Will Poetry Really Save Us?

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance

MIT Press, 160pp, £9.95, ISBN 9781584351122

reviewed by Daniel Hartley

Let us imagine three rooms, each one sealed off from the others and furnished with a single desk, a keyboard and a computer screen. In the first room sit Deleuze and Guattari, in the second TS Eliot, and in the third FR Leavis. The computer system into which they type is designed to cut and paste extracts from all four thinkers, to superimpose some passages on others, and to create an overall palimpsest of their work. The final product, I claim, would be something akin to Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s new book, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance.

From Deleuze and Guattari he takes a jargon at times so alienating that his call for poetry as a form of resistance against ‘techno-linguistic’ abstraction becomes an ironic gesture in its own right. From Eliot (unknowingly, one presumes) he takes an updated version of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ thesis. For Eliot, some time in the 17th century – conveniently around the time of the English Revolution – thought was devastatingly uncoupled from feeling. For Berardi, by contrast, the autonomisation of the signifier (or, the demise of the referent), first developed in symbolist poetry, was a mere precursor to the financialisation of capitalism whereby sensuous physical commodities in the real world were no longer relevant to the production of value. Finally, from Leavis (again unknowingly), he inherits that glorious contradiction between an image of a world so ubiquitously fallen it would take a miracle to change anything whatsoever, along with the faintly ridiculous suggestion that poetry (or, in Leavis’ case, ‘close reading’) will nonetheless save us all.

I am, of course, being provocative. The book is not nearly as dubious as that description would imply. But my point is to suggest that Berardi’s diagnosis of our current situation and his consequent strategic proposals, if taken as theory, are not nearly as politically radical as the bureaucratic-revolutionary style would have us believe. His main aim, he tells us, is ‘to develop the theoretical suggestions of Christian Marazzi, Paolo Virno, and Maurizio Lazzarato in an unusual direction.’ These three men are all inheritors of the Italian Operaismo (or ‘workerism’) tradition, initially developed in Italy throughout the 1960s and 70s. A disparate tradition of many lines of thought, in one way or another it was united around the idea that capitalism was undergoing or had undergone a fundamental mutation. Whereas in previous forms of capitalism the factory and its modes of organisation, production and value-extraction were relatively separate from society at large, in the new post-Fordist world, society itself had become subsumed in its entirety under the logic of the factory. As Mario Tronti wrote at the time, ‘[a]t the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation becomes a moment of the relation of production.’ The upshot of this process was that areas of social life previously presumed to be external to capitalist valorisation processes – language, affect, thought, desire, subjectivity – were now being put to work in their own right. It is in this context – one which Berardi himself nowhere clearly delineates – that Berardi’s book must be located:

‘These thinkers have conceptualized the relation between language and the economy, and described the subsumption and the subjugation of the biopolitical sphere of affection and language to financial capitalism. I am looking for a way to subvert this subjugation, and I try to do that from the unusual perspectives of poetry and sensibility.’

How does Berardi go about this? First, we must understand his unique variation on the general workerist theme. Language, Berardi argues, has become disembodied: ‘signs fall under the domination of finance when the financial function (the accumulation of value through semiotic circulation) cancels the instinctual side of enunciation.’ In other words, ‘signs produce signs without any longer passing through the flesh.’ The structuring argument of the book is that, just as symbolist poetry engaged in experimentation ‘with the separation of the linguistic signifier from its denotational and referential function, so financial capitalism, after internalizing linguistic potencies, has separated the monetary signifier from its function of denotation and reference to physical goods.’ ‘Language’ has become automatised: it speaks of itself to itself without the corporeal intervention of a real speaker.

This automation then ‘sucks down’ and ‘dissolves ... collective semiotic activity.’ Consequently, this has produced a paradigm shift in the nature of human sociality as such. Once a ‘conjunction’ of affective bodies (conjunction here means a series of interactive encounters or ‘becomings-other’ between two or more agents), it has now become a realm of ‘connection’ in which each individual remains unchanged by communal (non-)interaction, a mere appendage to mechanical functionality (very much like what Sartre called ‘seriality’). This, in turn, has generated the demise of social solidarity. The only way to overcome these problems is via poetry and voice: poetry, ‘the excess of sensuousness’, can ‘[reactivate] the emotional body, and therefore [reactivate] social solidarity’ whilst voice ‘cannot be reduced to the operational function of language.’ Poetry will reanimate our deadened sensibilities and resurrect our flesh; in doing so, it will rehabilitate social solidarity.

To say there are problems with this argument is an understatement. For a start, it implies the existence of a homogenous and ubiquitous linguistic situation, as if the language of a Brazilian shanty town, a Sudanese village and a Parisian five-star restaurant were structurally and intensively identical. In other words, Berardi has no sense of the unevenness of linguistic development (nor – at least in this work - of capitalist development more generally). Next, there is the even bigger problem of his explanation of the causes of our current plight. Did symbolist poetry somehow cause financial deregulation? Or is the relation merely one of homology? If the latter, why the constant stress on their mutual imbrication? Did the digitalisation of the communication process (even presuming it to be ubiquitous – which it is not) really cause the shift from conjunctive sociality to connective sociality? And does this latter form of sociality really constitute the totality of social relations? Without a clear conception of cause and effect – even if we were to subscribe to some version of ‘immanent causality’ – what hope do we have of producing effective political strategies?

A third problem is Berardi’s very conception of language itself. One minute it seems to denote verbal language, but the next it seems to refer to financial statistics, digital codes and so on. Surely, some internal distinctions within the field of semiotics are the prerequisite of a more exact analysis of the effects of financialisation on human communication. Moreover, that he nowhere takes into account the basic Derridean insight - that without the supplement of abstraction there would be no ‘concrete’ language in the first place - is surely a problematic oversight in a work of this nature. Finally, there is the problem of what ‘poetry’ actually is. If poetry ‘is the language of nonexchangeability’, one whose hermeneutical ambiguity escapes the mechanical functionality of digital networks, why has Berardi spent half the book telling us that symbolist poetry is a constitutive factor of the very problem he wants to solve? Which poetry is the one that will save us? Conceptual poetry, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, beat poetry, romantic poetry, neo-classical poetry? We are never told.

This is why Berardi’s book should not be read as a theoretical analysis or practical guide. Instead, it should be read as a new type of writing: one that combines the sheer libidinal excitement of French poststructuralist thought with the political passion of a seasoned radical. The book is full of wonderful vignettes on current social malaises (especially those of the Facebook generation), and is packed with sequences of acute political analysis (on, for example, the impending threat of ethnic civil war if European financial dictatorship continues). But these never add up to an internally coherent theory. Ultimately, then, a radical political strategy which ignores the recent shifts in social experience to which the abstract lyricism of this book is testament will certainly prove insufficient; on the other hand, a strategy which takes it as its guide will be doomed to failure.