Interminable Autonomy: Bifo’s Symptomatologies of the Present

By Michael Goddard, 15 December 2009

With creativity and desire hijacked so effectively by work, spectacle and cyberspace what, asks Franco ‘Bifo' Berardi – across three books published in English this year – has become of autonomy today? In this extended review, Michael Goddard traces the development of Bifo's ‘joyful pessimism' in the face of an epidemic of emotional and political atrophy

The happy ever after/It's corked up with the Ether

– Gang of Four, ‘Ether', Entertainment (1978)

The recent appearance of no less than three works by Franco ‘Bifo' Berardi, or four if one counts his book on Felix Guattari that was published by Palgrave last year, may give the impression that we are witnessing the fruits of a Bifo conspiracy. Suddenly the market of political and media theory has been flooded with this new and mysterious presence, for who knows what ulterior motives. As a small part of this publishing flurry, I can attest that like most apparent conspiracies it is only partly true. Certainly Bifo is neither new nor mysterious, having been a key participant in Italian, European and global political and intellectual life for the last four decades with a remarkable consistency and prolific output, at least in Italian. In fact it is the Anglo world that is rather slow off the mark regarding the Bifo phenomenon, since a similar collection of writings to those in Precarious Rhapsody already appeared a several years ago in Finnish. What is new (and this is where the conspiracy comes in) is the appearance of Bifo as a figure on the Anglo-American intellectual and political scene, not only or especially via publishing but also through many types of event and presence in a variety of media activist projects.

Does this mean that Bifo is the next in the series of ‘continental' thinkers to be colonised and cannibalised, a process which having exhausted its French supplies has for some time already moved on to Italian thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Paolo Virno and Antionio Negri to name only the most obvious examples? Perhaps the following anecdote will illustrate at least some obstacles to this happening in Bifo's case, while also providing an entry point to the three works that are the subject of this review.

In 2008, at an event called Art and Immaterial Labour that took place at Tate Britain in London, Bifo was among a number of French and Italian intellectual heavyweights (including Antonio Negri, Judith Revel and Maurizio Lazzarato) invited to address the subject of art, a topic which was not really a central concern of any of these largely political thinkers.1 While the others went about this task with greater and lesser degrees of clarity, in some cases severely hampered by translation issues, Bifo gave an extraordinary performance during which he not so much articulated as performatively embodied his thought in its distinctive difference from some of the other speakers present, particularly Antonio Negri.

Not only did Bifo make the scandalous assertion, amidst much talk about the multitude and the revolutionary potential of art, that he saw no emergent wave of political potential, but he specifically drew critical attention to the unconscious Leninism that still underpins the thought of Negri and other post-autonomist thinkers and, moreover, did so in a very singular way. Breaking off his discourse at a certain point, Bifo announced that he was going to talk about Lenin since Negri had always told him he should read more Lenin. He then proceeded to discuss not the writings of Lenin as such but a biography of Lenin that, in its presentation of Lenin's life, indicated that every political decision he made and therefore the key events of the revolutionary movement itself was preceded by a bout of depression or excessive emotion that violent political action was a ‘masculine' reaction against. What Bifo was raising, and also develops in a key section of Precarious Rhapsody, was the question: what if the revolutionary movement itself, from the advent of Marxism to the most contemporary forms of activism, was merely an expression of a subjective voluntarism and the ‘male inability to accept depression' (Precarious Rhapsody, 128)?

More than a mere critique of an ideological position, Bifo's discourse and especially the animated, even joyful mode in which it was expressed (despite its apparent pessimism), completely undercut the more static discourses of the proponents of the self-organisation of the revolutionary multitude. A comparison could be made here between Bifo's intervention and Buadrillard's damning response to Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard in Forget Foucault – a debate that is engaged with in detail in The Soul at Work (150-156) – although the tone of Bifo's presentation was more comic than Baudrillard's cool irony, even if both interventions shared the aim of pulling out the carpet from under the feet of hegemonic radical theory. Indeed, Eric Alliez who had organised the event did accuse Bifo of becoming the Italian Baudrillard, not so much for his remarks on Lenin but for his apparent political pessimism and refusal of the discursive terrain of the post-autonomist thinkers with whom he has been closely associated. However, a more thorough inspection of Bifo's practice as a writer, activist and intellectual over the past 30 years reveals a rather complex picture, and one not so easily or glibly reducible to a fixed and easily marketable intellectual position. In the review that follows, I will try to indicate this complexity as it is expressed in the three books under consideration, which are neither translations of existing works nor entirely new ones but rather syntheses and extensions, or rather ‘bifurcations' of some of the key insights Bifo has developed into contemporary culture, media and politics, especially over the last decade or so, in works such as La Fabbrica dell'Infelicita (2001) and Il Sapiente, Il Mercante, Il Guerriero (2004) to name only two of the most important.

