Notes on Franco (Bifo) Berardi’s “Biopolitics and Connective Mutation”

Bifo is concerned with the ‘mutation’ of the ‘psychosphere’ or the “contemporary psycho-political catastrophe.” So he is talking about a parallel changes in the environment of the contemporary person alongside the contemporary political and social environment. He analyzes the same shift that Deleuze and Guatarri analyze except from the ‘point of observation’ of the psychopathologies born in the wake of the new communicative and technological inventions/innovations. Of particular importance for his argument is the techno-linguistic dispositifs facilitation of a dissolution of the ability to perceive ‘temporal depth,’ causing unique psychopathologies such as dyslexia, lack of empathy, automatism, and general desensitization; for Bifo, creation of subjectivities has become creation of ‘lived temporalities,’ of lived rhythm.

“Franco Berardi (“Bifo”) is a writer, media-theorist and media-activist.  He founded the magazine A/traverso (1975-1981) and was part of the staff of Radio Alice, the first free pirate radio station in Italy (1976-1978). Like other intellectuals involved in the political movement of Autonomia in Italy during the 1970′s, he fled to Paris, where he worked with Felix Guattari in the field of schizoanalysis. In 2009 he published The Soul at Work (Semiotext(e), Los Angeles). (Bio from Diacritics)

He is teaching social history of communication at the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and is co-founder of the e-zine and of the telestreet network.  Currently he is working to the launch of a new Internet-magazine title Lotremond essentially dedicated to thera-poetry.”

p. 1 – Bifo writes that for Foucault, “Biopolitics is a modeling of the biological body and of the social body by what Foucault defines as disciplinary dispositifs,” clearly identifying disciplinary power with biopower in an equivocation similar to the one Nikolas Rose makes. But in Society Must Be Defended, Foucault distinguishes between the two, saying that “[Biopower] does not exclude [disciplinary power], but it does dovetail into it, integrate it, modify it to some extent, and above all, use it by sort of infiltrating it, embedding itself in existing disciplinary techniques” (242). Disciplinary society is not separate from biopower, it is what biopower seizes on as its instrument. So what should we make of Bifo following Deleuze’s proposal in Postscript on the Societies of Control that disciplinary society is replaced by a ‘control society?’ Assuming Foucault is correct in his general historical determination concerning the infiltration of biopower into disciplinary power, and biopolitics is the organizing principle of the current world-system (or at least, as Bifo writes: “biopolitics … implies an evolution that goes beyond the classical form of mechanical discipline in the industrial age”), then why must we rethink the contemporary in terms of ‘control’ instead of ‘biopolitics?’ After all, Foucault’s original conception of the biopolitical is one which complements the anatomo-political. It is possible that biopower is taking on a “life” of its own, but a fuller understanding of this transition may be that biopower is developing new instruments which will replace the disciplinary power which it cut its teeth on all the while maintaining its primary telos, the homeostasis of man-kind or the human-as-species. This is commensurate with Deleuze’s epitaph for the disciplinary institutions in his Postscript: “But everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods” (4).

Bifo claims disciplinary institutions have a molar character whereas the new control society has “essentially molecular features.”

Bifo claims we are in the ‘mutagenic age,’ that we are in the society of ‘cabling’ not control: “By cabling we mean the insertion of dispositifs inside the biologic, genetic, cognitive routes of formation in the age that comes after modernity.” Bifo then sites the psycho-pathologies which are created by the new “communication technologies and by techno-linguistic and techno-perceptual disposifs.” As Foucault pointed out in his genealogies, what the disciplinary society created were new individuals, a new person. This is what I think Bifo is getting at – the new society of control/cabling is creating a new individual through disposifs which are increasingly invasive and internal as compared to those which “externally predispose.” This age, the mutagenic age, is mutagenic because mutations, “stochastic, fragile, and probabilistic,” seem to occur increasingly in formation of subjectivities (“Processes of mutation are in general highly volatile”).

