Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi – Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide

by Tom Regel on May 29, 2015


(Verso Books: London. 2015)

When James Holmes shot dead twelve people and injured seventy more at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, at a screening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, the response was perhaps as futile as it was entirely prescriptive: increased pressures to effect changes in legislature over the sale of firearms, renewed calls for a greater awareness over issues of mental health, and those decrying what they saw as the insidious influence of violence in mass culture. And while the first two at least present logical reflexes, both fail to reconcile the complex and subjective nature of these types of crimes. In his latest book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi offers us a deeper more far-reaching prognosis. For Berardi, this relatively new trend (Berardi sees the Columbine massacre in 1999 as a watershed) should be read not within a narrative of isolated phenomena, as mere preventable anomaly, but as the explosive manifestations of a more widespread mutation in the realms of sensibility and subjectivity; as symptomatic, that is, of the devastating psychosocial effects of late capitalism and the sinister intrusion of neoliberal ideology into all spheres of contemporary existence.

The case studies in this book are multiple and varied: from the growing hikokomori trend in Japan, to the worker suicides at Chinese factories, to a less persuasive detour through the rise and spread of Islamic extremism. It’s only that Berardi begins his diagnosis in Aurora and with crimes of this nature, because he interprets the perpetrators of this particular kind of mass murder suicide as the true “heroes of an age of nihilism and spectacular stupidity: the age of financial capitalism.”

The arctic ice is retreating faster than most predicted, the rainforests are being plundered and destroyed; the air isn’t fit to breathe and our cities are being transformed into ghastly unaffordable corporate playgrounds and theme parks for the super-rich. There’s not an inch of the known world left that hasn’t been smothered and subjugated under the insatiable expanse of capital. Only the constellations, distant and immutable, are free from the cold clutches of capitalism’s death grips (for now.) But if we want to gauge what has become of life – of human experience, of consciousness and subjectivity – under existing conditions then we need to establish a more creative and expansive criteria for comprehending the nature and form of contemporary capitalism. You have to think outside of it. Herein, Berardi isn’t all that interested in denunciating the evils of the economic system, as it exists: his aim is to collapse the irrational pseudo-scientific language of the economist and scrutinise, in all its immediacy, the estranged psychic landscape of our age.

Berardi thinks not in straight lines, but in terms of vast indefinite oceans. Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide works from the outside: in each case study, biography figures as secondary. Berardi approaches the perpetrators of spectacular mass murder suicide as victims first and foremost, not of tragic circumstance, but of rational and explainable conditions; as victims, that is, of absolute capitalism. For Berardi, absolute capitalism best describes the ubiquitous and unlimited solipsistic madness of the market and the exhaustive financial abstraction of semiocapitalism (that is: the exhaustive production and exchange of immaterial signs, the acute randomisation of digital value, and the emergence of a “virtual class”, who have now superseded the old industrial bourgeoisie, with no direct relation to territory or community.) The collective body is splintered and fragmented, the general intellect is knackered, disorientated, and unable to properly envisage beyond the infernal horizon of the current socio-economic order.

James Holmes, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho, Pekka-Eric Auvinen in Finland (there are more) were all complete losers in the colloquial high-school canteen sense of the word. But they were also very literal losers in a society predicated entirely on dogged unrelenting competition and that has use only for the winners. The mechanisms that structure and codify the competitive battlefield have infiltrated all spheres of contemporary experience: there’s not a private moment left that isn’t strangled by a kind of seething primal dread. Even sleep is attenuated and feverish. What’s striking about the confessions and the manifestos that the killers tend to before their final act (extracts of which are presented in detail, and in which the typos and spelling errors carry a shattering fragility) is their inability to speak or think outside of a type social Darwinist discourse. The predatory, deterritorialising power of capitalist abstraction is such that it deprives its most vulnerable victims – isolated, unstable and fundamentally desensitised – of the ability to delineate the real source of their suffering and trauma. This suicidal acting out is instead invariably framed in terms of a justified crusade against enemies and rivals who are viewed as obstacles in their own cinematic triumph myth.

