(Verso Books: London. 2015)
It’s alarming, to say the least, how books about mass murders and suicides never seem to be outdated. Regardless of their release date, they always find the perfect place in our social context, be it after or before a recent mass shooting or a loved one’s suicide. However, only a few of them elude the trap of reducing everything to fashionable psychoanalysis, personal responsibility, and clinical diagnosis without even considering the more invisible and not-so-comfortable-to-look-at backgrounds.
Included in Verso’s latest Futures series, Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide does more than merely scratch the surface of this topic — it dives into some really troubled waters while trying to highlight the chilling hookup between the individual’s mental health and the financial nihilism rooted in contemporary capitalism. Besides its uncomfortable yet convincing arguments brought forward to uncover mass murder as a kind of suicide by proxy, what makes this book even more challenging is that Bifo is definitely not what you would call an optimist when it comes to humankind and its everlasting obsession with “futures” of all kinds. In his After the Future, Bifo has already argued that the very concept of future has failed us, and it’s the burden of humankind to decide what is to be done next instead of wishful thinking and barren perceptions.
Mapping a gloomy territory dwelled by individuals who decided to take their own lives but not before ending other’s (Pekka-Erik Auvinen, Seung-Hui Cho, the Aurora “Joker” killer, Anders Behring Breivik, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold), and without oversimplifying their motivation, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide courageously attempts to forge missing or maybe just conveniently overlooked links. And it does so by scrutinizing the so-called absolute capitalism that keeps on giving birth to highly competitive individuals and feeds their compulsion to stay connected all the time, horrified that they may miss something when away from keyboards, sharing and commenting every bit of their lives as if this would really matter in the end, as if this were more than just indexable content for search engines.
Television and, more recently, the digital revolution have ushered in formidable transformations to the human mental environment. The fact that human beings learn more vocabulary from a machine than from their mothers is undeniably leading to the development of a new kind of sensibility. The new forms of mass psychopathology of our time cannot be investigated without due consideration of the effects of this new environment, in particular the new process of language learning. Two main developments demand consideration: the first is the disassociation of language learning from the bodily affective experience; the second is the virtualization of the experience of the other.
The acute sense of being inadequate in a competitive world that values semiocapital above all else and owning nothing except an imagination fiercely colonized by digital information led to scenarios that one may feel tempted to dismiss as “isolated” cases. But these “isolated” cases are just a symptom that also gives a whole new extent to crime as something that one can (re)define according to his or her own purpose. Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech shooting in 2007), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine High School massacre in 1999) may have chosen to become mass murderers and kill themselves in order to escape the pain and bullying of their daily lives and gain a moment of fame that was impossible to gain otherwise.
But with Anders Behring Breivik, there is a different story as the perpetrator responsible for the Norway attacks in 2011 came with his own agenda backed by political and ideological values. Shortly, he acted as a neo-conservative automaton, as Bifo puts it, desensitized by his own delusions, by the way he perceived the current Western civilization as a territory threatened by feminization, Islamization, and in danger of losing its Christianity and Father figure (still an authoritarian fetish as popular as ever). Scarily enough, there are actually no significant differences between Breivik’s own declaration and the one delivered by Tea Party militants and intellectuals alike. Examining Breivik’s background, one thing becomes clear: his disconnection from everything outside and inside himself. It’s an alienation that can be translated into countless hours spent online, wired to role-playing games, discussion forums, and niche websites that did nothing but reinforce his already existing psychic suffering and populate it with menacing avatars of otherness, avatars that need to be defeated in order to claim one’s belonging to the “right” community. Bifo argues that psychic suffering coupled with extended exposure to the online flow can lead to such tragic attempts to win one’s life back, to re-territorialize a ground that is colonized against one’s will and without any visible effects until it seems almost too late to do anything about it:
Financial capitalism is based on a process of unrelenting deterritorialization, and this is causing fear to spread among those who are unable to deal with the precariousness of daily life and the violence of the labor market. This fear in turn provokes a counter-effect of aggressive re-territorialization by those who try to grasp some form of identity, some sense of belonging, because only a feeling of belonging offers the semblance of shelter, a form of protection. But belonging is a delusive projection of the mind, a deceptive sensation, a trap. Since one’s belonging can only be conclusively proved by an act of aggression against the other, the combined effect of deterritorialization in the sphere of financial capitalism and of re-territorialization in the realm of identity is leading to a state of permanent war.
