Susanne M. Winterling: Technology seems to mystify the gap between nature and culture, body and object. On the one hand, it creates the illusion that none of it needs material or is material, but, on the other, only in the material does there seem to be possibility, sensuality, and interaction/communication. Is this not a contradiction?
Franco “Bifo” Berardi: The separation line between nature and technology is artificial, as we know well. Nevertheless it happens that organic matter, and particularly conscious organic matter needs a certain environment to be what it is and to act as it acts. I mean, you cannot imagine that a certain being (the human body) could survive in conditions that are totally intolerable for the material consistency of it. This does not mean that the human body is ‘natural’. I know that the human body is the product of a cultural and technological process, I know that consciousness is shaped by technology, media, and by psycho-aesthetic stimulations, I know all this. However you cannot deny that this cultural-technological construct that we call the “human” body will not reproduce in environmental conditions that make its reproduction, its physical activity, and so on impossible. Here we are dealing with the problem of the relation between consciousness and evolution. Obviously evolution is acting on consciousness, but is the other way round similarly true? I mean, can we imagine that consciousness may act on the evolutionary process?
You know that recently there has been talk about neuroplasticity, the ability of the neural system to adapt, to change in such a way so as to cope with environmental changes and mutation. That is good. But my question is: Can we consciously interact with neuro-mutation? Can we consciously and politically act on the evolution of the brain?
SMW: There is a strange beauty, which is maybe also to do with the abject, in the sound of certain surfaces and a challenge to capture the interaction of a species of plankton, for example, that is beyond representation and technology in a time where nearly all relations are networking for a higher market value. The Hunger Games (2012) is not a good film and yet there is something disturbingly real in it as a vision—so much so that I want to call it 1984 in an Orwellian sense and also a ‘material’. This does not necessary make sense but I know that I am not the only one who has made this observation.
FBB: The Hunger Games is not a good film, I agree with you. But it is the third-highest ranking blockbuster ever in terms of audience. Millions of young people have gone to see the movie in the theaters, and this is hugely significant. I mean, this film has struck a cord, but which cord? This film produced cultural and psychological effects, but what are these effects? You know, Donald Sutherland, who is magnificent as the president of Panem’s ultra-totalitarian system, said in an interview that the movie has to be seen as a denunciation of the totalitarian system of capitalism. But in my opinion the movie has no political intention, nor does it suggest any moral approach. Suzanne Collins and Gary Ross know that their audience is not going to see the movie with socially oriented expectations. Class hatred is not the issue. Helplessness is the issue. Hopelessness is the issue.
I roamed around in The Hunger Games blogsphere and talked with students about the film, and I drew the conclusion that the movie captures the mood of the wide majority of the precarious generation, which is not questioning reality from the point of view of a possible alternative. As the only imagination of future is dystopian, dystopia is the world that we will be living in. The sole conclusion: let’s try to win the hunger games, let’s be prepared to succumb. This means that the mutation is mutating the conscious organisms that are invested by the mutation itself, and in the end these organisms are led to look at the mutation as the only possibility left.
This is abject, as you say, but there is a special beauty in abject things. Contemporary art (and contemporary cinema) knows this beauty of the abject quite well. Perceiving the beauty of hell is a way to become conscious of what the hell is, and it is also a way to enter into a relation of sensibility with hell itself. The Hunger Games is a description of hell (the hell that financial capitalism is bringing to precarious life) but it is also a way to consciously elaborate on the evolution of the environment in which we live, as conscious and sensible organisms.
SMW: Environmental processes affect us. But to what extent? And I wonder if that does not necessary enmesh an ideology (and capitalism) like an insect that becomes resistant to a poisonous element in its environment. And if the evolution-consciousness problem is the core of how environmental processes and changes are affecting us, how does it look on a material level? Will our interactions change so that we are more comfortable with acids, toxics, and other poisonous materials?
FBB: You ask me to what extent environmental change is affecting our lives. I do not know if we will be able to change the formation of our lungs in order to live with poisonous air. But, to a certain degree we are already doing it. I suffer from asthma, because the environment of the city where I live is so poisonous that my lungs react in a certain pathological way. But scientists have produced betamethasone and other cortisone products that make it possible for my lungs to breath notwithstanding the poisonous air.
When we use the word “mutation” we are referring to exactly this mutual and irreversible symbiotic transformation of the organism together with the environment. I know that the insect named “human being” has a special resilience; thanks to intelligence it is able to adapt, and adaption in turn is mutating its intelligence. Nevertheless the mutation is painful, and we are living at a time of intense and rapid mutation. This is the point: it is not the extinction of the human insect, but the pain involved in the present mutation, and also the direction in which the mutation is transforming the conscious and sensitive organism of the human insect.
What will be the direction of the mutation? It may be the increasing determination of physical and mental behavior, the neuro-totalitarian domination and the forced assimilation into conditions of slavery, submission, and suffering. Although, on the contrary, it may involve the disentanglement of possibilities that so far have been hidden.
SMW: The evolution-consciousness problem is related to the body. And the body can be viewed in a conceptual as well as physical/material way that allows us to see interaction not only as the basis for the social and the political, but also as something that occurs between species and living organisms and maybe also matter. This seems to demand a broader understanding of ecology.
On the one hand, I observe that the extension of the anthropological sphere produced by technology means an age of anxiety, but, on the other, could there be a luminous spot where recognizing sensible organisms and training is the priority? (Maybe this sounds utopian but it comes from sci-fi.) And what might that look like?
FBB: In my opinion this will be the main task of anthropological research (and of technological research too) over the next decades: how to adapt the human neural system to the changing environment. It is the problem of neuroplasticity. But neuroplasticity is an ambivalent field of research and experimentation. The current theoretical focus on neuroplasticity can pave the way for a process of brain adaptation to an environment that grows every day more intolerable for the psychological, aesthetic, and ethical mind that has been forged in the past age of human civilization. Neo-human adaptation, adaptation to the connective mode of communication, adaptation to the ferocity of competition, to the barbarity and horror of the submission of life and attention to financial abstraction may take the form of a sort of social lobotomy: pharmacological or surgical cancellation of what in human psychology is incompatible with abstract domination.
But we can imagine a different outcome: an alternative possibility lies in the conscious ability of brain self-molding, which cannot be considered purely in terms of evolution but also in terms of consciousness. This implies a process of autonomous recomposition of the living forces of the general intellect (a process of social organization of cognitive workers), the recomposition of the general intellect with its social and erotic body, and a process of epistemological re-conjunction of the disjointed fragments of living knowledge. The ethical, aesthetic, and psychological suffering of cognitive labor can become the trigger for the reorientation of networked knowledge, disentangled from the pathogenic domination of financial capitalism. The post-capitalist reorientation of knowledge should not be regarded as a problem of moral or political will, but in terms of the adaptation of mental activity to the neuroplastic evolution of the brain, and in terms of the conscious transformation of the techno-neurological environment.
The conversation is part of an online platform and an excerpt of a longer contribution to a catalog for Nature after Nature (forthcoming Fridericianum Kassel). It has been developped over a seminar, public talks and email exchange. Franco Berardi Bifo is a contemporary writer, media-theorist and media-activist.