Franco “Bifo” Berardi
The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance
Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2012. 160pp., £9.95 pb
Reviewed by Andrew Iliadis
Andrew Iliadis is a Doctoral Student in Communication & Philosophy at Purdue University and Managing Editor at Figure/Ground Communication. His research interests are in philosophy of information and communication, history and philosophy of science, and philosophy of technology. You can reach him at email@example.com
The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance presents an interesting if slapdash agenda for furthering cognitive workers’ push toward a post-capitalist politics. While Berardi does not deliver on his promise of a book about poetry and finance, he presents a variety of useful neologisms, allowing ample room for thought for those who desire a technologically updated Marxism.
Franco “Bifo” Berardi (b. 1948) is an Italian Marxist philosopher who began his political career as a member of the Italian autonomist movement known as Autonomia Operaia (more formally called “Autonomist" Marxism or “Workerism”) in Italy from 1976-8. During that time he participated in the first Italian “pirate” radio station (“Radio Alice”) before turning to a more introspective yet equally political career. After fleeing state repression in the late 1970s Berardi headed to Paris where he would eventually meet Félix Guattari (1930-92), a French militant and psychotherapist, and the two established a lifelong friendship. Berardi has maintained his early interest in communications and twentieth century French philosophy, and most of his theoretical works reflect this. He is the author of numerous books and remains one of the world’s prominent far-left political philosophers, along with fellow agitators Christian Marazzi (b. 1951), Paolo Virno (b. 1952), and Maurizio Lazzarato (b. 1955).
Though he is a very well-known leftist thinker, Berardi is a traditional Marxist in name only (readers anticipating a Capital for the digital set should look elsewhere). Like other Italian autonomists, much of Berardi’s work, including The Uprising, builds on a short section of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse titled “Fragment on Machines,” this in lieu of a more all-encompassing Marxian analysis. It is in this section that Marx famously introduces his notion of “the general intellect”—the driving force that brings us to the stage where “general social knowledge has become a direct force of production.” Using Marx’s concept of the general intellect as a starting point, Berardi has turned to twentieth century French philosophy to develop a lithe, tech-savvy version of political philosophy for cognitive workers. Along with Guattari, there are two other well-known French philosophers of the period – Gilles Deleuze (1925-95) and Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) – who remain equally important to Berardi’s project. Deleuze’s philosophy of desire and Baudrillard’s philosophy of simulation round out the French philosophical triumvirate that inform Berardi’s heterodox political philosophy.
The Uprising is divided into four sections: “The European Collapse,” “Language, Economy, and the Body,” “The General Intellect Is Looking for a Body,” and “Poetry and Finance.” Each contains an abundance of references to turbulent historical events from the general intellect’s recent memory (the bursting of the late-90s dot-com bubble, the financial crisis of 2007–8) but also some fairly obscure theory that Berardi presupposes his readers are already familiar with, so one benefits by having some previous knowledge of the philosophy. The most salient of these is Baudrillard’s 1976 text Symbolic Exchange and Death, an underrated classic that Berardi clearly sees as deserving to be reexamined at length, particularly the sections on the “hyperreality of floating values” (35), a philosophy of value when value is no longer tied down to anything “real.” The next of these would be Deleuze and Guattari’s two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980)), particularly the concept of “deterritorialization” (27), which is a sort of philosophy of the withdrawal of power structures associated with land or material. Berardi states these among “the most important books of the 1970s and 80s,” and that “you can read them all as cautionary imaginations of the coming neoliberal imagination” (40).
The Uprising is one among a handful of texts in Berardi’s half-century long writing career that have been translated into English. His previous book, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (2009), was a metaphorical analysis of what Lazzarato calls “immaterial labor,” a labor which produces the new form of alienation that today’s cognitive workers are experiencing. In this new version, individual bodies disappear while their “souls” – the individual’s more intangible communicative assets (cognition, feeling, language, etc.) – are exploited for maximum value. Digitalization, virtualization, monetization; all take part in the techno-capitalist’s agenda for the capturing of the general intellect. The Uprising continues this tradition, eschewing talk of dialectics, materialism, and manual labor in favor of much more late-capitalist concerns such as information, communication, and technology, and it is refreshing to see in a field that is so often cluttered with lumbering tomes devoted to that old philosopher’s chestnut, the dialectic.
The Uprising’s main theme, in a word, is “dereferentialization” (19). Contrary to what the book’s subtitle would have you believe, Berardi is less concerned with analyzing specific forms of poetry or finance (he barely mentions them, save for brief references to notable individuals like Rainer Maria Rilke and John Maynard Keynes) than he is in philosophically engaging what these terms mean after each has been liberated from any type of referent; when technologies free the symbol so that it may float to even more abstract realms (Berardi counts economics as a technology, not a science). The Uprising, in its own careening style, theorizes a “semiology of simulation based on the premise of the end of referentiality, in the economic as well as in the linguistic field” (135).
