I just finished Franco Berardi’s The Soul at Work, and though there’s a lot to agree with in there, the conclusion left me feeling argumentative. In reviving Baudrillard’s critique of the politics of desire, Berardi argues that horizontalism and affirmation – two cornerstones of Deleuze and Guatarri’s schizo thought – have been irredeemably co-opted by capital. Our social pathology is no longer Freudian repression, but overabundance of affirmation, of injunctions to consume and desire that produce panic and depression. When our very affective expressions have been colonized, the multitude is nothing but a robotic swarm:
“The multitude can speak hundreds of thousands of languages, but the language that enables it to function as an integrated whole is that of the economic automatisms embodied in technology. Seized in a game of mirrors of indeterminacy and precariousness, the multitude manifests its dark side and follows automatisms that turn its wealth into misery, its power into anguish and its creativity into dependency.”
“The effective exercise of politics (that is to say of political government) presupposes a conscious possibility of elaborating of the information collectively shared by the social organism. But the information circulating within digital society is too much: too fast, too intense, too thick and complex for individuals or groups to elaborate it consciously, critically, reasonably, with the necessary time to make a decision. Therefor the decision is left to automatisms, and the social organism seems to function ever more often according to evolutionary rules of an automatic kind, inscribed in the genetic cognitive patrimony of individuals. The swarm now tends to become the dominant form of human action.”
As the ultimate horror, Berardi looks to a biotechnological post-humanism as described by Bill Gates. The idea of a literal hive-mind, a freely flowing general intellect, is too much for Berardi; he offers the only solution he can think of to this dangerous acceleration of affective communication: slow down. In a more recent article, he calls, in the middle of the largest wave of global youth insurrection in over forty years, for a process of growing old. “[T]he process of senilization may open the way to a cultural revolution based on the force of exhaustion, of facing the inevitable with grace, discovering the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom—the wisdom of those who have seen a great deal without forgetting, who look at each thing as if for the first time.” The assumption underlying this call to inaction is that the system of semiocapital is nearing its inevitable collapse. Berardi sounds like an aged and depressive Saint-Simon when he writes a hopeful narrative in which the machines will make stuff for us which, combined with income delinked from employment, will give us all the necessary time we need to play mahjong and dominoes, which is the goal of life. Actually, to be fair, Berardi never ceases to use sex as the goal, the time necessary to fuck is what we must carve away from capitalist control.
Baudrillard’s critique of Foucault and Deleuze that Berardi revives was prescient in some ways. He saw the appropriation of affirmation by capital coming, and he asks essentially how we can stand to read Deleuze while wearing Nike. “Affirm your desires” is an advertising slogan, and it could handle even the queer negation of Gregg Araki which it transformed into Hot Topic. In the final scene of Araki’s breakout film The Living End, two HIV-positive lovers are entangled half-fighting half-fucking in the desert. While one sucks off a pistol, the other yells at him to “just do it!” – four years after it became a shoe slogan. Berardi thinks we’ve been overtaken and the only solution is switching into reverse. (Which is going to happen whether we like it or not because semiocapital is collapsing anyway.) Always already co-opted, the multitude has no choice but to break down its constitutive links and start over. The only thing left is catastrophe: made by us, but not done by us.
Okay, my issues:
1. Berardi should be the last one to think a brain of any sort is univocal. He’s horrified by Bill Gates’s idea of business at the speed of thought, but what is the speed of thought really? Brains can be and are used to produce value for the market, but any friend of Felix Guattari should know brains are chaotic. They produce ideas for the boss, but they inevitably produce jokes and nightmares as well. Just because capital has organized a social brain – transcending more spatial and interpersonal barriers than ever before – doesn’t make it the hive’s necessary owner. The processes that Berardi outlines (“wealth into misery, power into anguish, creativity into dependency”) present the possibility that it could be otherwise, that there could be a reverse movement. What capital offers is this impoverished multitude, but we ought not treat this as an offer to be either accepted or refused.
2. I feel pretty derisive about this fear of speed. Certainly a lot of his critiques about the schizogenic nature of contemporary knowledge-work are valid, but the worry that society is not able to deliberate “reasonably” at these speeds is misplaced. The swarm has been empirically capable of making decisions contrary to its instructions in Egpyt, Tunisia, The UK, Wisconsin, etc., and these actions have been successful to the degree that they’ve been fast and unreasonable. Crisis calls on creativity and innovation, and sabotage requires the multitude to seize the boss’ networks. In Madison, WI, the Capitol occupiers are engaged in the sabotage of the labor of citizenship, which is, as Tahrir Square was/is in Egypt, productive of new relations and subjectivities. Berardi points to the role of prescription drugs in pacifying and anesthetizing young people as intrinsically related to the speed technology requires, but I’m willing to bet there are a bunch of students in Madison who may be on Twitter, but haven’t needed to take their ADD meds.
3. Berardi is old. Besides the “you kids need to slow down” crap, I object to the way he describes sex as something that requires withdrawal from the (sometimes literal) circuits of production. One need not go to Damn You Autocorrect to know sexting provides more potential for the play of libidinal flows than a room with two sets of doors gave Moliere. He assumes post-humanism means the death of sensuality rather than its queering, which doesn’t seem right to me. I think of Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Stone Gods, in which a corporate -state produces a robo-sapien, a concrete post-human. But by programming the robo-sapien with human bioanthropological constants like creativity and a taste for alterity and potentiality, they inadvertently produce a robot who can’t wait to be used as a lesbian sex toy and join a vegan feminist collective. I sure hope Berardi doesn’t count vibrators as tools of estrangement. Sex (as I endeavor to have it, at very least), is an innovative act because, like Wittgenstein’s example of the required height of a shot in tennis, it is neither against nor within the rules, a practice of normality rather than norms. David Sedaris writes in his memoir Naked of losing his virginity as a process of production: “‘You kids think you invented sex,’ my mother was fond of saying. But hadn’t we? With no instruction manual or federally enforced training period, didn’t we all come away feeling we’d discovered something unspeakably modern?” If we can reject the shitty scripts we get from men’s and women’s magazines as well as bad porn, sex can be productive as, well, fuck. It’s important not to confuse fooling around with revolutionary praxis -despite what Andreas Baader may have said, fucking is not the same as shooting – but the exploration of unknown and unnamed potentials in the bedroom (or wherever) need not stop there. Sex can potentially serve as a model for innovative action that, unlike Berardi’s automaton-swarms, doesn’t follow instructions. Instead of a retreat from, sex can be an act of sabotage against and appropriation of capital’s machinery of subjective production.
Hell, even riot police can be used as a sex toy.