“Getting bored again is the last possible adventure”
An interview with Franco “Bifo” Berardi on digital technologies’ impact on awareness
By Amador Fernández-Savater
Original Spanish invterview on El Diario: https://www.eldiario.es/interferencias/Volver-aburrirnos-Franco-Berardi-Bifo_6_826677345.html
At the beginning of the 1970s, Pier Paolo Pasolini spoke of an “anthropological mutation” to refer to the effects that the introduction of consumer culture were having in Italy. Consumption was reaching and transforming layers of being that even fascism had not touched. According to the filmmaker, responses from politics, culture, philosophy would have to be rethought in light of these events.
In his most recent book, And: Phenomenology of the End, a work completed over more than 15 years, Franco “Bifo” Berardi – a philosopher and active participant of Autonomist social movements in Italy since the 1970s – describes the “anthropoligcal mutation” of our times: the impact of digital technologies on our perception and sensitivity. What is sensitivity? It is the capacity to interpret nondiscursive, non-codified signals. Well, this capacity is being diminished through our exposure to digital technologies that function according to a very formatted logic, a logic of code.
Everything has to be rethought, asserts Bifo; the scope of the digital mutation is also extremely profound. The atrophy of awareness means an atrophy of empathy, which is the capacity to feel-with, to feel the other as an extension of my existence and body. The sensitive base of solidarity. What monsters live in this radical desensitization? How is it possible to think, create and struggle again in the conditions of radical transformation of perception? Into what kind of humans are we being transformed?
An epidemic of discourtesy
Amador: In contrast to your other books, I would say that this is a book on aesthetics more than on politics. A book where aesthetics is at the forefront and, in any case, politics is redefined as an aesthetic issue – as something that must be seen with our perception and which affects our sensibility. Do you agree?
Bifo: Yes, the meaning of the word “aesthetic” is very broad: it is the science of perception, etc. But it seems to me that aesthetics also has to be an erotics: an understanding of the relationship between bodies. It seems to me that this dialectic between aesthetics and erotics is key for understanding the current mutation. How does the digital mutation modify aesthetic and erotic perception? This is the aim of my book.
Today we are living through the displacement of the erotic perception of bodies by an increasingly informatic perception: the body of the other appears to us as a sign, as information. This mutation has a strong pathogenic component. It is a mutation that produces a lot of suffering, panic, and depression by opening the sensitive organisms that we are to the hyper-saturation of stimulation, eventually arriving at the paralysis of the erotic body.
Amador: Your book is centered on a pair of concepts: “conjunctive logic” and “connective logic.” You say that the current mutation is explained by passing from the first to the second. Could you explain?
Bifo: Conjunction is a vibrating and ambiguous interpretive dimension. Perhaps the best example would be an affectionate courtship: the words that we say to one another offer a non-codified interpretation. It is an interpretation of ambiguous signs and the meaning constantly changes during the relationship. This is conjunction: a fundamental conjunction between the bodies.
On the other hand, connective logic is a relation in which the interpretation of meaning is formalized, reduced to a format. It is a relationship between one machine and another – or between a human being and a machine – where the sign only means one thing. If two machines are formatted in a different way, they cannot understand one another: we need a reduction via formatting that permits the exact interpretation of signs.
This exactitude doesn’t exist in the conjunctive relation. There is no exactitude because the conjunctive human relation is essentially a relation of ambiguity. Naturally, it’s a kind of relation in which violence can arise if there isn’t any education about the conjunction, or what we called “courtesy” in modernity. What we are living in currently, it seems to me, is an epidemic of discourtesy, that is, of the incapacity to decode signs according to desire.
Donald Trump and the dark victory of the baroque
Amador: We encounter the same rejection of conjunctive logic in very different cultures: fears of the body – above all the woman’s body – of mixture and confusion, of ambiguity, etc. And then the defense and praise of the ideal, of the model, of purity. Have you found some alternative cultural humus where there are elements of another possible society, of another relation between bodies and signs?
Bifo: To describe the transition to the hegemony of the connective, it seemed necessary to do a kind of cartography of the cultural forms that have developed in human history. Naturally, I only chose a few moments and reduced this anthropological investigation to one essential set of alternatives: puritanism and the baroque.
