Franco “Bifo” Berardi: Mapping the Late-Modern Wasteland of the Corporate Imaginary

Berardi_Heroes

In his latest work Franco “Bifo” Berardi discovers the ultimate hero of the postmodern corporate wasteland: the nihilist as mass murderer and suicide. At the heart of his new book we discover that it is not merely about crime and suicide, but more broadly “the establishment of a kingdom of nihilism and the suicidal drive that is permeating contemporary culture, together with a phenomenology of panic, aggression and resultant violence”.1 The task is simple he tells us: to map the wasteland where social imagination has been frozen and submitted to the recombinant corporate imaginary. Only from this cartography can we move forward to discover a new form of activity which, by replacing Art, politics and therapy with a process of re-activation of sensibility, might help humankind to recognize itself again. (ibid. KL 113)

Just a further note. Already I have mixed feelings about Berardi’s take on America. Like many non-Americans he seems to be looking through the mediatainment window of news reports, video, cinema, music, etc. as if it were a black box hiding the simulated America in its broken panes: a world being fed through these machinic systems of illusion as if it were truly America. It’s as if he wants to attack the simulation, but wandered into the House of Mirrors without realizing it and begins his critique of the cracks in the mirrors, the simulation within the simulation, rather than reaching through the shadow box into the lives of the actual people of flesh and blood behind the fractured fun-house screen. Has he taken the map for the territory? The copy of a copy for the real thing? Has he fallen into Plato’s cave? … I’m still reading….

Like Zizek, I feel there is such a cognitive dissonance between one symbolic order and another that any form of critique is based on a necessary fiction, an illusionary simulation of the facts rather than the facts themselves. Is Berardi’s take to read America like a semiotic sign system that he can decipher? I know he’s following Guattari in aspects of this project, but has he truly arrived at what Guattari was thinking through in such works and Three Ecologies, etc.? Does he have the key to the code? Hell even I, who am American (U.S.A. citizen I mean…) would not presume to critique French Society… how utterly different is the mindset of a Frenchman from mine? I’d assume the cultural symbolic order would leave us in a sort of black hole. More and more I see this sort of fictional game scholars play with each other thinking they know what it is to be Russian, American, Chinese… etc. etc. Isn’t this illusion, a part of the late modern simulation that he is supposedly seeking to critique? How can you critique the simulation when you are in it? Or, phrased differently we have been produced by the simulator of our symbolic orders: how can we step outside the simulation?

Sometimes I think of those old films of astronauts preparing for spaceflight, in which you see a man strapped to a gravity simulator. The next thing you see is him revolving faster and faster and faster till his face begins to flatten and his facial features are so distorted he appears monstrous. Or, of those carnival rides that allowed people to stand with their backs to the wall and begin to spin faster and faster and faster until suddenly the floor drops out and they appear to be weightless and floating in mid-air. Is our world of media in itself something like this speed whirl of gravitational force that has been slowly accumulating time into its simulator at a faster and faster accelerating pace till culture takes on the illusion of reality, while reality takes on the illusion of the fake? Have we wandered through Alice’s Looking-Glass but no longer realize we’re in the fake world of our own inhuman mind? Are we in our own Reality TV Series… echoes of echoes: voyeurs of a perverse substitute for life rather than life itself?

Berardi begins his expose with the real life killings of movie goers at the premier of director Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. James Holmes is presented through snippets of reportage from government, police, church, and educational officials, as well as the victims of the incident. Beradi can’t help but make a comparison between Nolan’s film and the earlier versions by Tim Burton. He sees the early version as a portray of the idiocy of psychpaths in which Burton portrays both Batman and the Joker as deranged madmen outside the social order who confront each other in their freedom and madness. While the newer film by Nolan is portrayed as “the film’s villain, is a humourless giant who terrorizes Gotham’s population in order to stage a sort of fascist golpe with the help of an army of guerrillas resembling jihadist fighters and anti-globalization protestors. The message is twisted and basically racist.” (ibid. KL 285) As he says: the “wit and sharpness of Tim Burton is entirely missing in Nolan’s obtuse movie” (ibid. KL 286).

Then he lambasts the Bush administration and conservatives who he sees as forestalling any measure of gun control, while using the perp as his tool of choice: “James Holmes’s inability to distinguish between reality and movies mirrors the attitude of Karl Rove, the master of the American political imagination during the years of Bush’s Holy War” (ibid. 299). He’ll use a statement by Karl Rove as a pure sign of American leadership’s psychopathic alignment with a regime of pure madness and simulation: (Karl Rove):

When journalist Ron Suskind defended the prerogative of others in his profession to pursue the judicious study of discernible reality, the wizard of Republican campaign strategy responded, That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.(ibid. 300-305)

He’ll ask: Is this a symptom of psychosis? Yes, it is. But it is not peculiar to Karl Rove.

