Franco “Bifo” Berardi: The Joker Steps Out of the Mirror


Fame is a 15 minute glitch in the bubble-world of our late modern mediatainment system. Yet, when it becomes a marketing docudrama or YouTube spectacular for a reality murder series it takes on a sinister hue. Approaching the dark and obscure world of mass murder and suicide in our late era Berardi will see it through a double-lens. There are those such as the Columbine killers and Pekka-Erik Auvinen – the Finnish mass-murderer, who both wanted to air some message, to become famous, and used video and the internet to give vent to their rage and to broadcast their vision of the world. Such individuals as these seek the specularity of fame and recognition:

For the spectacular mass murderer, the aim is to break the mirror of the spectacle. For him, the border between reality and imagination are blurred, indistinct, distorted. He wants to take part in the spectacle, so that the spectacle may become life, and – ultimately – death.1

Yet, there are others such as James Holmes who took it a step further. What they seek is to subvert this relationship between the passive voyeur of the fantasia and bring about a new relationship between crime and media. What they seek is full blown participation, the totemic identification of the fantasy with reality, the inversion of those poles that separate the two worlds. They seek to reverse the order and literalize the fantasy in their actual lives, become the living movie that steps down from the screen and literally explodes in the audience. As Berardi will tells us of James Holmes:

The Joker James Holmes is different: he both subverted and further developed the relationship between crime and the media. While Harris and Klebold were hoping for Spielberg’s attention, Holmes was already mimicking a character from Nolan’s movie. Holmes is already part of the world of Batman, reconfiguring DC’s creation in reality, dissolving the boundary of the screen and forcing the audience to participate in the story that they have chosen merely to watch. (ibid. KL 560)

We’ve all seen this before. Woody Allen in many movies ironized this aspect of the fantasy becoming reality, or the moment when the movie actor steps out of the screen and comes alive in our world. But there is that subtle difference: he’s portraying this enframed in another movie that is once removed from the movie that does this very thing so that it is a comment on our inversions of reality rather than the truth of our fantasy lives itself. While for such as Holmes it takes the opposite course, allowing the movie in his head to escape into the real world. For him Batman has already taken on that symbolic order of the Real. He has entered its frame, rather than it escaping into our world. The difference is that he wants to take everyone else into the literal movie with him. His Exit plan for humanity is to lock them into a fantasy world where such comic horrors actually exist in real time. It’s as if the Joker as one of Plato’s Ideas become real had stepped out of its virtual abyss into our real world. But then of course Plato would have noticed the perversity of this: nothing is real in our shadow world. Only the ever-changing face of death… Even Zizek would have seen the perversity in this idea…

I remember something Jerzy Kosinski once related:

The most essential stage of the writing process, it is often argued, is the process whereby the writer comes to stand outside the experience he intends to mirror in his book. The chief element of this “alienation” is the conscious desire to examine oneself and the experience from “without,” from a standpoint at which both the writer himself and his surroundings lose their concrete features, and separate themselves from everyday reality after a long period of struggle and uncertainty to enter a fluid and less rigidly limited dimension. This new dimension exists only in the writer’s consciousness; within it the elements of reality no longer obey the earthbound laws of gravitation; the minutiae of time and place cease to be important.2

For such creatures as James Holmes it is just the opposite. What they seek is to stand inside the fantasy world, to mirror it not in some objective form that allows them to take cognizance of their broken lives, but rather to let the demons that haunt them loose upon the world. Instead of this dark dimension existing only in his own mind, he seeks to reverse it and let his mind become the whole of reality, seeking to fly past those laws of gravitational pull that bind the rest of us he creates a black hole at the center of reality that sucks both himself and the rest of us into his mad maelstrom.

Berardi will repeat something that Holmes says to his jailers twice: “How did the movie end?” The jailers thought he was faking amnesia, little knowing that for Holmes as Joker this was no joke.