Culturally – that is, beyond its properly religious definition – puritanism is a cancellation of the ambiguity of the inter-human relationship. Thus a cancellation of history itself. We could consider the founding of the United States. A historian has said that the United States is the first nation in the world that was born as an expression of the word: first the Constitution, then the community. But of course, before the word is the destruction of the preceding history: the history of the indigenous people who lived there.
And not only that: there was also the destruction, the cancellation, and the forgetting of everything that happened in Old Europe. The Puritans, the founding fathers, escaped Europe to forget the dirty history of Catholicism and European Protestantism. Forgetting the impurity of Europe and erasing the indigenous impurity, they say, we create purity, the city over the colonies, the New Jerusalem. We cannot miss the fact that it is on this same land, which was born out the purity of the word, where the purity of digital communication was subsequently born.
Amador: On the other side is the baroque. How do you understand it?
Bifo: It is a phenomenon that accompanies the history of puritanism, as a minoritarian cultural, aesthetic, perceptual, and political current, but always present during the modern ages. The baroque is essentially a proliferation of signs, the spectacle of that proliferation. It is no coincidence that the baroque functions as Catholic Church’s political tool during the Counter-Reformation; it’s not a discourse of persuasion but a spectacle of seduction. The proliferation of signs in the Catholic baroque epoch is a story of spectacularization and multiplication of ambiguities.
The baroque disappears for a time in modern history, when the puritan, Nordic bourgeoisie builds a world in which ambiguity will be considered dangerous. But at a certain moment it explodes again on the world scene. I would say that in this moment is the 1980s. Paradoxically, the baroque returns as the dominant, majoritarian form, thanks to the proliferation of signs that puritan and digital communication has produced. The digital machine has produced such an excess and proliferation of signs that aesthetic reception is incapable of producing an adequate interpretation. And the baroque explodes in the 80s, 90s, and today in a dominant way. I think that the election of Donald Trump is essentially the victory of the baroque, as the indecipherability of totally contradictory signs.
Amador: Could you explain this relation between a phenomenon like Trump and the baroque a little more?
Bifo: I would recommend reading Angela Nagle, an American feminist. Nagle wrote a very interesting book – very ambiguous too – that contains many elements for making sense of Donald Trump’s victory. It’s called Kill all Normies and it focuses on alt-right culture, on the relation between libertarian and transgressor culture, and the culture of the extreme right, which is a right that is paradoxically ironic, or better, cynical.
What is irony? What is cynicism? It is precisely the problem that the baroque resolves. Irony is consciousness of ambiguity. This consciousness of ambiguity has two possible faces. The courteous face, that is, when the signs are ambiguous and I decipher this ambiguity according to desire, in order to increase my pleasure and yours.
But there is also a cynical face of irony. But what is cynicism? It’s a very difficult question. I would say that cynicism is a consciousness of ambiguity, but it takes the interpretation of power as the only possible interpretation. The strongest is the one who interprets. Signs are ambiguous, so I interpret them according to my will, because I am the strongest.
Where do we find ourselves today? We are in a world where digital puritanism rules, but paradoxically, this triumph has produced a hyper-baroque effect in the erotic and social dimension, where we constantly lose our orientation.
“No is no”: when ambiguity becomes dangerous
Amador: In the book you say that, although it might sound paradoxical, pornography is a point of arrival for a puritan transformation of the world.
Bifo: As I say, I think that the relationship between bodies is impoverished by connective communication’s displacement of empathetic relations. I recently read a message from a 19-year old man that said: “For my entire life, my main relationships have always been with bots that I’ve met on the internet. Why do I have to have sexual relations with humans? Humans are more brutal, less intelligent and less interesting than bots.” It seems to me that this is clear: Human beings are speaking with bots and losing the capacity to speak with other human beings. The relationship between human beings has become a relation without courtesy, without that kind of special wisdom that comes with deciphering ambiguity through empathy. Indeed, pornography is sexuality without ambiguity; ambiguity is annulled from the start. One always knows what is going to happen.
