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Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, "Reassessing Recomposition: 40 Years After the Publication of Anti-Oedipus"

Reassessing Recomposition: 40 Years After the Publication of Anti-Oedipus
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

1. Post-Oedipal
The process of subjectivation is based on conditions that have dramatically changed in the forty years since the publication of Deleuze and Guttari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Reading that book was a defining moment in my intellectual and political experience, in the first years of the 19070s, when students and workers were fighting and organizing spaces of autonomy and separation from capitalist exploitation. Forty years after the publication of that book the landscape has changed so deeply that very concept of desire has to be re-thought, as it is marking the field of subjectivation in a very different way.

The proliferation of sources of enunciation in this age of the networks, the globalization of the economy and the media, was predicted and in a sense pre-conceptualized Deleuze and Guattari, but they could not know in advance the effects that global capitalism has produced on the unconscious and the dynamics of desire. As production, media and daily life have been subsumed into the sphere of semiocapital we need to reconsider the unconscious from this transformed position.

My starting question is thus: what is capitalism and what is schizophrenia after the psychosocial landscape has been reshaped by the tendencies described by Deleuze and Guattari?

Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus described, or better yet, mapped in advance the waste and proliferating land of rhizomatic capitalism that we see now deployed in the forms of neoliberal deregulation and financial semiocapitalism. They also mapped the formation of the schizo-psychosphere, in which today the psychosis is taking the central place of neurosis as prevailing clinic condition.

Shortly after its publication Anti-Oedipus encountered and inspired a movement that was the expression of the first generation of precarious cognitive workers, a movement which, while continuing the legacy of May 1968, was opening a post-ideological wave, based on the concepts of desire and autonomy. In the streets of Bologna in the year 1977 students yelled ‘anti-oedipal’ slogans rather than celebrating Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. Those students found in that book the joy of unleashing desire as energy of social solidarity and creation.

When we first read that book in the 1970s we understood it as a claim of liberating desire from the chains of industrial work, from sexual and social repression. This was a legitimate reading, but it was also too narrow, too simplistic. Now the chains of capitalism have become immaterial and semiotic, and psychic suffering does not come so much from repression but mainly from the hyper-expressive compulsion, from competition and acceleration of the infosphere.

In the 1970s we did read that book as a critique of the Freudian reduction of the unconscious to the theatrical dimension, and a critique to the Lacan’s reduction of the unconscious to language. This was a legitimate way to read the book, and a good political starting point.

“Quelque chose se produit: des effets de machine, et non des metaphores” – “Something is happening: machine effects, not metaphors.” We read in the first page of the book, and this was a good introduction to a critique of the logocentrism implied in Freudian and Lacanian cult of interpretation. But beyond that today we should understand what has changed in social imagination and in the collective psychosphere in the decades that come after the publication of this book, which has to be read today as a prefiguration of the new phenomenology of precarious work and the new pathologies of psychic suffering.

We identified desire as a force, and rhizomes as revolutionary models, as we tried to fully develop the liberation of collective life from the repressive tangles of industrial capitalism, and simultaneously from the centric and authoritarian model of the disciplinary state. In my opinion that interpretation was politically legitimate, particularly in the context of unemployment, the precariousness of young people, and persisting political power of the working class, but it was narrow and reductive from a philosophical point of view. Forty years later, in my opinion, we have to abandon the emphasis on the liberating potential of desire and of schizoid expressivity, and replace the assumption of infinite energy of desire with a new consciousness of exhaustion, a consciousness of the limits of living organisms.

Desiring expressivity and rhizomatic proliferation, the processes that the book conceptualized, have been strong factors of change, dismantling the repressive and neurotic form of capitalist domination in its industrial phase. But in the meanwhile, the features of a new model of economic power have emerged, and this new model is based on the topological structure of the rhizome, and is acting as a powerful attractor for the economic investment of desire.

In the 1970s we emphasized the liberating force of desire, and movements deconstructed the neurotic cage of alienated labor and sexual repression. In the 1990s, as language was captured in the process of semiotic production and desire invested in the creative economy and in the financial abstraction, we have to face the ambiguity of desire, which is not a unilaterally progressive force, liberating and joyous. Strictly speaking desire is not even a force, but a field, and the field where the most important action of social communication occur. The basic processes of disaggregation and re-aggregation for power and social movements are happening in the field of desire. This is the fundamental discovery of that book. But this discovery has turned into a misunderstanding.

