Berardi Franco

"The nomadology of Franco Berardi (Bifo)"

(articolo di Maurizio Viano, 1993)

Perhaps the catchiest slogan spray-painted in 1968 on Parisian walls, l'imagination au pouvoir [imagination in power], was in fact a surrealism laced demand which would eventually be taken seriously, albeit in a perverse fashion. Twenty-five years later, Bifo argues, power is increasingly about images in action, production of images and shaping of the collective imaginary, or, better yet, about the curbing of the individual’s imagination within the values of the socially constituted imaginary. Of course, Bifo is not alone in thinking this and his bitter sarcasm offers yet another formula encapsulating the change that took place in the Western world, or actually the world tout court. It is precisely the power to shape the imaginary through an ever more capillary telecommunication system that gave western capitalism its victory in the cold war and that is now tantalizing the rest of the world, subsuming it under a regime of values and expectations. If we talk today of “new world order” it is because the irradiation of images from the West is homogenizing the planet.
This epochal change, or better, mutation (Bifo’s soon to be published book bears the significant title L’esperienza della mutazione) and the repercussions it has in all the different domains, is of course the focus, implicit or explicit, of most of the recent debate. If there seems to be an agreement that reality has taken thought by surprise and that we need to work hard at devising something better than the by now ubiquitous prefix “ post,” opinions change as to what we should get rid of and what we should put in its place. As I scan the horizon within which leftist thought moves in Italy, that is when I look at their references, language, and problematics, I often get the feeling that many are not questioning their cultural and scholarly capital radically enough; [1] or that they somehow do not quite register the epistemological consequences of a mutation. I believe you cannot talk about world order and use the instruments forged in and by a very small, specialized sector of that world. Somehow-and the sight is indeed breathtaking, if not outright frightening-one ought to expand one’s horizons. What I admire in Bifo-and the reason why I appreciate his work-is precisely his courageous groping for other models, his willingness to experiment with other forms of thought and, conse-quently, to redefine his goals. Take the bibliographical references respectively to his 1977 book, Theory of Value and Repression (rimozione) of the Subject, and to his recent works, The Paradox of Freedom and the already mentioned The Experience of the Mutation, and you will get a good preliminary sense of his search for other constellations, of his nomadic practice.
Popular culture and oriental mysticism, new age prophets and cyberpunk fiction, Frankfurt school and computer scientists, all are brought to the melting pot of his intellect-the result may not be to your liking, but the method, which in the title of this essay I call “nomadology,” ought to stir your interest. But before actually proceeding to examine the salient traits of his nomad science as I understand it, let me backtrack a little and provide you with a context, especially since his work is virtually unknown to the Anglo-American public, with the exception of two pieces that were published on Semiotexte, the first, entitled “Anatomy of Autonomy,” in the 1980 Italia issue, and the second, in the 1984 Oasis issue, bearing the haunting title “Sand in the Mouth”-this latter piece provides a good indication of the road Bifo’s thought would take in the second half of the 1980s.
Franco Berardi’s personal history is in many ways exemplary of a generation of leftists in Italy, for he first joined the FGCI, the youth organization of the Communist party. Then, in the late sixties, he manifested his dissatisfaction with traditional Marxism and with the reformist politics of the PCI by joining Potere Operaio, the extraparliamentary organization which, in its first phase, most contibuted to the redefinition of class composition and of the proletarian subject. In 1977, the year of massive riots and the swan song of the Movement-soon to be engulfed in the armed struggle and the criminalization of political militancy-Bifo was one of the main figures of Autonomia, which was then unofficially divided into a creative and a hard, political wing. Certainly leaning towards the former, Bifo presided over the publication of an influential journal A/traverso and was at the center of the Radio Alice experience. During the anni di piombo, Bifo alternated periods in jail, in self-imposed exile in the US and France, and in Bologna, his home town. In the eighties, he did not join the widespread culture of repentment which started from the ranks of the ultraleft doing public amendment for their extremism, allegedly in cahoots with the armed struggle, and ended two years ago with the mass purification ritual of name changing of the Communist Party, now Democratic Party of the Left.