Zizek in his book on Violence will relate an anecdote of a German officer who visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist “chaos” of the painting, asked Picasso: “Did you do this?” Picasso calmly replied: “No, you did this!” Today, many a liberal, when faced with violent outbursts such as the recent looting in the suburbs of Paris, asks the few remaining leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: “Isn’t it you who did this? Is this what you want?” And we should reply, like Picasso: “No, you did this! This is the true result of your politics!”3 One wonders if the mass murders and suicides we see happening more and more are not themselves the truth of this anecdote: Should we ask the question of these perps or of ourselves: Did you do this? How would you reply?

What I’m saying is that the structure of contemporary society itself prepared a space for such mass murders. To grasp this form, this weird space where fantasy and reality invert their forms, where the space of fantasy precedes the actual content that will come to fill it, is at the heart of this strange and tragic world of the Joker. Such creatures enact the very truth of Zeno’s paradox: movement exists only through self-dissolution, which is not the same thing as saying that there is no movement. Movement coincides with (the movement of) its own dissolution. The infinite One, the unchanging Absolute, is not an entity that transcends the multitude of the finite; it is instead the absolute, self-referential movement, the movement itself of the self-dissolution of the finite, the Many.4 Holmes as Joker inverts the relation between the Absolute and Finite: he enacts the truth of freedom as madness, becomes the agent of dissolution for the many. Zizek in his discussion of Lacan’s notion of the object a will tell us:

The object a is simultaneously the purest semblance, a chimera “without substance,” the fragile positivation of nothingness, and also the Real, the hard kernel, the rock upon which symbolization is dashed. This explains the paradox of philosophy: philosophy lacks the Real because of its very attempt to find true being through exclusion, through ruling out false appearance [semblance], which is to say, by setting about drawing the line of separation between true being and the semblant. The lack of consideration given to the Real core takes the paradoxical form of the fear of being taken in by false appearances, of succumbing to the power of the semblant. The pure semblant appears horrifying, because it announces a Real that threatens to explode the ontological consistency of the universe.5

Isn’t this what such beings as the Joker Holmes enact? Is he not the inversion of this truth, the semblant become real? The Real that suddenly explodes through the hole of reality revealing the utter horror? Isn’t this what we all fear, being sucked into the fantasy world of pure madness? Did he not enact the very madness at the core of our inhumanity? The ontological inconsistency at the core of our being?

When Berardi speaks of the precariousness of our lives in this hypermedia age he sees it within the matrix of global deterritorialization (Deleuze/Guattari), as the fragmentation of the social body, the fracturing of self-perception and of the perception of time. Time no longer belongs to the individual, and the capitalist no longer buys the personal life of individuals; instead, people are erased from the space of work, and time is turned into a vortex of depersonalized, fragmentary substance that can be acquired by the capitalist and recombined by the network-machine.(ibid. KL 630) Isn’t the truth of it that films like Batman act as semblant machines: the vortex of a fragmentary world of symbols and forms that enables us to transfer our precarious lives into an immaterial space, a fragmented and fractured, abstract space where our avatars, our alter-egos can enact the very madness of our inhuman inconsistencies?

Berardi will tell us that the mass murderer is someone who believes in the right of the fittest and the strongest to win in the social game, but he also knows or senses that he is not the fittest nor the strongest. So he opts for the only possible act of retaliation and self-assertion: to kill and be killed.(ibid. KL 659) Financial capitalism in Berardi’s view built a psychotic framework of hyper-stimulation and constant mobilization of nervous energy which is pushing people, especially suggestible young people, socially marginalized and precarious, to a different kind of acting out: an explosive demonstration of energy, a violent mobilization of the body, which culminates in the aggressive, murderous explosion of the self. (ibid. Kl 717)

It’s as if the postmodern self had finally emerged, as if the very thing that these authors of the poststructuralist deconstruction of the Western liberal subject dispersed among the neuropsychosis of nonidentity and pure linguistic play had suddenly emerged into our wired world full blown. With the boundaries between nature and culture finally shattered the last bastions of a sense of reality have merged into the dark corners of our precarious youth. They have no sense of self because we’ve given them this self-relating nothingness of the abyss instead of something they can hold onto and identify with. Our very acknowledgement of the truth of the Real has become in an inverse relation the truth of their lives.

