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Interview with Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi is a renowned theorist of contemporary media, culture and society. He has lectured at the Academia di Brera in Milan, and has been published and invited to speak widely across the US and Europe. This respectable status is the result of a hard fought journey, his political and philosophical trajectory beginning in the radical social movements of 1970s Italy, in struggles that were central to his formation as a writer, thinker and activist.

 

The year 1977 bore witness to an explosion of youth creativity and revolt inside the European complex. As the towns, cities and suburbs of the UK would see the emergence of Punk rock and its ‘diffused assault’ on the cultural values of preceding generations, Italy would be rocked by youth-led rebellions, spectacular in their intensity, creativity and violence. While the values, aesthetics and innovations associated with Punk rock would eventually diffuse into British society, the creative rebellion occurring in Italy known as ‘Autonomia’ would be met by a wave of state repression aimed squarely at halting its expansion. While the origins of these two expressions share many common co-ordinates, the history of Italian Autonomia remains relatively obscure in the Anglo-speaking world. Emerging in an encounter between a severely weakened Workerism (a social movement that had sprung up from Italy’s factory floors during the late 1960s) and the new youth movements that were beginning to coalesce in 1972, Autonomia was a broad and heterogeneous social movement aimed at nothing less than the radical overthrow of society. Central to all of its expressions lay the idea of ‘worker’s autonomy’, understood as the potential autonomy of labour from capitalism. The ideas, analyses and practices associated with these movements have since been grouped together and described as the product of an ‘autonomist Marxism’. This school of thought has provided a key theoretical lynch-pin for many in the anti-statist left and since the turn of the last century has continued to grow in influence.

 

A veteran of Italy’s ‘1968’, in the autonomist movement Berardi forged his lifelong personal engagement with social movement media, founding the magazine A/traverso (1975-1981) and the influential pirate radio station ‘Radio Alice’. Like others involved with Autonomia, Berardi was forced to flee Italy at the end of the 1970s in order to avoid persecution at the hands of the state. Arriving in Paris, he immediately struck up a friendship with, and would eventually work alongside, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari. He continued his exploration of radical media co-founding the e-zine rekombinant.org in the 1990s, and in 2002 founding the community TV channel Orfeo TV, launching the telestreet pirate TV station movement across Italy.

 

Berardi’s intellectual work explores the role that media and technology play in the post-industrial capitalism in which we live today, examining issues including digital connectivity, alienation, over-stimulation and automation. Central to this project is an ongoing study of cultural representation and our ideas of the future. His influence is considerable, spanning radical, academic and contemporary art worlds, leading to collaborations with artists such as Warren Neidich. A prolific author of over 20 books, his recent published works include After The Future (2011), The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (2012) and And: Phenomenology of the end (2015). Throughout these works Berardi deftly draws on psychoanalysis, communication theory and autonomist Marxism to illustrate how subjectivity and desire are bound up in the contemporary functioning of capitalism, and together these works form a clarion call for the reclamation of our desired future. On his last visit to London, I met with Berardi at the Soho office of his publisher to discuss these themes as they appear in his latest book, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (2015).

 

Q

The White Review

— In your book, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, you write that your subject is ‘not merely crime and suicide, but more broadly the establishment of a kingdom of nihilism, and the suicidal drive that is permeating contemporary culture.’ Could you explain how you think we have arrived at this moment?

A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  If you look at what has been happening in the last five years, particularly after the financial crisis of 2008, it felt that nobody really understood what happened. What was the problem and how did it happen? We have of lots of old explanations to draw upon; for example Marx’s ‘crisis of over production’, but none seem to fit. Although it can be explained in many ways, in the end it’s difficult to understand. I mean, what is happening in the world and what is happening in Europe? In order to answer these questions we have to invent something new, conceptually speaking. The concept that came to my mind was that of ‘minus value’. In the traditional classical analysis of capitalism, Marx states that the goal of the capitalist is to accumulate capital and increase exchange value. But, in order to do that the capitalist is obliged to produce useful objects, be that useful tables, useful chairs or useful cars. Now, if you had a look at the accumulation of financial capital over the last decade you can see the creation of debt, as an increase of money and exchange value, has coincided with a dissipation of useful things. If you consider the current situation in Greece or Italy you have evidence of this, useful things are literally disappearing from the landscape. So, I have the impression that we are facing a form of nihilist production. The word ‘nihilism’ is ambiguous at a philosophical level. When I say nihilism I am not thinking of the hermeneutic nihilism of the Nietzschean variety. The nihilism I’m talking about is the pure destruction of useful things for the aim of increasing financial capital. This is the analytical subject of this book.