In an atmosphere saturated with abjurations of Marxism, Bifo reiterates his pride at having been a communist and notes that communism gave the best of itself not in the countries where it was in power, but in the capitalist world, where it performed the crucial task of forcing capital to reduce work hours, to perfect its technology and to create the conditions for the new informatic society. [2] Bifo’s search for other points of reference is not the result of a fad, for he denounced communism/Marxism’s aspirations to power well before the repentance wave. According to him, repentance was/is inscribed in the discourse of Marxism to the extent to which winning, taking power, was/is the paradigm which marxists share(d) with liberal economy: the masculine paradigm of victory and of profit led many militants to repentance after discovering that Marxism did not win. But, as the second section of The Paradox of Freedom suggests, one must have the courage to lose, to refuse the paradigm of victory, to embrace the feminine principle of choosing sentiments and values over pragmatic considerations of power. “We are people on the run, let then tenderness be our companion: availability and respect for suffering, solidarity towards all those who are nomads” (A/t 3). [3]
To streamline a complex and multifaceted line of thought, I shall treat Bifo’s nomadology as comprising three complementary gestures: the analysis of the present situation, the abandonment of certain fixed points of reference, and the acquisition of new instruments in view of a certain goal.
In two of his works (PR, PF) Bifo reminds us of the sixth, unpublished chapter of Capital, where Marx argues that with the appearance of a technologically specific mode of production capital’s subsumption of labor power becomes real and no longer formal. “Science,” says Marx, “this quintessentially abstract product of general historical development rises as capital’s potential” (PF 50). Today, according to Bifo, we can talk about a third phase of capitalist subsumption: the passage to the form of mental control as the moment in which a structuring principle penetrates and pervades, shaping it, the very cognitive activity of productive mankind. As society shifts from material to immaterial production-communication, information, services-the dominant tendency consists of a general mentalization, whereby the mind must become productive, discipline and homogenize itself, and work is transformed into abstract mental labor. “In the caleidiscope of contemporary production, labor time manifests itself increasingly as the immission of every single mental energy into the circuit of the whole nervous system” (PF 51). That is, “the workers’ involvement in the productive process becomes increasingly involvement of nervous energy; where before you had instances of exploitation now you have forms of psycopathology. Social contradiction is replaced by mental suffering” (PF 52). Hence the felicitous metaphor for the human condition in a computerized society coined by the metal workers’ union in Germany: Man of Glass, a metaphor, which, Bifo reminds us, has the merit of pointing at three aspects of the new working conditions: transparence (a sort of vulnerability to a panoptical control); reification (imagination is rigidified); and fragility (the mind is subjected to unprecedented pressures and can break down).
Bifo is not discounting the persistence of manual labor, of factory work. He is merely revoking the centrality it had in industrial society and concerns himself with the tendency of late capitalism. To reinscribe Bifo’s line of argument in another format, we could say that he is modifying the relationship between base and superstructure. For a long time, intellectual work, cultural production, was deemed superstructural, that is a reflection of the economic structure. The Lukacks-Benjamin-Adorno-Brecht debates of the thirties, Sartre’s effort to give existentialism and psychoanalysis their autonomy while grouping them under a Marxist umbrella in Search for a Method, Althusser’s controversial borrowing of the Freudian concept of overdetermination, are all crucial points in the history of Western Marxism which, among other things, is also the story of a debate raging around the autonomy, relative autonomy, overdetermination in the last instance, of cultural production. Now this whole distinction collapses because mental work, in its various forms, has become the centerless center of social production. Bifo describes the present mutation from different angles. If from the standpoint