The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi
Italian thinker and media activist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi is an important figure of today’s Leftist European theory. Having joined the Italian Communist Youth Federation in 1962 at the age of 14, he is often associated with the autonomist Anarcho-Marxist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as operaismo. He has developed theories and praxis that simultaneously confirm, challenge and expand on established modes of Marxist philosophy and aesthetics. His latest English-language book, written in direct response to the escalating financial crises of the last five years, proposes that poetry is a most effective form of opposition to the ruling classes’ doomed attempts at restoring capitalist ideology. And as ambitious and perhaps outrageous as this argument may appear, Berardi succeeds in making a compelling case for some of the key tenets of his thought-provoking thesis.
Early on in the book, Berardi states that the aim of his essay is to subvert ‘the subjugation of the biopolitical sphere of affection and language to financial capitalism’. He begins his detailed and lively discussion of this subjugation by analysing the mechanics and dynamics of today’s late-capitalist, hyper-postmodern digitised milieu in which – on par with commodities being deprived of their use value and deformed into properly useless yet overvalued virtual signifiers – words are also emptied of actual referents and are turned into groundless, disembodied and ‘deregulated’ signs.
The resulting phenomena, which he terms symbolic insolvency and semio-inflation, constitute a rabid and uncontrollable imbalance between the increasing supply of deterritorialised signifiers (via the internet and other electronic media) and the shrinking demand for these meaningless, ineffective signs. As such, the consequences of the irrational yet financially desirable disentanglement between a commodity’s use value and its exchange value under the aegis of technocratic neoliberalism make for an irresolvable aesthetico-emotional crisis:
When the relation between the signifier and the signified is no longer guaranteed by the presence of the body, my affective relation to the world starts to be disrupted. My relationship to the world becomes functional, operational – faster, if you will, but precarious. This is the point where precariousness starts. At the point of disconnection between the language and the body.
Berardi sees the marks of this precarity and disconnection in today’s ‘landscape of psychic breakdown’ – ‘a growing fragility of the affective relations, and an increase in mental pathologies’ – and believes that poetry may well provide us with an antidote, with a ‘semiotic concatenation’ between language and the body. After the French theorist Félix Guattari, Berardi proposes that the poetic device of refrain, for example, could prompt the deregulated signifier ‘to latch onto the environment. Cosmic, terrestrial, social, and affective environments can be grasped and internalised thanks to refrains that we have in our minds, in our sensitive and sensible brains.’
Observations similar to Berardi’s have been made by a range of Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers over the last 40 years – most notably by his compatriot Antonio Negri – but Berardi’s unique style conflates a genuine passion for radical change with a logical analysis of our contemporary conditions. Among the key strengths of his thinking is his lucid communication of the complex ideas commonly associated with poststructuralist thought, and his insightful presentation of these as diagnoses rather than directives. While many a North American (and Australian) writer, student and academic of the last few decades has come to view the symptoms of the postmodern condition – fluidity, fragmentation, virtuality, deterritorialisation and so on – as supposedly radical notions to be championed and propagated, Berardi sees these as undeniable albeit ‘nightmarish’ values of neoliberal capitalism that should be resisted:
Inside the precarious conditions of labour, collective breath is fragmented, submitted to the accelerating rhythms of the virtual machine: the fractal fragmentation of labour is parallel and complementary to the fractalisation of financial capital. Financial capitalism is deterritorialised and virtual, and acts as a constant recombination of virtual fragments of abstract ownership.
Berardi is, however, rather vague apropos of how poetry is capable of re-territorialisation and opposing fragmentation. While this book includes a number of wonderfully robust and stimulating definitions of poetry – e.g. poetry ‘creates new pathways of signification and opens the way to a reactivation of the relation between sensibility and time’ or ‘poetry opens the doors of perception to singularity’ – it is also noticeably short on examples of a poetry capable of performing the patently difficult and paradoxical task of, on the one hand, representing/replicating ‘the infospheric pollution of the psychosphere’ and, on the hand, offering ‘a therapy treating the disturbed organism’.
The only two poems quoted in the essay are by the popular early twentieth-century German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke, an apt citation in so far as Rilke’s poetry is emotionally rich and, by and large, devoid of modernist fragmentation and abstraction. But is one to also conclude that, according to Berardi, the only kind of poetry capable of opposing capitalism is a mystical sonnet or elegy featuring angels and ancient myths? Berardi’s closing remarks on the efficacy of irony further complicate his argument. Whatever one’s view on Rilke’s poetry and the more recent New Ageist enthusiasms for his work, one would find it rather difficult to detect anything whatsoever ironic in the Bohemian-Austrian lyrist’s work. Furthermore, in the light of the recent and rather influential critiques of irony – by, among others, Slavoj Žižek and the late David Foster Wallace – I for one find it quite hard to get particularly excited about an artistic mode which is now the defining aesthetic of many a Hollywood comedy, Pixar cartoon and pay TV sitcom.
I feel, at any rate, very grateful for having read The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. While Berardi leaves a number of questions (intentionally?) unanswered, he succeeds brilliantly in posing these questions and persuading us of their significance. He leaves one in little doubt over contemporary culture and cultural products’ role in alienating and sickening us both as their creators and their consumers, and he encourage us to imagine a poetry capable of reconnecting and curing us of the disease of capitalist ideology. Both he and his publishers – the indefatigable semiotext(e) – are to be congratulated for the creation of this very pertinent book.