Dawn of the Truth Wizards: A research event with Franco Bifo Berardi and Alexander Galloway
Dawn of the Truth Wizards was a research discussion held in the Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin, on cognitive capitalism and its emergent desire to capture the truth of the soul - from emotion capture systems to corporate mindfulness. Featuring speakers Franco Bifo Berardi (focusing on The Soul at Work (2011)) and Alexander Galloway (The Interface Affect (2012), Protocol – how control exists after decentralisation (2004), The Exploit (2007)) and an invited and open Dublin audience. This event took place as part of our work as associate artists on the Prosperity Project with artist Jesse Jones and CREATE - Ireland's National Development Agency for Collaborative Arts.
Dublin has pictured itself as centerfold of cognitive capitalism since its micro-soft beginnings. Hard, wired to Google, Twitter and Facebook now, our docklands serve as a secret portal for capital's hidden worldwide flows. Meanwhile there are rumors of the passing of the Turing test. The network is transforming behind our eyes; and conscious interaction with computers will soon be in our past. Hal-like, the network nodes reach now beyond the boundary of the screen. They scan for our emotions while we look away. Offline has vanished. Nowhere to run to now, nowhere to hide:
You step into the bank. Your eyebrow moves. Your credit rating drops downwards to the void. You look up while yesterday’s memory arrives. You bite your lip in carefree recollection. The light begins to touch your face again. The decision is made. Your overdraft dreams fade to grey. This is what it feels like to be loved by the machines.
Before our discussion we looked at a Bank of New Zealand website that represents one of the first commercial online applications of emotion tracking, followed by an introduction to the Wisdom 2.0 movement. This was followed by a screening of our film from A Guided Meditation on the Machines.
Producer: Lynnette Moran for CREATE.
With thanks also to John Buckley.
Franco 'Bifo' Berardi:
I get nervous when I listen to that kind of music [the meditation musak from our film of the Guided Meditation on the Machines]. The problem is that we are witnessing a sort of epidemic of mental suffering and of despair; and obviously it's not easy to objectify to quantify, to identify in a statistical way mental suffering. I don't trust statistics when it comes to the problem of mental suffering, but it's our daily experience as teachers, as social activists and media persons, as psychoanalysts. It is our daily experience not only - It is also a huge evidence that is given by figures for instance. The suicide rate according to the W.H.O. in the last 40 years - suicide has increased 60 percent. The last 40 years are the years of the neo-liberal triumph and also it has been, it must be said, have been the years of the widespread diffusion of the digital technologies. We have to face this downward reality. A social transformation of… an era marked by aggression against salary, social welfare but most of all it is marked by aggression against time. Jonathan Crary wrote a book titled 24/7 which means all round the day and the week. .. It's a book about sleep. Crary maintains that sleep is under attack in our time because precarious people are working more and more while the salary is becoming smaller and smaller but daytime work is growing. When they are unemployed they walk looking for a job. When they are precariously employed they work all the time because they have to be competitive with other precarious workers. This means that social solidarity is broken. This is because precarious workers are obliged to think of their colleagues as enemies and competitors. Well this is the social environment that is producing suffering in many ways. But more importantly and what is more difficult to analyse and to understand according to the old categories of social critique is the relation between our lives, our time, our information and the infosphere, and the space in which our minds are interacting. I know that what I say can give way to a sort of easy misunderstanding - a sort of technophobia. But you know that I think we have to face a trend, a process that is an irreversible process that is a product of process that we cannot escape. A process that is producing a true mutation in our lives and ways of processing - of mental processing the world. Acceleration, growing stimulation of our attention; Competition, because you know info-accceleration should not be such a problem in a condition of social freedom. You can accept or reject the growing acceleration. You can stop watching your screen, you can stop if you are in free conditions. But in the condition of competition you cannot stop. You cannot say: 'It's enough'. You have to go on and on in relation to the growing mental stimulation which has obviously a pathogenic effect.
