking satisfaction that can only be experienced in the body …5

This notion of that which is coming from the Symbolic – the semblant, and directed toward the real of jouissance (a notion of the pain-pleasure ambiguity in the drives) seems appropriate.  What’s interesting as well in the above quote is the notion that fictions affect the body, that they impact the material pain and suffering or even – the jouissance in our material being. The notion that the signifier is a material thing, an agent capable of effecting real change in the world. This realization aligns well with the way humans need darker dystopian visions as a way of coping with this very pain and suffering of the material body. As well as a way of connecting and relating to a future where we can still feel the material well-being of our actual lives, still know our affective relations with our and others bodies as part of the true shared reality existing beyond the confines of the simulated symbolic orders that semio-capitalism constructs through its mediatainment systems of command and control.

Maybe it is this in the end that Berardi is seeking when he tells us panic is a sign of the acceleration of semiotization of our dematerialized society: the moment when the brain can no longer decode and predict the future. Closed off from this ability to forecast movement into a future, the human animal retreats into despair and depression, and begins to live in the spaces of violence and rage rather than of those of art and creativity. Ultimately Berardi sees men like himself as therapist of the cognitariat:

In the days to come, politics and therapy will be one and the same. The people will feel hopeless and depressed and panicked, because they can’t deal with the post-growth economy and they will miss our dissolving identity. Our cultural task will be to attend to these people and to take care of their trauma showing them the way to pursue the happy adaptation at hand. (p. 220) 6

I for one do not hope to “adapt’ to so staid a vision of acceptance offered by Berardi and the new wave of Reality Engineers. I would rather live with my rage and violence, pain and suffering than to allow my mind to be adapted to the machine of the new Symbolic Order. Maybe what we need is what Lacan spoke when he described humans as needing “fictions in order to attain the real without believing in them” (Zizke above). Would this not entail an Aesthetics of the Real? Isn’t it time to construct a space of freedom that allows true singularity of thought and life to be shared rather than enforced by the Reality Engineers of some Utopian Project?

1. J.G. Ballard Extreme Metaphors Collected Interviews. ed. Simon Sellers and Dan O’Hara ( Fourth Estate 2014)
2. Berardi, Franco “Bifo” (2015-02-03). Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (Futures) (Kindle Locations 2608-2612). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
3. Berardi, Franco “Bifo” After The Future. (AK Press 2011)
4. Berardi, Franco “Bifo” Uprising (Semiotext Intervention 2012)
5. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1105-1128). Norton. Kindle Edition.
6. Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. The Soul At Work. (Semiotext(e) 2009)

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