Precarious Rhapsody is the book that most strongly resembles a collection and indeed some parts of the book have appeared in various forms both in Italian and English, the latter often in obscure cyber locations. Other sections, however, are completely new and both types of material are interwoven if not into a seamless whole, then a coherent framework through which the emergence of several of Bifo's key ideas can usefully be traced.


  Image: From left to right – Maurizio Lazzarato, Antonio Negri and Franco 'Bifo' Berardi

The opening, newly written section entitled ‘Bifurcations' (7-14) sets up the composition of the book as a series of bifurcations taking place in specific contexts form the late '70s to the present: ‘An infinite series of bifurcations: this is how we can tell the story of our life, of our loves, but also the history of revolts, defeats, and restorations of order' (7). Despite the apparent subjectivism of this opening, bifurcations are quickly revealed not to be the results of free choices or political voluntarism but rather as profoundly connected to trans-subjective processes and automatisms, ‘it is not we who decide but the concatenations' (7). Already a key paradox of Bifo's thought becomes apparent; while maintaining an absolutely central focus on subjectivity, or more specifically processes of subjectivation, it nevertheless rigorously excludes any traces of militant heroics even or especially in the post-workerist terms of the multitude. In other words, ‘the fundamental choice between machines for liberating desire and mechanisms for control over the imaginary' (7) while very much the result of trans-individual social struggles is by no means reducible to the choices of a free or militant individual. Instead what has to be taken into account are both networks of potential and the enervating effects of technical automatisms.

For Bifo, automatisms – whether technological, economic or psychological – are at play throughout the contemporary social field reducing displays of democratic agency such as elections to an empty spectacle deprived of any efficacy. Hence the sobering thought that we are now living amongst the ruins of the project of modern emancipation and self-determination. Bifo adds to these ruins of modern democracy the destruction of modern subjectivity, especially under the impact of successive waves of mediatisation, leading to what he calls the video-electronic and connective generations who are subject to fundamental psychic mutations: ‘These two passages are constituted in the subsumption of the human mind in formation within two successive technological configurations of the mediasphere' (13). While Bifo is not alone in pointing to the post-industrial subsumption of subjectivity by capital, by combining this with a post-McLuhanesque diagnosis of successive media and technological dispositifs, he is able to be much more precise about what this subsumption consists of. He takes special care to ask what this subsumption means for emergent modes of subjectivity or the ‘psychosphere', which is now formed in a completely different techno-semiotic environment to that of political modernity.

The first bifurcation presented by Bifo in Precarious Rhapsody is what he considers to be the key events of 1977 which he sees as the year in which the future both began and ended, or perhaps we should say bifurcated. This section refers to events ranging from the Sex Pistols' announcement of ‘No Future', to the Stammheim RAF state murder/suicides, to, most crucially, the political explosion surrounding Radio Alice and the Autonomia movement in Bologna and Rome, and the brutal repression and state violence it provoked. Especially interesting are the emphases on how this political movement tapped into the subversive energies of avant-garde movements like Futurism and Surrealism in an effort to reinvent the semiotics of revolt, now amplified by new media forms such as the explosion of free radio stations, of which Radio Alice was a key example. This was also expressed in a shift from political movements based on scarcity and ‘realism' to political demands for social wealth based on the refusal of work and the insistence on pleasure and desire: a firm no to the politics of poverty, sacrifice and renunciation at that time embraced by the Italian Communist Party (PCI). This was the recipe for the unrest that took place in Bologna in March of 1977, but also for its repression in which the PCI participated. This was of course followed by the sombre events unleashed by the RAF in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy for whom the crushing of the Autonomia movement was highly beneficial, albeit inadvertently, for recruiting purposes. On the one hand the most advanced expression of proletarian revolution and cultural expressions like free radios, punk and no-wave and on the other, violent repression, the theatre of armed struggles, isolation, addiction and suicide. Such was the bifurcation enacted in this pivotal year, in which the prospect of modernity's future was affirmed only to be rapidly denied.

