Franco “Bifo” Berardi inherited from his friend Felix Guattari a way of seeing through the façade, or in the old parlance – seeing through the appearances as appearances, and into the singular truth of our age as chaosmosis: a transitional terminality with no definable end point. The old world of the bourgeoisie and proletariat classes that defined the Marxian dialectic of history are no more, and along with their disappearance the marginal critique that has sustained the Left for a hundred or more years is of little use either.
The older society of the bourgeoisie was based upon an ethical foundation that made it imperative that the upper tiers become responsible to their workers, while the workers felt an obligation toward each other in forming a solidarity based on trust and sociality. The upper tiers of society still held onto the vestiges of a hierarchical relationship based on national and civic values, while workers still shared both work and leisure time and interests that formed a continuity across time. The ethical foundations that supported this normative system of social relations has dissolved in our time.
Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan would revive the ideological matrix of none other than Herbert Spenser’s “dog eat dog” economic Darwinism:
Margaret Thatcher, who declared that there is no such thing as society, only individuals fighting for their survival. Suddenly, Darwin’s description of the functioning of Nature was turned into a political agenda. In the world described by Darwin, strong individuals survive and weak individuals succumb. This is the brutal law of natural evolution. It is also that from which the modern project of civilization had tried to protect humans.1
Postmodern civilization would become the visible return to the savagery of the jungle. Which would lead to a new form of life: the precariat. “Precariousness is the desert of the world returned to jungle. In the field of labour, precarity is the cancellation of the rules governing the relations between workers and capital, and particularly of the contractual guarantees of the continuity and regularity of jobs. Precarization is made possible by the spread of information technologies. When the production of goods is turned into information, and the network becomes the sphere of recombination of productive actions which take place in distant spaces and moments of time, the capitalist’s need to buy the whole of the worker’s lifetime ends – he just needs fragments of time. The networked machine ceaselessly picks up and recombines fragments of info-time from the ocean of social life and intelligence. Thus, precariousness invades every space of social life, and permeates the expectations and the emotions of individuals, whose time is fragmented, fractalized, cellularized. This is the state we live in, at the beginning of the new century.”
Against this fragmented world the Left would try to defend the old order of ethical resistance it had built up over the previous century. Yet, such a stance over the past thirty to forty years has met with little success. As Berardi tells it: “the post-bourgeois capitalist class does not feel responsible for the community and the territory because financial capitalism is totally deterritorialized and has no interest in the future well-being of the community. On the other hand, the post-Fordist worker no longer shares the same interest as his/ her colleagues, but, on the contrary, is forced to compete every day against other workers for a job and a salary in the deregulated labour arena. Within the framework of this new precarious organization of labour, building solidarity becomes a difficult task. During the last three decades social movements have tried to re-establish the conditions of modern ethics and to reaffirm the values that were the foundations of the bourgeois civilization: democracy, job security and the respect of law. Unsuccessfully.”
So in this sense the Left as it has been defined up to now is dead and irrelevant:
While the Neoliberal wave, taking advantage of new technology-based lifestyles, was transforming cultural and political expectations, the Left has been defending the ethical rules of the past and the established political institutions. Driven to an inherently conservative position, the leftists lost their character and their identity. Now, it is finally crystal clear: resistance is over. Capitalist absolutism will not be defeated and democracy will never be reinstated. That game is over. (KL 2565)
So what comes next? For Berardi the next game in the global capitalist vision is based upon Neurosciences. “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.” (KL 2570)
The new creative class or cognitariat – scientists, engineers, and designer/architects “will be the prime actors in this new game”. While this is happening Berardi wants to affirm a new ethics, one in which we can still “retain our humanity in the course of the trans-human transition”. He foresees one of two paths forward: either a techno-scientific totalitarianism, an “ultimate neuro-totalitarianism, or a new form of trans-human Humanism”.
