INSURGENCY, SEMIO-CAPITALISM AND THE IMAGINATION:
2015 NOTES AROUND FRANCO BERARDI’S “THE UPRISING”
(with 2019 notes on the 2015 ones).
Who needs a new book? Or a new film? Or a new record, website, song, comic, videogame, poem? Who needs a new trend? A new movement? A new manifesto?
Who does? Aren’t there enough? Do we really need more?
Because we are certainly going to get them.
The crisis of imagination arrives in a paradoxical wrapping. The diagnosis entered critical thought as a slogan, “it’s easier to think about the destruction of the world than to think about the downfall of capitalism”, mistakenly attributed to Zizek (Jameson mentions it as a common phrase among Marxists in “Archaeologies of the future” (199)). Apocalypse is our last utopia. But there were signs all over. On my side of the trenches, it was the decline of far-fletched futures in science fiction and the dominance of 10-minutes-into-the-future scenarios. Elsewhere, it was the recombinant nature of art, appropriation as a legitimate technique and conceptual aesthetics (there’s nothing new, everything is a remix). And in social terms, it is the question asked to all the Occupy movements, including Spanish acampadas and Greek riots: “What exactly do you propose?” The question was used to disable the movements, to show their lack of a project, and to expose them as childish pranks. It succeeded, despite their embodiment of the general dis-satisfaction with current life.
Nobody wants to go into the future without an insurance plan.
At the same time, imagination and creation have occupied every single part of our lives. From the design of the pen I take notes with to the myriad explosion of universes in our screens, imagination seems to be flowering in a ceaseless explosion. There’s enough imagination to keep me fastened to the screen (either of a book or a hand-held device) for the rest of my lifetime. The “literature of the imagination” (as Alberto Chimal has named it) is on the best-sellers list, and with only a glance at the “up-coming” section of any media, you can notice a lot more people are inventing and recombining imagination in an unprecedented scale.
The problem then, is where our imagination has been concentrated, and what do we think it’s there for. There seems to be little in common between imagination as is it’s understood on the field of art (both low and high) and the old slogan “imagination to the power” (Graeber, 41-65). Today, imagination is power, and, being so, it is de-fused (and diffused). There are special vectors to accommodate imagination on our world, and their major causeway is something called product; and not product in the old industrialized sense of “thing”, but product in the semio-capital sense, which now includes experiences and acts. As long as we play that game, imagination is powerless. Imagination has been co-opted.
(How desperate must we be to think of an act as an art form? How desperate is art? How desperate is living?)
Art works within finance. And art has kidnapped imagination. And there had also been a kidnapping before which is just as serious. Aesthetics had been kidnapped by art. Originally, aesthesis was the study of sensuousness, of perception (sensitivity in the terms of Berardi (143)), of how the world affects the body and the mind. Nowadays, aesthetics is the realm of the discussion of arts (and its multiple forms). If art were to be abolished today and all artworks destroyed, we would still have aesthetic experiences (barefoot on the grass, smelling the smoke of burned-down buildings in a primitivist utopia) because we still have bodies.
It is vital to rescue aesthetics.
It is vital to liberate imagination.
Therefore, we must abandon art.
And then there’s the future (or was, in any case). If we’ve left behind “the century that trusted the future”, as Berardi states it, what then? If “the future is not conceived as a promise but as a threat”, what is left? (2012, 108), If our future has been bought as debt, where can we run now? An answer implied by Berardi is the present, in both senses of the word. To be here (and not there). To be now (and not then).
Bruce Sterling says that our present state could be called Atemporality, because both the future and the past have been so viciously remodeled by electronic culture as to render them irrelevant (or already-here). He suggests that during this decade, our atemporal decade, there’s not going to be a solution or an answer to our social questions (the occupy’s, the acampadas, the riots) because the shock of network culture will have the world stumbling and staggering, rearranging itself on the brink of even ecological disaster. He says, in “Atemporality for the creative artist”, that our only option left is to face this decade with wild experimentation, with finding and trying out new ways of creating (and living).
