Expiration: the last breath
Franco “Bifo” Berardi
Excerpted from Breathing: Chaos and Poetry by Franco “Bifo” Berardi, published by Semiotext(e) © Franco “Bifo” Berardi, 2018. All Rights Reserved.
And we, who have always thought
of happiness as rising, would feel
the emotion that almost overwhelms us whenever a happy thing falls.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Tenth Elegy”
The Automaton and the Brute
Since 9/11, we have been living in a time of apocalypse. That day a war started between the Western powers and fanatical jihadists. Osama bin Laden won his confrontation with George W. Bush. This is the unspeakable truth that we are obliged to acknowledge more than fifteen years after the beginning of the endless and suicidal War on Terror. Bin Laden is dead, sure, but from the heavenly place where he dwells, he smiles as he watches the agonies the world’s most powerful country is immersed in as a consequence of his provocation, of the idiocy of the Bush-Cheney clan, and, most of all, of the invincible potency of chaos. Don’t forget that those who wage war against chaos will be defeated, as chaos feeds on war.
In 2016 we entered a new phase, which may be defined as one of global civil war: terror has taken the upper hand in the large majority of the world’s countries, and it is here to stay as the Western powers seem unable to understand that there is no question of military force when the fight is between cynicism and despair. Western domination has pushed the majority of the planet’s people into a condition of utter despair, while the neoliberal market has simultaneously enabled a cynical diffusion of weapons of all kinds. A large number of people of the last generation, particularly in the Islamic world but not only there, are in such despair that they would prefer to die than to live. This is why they are unstoppable; this is why they are winning. On August 24, 2017, CNN reported a declaration by KCNA, North Korea’s state-run news agency, that the “The US should not forget that their opponent is armed with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles” and should “wake up from their old way of thinking that their land is safe and the [sic] death is an affair of others.”1
The divide that is breaking apart the United Kingdom (leavers against remainers), the United States (liberals against supremacists), Spain (unionists against half of the Catalan population), and many other countries of the world is not a political divide, an opposition that could eventually be managed in a democratic context of ideological conflict. It is a cultural divide that is disintegrating the very foundations of society and leading toward forms of more or less deadly civil war. The unbridgeable divide may be viewed as an opposition between those who are culturally unable to come to terms with the processes of globalization and urban minorities who are culturally prepared to do so. This is not, essentially, an economic divide: not all those who refuse globalization have been disadvantaged by it, and, more importantly, not all those who resign to live inside the global horizon are profiting from it. Rather, this divide is essentially between the ability and inability to envision a new cosmopolitan dimension for the future. But the majority of the Western population is now rebelling against globalization and attempting to reclaim an impossible return to sovereignty. They will not get what they want because what they want is impossible, but their impotence will fuel more rage, more racism, and more aggressiveness.
Therefore I ask myself, can the apocalypse be averted, or mastered? As the concept of the anthropocene implies, it is already too late. “They have planted the wind and will harvest the whirlwind,” the Bible says.2 The trends of environmental devastation, military destruction, and social wreckage have now taken on an irreversible and self-feeding character; they tend to expand their effects, and they tend to eliminate possible countermeasures. Brutality is more and more dominating social relations, and the economic machine of production is ruled more and more by inescapable automatisms.
The Automaton and the Brute are the two separated forms of existence of our time: neuro- totalitarianism and global civil war are the forms of life looming on the horizon of the future.
Is There an Autopilot in Human Evolution?
According to an Oxfam report that was made public at the Davos conference in January 2018, in 2016 inequality peaked: 82 percent of the wealth produced that year was hijacked by the 1 percent of the world’s population that already owns two-thirds of the world’s wealth.3 This is not a joke or an exaggeration: this is a documented proof of the demented nature of financial absolutism. Like a drain pump, financial capitalism has been sucking life from the organism of human society, at a rate that is accelerating by the second.
The question is, why are people doing this? Why is a small fraction of humankind accumulating an unimaginable amount of wealth, while the gross majority of humankind is regressing toward misery? What motivates this enormous appropriation of common resources? Indeed, is there a motivation, or does the logic of financial accumulation automatically produce this irrational and immoral effect? Lastly, what is the point of accumulating and hoarding uncountable billions that could never all be exchanged for goods or pleasure in this lifetime?