The mass killer’s suicidal urge – the unwillingness to exist under unbearable conditions – is thus enmeshed within a complicated competitive lust to win and to be a winner, to be a very strange kind of hero. Unlike the austerity suicides in Europe, committed by people who’ve lost everything, or the exploited workers pushed to breaking point at the Foxconn factory in China and for who ceasing to exist remains the singular purpose of the act, the spectacular mass murder suicide is different in that its cause and meaning are inextricably culture-bound, and the killer seeks to redeem something in return for his extinction: celebrity. “Disconnected from conscious elaboration,” unable to make proper sense of his despair, the mass murderer is forced into a frantic and explosive reiteration of that which is known and assimilated as the prevailing worldview. As Berardi writes: “The mass murderer is someone who believes in the right of the fittest and the strongest to win in the social game, but he also knows or senses that he is not the fittest nor the strongest. So he opts for the only possible act of retaliation and self-assertion: to kill and be killed.”

These are of course exceptional cases, but they are by no means isolated in their relation to existing conditions. The acting out of the mass murderer is but a dramatic extension of the type of cloudy crisis-of-sense that constitutes the transient and repressed experience of the burgeoning precariat class. With no psychic or social anchors in place, the precarious wage labourer, because of the perpetual ‘hanging on a thread’ of her economic fate, exists in a state of continued dread and anxiety – a sort of nervous primal readiness: “security” Adorno wrote, “is glimpsed in adaption to the utmost insecurity.” Precarity impinges on all aspects of private and social life (which is a game, too.) Even pleasure and enjoyment is seemingly judged and logged, on account of its scarcity, with the impetuous spontaneity of a Facebook like, on its immediate exchange value, on the measure of its fungibility. There’s no time to relax. There’s no time at all. Even in the rhythms and habits of the most modest social media/Internet user (people like me and you) there is glimpsed something of the irrational solipsistic madness thrust open in the violent mass murderer. In the age of semiocapitalism and mass media technologies the individual – the living organism – is disembodied and re-incorporated (as an automaton) into the immaterial flow of the digital void, at once infinitely “connected” and entirely disconnecting from anything meaningful or substantial.

Most of us will grow old like this, nervous and afraid, without real freedom and without the choice to abjure; barely enjoying the little moderate and unreflective play (when we’re not working we inveterately “switch off”) afforded by those precious hours not rigorously divided by work and sleep. We’re going mad; we have been for some time. In the rise of the hikokomori in Japan a strange alternative to the precarious atomised drudgery of wage labour emerges. A hikokomori is closed off from the outside world, eschewing work and all social relations, and choosing instead to live alone within the warm solitary glow of an interface. Liberated from the stresses and demands of having to fight and compete within the system it is, ostensibly, a life of infinite digital freedoms, a life without borders or divisions, smooth and unlimited. Except it’s no life at all. In fact, Berardi perceives the hikokomori as enacting a sort of metaphorical suicide, something like death in life. In this sense, following the neutralisation of any conflict, the position of the hikokomori is not really a dissenting one, but one of blank submission. Although, Berardi reveals that the hikokomori he met and spoke to on his travels “are acutely conscious that only by extricating themselves from the routine of daily life could their personal autonomy be persevered.” It is, for them at least, “an effective way to avoid the effects of suffering, compulsion, self-violence and humiliation that competition brings out.” But to become a hikokomori is to have only part of the solution: the ideal lies in the necessary balancing of disengagement and conflict.

Whilst the deterritorialising nature of capitalism leaves a great deal of its victims adrift and isolated, forced to either withdraw or explode, it can also lead to aggressive forms of identification. With the onset of increasing physical and psychological displacement and “the acceleration of cultural and economic exchanges”, the role of identity begins to re-emerge “as shelter.” But as previous meanings are swallowed up and neutralised by the universality of the market machine (the “worldless” ideological nature of late capitalism), these types of identification invariably assume the form of a wholly imagined and reactionary “return of the past.” It’s spreading like a hideous rash all over Europe today in the rise of the far right. Where the book’s claims become somewhat problematic, however, is in its unintended conflation of the types and forms of re-territorialisation.