The sublimation of reality to simulacrum is the quintessential feature of semiocapitalism, the contemporary regime of production in which capital valorization is based on the constant emanation of information flows. In the psychosphere, reality is replaced by simulation.

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyper-real. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.(ibid. KL 307)

Of course the xtra indent is his quoting from Jean Budrillard’s famous essay on simulation. One of the problems with Baudrillard is that his cognitive disassociationism, the drift of the immaterial escape in modern culture and civilization in which the map produces the illusions of our mental territories is to fall back into the Kantian Idealist trap that we construct reality in our minds. Do we? Do we live in second hand realities built by corporate controlled academics, novelists, musicians, artists, politicians, etc.? Are we the mere puppets of a deterministic shadow world of mental Jokers: psychopathic reality tv show hosts who pull the strings as we jump to their consumer index?

The point here is that we are all living in artificial worlds whether we think so are not. Even the supposed natural world is a fake. Nature no longer exists. It’s all controlled by specialize access, government funding, caretakers and regulatory systems.  Even the most isolated places on the planet are under someone’s control. There is no wild nature left. And, know one even remembers what that meant? Reality is produced for us even against our will. We are all will-nilly thrown into simulated realms through the meditainment networks of parent, schools, government, music, art, society…. the whole cultural nexus is one giant psychosphere. I’ve written of another Italian, The Onlife Initiative: Luciano Floridi and ICT Philosophy for whom the complex of Information and Communcations Technology spanning the globe (ICTs) are not mere tools but rather social forces that are increasingly affecting our self-conception (who we are), our mutual interactions (how we socialise); our conception of reality (our metaphysics); and our interactions with reality (our agency). In each case, ICTs have a huge ethical, legal, and political significance, yet one with which we have begun to come to terms only recently.

Floridi says we are already artificial inforgs (information organisms) encased in artificial systems that are so ubiquitous now that if we were unplugged from them we’d more than likely go star craving mad. As he states it the impact exercised by ICTs is due to at least four major transformations: the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality; the blurring of the distinction between human, machine and nature; the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and the shift from the primacy of stand-alone things, properties, and binary relations, to the primacy of interactions, processes and networks. (ibid.)

Years ago I remember Hans Peter Duerr’s excellent Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization, which argues that man creates a cultural order inside which he lives. Outside of that form of life is the ‘wilderness’: the outer wilderness of untamed nature and the inner psychological wilderness of areas of personality hidden in everyday life. Only by stepping outside his culture can man understand his cultural self. Only by experiencing the wilderness outside our normal system of living can we understand what we are as civilised beings within our form of life. He suggests that primitive peoples have a better understanding than modern scientific man of this need to step outside the cultural order in order to understand what is inside it.

But can we? No. The notion of stepping outside of the simulator is to suddenly enter the zone of pure madness. Who would you talk to about reality? Once you left the simulator who would you be able to communicate with? What language would you use? And, most of all, if there was an “outside” – would there be a return door? Or would such an exit from the simulated world of late modern capitalism be a one way exit with a sign posted: No Returns. I sometimes think about the thousands of new dystopian YA novels being published. So many of them just pure bunk, not worth the paper their written on, not even good stories. But here and there you discover one or two that actually expose the truth of dystopian critical visions: it’s not about how bad hell is, but rather how we can in this dark hellish landscape of our own making create or invent a space of freedom, a place within the false world to discover once again what it means to be real – not human… but real. Maybe we need those boundaries between Mind and World, thought and being, artificial and natural… maybe it was the very effort to cut the fences down between them, to force a merger between thought and being that has brought us to this world of simulated realities in which nothing of the real is left. What to do? In a world where the boundaries between mind and world, thought and being have already lost their force and merged who will be the one to discover a way to cut them in twain again? Are we doomed to a simulated universe of nihilistic noise where the only escape is as Berardi forecasts: mass murder and suicide? Or is there another way?

For Berardi its all masks phantoms, and simulations. The referential value of signs is obliterated. (ibid. 317) We are lost in the artificial maze and have forgotten that there is no escape, no center, and no doorway back to reality. But, then again, What is real? Can we even frame that as a question anymore? Are we as John Barth once shared in his humorous short story Lost in the Funhouse? I remember Barth’s opening line: “For whom is the funhouse fun?” Classic Barth. Anti-Realist or irrealist he explores the real that has already been lost in the maze of our cultural mirrors. Isn’t it just this that Berardi is working with, a world that has already been thrown into the funhouse? Is anyone having fun, now? Maybe as we pick up the fragments of the broken mirrors together we can piece together what was once torn asunder; or, maybe, what we need to do is to just crunch these past realities into utter oblivion, including the false simulated worlds of our current masters and once again sit in that dark place where all beginnings begin again and ask: What do you want? Would you even know where to begin?

To be fair to Berardi I’ll need to revisit this once I’ve completed his new book… 😉

1. Berardi, Franco “Bifo” (2015-02-03). Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (Futures) (Kindle Locations 54-55). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.