Only a poet can save us

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2012. 173 pp., £9.95 pb., 978 1 58435 112 2.

This is the fourteenth book to be published in Semiotext(e)’s Intervention series of pocket-sized texts. Launched with the translation of The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection in 2009, it evidently seeks to revive the format of the publisher’s original 1980s’ Foreign Agents paperbacks, while making a specific claim to contemporaneity in its explicit identification with activist politics. Each inside cover reproduces a tastefully tinted snapshot of recent insurrection – from Greek riot police (The Coming Insurrection) to masked stone-throwers (Tiqqun’s This Is Not a Program) to the photograph of Occupy Wall Street that appears here – while stylistically the emphasis is on the manifesto-like and polemical.

‘These texts were written in 2011, the first year of the European uprising, when European society entered into a deep crisis that seems to me much more a crisis of social imagination than mere economies’, begins The Uprising. Yet the book is, for all its rhetorical urgency, unfortunately notable most for its repetitious and digressive form. The same examples and topics loop around, from the EU and Greek debt, to Bretton Woods and the gold standard, to May ’68 and punk, giving the impression of a text that has been left unrevised and unedited, dictated by whatever happened to occur to the author at the time. (No translator or original Italian text is cited, so one can presume it was written in English.) Pocket-sized as it is, this reads like a book with an article struggling to get out.

CunninghamIn general terms, the book resumes where Berardi’s 2009 The Soul at Work left off. As in that earlier text, the account of a distinctive ‘post-Fordist’ mode of production that ‘takes the mind, language and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value’ subjects the traditional operaismo emphasis on working-class agency, as both the engine and ultimate gravedigger of capitalist development, to a somewhat belated linguistic turn. This is a move already familiar from, among others, Maurizio Lazzarato’s writings on immaterial labour, Paolo Virno’s account of the ‘grammar’ of the multitude, and, most impressively, Christian Marazzi’s series of books on what he has termed the ‘linguistic turn of the economy’ under current regimes of financialization. At its heart is a proposition that it is ‘communication’ that has become the driving force of leading-edge capitalism today, as well as, more foggily, the potential basis for the multitude’s power to generate new modes of cooperation and collaboration constituted by ‘mass intellectuality’. As a result, so-called cognitive or semio-capitalism entails not just an extraction of value from labour within the production process, but, according to this argument, a far more extensive valorization that draws directly upon the creativity and knowledge produced by social ‘life’ as such.

Despite its emphasis on the historical specificity of some post-2011 ‘catastrophe’ and emergent ‘insurrection’, the underlying claims of The Uprising are, then, pretty familiar stuff. What distinguishes Berardi’s ‘intervention’ is the particular desperation apparent in its conjunctural articulation. Setting out from a strikingly sombre diagnosis of the contemporary, in which, he suggests, ‘it is difficult not to see the future of Europe as a dark blend of techno-financial authoritarianism and aggressive populist reaction’, Berardi’s depiction of the present swings wildly between its two poles of Virilio-style apocalypticism and Negrian optimism, as if in a peculiar mimesis of the manic depressive ‘bipolar disorder’ that he identifies with the drugged-up and anxiety-ridden subject of a contemporary ‘Prozac economy’ in general. Tellingly perhaps, Baudrillard is, along with Deleuze and Guattari, the most frequently quoted thinker in the book, and it is the former’s application of semiotic theory to a series of Marxian problematics that often seems to loom largest in what philosophical consideration of contemporary financialized capitalism is offered here. The ‘digitization of exchanges’ transforms ‘things into symbols … sucking down and swallowing up the world of physical things, of concrete skills and knowledges’, while ‘signs produce signs without any longer passing through the flesh’. Where, however, Baudrillard’s own trajectory, from the late 1970s, took him towards an emphatic refusal of any nostalgia for the flesh of the world – polemically disavowing those Situationist-style rhetorics of a liberation from the generalized abstraction of the Spectacle which his earlier writings had at least tacitly continued to evoke – Berardi seeks to recover many of those elements that Baudrillard precisely jettisoned. What results is a fairly traditional ‘reproach of abstraction’, as Peter Osborne calls it – against a language ‘whose consistency has nothing to do with the multilayered consistency of life’ – which entails that, for all of its Guattarian sloganizing, much of The Uprising reads rather more like Richard Sennett bemoaning the loss of craftsmanship than it does A Thousand Plateaus. Berardi may reject elsewhere the ‘idealism’ of the young Marx’s account of alienation, and of what he describes, in The Soul at Work, as the latter’s ‘presupposition of a generic human essence’ (while, significantly, resisting the concept’s wholesale negation). But the dominant tone of loss that pervades the pages of this book rather serves to undermine any Tronti-like emphasis upon the productive powers of ‘estrangement’ as the basis of proletarian autonomy today. Instead, Berardi’s sporadic invocations of ‘a new era of autonomy and emancipation’ come only to seem less and less convincing as the book progresses; not least, one suspects, to the author himself.

That Berardi’s desperate solution to ‘our’ own particular riddle of history should turn out, therefore, to be the most venerable modern answer of all – poetry – is, if nothing else, of some symptomatic interest. The ‘closed reality’ of abstraction in financial capital­ism cannot, Berardi writes, any longer ‘be overcome with the techniques of politics, of conscious voluntary action, and of government’. (So much for socialism then.) Instead, ‘Only an act of language can give us the ability to see and to create a new human condition, where we now only see barbarianism and violence’. Poetry or barbarism? Such is apparently the dilemma du jour. Alluding vaguely to recent debates surround­ing debt, a classically autonomist invocation of the line of flight is here reworked via a rather loose metaphor of ‘insolvency’, in which poetry becomes equivalent to the linguistic ‘act’ of refusing to pay up, ‘the line of escape from the reduction of language to exchange’. If poetry is ‘the language of nonexchangeability’, it constitutes ‘language’s excess, the signifier disentangled from the limits of the signified’, writes Berardi, sounding more like Tel Quel than Potere Operaio. Yet, in fact, of course, the signifier is far from inherently ‘fleshy’, as regards its conventional relationship to the signified, since it depends for its iterability (and, hence, ‘exchangeability’) precisely on its capacity to abstract from actual material forms of identity. One would, at the very least, thus need to account for the process of abstraction that is essential to any such supposed linguistic ‘disentanglement’. Without this, such claims are little more than bad ‘poetry’ themselves.

What, then, of poetry? The organizing motif of The Uprising’s subtitle – On Poetry and Finance – is one that posits a parallel between ‘the deterritorialization effect’ which has, on the one hand, ‘separated words from their semiotic referents’ and, on the other, separated ‘money from economic goods’. Considering ‘the main thread of twentieth-century poetic research’ alongside ‘the economic reconfiguration that occurred during the last three decades of the century, from the neoliberal deregulation to the monetarist abstract reregulation’, Berardi writes, ‘we’ll find some similarities’. Perhaps. Certainly, the notion that there is some historical connection between those modes of abstraction apparent in modernist practice and those inherent to commodity fetishism and the money form is surely correct; a point agreed upon by thinkers as diverse as Adorno, Jean-Joseph Goux and Manfredo Tafuri. But ‘some similarities’ is pretty vague, and the analogy isn’t much further developed over the course of the book. (A loose correlation between Rimbaud’s ‘deregulation of the senses’ and financial deregulation doesn’t exactly help much either.) In conjoining early-twentieth-century modernism with post-1970s’ ‘neoliberalism’, Berardi’s chronology is more than a little strained too, in so far as it means that the former has to assume a position of prophetic anticipation, in which poets have not so much reflected the crises of their own time as they ‘forebode the coming distortions and perversions of the huge deterritorialization that would come with capitalist globalization’. The fact that Yeats’s 1919 ‘The Second Coming’ is Berardi’s main example in this respect tends to confirm the apocalypticism at work in this (though one might also wonder whether this particular poet’s reactionary brew of nationalism, mythopoesis and occultism is quite what Berardi wants to evoke against a coming world in which ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’). More to the point, it is not at all clear what Berardi actually wants to make of his comparison between poetry and finance. The point is evidently not to damn modernism by association, in the manner of Lukacs, not least because Berardi’s own vision of poetry as ‘the signifier disentangled from the limits of the signified’ seemingly depends upon it. Yet, if the aim is to proffer a distinction between a ‘techno-linguistic automatism’ governed by the money form (bad abstraction) and a ‘deterritorialization’ as poetic ‘free flight … out of any kind of rule’ (good abstraction?), the philosophical account of language provided is simply too thin, too impressionistic, ever to make any headway with this.

While, then, on the terrain of contemporary post-Deleuzisms, the linguistic focus to be found in The Uprising could well have opened up an interesting theoretical alternative to recent tendencies to dismiss language as a central medium of subjectivization in favour of the privileging of pre-linguistic affect, Berardi’s invocation of a specifically poetic language – language, above all, as ‘affective potency’, a ‘reactivation of the desiring force of enunciation’ – short-circuits any such potential, precisely as it might have been worked through in relation to (rather than in withdrawal from) the developments of contemporary ‘semio-capitalism’. Derrida’s Writing and Difference appears in The Uprising’s short bibliography, but there’s not much evidence that Berardi has actually read it. If he had, he might well have been a little more wary about pseudo-Heideggerian definitions of poetry as ‘the voice of language’, let alone as ‘the here and now of the voice, of the body, and of the word, sensuously giving birth to meaning’. The archaism of an appeal to the poetic aligns at this point with a desire for a return to the production of ‘useful’ and ‘concrete’ ‘things’ that is all too reminiscent of recent journalistic pleas for a restoration of the ‘real economy’.

In fact, as a form of cultural politics, Berardi’s mission statement is a simple if hazy one: ‘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’. Poetry’s task is thus one of ‘reactivating the social body’, in which we ‘have to start a process of deautomating the word, and a process of reactivating sensuousness (singularity of enunciation, the voice) in the sphere of social communication’. There is, of course, a name for this kind of thing: romanticism. This is not immediately to damn it. In some sense, a ‘romantic’ moment would seem crucial to all effective (as well as affective) politics, if it is to be more than merely a matter of administration. And The Uprising is, even by usual standards, haunted by the memory of 1968 as a moment ‘when poetry ruled the streets’ (as Andrew Feenberg has it). The problem is that Berardi transparently has no idea of what this might actually mean today. As such, the text can finally have recourse only to a familiar set of organicist fantasies for which the poem appears, yet again, as the sensuous image of a freedom beyond all politics itself. (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy’s account of ‘speculative Rousseauism’ in The Literary Absolute, their study of Jena Romanticism, should perhaps have been added to the bibliography along with Writing and Difference.) As an avant-gardism, this is one lacking any avant-garde.

As much to the point, isn’t a certain ‘process of progressive abstraction’ a rather evident condition of the ‘general intellect’? What would be the contemporary (or, in fact, any) ‘sphere of social communication’ without this? Indeed, is it remotely possible to conceive of a global social collectivity that would not involve an experience of abstraction as, in some way, intrinsic to it? In which case, mere rhetorical invocations of our need to restore the bodily, the fleshy or the sensuous -somehow, magically, rendered collective in form – will not take us very far. It is, at any rate, hardly a surprise, therefore, that whatever faith is expressed by Berardi in those new ‘psycho-affective reactivation[s] of the social body’, to be glimpsed in ‘the English riots and the Italian revolts and the Spanish acampada’, this does not translate into anything as solid as a political strategy in The Uprising, while ‘poetry’ becomes not much more than a placeholder name for the forms of social life imagined for some phantasmatic Deleuzian ‘people’ to come. Such a sense that the ‘poetic’ offers some resistance to capitalist forms, as well as a speculative basis for a life beyond them, is scarcely a new one. In the end, however, for all the stress upon its own contemporaneity – and for all Berardi’s own like-ability – The Uprising has little more to offer than a reassertion of the romantic form of such an idea itself.