Panic

From the archive at Archive, a couple of paragraphs from Franco Berardi’s “Schizo-economy”:

Neoliberal culture has injected into the social brain a constant stimulus towards competition, and the technical system of the digital network has rendered possible an intensification of the informatic stimuli transmitted from the social brain to individual brains. This acceleration of stimuli is a pathogenic factor that has wide-ranging social effects. The combination of economic competition with the digital intensification of informatic stimuli induces a state of permanent electrocution that leads to a diffuse pathological condition; this pathological condition manifests itself as panic syndrome or attention disorder.

Panic is an ever-more widespread syndrome. Until a few years ago, psychiatrists hardly recognized this symptom, which belonged rather to the Romantic literary imagination and was associated with the feeling of being overwhelmed by the infinite richness of natural forms, by the unlimited power of the cosmos. Today panic is ever-more frequently denounced as a painful and worrying symptom — the physical sensation of no longer succeeding in governing one’s own body, an acceleration of the heart rate, a shortness of breath that can lead to fainting and paralysis.

This second paragraph resonates most particularly with me right now, in my period of intense work and control. No fainting or paralysis, fortunately, but certainly occasional feelings of being overwhelmed and of electrocution, sensations of my body being affected by all sorts of (constantly mutating) illness that I’m too preoccupied to fight off. And it’s this connection to work, to production, that Bifo’s piece makes so clear that gives his argument greater force than others exploring similar territory — here I’m thinking most particularly of many new-media theorists and of primitivist cataclysmists like Jared Diamond. The former, it seems to me, tend to see postmodern subjects as being almost wholly constituted by and in media, either as savvy consumers creating social revolution with their content (the optimists) or as being inert surfaces on which social axioms are written upon (the pessimists), while the latter reduce all problems to cultural forms and contradictions and moral failings .

Aside from recognizing the productive axioms of what he calls “neoliberal culture,” Bifo also recognizes the affective level that the schizo-economy works on, what Lazzarato, in an article on Guattari, calls the “machinic enslavement of a-signifying semiotics.” To put it in the context of the situation I’m in right now, my supervisor is not an asshole: She does not yell at me or threaten me, she doesn’t purposefully pile work on me or devise tedious tasks for me to accomplish, she’s not a racist or a sadist. She is “cool,” but that doesn’t make me feel the panic any less. She can be cool and even kind, because the functions of control are largely emanating from elsewhere. In other words, the workerist belief that the boss is the face of capital (to distort Negri’s line) cannot explain the panic, the anxiety, the attention disorder. Or, as Lazzarato says,

The cycle of fear, anxiety or panic penetrating the atmosphere and tonality in which our “surveillance societies” are steeped are triggered by sign machines; these machines appeal not to the consciousness, but to the nervous system, the affects, the emotions. The symbolic semiotics of the body, instead of being centred on language, are as such activity routed through the industrial, machinic, non-human production of images, sounds, words, intensities, movements, rhythms, etc.

If signifying semiotics have a function of subjective alienation, of “social subjection”, a-signifying semiotics have one of “machinic enslavement”. A-signifying semiotics synchronize and modulate the pre-individual and pre-verbal elements of subjectivity by causing the affects, perceptions, emotions, etc. to function like component parts, like the elements in a machine (machinic enslavement). We can all function like the input/output elements in semiotic machines, like simple relays of television or the Internet that facilitate or block the transmission of information, communication or affects. Unlike signifying semiotics, a-signifying semiotics recognize neither persons, roles nor subjects. While subjection concerns the global person, those highly manipulable subjective, molar representations, “machinic enslavement connects infrapersonal, infrasocial elements thanks to a molecular economy of desire”. The power of these semiotics resides in the fact that they permeate the systems of representation and signification by which “individuated subjects recognize each other and are alienated from each other”.

Machinic enslavement is therefore not the same thing as social subjection. If the latter appeals to the molar, individuated dimension of the subjectivity, the former activates its molecular, pre-individual, transindividual dimension. In the first case, the system speaks and generates speech; it indexes and folds the multiplicity of pre-signifying and symbolic semiotics over language, over linguistic chains by giving priority to its representative functions. In the second case, however, the system does not generate discourse: it does not speak but it functions, sets things in motion, by connecting directly to the “nervous system, the brain, the memory, etc.” and activate the affective, transitivist, transindividual relations that are difficult to attribute to a subject, an individual, a me. These two semiotic registers work together to produce and control subjectivity in both its molar and its molecular dimensions. As we shall see, the same semiotic devices can be devices both for machinic enslavement and for social subjection.

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