In the middle section of the book, Berardi discusses the reassertion of ethnic and religious identity as sources of “primeval belonging” in the Arab-Israeli conflict. According to Berardi, the hardening of the inner map, reinforcing the conflict on both sides, is based on a desirous “hypertrophic sense of the root,” and on “the reclamation of belonging as criterion of truth and selection”: the Zionist project is at its core a reactionary experiment bound to a (by default) false sense of memory and the search for an imagined place of belonging; the rise of Islamic extremism across North Africa and the Middle East is born out of the sustained destruction and occupation of Muslim lands and is hence attached, with a sort of manic fixity that is fast proliferating, to a metastasised and “regressive cult of origin.” Thus, identity is a trap and the map a dangerous falsehood. True emancipatory belonging is engendered in the reconciliation of differences, in flux, and in the severing of identity from an imagined root.

Except the experience of tumultuous and painful historical displacement and the sustained oppression of peoples cannot possibly be read within the same sociological/philosophical framework as that of the estrangement of the precarious wage labourer, or the distorted neurosis of the Internet pervert. The clinging to a source of primeval origin as the primary means of identification and the complex, mournful weaving of a collective memory on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict (but especially the Palestinian side) is for obvious and immediate reasons discursively incompatible with, say, the idiotic rise of nationalist identity across an austerity-ridden Europe. Berardi is not making this comparison: the problem, however, is one of stylistic and structural incongruity.

Because I have to be running for something of more value
To be running and not in fear
Because the thing I fear cannot be escaped
Eluded, avoided, hidden from, protected from, gotten away from.

– Gill Scott-Heron.

This is a depressing book, but then shit is absolutely depressing at the moment. “Why did I write such a horrible book?” Berardi asks himself in chapter 11. Berardi isn’t a morbid person – he says that in chapter 11, too. He’s a big hippy. His nickname is ‘Bifo’. And fittingly, at the very bottom of the book he offers the reader a “line of flight” upwards, if not outwards. This point of radical departure is irony, or ‘Dyst-irony.’ Disentangling ourselves from the clutches of the socio-economic order has to begin with reclaiming our relationship with poetic language and sensibility, and autonomy begins with distance, with an unwillingness to participate (this is why Berardi calls it “ironic autonomy”.) We need to distance ourselves from our current political systems – cathartic voodoo ritual from beginning to end. We must refuse to acknowledge the irregular stupidity and irrationality of modern economic parlance – which doesn’t recognise reality and has no relation to things, but signifies only itself in a sort of narcissistic cycle of depression. (Debt, after all, is purely metaphysical: it is, as Berardi likes to remind us, nothing but symbolic debt). The solution is to have no hope in the existing structures because they are devoid of substance, and to embrace your despair, which is full of fire and truth and imaginative potential. In short: keep running.

In the short aphorism ‘Regressions’, Adorno writes about the lyrics of a popular German children’s song, the moral of which only dawned on him later in life. In the song, two rabbits are enjoying themselves playing and eating grass, when a hunter shoots them down; but upon realising they have survived the shot both rabbits hop excitably from the scene. “Sense” Adorno “writes can only endure in despair and extremity; it needs absurdity, in order not to fall victim to objective madness.” He goes on: “The capacity for fear and for happiness are the same [.] What would happiness be that was not measured by the immeasurable grief at what is? For the world is deeply ailing. He who cautiously adapts to it by the very act shares in its madness.” Berardi’s “line of flight” reads much like the giddy trajectory of the two fleeing rabbits in Adorno’s dreams. “Remember”, he writes, “despair and joy are not incompatible.” In fact, if you’re not bristling with despair and hopelessness, then you’re doing something horribly wrong – you have submissively adapted to the madness.

But despair is not the same as nihilism: it is, by nature of its opposition, a form of conflict: it’s the blues. Despair only becomes nihilism when it’s starved of irony and imagination and sunlight. The hikokomori retreats from life and thus shuts down its weird myriad possibilities, neutralising any vestiges of conflict; he is as vigilant and undisruptive as he is passive to the slow entropic withering of experience, and makes nothing of his despair. It’s not retreat or isolation we need to survive (which are just negative forms of “adaption”), but the sceptical rejection – open and uninhibited – of all established rules and dogmas, and the refusal to play a responsible role in the absurdity of the system, without necessarily sacrificing the right to an enjoyable and fulfilling life. “Dystopia has to be faced, and dissolved by irony,” Berardi writes. Reject all ethics of responsibility. Work is stupid. Be a leech instead. Claim everything you can. And don’t be frightened by despair. The burden of debt is a fiction. Don’t believe anything anybody tells you. Not even Berardi.


{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: