Franco Berardi was a key member of the Italian Autonomist movement, alongside the likes of other authors such as Antonio Negri, Christian Marazzi, Mario Tronti and Paulo Virno, and was a close associate of Felix Guattari, the French philosopher. Berardi’s work has only recent been translated from Italian into English, and Soul at Work was published in 2009 as part of the semiotext(e) foreign agents series.
The central themes of the Soul at Work are that the human faculties which in previous eras would have been considered to be constitutive of the soul, our capacities for language, creativity, emotion, empathy and affect, have now become central to the economy of digital capitalism (Berardi’s term is Semiocapitalism)
Putting the soul to work: this is the new form of alienation. Our desiring energy is trapped in the trick of self-enterprise, our libidinal investments are regulated according to economic rules, our attention is captures in the precariousness of virtual networks: every fragment of mental activity must be transformed into capital. (p24)
This is contrasted with the situation under industrial capitalism, wherein the labour of the working class was largely confined to an eight-hour day in a factory, where for a portion of the day their bodies functioned as cogs rented to maintain the production of gigantic machines. While their bodies laboured their minds or souls were still perceived as free. But as economic production became increasingly based up intellectual rather than physical labour, Berardi argues that a fundamental change has occurred, which requires a reconceptualization of the political field.
Once digital technologies made possible the connection of individual fragments of cognitive labor possible, the parceled intellectual labor was subjected to the value production cycle. The ideological and political forms of the left wing, legacy of the 20th Century, have become inefficient in theis new context. (p29)
After tracing a pathway through some of the Workerist ideas of the 1960’s, and particularly the role of alienation labor within this context, Berardi moves on to analysis of how the
decisive transformation of the 1980’s was the systematic computerization of the working process. Thanks to digitalization, every concrete event can not only be symbolised, but also simulated, replaced by information. Consequently it becomes possible to progressively reduce the entire production process to the elaboration and exchange of information. (p95)
And how this change to the system of production and consumption accumulates as an ever-increasing torrent of information which he argues is conducive to conditions of mass panic (in the sense that the word stems from the etymological root pan – or everything) and depression.
If in modern society the vastly prevalent pathology was repression induced neurosis, today the most widely spread pathologies assume a psychotic, panic driven character. The hyper-stimulation of attention reduces the capacity for critical sequential interpretation, but also the time available for the emotional elaboration of the other, of his or her body and voice, tries to be understood without ever succeeding. (p183)
Searching for ways to approach these changes in social context, Berardi draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s work in arguing that
Ethical conciousness cannot be founded on the binomial of Reason and Will – as during the modern period. The roots of rationalism have been forever erased, and rationalism cannot be the major direction of the planetary humanism we must conceive.
Today the ethical question is posed as a question of the soul, that is to say of the sensibility animating the body, making it capable of opening sympathetically towards the other…A new conceptualization of humanism must be founded on an aesthetic paradigm, since it has to take root in sensibility. The collapse of modern ethics needs to be interpreted as a generalized cognitive disturbance, as the paralysis of empathy in the social psychosphere. (p133).
It is interesting to contrast and compare Berardi’s vision of a revised humanism here with the various schemas of posthumanism proposed by the likes of Katherine Hayles, Donna Harraway and Robert Pepperell. The logic of basing ethics on feeling and connectivity with other(s) certainly has resonance between these authors despite their respective stances on whether humanism is a project in need of reconceptualization or a patriarchal, bourgeois, historical phenomenon which has led to the epistemological errors and artificial separation of nature and culture, humans and other living creatures and body and soul – many of the problems which Berardi examines.
Beradi goes to to present an interesting analysis of Baudrillard’s work around simulation, and contrasts this with the desire-based radical analyses of Deleuze and Guattari. Berardi argues that
The semiotic acceleration and the proliferation of simulacra within the mediatized experience of society produce an effect of exhaustion in the collective libidinal energy, opening the way to a panic-depressive cycle… Baudrillard sees simulation as the infinite replication of a virus that absorbs energy to the point of exhaustion. A sort of semiotic inflation explodes in the circuits of our collective sensibility, producing effects of mutation that run a pathological course: too many signs, too fast and too chaotic. The sensible body is subjected to an acceleration that destroys every possibility of conscious decodification and sensible perception. (158/159)
The problem, according to Beradi, is that the explosion of information leads to a paralysis and subsequent depression as the pace and scale of information flows expands far beyond what the human brain is capable of processing. The field of desire, which for Deleuze and Guattari possesses liberating potential, collapses in on itself and is confined to desiring the ever-increasing number of consumer fetishes that permeate upgrade culture. This leads to a contemporary scenario Beradi describes as the poisoning of the soul, as desire no longer reaches out for connectivity with the other, but instead is restricted to focusing on the self and personal accumulation. Looking for potential ways out of this situation, Beradi contends that
Perhaps the answer is that it is necessary to slow down, finally giving up on economistic fanaticism and collectively rethink the true meaning of the word “wealth.” Wealth does not mean a person who owns a lot, but refers to someone who has enough time to enjoy what nature and human collaboration place within everyone’s reach. If the great majority of people could understand this basic notion, if they could be liberated from the competitive illusion that is impoverishing everyone’s life, the very foundations of capitalism, would start to crumble. (p169)