I don’t think that greed sufficiently explains this extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a precious few. Should we rather explain this irrational inequality in terms of an evolutionary survival instinct? Can I even speak of an evolutionary instinct of humankind, does such a thing exist? Probably not, but I’m trying to find a sort of autopilot in human evolution. The survival instinct is alert today, because we sense (even if we tend to deny the evidence and reject this knowledge in our collective unconscious) that civilized life on planet earth is approaching its end. Our collective unconscious senses that the final stampede is drawing near because of so many unstoppable and irreversible processes: proliferation of nuclear weapons, global warming, water scarcity, demographic expansion and desertification, and, last but not least, mental collapse, spreading depression and panic. It is totally understandable at this point for a human to be, whether consciously or not, preparing for a flight from planet hell. And preparing to escape from hell is inconceivably expensive. The 1 percent of humankind is preparing for this flight, and they need huge amounts of financial resources to do so.
Dystopian science fiction? Perhaps. Don’t forget, however, that in the last fifty years dystopian science fiction has produced the most accurate roadmaps of our social and political becoming.
Now we understand what Günther Anders meant in We, Sons of Eichmann when he wrote: “we can expect that the horrors of the Reich to come will vastly eclipse the horrors of yesterday’s Reich. Doubtless, when one day our children or grandchildren, proud of their perfect ‘co-mecha- nization’ look down from the great heights of their thousand year reich at yesterday’s empire, at the so-called ‘third’ Reich, it will seem to them merely a minor, provincial experiment.”4 Hitler’s Nazism, which in the second half of the last century we deemed defeated and nullified forever, was only an experiment in annihilation. That experiment failed, but the conditions are now set for its implementation. The swastika-tattooed Nazi hacker and troll known by his screen name “weev” wrote in an Alt-Right blog: “We need to put these people in the oven… We are headed for a Malthusian crisis. Plankton levels are dropping. Bees are dying. There are tortilla riots in Mexico, the highest wheat prices in 30-odd years… The question we have to answer is: How do we kill four of the world’s six billion people in the most just way possible?”5 I think that this is the semiserious, semiconscious subtext of the agenda forwarded under the banner of financial governance. Trump culture (forgive me the oxymoron) is the Dark Enlightenment that unveils the inmost dynamics of financial capitalism.
Four decades of neoliberal reform have unleashed an ethical apocalypse: both empathy and universality, the two roots of ethical behavior, have been torn away. Empathy, the perception of the Other’s body as an extension of one’s own, is under increasing threat. Since neoliberal reformers have put competition at the core of daily life, and since digital connectivity has replaced physical conjunction in the sphere of social communication, the psycho-cultural conditions of empathy have been undermined. Likewise, the universality of ethical rule has been uprooted by the processes of globalization. Globalization is based on the primacy of economic competition, and effective competition demands the deletion of all rules—moral, political, or otherwise. This trend toward annihilation of ethical judgment seems to be self-feeding, and therefore irreversible; economic efficiency is based on disregarding the ethical implications of actions, and so ethical behavior becomes inefficient.
In a 1946 text titled The Question of German Guilt, Karl Jaspers distinguished between historical Nazism and quintessential Nazism.6 Historical Nazism has been defeated, he says, but the cult of efficiency has not been, and this cult of efficiency is the core of quintessential Nazism. Economic competition does not accept any political regulation, any ethical limitation: cynicism, the systematic disregard for ethics, is a common feature of Nazism and the neoliberal cult of competition. The difference lies in the fact that Nazism was based on political violence and military dictatorship, while today’s global competition is based on the embedding of technological automatisms into the living body of society.
This is why the rebels who marched against the G7 summit in Hamburg in July 2017 carried a banner welcoming everybody to hell. The question that we must answer now is, can we speak of ethical behavior in hell? The first answer that comes to my mind is no. No, because in hell empathy is self-harming. Empathic sensibility, in fact, is an open door to the inflow of surrounding suffering. This is why in hell people tend to keep to themselves and tend to close their empathic doors—in order to avoid being harmed by the spreading violence and surrounding suffering.
