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Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (Bologna, 1949) is a post-Marxist philosopher and theoretician who plays an important role in the Italian autonomist movement. After graduating in Aesthetics at the University of Bologna, Berardi founded A/Traverso fanzine and was the driving force behind Radio Alice, the first pirate radio station in Italy. He has lived in Paris, where he met Guattari, in New York and San Francisco. In 2002 he launched TV Orfeo, the first community television station in the country. Today Berardi teaches at the Brera Academy (Milan). He has written numerous essays on the transformations of labour and communication processes in post-industrial capitalist societies. For more than forty years he has followed the mutations of social subjectivity and has been reflecting on resistance movements in the context of hyper-capitalism.
Barcelona, 11 November. We meet Berardi one hour before the presentation of Fenomenología del fin (Caja Negra Editora, Madrid, 2017) at La Central del Raval bookshop, Spanish translation of And: Phenomenology of the End published by Semiotext(e), The MIT Press, Los Angeles, 2015.
I would like to start with the Internet as a mass means of dissemination. Your work has focused on how technology and the digital environment transform our ability to feel. What about its relationship with aesthetic theory, insofar as it refers to the sensitive?
I have always been drawn to the relationship between technology and aesthetic forms. At first I was interested in social movements, but with the appearance of free radios in Italy in 1976-1977 my focus shifted to the connection between social movement and technology, particularly the aesthetic and artistic forms they entail. My problem was conceptualising the radiophonic phenomenon, which is why Radio Alice (where we were all, literally, on the same wave length) focused on poetic communication linked to the autonomous social movement. As early as the seventies the connection between movement, art form and technology was characterised by a radical novelty now known as ‘network’, which in those days evoked communicational and political possibilities. The novelty at Radio Alice was the connection between the telephone and the microphone, i.e., transmission. While it may seem trivial today, it was quite groundbreaking in Italy at that time —anyone who rang the station would come on live. It was so revolutionary that Bologna’s right-wing newspaper accused us of promoting an obscene form of communication.
I understand that as a radio listener, telephone participation is a form of two-directional communication, as opposed to the state of pure receptiveness in which we watch television…
Exactly. For the group, immediate and two-directional telephone connection was a new paradigm compared to the centrality of radio and television communications of the period. In fact, to be more precise, in recent decades the media battle is between the telephone as a multicentric, reticular and rhizomatous medium and television as an essentially central and one-directional medium. The birth and telematic development of the Internet as a medium implies the interconnection of both levels, the rhizomatous and the central, i.e., the screen and the telephone.
During my sojourn in San Francisco in the late eighties, my connections with cyber-culture were strengthened. I met people who were removed from European political culture yet whose aesthetic and communicational choices were similar to mine. Cyber-culture as a phenomenon is rooted in California, and is an extension of the counterculture of the sixties, of the Free Speech Movement and particularly of cyberpunk. I met William Gibson there, along with a number of other writers linked to cyberpunk literature. In the early nineties we saw the Net as a liberating utopia, a medium that would be able to extend the democratic dimension and broaden the possibilities of knowledge, make decisions, act in free and egalitarian ways in both economic and political terms. Cyber-culture made a great impact on my personal training; in fact, when I returned to Italy I put a lot of effort into launching the Internet as a cultural medium.
How did you intend to develop the Internet, in terms of a theory of the medium (I mean the medium as the focus of study in itself) or in terms of its cultural content?
In 1994 I was working for the University of Bologna and among the international conferences we organised was one titled Cibernauti (Cybernauts), the first symposium to reflect on new network technologies and cyber-culture in Italy, where we realised that the cyber utopia had to be compared to the cultural and psychic reality of audiences and of society. In those days (1996) I was beginning to write And: Phenomenology of the End — twenty years ago. I wanted to write about the communicational dynamics of the Net, ethics and art. But art on the Internet is an infinite field, its dimension is vast, and this was already the case when I began the text, and so I decided to investigate forms of communication regardless of aesthetic content; the actual form of the medium and how it transforms the perception, the psychic dimension and the unconscious of society at large. Today it is no longer necessary to say that utopia has become a dystopia, a much darker reality.
So if the growing exposure to a frenzied flux of information saturates our sensitivity, our time, do you think it even dominates our will?
The Internet is an infinite model from the mathematic point of view, on account of its interweavings and interconnections; a process that is continuously opening up to new scenarios. In today’s scenario, the links between reticular communication and political, social, erotica or relational action undergo a long-term – indeed irreversible – mutation that entails a true genetic change in cultural forms, not merely in certain forms of behaviour but in their actual psychic genealogy. In my opinion, two key phenomena distinguish this mutation: the first is the generation of infospherical processes. The informative stimulation is so dense, intense and fast that it transcends our capacity for conscious critical and emotional elaboration. The infospheric stimulus, what we call information, isn’t only made up of signs but also of nervous impulses that oblige us to react in one way or another. Throughout the modern age, criticism as a cognitive capacity has been the ability to differentiate, to critically elaborate the degree of truth or falsity of each statement or impulse. As the pace of the infosphere heightens and its impulses are multiplied ad infinitum, our critical capacity for decision-making is reduced and emotional elaboration becomes confused and creates panic. Such is the case of fake news or post-truth: the problem isn’t that politicians lie (they’ve always lied), but that the collective mind is no longer able to criticise. Paul Horner, a key distributor of fake news in the American election of 2016, showed his surprise when he said that people had become totally stupid. I don’t believe it, I just think that they don’t care; it’s just another impulse.