As Zizek will repeat over and over and over again throughout his many works:

The self is a disruptive, false, and, as such, unnecessary metaphor for the process of awareness and knowing: when we awaken to knowing, we realize that all that goes on in us is a flow of “thoughts without a thinker.” The impossibility of figuring out who or what we really are is inherent, since there is nothing that we “really are,” just a void at the core of our being.6

For Zizek this is a truth we must accept, but what of those that discover or uncover this truth and are not prepared to accept it? Is this not the truth of such mass murderers and suicides we see among the youth of our world? Instead the seek ways of filling this gap or void of their empty self with the fantasias of our hypermedia semblants. They seek to return by way of a hypermimesis to the identities of comic superheroes and villains. Is this not why such online games as WoW are such great economic giants? They provide a platform within which the desperate and lonely youth of the world can suddenly become something else, other than what they are, superheroes able to rule the world. Whereas in their actual lives they are all born losers, unable to even reach out and interact with others even at the base level of communication.

Adam Kostko in his  will tell us is that these type of beings, these youth are figures of a more radically sociopathic sociopath, who combines the joy of the schemer and the single-mindedness of the enforcer with the creativity, persuasiveness, and unsentimental outlook. He sees them as part of a new world, a scary and frightening world in which the radical sociopaths of this type could very well be the ones to invent a “better game” than the stultifying game of chess adult life under late capitalism has become, drawing people in through the persuasiveness of their very way of being in the world…7 Ultimately its about recognition, the need to be special or exceptional.

In our era of the deflation of the human subject, of the war upon the exceptionalism of the human in a universe of inhuman splendor we are discovering that there is a disconnect in the circuitry of our youth: they’ve become the inhuman ones in our midst. Is this what we truly want? Are we building a social system that is productive of the very thing we fear most? The Subject as Abyss?

As Berardi reminds us the evil that financial capitalism is wreaking on the lives of working people is largely known, and delivering catastrophic warnings generally offers little help. People already know that their well-being will be threatened and their lifestyle will worsen as long as the engine of financial capitalism continues to run at full steam against the interests of society as a whole. What they do not know is how to stop this train of devastation, now that all the traditional forms of protest and democratic expression have been neutralized. So denunciation is feeding frustration and leading nowhere. In place of denunciation, what is needed is a line of flight. (ibid. KL 2513)

For Berardi – as for the humans in Star Trek facing the Borg: “Resistance is futile.” So what is to be done? He tells us

I think that the next game will be about neuro-plasticity. Mapping the activity of the brain is going to be the main task of science in the next decades, while wiring the activity of the collective brain will be the main task of technology. The new alternative will emerge at this level, between the ultimate automation of the collective brain and the conscious self-organization of the general intellect.(ibid. KL 2570)

Suddenly it becomes clear: Berardi seeks to reinscribe the socious into a full-blown merger of advanced neuroscience and technology. Has Berardi sold us out to the transhumanist agenda? Is he truly serious that the coming age will absolve the conflicts of our age through new control systems in which brain science and technology develop and automate humanity into some self-organized world based on general intellect? He is not unaware of this duplicity:

Will the general intellect be permanently codified by the matrix and turned into a networked swarm, or will the general intellect be able to re-conjoin with its social body, and create the conditions for autonomy and independence from the matrix?(ibid. KL 2579)

In some sense he is in agreement with such thinkers as Floridi and his Infospheric conceptions (see here and here and here), saying,

The brain mutation that is underway can be described as a spasmodic attempt to cope with the surrounding chaotic infosphere and to reframe the relation between infosphere and the brain. Social brain is obliged to cope with traumatic phenomena. Not only the psychic dimension of the unconscious is disturbed, but the fabric of the neural system itself is subjected to trauma, overload, disconnection. The adaptation of the brain to the new environment involves enormous suffering, a tempest of violence and madness.(ibid. KL 2594)

The questions this raises are many, but for Berardi it comes down to: does consciousness play a role in this process of mutation? Does imagination consciously act on the neuro-plastic process? Can the conscious organism do something when it is taken in a situation of spasm?