Q

The White Review

—  In Heroes you foreground an array of horrors, such as the Aurora ‘Joker’ Killer, Anders Breivik and the phenomena of American high school massacres in order to explain the social roots of a contemporary mental malaise, that you argue is tied to our lives lived under ‘relentless competition, hyper-connectivity and an absolute capitalism’. The extreme examples you deploy serve to illustrate your concern regarding the possibility of a generalisable psychopathology, emanating from within a generation of ‘digital natives’; who you argue may one day learn more language from machines than they do from their actual mothers. It is your assertion that the absence of a physical dimension during the process of language development can greatly inhibit an individuals capacity to emote. However, isn’t this just technophobic ‘alarmism’? Is our immersion in digital culture actually unravelling some aspect of our social character and cognitively ‘rewiring’ our youth in the form of neoliberalism?

A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  You see, you and I are not rewired. We have been wired by our body relation with the mother, human beings speaking a language which is the language of ambiguity — the language of mutual understanding. This is not about us, it’s about the connected generation. I think that the connected generation is increasingly entering a dimension where the possibility of deep conjunctive understanding is over because the connective generation is affectively deprived, affectively depleted, because the presence of the mother is almost ‘dissolving’. Not only the physical presence of the mother but the mental presence of the mother, because the precarious worker, the cognitive worker and particularly the feminine precarious worker is totally absorbed. Twenty-four hours a day, even when sleeping, one is absorbed by the social investment of affective and intellectual energies. So the presence of the mother is sort of dissolving, disappearing, and is increasingly replaced by the presence of the screen, by the presence of the connective tools. Well, yes, I think that there is a philosophical problem in it, which is concerning the concept of post-human. Can we really speak of post-human? I am not sure because the concept of human is so impossible to define, that I cannot say beyond the human. It is human, everything is human. But it is post-conjunctive. Post in the sense of, a form of communication in which the human ambiguity is lost, and if you lose ambiguity you lose everything.

Q

The White Review

— Paul Mason and others discuss the benefit that the hyper-connectivity of ‘online life’ has bought to contemporary social movements. Do you envisage a moment in our future, where information in these networks is shared by people who no longer have a capacity to emote? And if this were the case how could social solidarity be built?

A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  There is a growing political preoccupation here – that social media is creating a new possibility of political organisation. I don’t deny that, but it’s not my preoccupation. I know information can be exchanged more rapidly, you can co-ordinate interesting flash mobs for political actions, this is not my concern. I’m not talking at the pragmatic political level. Maybe the new generation is more efficient in organising meetings than the old generation was. For me, what is interesting is the relation between affective and semantic. The relation between affective, empathic exchange and mutual understanding. When I say solidarity, I don’t mean primarily the ability to get organised in a union or in a functional structure. Although, this may happen again, hopefully. Rather, what is important is the ability to create a common meaning which has a bodily meaning, an ambiguous meaning. The bodily exchange of meaning is an opening of possibility – if you misunderstand me and I misunderstand you, then that misunderstanding is the condition of progress, of semantic progress, of the invention or creation of something. If I perfectly understand you, if you perfectly understand me, as happens in the relation with a connective machine, the human creation is lost.

Q

The White Review

—  So in Heroes, language is understood to have both an operational and an affective function?

A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  Yes, but in the connective machine language is reduced to an operational function.

Q

The White Review

—  Could you give an example of this disconnection from your experience?

A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  What I have found in my experience as a teacher, an activist and in my relations with young people and adolescents has essentially lead me to the perception of a sort of inability in them to create empathic relations. So when you say solidarity, I translate that into empathy. I think that we are facing a deep transformation – I’m not saying this is the end of the ‘human’, I mean that we are currently unable to translate this new condition of connective understanding into pleasure and into political empathy.

Q

The White Review

—  If there really is a possibility that the generations below us – the digital generations – are cognitively wired up differently, then this poses some serious problems for inter-generational co-operation, least of all the issue of communication. But I wonder what possibilities therefore exist for new forms of life and empathy to emerge and find expression through these technologies? Despite the dark tone of the book, you do offer some hope, the hope of the ‘ironic position’. Would you care to elaborate on that?

A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  When you say ironic I also want to say that it is something that for me is not understandable. The emergence of a new empathic sensibility of the sort you suggest, a new connective interchange and a production of meaning may well be taking shape. Actually some forms of pathologies, like dyslexia, could point in this direction. Why is this so? Because dyslexia may be the symptom of a new potentiality, of a new level of meaning elaboration, of meaning creation by a generation of humans who live in a synthetic, multitasking environment. Maybe. I don’t know. I only can open this up as a possibility. And when I say ‘irony’ essentially I’m saying, ‘don’t believe me’. I am trying to tell you what I see and what I understand, but obviously what I see is not everything, what I understand is not everything.