of political economy, it consists of the shift from material to immaterial production-and the mentalist perspective thereby entailed-from a cognitive angle, the mutation is the result of an infospheric unbalance. Made of the connection between a transmitting end and a receiving end, respectively an electronic world of telecommunications and mental decoding system, the infosphere is the information layer in which signs circulate and obtain interpretation. What characterizes late capitalism, or postindustrial society as the society of immaterial production, is a vertiginous thickening of and in the infospheric crust. Whereas the transmitting apparatus, the universe of the sources, has undergone a mutation and no longer functions according to the linear, sequential, mechanistic paradigm of writing (which was typical of industrial society), the receiving end still has expectations and interpretive modes shaped in the century-long primacy of the written communication of knowledge. Whereas the transmitting end functions increasingly according to the model of the hypertext, the receiving end is still anchored to the model of the text. And one does not interpret a hypertext, one navigates it.
In a thus characterized present, we ought have the courage to abandon politics as it has been conceived throughout modernity, politics as the site of choices and decision making, of the definition of reforms and goals and, above all, of an alternative. For politics, today, are nothing but mere administration of the status quo. In Italy, a mafioso-like enterpreuneurial class has emerged, Bifo calls it “lumpen-bourgeoisie,” that has made corruption, violence, and mudslinging as a metaphor for gunslinging the rule for political participation. This state of the political scene goes hand in hand with the transformations in the economy-economics being the other god of modernity which “can no longer explain the fundamental dynamics that inform people’s productive activity, nor the crises” (PF 69). The predominance of finance capitalism and stockmarket simulation and the fact that production today is less a production of things than a production of signs, have brought along a progressive integration of economics with semiotics (which Eco defined as the science investigating the mechanisms of lying). In this “hyperreality of fluctuating values,” to use one of Baudrillard’s definitions taken up by Bifo, exchange-value is further removed from use-value and becomes sign-value. Thus freed from any referent and floating value is the terrain where conflicting interpretations/valorizations must resort to force to back their “readings.” Unlike what happened in industrial society, where value had a determination derived from labor time, now the quantity of necessary labor time has become undefinable, with the result that the value of commodities becomes undefinable too. Coercion, blackmail, and force become the ways for implementing the economic principles of profit. Then, Bifo argues “those who today set out to struggle against the mixture of politics and criminality must be aware of the fact that if they want to be consistent they must fight against economy tout court, because tendentially there is no longer a profit economy that is not criminal, that is not tied to threat, lies, and crime” (DA 24).
The demise of politics as the site of an alternative urges nomadic thought to take distance from a construct that has sustained leftist politics: the subject. It may be useful to note that Bifo is not dismissing the individual subject on poststructuralist grounds. Together with Guattari, he would agree that the social production of subjectivity, through the various apparatuses, is of paramount importance. Bifo’s suspicions are rather aimed at the class subject, at the possibility of thinking ever again in terms of oppositional dialectics and structural conflicts. While production was still in its industrial phase, the centrality of the proletariat and the actual repression of other forms of antagonistic subjectivity had justified the belief in the collective constitution of a subject capable of opposing capital. The shift from material to immaterial economy makes a new sector of society the pivot of production. “The novelty,” however, “is not that mental work replaces proletarian subjectivity with intellectual subjectivity” (PF 46). The mutation in the work conditions entails a methodological shift as well, so that we cannot simply transfer the notion of collective subjectivity onto this new class, simply because it is not a class. Whereas for traditional Marxists like Roberto Finelli, the homogenization of mental work constitutes the ideal ground for the formation of a collective, antagonistic subjectivity, [4] for Bifo the complex web of mental workers is just the opposite of a fragmentation in search of a unity:

