Franco “Bifo” Berardi on the “Possibility of Joy”
The following is a transcription of a broadcast aired on the radio program Clinamen, which is co-conducted by Diego Sztulwark, Diego Skliar, and Natalia Genero. It was translated from the Spanish by Ana Vivaldi and Daniel Harper in 2017.
Bifo casts his gaze across multiple planes: the personal and the political, the technical and the affective, mental suffering and the exploitation of bodies, the ethical and the artistic, the processes of individual subject formation and of collective struggle. In this program, we have been engaged in ongoing conversations on these themes — themes that weave themselves together throughout Bifo’s thought.
In his latest book, published in English as And: Phenomenology of the End [Translator’s note: the Spanish title is Fenomenología del fin ], he discusses mutations in the sensitivities of late modernity. The era of immaterial relations is governed by a “desensitization” that separates minds, hyper-connected in abstract circuits, from bodies. This takes place at the level of the individual, but also on a collective scale. There is no way out, Bifo tells us, if the mass of workers do not reconnect with their bodies. There is no way out if language is not connected to the mother tongue, to that sensitive material. The bodily bond with the mother as the original substrate for the production of meaning. The bodily bond with others as the fundamental dimension underpinning the production of the world.
In our contemporary modes of existence and our regional-political contingency, identifying these problems becomes of vital importance. It becomes crucial to identify how the financialization of the economy advances by subordinating the concrete to the abstract in the production of value as well as in the production of bodies and affects. These are not of different orders — that of the social and that of the economy, that of life and that of money — but a common mechanism of dematerialization. It is through the success of this code that different forms of power can appeal to notions of social union and harmony, while simultaneously attacking all of the material spaces of conjunction (in which we come together) and where new meanings are produced.
We do not believe that this is a pessimistic interpretation of our times, but rather a vision that is capable of identifying the critical entanglements on which the political and social matrix, of which we are all a part, relies. This reading can also reveal the potentialities for the constitution of counterpower. What subversive gestures can we identify that counterpose these mechanisms of connective subjugation? In the context of post-dictatorship Argentina, we identify three big public moments of sensitization in the midst of state terrorism, the crudest of neoliberalisms, and patriarchal brutality: the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the Piquetero movement of 2001, and the contemporary women’s movement.
These social movements, which Bifo identifies as “displacements” (the same notion he uses to define desire), are able to interrupt the political order through irony. Irony is the capacity to reintroduce corporeality into verbal communication. “We live in hell, but within that hell we have the capacity to create spaces of sensitive life, of life that does not leave out the possibility of happiness. Don’t forget the possibility of joy. That is the motto for today,” Bifo tells us.
Clinamen: What does it mean to live an an-affective life and why in your book, And: Phenomenology of the End, do you claim that we live within a schema of connective power that desensitizes life?
Bifo: When I speak of a desensitization in digital times, it is not my intention to define it in a dogmatic or rigorous manner, nor as an absolutely settled modality. Rather, I am interested in a tendency, and this is important: it is a tendency that I am aiming to define in this book. Desensitization. The main thesis of the book is that in the transition away from the sphere of alphabetical communication, one that moves from corporeal communication to the sphere of digital communication, we uncover something very profound, not only in the physical disposition of the bodies but also in the generation of meaning and sense; it is this meaning-making process that is changing.
To put this in a shorter, simpler manner, I would say that the body of the mother is my central point of interest. The development of alphabetical generations, of past generations of a pre-digital time, was a linguistic formation based on the voice: the voice of the mother, the voice of a human being. It doesn’t matter whether it is the biological mother or not; according to Agamben the voice is the point of conflation between meaning and flesh. We now live in a time in which a generation is growing up and learning more words from a machine than a mother, than the voice of a human being. Something profound is changing here. What is changing is that sense- and meaning-making are not realized within a singular, physical, bodily relationship but, increasingly, in digital terms, terms which are therefore de-singularized.
And with this replacement of the voice by images, in this process of de-feminization implicit in digital culture, what is it that we lose?
I do not like to pose the problem in terms of what is won and what is lost. Above all I’m interested in individuating, in defining a new form of communication between human beings. Therefore, sense-making is increasingly generated through a syntactic correspondence, what we call pattern recognition: the recognition of an abstract model that contains a sense in and of itself. In pre-digital communication, the meaning-making process was something absolutely singular and it was tied to a context, to a set of relations: pragmatic, erotic, carnal, situational. Relations in all their forms. This is the situation that is undone by digital communication. Naturally, this doesn’t happen all of a sudden, we aren’t transformed from one type of human into another overnight. What interests me is the emergence of a new form of meaning-making process.
