02 04 08

Bifo in Buenos Aires: An exercise in Recombination

Translated by Nuria Rodríguez

Federico Geller

During his stay in Buenos Aires, where he had been invited by Tinta Limón to present the book Generación Post Alfa[1], Franco Berardi, alias Bifo, made a series of therapeutic suggestions that were closely followed by a myriad of media activists, university students and more ore less flexible culture workers. To our surprise, at the last moment there were signs he had been co-opted by the Errorist International.

What does it mean to be happy in Semiocapitalism?

 There are many forms of militant frustration: one is the insistent use of slogans from a different moment in history. Another is the inability to distinguish between the speed of desire and the rhythms of one’s own body and processes of change: the anxiety of those who are so focused on what they want to experience that they can’t live in or influence the present - the flipside, on time's arrow, of those who yearn for a glorious moment that took place 70, 30 or 6 years ago. Since the 1970s, Franco Berardi has been experimenting with communication brought into play in various struggles for autonomy - struggles that were suppressed by the alliance PC-DC [Partito Comunista – Democrazia Cristiana]. Struggles that unwittingly opened up part of the way of the Berlusconi era. In Buenos Aires he generously shared what he’s learnt.

The technosocial mutations that began appearing 30 years ago (such as the automation of production and the human-computer relationship) produced irreversible changes in the way people live in many parts of the world. Echoing Virno, Bifo believes that linguistic abilities have taken on a central role in today’s capitalism, and puts forward the term semiocapitalism to indicate the growing importance of semiological aspects in production. Capital and work have mutated and become recombinant: work no longer belongs to people, but to assemblages of activities.

By way of actions and omissions, semiocapital tells each worker: “I’m not interested in your life, only in the use of a specific period of time that is yours". And they seem to answer: “Call me whenever you like: I’m always available to you and eager to respond. I can no longer know when I’m working and when I’m not. I look for ideas and images that can be of service to you everywhere: be it in a woman’s smile or on my son’s birthday”.

Semiocapitalism is a factory of unhappiness, in which desire is increasingly linked to work and exploited by it. In the past, the worker’s movement could address unoccupied souls – souls that were less imprisoned than the body by forms of exploitation that were more regular and well-defined in space and time. In his words, it is a delocalisation of labour. It is worth wondering whether it might not be more like a trend towards scattered relocalisation, in which different assemblaged tasks seem much more distant in space and time. Those who carry them out can mutually ignore each other so that they only seem to be delocalized - but this seeming-to-be is devastating and integrated into the work process. These tasks - the discreet elements of recombination - are still material, and remain integrated into pre-existing forms of labour that still survive in many places. Capitalism produces ever more signs, but these signs are material in the way they are made, transmitted and interpreted, even if we don't notice their physical nature when we use them and are unable to fully explain it. Bifo recognises this physicality and invites us to go back and investigate it scientifically, taking note of the areas of direct, intimate exchange between aspects of reality that can only be seen as separate through the logic of obtuse specialists. In this dynamic map of interconnections, we need to explain the intimate relationship that arises between a system of neurons/neurotransmitters on one hand, and a system of chips/electrical pulses on the other. The intimate nature of this multiform relationship has to be unravelled in order to explain why, in the US, 70% of Internet porn traffic occurs during working hours, and why workers who earn US$75-100,000 download almost twice as much pornography as those who earn less than 35,000. What is the role of pornography in the self-disciplining of flexible workers? 

In Bifo recombinant language, ‘post-alfa’ means post-alphabetical, in reference to the generation of children who learn more words from a machine than from their own mothers. One of the causes of contemporary pathologies may turn out to be ‘the absence of the mother’s body as a reference during the learning process’. This absence is a result of women's increasing participation in the workforce. Quite a large number of these working women have to work raising the children of other mothers, caring for the elderly or cleaning houses, in badly paid production work or by prostituting themselves tens or thousands of kilometres away from their own children.

On November 7th last year, a Finnish adolescent wearing a t-shirt that said "Humanity is Overrated" killed 8 people in his school, after announcing his plans on youtube. The next day, Bifo recounted what had happened at the National Library, and suggested that from Columbine to S11, suicide has become the main political act of our times: a new anthropological development that has to be elucidated in political and economic terms, but also looking at the early relationship between affectivity and language.

