If German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and Italian Marxist Bifo were to meet, they would probably agree that our integration with new media is undermining the reasons why we first sat down, cautiously and full of hope, in front of computers back then. Whereas Sloterdijk explains this development using the phenomenon of sedentarism, which causes him to rise to his feet in search of seafaring metaphors, Bifo bangs his fist on the table in a Marxist gesture and calls for a new definition of wealth. At first glance these two philosophers’ messages appear not to go together, but to the careful reader their mutually incompatible words reveal a section of the road that they are walking down together.
The intellectual appeal of authors such as German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and Italian Marxist Franco “Bifo” Berardi results from the fact that their texts are issued by publishers who no longer need to actively promote themselves among the “right circles.” Both authors have a long history of active international engagement, both have a cosmopolitan readership and academic adversaries, neither is afraid to address contemporary issues or is captive to his own grimaces (as Gombrowicz so fittingly said), and if they are then only to the extent that they are acceptable to us – the contributors to and readers of publications such as this one.
In his book Neither Sun Nor Death (whose German original Die Sonne und der Tod. Dialogische Untersuchungen was published exactly ten years ago), Sloterdijk – the author of Critique of Cynical Reason (Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, 1983) and the contentiously received lectures Rules for the Human Park (Regeln für den Menschenpark, 1999) – answers several questions posed by German author and ethnologist Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs. In a series of long conversations, Sloterdijk – whose work has been more positively received abroad than at home – returns in particular to his Spheres trilogy (Sphären 1998-2004), in which he engaged in innovative considerations regarding present and past “spaces of coexistence” using the metaphors of Bubbles, Globes and Foam. He finds the ur-idea of the sphere as a mental concept in a 1st-century-AD mosaic from Torre Annunziata depicting a group of philosophers standing over a globe while engaged in discussion. Sloterdijk considers this mosaic to be the “primal scene of ancient European thought.” He understands the concept of the “spherological” as being the tension between openness and impenetrability, which we can participate in only as a being-in without the possibility of seeing things from the outside. A large part of what is essential thus remains forever vague, opaque, unclear and in this sense intractable – it forms the factual boundary of objectification. The human sphere that each of us inhabits always constructs some kind of additional mental field that the philosophical language of today calls The Other. “The Other penetrates me more than I penetrate it,” says Sloterdijk, thus explaining why his ontology starts with the number two (as, for instance, opposed to Heidegger, whom he frequently engages intellectually). Taken from the other end of wide-branched theory, his cosmo-ontology represents the gigantic expansion of our navel and concept of home onto a large or even very large scale.
Without an intimate familiarity of this trilogy, any attempt at reconstructing Sloterdijk’s observations will be piecemeal, with a certain level of incomprehensibility that must – for the reasons explained below – be left unreduced. At one point, Sloterdijk calls for combining Lacan’s psychoanalysis with the teachings of the Indian mystic Osho (perhaps better known in the English-speaking world as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), who he believes embodies the potential of Indian philosophy to think about human experience without a subject – the same subject that continental philosophy has been trying for some time to get rid of like an unwanted child. Several pages later, he writes about the limits of psychoanalysis, which are embodied by Greek tragedy. According to Sloterdijk, interpreting Sophocles psychoanalytically is like using a key to unlock a key – it gives rise to nonsense. Elsewhere, he takes another look at the scandal caused by his lecture, and sketches out his carefully elaborated media theory.
Being glad that you belong somewhere, that people remember you, that you have someone to turn to when you are at a loss, that people agree when you complain about “those in power,” that people respond to you, that you get paid on schedule, that you can do so much from home, that you have a place to go when you’re not feeling well, that you have a store close to home, that a purchase is a bargain, that you don’t have to wait in line for the library to open, for the television news, that if you don’t like it you can go somewhere else, that you don’t have to get lost, that subway is operating, that things are comprehensible, that you can indulge yourself and that people answer when you ask, that your call goes through, that you can get advice, that you’re not cold, not hungry, and that the electricity is working, that you have such a wide selection, that those wonderful things that you purchased do what you expected them to, that you are never bored, that nobody is yelling at you, that nobody is reproaching you for anything, that you can unwind anytime for at least a moment, and that you know exactly all that you would do if only you had more time...