In her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler offers a dystopian premonition of a world filled with violence, starvation, and pain, where people are so accustomed to their surrounding hell that they are emotionally indifferent and dumb. In the book, a young girl suffers from a rare disease that her doctors call “organic delusional syndrome.” This is how the character narrates her condition:
[My father] has always pretended, or perhaps believed, that my hyperempathy syndrome was something I could shake off and forget about. The sharing isn’t real, after all. It’s not some magic or ESP that allows me to share the pain or the pleasure of other people. It’s delusional. [ . . . ]
I can’t do a thing about my hyperempathy, no matter what Dad thinks or wants or wishes. I feel what I see others feeling or what I believe they feel. Hyperempathy is what the doctors call an “organic delusional syndrome.” Big shit. It hurts, that’s all I know. Thanks to Paracetco, the small pill, the particular drug my mother chose to abuse before my birth killed her, I’m crazy. I get a lot of grief that doesn’t belong to me, and that isn’t real. But it hurts.
I’m supposed to share pleasure and pain, but there isn’t much pleasure around these days.7
Empathy is actually a liability and an economic disadvantage in the society of all-encompassing competition. The suffering of others is irrelevant from the point of view of the economic actor, who knows very well that mors tua vita mea (your death, my life). And the pleasure of others is likewise irrelevant, for it is either undetectable, nonexistent, or confused with advertising’s artificial displays of joy.
Since this book is about breathing as a vibrational search to attune oneself to one’s environment, I must say at this point that in the social sphere (the sphere of conspiration) this search is currently destined to fail. People feel this impossibility and they tend to become selfish and cynical, and therefore depressed and self-loathing. Since solidarity has been cancelled, only revenge is left: revenge of the impoverished against the oppressed (racism), revenge of the oppressed against women (macho violence), revenge of everybody against everybody else (brutality).
So I’m trying to displace the field of the vibrational search from social conspiration to cosmic expiration, to the dissolution of the individual (me) into the cosmic dimension of nothingness. What is the rhythm of nothingness? Orgasmic vibration is an example of attuning with the bio- rhythms of another body: sinking into unconsciousness may suddenly fling wide the doors of cosmic perception. The French call orgasm petite mort (little death), meaning an intense momentary loss or weakening of consciousness that enables a vision of nothingness and simultaneously opens the possibility of listening to the sound of chaosmosis.
Philosophy must consciously forge concepts for the attunement of the mind and body to the process of becoming nothingness. Poetry has to prepare our lungs to breathe at the rhythm of death.
The Last Breath of Lazarus
Death has been an object of psychological denial in the enlightened sphere of modernity. The cult of power that energized capitalist development marginalized and cancelled the consciousness of our mortality, our impermanence. In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard reflects on death as a subversive line of escape. An ironic perception of death is urgently needed, and poetry is currently working on it.8
In his last album, Blackstar, which is a meditation on death, David Bowie dared to look ironically at his own extinction. Old, sick, and beautiful, with a bandage over his eyes, his music video for the album’s title track shows us a small book with a black star on its cover and announces to us, the survivors, that death is the horizon of life. Dressed as a snake, Lazarus rises from the grave and dances and remembers the days when we in New York were all living like kings, in the ’70s and the early ’80s. “By the time I got to New York / I was living like a king,” Bowie sings. Powders then promised eternal life. And eternal life we got. Moribund people are dancing on stage. The video for “Blackstar” is exhilarating, lugubrious, and heartbreaking: “On the day of execution, on the day of execution / Only women kneel and smile [ . . . ] Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside / Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / (I’m a blackstar, I’m a star star, I’m a blackstar).” Bowie shows us the beauty of old age, when old age is consciously and happily projected toward the eternity of nothingness. In the album’s song “Lazarus,” he sings: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now / Look up here, man, I’m in danger / I’ve got nothing left to lose / I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl / Dropped my cell phone down below.”
From Silicon Valley comes the promise of eternal technological survival and in Brazil some surgeons promise to remove all Lazarus’s wrinkles. But this flavorless promise of longevity smells fake. We are powder and the powders remind us that we are powder. No one before Bowie had dared to sing of death in this manner, laughing and dancing and crying, and walking backward into the sepulchral wardrobe and disappearing behind the closet door, then closing the door. Do you remember Major Tom stepping through the door of the starship and entering the infinite darkness? “This is Major Tom to Ground Control / I’m stepping through the door / And I’m floating in the most peculiar way / And the stars look very different today.” Forty years later, someone finds him dead and transformed to stone.