To declare the centrality of these facts is a provocation that triggers a series of questions: Can a core mutation exist in this age of mutations? How are an S11-type suicide and a Columbine-type suicide construed in social and psychological terms? What is shared and what isn’t by those who commit suicide while killing others and those who commit suicide all by themselves?

The terms “mutation” and “recombination” come from molecular genetics. Obviously, when we import them into the cultural field as metaphors they take on new meanings, with a value that is no longer tied to the original molecular process nor to the legitimacy that their scientific description can give. In biology, mutations outside of the laboratory appear randomly, and can only spread through a population if they are transmitted by the mutant to his or her descendants. The speed with which a mutation spreads will depend on a variety of factors, including: the effect of the mutation on the organism’s development and its effect on the relationship between the organisms and their environment (so-called Natural Selection) and aspects such as the size of the population, whether or not migrations occur, the time that passes between one generation and the next and the genetic drift (the effect of chance, not in relation to the appearance of a single mutation, but in the genetic make-up of whole populations). Whereas in cultural mutations, the appearance of technosocial developments aren’t free from the effect of chance, but they’re imprinted with the purpose of those who produce them and their horizontal spread, within a single generation, can be enormous. In both cases, mutations don’t occupy a central role, but instead interact with the effect of many other mutations, present and past. The mutations can be positive, negative or neutral, their effects can be contrary to the future of the species. Some can have a slight or no effect, others can have powerful effects and imply a qualitative break with the previous identity: a change of sign. Mutations can sometimes revert back, although when the reversion takes place the species is no longer the same because other mutations have already occurred: only local, partial reversibility is possible in the system.

Against the must be of sacrifice, Bifo suggests practising a pleasure ethic: a physical pleasure that’s unlike that of the ever-smiling advertising campaigns, one that can feel its own suffering and that of others – a sensitive pleasure. The prescription he offers those who suffer anxiety is "take it easy: laborare con lentezza”, stop seeing the other as a waste of time and pay attention to his singularity, his breathing, his silence and his gaze. True richness is having time available so one can share with others.

Recombinant capital is voracious and, in its formidable expansion, does not hesitate to take on multiple fragments of culture and counterculture. The new forms of activism, largely determined by the new forms of exploitation, also have recombinant characteristics. It is worth continuing to investigate and experiment, with increasing awareness, the intermingling of time and knowledge in different struggles for autonomy, from the most close at hand to those furthest away, from the ‘peripherical’ to those that are more ‘central’ These struggles define an area of cultural mutation in which our notion of autonomy can be enriched and brought up to date on the basis of specific experiences. In them, autonomy can be glimpsed as a growing resolve – sometimes gradually and others in leaps, some steps forward and some back - to create diversity and horizontality in the numerous relationships that cross through us, and not as a distant point of arrival. The idealised images of autonomy as an ultimate fulfilment to be conquered once and for all, or claustrophobic images of a community that has to close in on itself, trying to remain uncontaminated by the power relations that "surround” it (!), can only lead to frustration, to setting up nodes of impotent malaise and constant gossip, to creating negative propaganda on the autonomous dream.




stiff bodies
in corporate meetings
their cervicals forsaken
in the face of circuits and electromagnetic pulses
they want to regain protagonism
they sicken
they self-auscultate
they self-control
they self-repress

until they look at each other
they touch each other
they dance each other

the sad and solemn songs
of past and coming wakes
give way to the dance of smiles that look at each other
all ridiculousness gone
in a daring step

Scouring circuits to produce encounters:
Reducing machine time
Temporary recombinations in new formats
incompatible with those of silicon and coltan

Carpani's metallic workers smile
and their rust turns flesh

[1] Tinta Limón is an independent publisher in Argentina. On this book, see; see also Bifo, “The Pathologies of Hyper-expression. Discomfort and Repression”, [Editor’s Note].

Federico Geller


Nuria Rodríguez (translation)


other languages

Bifo in Buenos Aires: An exercise in Recombination Bifo en Buenos Aires: un ejercicio de recombinación