Will the general intellect be subjugated by the automatic machine, connecting individual operational brains deprived of any freedom and singularity? Or will the conscious conjunction of sensible and sensitive singularities be able to self-organize, and find pathways of sympathy, sharing and collaboration? 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? (KL 2015)
The politics of the Mind is the next stage of global capitalism. Back in 2013 President Obama initiated the Brain Mapping Project. “Significant breakthroughs will require a new generation of tools to enable researchers to record signals from brain cells in much greater numbers and at even faster speeds,” the White House said in a press release. “This cannot currently be achieved, but great promise for developing such technologies lies at the intersections of nanoscience, imaging, engineering, informatics and other rapidly emerging fields.” Yet, we know that the defense project of DARPA is aligned with this and as Wired reports:
DARPA is requesting an “in silico” bio-computational replica of a primate’s brain as a starting point for the new project. The computer brain should be modeled on the mind of a monkey performing complex tasks through multiple neural pathways, and be sophisticated enough to “determine an alternate path to task accomplishment” in case of damage to one or more of its sensory input channels.
The key to DARPA’s project is neuroplasticity, a field of study the military is trying to catch up on. Adult brains aren’t hard-wired, but can adapt and reorganize into new neural pathways. By understanding sensory substitution, the process by which one sense takes over to interpret stimuli if another sense is damaged, DARPA can speed up the recovery process for brain-damaged soldiers.
But the possibilities don’t stop there. Once they’ve got their compu-monkey, DARPA also wants researchers to poke and prod brains of living monkeys to stimulate the reactions they’d get from exposing the primates to natural stimuli. In other words, bypassing the mind-body connection and plopping real beings into artificial worlds. Masterminding the brain in computational terms offers more than a few out-there possibilities – mind-controlled cars, transplanting a consciousness into alternate realities, or, freakiest of all, human reprogramming at the click of a button.
The European Commission also launched their own initiative: The Human Brain Project. As they describe their own initiative:
The HBP is organized in thirteen subprojects, spanning strategic neuroscience data, cognitive architectures, theory, ethics and society, management and the development of six new informatics-based platforms including:
– Neuroinformatics (searchable atlases and analysis of brain data)
– Brain Simulation (building and simulating multi-level models of brain circuits and functions)
– Medical Informatics (analyzing clinical data to better understand brain diseases)
– Neuromorphic Computing (brain-like functions implemented in hardware)
– Neurorobotics (testing brain models and simulations in virtual environments)
– High Performance Computing (providing the necessary computing power)
We will control your mind
Berardi asks: Who will be the primary actor in this process? The empathic net of autonomous organization of cognitive workers, or the matrix of bio-financial capitalism? “The alternative that may be envisioned for the future is therefore the following: submission of the mind to the rules of the global neuro-machine according to the competitive principle of the capitalist economy – or the disentanglement of the autonomous potency of the general intellect.” (KL 2591)
One of the keys to Berardi’s current work is his discovery that at every turn suicide in advance technological societies is an upward trend and that it seems to correlate with the privatization and technologization of both life and work. The old Subjects of liberal democracy have dissolved and in our new infosphere we have yet to discover either an ethic or a mode of life that enables people to reconnect to each other in any meaningful way. We’ve become atoms in an infinite machine that neither cares for us nor cares what we think about it: we are connected 24/7 to our interface worlds where human interaction is mediated by intelligent devices and the older face to face socialites are crumbling into fragmentation, fragility, and decay. We are mobile and partial creatures of a precarious cold world of machinic life.
When asked why he wrote this book Berardi replied: “I did it because I am looking for an ethical method of withdrawal from the present barbarianism, and at the same time I want to find a way of interpreting the new ethical values that barbarianism is bringing about. How can we remain human, how can we speak of solidarity, while abandoning the emptied and ineffective field of political action?” (KL 2604)
Speaking of the dystopian malaise of despair and hopeless that has crept into both political, artistic, and social discourse and media of late Berardi will comment on a mediocre novel by Dave Eggers The Circle saying, it’s “all about the utter capture of human attention: ceaseless communication, mandatory friendliness, the creation of a new system of needs centered around the obsessive need incessantly to express and to share.” (KL 2654) In a world where belief or intentionality has finally disappeared, when humans become totally encircled in a system of control that has captured them in a “circle of perfect transparency of everybody to everybody. The circle of total power and of total impotence”. (KL 2666)
In a previous essay on my friend R. Scott Bakker’s novel Neuropath – a novel that Berardi should have read for his book, the main character realizing his own impotence in regard to the manipulative power of corporate and governmental powers to use their knowledge to control the populace says:
What would it be like to walk without self or conscience, with plans indistinguishable from compulsions, one more accident in the mindless wreck that was the world? What would it be like to act, not as something as puny or wretched as a person, but as a selfless vehicle, a conduit for everything that came before?(327-328).2
My remarks at the time are telling: One would have to die first to know that. Isn’t that the point of Scott’s fictional destination: death? Not the literal death of the body, but of the Self, the Subject, the First-Person Singular illusion that has guided our feelings and thoughts about what it is we are doing here in this universe. What if there was no one home to answer, or even ask the questions anymore? If the self is illusion then there is no point to hope, or even pessimism for that matter. To hold a belief of any type would in itself be an illusion too. Yet, for all that this illusion remains. The feeling of intentional consciousness does not go away just because I wake up one day and realize its all bullshit. So what then? In Scott’s book the murderous Neil loads the question and the answer: he forces Thomas literally to experience every high and every low, to feel the divine and the torments of hell, to discover the uselessness of his illusions against the inexorable indifference of the universe and its meaningless abode. Yet, one wonders: if everything human kind has created in culture(s) over the millennia is pure illusion, that our varying sources of self in the multitude of cultures on this planet is all a lie then how did this lie come about? Why do we have this incessant need to live in illusionary worlds of Self?
Berardi tells us we are living through an event that is both accelerating and exhausting: a spasm. “A spasm is a sudden, abnormal, involuntary muscular contraction, or a series of alternating muscular contractions and relaxations. A spasm is also a sudden, brief spell of energy and an abnormal, painful intensification of the bodily nervous vibration.” (KL 2727) Spasm is the golden mean of panic society. A world where the cyberpunk realities are normalized and reality itself has become terminal. A world that makes the techno-surrealism of the 90’s in which the body of the human was delibidinized while the machinic phylum was itself erotized is now the new order of the day. J.G. Ballard’s crash culture, and William Gibson’s world in which the “aching taste of blue” has imploded the machine into the neuroplastic filaments of a nanotechnological mutation that incorporates the machine into the human rather than the human into the machine. This is our world on steroids. As Scott Bukatum would say twenty years ago ours is the age of “genetically engineered wetware wonders, electrically addicted buttonheads, fragmented posthuman enclaves, and terminal cyborgs,” a realm where neohumans enter the zero sum of machinic life – fully automated and clickable replicas of their former selves.3
Speaking of Guattari’s notion of “chaosmic spasm” Berardi tells us: “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.” (KL 2769)
Berardi will tell us that consciousness is just too slow to process the spasmodic inforscapes surrounding us, that we were built to barely know the jungles and savannas of ancient earth much less the advance technological landscapes and interzones of our advance hypercapitalist empire. I think he’d be better off also accepting what my friend Scott Bakker tells us: “If we know anything, we know this: The regions of the brain implicated in consciousness can only access a minute fraction of the information processed by the brain as a whole. Conscious experience is not simply the product of the brain, it is the product of a brain that can only see the merest sliver of itself. (343)”
Yet, following Guattari he will tell us we will need a “shift in the speed of consciousness, the creation of a different order of mental processing: this is chaosmosis. In order to shift from a rhythm to a different rhythm, from a refrain to another refrain, Guattari says we need a ‘chaoide’, a living decoder of chaos.” (KL 2786)
I almost laughed on reading the above. Kept thinking of Theodore Reik and his run in with the police and government over his strange Orgone Theraphy and its little box. But as Berardi will elaborate:
Chaoide, in Guattari’s parlance, is a sort of de-multiplier, an agent of re-syntonization, a linguistic agent able to disengage from the spasmic refrain. The chaoide is full of chaos, receives and decodes the bad vibrations of the planetary spasm, but does not absorb the negative psychological effects of chaos, of the surrounding aggressiveness, of fear. The chaoide is an ironic elaborator of chaos. ‘The ecosophical cartography’, writes Guattari, ‘will not have the finality of communicating, but of producing enunciation concatenations able to capture the points of singularity of a situation’. Where are today’s concatenations that offer conscious organisms the possibility of emerging from the present spasmogenic framework, the framework of financial capitalism? (KL 2795)
For Berardi the Choide seems to be more of a “form of enunciation (artistic, poetic, political, scientific) which is able to open the linguistic flows to different rhythms and to different frames of interpretation. Chaosmosis means reactivation of the body of social solidarity, reactivation of imagination, a new dimension for human evolution, beyond the limited horizon of economic growth.” (KL 2800)
This seems to be so much blather that does not tell us how such ‘chaoides” actually are constructed, or what they are beyond some abstract concept to be used in some new critique. He tells us that the book he is writing was intended to be such a choide:
Writing this book, I intended to produce a chaoide. Dealing with crime and suicide, I have been dealing with the contemporary spasm, and I have tried to decipher the social and cultural genesis of the present pathology. At the same time, I have tried to breathe normally, while staring into the eyes of the beast. (KL 2803)
Yet, instead of giving us anything solid to construct our programs he offers nothing but irony and the “way of ignorance” as the path forward:
Dystopia has to be faced and dissolved by irony. If paranoia ‘knows well’, we need a method of ignorance. We need to assume some distance from what seems to be inscribed as an imminent-immanent tendency in the present cartography of events. The spectrum of the possible is much larger than the range of probability. We need to correct dystopia with irony, because irony (far from being cynical alliance with power) is the excess of language that opens the door to the infinity of the possible. (KL 2819)
Yet, was this not the heart or core of the postmodern project: irony and dystopia? Did that do anything? No. So why does he offer such a “method of ignorance” as if some distance from our own present tendencies have not already brought us too far? Is this the wisdom that will free us from our current global matrix? He tells us he has little time for doomsayers and gloomy prophets, nor for the conspiracy squad that sees a nefarious plot behind every bush. “Frankly, I don’t think that political awareness is going to prove the best medicine for our current malady. Most people know that financial dictatorship is destroying their life; the problem is knowing what to do about it. It is possible that nothing can be done, that power has become so deeply entrenched in the automatisms regulating daily life, connecting our interchanges, and infiltrating our words, that bio-financial control cannot be undone, or avoided.” (KL 2826)
So is political, social, and philosophical pessimism the answer? He’ll ask: “So what can be done when nothing can be done?” –
I think that ironic autonomy is the answer. I mean the contrary of participation, I mean the contrary of responsibility, I mean the contrary of faith. 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. (KL 2830)
Is he following Zizek’s script: “The courage of hopelessness.” Is this the best we can do now? He tells us we must be skeptical, learn to not-belong, to choose your own way forward: to choose death or slavery is not a choice – that one will have to decided in one’s specific instance whether to go on is mere death, or if the Great Refusal of suicide is in itself the better path. And, he will add that we should not confuse despair and joy:
Remember that despair and joy are not incompatible. Despair is a consequence of understanding. Joy is a condition of the emotional mind. Despair is to acknowledge the truth of the present situation, but the sceptical mind knows that the only truth is shared imagination and shared projection. So do not be frightened by despair. It does not delimit the potential for joy. And joy is a condition for proving intellectual despair wrong. (KL 2841)
So is this, too, the final voice of the Left today? Despair and joy? The oscillations of an ironic stance that remains diffident and skeptical, aligning itself as best it can amid the technological dystopias of global capital like so many singular chaomides? Is this the best we can hope for? I know myself that of late this oscillation between despair and joy has made me, too, succumb to the analytics of post-communist nihilism, a sort of movement in stasis realizing that the world we once hoped for is all but a utopian desire that has dispersed within the failures of the twentieth century era of failed politics. That capital has deterritorialized itself from any legal or political entity that could control or regulate it is apparent to anyone who studies the divorce of economics from a political economy as in the EU. Politics no longer matters. The State as an institution of progressive intervention no longer matters. That in fact even the so called progressive states have in turn become part of the problematique in our time. Now we’ve all become isolated singular entities in a global corporation that has its eye on the final bastion of freedom we once held dear, the freedom of art and creativity. The brain itself is where the neoliberal global machine is investing its time and energy in hopes of unlocking a way to intervene and initiate a final form of enslavement. The command and control of future civilization through techniques of neuroscience. What can we do against such evil?