Amador: Women’s movements are, perhaps, currently the most powerful in Spain, and not only here. Yesterday we protested against the sentence for the members of La Manada that doesn’t consider the proven facts of the rape – Bifo was there too. What is the potential of these movements for rethinking and reestablishing affective codes and interpersonal communication?
Bifo: I don’t know if Camille Paglia is known in Spain…What does Camille Paglia say? First of all, she says: I am baroque, I am Catholic and Latina. Second, she says: My point of reference is Madonna. Her work is critical of puritan feminism, which has a fundamental role, probably by a large majority, in the experience of American feminism. Reading Camille Paglia, for me – and speaking in general for the women of my generation – was an enriching experience. But at a certain moment things changed and Camille Paglia’s attitude became more and more minoritarian, and today, it seems to me, it has completely disappeared, at least in the United States.
Why? Is it that feminist women have perhaps become too puritan and moralistic? No, it’s that the world has changed; the world has changed in such a way that it is increasingly difficult to interact in an ambiguous and courteous manner. Ambiguity has become dangerous because courtesy has disappeared, so we are obligated to say, “yes is yes, no is no.” I don’t like this binarization of communication, but today it seems inevitable. Because beyond the reduction of “yes-yes, no-no” there is always the danger of violence.
If there is no ambiguity, there is no eroticism, because eroticism is essentially the detection of the intention implicit within ambivalent communication. But if the contexts in which it is possible to interpret this ambiguity through the pleasure of the encounter and empathy disappear, then the only way to understand one another is “yes-yes” and “no-no.” The current mutation is not only technological, but communicative: the mutation of possibilities of interpretation has produced an effect of “pornographization” of the contemporary erotic landscape.
Critical politics, memetic politics
Amador: How do you interpret the rise of the ultra-right that we see everywhere today?
Bifo: I think this return of fascism that we are witnessing at the planetary scale must be interpreted in a new way. There are certainly many signs of classic fascism: nationalism, aggression, the spread of war, racism…but the genesis of the current phenomenon is different, and we have to understand it in terms of its differences.
What is going on? I believe that we are leaving – or that we have left – the dimension that made the politics of modernity possible – that is, critical thinking. What is critical thinking? What is critique? Critique is the capacity to distinguish between the true and the false, the good and the bad, in a statement, a bit of information, or in an event. But we need time in order to critically discriminate.
Critique became possible when writing and the press could be revisited, re-read: above all, time for critical discrimination was possible. The enlightened bourgeoisie made critique the essential faculty of political decision. Events occur and are narrated to us, but we have to decide if they are true or false, good or bad. And out of this discrimination, the possibility of critical political decision becomes possible.
But that no longer exists. The situation we find ourselves in today does not permit this kind of critical politics. In fact, we no longer speak of the “government” but of “governance.” What is governance? It’s the automation of decision-making. If we think what happens in the financial sector, for example, where there are billions and billions of data points that continuously circulate throughout the world at the speed of light – how can we decide if we should invest in one way or another? We can’t! So we automate the decision.
And what happens in the realm of politics? Rational and sequential decision-making is replaced by a form of communication that we call “memetic.” It is the meme that produces the effects of contemporary politics. What is a meme? A meme is a minimal yet hyper-intensive and hyper-suggestive unity, but it is not rational, political communication. Pepe the Frog, the symbol used by the North American white supremacists who are favorable to Trump, seems to have had an enormous effect on the votes of millions of young Americans. Angela Nagel’s book discusses this form of communication at length.
In his 1946 book, Understanding Media – which is probably one of the fundamental books to understand what is going on today – Marshall McLuhan says: when the universe of communication technology passes from the printed alphabetical sequence to the dimension of electronic simultaneity, thought ceases to be critical and is transformed into mythological thought. What is mythology? Mythology is a thought – it is not madness – in which, as in the Freudian unconscious, the principle of contradiction does not operate. Apollo, the god, can be dead and alive: today he is dead and tomorrow he can be alive again. He can be white and black at the same time. That is mythology: the mutual existence of contradictory possibilities. It is precisely the opposite of critique. According to McLuhan, the transition from alphabetical sequences to electronic simultaneity creates an effect of annihilation of the possibility of critique. But this means the simultaneous annihilation of politics.