Confronted with both this change in the meaning-making process and the situation it has replaced, and given that you are discussing the learning process, the question is what pathologies are created in this transition from one mother language to another, in the move towards this digital mother language?
Each mutation implies a form of suffering, implies a pathology. Something becomes difficult, painful, in our communicative relations, on the existential plane. What is it that is happening [verificando] here? What is happening is that our time is increasingly dedicated to these syntactic connections, while connections between bodies in a singular and contextualized space decrease. This is manifested as an estrangement, a becoming weird [rarificacion], a becoming that makes relations between bodies a less common part of our daily lives. Bodies lose the empathy that they had in earlier times. I believe that we are experiencing a kind of weakening of empathy, and we can verify this in both the political and the societal spheres. That social solidarity has become so rare and so difficult to maintain is perhaps an effect, a manifestation, of the loss or the re-definition of empathy by humanity. I cannot know how the mutation will manifest itself over time. I think that this mutation manifests itself today in pathologies: pathologies of loneliness, for example, or of depression, or panic. Because the infosphere, the informational universe that surrounds each individual, this dimension accelerates and becomes less and less sensual. It is sensuality that we are losing.
The book we are discussing, And: Phenomenology of the End, is a book about sensitivity. Essentially I am interested in the evolution and mutation of sensitivity, and in what the word “sensitivity” means. I indicated that sensitivity is the capacity to understand something that we cannot put into words; that is sensitivity. In our everyday lives we say that a person is or is not sensitive because they cannot understand what we do not say, but we say without words. This is being lost because digitalization implies a process of sintactization of communication. We decrease our capacity to understand communicational nuances and increasingly need to recognize a pattern, a syntactic form. The mutation necessarily implies a plasticity of the brain, of the mind, and of language itself. But this plasticity cannot fully develop without an element of suffering. Our time is one in which the mutation is manifested in a manner that is essentially pathological.
In your book you create a genealogy of this will to abstraction, which you go on to identify in previous forms of western culture. For example, in the history of North American puritanism, in the history of religions, there exists a form of this ideal of digital perfection throughout. Given that this is a past that also includes nazism, in which these reactionary religious antecedents were already in force and there were some very dark political moments, then not everything that was left behind was some sort of glorious humanism. Isn’t there, in the way you build your argument, a sort of idealization or nostalgia for the sensitivity of the past? And in the current moment, which you characterize as one of desensitization, aren’t there new forms of sensitivity or counter-sensitivity that we might also identify?
This is a very rich question, full of implications, but it is also a very difficult one to answer because there are many sides to it. First question: the danger of developing nostalgia towards the cultural and communicational dimensions of the past. I recognize that, for me, it is almost inevitable that taking past forms of human communication as a point of reference might be nostalgic. But on a theoretical level, I aim to avoid, if I can, a nostalgic tone to my thinking because I am interested in analyzing and evaluating the different cultural, anthropological, and communicational formations in their full complexity.
For example, you say that there is a reference to the humanism of the past that can have a mystifying, ideological dimension. I will try to explain this reference: in the history of modernity, what is it that humanism has been and what politics has humanism made possible? I refer, for example, to a text by Machiavelli. I can’t recall if I have quoted him in this book, but I find his work very useful to establish a common ground for discussing this topic. In The Prince (his best-known book), Machiavelli discusses the constitution of politics. At a certain point he says that the prince, the politician, is someone with the capacity to subjugate fortune, which is feminine and capricious like a whimsical woman that needs to be subjugated by the masculine will. This text, in this sense… this text by Machiavelli is very important because, on one level, it allows us to understand that in modern politics there is a very deep and determinant element of macho violence. One cannot detach this macho idea of dominion over the feminine character of nature and over the feminine character of what Machiavelli calls fortune.
What is fortune? It is the unpredictability of events, the unexpectedness of everyday life. This unpredictability is, for Machiavelli, the object of masculine and political domination. Therefore, you can see that when we talk about humanism, we also have to talk about a form that is essentially macho, that the “human” to which humanism refers is a man. It is a man in the sexual sense, in the sense defined by a masculine modern culture. Politics is the masculine capacity to dominate and subjugate the infinite unpredictability of fortune, of events. So we can see that in the history of modernity humanism and domination are tightly connected. However, at the same time, humanism means the power [potencia] of the will. It is only within this tradition that one can imagine man’s dominion over nature and the act of knowing nature reductively. Only in this tradition can one imagine the act of knowing in a way that becomes useful to that reduction and that power.
When in the digital age, in the era of a digital mutation when the infosphere becomes infinitely fast and infinitely complex, fortune cannot be dominated. That is to say, the richness, the unpredictability of events, of information, of the possible, becomes infinite and human potency — that is, masculine potency, in Machiavelli’s sense — becomes weak, unable to process this hypercomplexity. At this point we get a sense of the main reason for the contemporary political crisis: politics as a force of domination, as a capacity of the will to dominate the infinite wealth of nature, becomes an impotent form of politics.
