Last night, I went to a talk by Franco Berardi, also known as “Bifo,” and media theorist MacKenzie Wark. Bifo, a philosopher and media activist, is known for his work with the seminal Italian pirate radio station Radio Alice, participation in the ’77 Movement, as well as his work with Félix Guattari on schizoanalysis. The event was put on by This Is Forever and Not An Alternative at their wonderful space here in Williamsburg. And though I wouldn’t co-sign everything presented, the talk as a whole was really outstanding. I later met Bifo which was terrific, we discussed politics in Bologna and his involvement with Valerio Monteventi’s mayoral bid. Here are various strains of the conversation intertwined with my own haphazard synthesis… (I’m sure I’m getting some of these things wrong, so speak up if you see something.)
We begin with the idea of the cognitariat, a conflation of cognitive worker and proletarian. Cognitariat, rather than, say, the concept of “virtual class,” because it is more descriptive in thinking about conditions of contemporary labor. The virtual class can be productive in articulating the proliferation of micro-actions that come to form the ultimate product of cognitive workers, however, “virtual class” does not consider the material and social existence of the worker. Bifo instead posits the notion of the cognitariat so as to bring attention to the sensual and corporal. In this formulation, we are able to account for the human suffering of labor with greater specificity.
With the formation of the cognitariat, we can be more attentive not only to the linguistic, symbolic, and economic forces that help (re)circulate capital flows, but also the physical, psychological, and even neurological impacts of contemporary labor. Panic, depression, et cetera. Bifo goes on to make distinctions between this concept and the classic notion of “alienation” as manifested in various resistance movements in the 1960s. At the time, the greatest concern was the problem of capitalist labor in terms of alienation, as the blockade between subject and its “authentic” relation with nature. Today, we must think along the axis of pathologization and mediatization wherein the intimate and the symbolic fields of subjectivity enter.
Bifo paraphrases a lovely story found in some (as yet untranslated) Guattari text about a small child walking down the street alone at night for the first time. From the child’s perspective, the night is a version of that street in which everything appears different and terrifyingly so for the child. And so the child sings a song for comfort, so as to create a relationship between the child and its “new” surroundings. The story illustrates how, at the present time, our problem is that singing this song has become our obsession.
Today, we find ourselves in what could be compared to a social game in which the stakes are information and the only rule is: “I must consume more media than you.” And like other forms of production, cognitive labor is of course competitive, but unlike market exchanges with finite resources, the informatic is boundless and thus boundlessly competitive. Our result, then, is the cognitive acceleration of capital via labor. Capitalism is forever! And so too is panic and depression – the stiffening of bodies as we “enhance” knowledge – and also let us not forget anxiety’s most brutal expression: suicide.
The question now is where can humanity go if we accept that capitalism is forever? Bifo here outlines the Greek etymology of the word “catastrophe:” occupying a new perspective that, due to an deep and irreversible event, was not previously visible. As ruptures and crises in the fabric of capital arise, and especially at the present moment where capital seeks to reassert itself, we might consider the production of different kinds of social arrangements and relations such as friendship, self love, the refusal of labor, commonality.
So we might, for example, consider the refusal to work as actually productive if the refusal to work is understood as a valorization of intelligence against the repetition of menial symbol-shifting. Moreover, if we push forward notions of commonlization and non-posession (along the lines of the more you work the less you enjoy), we might realize a richness of sharing. While we will never replace the acceleration of capital, we might attempt to posit a utopia whose task is the acceleration is potential. If we can disinvest ourselves from narcissus and instead towards commonality we might be able to vaccinate ourselves from the physical and psychological malaise of capital. And that vaccination is self love. Self love not as egoism, but the act of acknowledging the continuity of the self across commonality: where we enact friendship and solidarity, as it leaves off from my body and moves to yours.
Lastly, Bifo considers the Buddhist notion of compassion. Great compassion is not just to have a connection from one person to another, not just to understand how one person feels, but rather great compassion is to feel what you feel, to suffer with another, to experience joy with another, and to go crazy with another.
Come friend, go crazy with me.