Review: Franco Berardi-Precarious Rhapsody
When Franco “Bifo” Berardi invokes McLuhan in the introduction to Precarious Rhapsody, it gives a strong indication of what to expect in the coming pages. Not necessarily regarding his arguments and theories- Berardi is more clearly aligned with the Marxist school of thought than McLuhan’s technological determinism. But the associative, almost philosophical rhetoric can feel very familiar at times.
Berardi argues that history can be seen as “an infinite series of bifurcations”, as we are continually presented with different paths to take. However, we are not free to choose which path to take. Instead we are at the mercy of “concatenations: machines for the liberation of desires and mechanisms of control over the imaginary”. Starting in 1977 and drawing upon his own experiences as a young activist in Italy, Berardi attempts to show how to optimistic revolts against the capitalist institutions of the day were distorted into the semiocapitalism that dominates our lives presently. As labor is disconnected from actual physical conditions and moves into the realm of information, the relationship between labor and capital changes and time itself becomes commodified. The worker is no longer the unit which is bought and subjugated by capital; time itself is.
Berardi presents several more arguments in his book: about intellectual labor and its appropriation by capitalist institutions, about the disconnect between the amount of information generated within networks (cyberspace) and the human inadequacy of processing this information fast enough (cybertime), about the collapse of democracy under the influence of the capitalist free-market system. Some of his arguments are reasonable and interesting; others can be tenuous and veer into the metaphysical at times, like his connection between the semiocapitalist system and pathological disorders. However, the true problem with Berardi’s work is in the way the book is structured.
The first two chapters of Precarious Rhapsody contain the entirety of Berardi’s arguments. However, these chapters are written in a dense, labyrinthine manner that makes it nigh on impossible to ascertain just what it is that is being argued. Berardi introduces all his concepts at once without defining them, and forgets to explain just how this premise leads to that conclusion. Over the course of the book the same points are repeated over and over again, becoming more clearer as the tightly spun manifesto of the opening chapters unspools into more intelligible arguments and lines of reasoning. It is as if Berardi placed the summary of his thesis at the very beginning of the book and worked backwards from there.
Besides the obfuscating prose and circuitous way of presenting his arguments, the repeating pattern of the book leads to a great deal of redundancy. Some parts are repeated word for word from one chapter to the next, and deja vu sets in quite often. Part of this seems to owe to the fact that many of the chapters have appeared in various forms before being collected in this book. Whatever the case may be, Precarious Rhapsody would have benefitted a great deal from a bit of editing.
Another issue is the underlying current of nostalgia that is present throughout. It is no surprise that Berardi places the last moment of true, hopeful revolt against the capitalist domination of everyday life in his student years. The notion that everything used to be better in the past and kids these days just don’t understand nags around the corner of every page. When Berardi argues that the disconnect between cyberspace and cybertime leads to an empty lifestyle where people have lost the ability to love, to imagine, to enjoy life, it comes across as condescending. Moreover, he fails to provide any evidence for his claims. No case studies or statistics. The same is the case when he states that pathological disorders like depression spring from labor relations in semiocapitalism. These are interesting claims, but they are built solely on rhetoric.
If you have the patience to stick through to the end and decipher Berardi’s arguments, Precarious Rhapsody is a rewarding book to read. Not per se because it presents a workable theory to apply on the field of media studies- it might be better described as media philosophy. But in the end Berardi manages to present a unique and interesting view of the modern world and the role media play in it. It makes you think in new ways and about issues you might not have considered otherwise. And it contains at least one sentiment that anyone can agree with. Berardi places the “source of intelligence, of technology, of progress” in the simple statement:”I don’t want to go to work because I prefer to sleep”.