The following two bifurcations bring us up to the recent past, through an engagement with info-labour, precarity and the relations between economics, war and knowledge. In fact these sections present some of the key insights of Bifo's recent Italian works, where some of these writings originate, but appear here as an accelerated montage of intense fragments. Key to these sections are the ways in which work and life have been transformed in contemporary post-industrial conditions, especially developing the thesis that these technical and media mutations are inextricably linked with a range of affective pathologies ranging from attention deficit disorder to panic and depression. Post-autonomist terms such as precarity take on different and more precise meanings as Bifo's analysis of shifts in labour relations from an industrial to a post-industrial economy are tied to mutations in subjectivity and the proliferation of pathologies. Whereas many theorists assume that precarious work will result in precarious subjectivities without venturing further into this murky, affective terrain, Bifo gives a rigorous analysis of just how these effects are manifesting, through an attention to what he calls the depersonalisation and cellularisation of time: ‘cells of productive time can be mobilised in punctual, casual and fragmentary forms. The recombination of these fragments is automatically realised in the network' (33).

The psychic effects of this fractalisation of work and time, which Bifo does not hesitate to call digital slavery, are manifold and several of them are enumerated in these sections. For example, Bifo draws attention to the speed differential between the technical functioning of the ‘info-sphere' and that of the human body-brain, the consequences of which he sees both in the explosion of '90s pharmaceuticals like Prozac and Ritalin and the pathologies of depression, panic and attention deficiencies that they were supposed to contain. For Bifo these conditions are not individual but structural and are direct effects of the gap between human and machinic information processing. Simply put, the demand for constant attention to an ever-accelerating array of stimuli enervates the human mind which either has to be artificially sped up in order to cope or collapses into a dark depression. But these affective cycles are so intimately connected to the market that the result is a digital nervous system whose panic-driven excitations and depressive collapses are at once economic, social and psychic. Organised crime, environmental devastation and global war – far from being exceptional pathologies of contemporary capitalism are instead its most intimate symptoms, the necessary consequences of the ingestion of hyper-capitalist principles of competition into the social and individual mind.


 Image: 'Autonomist' and working class youth demonstrating in Bologna against the Stalinist PCI, 1977 (image originally in Time magazine)

There is, however, another side to this situation that concerns the relations between knowledge, the economy and war. This is where Bifo points to the emergence of the ‘cognitariat' at the very point at which multiple forms of labour become cognitive and therefore plugged directly into the pathological circuits of hyper-capitalism. This is the death-knell of any idea of the ‘organic intellectual' but points instead to a potential new social actor or cognitarian; the info-labourer who realises that the opportunities provided by corporate capital are not in his or her interests, thus forging a link with the 19th Century Proletariat. This is the moment at which Bifo comes closest to an idea resembling Hardt and Negri's multitude, but his definition is nevertheless much more precise: the cognitariat is the result of specific post-industrial transformations of labour which provide the potential conditions for a subtraction of the sum of the minds of cognitive workers (general intellect) from the circuits of aggressive competition and its associated pathologies.

Certainly signs of this could be seen in the early noughties with the proliferation of peer to peer networks, the free and open source software movements as well as the increasingly networked forms of political movements ranging from Indymedia, Global Project or Rekombinant to European and Global Social Forums. Temporality is once again crucial here, since it is only through the affirmation of the gap between the infinite productivity of cyberspace and the finite possibilities of ‘cybertime', in which human beings are only capable of certain quanta of attention before suffering from the pathologies outlined above, that new forms of politics become possible:

It is only be freeing the cognitariat from the subordination to its virtual dimension, it is only by reactivating a dynamic of slow affectivity, of freedom from work, that the collective organism will be able to regain its sensibility (71).

In the end it could be argued that the cognitariat turned out to be yet another myth, if a more precisely defined one than the multitude, and has tended to play a less central role in Bifo's more recent work. Nevertheless this section, and the one that follows it and which is deservedly one of Bifo's better known texts, ‘What is the Meaning of Autonomy Today?' (74-83), give this figure an especially powerful and persuasive expression.

