As a fan of abstruse jargon, I appreciated this essay by old-school autonomista Franco Berardi (aka Bifo) in e-flux journal, “Cognitarian Subjectivation.” The title pretty much gives you a flavor of how the whole piece is. I’m not sure if it’s actually insightful or whether I am just pleased that I have now read enough of this stuff to be able (I think) to decode most of it. As I read, I was actually shocked when a mundane straightforward proper noun like “Facebook” was used instead of some Latinate abstraction along the lines of “mediatized integumentary hypersocio-subjectivation apparatus.” But I think the gobbledy-gook approach to style here may have a political purpose—to slow readers down and impede textual consumption. The difficulty of reading this essay models what it implicitly argues for in its content—slowing down, intervening in the smoothly overwhelming flow of information that, he claims, we assimilate with less and less pleasure and comprehension.
Berardi’s chief point here is about the mismatch of limitless online cultural production and the very limited amount of time we have to take it in. “Marx spoke of overproduction, meaning the excess of available goods that could not be absorbed by the social market. But today it is the social brain that is assaulted by an overwhelming supply of attention-demanding goods. The social factory has become the factory of unhappiness: the assembly line of networked production is directly exploiting the emotional energy of the cognitive class.” In other words, party by choice and party by compulsion, we—meaning people who deal with information or media for a living or to stay “connected”; i.e. “neuro-workers” whose “nervous systems act as active receiving terminals”’ and who “are sensitive to semiotic activation throughout the entire day”—are always online, processing information, manipulating signs and tinkering with social facts, and it is wearing us out. We have harnessed our sociality to the rhythms of real-time, and we can’t keep up—instead our “emotional energy” is being “exploited,” mainly by the media companies that make use of our work harvested online—that’s the assembly line, by which our experiences are reassembled into memes.
Marx also “spoke” of communication technology serving mainly to speed up consumption so that the M-C-M’ cycle would spin faster—e.g., more commodities would be sold for profit in quicker revolutions of the fashion wheel. Berardi picks up this theme and applies it to our current situation:
digital technologies have enabled absolute acceleration, and the short-circuiting of attention time. As info-workers are exposed to a growing mass of stimuli that cannot be dealt with according to the intensive modalities of pleasure and knowledge, acceleration leads to an impoverishment of experience. More information, less meaning. More information, less pleasure.
What he’s arguing, I think, is something that makes intuitive sense to me: because of the pressures imposed by social media, etc., we now frantically process the sorts of things we once could enjoy—things we once had time to think about and luxuriate with (via the “intensive modalities of pleasure and knowledge”). Stuff that we expect to give us pleasure, that once gave us pleasure, instead seems just as often to exhaust us. (“I’m going to download more and more music until I complete my collection of Krautrock releases from the 1970s… I know there are more out there… Must find them… Must tag them properly… Must blog them…”)
After that, Berardi sort of spins his wheels in the article, throwing out some unanswerable, tangentially related questions (“Is it still possible to forge social autonomy from capitalist dominance in the psycho-economic framework of semiocapitalism?” Still? Was that ever possible?), touring through the rise of the creative class (“cognitive labor and venture capital met and merged in the dot-com”) and offering some incredibly general recommendations (“If we want to find the way towards autonomous collective subjectivation we have to generate cognitarian awareness with regard to an erotic, social body of the general intellect”—what does that mean? Apparently something to do with poetry and paradigm shifts).
Still, I think the valuable thing about this essay is simply the effort it takes to read it. Not that everything should be in social-theory code, but I found myself strangely refreshed after having printed this thing out from the pdf and sitting at my kitchen table and puzzling through it, away from screens and “semio-capital”. I felt restored to myself in away: you might even call it autonomous subjectification.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.