We translated the words of Anti-Oedipus into the idea that desire is in itself a force of liberation, and thus we did not see the pathogenic effects of the acceleration and intensification of the info-stimuli, that are linked to the formation of the electronic infosphere and to precarization of work.

2. Limit
1972 was also the year of publication of a book titled Limits to the Growth produced by a group of scientists assembled by the Club of Rome. Asserting that physical resources of the planet are not boundless, the book contained an important conceptual intuition: economic growth cannot be infinite because basic physical resources are doomed to run out. The Arab-Israeli war of 1973 seemed to confirm this. It showed that the fundamental assumptions of capitalist ideology needed to be rethought and a new political culture developed based on the idea of un-growth.

Similarly, the psychic energies of cognitive work are not boundless, as the organic, psychic and cultural limits of the social body are limits to the potency of the general intellect, and a limit to desire itself. The core of clinic and political attention needs to shift: from the field of the expanding potency of the general intellect and desire to the field of psycho-pathologies of the first generation of precarious cognitive work. The acceleration of the infosphere, the unceasing intensification of mental work, that semiocapital is constantly stimulating, has to be seen as factors of the fragilization of the psychic fabric of social composition. This was foreseen by Deleuze and Guattari in the last part of their lives. In their last book What is philosophy?, particularly the last chapter, dedicated to Chaos and the brain Deleuze and Guattari write:

We require just a little order to protect us from chaos. Nothing is more distressing than a thought that escapes itself, than ideas that fly off, that disappear hardly formed, already eroded by forgetfulness or precipitated into others that we no longer master.

What is philosophy? is a book on aging, as the authors state in the introduction. Aging, suffering, physical and psychic decay – the continent of exhaustion – that were hidden in the triumphal emphasis of our political reading of Anti-Oedipus, emerge here as a new perspective for imagining and conceptualizing the process of subjectivation in the sphere of semiocapitalism.

The schizo-strategy outlined in the pages of Anti-Oedipus was a way to escape the Freudian phenomenology of neurosis. The psychotic explosion of the high-speed semiocapital is changing the landscape. Neoliberal deregulation and network proliferation have deterritorialized the process of subjectivation, and opened the door to the explosion of the repressive cage of industrial labor and of paternal power of interdiction. As the repressive borders of unconscious and labor explode, precariousness becomes the social form of indetermination and uncertainty in the psychogenesis.

In his recent book, Man without Unconscious, Massimo Recalcati (an Italian psychoanalyst and philosopher who is trying to redraw the conceptual relation between Lacan and Deleuze and Guattari) lists the emerging diseases of our time: panic, food disorders, dependence on toxic substances, attention deficit disorders: pathologies that cannot be easily referred to the Freudian analysis, and demand a new context of interpretation, the context of post-Fordist, postindustrial deterritorialization, the context of labor precariousness. I call this context semiocapital because the general product is no more the physical good but the immaterial semiotic products: information, affection, and aesthetics. Countless users can consume these products without exhausting them, circulating in the market of attention, invading mental space, and producing effects in the cognitive, but also affective and psychic spheres.

In the sphere of semiocapital the production of semiotic goods provokes an expansion and acceleration of the infosphere, directly affecting the psychosphere, i.e. the affective, sexual and imaginary dimensions. Consequently the relation between the production process and unconscious comes to be much more immediate and complex than in the industrial age, where production and consumption involved the collective psychic sphere only in an indirect way. Freud’s psychoanalysis was intended to bring the plague into the disciplinary space of conformist bourgeois society, opening the door to the vision of unconscious abysses. The bourgeois society, which tried to deny and remove the disturbing features of sexuality was obliged to look at itself in the mirror of sexual psychogenesis.

Now we inhabit a totally different condition marked by the explosion of imagination, by the hyper-sexualization of media imagery, and the precarization of social connections. Psychosis is no longer confined to the separated sphere of institutionalized madness, but is exploding in the daily dimension as a factor of constant deterritorialization of the activity of imagination and desire.
We cannot face this new situation with the conceptual tools of the Freudian analysis, but at the same time also the categories of schizoanalysis need to be rethought.