As he admits we are seeing in our time a dark and immanent return of the critical dystopian view of life: 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.(ibid. KL 2611) What all these narratives try to redress is the helplessness and hopelessness we feel in this late-capitalist era.

We are living in the Age of Spasm: in the current anthropological mutation induced by digital info-technology and market globalization, the social organism is subjected to an accelerated deterritorialization that takes the form of a spasm.(ibid. KL 2737) Berardi will remind us that his friend Guattari in his last book, Chaosmosis (1992), wrote that ‘Among the fogs and miasmas which obscure our fin de millenaire, the question of subjectivity is now returning as a leit motiv …’ He first adds: ‘All the disciplines will have to combine their creativity to ward off the ordeals of barbarism, the mental implosion and chaosmic spasms looming on the horizon.’ Then he writes: ‘We have to conjure barbarianism, mental implosion, chaosmic spasm’.(ibid. KL 2739)

Berardi will explain it this way: a spasm is a painful vibration which forces the organism to an extreme mobilization of nervous energies. This acceleration and this painful vibration are the effects of the compulsive acceleration of the rhythm of social interaction and of the exploitation of the social nervous energies. As the process of valorization of semiocapital demands more and more nervous productivity, the nervous system of the organism is subjected to increasing exploitation. Here comes the spasm: it is the effect of a violent penetration of the capitalist exploitation into the field of info-technologies, involving the sphere of cognition, of sensibility, and the unconscious.(ibid. KL 2762) …If the spasm is the panic response of the accelerated vibration of the organism, and the hyper-mobilization of desire submitted to the force of the economy, chaosmosis is the creation of a new (more complex) order (syntony, and sympathy) emerging from the present chaos. Chaosmosis is the osmotic passage from a state of chaos to a new order, where the word ‘order’ does not have a normative or ontological meaning. Order is to be intended as harmony between mind and the semio-environment, as the sharing of a sympathetic mindset. Sympathy, common perception. Chaos is an excess of speed of the infosphere in relation to the ability of elaboration of the brain.(ibid. KL 2769)

Ultimately he will tell us that the rhythm that financial capitalism is imposing on social life is a spasmogenic rhythm, a spasm that is not only exploiting the work of men and women, not only subjugating cognitive labour to the abstract acceleration of the info-machine, but is also destroying the singularity of language, preventing its creativity and sensibility. The financial dictatorship is essentially the domination of abstraction on language, command of the mathematical ferocity on living and conscious organisms.(ibid. KL 2795)

So what can be done, Berardi asks, when nothing can be done? Skepticism and irony, the critical appraisal of our dystopic world through the use of a contrarian oppositional responsibility:  Politicians call on us to take part in their political concerns, economists call on us to be responsible, to work more, to go shopping, to stimulate the market. Priests call on us to have faith. If you follow these inveiglements to participate, to be responsible – you are trapped. Do not take part in the game, do not expect any solution from politics, do not be attached to things, do not hope.(ibid. KL 2830)

And, yet, as a last admonition he will add “don’t 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.” (ibid. 2844)

1. Berardi, Franco “Bifo” (2015-02-03). Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (Futures) (Kindle Locations 558-560). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. Kosinski, Jerzy (2007-12-01). Passing By: Selected Essays, 1962-1991 (Kosinski, Jerzy) (p. 201). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2008-07-22). Violence (BIG IDEAS//small books) (p. 11). Picador. Kindle Edition.
4. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-08-12). The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel with Lacan (Kindle Locations 375-377). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
5. ibid. KL 447
6. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 3121-3124). Norton. Kindle Edition.
7. Kotsko, Adam (2012-04-27). Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television . NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.

2 thoughts on “Franco “Bifo” Berardi: The Joker Steps Out of the Mirror

  1. Can Berardi’s prescription to not take part in the game be linked to the ideas of Jehu Eaves who advocates the reduction of the working day?


    • I see where your coming from… yes, in a sense this might be true. But Berardi is too hooked into his semiosis to see anything other than the ironic play of this idea rather than as in Jehu the actual workings of the ideological underpinnings with a clarified and systematic portrayal in Marxian theoretic.


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