In Search for Autonomy


“We require just a little order to protect us from chaos. Nothing is more distressing than a thought that escapes itself, than ideas that fly off, that disappear hardly formed, already eroded by forgetfulness or precipitated into others that we no longer master. These are infinite variabilities, the appearing and disappearing of which coincide. They are infinite speeds that blend into the immobility of the colorless and silent nothingness they traverse, without nature or thought.”
– Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?

1977. That year the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 by four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, demanding the the release of ten Rote Armee Fraktion prisoners, set in motion a gruesome set of events. Shortly after Operation Feuerzauber put an end to the violent calamity, three RAF members were found dead in Stammheim prison; cause of death unclear. The day after, the lifeless body of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, who had been kidnapped by the RAF five weeks prior to the hijacking, was discovered in the boot of a car. 1977 was also the year Apple introduced the first mass-marketed personal computer and the word ‘telematics’ was brought forward in Alain Minc and Simon Nora’s L’Informatisation de la Société. Around the same time Yuri Andropov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, wrote a passionate letter to Brezhnev, arguing that the gap with the US in the domain of informatics was urgently to be bridged, if their socialist state was to survive. 1977 saw the death of Charlie Chaplin, the man who had recounted the dehumanization of the industrialization in a heartbreaking plea for warmth and tenderness, but it also saw the immense success of Saturday Night Fever, in which a new working class seemed perfectly happy to be exploited, in exchange for some jivin ‘n’ shakin. In 1977, Jean-François Lyotard wrote the first draft of La Condition Postmoderne, the Sex Pistols gave voice to the “No Future” generation and approximately eight hundred Japanese youngsters commited suicide. 1977, according to Franco “Bifo” Berardi, was the year the twentieth century came to an end. The year of premonition.

1977 also marks a pivotal moment in Bifo’s own history as radical political thinker and activist, and member of the Italian Autonomia movement. In September of that year, following a powerful wave of social conflicts and uprisings, no less than one hundred thousand people convened in Bologna in search for a new future, only to get carried away in a cycle of despair and violence. This faillure, coinciding with the closing off of infinite horizons of possibility, is still haunting Bifo: for him, the way Utopian rebellion collapsed into desperate dystopia signaled the tragic passing of modernity, as well as the dis-empowerment of democracy, taken over by a series of irreversible automatisms. Now, over thirty years later, it is evident that political participation has become an empty ritual, devoid of the ability to provide true alternatives and true choices. Politics can simply not escape the pervasive system of techno-economic automatisms that capitalism has become since its mutation in semio-capitalism. It seems like there is no desire or vitality left outside the economic enterprise, outside productive labor and business activity. What interests Bifo is the question if and how it is possible to wake up from this bad dream. How to reconstruct autonomy within our current conditions of semio-capitalism, characterized by the fusion of media and capital? Look at the state we’re in: ruthless economic competition and digital intensification of informatic stimuli have induced a state of crisis, not only economic but also psychopathic. We’re experiencing a permanent electrocution that flows in the widespread pathology, manifesting itself in panic and attention disorders. The main source of this collapse, writes Bifo, can be found in the organization of time in the digital sphere, in the relation between what he calls “cyberspace” and “cybertime”. For Bifo this distinction is the key for contemporary arrangements of struggle. Of course, the colonization of time has always been a fundamental objective in the development of capitalism in the modern era, but with the spread of digital technologies, time has become the primary battlefield, as it is the space of the mind, of the soul. Cyberspace indicates the sphere of connection between mind and machine, which is unlimited expandable. Cybertime, on the contrary, is limited: we can increase the time of exposure to information, but experience cannot be intensified beyond certain limits. The problem is that, under the influence of the current attention economy, cyberspace is constantly widening, inducing us to exceed these limits, which leads to an impoverishment of experience and a reduction of the capacity for empathy (see also Nicholas Carr and others). The gap between electronic cyberspace and organic cybertime leads to “a loss of intensity which concerns the aesthetic sphere, that of sensibility, and importantly also the the sphere of ethics. The experience of the other is rendered banal; the other becomes part of an uninterrupted and frenetic stimulus, and loses its singularity and intensity – it loses its beauty.”

