Italian media theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi may very well be the most insightful and provocative cultural diagnostician of our times, and if his latest book, And: Phenomenology of the End, has some minor flaws, it nevertheless offers readers a much better understanding of our present situation than they could ever hope to glean from almost any other source.
In the tradition of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, his most obvious influences, Berardi considers his task that of a cartographer. “To map the territory of the mutation, and to forge conceptual tools for orientation in its ever-changing, deterritorializing territory: such are the tasks for the philosopher of our times.” As Berardi connects the dots, what emerges is a frightening picture: Imagine orienting yourself on a map, scratching a red “X” to mark your location, and then realizing how precarious your position is, how perilously far you are from where you want to be.
Berardi’s book covers a lot of territory, and it is rich with insights that flash like lightning bolts, if you will, upon the page. You find yourself wanting to highlight one passage after another as the author maps out mutations in capitalism, literature, neuroscience and psychology. In each of these fields and others, we find landmark transformations: from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism; from a language of affection to one of intellection; from sensibility to sensitivity; from governing to governance. Transformations brought about by what Berardi calls “the will to abstraction”.
“Digital abstraction virtualizes the physical act of meeting and the manipulation of things. These new levels of abstraction concern not only the labor process, but they tend to encompass all spaces of social life. Digitalization and financialization are transforming the very fabric of the social body, and inducing mutations within it.” But the effect of every mutation is unique, and “takes different forms and coheres in different ways according to different cultural environments.”
In Japan, there are a rising number of hikikomori — people who disconnect from the social world altogether and rarely leave home. “Such behavior should not be seen simply as the symptom of a pathology,” he insists, “but should be understood as a form of adjustment to the anthropological and social mutation that is underway, as an answer to the unbearable stress of competition, mental exploitation, and precarity.” With words that call to mind Philip K. Dick’s quip about insanity being an appropriate response to reality, Berardi suggests “that hikikomori behavior is a healthy reaction to the frantic, precarious life created by late capitalism: a fully understandable withdrawal from hell.”
South Korea, he points out, “has the highest rate of [digital] connectivity, and one of the highest suicide rates in the world.” Indeed, three of the four most highly-connected countries (Japan, Finland and South Korea) also have the highest suicide rates.
“Is there a link between high connectivity and suicide?” he asks.
“As a result of my research on the psychological effects of the technological evolution, the answer is yes. There is a link between connectivity and social proxemics; there is a link between connectivity and loss of empathy; there is a link between connectivity and precarization of labor, and loss of solidarity. There is a link between connectivity and suicide.”
In Western countries the effects of abstraction and digitalization are evident in even the erotic sphere. “Today, affection and sexuality seem to be wavering between loneliness and wild predatory aggressiveness, as we see in rituals of emotional detachment, virtualization, pornography, and sexual anorexia.” To be sure, “there is talk about sex in the media, in advertising, on television, and everywhere. But sex no longer includes talking, since it has become disconnected from language.”
As we become increasingly alienated from ourselves and from each other, “the network penetrates the social body, inserting connective segments, and converting the body into a swarm.” Expanding upon the idea, Berardi cites Eugene Thacker’s Networks, Swarms, Multitudes: “In swarms there is no central command, no unit or agent that is able to survey, oversee and control the entire swarm. Yet the actions of the swarm are directed, the movement motivated, and the pattern has a purpose. This is the paradox of swarms.”
It is here that Berardi’s diagnostics take an even more disturbing turn.
“My question is: can the contemporary agony of modern capitalism, that is, the other, paradoxical face of the contemporary triumph of capitalism, be consciously managed by political action, and turned into a new form of social existence?”
The answer comes a few pages later: “Neither democracy nor authoritarian power seems able to process the infinite and hyper-accelerated flow of information. Morphogenesis can therefore no longer be a process of conscious decision-making and elaboration, and turns itself into a self-regulating effect of blind emergence. The info-networked super-organism is now evolving outside of the human decision-making and knowledge, this, although its evolution affects the human environment — sometimes in a catastrophic way.”
Political and social changes take months, years. “Financial transfers that can jeopardize social life and change the political landscape overnight occur within the time span of nanoseconds.” Decisions are increasingly made by algorithms rather than conscious choice.
“Nobody is really in charge; nobody is making conscious decisions. In economic operations, logical mathematical implications have replaced deciders, and the algorithm of capital has grown independent of the individual wills of its owners.”
Unfortunately, resistance to the changes taking place has tended to come in the form of “reactive, identitarian bodies… the nation, religious faith, and ethnicity.” Think: ISIS in the Middle East; neo-Fascism in the West.
Berardi cannot foresee a happy ending. In fact, he says, there is no End. There are only Ands (another gesture to Deleuze and Guattari). Or rather, there are Ends, and “humans have already experienced an end of the world, or the end of a world. A world ends when signs proceeding from the semiotic meta-machine grow undecipherable for a cultural community that perceived itself as a world.” The world of the Aztecs came to an end, and La Malinche became a bridge to a new world.
“Only when one is able to see collapse as the obliteration of memory, identity, and as the end of a world can a new world be imagined. This is the lesson we must learn from Malinche.”
In the final pages of the book Berardi admits, “I will never be able to live in peace with the automaton, because I was formatted in the old world… My body survives because I cannot find the way out. The human race is becoming an army of sleepwalkers: people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, taking pills, standing and facing reality, smiling, saying yes, yes, yes…”
Of course, a map is meant to help you orient yourself, not lift your spirits. It is also true that reading maps can be a pleasurable experience, which is generally the case with And: Phenomenology of the End. There are times when readers familiar with Berardi’s other books will find his latest repetitive, though here his ideas are further developed in the context of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis and chaosmosis than elsewhere. As for those who are new to Berardi, this book is sure to mark the beginning, not the end, of a propitious relationship.