The fifth and sixth Bifurcations present the world after the disappearance of this myth and continue the diagnosis of social pathologies and network automatisms already begun in the earlier sections. In these passages, films and contemporary art-works become privileged referents for honing in on the qualities of contemporary affective pathologies and especially on what might be called a generalised culture of suicidal violence. Gus van Sant's Elephant (2002) for example, opens Bifo's discussion of what he calls the ‘frail psychosphere' of today, supported by other examples both from video art and violent televisual events that point to an evacuation of empathy constitutive of a cognitive mutation:

Elephant speaks of a generation that is emotionally disturbed ... and a cognitive mutation that is unfolding in the context of a communicative transformation: the passage from conjunction to connection (86).

While this might seem like a mere replay of arguments about digital disembodiment, it is in fact making a point about cognitive mutation, a mutation which most cognitive theories are blind to since human mutation is not considered an acceptable proposition. However, if we accept that human cognition takes place in a dynamic environment, then surely drastic changes to this communicative environment will not be without modifying effects on the human organism and these effects are precisely what these two chapters aim to track. Bifo does this by a detailed reading of affective mutations over the last three decades in conjunction with political and technical cultural transformations engaging with phenomena as seemingly diverse as No Wave, the virtual class, military training and digital pornography. The final result of this history is the rather depressing conjecture of the emergence of a connective generation in which sensibility and sensitivity have been annihilated and which ‘is showing signs of an epidemic of emotional atrophy' (102).

At the end of these two sections we seem to be back with the 1977 slogan of ‘no future', and to be living through its increasingly extreme consequences, for example, in the instances of teenage murder/suicide cited in the section ‘Dark Desires'. Indeed Bifo ends the book on the very topic of the future by revisiting the celebrated futurist movement with its at once liberating and bellicose first manifesto. For Bifo we are now living in a world that has realised the futurist utopia of glorifying machines and infinite speeds, now transferred from a mechanical to an informational model. This dystopian psycho-cognitive automatism is what the book as a whole explores in its different dimensions and in these concluding sections, Bifo proposes rethinking the whole idea of activism in the light of its dystopian results, making reference not only to the techno fetishism of the Futurists but also the masculinist heroics of Leninism referred to above. The future of the early 20th century vanguard is perversely embodied for Bifo by the Finnish student who turned up for class and killed eight of his classmates and himself, wearing a T-shirt with the phrase ‘humanity is over-rated' (129). In contrast, Bifo proposes an inverted post-futurist manifesto that culminates in the following call: ‘We will sing to the infinity of the present and abandon the illusion of a future' (137). As this ending no doubt indicates, Precarious Rhapsody is an unusual, even eccentric work and certainly not one that proceeds in a linear fashion in order to prove a single thesis. Instead it takes various different tacks through the present conjuncture while burrowing, when necessary, into the past and following a strategy of repetition and variation rather than linear development. Because of rather than despite these anomalies, it provides the fullest introduction to Bifo's thought of the three volumes under consideration. Readers unfamiliar with Bifo's thought will also find the glossary very useful (141-151).

In contrast to the other two volumes, Ethereal Shadows, a collaborative work with Marco Jacquemet and Gianfranco Vitali, could conceivably find its place on a progressive media studies curriculum, dealing as it does with ‘Communications and Power in Contemporary Italy', a domain dominated by the pervasive figure of Berlusconi as indicated by both the book's cover and its first two chapter titles. However, even in its critical treatment of Berlusconi, the book departs from the usual media studies method of analysing the political economy of media institutions or the critique of televisual modes of representation to provide something like a critical ecology of Berlusconi's dominance of Italian media and politics, or what the authors refer to as the ‘videocracy'. This is not to say that the book ignores such phenomena as Berlusconi's dubious economic and political dealings in which the mass media played a central role, nor the content of the communications that resulted from this situation but rather they add to these perspectives the portrait of a new technocratic and post-democratic mode of power that they argue is far from the exception it is often presented as. More than this, this portrait of Berlusconi's videocracy is contrasted with various generations of media activism and experimentation that on however small a scale are constant reminders of other potentials or roads less travelled within both Italian and Global communications.