The impotence of contemporary politics is, in this sense, the impotence of a form of knowledge that cannot know enough, that cannot be known in the accelerated time of digitalization and network connectivity. It is at this point that humanism loses it vitality. It is a crisis that is also the crisis of politics. Do we have to be nostalgic about politics, do we have to be nostalgic about humanism? No. In this case nostalgia is not justifiable and, more importantly, it is never a potency of knowledge. We need to recognize the radical rupture that this is determining and which accompanies the mutation we are experiencing. But at the same time, in this sense the most useful perspective is that of sensitivity, not politics, not a cognitive reduction.
I go back to the second part, or to one of the sides, of the question we posed. If within this mutation the only thing we have left is to run behind a time to which our flesh never arrives, and, as a result, we are left with no option but to become sick because we cannot reach the speed imposed upon us, well… Let’s look at the question from the positive side of all this: What are the new forms of sensitivity that emerge with this mutation?
Of course, this allows me to say something more about the aims of the book. My intention is not only to describe the process that we are living through today, some 20 years after the creation of the internet. I am not only interested in this, but also in a genealogy of culture and of digital communication, a genealogy of a psychical mutation that is essentially related to a mutation in sensitivity. This mutation does not simply occur as an effect of a technological transformation. Naturally, the technological transformation is vital in this mutation, but there is something in modern culture that has become gradually aware of this mutation. That is, I think within modern history, modern aesthetics, there is a sort of separation between what I call a baroque dimension and a puritan dimension, which is established during modernity as a mode of cultural production. The baroque, which has played an important-but-not-dominant role in the history of modernity, represents the infinite complexity of the infosphere, of God’s imagination. And God’s imagination is too rich to be reduced to a form such as human reason. Thus, there is a baroque dimension in modern history and there is a rational dimension, which reaches its maturity, its plenitude, with the forms of puritanism, and American puritanism in particular.
American culture, since its origin, since the Declaration of Independence… American history is the history of a political form that was born without a people; there is no people, no materiality of a people. The people have been completely annihilated in American history: it was an indigenous people whose history has been occluded. From that moment a community is formed around the word of God, formed around the constitution, a verbal declaration. American history is formed around the digital perfection of God’s word and is formed around the simplification of the “yes” and “no.” The baroque does not know of simplification, the baroque does not recognize the digital opposition between yes and no. The baroque is the infinite richness of nuances that complicate communication and enrich it, make it ambiguous, make it ironic. On the contrary, in the puritan world history and communication are a history of the black and the white; there are no shades in between. American culture, puritan culture, prefigures the passage to digitalization, to the transformation of communication in an infinite succession of yes and no, of blacks and whites, of zeros and ones. It is through this process of cancellation, a cancellation of ambiguity, that we enter into a world of desensitization.
The title of this book in English is And: Phenomenology of the End. In the Argentine translation we have removed the “And,” in Spanish “Y,” because “Y” does not work. “Y” does not work as well in the title of a book and, thus, we have named it Fenomenología del fin. But the subtitle is very important: it is even more important than the title itself. The subtitle is about sensitivity, the mutation of conjunction and connection. Conjunction means the richness and the ambiguity of communication that occurs through bodies, resounding bodies, bodies that seek to exchange signs between themselves but above all to communicate affection, or to communicate hate, pain, pleasure. Connection cancels all the resonant, the carnal, and the ambiguous that belonged to the conjunctive dimension to enable the black and white, the zeros and ones, to produce purely combinatorial significations.
In the book you claim that social movements are the irony in a language that, in historical terms, opposes a semiotic insolvency in order to ruin, if only slightly, the black and white of the code. In Argentina, if we piece together a fairly recent history we can find three moments of public sensitization, three moments of resistance to the alliance of terror and the black-and-white code. These would be the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, The Piquetero movement of 2001, and the current women’s movement. Do these forms of public sensitization come up against the problem of the political, by which I mean this form of politics that, from Machiavelli to Lenin, you describe in the book as belonging to a historical past rather than an evolving and adaptive present? Issues like will, judgement, interpretation: do these become problems that need to be taken up by these social movements? Or are these movements in a new situation in which they face different tasks and, if so, how do you see them?