(“You are never going into space. You will never own a jet pack. Your car will never fly. HIV will not be cured in your lifetime. Cancer will not be cured in your lifetime. The common cold will not be cured in your lifetime. Someone stole your future. Don’t you ever wonder who?” Warren Ellis)
But it had already been announced. Oral cultures focus on the past. Written cultures focus on the future (and it’s no wonder Thomas More’s Utopia appears with the printed press). And in electronic cultures, you get a present that engulfs all the other times. An ever-lasting present, always now, but never here, because, McLuhan explains, electronic culture “disembodies us, angelizes us, turns us into software” (Bennedetti, 49). Our bodies disappear in front of a screen. That’s electronic culture’s biggest impact; it takes us out of our bodies
That’s why electronic culture is tactile and not visual (which is more a characteristic of written culture). Our present is a disembodied present. Just as the printing press (and the loss of aura) turned writing into information (as reproductibility did to objects), we are ‘softwarized’ into an everlasting present. The future diminishes, rushing towards us in a collision trajectory. “The future is no longer perceived as a promise, but as a threat”. Everything is now. Right now.
McLuhan wrote that on the electronic age, “our nerve endings are outside our body, our neurons outside our brain” (Benedetti, 24). McLuhan (being McLuhan) never turned his attention to the extremely important political and economical aspects of his statement. If my body, and my thoughts, are not mine because they are out of myself, who owns them? Berardi tackles this questions with extreme lucidity.
My problem? It’s not semiocapital, it’s not the information society. It is electronic culture that provokes these symptoms. Using other symptoms of electronic culture to fight off electronic culture seems a little bit naive.
But Berardi’s optimism is highly appreciated.
Language is dissociated from the body just as the sign is dissociated from the referent and money from economic goods.
Steven Shaviro argues that, alongside capital, we have added up new “universal equivalents”: information, genetics (biological info) and the psychedelic experience. In our age, immaterial experiences (and that’s why he calls it psychedelic) overflow our minds, but leave the body untouched. (193) That’s why we have an obsession with documentaries and reality shows. We want to experience everything (and we do), immaterially. But we lack actual body experiences. Debord made last’s century best diagnosis: in the society of the spectacle, everyone is lethally bored. Reality (without screens) seems so boring and slow we embark on a “suicidal trajectory’ (according to Virilio (28)) to force reality into matching up to the intense experience we receive from constant electronic stimulation. More and more. We need more. Bungee jumping, extreme everything, drugs and alcohol, exercising until exhaustion. Reality doesn’t stand a chance. Neither does our body.
Language and signs (and even the body) are turned into financial automatisms that further reduce our ability to experience life, as they are internalized and streamlined in the name of efficiency (“power is all about making things easy”). If we define work as the time spent producing capital, work becomes all encompassing during the digital age, because even leisure time is productive. Each time I click a mouse or a button on my smart-phone, I’m making someone richer. We are always producing capital. We are always working.
We can no longer rest.
And then comes poetry, Berardi’s answer to the problem of semiocapitalism. Poetry always raises our hopes, bringing creativity to the mix, trusting in this “excess” of human will and imagination to draw lines of escape from our current situation. But the funny thing is that all of Berardi’s examples concern poetry as an involuntary diagnosis of our times. Symbolist and modernist poets seem to have created works that were allowing us to see what was to come (signs without referent in symbolist poetry, for example), foreshadowing future strategies and events (In Berardi’s example: “dereferentialization and deregulation” (2012). But he never gives an example as to how poetry may be liberating, or show us a different path.
Maybe that’s what art does, it opens up new avenues for capital to conquer, showing new models and relations that can later be capitalized. Duchamp invents modern marketing with the ready made (“creating a new thought for an object”), Mallarmé invents non-referentiality, while conceptual art mimics the pathenogenetic process and the automatization of language characteristic of the financial economy.
Artists are the first gentrification force to occupy (and raise the value) of run-down urban zones. Why shouldn’t their production work the same way in material and non-material terms?
(We are rhizomatic as creators, opened up to a million influences, channeling countless inspirations through our creative eyes, connected to all possible spheres of becoming, taking from here and there, yesterday and today: creative blenders accepting all ingredients.
But we are very private individuals when it comes down to royalties.)