The effects of the accelerations and intensifications produced by network technologies are amplified by the precariousness of cognitive labor. In the net economy, capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time. Work time is fractalized, reduced to fragments that can be endlessly reassembled and recombined. This systemic depersonalization of the cognitariat, as a virtual unorganizable class of mental labor, has led to a new economic system, centered on what Bill Gates once described as “business at the speeds of thought.” Networked digital labor functions as an artificial nervous system, in which, in the words of Gates, “information is our vital fluid.” As the fragmented mosaic of cognitive labor turns into a fluid process within our networks, capital becomes the semiotic flux that runs through the veins of the global economy. But the progressive incorporation of the digital in the organic nervous system inevitably leads to a breakdown. The intense and prolonged investment of mental energies, and the total dependence of emotion and thought on the flow of information, have created the conditions for a psychic collapse, which is now manifesting itself in the form of economic recession, military aggression and suicidal tendencies. For Bifo all of this is connected to the pathological turn of the pyscho-sphere, which is the most important feature of the current anthropological mutation which encompasses social change, politics and violence. If we want to understand something about what is happening in the society of the new millennium, we need to reflect on the transformations of activity and labor, the subsumption of the time of the mind under the competitive realm of productivity, and most of all, we need to understand this mutation of the cognitive and psycho-social system. “It is within the psychospere that the effects of twenty years of info-invasion, nervous overload, mass psychopharmacology, sedatives, stimulants and euphoric substances, of fractalization of working and existential time, of social insecurity which translates in fear, solitude and terror manifest themselves. Time-based psychobombs are exploding in the interconnected global mind. The effect is unpredictable.”


Bifo uses Elephant, Gus van Sant’s captivating account of the Columbine tragedy, to illustrate the spreading psychopathology of the first post-alpha(betic) generations, the ones who “have learned more words from a machine than from their mother” (as the anthropologist Rose Golden wrote in 1975). He writes: “it is with glacial tenderness that Van Sant shows us the neurotic mumbling, the anorexic hystericisms and the relational incompetence of the Columbine generation (…) Bodies that have lost contact with their soul and hence no longer know anything about their corporeality”. In Elephant Bifo sees the cognitive mutation that is unfolding in the context of a communicative transformation: the passage from “conjunction” to “connection” as the predominant mode of interaction. While conjunction is a singular process of “becoming other”, connection is a functional and repeatable interaction between discrete, formatted segments. Connection requires that these segments are compatible and interoperable – which is something digital network technologies dwell on, as they expand by reducing more and more elements to format, standard and code. There’s no room for margins of ambiguity or gradations of nuance here. Central to this shift is the insertion of the electronic into the organic, which has provoked a palpable change in the relation between consciousness and sensibility. As the info-sphere is becoming thick and dense, putting our attention constantly under siege, we are less and less able to react consciously to emotional impulses. There’s just not enough time for empathy, time to experience, to caress, to feel the other as a sensorial body. “Affective attention suffers a kind of contraction, and it is forced to find ways of adaptation: the organism adopts tools for simplification, and it tends to smooth out the living psychic response, to repackage affective behaviour in a frozen and fastened framework.” Reducers of complexity such as money, media clichés, stereotypes or interfaces have simplified the relationship with the other, and when the other appears in flesh and blood, we are unable to deal with its presence, because it hurts our (in)sensibility. It is as if we cannot longer understand or convey that which cannot be verbalized, that which cannot be reduced to simple codified signs.