First of all, what is a social movement? A social movement, as we have said, is the reaffirmation of irony within a code which is absolutely an-ironic. But what is the irony? We attempt to carefully address the meaning of this word. Irony is not simply a joke or something that does not correspond to reality. No — irony means the capacity to go in behind and to break the limits defined by language. When Wittgenstein argues in the Tractatus that the boundaries of the world are the boundaries of my language, he means that what we cannot say that which we cannot imagine, we cannot imagine that which we cannot experience. We cannot do it. Thus, irony is that capacity of language to forget about itself, to forget its limits, and to get away from the syntactic dimension of meaning. At this point a problem emerges, one that is now becoming so painful: it seems as if politics as we have known it in modernity has become essentially ineffective.
But why? Because if we understand politics in the narrow sense, in the sense established by Machiaveli or Lenin… In the text that I quoted before, The Prince, Machiavelli talks about politics as a capacity to dominate. In this sense, politics is dead because humanity does not have the capacity to dominate over a reality that is always a step ahead of our capacity to know and our political control. But what we can and have to do is invent politics. I do not know if it is the right name for it, but we need the capacity to modify reality according to our interests and desires. And how can we obtain it? You refer to these movements that have had such significance in Argentine history. The movement of the Mothers. It is interesting that the figure of the mother… I am not interested in the catholic rhetoric of maternity. What interests me is the body, embodiment and the mother as a figure of corporeality that enters the process of signification, enters the process of meaningful singularities, a process of interpretation. It is the doxa, the bodily singularity that enables us to understand that within language there is not only yes and no, not only pattern recognition, but there is also the possibility of saying something that cannot be said.
That is politics. To say something that cannot be said. I am well aware that irony has played an important role in recent Argentine History. I am thinking of the friends of Etcetera, the Erroristas, and the incident with the helicopter on March 23rd that caused a scandal and led to media repression. The Errorists’ helicopter showed an intuition about the fact that there is a way of using signs, of using images, and of using an ironic form of communication to destroy right-wing conformity. These signs are sufficient to produce a deconstructive effect over power’s unanimous conformity. Irony is the capacity to reintroduce corporeality into verbal communication. That is irony.
And within these processes of simplification, abstraction, and dematerialization that the digital age generates, you say that we have to be very careful not to produce territories that are suffocating, that enclose our identities. And we were asking ourselves whether desire might be the way out of these territories that are enclosing us, or if desire also mutates and remains trapped within this dematerialized universe.
Yes, of course. Desire is obviously not a subjectivity, desire is a force [fuerza], it is more of a displacement. It is always a displacement. And what we are living through at this time is a paradoxical condition, and quite an ugly one at that. Because on the one side there is financial abstraction, a disembodiment of financial power, and financial power becomes all-powerful because it never confronts materiality, never confronts social corporeality: suffering, misery, and pain. Financial power develops itself in a completely connective dimension, one which is not related to conjunction at all. But corporeality remains. Corporeality has not dissolved, it has not disappeared into thin air. It is here, even when it represents itself as a dynamic of identity, of rabid vengeance, what we might call revenge, vendetta. [Note: the English and Italian language of Bifo’s original sentence have been preserved]. Corporeality manifests itself in the resurgence of fascism around the world, in what some people call “populism.” But I do not like this word. The identity cult is a means through which the conjunctive body is aiming to re-stake a position in history, but it does this through violence and ignorance. It does this through a negation of the richness of the difference between human beings.
So how can we escape to this deadly choice between financial connection and the aggressive return of conjunction? I think the possibility of getting out of this choice is a dynamic of desire, one that is essentially able to play out in the form of irony, in the form of extension behind the limits of language. I have to confess that, at this time, I do not have much in the way of strong propositions at the political level. I have the impression that we are in a tunnel in which the choices are between financial connection, financial abstraction, and the aggressive return of corporeality; these choices cover the entire sphere of political action at a planetary level. It is a mutation that is in the process of unfolding and when we go through a mutation we cannot know how we will come out of it. But what I do know is that there is only one subjective force that can imagine it behind the limits of language… what we have always called “movement.” In the end, what is a movement? The definition of movement cannot be sociological and cannot be purely political. Movement is a displacement in the precise sense of the word. Movement is a displacement that allow us to see reality from a point of view that is different from the point of view we had before it.
In Hamburg, the friends from the movement against the G20 showed up with two grand ironic actions. One was the zombie demonstration: a thousand zombies painted in white, grey, and black and wearing death-face makeup walked through the streets of Hamburg to tell the world that financial capitalism is creating is a world of death, a world of pain. The other was the big demonstration by the anarchists and autonomists who showed up with a banner that read: “Welcome to the end.” We live in hell, but in hell we have the capacity, an ironic capacity, to create sensitive lifespaces; a life which does not rule out joy as a possible dimension. Don’t forget the possibility for joy. That is the motto for today. Do not forget the possibility of a joyful affectivity and demand the abolition of hell, as our friends the erroristas have always done. The abolition of hell is an essential act of irony that we need to perform in the present moment.