Beginning with poetry, Berardi quotes Arthur Rimbaud’s famous romantic call for poets to engage in the “dérèglement de tous les sens” (“derangement of all the senses”) as an early example of dereferentialization (18). He then juxtaposes this symbolist poetry with economic symbolization, claiming that “finance is the most abstract level of economic symbolization” (23). For him, accumulation “no longer passes through the production of goods, but goes straight to its monetary goal, extracting value from the pure circulation of money, from the virtualization of life and intelligence” (23-24). The hope that is expressed throughout The Uprising is that in order for us to combat this, “only the conscious mobilization of the erotic body of the general intellect, only the poetic revitalization of language, will open the way to the emergence of a new form of social autonomy” (8).
The link between poetry and finance is an interesting one – Berardi claims that “cognitive labor is the main productive force creating the techno-linguistic automatisms which enable financial speculation” (54), and that we must begin its reversal by “starting from the reactivation of the desiring force of enunciation” (20) – yet it is left somewhat tenuous. The contrast between financial deregulation and the sensuous body of language (i.e., poetry) from a bygone era borders on the weirdly nostalgic, and it is never explicitly laid out just how a return to the sensuous body of language will affect the reversal of financial speculation. Berardi might be correct in claiming that symbolist poetry “predicted and prefigurated the separation of language from the affective sphere” (18), but just how this relates to economics is left somewhat murky.
On the one hand, The Uprising continues what is most interesting about Berardi’s brand of political philosophy, namely, his coming to terms with figures in the history of information and communication technology (most notably Norbert Wiener, in this case)—a research program that is deeply needed and long overdue in the field of political philosophy (political economists have succeeded in incorporating this field, exemplified in the work of Christian Fuchs and Vincent Mosco). Yet, The Uprising is also a book that is patchy, aphoristic in the bad sense, one that contains rhetoric which might induce the occasional cringe in any political activist who happens to know a thing or two about science. This small book of 160 pages is packed with so many brilliant ideas; it is a shame they are not outlined more systematically. Yet, all is not lost.
Oddly, the most intriguing notion in The Uprising concerns neither poetry nor finance. Berardi’s concept of “irreversibility” offers a significant alternative to mainstream modes of resistance (namely, those touched by the bewildering renewal of idealism in the form of the Hegelian dialectic) and attempts to further current “immanentist” techniques developed by adherents of the Spinozan branch of French poststructuralism. He claims that “we should be able to enhance the space of our historical prefiguration, so as to become able to abandon the conceptual framework of historical progress, and to imagine the prospect of irreversibility” (9). At first blush, one might think that here Berardi is in line with another contemporary immanentist movement known as “accelerationism,” however that does not seem to be the case.
Rather than fighting capitalism head-to-head, accelerationism promotes speeding up the channels of capital in hopes of tipping it off its rails; it is a matter of steering capital in another direction, rather than fighting against it from opposite ends. Berardi’s notion feels similar to such a technique, but the point instead seems to be that resistance must be thought in another register (the poetic) from the one that is introduced by capital (the economic). Of the dialectic, he states that “historical dialectics no longer work at the level of understanding the process and the prospects: the prospect of irreversibility is replacing the prospect of subversion, so we have to rethink the concept of autonomy from this perspective” (9). Of accelerationism, he has stated that it is founded on a similarly wrong assumption, that accelerationism will make capital unstable and that it will necessarily deploy alternative potentialities. In The Uprising, Berardi seeks to move past dialectics as well as contemporary immanentist critiques of accelerationism.
In short, Berardi’s thoughts on irreversibility and the “acceleration of the infosphere” (10) resonate for two reasons. First, they are, finally, political theories in line with the most erudite philosophies of information and communication that exist today, particularly in the work of Luciano Floridi who, while a vastly different thinker than Berardi, has used the philosophy of information to explicate information’s effects on ecology, and much more, in his magisterial The Philosophy of Information (the first in a trilogy). Second, these ideas are thematically complimentary to the very latest debates in political philosophy, and here I am referring to the widely-shared manifesto published by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, titled “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” In it, Srnicek and Williams write: “Our technological development is being suppressed by capitalism, as much as it has been unleashed. Accelerationism is the basic belief that these capacities can and should be let loose by moving beyond the limitations imposed by capitalist society.” Berardi’s notion of irreversibility lands close to this new-fangled accelerationist politics, with Berardi leaning instead more heavily on the concept of information and the Kristevan notion of a revolutionary poetic language. For those interested in the debate, McKenzie Wark has published a smart critique of the manifesto, titled “#Celerity: A Critique of the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” Berardi’s own response is titled “Accelerationism Questioned from the Point of View of the Body.”
At the end of the day, The Uprising is a logical addition to Semiotext(e)’s notorious “Intervention” series, which was inaugurated with The Invisible Committee’s now-infamous The Coming Insurrection and includes titles like Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl and Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man. This series is quite possibly the most theoretically radical call to arms against capitalist society that currently exists. So, it is in this sense – of the manifesto, critique, and agitation – that, in the end, the shortcomings of such a book as The Uprising will inevitably remain immune to the lesser critique of the review.
30 July 2013