… and all the while not to owe anything, when it is enough to have an overview of things, to answer your e-mails, to pick up the telephone, to hand in your work on time and in an acceptable format, to know films, to like music, to pay those ridiculous service fees, to register on websites and regularly check what is new, to praise others, to pay attention to them and, at the right moments, get down to business, to be spontaneous and to be seen as being spontaneous, to know pleasant people, to condemn violence, to know what is harmful and what is unnatural and that the world today doesn’t work exactly like most people think, to avoid strange situations, not to take strange people seriously, to be aware of your tastes or to at least feel that you are ahead of most people, to laugh at jokes that are funny because they are true, to let others know that you are not a racist and how you are above it all, to know that the media manipulate the idiotic masses, that a person won’t ever make it anywhere without education, that everyone is unique and that it is important to be open, not to think that progress can be stopped, not to be spiteful, not to criticize anyone, not to be a fool, not to be an elitist, not to be pushy, not to be in the way, not to hold things up, and not to steal anyone’s opinion, in short, to act responsibly.
A clever person reckons that he lives in blessed times, that there always have been and always will be people who are dissatisfied, that he has what he wants and if not then it’s only a matter of time, and that even a lousy job is only temporary, because he knows that he is capable of more and one day they will all see.
There is probably no need to continue with such examples in order to recognize Peter Sloterdijk as a philosopher of unconventional linkages – not only within the Western intellectual canon, but also among non-European thinkers. As a source of inspiration and irritation for many, he represents an important counterpoint to the academic philosophy already criticized by Arthur Schopenhauer and his “pupil” Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche placed his hopes in the willfulness of future philosophers who would not be afraid to play the role of “bogeyman” and would not be bowed by accusations of dilettantism. He believed that future philosophers would dexterously steer clear of the pitfalls of the universe’s fixed points and, like old salts, would cast anchor here and there only in the interest of lightness and style. It thus is no surprise that Sloterdijk, inspired by Nietzsche’s legacy, openly meditates upon his own “charlatanism.” In fact, his “image” have much in common with the former outsider status of the now widely accepted Michel Foucault.
What it means to work today
While Sloterdijk’s series of conversations is impossible to summarize for the purposes of this essay (although it does allow for a comparison with the author’s multifaceted philosophy), we will approach Franco “Bifo” Berardi entirely asymmetrically. About the author himself we will state only that he identifies with the Italian branch of Marxism (known as operaism) that includes authors such as Paolo Virno, Antonio Negri and Maurizio Lazzarato and that has enriched Marx’s theories with the frequently studied concept of “non-material work.” Among other things, Berardi was personally involved in the protests by the Italian workers’ Autonomia movement in the 1970s; today he speaks to us through several recently published English translations. We focus here on one of these.
In his critical analysis of new forms of work and alienation, Bifo starts with the concept of the soul, which Baruch Spinoza defined as “what the body can do.” In one fell swoop, he thus goes beyond the sociological problem of defining work as something that not only provides a livelihood but also fulfills us. Work is something through which we realize ourselves and which today has become such an integral part of our lives that we cannot define it merely by a delineation of working hours. In The Soul at Work (2009), Bifo looks at the formal and qualitative changes of working conditions in the post-Fordist era. Although he continues to apply the post-Fordist principles of flexibility, immediacy and effectiveness – achieved among other things by “humanizing” the working environment – he speaks rather of a “semio-capitalism” in which the primary means of production are the mind, language and creativity.