So in this situation, obviously a whole system of attempts in therapy are presented to us. We are facing more and more attempts to deal with this kind of acceleration and this kind of growing pathology. A whole new field of practice is on the rise. That kind of manipulation of 'mindfulness' and that kind of ideology is part of these attempts to deal with the new kinds of pathologies. Think of panic crises (panic attacks). Panic has become a pathological symptom only in the past 20/30 years. Psychiatrists did not use the expression 'panic crisis', and they did not know the social phenomenon like panic crisis. Panic used to be the romantic perception of the infinity of nature. It used to be the sudden appearance of the god of nature, of everything, the god Pan. The problem is that in the romantic conditions of the pre-modern world the relation with nature was of course the relation with an overwhelming source of information. But the relation with this overwhelming source of information was free. You could decide to listen to the birds and to look at the stars if you wanted but you were not obliged to count the number of stars in the sky. But now you are forced to count the stars in the sky because your life and your survival is dependent on that. This is panic. This is the perception of being overwhelmed by a wave of stimulation, of nervous stimulation that you cannot control and that you cannot escape that is the problem.
So what should we do in this situation. I mean the real problem is that we don't have an answer. The idea of withdrawing from the flow is utopian and also a little bit stupid, reactionary if you want. We don't want to withdraw from the flow - we are in the flow and the flow is a good thing. I mean the richness of the surrounding info-sphere is something good from a social point of view and from an intellectual point of view. The problem is that the social relations in which we are exposed to this flow are conditions of stress and competition. But I must say in the last 5 years, the years of the financial crisis in the years marked by the occupied movement in many countries of the world, in these years we have tried in many ways to find a way out of the social framework of technology, information and so on. We have not found that way. So I start thinking that the social form of financial capitalism, which is the real source of our malady, of our suffering - the social form of financial capitalism cannot be disassociated from the technical forms, technical automatisms that are embedded in that social form. This is the present problem, this is the present tragedy I would say. The occupy movement has been an attempt to question and possibly to overcome the social form of financial capitalism but the occupy movement has failed. It has to be said. We know it. It has failed essentially because it has been unable to become a long lasting process of social organisation, a long lasting process of social solidarity. Solidarity is the word. Or better, empathy is the word. I know the word is suspicious because it reminds us of some pseudo buddhist platitudes that are in the air. But empathy is not an empty word for manipulation. Empathy means the ability to feel the presence of the other as a continuation, a part of your own self-perception. Empathy is the ability to feel in a physical and emotional way, solidarity with the other. I think that empathy and solidarity are the words, the concepts, the realities, the psychological and social realities that we have to be able to reactivate in the future because the problem is not to escape the acceleration, to escape technology to escape the stressing infosphere. No! The problem is not that. The problem is to create the social conditions of empathy and solidarity. To live together with this acceleration in a non-competitive way.
Here is the problem. The solution seems to be very far from our reach.
So today we're talking about emotion, I think and feeling. Franco already evoked the topic of passion, of pathos, of mental suffering and again, at the end, of empathy. So we're really talking about sentiment I think, talking about affect, affectation. Affect is a curious topic I think because if you follow some of the writing on it you might think some writers might contradict each other when they talk about affect. So on the one hand if you remember famously Fredric Jameson chronicled what he called the waning of affect under postmodernity, because for him the legacy of deep psychological structures had given way to what he saw as more kind of surface phenomenon. Surface mental phenomenon, like irony or cynicism under postmodernity. But at the same time if you read the people who were inspired by Spinoza, people like Deleuze and Guattari and others, you know that there quite interested in the sort of the liberation of affect, the rise of affect. Switching from a kind of legacy psychological state from a cartesian ego or a Freudian psyche into a new flat horizontal, surface oriented affect model.
Today social media proliferate with peoples feelings and desires. We have books and conferences that are devoted to the topic. So who's right? Can both of these claims be true? Are we experiencing a waning of affect or is affect on the rise?
Of course when Jameson says affect he really means emotion. He means feeling in the traditional sense. He means the modern individual, the romantic subject. The enlightenment ego. I like the way that Franco evokes the romantic sentiment. On the other hand when Deleuzians say affect they mean it in different way. They mean it as a postmodern replacement for modern sentiment. So modern subjects might have feelings or sentiments, while postmodern subjects have affects and mannerisms. So maybe the waning of affect and the turn to affect are really the same phenomenon described in different ways. I like to think that that modern romantic sentimental subject might have succeeded too well even in the course of its own disappearance or obliteration, because now we have feeling everywhere. It's built in to the algorithms that run Facebook. So we have a pure computer simulation of feeling now.