Q

The White Review

—  In recent years I have noticed a transformation in my own cognitive capacities, which I am certain is due to a life that is increasingly spent online. I have noticed a stark decrease in my capacity to read long texts online; if an article’s over a certain word count I really cannot be bothered to engage with it. I wonder if this is just one noticeable outcome of a life that is both hyper-connected and over-stimulated with constantly updating ‘news feeds’ of ideas and information; ‘hyper-stimulation’, from which the only respite is the total withdrawal of effort.

 

What positive action could the generations affected by these transformations take? What could we do to either slow down our digital uptake or to re-solidify empathy between one another? Should we just remove ourselves from the internet wholesale? That seems slightly extreme.

A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  No, of course not. Your own situation is the situation of everybody, of receiving an abundance of texts. You use the word ‘text’ because, for you, communication is essentially the text in the sense of a written message, a linear message that you have to read from left to right. Probably this is not how communication will work in the future, perhaps not even how it works now. ‘Texting’ is an ambiguous word because you refer to ‘texting’ and you think in the old way that it’s text – but no, this communication is not text. It’s a point of connection between the image, the word, and the bodily stimulation. (It’s like poking…the expression ‘poke’ is interesting, it’s just pure stimulation.) I think that communication is going in this direction and we should be able to invent a philosophy based on this rapid, visual stimulation.

Q

The White Review

— This book seems to carry an imprint of your friendship with Felix Guattari. Could you briefly talk about this?

A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  Well, my opinion is complicated. On one side I first encountered Felix Guattari as a writer when I was in the army – I was a soldier and I wanted to leave, I did not like the atmosphere. In that period conscription was mandatory, so I was obliged to be there and after two months I was really fed up. I read that there was a French psychoanalyst suggesting employing craziness as a tool against exploitation, I read craziness as the way out and so I went out of my way to act crazy. I was hospitalised for ten days after refusing to leave my guard post during the night. I just refused to leave, I said, ‘I will stay here as long as my energy will give me the possibility of defending the homeland’. In the morning they sent me to the hospital and so that was how I discovered Guattari. Then I met him personally two or three years after. For me it has always been akin to a relation with an old brother who knows far more than me and is more able – in fact, he actually got me out from prison when I was later in jail in France. Many things in Guattari and Deleuze’s philosophy seemed to me very interesting as a production of concepts for the explanation of what has already happened, for example they perfectly explain the neoliberal proliferation. But 40 years on, if I look at the present I think that Baudrillard’s work is much more contemporary than that of Deleuze and Guattari. Sometimes I feel a sense of guilt about this– Guattari was my friend, how can I do that? I see Guattari as being a huge philosopher like Deleuze, but while you have to distinguish between them, at the same time you also have to speak of them as a unitary machine. But that machine was 40 years ago, it was mapping the future that we are now living in, so if you want to look at the present from the point of view of the present, Baudrillard is much more useful.

Q

The White Review

—  Is there a collective form of therapy that we could engage in, that could actually help us to navigate our way through this present malaise? Is ‘care’ the political project that we now need to make primary?

A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  Well, you know that I use the word ‘therapy’ with some caution, because I know that it’s an ambiguous concept – it always has been. I mean, in the 60s and 70s the word ‘therapy’ was sort of branded as normalisation. So, I use the word ‘therapy’ as part of a more complicated concept that is also implying aesthetic transformations – art – and political transformation. But the three words, ‘therapy’, ‘art’ and ‘politics’, sound fake now, because they are presented as separate. We need a new concept that can take the three different practices together. We don’t have the word, because we don’t have the concept, and if we don’t have concept, we don’t have the practice. This is the problem to come. But actually people are suffering now. I mean I’m not a psychoanalyst. My sister is and so she’s much more able than me to focus on the present reality of suffering. I speak of suffering in a metaphorical way, while she speaks of suffering in a much more immediate sense. I think that starting from this problem – the problem of suffering, the reality of suffering – is a good way to go beyond, to the fragmentation of therapy, art and politics.

Q

The White Review

—  Maybe we could build collectivity out of suffering?
A

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

—  Yes. The collectivity of ‘the suffering’. In my experience, in relation with young people, students and so on, I see that when you touch on the subject of suffering, of psychic suffering, sexual suffering, loneliness and so on, all of a sudden they see that this is something that politically can give you a common ground of understanding.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Seth Wheeler is a PhD candidate based in Royal Holloway University’s History department. His research is concerned with the history of the Autonomist movement in the UK. He is a founding member of the UK based autonomist orgainsation ‘Plan C’. He splits his time between writing his thesis, parenting and community and workplace activism. He is the co-editor of Occupy Everything (published by Minor Compositions in 2012).


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