The dominant pathologies of our times cannot be understood from the standpoint of the Freudian paradigm of repression. In Freudianism, at the basis of pathology lies concealment: something is hidden or removed; we are prevented from something. The basis of pathology today however is no longer concealment but hypervision, an excess of visibility, the explosion of the info-sphere and an overload of info-neural stimuli. What plays itself out it is no longer repression, but an eruption of expression: “just do it”. As Anselm Franke pointed out in a recent essay, subjectivity’s dual organizing principle forbidden/allowed has changed into possible/impossible (related to this, the slogan of another sportswear producer – “Impossible is nothing” – can be read as the neoliberal counterpart to disciplinary threats: “make it real” or you will be cast into nothingness). While the Freudian imperative required a renunciation of instincts, the new social imperative thrusts us towards enjoyment and expression. While Freud identified the dominant social psychopathology with neurosis, today, this is psychosis (which reminds me of Ubermorgen’s Psych|OS project, from which the image on top is taken). Leaving the Freudian framework behind, Bifo instead turns to Baudrillard, who foresaw the expressive excess and indeterminacy swamping the infocratic regime of semio-capitalism. “Overproduction is an immanent character of capitalist production, since the production of goods never corresponds to the logic of human beings’ concrete needs, but to the abstract logic of the production of value. In he domain of semio-capitalism the specific overproduction that occurs is a semiotic one: an infinite excess of signs circulating in the infosphere. Individual and collective attention is saturated.“ In the semiotic regime we all seem to exist in a state of schizophrenia: as the world is moving too fast and too many signs are calling for our attention, we try to grasp meaning through a process of “overinclusion” – the main characteristics of schizophrenic interpretation (as described by Gregory Bateson). “The system of collective cognition loses its critical competence; this amounted to the ability to discern truth value in the statements that were submitted in sequences to relatively alert attention. Amidst the proliferation of fast media, interpretation no longer unfolds along sequential lines; instead, it follows associative spirals and a-signifying connections.”

Is there any remedy to the wave of psychopathologies that seems to have submerged our lives, Bifo asks. Is there a way out of this factory of unhappiness? Drawing from Alain Ehrenberg’s La Fatigue d’être Soi (recently translated as The Weariness of the Self), Bifo points to the infernal spiral of depression, reinforced by the dominant neoliberal ideology, sucking all our energies in the trap of self-enterprise, regulating our libindinal investments according to economic rules, capturing our attention in the precariousess of virtual networks. In the neoliberal phase of capitalism, Bifo writes (Taking cue from Roberto Saviano’s terrifying Gomorra), “all rules of coexistence are abolished, the rules of violence imposed. The regulations that set limits to the invasiveness of the principles of competition are removed, hard-and-fast automatisms are introduced in material relations between people”. But at the same time, there is truth in depression. We shouldn’t consider depression as a mere pathology, but as a form of knowledge. Inspired by the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Bifo argues that the challenge when dealing with a depression is not to bring one back to normality or to reintegrate behavior in the standards of normal social language, but “to change the focus of his/her depressive attention, to re-focalize, to deterritorialize the mind and the expressive flow. Depression is based on the hardening of one’s existential refrain, on its obsessive repetition (…) Overcoming depression implies some simple steps: the deterritorialization of the obsessive refrain, the re-focalization and change of the landscape of desire, but also the creation of a new constellation of shared beliefs, the common perception of a new psychological environment and the constuction of a new model of relationship.” The only way to overcome our depression, according to Bifo, is to apply Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalytic model as political therapy, to give the possibility of seeing other landscapes, to change focus, to slow down, to open new paths of imagination. “In the days to come, politics and therapy will be one and the same. Our task will be the creation of social zones of resistance, zones of therapeutic contagion. Capitalism will not disappear from the global landscape, but it will lose its pervasive role in our semiotization, it will become one of possible forms of social organization.“

The missed opportunity of 1977 clearly still lingers in Bifo’s mind. The memory of that year has not been erased, because it’s inconceivable to cancel hope for a life autonomous from competition, possession and accumulation, a life in which we can anew share a sense, a view, a rhythm, a common refrain (or ritournelle, in Guattari’s words). That’s why 1977 will always be around the corner: it’s the coming revolution. Any day now. Any day.

“I don’t believe that the world can be governed by reason. The utopia of Enlightenment has failed. But I think that the dissemination of self-organised knowledge can create a social framework containing infinite autonomous and self-reliant worlds. The process of creating the network is so complex that it cannot be governed by human reason. The global mind is too complex to be known and mastered by subsegmented localized minds. We cannot know, we cannot control, we cannot govern the entire force of the global mind. But we can master the singular process of producing a singular world of sociality. This is autonomy today”.

The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents, 2009)
Precarious Rhapsody. Semio-capitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation (Autonomedia, 2009)