We are aware of the fact that technological trans-formation is producing a change in the working conditions and therefore in the relationship between the way you live, the world and your functional integration. But we just cannot see any form of subjectivization, any form of a reconstituted autono-my against the given conditions of production. We would probably be better off dropping altogether a framework that presumes to find unity and synthesis only in the perspective of subjectivization. Perhaps we should begin to think in terms of singularization, that is of the capacity of a singular mode of life capable of abandoning socialization and its discipli-nary rules, its mechanisms of dependence. (PF 53)

Finally, in this situation, what conceptual framework can replace economy? Which field of action can replace political action? As we must turn our attention to the formation of the imaginary, the mise-en-scene of the spectacle and the mental energies and problems of those caught in it (namely the depression of those who block the heightened infospheric input and the panic of those who suddenly open up to the information overload) what shall our instruments be? In more than one occasion, Bifo admits to the present impossibility to provide an answer, for some discourses (i.e. that of singularities that enhance their mutation towards de-socialization) are still to be broached philosophically. All we can do is ride the tendency. The answer must be sought along the journey. Still, he has some definite ideas as to where we should start looking. For example, when discussing economics’ loss of decoding potential in The Paradox of Freedom, he suggests that it ought to be replaced by an investigation of advertising, a pubblicit¨¤ as the study of the becoming public and persuasive of the sign. In the same breath, we must turn to cognitive anthropology, the science that examines the relationship between epistemological models and social structures and to la paradigmatica, the discipline which analizes the mutation of paradigmatic models-a paradigm being a practical episteme, that is a model capable of generating uses, social and comunicational relations. Elsewhere, he talks about an ecology of the mind, with an obvious reference to Gregory Bateson, as the discipline which can provide the psycochemical knowledge that is needed to resist the subsumption of mental energy into the dominant cognitive models.
Insofar as pragmatism permeates Bifo’s theoretical edifice, the retrieval of the proper instruments to think through the present impasse is determined by the goal, by the task, thought gives itself. What is then the goal of Bifo’s nomadology as the triple operation I have outlined above, the analysis of the present, the abandonment of what can no longer work and the introduction of new disciplinary horizons that may help in focusing on the solution? Here traditional leftists are bound to be disappointed, although they probably saw it coming. Bifo, in all honesty, cannot visualize a glorious collective hope and advocates secession, separation-flight. Long regarded as a vile act of betrayal of the cause, the idea of flight is gaining substantive political consistency and viability. Mobilizing the Adorno of Minima Moralia and Negative Dialectics, Bifo sees history as the locus of the disappointment of all utopias, but, unlike Italian postmodernists, who use disenchantment to argue the “weakness” of thought and our resignation, he suggests that the strength of philosophy, of our mind, lies in its capacity to actively extricate (sottrazione attiva) individual destiny from historical destiny. The task of nomad thought is to refuse Knowledge after having known, to regain innocence, to conceive passion in a world that demands irony as a substitute for the lack of truth. Throughout modernity the social bond was the necessary premise to all production and communication. Today, electronic technology is preparing a not so distant future where it is possible to communicate and produce without socializing, without depending on and belonging to the dominant mode of production and communication. Small communities in flight, enacting a secession from the social bond: this is the vague prescription of someone who claims to have no prescription.
Resistance in flight. This is not the refusal of involvement of the silent, apathetic majority. The mentalization of work has of course engendered important changes in the ways we perceive and categorize reality. In the wake of visionary psychedelia and science fiction writers such as Dick and Spinrad, reality is for Bifo “the site of the psychodynamic intersection of the projection of infinite mental drifts caught in a process that is called communication” (CY 47). This opens new perspective for the idea of freedom. Articulating oriental mysticism with the horizons opened up by virtual reality-the idea of technomaya-Bifo valorizes the power human imagination has (or would have if it were not paralyzed by the capitalist virus, to create worlds)

The most important contribution we can make to the survival of a principle of humanity and joy consists of making plans to save rafts of equality and sperimentation in the stormy seas; rafts of wisdom, I should say, in which richness is rediscovered as the capacity to enjoy here and now, enjoy the products of our intelligence outside the dominion of the economic principle. (A/t, 3)

Resistance in flight. In a world that disregards the planetary deterritorialization brought about by late capitalism and aggressively returns to nationalism, tribalism, and identity Bifo’s nomadology advocates a stubborn refusal to play the game:

To be irresponsible towards the world of identity and necessity is the only way to be responsible towards life in its essence, in its globality. We do not propose a new identity, a transgressive or avantgarde identity. Dis-identity, instead. Happy because dis-identity is not lack, but it can be the project of a world based on the absolute deployment of autonomous singularities, on the synthesis of energy and creative passions. To make this happen we cannot but separate our fate from the absurd game played by the world. Like Thelma and Louise, we cannot really go back, even if who knows what is ahead. Perhaps we will learn how to fly. (A/t 8)