 Image: Berlusconi, not so ethereal shadow of women

The first of the two chapters presents a critical history of the ‘not-so-irresistable rise' of the Berlusconi media and political empire. Ironically, it was the first wave of media activism – the 1970s free radio phenomenon – that opened up the space for Berlusconi and other commercial operators to step in, since it was these radio initiatives that had contested the state control over communications in Italy. The destruction of these alternative media only fed the burgeoning Berlusconi enterprise that would eventually mutate into the Mediaset empire controlled by Berlusconi's company Fininvest. The authors then show how in the counter-revolutionary period of the '80s, Berlusconi was able to exploit the corrupt Craxi government to continually extend his media empire, generating a whole new televisual sensibility based on a combination of American shows like Dallas and endless game shows that traded on the sex appeal of nubile hostesses. As one commentator put it, ‘if Berlusconi had tits, he would also play the co-hostess on his network's game shows' (28), and indeed Berlusconi did become famous as a media personality – a celebrity status that was inextricable from his rise to political power. The prevalence of political corruption, kickbacks and Mafia connections began to be investigated by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and indeed, with all of Berlusconi's key political allies exposed for corruption and the net closing in around Berlusconi himself, his entry into politics was the one means still available to save himself, rather than saving Italy as he claimed at the time. The chapter then traces how, through alternate periods of Berlusconi and centre-left governments, Berlusconi was able to manipulate legislation that the left did nothing to oppose in order to completely dominate the Italian mediasphere and political life.

However, this narrative does not give a full account of the Berlusconi media/political regime which the authors attempt to do next through the concepts of conformism, corruption and patronage as the flipsides to Neoliberalism Italian style. Without going into details here, what this brings out is a lesson that became evident in Italy sooner than elsewhere, namely that corruption is not the exception or an obstacle to Neoliberal economies but their essential way of functioning. In other word it is a ‘structural phenomenon' that was the result of ‘free trade strategies taking advantage of the loosening of social rules in a post-industrial context' (48). The Berlusconi videocracy thrived under these conditions, by far outstripping the mild rationality of the left which seemed only able to critique it in rationalist and moral terms that had been definitively abandoned by Berlusconi's mode of power. Instead the authors discern in Berlusconi's media/political empire what they call, updating Debord, ‘a hyper-spectacle'; a world in which ‘political necessities and difficult decisions were replaced by a simulated world where appearances were paramount and power filtered through smooth reflecting surfaces' (61).

What this analysis is able to reveal is the futility of a moral critique of Berlusconi on the basis of corruption and scandal, as if the proof of illegality from Mafia connections, to favours done, to liaisons with teenage models would be sufficient to topple the Berlusconi regime. For a mode of power that has fully incorporated the hyper-glossy languages of advertising and spectacle, however, any publicity is good publicity and the latest scandal only serves to reinforce Berlusconi's popularity with many ‘ordinary Italians': ‘The regime does not lose its consensus because it clearly shows its immoral nature. A good part of Italian society voted for it for precisely that reason' (71). In other words, the hyper-spectacular excess of Berlusconi over moral and legal norms, the performance of power through joy that is the basis of Berlusconi's media populism is only increased by the moral denunciations of the centre-left. For any real resistance to the Berlusconi media regime, the authors suggest a much more sophisticated media strategy would be necessary.

The rest of the book outlines three historical strategies of media activism that each in their own way opposed the media hegemony of the Berlusconi videocracy. First of all there is Radio Alice, which suggested another pathway for freeing up media expression from state control in the 1970s, then the emergence of radical cyber-cultural projects over the last two decades and finally the example of the short-lived but fascinating Telestreet project at the beginning of the new millennium.

While the key role of Radio Alice has already been indicated, this chapter is exemplary in its demonstration of how political practices and concepts can make use of a media form in order to open up new possibilities for both political communication and modes of subjectivity. In terms of the first, one of the key innovations of Radio Alice was the shift away from the focus on content to intervene in the form of communication, through setting up a delirious stream of heterogeneous modes of expression and the abandonment of stable distinctions between listeners and producers, technicians and users and so on. All of this was done in an effort to come as close as possible to the social movements that were taking place in Bologna and throughout Italy, not in order to organise them by using the radio as a megaphone, but rather to amplify them. When in a response to the killing of a student a massive wave of protests erupted in Bologna, the radio station became both a relay station and a militant participant in the struggles. It is hardly surprising, then, that one of the key aims of the police was to shut down the radio station and arrest its animators. The transcripts provided in this section give new insights into the different dimensions of this radio experience, not only in its direct political engagements but also in its interventions into affective relations as in the poignant recollection that closes the chapter: ‘It was a time full of enthusiasms, excitements, passions, impossible expectations. And then it all just vanished' (94).