“Poetry is the here and now of the voice: excess of sensuousness, an infinite slippage” says Berardi (2012, 21). And I prefer to keep the “here and now of the voice” part, in terms of affect and body, in terms of you and me and us, and leave the rest aside.
Poetry, according to Berardi, has a nature of excess that can break down capital because that excess escapes “the order of exchangeability”. Isn’t that excess the definition of surplus? Isn’t the financial order trusting this excess of creation and imagination to keep its engines running? There’s always going to be new material coming up. Somebody will think up something new. Humans, in our age, have an irrepressible urge to create. There will always be new semiostuff to sell. There will always be new content, new forms. And we try to have cameras everywhere to record it in exactly the moment it happens. We can’t let those new things escape. Not anymore.
The same happens to desire, aways an excess, trusted as a faithful accomplice by consumer capital. As desire is endless, so is consumption. The truly radical way to stop consumer capitalism would be to stop desiring. But, if desire is what makes us become, then what would be left of us?
The remainder of this discussion is a moral one: good desire vs. bad desire.
A form to destroy all forms. An algorithm to destroy all algorithms. An art to destroy all art.
Art, in the electronic age, takes the form of games instead of “work” (obra). A game is always open-ended, while “works” are finite. A game (as in Tzara’s instruction for a dadaist poem or a reality show) is a set of possibilities. Games are achieved through a series of rules, that open up this possibilities. Anna Anthropy defines games, in the broadest sense, as “an experience created by rules”. Life as a game is our metaphor now (trying on new hats), instead of life as an experiment (much more modernist). Substitute art for life, and things remain the same. Conceptual art functions as a game, but the rules are called constraints. Videogames are the most important cultural form of our times (cinema was the most important form of the century that trusted the future, and the possible recombinations achieved through editing point to the emergence of this change).
Writing (and art) change because of this. You don’t write the final draft of the work anymore. You just write the rules that make the possible appear (as in videogames), and the players actualize the possibilities. The spectator/participant realizes the work. You program. You code. You enable.
Breaking down the rules of a program is now considered a job. It’s what testers do.
The problem here is defining experience, not games.
Once again, the body (dis)appears.
In the electronic age, in a connected culture, content becomes irrelevant, it’s a byproduct, and will appear by itself. That’s why financial capitalism trusts the “excess” of poetry. Cognitarian workers go into a precarious situation because of this. In an information, alphabetized and image-savvy culture, humans just can’t stop generating content. Our lives become content. The only way of capitalizing content is to turn the author into a brand, to preserve his signature and have him become a public intellectual, speaking his mind and analyzing every little social itch in TV and the internet. That’s indexicality. Existing in the electronic age (exposure and over-exposure in terms of Virilio’s third interval (21-36) means being googleizable. The author is a forerunner of the brand.
Content becomes irrelevant because the main “creations” of a connected culture are frameworks for content. Social media, TV channels and internet sites are just this, ways of sharing content. The main breakthrough of network culture has been creating ways to disseminate content, frameworks which allows users to share their own generated content, systems to allow connection (and not conjunction, in Berardi’s terms). It’s OK to criticize Facebook using Facebook. It’s OK to criticize the government while collecting their grant money. It’s OK for big money to sponsor art shows that criticize big money. Content is irrelevant. Content is harmless.
(“…someone might publish an amazing anarchist text that lots of people would then read, but the question isn’t how to get everyone to read anarchist texts, the question is how we can interact in anarchic ways” CrimethInc.) (Killjoy, 59-70)
And I get scared.
The constantly “becoming” aspect of Deleuze and Guattari’s theory starts sounding as a super-ego imperative: “Become! Become! Become!” It’s on ads everywhere. It’s speeded up, and it goes against withdrawal and rest and exhaustion and slowness and insolvency (and all those beautiful Berardi thoughts).
The logic of the rhizome is almost identical to the logic of electronic communication. And I write “almost” in a religious way: with hope, and full of faith.
The idea of rejoining the general intellect with the social body is perhaps Berardi’s most interesting thought, and it’s also an urgent one.
Maybe the question is how to make sense, but not just using one half of the meaning of this doubly articulated word. Sense means meaning, but meaning is intellectual. Sense also means THE senses. And to make sense also means speaking to the body (but not the body facing the screen).