So this is the scenario today. And you have had a chance to look at that emotion tracking software from the Bank of New Zealand website.
So we are living in a universe of affect? I've mentioned some of the patron saints of this universe; Spinoza, Deleuze and others. But what are the virtues? Well certainly expression is one of the great virtues of contemporary life; Production: individuals are meant to be productive and expressive. There's also a kind of law of transparency, a law of visibility, a revealing almost like a universal phenomenological law. Everything must be revealed.
Another thing I want to talk about is the social situation that we are in today is one that, I mean it's a truism to say today that we are living in a networked society, but I've started to also talk about that society as a promiscuous society. In other words we live in a society where everything can touch everything else so there's no prohibitions on what can link to other things. In fact this is a kind of blow back effect of the ubiquitous
Deleuzianism that we live in today.
So I think that cybernetics is something that we can talk about and I think that cybernetics is at the heart of this historical transformation. Cybernetics as I'm sure some of you know describes network or systems of actors. Famously this is posited as entirely agnostic as to whether these actors are living or non-living, natural or synthetic, organic or synthetic machines. These actors are able to express themselves and likewise they are meant to receive and respond to the expressions of others. Cyberneticians call this message sending and control and its very similar to what we're talking about here. It's very much about expression and affectation. So I think that cybernetics and this kind of affective turn really go hand in hand. We can talk more about that.
Now I'll say from the outset that in many ways this is good thing. One very good example is the historical alliance that was struck between cybernetics and feminism, particularly in the Italian context and I know that Franco could say a lot more about and from the novelist Ursula LeGuin to the VnS Matrix to theorists like Donna Haraway and Sadie Plant. So why is that? Well I talked about these deep psychic structures earlier. So if patriarchy is one of these deep psychic structures that leverages a deep model of feeling and then proliferates injustice through certain uses of difference and hierarchy. Well then shouldn't a kind of shallow model of feeling help us solve that problem? I think this why a shallow model of affect is a useful ally concept for those kinds of movements. Or if the essentialism of concepts like nature or natural feeling are harmful to certain groups then, hey!, shouldn't we have an anti-essentialists concept of feeling ie affect? And maybe this anti-essentialist notion of feeling could provide some way of escaping from the limitations of let's say the Fraudian psyche or the modern cartesian subject.
So I think cybernetics is most interesting when combatting these kind of deeply entrenched structures of injustice. But at the same time, and perhaps this is more what we want to talk about today, cybernetics has ushered in a new era of what we can call legibility, informatic legibility; monitoring, informatics monitoring as a form of writing and so perhaps today we're not simply ruled by the symbolic father, the Big Other. But maybe we're also ruled by the network protocol, the data packet, the information point, as a kind of unit of legible meaning. So maybe the question for us today is how are we to survive in a world that is driven by this rule of information. It kind of a semiotocracy if you want to think of it in those terms. So you saw that emotion tracking software from the Bank of New Zealand and this is a small harbinger of this new world that in fact people like Franco have been describing for years already. I am student of Micheal Hart and am greatly influenced by his work on immaterial labour and affective labour and the so called affective turn that they describe. In a nutshell this refers to the way in which affects and emotion, which if you read Marx was marginal to capitalisation in the 19 century has become a key site of monetisation and exploitation today. So emotion quite literally has a price today, it's at the heart of monitisation, not at the periphery. This reveals many contradictions that we don't have time to go into today. My favourite one is that if Google thinks that information has value then why don't they pay me for it? Why don't they pay me for it when they take it? So we have a kind of a nefarious communism where we do have a little of the abolition of private property, where your emotions and your actions are no longer your own. We can talk more about that later, maybe.
So, I love the video we had earlier [Dawn of the Truth Wizards part 1. from A Guided Meditation on the Machines]. But I'm a materialist generally, but I think that there's nothing wrong with spiritual practices like meditation. I don't have any beef with buddhist practice or the concept of mindfulness. I'm all for corporate responsibility to the extent that that is not a contradict in terms. I don't think there's anything wrong with affect in fact there's anything inherently wrong with computers, or cybernetics, or social networks and I'm completely in agreement with Franco that we shouldn't become Luddites. That's stupid. The problem is the main problem it's always been which is injustice, exploitation, and inequality. I think we can't loose sight of the main issue. If anything what we're experiencing today is really just a new configuration in which some of these things we've been talking about cybernetics, social networks, affects are being reconfigured and perhaps leveraged for new form of exploitation that maybe we didn't have in the past. So to the extent that I'm critical of some aspects of contemporary life I want to be clear that my skepticism comes from a desire to deal with injustice and exploitation not 'let's throw out the computers' or something.
