franco berardi on Sun, 7 Nov 2010 18:37:47 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> cognitarian subjectivation

Recent years have witnessed a new techno-social framework of contemporary
subjectivation. And I would like to ask whether a process of autonomous,
collective self-definition is possible in the present age. The concept of
???general intellect??? associated with Italian post-operaist thought in the
1990s (Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, Christian Marazzi) emphasizes the
interaction between labor and language: social labor is the endless
recombination of myriad fragments producing, elaborating, distributing, and
decoding signs and informational units of all kinds. Every semiotic segment
produced by the information worker must meet and match innumerable other
semiotic segments in order to form the combinatory frame of the
info-commodity, semiocapital.

Semiocapital puts neuro-psychic energies to work, submitting them to
mechanistic speed, compelling cognitive activity to follow the rhythm of
networked productivity. As a result, the emotional sphere linked with
cognition is stressed to its limit. Cyberspace overloads cybertime, because
cyberspace is an unbounded sphere whose speed can accelerate without limits,
while cybertime (the organic time of attention, memory, imagination) cannot
be sped up beyond a certain point???or it cracks. And it actually is cracking,
collapsing under the stress of hyper-productivity. An epidemic of panic and
depression is now spreading throughout the circuits of the social brain. The
current crisis in the global economy has much to do with this nervous
breakdown. Marx spoke of overproduction, meaning the excess of available
goods that could not be absorbed by the social market. But today it is the
social brain that is assaulted by an overwhelming supply of
attention-demanding goods. The social factory has become the factory of
unhappiness: the assembly line of networked production is directly
exploiting the emotional energy of the cognitive class.

I wish to pinpoint the problem of organic limits, which is often eclipsed by
an emphasis on the limitless potential of technology. We should speak of
technology in context, and the present context of technology is culturally
oriented towards economic competition. Info-producers are neuro-workers.
Their nervous systems act as active receiving terminals. They are sensitive
to semiotic activation throughout the entire day. What emotional, psychic,
existential price does the constant cognitive stress of permanent cognitive
electrocution exact? The acceleration of network technologies, the general
condition of precariousness, and the dependence on cognitive labor all
induce pathological effects in the social mind, saturating attention time,
compressing the sphere of emotion and sensitivity, as is shown by
psychiatrists who have observed a steep increase in manic depression and
suicide in the last generation of workers.

The colonization of time has been a fundamental issue in the modern history
of capitalist development: the anthropological mutation that capitalism
produced in the human mind and in daily life has, above all, transformed the
perception of time. But we are now leaping into the unknown???digital
technologies have enabled absolute acceleration, and the short-circuiting of
attention time. As info-workers are exposed to a growing mass of stimuli
that cannot be dealt with according to the intensive modalities of pleasure
and knowledge, acceleration leads to an impoverishment of experience. More
information, less meaning. More information, less pleasure.

Sensibility is activated in time. Sensuality is slow. Deep, intense
elaboration becomes impossible when the stimulus is too fast. A process of
desensitization is underway at the point where electronic cyberspace
intersects with organic cybertime. The prospect of individual
subjectivation, and of social subjectivation, has to be reframed in this
context, and a series of radical question arise: Is it still possible to
envisage a process of collective subjectivation and social solidarity? Is it
still possible to imagine a ???movement??? in the sense of a collective process
of intellectual and political transformation of reality? Is it still
possible to forge social autonomy from capitalist dominance in the
psycho-economic framework of semiocapitalism?

Dismantling General Intellect
The refusal of work???which is better defined as a refusal of the alienation
and exploitation of living time???has been the main engine of innovation, of
technological development and knowledge. The organic composition of capital
(as a relationship between dead labor and living labor) progressively
changed throughout the twentieth century as the workers??? resistance, their
sabotage and insubordination, forced capitalists to hire engineers to
replace human labor with machines. Similarly, the intellectualization of
human activity is???from any perspective???a consequence of the workers???
insubordination and resistance to exploitation. When the cost of labor
increases (as happened in the 1960s and ???70s), the capitalist replaces
worker with machine, as the machine is less costly in the long run. Since
the massive wave of industrial workers??? resistance, information technology
has helped to replace human toil with intelligent machines, and this has
provoked the enhancement of the sphere of intellectual labor and cognitive
activity linked to value production.

The ???90s were a decade of alliances: cognitive labor and venture capital met
and merged in the dot-com. Expectations were high, judging by the amount of
investment, and creativity became an inherent feature of social labor. Then,
after the dot-com bubble burst in spring of 2000, neoliberalism broke the
alliance of cognitive labor and venture capital. Using technology itself,
neoliberalism managed to subvert the social and political rapport de force
between labor and capital. As far as we can see now, the result of
neoliberal politics is a general reduction of labor cost and an
impoverishment of the cognitarians. Both industrial labor, delocalized to
the peripheral areas of the world, and cognitive labor, are devalued and
underpaid, as precarization has fragmented and finally destroyed social
solidarity. In this new context, defined by precarization of cognitive
labor, we must rethink the question of subjectivation.