The most probing evidence that nomadic flight is a political project rather than escapism lies in the example of cultural involvement offered by Bifo. His cultural activity is little short of feverish: in addition to writing books and pamphlets in which he filters what is new-hip hop, cyberpunk, la pantera-through the sieve of his nomad science, he supervises the publications of a small press, A/traverso-Synergon, coedits several journals, and is now involved in the creation of a “Centro Felix Guattari.” He has translated Pierre Levy’s Les Technologies de l’intelligence, an important book that allows us to put infospheric transformations into sharp focus, and has collaborated with director De Maria in the making of the documentary Il trasloco [Moving], in which Bifo’s moving from his old apartment, where so many militants met and lived in the days of Radio Alice, becomes the opportunity for an audio-visual history of, and reflection on, cultural antagonism.
This desire for cultural intervention led Bifo to be perhaps the first Italian thinker to discover the potential disclosed by cyberpunk as a metaphor for the directions taken by contemporary culture. In a pointed essay written under the pseudonym of Valmerz-another example of nomadic practice and dis-identity, Bifo occasionally writes under different pen-names; in fact “Bifo” itself is a playful spin off his real name-Bifo argued that punk negativity joins new age optimism to engender a movement of thought which supersedes, not dialectically, the Hegelian paradigm of history as the idealistic expectation of a subject in need of identity. Historical change, as a change of paradigms, will resemble rather the act of calling up another file on your computer terminal.
In the same essay, Bifo dedicates a few pages to what he calls the language of the melting pot. Even in the linguistic realm one can have a nomadic practice, not only by adopting, as he does, a language that travels the socio-linguistic spectrum vertically through the use of words coined in the heights of philosophical discourse next to terms legitimized by popular culture (e. g. “hype,” after Public Enemy), but above all by not resisting the imperialism of English. Here too we must learn how to lose. English is becoming the world language and opposing this trend, in the name of some linguistic identity is not only useless but also counterproductive. It is better to accept English and contaminate its purity from the inside, by speaking in the myriads of patois or pidgin forms that ensue from the encounter of the dominant language with heterogenous speakers. The new English will then be the one spoken by the hispanic, oriental, and communities subjected to American imperialism without any nostalgic turning back to a world defined by national identities.
I would be less than candid in my supportive, if sketchy, description of Bifo’s thought, if I did not mention a problem that I visualize as his arguments come into contact with American academia. In true keeping with Italian culture, his mentalist model seems to disregard the problematic of gender as well as the role of the body and its determinations. As there is little attention to the bodily specificity of what he calls the singularities-What relationship do they have with the dominat paradigms of knowledge?-there is a feeling in his work that the subject of all the nomadic flight is a-sexual, a-racial. Of course, his general framework, comprehending molecular singularities in flight from the dominant model, includes also different states of body, and, in his The Paradox of Freedom, he does talk about masculine and feminine principles. Still, a smooth insertion of Bifo’s thought into the present American debate requires his positioning with respect to gender.
Another problematic aspect is the question of age, a question that I see looming up every time I talk about postmodernity to undergraduates. Isn’t the feeling of defeat, just like the feeling of “post,” also a result of having a certain age, of having lived certain historical battles, certain paradigms, and having now changed our insight with respect to them? What do 18-year-olds feel? Can they experience the sense of defeat? Can they have a sense of “post” not having lived the “pre”? Can they subscribe to antagonism as flight? It may be that, in our focusing on race, class, and gender we are forgetting another powerful determinant of difference, that is, age. But these two objections do not weaken Bifo’s nomadology in my view. In the first place, the notion of nomadic existence and flight is flexible and revolutionary enough to accomodate excentric projects, be they of younger generations, homosexuals, or women. Secondly, his mentalism can be regarded as an attempt to overcome the mind-body duality by “corporalizing” the mind. A seeing and thinking body, made of sensory organs and neuroreceptors, is in fact implied by Bifo’s interest in psychochemistry as the discipline that can oppose capitalist colonization of bodies without organs. Finally, his nomadology is a mode of intellectual practice in response to the epidemics that affects people’s imagination, a practice which, disrespectful of disciplinary boundaries, incorporates, in Bifo’s case, oriental mysticism and marxism, computer science and popular culture, but is open to any combination suitable to the different singularities found in the melting pot. It is a practice which, before signifying anything else, intends to celebrate the drift of identity and the flight of thought in search for new paradigms and models.