The question remains then, can we do anything about this? Thinking about buddhism and spiritual practices that deal with 'nothingness' or something, Franco said just now that withdrawal is stupid. But what if there's a kind of withdrawal, or a use of 'nothingness' that doesn't hurt us or in fact works to our advantage? I'm thinking of the artist Zac Blas has started to make some work recently that is a series of masks one of them is very similar to the aesthetics of facial recognition software that you was on the [Bank of New Zealand] website where faces are scanned and then converted into graphs.
It's the same technology that runs Facebook right? You have points and you have edges and there are certain mathematics that have been - You know that mathematicians have made those algorithms extremely efficient and they work on the face and its also works on the social graph behind the scenes at Faceboook. But Zac Blas has been working on ways to obfuscate the face and I'm not sure of everyone agrees with me here, but I'm quite interested in obfuscation, opacity encryption, compression.
I'll just say another thing about the face. Those of you who know Deleuze and Guatarri's work, you know the terms territorialisation and de-territorialisation and there's a great moment where they say 'what is the most de-territorialised part of the human body. Is it the heart which is coursing with blood, is it the sexual organs which are the sites of physical exchange and promiscuity? And they say no 'it's the face', The face is the most deterritorialised part of the human body because it has the most holes. It has the most sockets. It has the mouth, two nostrils, eyes and ears. So it's a site that is in flux This is there way to overturn the classical sense of human individuality, that the face is the thing that is most you, it is your visual signature. It is the site of your ability to express the thing that is uniquely you. So they invert that and say 'No' The face is actually the most nomadic part of the body. So this is a kind of pyrrhic victory perhaps, because the emotion tracking software on the Bank of New Zealand site is really using that power of de-territorialisation. It's a kind of judo move if you will, because it's an attempt to invert the force of de-territorialisation and it essentially recuperates the potential of the human form in order to render it knowable and trackable.
You can see this many places. Think of the demands of the social movements of the 1960s; taking back the streets, new access to speech, giving new subject positions legitimate roles in society and so on. But what does Google say, well they say 'ok, you can speak, but we will monetise your speech' Or think of the Bank of New Zealand website, 'You can have feelings but we will use your feelings as a way to enrich our marketing and customer service.' So instead of having a backlog of 30 minute hold-time on the phone with angry customers and they're inverting that and turning that into a value producing site. That's something that we should acknowledge. The very weapons, the so-called weapons of the weak, that used to be all we had sometimes, even those weapons of the weak have been inverted and co-opted.
Just to say one last thing and then we can have more of a conversation here. I might deviate from what Franco said a little bit because, I acknowledge the value and utility of the affective revolution. May '68 in France as the Revolution of Desire. I totally get it. But I think that in 2014 I think we have a different world that we have to confront and I think that we should maybe consider an alternative set of political concepts and social aspirations. So I'm turning perhaps a little bit away from the affective universe towards what theorists like Alain Badiou and Francois Laruelle have called a generic universe, or a generic subject. In fact I see a lot of connections back into the Italian Marxist work from the 70s all the way up to today. So in distinction to the Deleuzian notion of machinic expression perhaps we should think about compression. Compression as the deletion of data, quite simply. Perhaps we should move away from a politics of performativity or mandated visibility and take a different set of concepts very seriously. Things like anonymity and cryptography - encryption. It's no coincidence that the hacker group Anonymous is called Anonymous. I think maybe we should explore things like immanence, opacity obfuscation as new weapons against this kind of compulsory transparency. So less of a networked or promiscuous society, and more of a compressed or prophylactic society. And again, I don't see this as a kind of luddite, 'let's withdraw and run to the hills kind of thing'. In fact I think this is a strategy to more fully engage in the world that we already live in.
So we've been talking about trancendence and a kind of a transcendental presence today. I'm a devout materialist but I think this model of the generic may be a truer form of spiritual existence. So I'll leave it there.