Just after the financial collapse of spring 2000, the dot-com crash and the
crumbling of big corporations like Enron and WorldCom, the Swiss philosopher
and economist Christian Marazzi, a sharp analyst of the social implications
of financial crises, wrote an article on the danger of privatizing the
general intellect, in which he predicted the trend that ten years later is
in full swing: the reduction of research financing, the manipulation and
militarization of state-financed research, and the impoverishment and
precarization of cognitive labor.1

If we look at the politics of the European neoliberal ruling class, we see
that they are doing exactly this: in some countries (such as Italy) they are
reducing the financing for school and for research, privatizing public
school, and provoking a large-scale de-scholarization that has already begun
showing signs of producing widespread ignorance and fanaticism. In some
countries (like France), they increasingly limit the public financing of
research to that which can immediately translate into the politics of
economic growth. Subjugating research to immediate economic interests
reduces the role of research, rendering it a mere tool for governance, for
the repetition of an existing framework of social activity. As cognitive
workers are forced into precarity, they are also denied the possibility of
deciding the scope of their own research. This obviously reduces the
creativity invested by cognitarians in their work, as well as the pace of
innovation and progress in technology.

In the long run, this trend obliterates the progressive features of
capitalism. As the cost of labor becomes so low that exploiting the physical
force of a worker costs less than looking for some technological
replacement, the push toward innovation slows to a halt. The interest in
immediate profit prevails over the long-term development of productive
force. Notwithstanding the shortsighted opinions prevailing in the field of
neoliberal economics, a decrease in labor cost suggest that the progressive
impulse of capitalism is fading; capitalism becomes a factor of
de-civilization, of intellectual and technological regression.

Cognitarians Searching for a Body
Cognitarians are those who embody the general intellect in its many forms:
they process information in order to give birth to goods and services. As
the cognitive function of society is inscribed in the process of capital
valorization, the infinitely fragmented mosaic of cognitive activity becomes
a fluid process within a universal telematic network, redefining the shape
of labor and capital. Capital becomes the generalized semiotic flux that
runs through the veins of the global economy, while labor becomes the
constant activation of the intelligence of countless semiotic agents linked
to one another.

Cognitarians are the social body of the soul at work in the sphere of
semiocapital, but this body is dimidiated in a sphere isolated from the
other???s body. The form of alienation that is spreading in the living sphere
of the cognitarians is a form of psychic suffering that escapes the Freudian
definition of neurosis. If Freud???s definition of neurosis lingered on
repression of desire, semiocapital is pushing demand for consumerist
hyper-expression: just do it. Panic, depression, and a de-activation of
empathy???it is here that we find the cognitariat???s problem.

Precarious cognitive workers are forced to think in terms of competition.
You can become friends with another person on Facebook, but genuine
friendship is difficult under conditions of virtual isolation and intense
economic competition. If we want to find the way towards autonomous
collective subjectivation we have to generate cognitarian awareness with
regard to an erotic, social body of the general intellect. The way to
autonomous and collective subjectivation starts here: from the general
intellect searching for a body.

Our main political task must be handled with the conceptual tools of
psychotherapy, and the language of poetry???much more than the language of
politics and the conceptual tools of modern political science. The political
organizer of cognitarians must be able to do away with panic and depression,
to speak in a way that sensibly enacts a paradigm shift, a resemiotization
of the social field, a change in social expectations and self-perception. We
are forced to acknowledge that we do have a body, a social and a physical
body, a socioeconomic body.

Cyber-optimists were fashionable in the ???90s, and they were able to
interpret the spirit of an alliance between venture capitalists and artists
or engineers. But the alliance was broken in the Bush years, when technology
was submitted to the laws of war, and financial capitalism provoked a
collapse that may still lead to the destruction of modern civilization.
Today, cyber-optimism sounds fake, like advertising for a rotten product. In
his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier, the same person who
engineered the tools of Virtual Reality, writes: "true believers in the hive
mind seem to think that no number of layers of abstraction in a financial
system can dull the efficacy of the system. According to the new ideology,
which is a blending of cyber-cloud and neo???Milton Friedman economics, the
market will not only do its best, it will do better the less people
understand it. I disagree. The financial crisis brought about by the U.S.
mortgage meltdown of 2008 was a case of too many people believing in the
cloud too much." 2

Governance and Cognitive Subjugation
In the present, agonizing phase of neoliberalism (an agony that is more
ferocious and destructive than the previous phases) European governments are
staging an assault on the educational system???and particularly on scientific
research???as a part of a war against cognitive labor, a war aimed at its
subjugation. The university system across Europe is based on a huge amount
of precarious, underpaid, or unpaid labor. Researchers and students have
staged protests against this trend, attempting to return the educational
system to its original vocation: a place of non-dogmatic knowledge, of the
public sharing of culture. Research should not be subjected to any
restraining criterion of functionality, because its very function is to
explore solutions that, although dysfunctional in the present paradigm, may
reveal new paradigmatic landscapes. This is the role of scientific research,
especially when we are facing conundrums that seem unresolvable within the
capitalist paradigm.