Chaomides? Disconnect? Withdraw? Suicide? “Courage of hopelessness”? One wonders if one should walk away from philosophers and sociologists of irony and hopelessness and return to the literature of irony instead: to Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, J.G. Ballard, Cory Doctorow, Margaret Attwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, and a myriad of others for our ironic humorous appraisal of the collapse of neoliberal civilization into a machinic tyranny? At least there we could be entertained as we watch the spectacle of decay slowly dissolve us in its dark assemblages.
Am I finally tittering into my own nihil?
If the Left has no answer, no way forward, no hope or alternative today then what is the point or irony? Is this not, too, suicide? A sort of gleeful derision of one’s own slow death? Is this the answer of our philosophers? Become ironists, distance ourselves, withdraw a little, laugh at the darkness of the great train coming toward us? Remember Nietzsche’s admonition of the “laughter of the gods” etc. Is this the political wisdom of our current intellectual Left? Or, should we follow the tribe of hopeless dreamers, those who revert to former utopian expectations, unrealistic returns to beginnings in Marxism, Anarchism, etc., sites of utopian longing that never were – that all ended in 20th Century servitude and tyranny? Capitulation or defiance? That is the question today? Pack it in or “keep on keeping on”, as Vonnegut would have it?
Stanislaw Lem once remarked that somewhere along that strange timeline we term the future when “synthetic chemistry, information theory, and general systems theory develop much further, the human body will turn out to be the least perfect element in such a world. Human knowledge will exceed the biological knowledge accumulated in living systems. At that point, plans that, for the time being, are seen as aspersions cast against the perfection of evolutionary solutions will actually become realized.”4
Lem himself foresaw a time when even marriage would become a part of the corporate responsibility, a genetic and political determination, describing in detail the incorporation of humans into a new rational society:
“Machinic matchmakers” change this. Research results provide the machine with the knowledge about the candidates’ psychosomatic characteristics, which allows it to search for perfectly matched couples. The machine does not eliminate freedom of choice because it does not lead to just one candidate. Acting in a probabilistic manner, it offers choices from among a preselected group, which belongs to the confidence interval. … The important thing is for social awareness to accept this fact permanently. However, these are purely rational arguments. The machine expands the range of options, yet it does so by averaging things, above the head of an individual— thus depriving us of the right to errors and sufferings and to all the other afflictions of life. … When it becomes a cultural norm, the marriage discouraged by the “machinic matchmaker” will perhaps be a forbidden and thus tempting fruit, while society will surround it with an aura that used to accompany, for example, mésalliances in the old days. It may also happen that a similar “desperate step” will be considered in some circles to be a “sign of exceptional courage,” a way of “living dangerously.” (ibid.)
So that revolt in the future will come down a mere choice to rebel against one’s authorized mate. Lem tells this in such straightforward irony of this probabilistic future, that if one did not know Lem’s ironic pessimism one could believe he was literally in favor of such hypothetical worlds as this controlled by “matchmakers”; this is a “chaomide” in the real sense of ironic elision that Berardi could appreciate. Yet, there are moments of clarity in irony as well: “Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are…” says the Blind Doctor in José Saramago’s Blindness. Maybe we should all become blind, maybe then we could actually see…
1. Berardi, Franco “Bifo” (2015-02-03). Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (Futures) (Kindle Locations 2542-2545). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. Bakker, R. Scott (2010-04-01). Neuropath (Macmillan. Kindle Edition.)
3. Scott Bukatman. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction ( Duke 1993)
4. Lem, Stanis aw (2013-03-01). Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations) (Kindle Locations 6882-6884). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.