Maybe the question is how to make sense make sense again.
Separation and abstraction go together. Separation of words from their semiotic referents, of money from economic goods. Separation of life from the spectacle, as in Debord. “Abstraction of work from activity, abstraction of goods from usefulness, abstraction of time from sensuousness”, states Berardi (2012, 36). Are we done thinking yet?
Both Berardi and the Invisible Committee use the poll where between 20 and 30% of young germans say they want to be artists. Both see in it some sort of desire against work. Art is work, but it’s supposed to be fun. Let’s say wishes are granted and we get to make one quarter of Germany’s population artists. Who’s going to clean up their mess, make their beds and do their plumbing?
Don’t worry. That’s what we have the third world for.
The uprising, Berardi implies, is almost unavoidable. “Everything is crumbling”, he says, “society is in fact dissolving” (2102, 60). And it’s not going to be nice. it will be “a chaotic reactivation of the energies of the body of the socius”, because it’s a therapy for our psychopathology. It is going to bring out the worst in Europe.
And McLuhan’s ghost comes again to knock on the door. “The less identity, the more violence” (Benedetti, 112), he used to say through theoretical slogans. People tend to resort to violence when their identity is lost. But as the loss of identity is worldwide on a connected planet —nerves outside body, neurons outside brain— the violence is happening on a global scale. People will look for traditional nodes of identity (chanting the old refrains): race, nationalism and religion. All of them fundamentalisms that try to rejoin the sign with a referent, the signifier with a signified. Fundamentalisms that try to say: this is real.
(Fascism is the mode by which the bourgueoise maintain their privileges when they feel them slipping through their fingers. Buenaventura Durruti)
We desperately need new refrains.
And if the insurrection is going to be ugly, I’ll definitely stay with this: “The task of resistance movements will not be to provoke, but rather to create, (coextensively with the insurrection) autonomous structures for knowledge, existence, survival, psychotherapy, and giving life meaning and autonomy.” (2012, 49-50)
Anthropy, Anna. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Seven stories Press, 2012. Print.
Benedetti, Paul y Dehart, Nancy (eds.). Reflections on and by McLuhan. Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1997. Print.
Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. The Uprising. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012. Print.
Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. After the Future. Oakland: AKPress, 2011. Print.
Chimal, Alberto. Las Historias. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. http://www.lashistorias.com.mx/index.php/archivo/mas-de-literatura-de-imaginacion/
Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix. One thousand Plateaus. Ellis, Warren. Untitled. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. http://warren-ellis.livejournal.com/92053.html
Graeber, David. Revolutions in Reverse. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2011. Print.
Invisible Committee. The Coming Insurrection. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. Archeologies of the Future. London: Verso, 2007. Print.
Killjoy, Margaret. Mythmakers & Lawbreakers. Oakland: AK Press, 2009. Print.
Shaviro, Steve. Connected. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Print.
Sterling, Bruce. “Atemporality for the creative artist”. Wired. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. http://www.wired.com/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-creative-artist/
Virilio, Paul. La velocidad de la liberación. Buenos Aires: ediciones Manantial, 1997. Print.
 Or maybe it’s as Grant Leuning writes: There will be no future as long as there are insurance plans.
 The once-derided speculative genres have become major dominant ones: science fiction, fantasy, horror. Imagination seems to be thriving, almost as if it won the battle. But the real speculative genre in our times is finance.
 Even if technological determinism seems naive these days, the symptomatology McLuhan once described seems to be alive and thriving, re-organizing itself to exisitng circumstances, and pleading allegiance to its genealogies.
 “It´s a professional mistake not to have a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram account”.
 This is exactly what Srnicek calls platforms and Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, which is the most successful electronic “modes of life”. The content of platforms, freely given by the users in lieu of existing online, is the user’s own life and experiences, which is the capital on which these platforms feed: specialized machines to capture and modify behavior.
 I remember Berardi, in Tijuana, explaining to someone the point of protesting on the street. It’s not even about achieving the goals the protest is fighting for, it is about re-erotizing social life, it is about being with others, on the street.