The European ruling class aims to reduce research to a method for the
governance of complexity. The ideology of governance is based on the
naturalization (hypostatization, I would say in Hegelian parlance) of
economic reasoning. The economy has achieved the status of a universal
language, of the ultimate standard of choice, whereas economics should be
just a branch of knowledge among others. The normative role that the economy
has acquired is unwarranted from an epistemological point of view, and
devastating at the social level. If research is subjected to economic
conceptualization, it is no longer research, but technical management. The
so-called reform of the European educational system launched in 1999 (the
year of the Bologna Charter) is aimed at the separation of applied research
from the questioning of the very foundations and finalities of scientific
knowledge, accompanied by the subjugation of research to standards set by
economic evaluation.

The epistemic implications of this move are enormous: to submit research to
the laws of economic growth obliterates the most important purpose of
knowledge, what Thomas Kuhn calls its ???paradigmatic??? function. The ability
to produce paradigm shifts in the field of knowledge and in the field of
experimentation depends on the autonomy of research from established
standards of evaluation. Only when research can work and discover and create
concepts regardless of established social interests can knowledge move
beyond repetition, and open new prospects to imagination and technology.

???Governance??? is the keyword for this process. Governance produces pure
functionality without meaning, the automation of thought and of will. It
embeds abstract connections in the relation between living organisms,
technologically subjecting choices to logical concatenation. It recombines
compatible (compatibilized) fragments of knowledge. Governance is the
replacement of political will with a system of automatic technicalities
forcing reality into a logical framework that cannot be questioned.
Financial stability, competitiveness, labor cost reduction, increase of
productivity: the systemic architecture of EU rule is based on such dogmatic
foundations that cannot be challenged or discussed, because they are
embedded in the technical function of managerial subsystems. No enunciation
or action is operational if it does not comply with embedded rules of
techno-linguistic dispositifs of daily exchange.

Governance is the management of a system that is too complex to be governed.
The word ???government??? means the understanding (as a reduction to a rational
model) of the social world, and the ability of the human will (despotic,
democratic, and so forth) to control a flow of information sufficient for
the control of a relevant part of the social whole. The possibility of
government requires a low degree of complexity with regard to social
information. Information complexity grew throughout the late modern age, and
exploded in the age of the digital network. Therefore, the reduction of
social information to comprehensive knowledge and political control becomes
an impossible task: control becomes aleatory, uncertain, almost impossible,
and an increasing number of events escape the organized will.

At this point, capitalism shifts to the mode of governance. It employs
abstract concatenation of technological functions in place of the conscious
processing of a flow of information. It connects asignifying segments in
place of dialogic elaboration. It automatically adapts in place of forming
consensus, using technical language in place of shared meaning resulting
from dialogue and conflict. In place of planning, it manages disruption. It
assesses the compatibility of agents entering the social game in place of
mediating conflicting political interests and projects. And it employs the
rhetoric of systemic complexity in place of a rhetoric of historical

Looking for Autonomy
As the governance model functions perfectly, in itself, it destroys the
social body. Conceptualizing the field of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener argued
that a system exhibiting positive feedback, in response to perturbation,
increases the magnitude of perturbation. In contrast, a system that responds
to a perturbation in a way that reduces its effect is said to exhibit
negative feedback.

A logic of positive feedback is installed in the connection between digital
technology and financial economy, because this connection tends to induce
technological automatisms, and psycho-automatisms too, leading to the
advancement of destructive tendencies. Look at the discourse of the European
political class (almost without exception): If deregulation produced the
systemic collapse with which the global economy is now confronted, we need
more deregulation. If lower taxation on high incomes led to a fall in
demand, let???s lower high-income taxation. If hyper-exploitation resulted in
the overproduction of unsold and useless cars, let???s intensify car

Are these people insane? I don???t think so. I think they are incapable of
thinking in terms of the future; they are panicking, terrorized by their own
impotence; they are scared. The modern bourgeoisie was a strongly
territorialized class, linked to material assets; it could not exist without
a relationship to territory and community. The financial class that
dominates the contemporary scene has no attachment to either territory or
material production, because its power and wealth are founded on the perfect
abstraction of a digitally multiplied finance.

And this digital-financial hyper-abstraction is liquidating the living body
of the planet, and the social body. Only the social force of the general
intellect can reset the machine and initiate a paradigm shift, but this
presupposes the autonomy of the general intellect, the social solidarity of
cognitarians. It presupposes a process of autonomous subjectivation of
collective intelligence.


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Lars Bang Larsen, Zombies of Immaterial Labor: the Modern Monster and the
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Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, Debt and Study
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Marjetica Potr??, New Territories in Acre and Why They Matter

copyright e-flux 2010
1 See Christian Marazzi, ???The Privatization of the General Intellect,???
trans. Nicolas Guilhot.

2 Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget (New York: Random House, 2010), 97.

Franco Berardi, aka "Bifo," founder of the famous "Radio Alice" in Bologna
and an important figure of the Italian Autonomia Movement, is a writer,
media theorist, and media activist. He currently teaches Social History of
the Media at the Accademia di Brera, Milan.

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