Bifo’s Ironic Ethics

I am an unabashed fan of Franco “Bifo” Berardi, especially when he is at the peak of his “grumpy older Italian man” kind of writing where he denigrates all technology in the name of a long-forgotten past. Ironic Ethics came to me through the magic of the post today, and so I sat down and read the entire thing in one sitting. That wasn’t really a feat since the whole thing is less than thirty bite-size pages, but nonetheless, I enjoyed it. As a part of the “100 Notes – 100 Thoughts” series from documenta, the text is really invested in being a short work that smacks you about the head and neck with its ideas.

Bifo is putting forward a similar argument as the one he developed in The Soul At Work, but in a much more condensed fashion and certainly more specific to Italy in 2011 [read what I had to say about The Soul At Work].

The essay begins with a short version of his argument about feminine and masculine pleasure, which is that the European project of dominance and ownership is fundamentally based on an anxiety about the potentially infinite sexual pleasure that women can access. To counter this anxiety, males shifted the focal point of pleasure to possession rather than sex. Bifo writes:

If we wish to oppose the materialistic cynicism of power effectively, we need a materialistic ethics of pleasure and sensibility. Moral judgment and indignation are inapt tools with which to counter the kind of mental pathology, commonly named corruption, promoted by the popular media. From the point of view of the social investment of desire, the problem is not one of compliance with universal moral values. The problem is pleasure.

He continues along this line of argument and asserts that what we need are counter-aesthetics to those that are foisted on us by capitalism. It is only through that method that we will be able to solve the psychic pathologies that haunt our culture–suicide, extremism, a desire for fascism, and so on.

What is pleasure? Desire is the creation of a singular universe, the projection of a world of things, people, voices that surround the sensible-sensitive organism as attractors. Pleasure (jouissance) is the collapse of borders between the singular organism and the surrounding world; it is the dissolution of the cultural cuticle separating my body from the body of the universe. The pathology induced by the capitalist acceleration of the Infosphere during the past thirty years has displaced pleasure from the sphere of sensibility to the sphere of mediation: the symbolic ersatz carried by the media spreads as a viral mutation in the Psychosphere. This is why the ethical question needs to be located in the field of aesthetics. Indeed, aesthetics is the sphere of sensibility and sensitivity; it is therefore the place for an ethical politics in the capitalist age.

Bifo argues that there are two ways of thinking about the world, drawing on Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason to distinguish between thinking cynically and thinking ironically. The former is a mental dissent and recognition that a system will fail and yet still being on the side of the system. To be a cynic is to always side with power because you are afraid of being crushed.

In contrast, “the ironist simply refuses the game and recreates the world as an effect of linguistic enunciation.” We speak what we want, we represent what we want. There’s a beautiful sentiment there. There is also a danger, though, and the article ends with this paragraph:

In the second part of the 1970s, the Italian autonomous movement practiced irony as a critique of power and dogmatism. A historical catastrophe occurred due to the confusion between the ironic and cynical modes: Autonomia was overwhelmed and erased by the wave of cynicism that coincided with the media dictatorship under which we still labor.

So reject bad aesthetics. Embrace radical images; refuse to play the game. Also, expect to be eradicated for it.

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