p.2 –

Resistance – Cabling and Control – And yet this mutagenic formation of individuals (should we follow Deleuze in calling these ‘dividuals’?) is the process in which Bifo sees the greatest point of resistance: “Politics should be reconceptualized as the art of interference in the relationship between the techno-mediatic universe … and the ecology of the mind.” This is an amendment on Deleuze’s formulation that “the societies of control operate with machines of a third type, computers, whose passive danger is jamming and whose active one is piracy and the introduction of viruses.” It is an important addition, since (1) Deleuze wrote his piece at a, in retrospect, primitive moment of the ‘computer age,’ whereas Bifo wrote his piece in 2004; and (2) Bifo is focusing on ‘techno-mediatic’ and ‘techno-communicative,’ though that Bifo saw this and not Deleuze is probably due to Bifo’s time of writing, as Deleuze followed Guattari in anticipating the main use of the new technologies being security purposes (computer-generated barriers created by i.d. cards monitored by a central computer) as opposed to Bifo’s claim of the political primacy of what he calls “cabling.” This is how we can make sense of Bifo’s reframing the societies of control in terms of cabling. Of course, these “two” techniques are co-operative.

One method of interference would be to disconnect from the techno-media. But Bifo is probably not suggesting here that “the art of interference” is tantamount to not using the new technologies since one of his main modes of political activism over the last 10 years has been through his “webzine”

“Technological Hyper Power and psychic fragility are the mix which defines the first videoelectronic generation, especially in its North American Variant.” This “psychic fragility” is certainly due to an “acceleration of productive and existential rhythms,” but Bifo also attributes his fragility to what Nietzsche called the death of God, or what Arendt calls “the ruin of our categories of thought and standards of judgment” (Understanding and Politics, 318). Bifo claims that Columbine has revealed “the normality of humanity that has lost all relation with what used to be human and that stumbles along looking for some impossible reassurance, in search of a substitute for emotions which it no longer knows.” As with Bifo’s turn away from control to cabling, he turns attention to the ‘psycho-sphere’ as the main product of the new ‘techno-mediatic’ devices and the greatest political x-factor because of the “indeterminacy” of their nature.

p. 3 –

Cabling society psychopathology 1: lack of empathy, smoothing human interactions.

Etiology: stimulation too intense (expansion of the inphosphere); lack of time to empathize, to really see other body; reduction/simplification of human and world complexity by methods such as money, stereotypes – we want homogenous sites of ‘connection,’ not heterogeneous sites of ‘conjunction’* (where two different people meet); double movement of “emancipation of women” and the raising of children being depersonalized or made ‘televisual’ – thus effects on children; “millions” of women forced to abandon children in poor countries to work for women who are now workers and can’t take care of children (a sort of child abandonment circuit is created).

Bifo claims the dehumanizing at Abu Ghraib is symptomatic of this new psychopathology. This is an indictment, then, of the child-rearing process these people were raised in, and not just the kids in poor countries, but here as well.

* “Elephant speaks of a cognitive mutation that is unfolding in the context of a communicative transformation: the passage from conjunction to connection.”

p. 4 –

Bifo criticizes the cognitive sciences, which he means as the general position of all practitioners, researchers, and professors of psychology. Claims that cognitivism is based on a stucturalist premise which does not allow for a “dynamic interaction between mental activity and the environment in which minds enter into communication.” Bifo is anticipated in these claims by intersubjectivist psychologists and philosophers such as Rallo May, Hannah Arendt, Heidegger, and Kant in his Critique of Judgment (though one could argue that his “Copernican Revolution” in his earlier work was the real modern formulation of “cognitive ecology”).

It seems that Bifo may agree that there is both a natural human mind and that it is capable (or rather is sub ject) to change. This is a strange assertion, since there is commonly perceived to be a relation between appealing for an object’s or a process’s naturalness is usually done in order to demonstrate its essential, static character.

Cabling society psychopathology #2: autism and dyslexia (crisis of the faculty of verbalization)

Etiology: “The acceleration of information, the mass of information that we receive, decode, digest, and must respond to in order to maintain the rhythm of economic, affective and existential exchanges…”; verbal language being replaced by more rapid and synthetic (artificial?) forms of communication – multitasking;

These new forms of communication, replacing the old ones, are causing a wasting of the cognitive sensibility of “temporal depth,” “the ability to react emotionally to stimuli that are drawn out in time” – this is what causes, for Bifo, dyslexia, since reading requires being able to do this.

(#3 is intimately related with #2 as they have overlapping etiologies)

Cabling society psychopathology #3: dis-identification (“if it’s true that identity is in large part what has dynamically settled in personal memory (places, faces, expectations, illusions)”).