The following chapter on the struggle over digital communications while interesting, tends to go over ideas and experiences that are rather too familiar to need recounting. This is the one part of the book that is disappointing and it would have been good to see included accounts of interventions into digital culture such as the Rekombinant site itself, which Bifo was directly involved with. More engaging, however, is the final chapter that deals with the Telestreet experiments of the early noughties. This experience which, coming as it did when the internet was already quite developed, has something anachronistic about it, as if it was the delayed media experience that the shocked society of the 1980s should have come up with but didn't; an anachronism that perhaps accounts for its short duration.

Image: Inside Naples-based Telestreet station InsuTV

Essentially, it involved the proliferation of micro TV stations, making use of the ‘shadow cones' of existing frequencies in order to broadcast TV transmissions to an extremely local area, usually limited to a few blocks. Technically it was based on the transformation of television receivers into low-power transmitters allowing social groups to make television rather than watching it. Even more than with the free radios of the 1970s, the point was not the content of these transmissions (that could range from works of video art to covering of local issues to the pirated transmission of football matches) but to open up a space for communication outside of the control of the videocracy. Hence it constituted an ethereal ghosting of the Berlusconi mediasphere, haunting the very ether in which the latter operated.

In 2002, veterans of Radio Alice created the first of these micro-channels, OrfeoTV. The original antenna for OrfeoTV could only broadcast to a range of 300 metres but this was sufficient to begin making rather than consuming television. The animators of OrfeoTV began to spread information about what was technically necessary to set up a micro-TV station and soon various other stations began appearing throughout Italy. While these ventures were, of course, illegal, they were no more illegal than Berlusconi's channel which, according to a court ruling of 1976, must be considered constitutionally illegitimate as a broadcast monopoly. While this was never tested in the case of OrfeoTV, Telefabbrica, a TV station opened in the premises of the Fiat Trade Union in Termini Imerense, Sicily – while workers were resisting the closure of the factory – was shut down after four days of broadcasts. The station's lack of a licence was used to justify this despite the fact that it was only broadcasting to a range of 500 metres which goes to show how willing the tele-dictatorship was to maintain its monopoly of the airwaves. At the height there were around 500 activists involved in Telestreet projects and probably even fewer viewers but the symbolic nature of this resistance to the Berlsuconi empire was freely acknowledged, even embraced by its participants:

Telestreet is a project for convergence from below: neighbourhood micro-antennas connected via broadband networks. Only a few people are able to understand this concept today ... thanks to this concept we will destroy television (124).

In fact shortly afterwards the project disintegrated due to a range of factors such as the increasing importance of opposition to the war in Iraq that was being prepared, and the technical expense and effort required to maintain these zones of micro-communication, which were clearly no competition for the communicative possibilities of the net especially in its 2.0 phase of development that was just taking off at that time. Telestreet as a venture was not ideally suited to the attainment of specific political goals like those of the anti-war movement, and indeed the chapter recounts the debates at the final moments of this movement over how to proceed in a time of war; ultimately, this proved to be impossible.

Bifo does not claim any stylistic novelty for these stations, nor any new understandings about televisual form or content. Rather what these micro stations set out to do was to challenge the monolithic domination of techno-communications by the Berlusconi videocracy, not with the hope of winning but rather with the following aims: ‘Resist the homogenised horror, avoid the imaginary of submission, refuse the glossy hypocrisy and put into motion bizarre systems and unpredictable connections' (128). Perhaps all three of the media strategies outlined in the second half of the book can be best summed up by the slogan employed to describe what the Telestreet experiment aimed to become, ‘a non-homogenised imaginative machine', a vision whose existence was apparently too precarious to survive in the time of war that characterised the period that followed. However, the book argues that it is only through the emergence of such alternative media practices that there can be any real challenge to videocratic regimes like that of Berlusconi and the emergence of a post-media sensibility.

In The Soul at Work we are back with the post-industrial transformations of labour and subjectivity that were treated in Precarious Rhapsody, but this time given both a more historical and a more metaphysical or ontological treatment. The use of the word ‘soul' will of course raise a few materialist or deconstructive eyebrows, but Bifo is well aware of this and uses the term ‘metaphorically and a bit ironically' (22), not as as synonym for spirit but as the animation of the body. As such the soul is not really incorporeal and still less immaterial, but rather affective, in a lineage that can be traced from Spinoza to thinkers as diverse as Gillles Deleuze and the post-Jungian analyst James Hillman. The concept of the soul performs a diagnostic function in Bifo's text, in order to re-examine the Marxist concept of alienation as interpreted in political discourse of the '60s and '70s, and to extend this forward into a treatment of more contemporary concepts like simulation and precarity.