Amador: Do you think the left must retake the tradition of critical thought or learn to move in these “new” mythological conditions?
Bifo: In a recent article, Geert Lovink posed the question: “does the left know how to make memes?” That is to say, “can we use the meme as a form of communication? It’s a serious problem. My immediate response is yes. In my personal history, political experiences in the 70s were more a phenomenon of mythological-memetic communication than a phenomenon of critical communication. And all rock culture, particularly in the 80s, was an experiment in the mythology of collective thought. But at the same time the question is: can we dispense with critical judgments? Can we renounce the critical understanding that founds judgment? I don’t have a response to this question. I have the feeling that if we can’t make political decisions without critical discrimination, then it means that fascism is here to say and the truth is that this isn’t very funny to me.
The revolution of boredom
Amador: We have recently celebrated the anniversaries of the Russian Revolution, the death of Che, May ’68…would you like to say a last word on the necessity of reimagining social change, the revolution? If, as you say, emancipation cannot be a rational project, articulated through a strategy of ends and means, because all of that better applies to the paradigm of critique, how can we rethink it, reimagine it?
Bifo: I’m often invited to speak about ’68: I was 18 years old, enrolled in the philosophy program at Bologna. In short, I was lucky: everything seemed perfect to me, the world was exactly what I was imagining, desiring, and thinking.
But, today, can we think about replicating something similar? I won’t say no, but I can problematize it by saying this: ‘68 was born out of boredom. The 60s were boring, in a good way. Boredom is not bad; it is to spend an afternoon imagining things, not knowing exactly what to do. Things were intense in the 60s, those years of great cultural, artistic, and musical vitality. An entire world opened. But there I was, in my little house with my grandmother, and I was very bored. So I wanted adventure, I had a desire for adventure.
Today we live in totally the opposite situation: a situation marked by anxiety, by an excess of adventures, as well as too many adventures that we do not experience. I don’t live out adventure but adventure surrounds me, obliges me to live something that I’m not living. This seems like the present condition.
I just saw Zvyaginstev’s second movie – he’s a Russian director who is very sad, cold – called Loveless. It is this story of the relationship between a mother and an 8 year-old child named Aloysha who vanishes at a certain moment. Why? Why is he “loveless”? Because his mother, for many reasons – social, family, romantic, work, precarity, and her smartphone that constantly rings – is incapable of love. “I had a son but it was a mistake because I am not capable of love, I don’t know how to love this child.”
The child disappears. They look for him everywhere but don’t find him. Is he dead or lost or has he been murdered, we don’t know. The movie ends like this – we don’t know. That is the problem today: we don’t know. In a situation of anxiety, of acceleration, of the hyper-saturation of the space of attention, we don’t know if pleasure in the relationship between speaking bodies can be reactivated.
The word has been detached from the body. We talk a lot, but our bodies don’t meet. And when bodies do meet, they don’t know how to speak. This is a problem of erotic relationships, but it is also a problem of political and social relations.
Amador: So a politics of emancipation would begin with bodily encounter?
Bifo: We must begin not only a conversation, but a process of relaxing our expectations, first in the dimension of everyday life, but not only there. We must say, “yes, acceleration and the desire to have many things have won, but is this important to me?” What is important, to repeat Carlos Castaneda, is not to win or lose but to remain impeccable. And what does it mean to remain impeccable? Impeccable means that there are no rules, that I decide the rules with my friends. And the only rule that has any value is the rule that we decide upon together. A politics can be founded on the idea that there are no rules other than the rules that we decide on in an affective, erotic, always tentative, and always renewable manner.
That is also a way to face fear. What are we afraid of? We are afraid of the feeling that life is passing us by and that we are not living it. But why do we have to think that life must be the adventure that we have read about or seen on the screen? Who says so? Who says that life has to be like May ‘68? The good life could be a return to boredom. A return to boredom as therapy for anxiety seems to me like a way to face the problem.
The truth is that I don’t have many answers. Our current problem is that all the answers from the past do not work because the relational context has completely changed. But at the same time we insist on posing questions that involves a response from the past. A movement of relaxing the expectation of adventure could be the start of a new adventure.