Mental Breakdown of a Nation

Soft Narcosis of the Networked Condition

Here lies the origin of contemporary chaos.
JEREMIAH HYDE STILSON

In The Soul at Work from 2009, Italian Media theorist Franco Berardi describes the transition in the last 30 to 40 years from alienation to autonomy, from repression to hyper-expressivity, from the hopes and desires of schizo activism to the diffused, if not to say depressed, subjectivity of the pharmacological Web 2.0 citizen.

In a 2009 anthology of recent essays, entitled Precarious Rhapsody, Italian media theorist Franco Berardi remarks: “While cyberspace is conceptually infinite, cybertime is not infinite at all. I call cybertime the ability of the conscious organism to actually process (cyberspatial) information.” In the online economy, he writes, flexibility has evolved into a fractalization of work. The worker is paid for his or her occasional, temporary services. We are all too aware of this fragmentation of activity time. As Berardi states:

Today psychopathology reveals itself ever more clearly as a social epidemic and, more precisely, to a socio-communicational one. If you want to survive you have to be competitive, and if you want to be competitive you must be connected, receive and process continuously an immense and growing amount of data. This provokes a constant attentive stress, a reduction of the time available for affectivity.

In an attempt to sync their bodies, workers take drugs such as Prozac, Viagra, cocaine or amphetamines. If we bring this analysis to the internet we see these two movements – the expansion of storage and the compression of time – making online work so stressful. It is the “origin of contemporary chaos.” A chaos that occurs when the world goes too fast for your brain.

According to Berardi, we have to focus on the “digital natives” if we really want to understand info overload. Whether older generations suffer from info saturation should not determine our analysis. Berardi:

Do not ask yourself if you can or cannot cope. It is not about adaptation or choice. The Greek god of hunting and rustic music, Pan, is a symbol of plenty and abundance and has never been stigmatized as a problem. Humankind was always impressed by the billions of stars shining in the clear night sky - and never was in a panic about its plentitude.

Imagine how humans grow up in the info sphere.

The nonconformist Franco Berardi questions the current emphasis in contemporary arts and other fancy circles on “becoming,” a central concept in the work of his teachers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, with whom he collaborated and about whom he wrote a book. Desire was always good, but now that’s not always the case. We are no longer “becoming” digital. We’re in the midst of the network paradigm – and it is pretty busy in here.

Berardi recommended Mark Fisher’s 2009 Capitalist Realism to me, which describes what happens when postmodernism is naturalized. Fisher defines this unstated worldview as “reflexive impotence.” “They know things are bad, but more than that, they can’t do anything about. But that ‘knowledge,’ that ‘reflexivity,’ is not a passive observation of an existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” An obstacle to implementing any response to such content overload is that one can retreat into a position of indifference. Young people experience a world where nothing can be done. They sense that society is falling apart and nothing will change.

Fisher correlates the impotence to widespread pathologization, foreclosing the possibility of politicization. “Many of the teenage students I encountered,” Fisher writes, “seemed to be in a state of depressive hedonia, constituted by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure.” Young people respond to the freedom that post-disciplinary systems offer “not by pursuing projects but by falling into hedonic lassitude: the soft narcosis, the comfort food oblivion of Playstation, all-night TV and marijuana.” Having a psychoanalytic background, Franco Berardi connects the condition described by Mark Fisher to the shift away from the affection of the mother and the voice of the father to the machinic realm of television and the computer as the prime source of language acquisition.

Indolence becomes a virtue after one no longer misses the news headlines. This is the strategy of the Network Sovereign. No more calls for restraint or attempts to filter the rubbish in the hope of finding vital info gems. Instead, we surf’n’search for perfect serendipity with our eyes wide shut. We are fully connected yet we don’t care. The flashy visual seduction of PR firms and software engineers run aground on this paramount attitude. Data flows no longer penetrate our mental armature; deflector shields do their job.

Berardi claims that we do not live in an “attention economy,” which is a concept based on the idea of choice and preferred by the liberal and conservative outgoing generations. As if there was any choice to participate in Facebook, Twitter, and to have your mobile phone on 24/7. For those post-baby boom Gen-Xers, growing up under capitalist realism, this simply is not the case. Berardi: “The problem is not in the technology. We have to come to terms with it. The killing element is the combination of info stress and competition. We have to win, and to be the first. The real pathogenic effect is the neo-liberal pressure that makes the network condition so unlivable – not the abundance of information itself.”

Geert Lovink is the founding director of the Institute of Network Cultures and a well-known Dutch-Australian media theorist. Lovink is the author of several books and he blogs at networkcultures.org/geert. This article is adapted from his latest book, Networks Without a Cause.

Comments on the article “Soft Narcosis of the Networked Condition”

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Page 1 of 1

Add a new comment

To comment or reply please Log In, Create An Account or post as Anonymous.