To begin with, the concept of alienation is traced through a variety of 1960s Marxisms including its humanist-existential, structuralist and Italian workerist variations. While there are incisive treatments of both humanist and Althusserian Marxisms, it is the Italian workerist or as Bifo calls it compositionist variety that is of most interest and importance. Bifo shows clearly how thinkers like Panzieri and Tronti looked neither to the early Marx nor to the pages of Capital, but rather to the transitional writings of the Grundrisse which profoundly modified their concept of alienation. In order to escape the humanist implications of alienation, with its Hegelian ideas of a lost but recoverable totality, these writers preferred to speak of estrangement by means of which a separation from and refusal of labour becomes the basis for the emergence of something radically new rather than the return of a human origin or essence. This turn to the Grundrisse coupled with the insistence on the primacy of the refusal of work, is what led to the conceptualising of the ‘general intellect' which became perhaps the key concept for many compositionist Marxists. This is the Copernican revolution, already present in Marx, but made explicit by compositionist Marxism; it is not capital that innovates and produces new productive relations but workers whose tendency is towards the refusal of work, which becomes, with increasing technical development, superfluous as Marx also foresaw. This enabled compositionist Marxism not only to grasp the shifting dimensions of class composition by including groups such as students and immaterial and social labourers as intrinsic rather than extrinsic to relations of production, but also, from an analysis of the potentials opened up by automation, to prefigure the digital relations of production that only began to be realised from the 1970s.

In the second chapter Bifo brings this prescient analysis forward into the present regime of digital production, analysing the shift from industrial society to one of enterprise and digital, abstract labour. One of the key differences that Bifo points to is that whereas the industrial worker's interests were clearly opposed to that of enterprise, which was well understood as the interests of the capitalist, in contemporary cognitive production enterprise becomes the most intimate desire of the cognitive worker who therefore invests ‘their creative, innovative and communicative competencies in the labor process' (78). In other words desire itself rather than refusing enterprise tends to centre around it, thus undermining resistant strategies such as disaffection and absenteeism. Instead, cognitive labour becomes a seductive realm of both productivity and pleasure that seems to have banished the alienation of the industrial labour in favour of the craftsman-like production of networks both social and technical.

However, the fractalisation of info-labour works against any possible return to a sense of pre-capitalist community and instead generates anxiety, uncertainty and constant change. The seemingly democratising transformation of work hierarchies into flat networks is presented by Bifo in all its ambivalence as the emergence of a new mode of capture that, rather than reducing or refusing work, actually extends it beyond the previously limited space-time of the factory. As the ever increasing dependence on mobile communications and its corollary of 24 hour availability demonstrates, the contemporary cognitive worker is always potentially at work, even in the most private moments, as the distinction between work and not-work breaks down in favour of the former.

In these circumstances, resistance to capitalist valorisation becomes difficult if not impossible as work absorbs all the previously resistant energies of creativity, desire and drives towards self-realisation. This perverse realisation of the 1960s utopia of a non-alienated subjectivity has instead, by submitting subjectivity to a permanent demand for competitive attention, led to the symptoms of panic and depression that Bifo has analysed extensively elsewhere. As an analytical response to this situation, Bifo proposes the concept of the cognitariat that, in contrast to the ill-defined virtual class, would be the corporeal and cognitive refusal of this subsumption of subjectivity and the body by work. Or, ‘the social corporeality of cognitive labour [...] bodies whose nerves become tense with constant attention and effort while their eyes are strained in the fixed contemplation of a screen' (105).

This forms the background to Bifo's discussion, in the ensuing chapter, of the contemporary transformation of alienation from a problem of isolation and lack of communication to one of over-communication. Alienation in these circumstances becomes a painful splitting of the self which is on the one hand in a constant state of communication and stimulation and, on the other, unable to find any joyful opening to otherness, and therefore to itself, within this ocean of connections. Rather than the state of reification that characterised the industrial regime in which the self becomes a thing, we have entered a space of derealisation in which the body is deprived of any contact with the outside. In other words, a new malaise of the soul that is strongly connected with the psychopathologies of panic and depression.