All through his life David Bowie portrayed the mutant, the alien, the visitor. In Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie comes from a distant planet, where drought threatens total extinction, to live on the earth under the name of Newton. He has left his wife and his children on his distant home planet and promised to return to save them from the deadly drought. Although he is the bearer of advanced technological knowledge, he is defeated by the brutality of men. Newton can see the future, but the future has been torn, so he turns into Bowie and is stuck on planet earth, despairing and alone, with no way out.
After billions of years of evolution, substances transmuted into words. After combining and recombining atoms for countless eons, at a certain (uncertain) point matter entered into the cycle of signification. Wars, love, excitement, and elegance followed, and sensitive organisms went walking hand in hand over the bridge that transcends the primordial abyss of the absence of meaning. So we named the millennia and we stayed at the top of the hill, gazing hopefully for a light in the distance.
Then everything dissolved as an effect of acceleration, and now human signs are turning back into their original magma, where light glitters for no eyes and information is eternally silent. Frail is the architecture of happiness and heavy is the architecture of depression, as everybody knows. We all know from experience that brightness is easily shadowed, while the ensuing darkness is not as easy to dispel.
Let’s think of the oscillation between darkness and brightness in the history of social movements. Let’s think of the sudden explosion of euphoria in urban insurrections, subversive cooperation, shared creation, squatting, and sustained occupation of buildings, streets, and squares. A social movement is essentially a shared illusion of sympathy among conscious and sensitive organisms who conjoin in a social process.
Society is an imaginary sphere in which different processes of signification interweave and interfere. The symbolic organization of this imaginary sphere is an effect of signification.
I define “signification” as the building of a bridge of shared illusions over the abyss of the absence of meaning. Reality, by contrast, can be described as the psychodynamic projection of countless mental flows that interweave and intersect, building castles of language that we call different names: civilization, history, revolution, community.
Unhappiness exists—this is easy to understand. It’s more difficult to assert what happiness is, and if it actually exists anywhere. We can argue that happiness is a vague perception of the inner self’s harmony with the ongoing flow of perception, and also that it is the sudden and random synchrony of a singular vibration with the cosmic game. Christians call this state “grace.” We experience happiness as the conscious suspension of the sight of the abyss. In those moments of suspension, we can build something: bridges over the abyss itself.
Groundlessness, emptiness, and the decomposition of the bodily self: these are the abyss that all human beings are experiencing. But women and men can happily walk over this abyss if they understand that friendship resides in the ability to share the illusion of meaning. When the illusion of meaning is shared, it is no longer an illusion: it becomes reality. The bridge over the abyss is the dialogue that allows for the sharing of a vision, of an expectation, of an intention. This dialogue is based on refrains of nonattachment, and it emancipates us from the fear of not being. Getting freed from the will to live is the condition for being alive at last. The bridge over the abyss of the absence of meaning can take many forms: falling in love, tenderness, collective creation, hallucination, and movement. These forms give birth to the physical experience of meaning. Meaning is not a presence, but an experience. Meaning is an effect of signification that does not belong to nature, but only exists in consciousness: a floating composition of neurological flows, of bodily and psychological matter that takes a form. Friendship is the condition for the experience— the existence—of meaning.
Epigraph: Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Eighth Elegy,” in Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage International, 2009), 67.
1. Zachary Cohen, “North Korea Mocks Trump’s Twitter Habits, Condemns US Military Drills,” CNN, 24 August 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/23/politics/north-korea-con- demns-us-south-korea-drills/index.html.
2. Hosea 8:7 (New Living Translation).
3. Oxfam International, Reward Work, Not Wealth, January 2018, https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/reward-work-not-wealth.
4. Günther Anders, We, Sons of Eichmann: An Open Letter to Klaus Eichmann, trans. Jordan Levinson, http://anticoncept.phpnet.us/ eichmann.htm.
5. Cited in Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Alresford: Zero Books, 2017), 141.
6. Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000).
7. Octavia Buter, Parable of the Sower (New York: Grand Central, 2000), 11–12.
8. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London: SAGE, 1993).
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 Academia di Brera, Milan.