Free from the neurogenic cage of the disciplinary society, the unconscious exploded and is proliferating in full daylight, naked and provocative in the dimensions of advertising, pornography and popular diffusion of psychopharmacology and cocaine, and the media hyper-stimulation of attention. Should we reclaim the restoration of the old moral order, of the slow family life, of the hierarchical territorialized system of the Protestant bourgeoisie in the old industrial cities? Obviously not, because this claim would be reactionary and ineffective. But we should not insist on the mere exhibition of the plague, on the mere emphasizing the infinite potencies of desire. Constantly mobilized by the economic machine, shifting from a simulation to the next under-promise of immediate pleasure, desire is turning to panic. The precarious generation is haunted by countless contradictory injunctions: enjoyment and acceleration, expression and competition, freedom and anxiety, creativity and exploitation. What is the way towards subjectivation in these new conditions?

3. Body
In order to imagine paths of social recomposition in the poet-oedipal condition that I have tried to sketch out in these pages we need to understand that the crucial problem, both at the political and at clinical levels, is the bodily dimension of the general intellect. This is why I speak of cognitarians, in order to define the cognitive workers in conditions of precariousness. Precarity is jeopardizing the sphere of affection and language, but we cannot cherish the idea of a comeback to the old times of the ‘standardized’ employment and social discipline. We should find a way to disentangle the potentialities of the new condition starting from an understanding of its alienation. This is why I use the word “cognitariat.” In this concept I want to underline the implication of the intellect and of the body, the denial of this implication, and the separation of mental activity from the social body.

Since 2001, Christian Marazzi has been warning of the dismantling of the general intellect, a process that started after the dotcom crash of the spring 2000. As he predicted, during the first decade of the new century cognitive labor has been disempowered and subjected to the form of precarization. The social and affective body of the cognitive workers has been separated from their daily activities. The alienation of the first generation of people who have learned more words from a machine than from their mother is based on this separation, on the virtualization of social relations. In the last two or three years, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, riots and huge demonstrations have exploded in many European cities, and seem destined to spread and gather strength in the coming years. But it is difficult to imagine what the forms of the struggle will be, as financial capitalism is deterritorialized and virtual, and therefore it is impossible to zero in on a social target, to attack a delimited enemy, as the enemy is nowhere and everywhere. So what is the issue of the mobilization against financial capitalism, if financial capital is impossible to locate and to contest?

At the same time, the possibility of a revolution seems to be out of reach, as social reality has become too complex, and replacing the ruling class seems useless, as a specific ruling class strictly speaking no longer exists. The financial class is not a territorialized class, as the industrial bourgeoisie used to be, it is rather a transversal function, recombining countless fragmentary actions of net-trading, exchanging stocks, producing simulations and so on. Economic power and political power are not the emanation of a rational decision, but a recombinant function, traversing the boundless sprawl of digital financial exchange. How can this ocean of fragments be subverted, how can a rational direction be imposed on this constellation of segments? It is not possible.

So why are people taking to the streets, and fighting against the police, and destroying the shops and the banks? Old rituals coming from the proletarian revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth century? Perhaps, in a certain way, yes: old rituals have become ineffective as the city is no more a place of social life, but a simulacrum, and the enemy is no more identifiable and targetable. But we should see another face in this kind of mobilization, one that is not aimed towards aggression and destruction, but towards self-recognition and recomposition.

The cognitarians of this generation are going to the streets to recompose their social and affective bodies. They are reactivating their bodily relations with the metropolitan territory. Riots are reshaping the perception of urban territory, and the perception of the complicity between bodies. From this point of view the students’ struggles that exploded in fall 2010 are not to be seen as a sudden outburst of rage, but as the beginning of a long-lasting process that will encompass the next decade, a cognitarian insurrection of sort. Insurrection means rising up, and also full deployment of the potencies of the actor. The actor who is coming out on the historical scene of our time is the general intellect in its process of subjectivation. The potencies of this actor are the potencies of the collective intelligence in the network, the potencies of knowledge, reduced to the narrow dogmatic utilization that capitalist economy is forcing on them.

The full deployment of the general intellect falls beyond the sphere of capitalism. When the general intellect will be able to reconstitute its social and erotic body, the capitalist rule will become obsolete. This is the new consciousness that comes out from the explosion of the last months of 2010 from reclaiming the autonomy of knowledge. The process of social recomposition is essentially the process of reactivation of the body of the general intellect, whose social existence is constrained in the precarious fragmentary form.