In this key section of the book, Bifo goes on to diagnose these contemporary forms of soul sickness with reference to both aesthetic and philosophical diagnoses such as the films of Antonioni, Bergman and Wenders, Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections, as well as the thought of Deleuze, Guattari and Baudrillard. In fact one of the key contributions this chapter makes is a reconsideration of the debate referred to earlier between the micro-politics of power and desire, and Baudrillard's insistence that we have entered a world of pure simulation. This is not done to determine who is right but rather to rethink the contemporary conditions of subjectivity. Despite the apparently dissuasive and reactionary aspects of Baudrilllard's attack on the mythologies of desire, for Bifo there was something prescient about his critique which foresaw the kind of world that we now inhabit. Bifo is especially vitriolic in his rejection of the continuation of philosophies of desire in the concept of the multitude which, he claims, misunderstands desire as an active force rather than a problematic field, and which was already critiqued in advance by Baudrillard's implosive conception of the masses as ‘silent majorities'.

In an era of depleted energies and resources, both natural and political, Bifo seems to be arguing that strategies of simulation or even more, disappearance, maybe more effective than explosions of desire. For him, it is not the problem of repressed desires that characterised the Freudo-Marxist theoretical matrix and which neither Deleuze and Gauttari's Anti-Oedipus nor Foucault's work on disciplinary societies fully abandoned, that concern us today. Instead it is rather what he calls the pathologies of hyper-expressivity, so well diagnosed by Baudrillard, that need to be resisted not through the infinite speeds of the rhizomatic plane of immanent desire, but through a corporeal, therapeutic slowing down in order to open the body and the soul to otherness, and to revitalise the jaded sensibilities of the 21st Century human organism.

Passing over the fourth chapter's incisive diagnosis of the ‘precarious' soul, the book culminates with the current economic crisis which, Bifo insists, is not a mere crisis but a catastrophe that makes fully evident the impossibility of sustaining neoliberal economic models in a state of exhaustion that is not merely economic or environmental, but also affective. Of course the responses to this crisis have tended to follow the model of ‘stimulus packages' which attempt to revive the patient with huge injections of cash stolen from both present and future social resources like education and healthcare. Nevertheless, there is another possible response to this situation of depression which is not to wish it away via the amphetamines of more circulation and competition, but instead to confront it through a type of paradigm shift or re-focalisation, by means of which the emergence of a new constellation of beliefs becomes possible out of the ruins of a destructive obsession.

 Image: Still from Nicolas Philibert's film Each Little Thing,(1997), about La Borde Clinic

On an economic level this would mean, for Bifo, something like the concept of ‘de-growth' along with a new concept of ‘wealth' no longer indexed to purchasing power but rather to enjoyment. In Bifo's vision, a gradual disinvestment of the economy and creation of autonomous zones based on sharing of common things has the potential to constitute a continuation of the aims of autonomy into the post-crunch 21st Century. He concludes the book by suggesting a parallel between Freud's notion of ‘interminable therapy' and political autonomy, considered not as a fixed state achieved once and for all but as an interminable, non-totalising and therefore therapeutic ‘process without end' (221). While many might reject this scenario as idealistic or utopian, it certainly seems a fitting end for a book that begins with the valorisation of autonomous subjectivity in the refusal of work and, via a long and fascinating detour through diverse facets of contemporary culture and experience, arrives back at the re-valorisation of the autonomist project but in contemporary conditions. Whether the hopes that sustain both this and the other volumes, or some of the pessimistic diagnoses of the present that each volume also contains, will be dominant can only be decided through future political, media and subjective practices as yet to be determined. In the meantime I believe one would be hard-pressed to find a more cogent and urgent diagnosis of the contemporary conditions and potentials of subjectivity, communicative practices and politics.

Michael Goddard <M.N.Goddard AT> is a Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Salford. He has published widely on Polish and international cinema and visual culture as well as on cultural and media theory. His book Gombrowicz, Polish Modernism and the Subversion of Form is due to appear shortly, as is an edited collection, co-edited with Bnejamin Halligan, on the music and cultural politics of The Fall. He is also currently completing a book on the cinema of Raúl Ruiz. Most recently, his research focuses on subversive media ecologies in cinema, radio and popular music, particularly in the 1970s.


The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Franco ‘Bifo' Berardi, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009; Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation, Franco ‘Bifo' Berardi, ed. Erik Empson and Stevphen Shukaitis, London and New York: Minor Compositions/ Autonomedia, 2009; Ethereal Shadows: Communications and Power in Contemporary Italy, Franco ‘Bifo' Berardi, Marco Jacquemet and Gianfranco Vitali, New York: Autonomedia, 2009


1The articles based on this symposium are reproduced in Radical Philosophy 149, May-June 2008.