The second phenomenon is the de-carnalisation and the de-eroticisation of words, of language. Freud declared that access to the dimension of language is essentially emotional. Italian philosopher Luisa Muraro asserts that what allows us to understand the correspondence between meaning and signifier is the relationship with the body of the mother, with her voice. A speaking human singularity has guaranteed this connection. Today, this guarantee has ceased to exist: I read that 80% of children aged two spend four hours a day before a screen; they learn more words from machines than they do from human voices. Hence, the formation of language, the entry into the world of communication, is machinal and the connection with the carnality of the voice is lost. I’m not technophobic, but I do think that this leads to a psychic precariousness that implies an inability to interpret signs in a unique way, hence interpretation becomes more syntactical, perfect, connective and patronymic. The dimension of ambiguity – gazes, smiles, allusions and the possibilities of interpretation that mankind has always had – now becomes hard, rigid, fixed, and eventually seems to propagate human inability to interrelate. According to Giorgio Agamben, the voice is the point where meaning and flesh come together, where the meaningful intention becomes an erotic, carnal singularity that does not only open the door to a happy life but also to the possibility of effective political and social communication.
And what about democracy? Has democracy also been replaced by machinal procedures, by algorithms for automatic selection? Has this dystopia become a new form of totalitarianism?
The contemporary neutralisation of democracy isn’t a political phenomenon; political egalitarianism is also a process of machinal homologation. In contemporary capitalism we should use the term governance instead of government — government implies the ability to distinguish between alternatives, to decide in a humane way. When the contemporary financial mechanism began to accelerate in the nineties, it was imposed as a form of governance, its processes were impossible to follow by the human mind, and the relationship between finance and other spheres of social life became automatic — sign and effect. Digital technology is perfect for automatising decision processes and we all have the impression that there is nothing we can do about it. We are living in an untrammelled neo-liberal financial dictatorship where democratic decisions aren’t respected. Democracy has been so decimated of late that I won’t mention them all. The coherence of the linguistic phenomenon of contemporary politics is totally connected to the automatisation of the key decisions that affect the relationship between community and everyday life. Freedom and the will to choose have no collective dimension. Power isn’t found on the streets, that’s just nostalgia. The streets are empty save for our bodies, as we saw with the 15M and Occupy movements. They were important because they represented a brainless body and an extracorporeal brain, and permitted a subjective reconnection yet without enabling us to win the war waged on the financial dictatorship. Finances are an abstraction, all we know is that they exist in numbers, algorithms and informational relations. They say that the centre is Silicon Valley; I don’t believe it, I think there are nodes all over the world that distribute power.
Can all this be applied to the case of Catalonia?
The feeling of the end of democracy is being identified with a new (or perhaps an old) form of collective politics: the return to the identitarian movement. The identification with a national, ethical or religious community seems to be a solution to the financial dictatorship. Look, I think that Barcelona is one of those nodes, a centre of creative, intellectual and computer production. Inside the network there are points capable of acting at sociopolitical and cultural levels, which in the age of cyber-cultural triumphalism were defined as ‘creative cities’ by Florida. Today these cities are chiefly centres of precarious cognitive work. This is what interests me about the Catalan revolt, not the identity cause, even though the latter has no doubt produced an interesting subjective effect. On the 1 October, to quote Santi López Petit, ‘I don’t wish anyone a state’, although if the Fascists say I can’t vote, I’ll certainly vote’. The problem isn’t to do with the constitution or with the creation of a republic; we’re not here to create states but to overthrow them. The state, that used to guarantee welfare, now assures that the people will pay the infinite and metaphysical debt of the central, universal, global bank that is merely an abstraction. The enemy isn’t in Madrid — there’s nothing in Madrid, only a combination of a particularly Fascist governance, the same governance we find across Europe, that becomes increasingly Fascist as the financial pressure becomes more unbearable.
So what can be done when there’s nothing to be done?
We must take advantage of adverse situations. The European Union should disintegrate once and for all, but not so that we can return to the national scale. As Eco declared twenty years ago, the European Union model is that of communal cities. In his humanist thinking, Eco defines these as places of decision-making on collective experiences. The European project expired after Maastricht and the economic crisis of 2008 to become a neo-liberal tool in the hands of the global financial dictates. Leaving it means withdrawing, autonomising, emancipating the conjunctive nodes of the global network from the intellectual and cognitive domains. We must reactivate the urban conjunctive dimension through insurrection, understood as the instrument that allows us to present all the possibilities of a body and of a subjective condition. Our intention isn’t to counteract the machine, but to develop it in our own interest, with its useful, enriching, egalitarian and libertarian potentialities that capitalism renders impossible.
Text: María Muñoz. The conversation with Franco Berardi was held in Spanish.
 Cyber-culture: knowledge, customs, lifestyles and expressions derived from the use of computers, mobile telephones and other technological devices linked to cyberspace, an artificial environment generated by computer systems.
 Free Speech Movement, 1964. See http://fsm.berkeley.edu/free-speech-movement-timeline/
 Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that reflects dystopian visions of the future that combine advanced technology and low standards of living (hackers as dissidents, rebel punks).
 Infospherical, belonging to the infosphere. The most widespread conceptualisation is offered by Luciano Floridi, who turns to the biosphere to indicate the informative environment in the ensemble formed by all informative bodies, including agents, their properties, interactions, processes and mutual relations.
 Luisa Muraro, The Symbolic Order of the Mother, Suny Press, New York, 2018.
 Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death, University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
 Richard Florida, Cities and the Creative Class, Routledge, New York, 2005.
 Article by Santiago López Petit, ‘Tomar posición en una situación’, published in Eldiario.es on 29 September 2017. Available at http://www.eldiario.es/interferencias/Catalunya-independencia_6_691940826.html
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