Etiology: desensitization to “temporal depth” facilitated by the “thickening of the infospheric crust and the increase in quantity and intensity of the incoming informational material”;

“But what happens when the flow of information explodes, expands enormously, besieges perception, occupies the whole of available mental time, accelerates and reduces the mind’s time of exposure to the single informational impression? What happens here is that the memory of the past thins out and the mass of present information tends to occupy the whole space of attention. The greater the density of the infosphere, the scarcer is the time available for memorization. The briefer the mind’s lapse of exposure to a single piece of information, the more tenuous will be the trace left by this information. In this way, mental activity tends to be compressed into the present, the depth of memory is reduced and thus the perception of the historical past and even of existential diachrony tends to disappear.”

“The things that an individual remembers (images, etc.) work towards the construction of an impersonal memory, homogenized, uniformly assimilated and thinly elaborated because the time of exposure is so fast it doesn’t allow for a deep personalization.”

Is this antithetical to the proposal by Foucault, the Invisible Committee, and Deleuze and Guattari (just to name a few I’m sure) of a technology of individuation? Deleuze and Guattari: “we’ll always find a place for you within the expanded limits of the system, even if an axiom has to be created just for you” (quoted by Read, 136). Or the Invisible Committee: “Mass personlization . Individuation of all conditions – life work, and misery . . . The more I want to be me, the more I feel an emptiness. The more I express myself, the more I feel drained . . . . Sociability is now made up of a thousand little niches, a thousand little refuges where you can take shelter” (The Coming Insurrection, 30). So it seems that these theorists are pointing to one of the driving forces for the proliferation of the techno-mediatic structures, in that it takes the existence of many different emptinesses (and their ever-susceptibility to change with the necessities of the market) for the system to constantly reproduce itself. This is an expression of mass heterogeneity as opposed to the mass homogeneity that Bifo seems to be pointing at – unless, that is, these two concepts meet somewhere; perhaps Bifo’s mass depersonalization and other writers’ mass personalization are co-extensive in some way – relations between people being “smoothed out” by making the connections easy and homogenous may be the similar to how transactions between commodities are smoothed out, and just as this homogeneity of relating between commodities (in dollars and in shipping) is coterminous with the diversification of products it might not be a stretch to think of contemporary individuals in this way as well. Please write if you have any ideas on this.

p. 5 –

Cabling society psychopathology #4: automatism

Etiology: Acceleration and information overload; not enough time to respond in a ‘personal’ way so the automatic, unintentional response becomes preferred.

“[T]he feeling of rarefaction of contact, coldness and contraction are at the core of our contemporary pathologies, particularly evident in the younger generations.” Has Bifo put his finger on contemporary pathologies or are these pathologies and their etiologies constructed in the early 20th century? Kafka understood this, Dostoyevsky even wrote the existential crisis of modernity in the 19th century. What is different about Bifo’s analysis?

p. 6 –

“Time, an indispensible dimension of pleasure, is cut into fragments that can no longer be enjoyed. Excitation without release replaces pleasure.”

This seems similar to the apparent speeding up of historical events and the automatism with which we react to them. As soon as one grabs hold of the essence of events we are compelled to move forward. The life process, unleashed into history (what Foucault terms biohistory) speeds up the occurrence of events; this increase in the rhythm of history is like the increased rate of growth of organisms such as bamboo in a foreign environment, unfettered by the former obstacles which kept it in balance. I see this as the biopolitical subtext to Bifo’s lament for the ability to perceive ‘temporal depth.’

Here Bifo points to the transition from the 60’s and 70’s to the 80’s and 90’s as being the point of mutation he has been analyzing. This presents a problem for my interpretation of his reasons for substituting ‘cabling’ for ‘control’ in his formulation of the latest zeitgeist: if he is writing about the decades before 2000, then his reason for seeing a society of cabling instead of a society(ies) of control may be different than that he was writing in 2004 instead of 1992 like Deleuze. Bifo points to the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s as being the “introduction of electronic communications technologies into the social circuit.” But this couldn’t be all he sees, nor could it be possible for him to ignore the fact that in the last decade the function and prevalence of electronic communications technologies has completely eclipsed the psycho-political significance of the initial introduction of these technologies. The psychopathologies which both shape and are symptomatic of the social sphere and the political reality may have been heralded by punk and the Japanese suicides he sites (etc.), but they have possibly reached a disaster unimagined by Kafka, the existentialist philosophers, and punk consciousness.


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