Information technologies and the accelerated exploitation of the neural energy they brought have already resulted in semiotic exchanges that are far beyond the natural but quite limited capacity of the human brain when it comes to paying attention and staying alert all the time. New codes for meaning and communication have been imposed by semiocapitalism and triggered dramatic changes in the way people perceive their identity. Constant deterritorialization and re-territorialization caused by political immigration and displacement are fertile ground for identitarian politics as they create and nurture the need for identitarian belonging rooted in aggressiveness against anything perceived as a threat to the so-called true and also purified origins. People are forced to hold on to imagined identities assembled from false memories of what their origins as a human group used to be. But such false memories are nothing more than accurate reflections mirrored by the gaze of the other, the same other that used to generate interdictions and initiate banishment — the oppressor.
If for certain human groups and communities in the past, suicidal strategies came as a direct result of constant humiliation and the obsession with identitarian belonging, for today’s semio-workers, suicide is a way out from the precarity that has become their 24-7 condition. Enslaved by debt and exposed as they are to a fragmented work time that turned them into interchangeable makers, semio-workers find no shelter from the nonstop and pathogenic acceleration of stimuli. They are not safe from the mutation of their own minds and, as a result, their physical structure will eventually be drawn into the crash as well. From the less final form of suicide called hikikomori to the Balinese puputan, from the suicidal waves among the exhausted workers at France-Telecom Orange and Foxconn to the slow deaths faced by the workers at the ILVA steel plant and the suicides of the Indian farmers due to Monsanto’s politics, suicide has long moved beyond being a marginal phenomenon in the psychopathological area. Instead, we should acknowledge a real suicide epidemic. When faced with the extinction of their cultural and social backgrounds, precariousness, and exploitation, people may find suicide as the only way to preserve their dignity as human beings and bail out from the humiliation of not being successful or competitive enough:
We invest our psychic energies and our expectations into work because our intellectual and affective life is poor, because we are depressed, anxious and insecure. So we are trapped. The industrial worker who was obliged to repeat the same gesture a thousand times every day had no reason to identify with her work — so she invested her psychological energies into solidarity with colleagues, and her mind was free to hate the assembly line, and to entertain thoughts that had nothing to do with her daily slavery. Conversely, cognitive workers have been lured into the trap of creativity: their expectations are submitted to the productivity blackmail because they are obliged to identify their soul (the linguistic and emotional core of their activity) with their work. Social conflicts and dissatisfaction are perceived as psychological failures whose effect is the destruction of self-esteem.
Concluding with Bifo’s recall of a trip to Seoul, a city termed as ground zero in terms of online communication and connectivity, but also home to one of the highest suicides rates in the world, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide zooms in on the extreme rate of individualization in mental landscapes that have already been devitalized by various degrees of aggression brought by wars and colonization. Left with nothing to hold on to in terms of culture and traditions erased as they are by ruthless market globalization and digital technology, the “new” humans try to reinvent a new way of interacting with their present context, hoping to alleviate the spasms-inducing precariousness that invaded every single aspect of their life. But they only seem to recreate a culture that still has capitalist economy at its very core while, in the process, they may very well be in danger of losing their own humanity, of having their intellect codified against their will, and getting entangled in a neural network that functions only in the name of financial growth and profit.
Ultimately, Bifo advocates for the limitless power of imagination and irony as the only antidotes in a world urging to be rebuilt from scratch, from remaining fragments that have escaped the collectivization of the human minds prosecuted by the virtual flow, from re-elaborated forms that can enable any human being to see past the present collapse of the world:
Politicians call on us to take part in their political concerns, economists call on us to be responsible, to work more, to go shopping, to stimulate the market. Priests call on us to have faith. If you follow these inveiglements to participate, to be responsible — you are trapped. Do not take part in the game, do not expect any solution from politics, do not be attached to things, do not hope. Dystopian irony (dyst-irony) is the language of autonomy. Be skeptical: do not believe your own assumptions and predictions (or mine). And do not revoke revolution. Revolt against power is necessary even if we may not know how to win. Do not belong. Distinguish your destiny from the destiny of those who want to belong and to participate and to pay their debt. If they want war, be a deserter. If they are enslaved but want you to suffer like them, do not give in to their blackmail.
And what is there to be seen beyond the current pathology of absolute capitalism? Well, we might very well find ourselves looking right into a future freed of paranoia and secularized knowledge and entrenched in real solidarity and meaningful friendship. And this doesn’t sound so bad after all.