Bifo’s Biopolitics

| February 11, 2012

From Berardi, Bifo: “Biopolitics and Connective Mutation.”  Culture Machine Vol.7, 2005 (link):

In the last decades, the organism has been exposed to an increasing mass of neuro-mobilizing stimuli. The acceleration and intensification of nervous stimulants on the conscious organism seems to have thinned the cognitive film that we might call sensibility. The conscious organism needs to accelerate its cognitive, gestural, kinetic reactivity. The time available for responding to nervous stimuli has been dramatically reduced. This is perhaps why we seem to be seeing a reduction of the capacity for empathy. Symbolic exchange among human beings is elaborated without empathy, because it becomes increasingly difficult to perceive the existence of the body of the other in time. In order to experience the other as a sensorial body, you need time, time to caress and smell. The time for empathy is lacking, because stimulation has become too intense.

[…]  Reducers of complexity such as money, information, stereotypes or digital network interfaces have simplified the relationship with the other, but when the other appears in flesh and blood, we cannot tolerate its presence, because it hurts our (in)sensibility. The video-electronic generation does not tolerate armpit or pubic hair. One needs perfect compatibility in order to interface corporeal surfaces in connection. Smooth generation. Conjunction finds its ways through hairs and the imperfections of exchange. It is capable of analogical reading, and heterogeneous bodies can understand each other even if they do not have an interfacing language.

The destruction of the inter-human sensory film has something to do with the techno-informational universe, but also with the capitalistic disciplining of corporeality…

~Berardi’s argument focuses on the accelerated temporality of exchange, of ‘communication’ writ broadly.  This acceleration has the effect of emphasizing the discreteness of digital codes over the continuity of their ‘analog’ channels; simply put, language is privileged over the body.  This speeding-up of interactivity therefore presupposes what Berardi refers to as a mutation; one which remains effectively invisible to ‘psychological’ specialists on account of their tacit commitment (inherent in their self-designation as ‘scientists’) to a kind of cognitive naturalism that Berardi refers to as ‘structuralist’:

The first videoelectronic generation is experiencing a mutation, and the social, political and technical future depends on the effects of this mutation. But in the tradition of the cognitive sciences, the notion of mutation is not acceptable, because the epistemological foundations of these sciences remain anchored to a premise of a structuralist nature. In effect, cognitivism considers the human mind as a device that functions according to innate and unchangeable rules. Cognitivism cannot see how the environment acts on the concrete and particular modes of functioning of the mind.

~On the other hand, Berardi’s vital, exuberant anti-authoritarianism sometimes seems to do little to distinguish itself from the lurking specter of that reactionary, conservative ‘other’ of the enlightened, cosmopolitan neoliberal hegemony that he rightly critiques.  Caught between untenable alternatives, it is easy to get caught up in interminable oscillations…  If the cognitivists (and the economists, i.e.; essentialists of every stripe) have been seduced by the efficiency of their maps (and professional interests) into losing sight of the territories they’ve been occupying increasingly thickly (and surely beyond carrying capacities?), their critics often unwittingly rely on borrowed arguments in order to attempt to displace them from these niches, and thus end up recapitulating the essentialist structure.  This all, of course, part of Berardi’s point (as it was Foucault’s).  His insistence on the inability of the structuralists to think mutation (which also brings to mind Catherine Malabou’s work on plasticity) harkens back to McLuhan’s argument that new media ‘alter our sense ratios’:

In general we can say that the expansion of a specific cognitive function redefines the whole of cognition. The exposure of the conscious organism to videoelectronics amplifies competencies of a configurational type such as the ability to decode complex visual ensembles or to develop multiple processes of interaction simultaneously. But at the same time it reshapes other competencies, such as the ability to react emotionally to stimuli that are drawn out in time or the capacity to perceive temporal depth.

~Obviously this all has rather spectacularly destabilizing implications for an educational theory currently dominated by a disembodied cognitivism of the most scientistic and ineffectual kind.  The conservative angle on these arguments, which Berardi sometimes worries me by his tacit endorsement of (if only via his failure to explicate it more precisely!), is complicit with its ‘other’, in much the same way that, for Foucault, the dispositifs of ‘disciplinary society’ -schools; police; the justice system (all connected by intellectual techniques for identifying juvenile delinquents); segregationist patterns of urban and international development; etc.- have been securely embedded in the dispersed, neoliberal landscape of post-industrial cosmopolitanism that Deleuze, citing Burroughs, referred to as ‘control society‘.  This is actually where Berardi begins his essay:

The concept of biopower designates that which brings life and its mechanisms within the realm of calculus, in other words, that which makes knowledge an agent of the technical transformation of human life. Deleuze proposes the concept of ‘control society’ as a means to fully develop such an idea. Deleuze was a great reader of William Burroughs and Burroughs imaginatively anticipated the passage to the fully biopolitical age, that age whose dispositifs no longer present a molar character (such as the school, the prison, the factory, the asylum) but essentially molecular features, which are intrinsic to the very genesis of the conscious organism. We move here from the phase of industrial discipline to that of the mutation of the organism, taking place through the inoculation of mutagenic principles, and the cabling of psychic, cognitive, genetic and relational circuits. We might replace the word ‘control’ with ‘cabling’. Biogenic cabling. Techno-linguistic cabling of the human brain’s printed circuit, cabling human brains in connection. By the concept of dispositif, Foucault means those machinic concatenations which are able to externally predispose the linguistic, psychic and relational formations of conscious organisms in the modern age. By cabling we mean the insertion of dispositifs inside the biologic, genetic, cognitive routes of formation in the age that comes after the end of modernity. The process of mutation that takes place during the formation of the first video-electronic generation can thus be described as the cabling of emerging subjectivities performed by techno-biological and technocognitive automatisms.

~Perhaps what Berardi is missing, like so many other writers on this topic, is an explicit theorization of the problematic that links this line of thought intrinsically to the complex network of its many ‘poststructuralist’ peers; theoretical work can no longer simply be ‘elaborated’, but must be adapted through application and the concomitant mutation that Berardi is at such pains to describe.  It cannot be ‘described’!  These theories aren’t meant to be ‘extended’ or ‘developed’ or even ‘applied’
to stably-existing and identifiable fields from which they exist at some (aristocratic) remove.  Rather, they are themselves ’embedded’ in their contents; they represent and are represented by the map/territory ‘short-circuit’ that makes the effects they designate possible.  They are as much the vectors of the transformation that they seek to articulate as they are the residual indices of the (failed) revolution that they have sought to conjure into being.  In this perhaps we can catch a glimpse of their potential: perhaps we can take them to represent not only the limitations of the respective pseudo-disciplines in which they appear, but also the locus of a massive immanent conflation of those disciplines the legitimacy of whose operational boundaries and corporate identities they seek to challenge and destabilize.  In this work and its rhizomatic brethren we can see the inklings -the tricklings and drippings- of a condensation, a pooling, that would neither be merely ‘theoretical’ nor predictably ‘practical’, but would be something that is both: both, and neither.