In Bifo’s view, semio-capitalism is marked by a highly advanced incorporation of mental work into the production process and its gradual reduction to abstract work, i.e., work without a clear meaning or purpose. Mental time is subjected to economic colonization for the purpose of producing exchange value. Bifo describes the basic outlines of this form of capitalism using a simple comparison with and historical analysis of work in the past. Whereas Leninism was based on a division of working processes and higher-level cognitive activities (i.e., consciousness), this division is no longer possible today because the entire production cycle is permeated by a social sphere that is widely contingent upon systems of knowledge. According to Bifo, the international protests of 1968 that brought together students and workers were the first organic union of labor and the intelligentsia. The result was the conscious establishment of the general intellect that Marx discussed in his Grundrisse. Instead of the general intellect itself, however, Bifo reflects upon the way in which its social subjectivity is represented, which he finds primarily in the newly emerging social sphere that he calls the cognitariat.
Bifo balances this honouring of Marxist theoretical tradition with a simple but apt description of the differences between the past and the present. Whereas in the past the inevitably dull assembly-line work was seen as mentally inhibiting and a kind of temporary death, work today is much more individual. To a significant extent, it is seen as a form of self-realization, as part of one’s life. The energy that we expend within this sphere also determines our identity. Compared to the simple mechanical tasks of the past, work today is associated with mental states, emotions, and imagination. From a viewpoint of physical exertion, there is no difference between a shipping agent, a technician working for an oil company, or the author of detective novels (they all sit in front of a computer, tapping a keyboard), but these professions nevertheless are diametrically different. Although these similar yet noninterchangeable professions all involve the processing of symbols, they also exist within epistemically highly saturated contexts.
This does not mean that manual labor has disappeared, but in cases such as architectural design, surgical procedures, the moving of 40 metal boxes, or the ordering of restaurant supplies, the final process involves a chain of activities dominated by tasks performed on a computer. This means that, whereas the industrial worker earned his livelihood within an impersonal model of mechanical repetition, today’s workers require specific abilities: creative, innovative, and communications skills. Their work easily becomes the focus of their desires. It serves as an economic as well as psychological investment – there are souls at work sitting at computers.
The problem thus arises when work consists of highly mental activities but the boundaries of work remain unclear. What is more, although the mere idea of productivity defies any clear definition it continues to be advocated. This is because one can determine the productivity of labor by comparing the quantity of work and the amount of time spent at work only at the cost of its ever-greater level of abstraction. Compared to the industrial era, when alienation involved the sense that the worker’s body had been expropriated by the production process, today it is a large portion of our Self that has been expropriated. Harnessing the soul for work results in a new form of alienation; our desires and energies repeatedly fall into a trap of self-realization according to the rules of Capital. Our ability to focus finds itself ensnared in virtual networks of a precarious nature.
The ideology of semio-capital is most effective on the level of concepts such as communication. It makes sense to suppose that we understand communication in its broader sense as the possibilities for enriching the ways in which we experience work; but it almost always suffers the fate of impoverishment. It ceases to be altruistic, loses its aura of pleasure and sensuality, and becomes primarily an economic necessity and a joyless fiction. The delineation of work also means that productive life becomes overloaded with symbols whose value is not only operational, but also emotional, moral, and aesthetic. The all-pervading excess tension in our cognitive space leads to a situation in which “the entire lived day becomes subject to a semiotic activation which becomes directly productive only when necessary.”
Our identity and the manner in which we understand ourselves are formed on the level of information, which causes the historical perception of time to become digital (a series of identical units). The production of The Same is thus defined as a program producing a series of states that excludes all that is “non-essential” in such a manner as to define these states. At best, what is not encoded in accordance with the matrix finds itself marginalized; at worst, it effectively does not exist. In a hypermedialized reality, anything can easily become a metaphor and vice versa; representation replaces life and life replaces representation. As a basic characteristic of the media world, overinclusion encourages an interpretative hyperkinesis not unlike schizophrenic communication, meaning that in the end the strength of semio-capital rests in mental overload.
So much for Franco “Bifo” Berardi and the problem of the soul at work.
In one interview, Sloterdijk says that people are animals created for exaggerating. Not even philosophical sensibilities can avoid exaggeration, and work with it organically. Any objection that this is nothing more than a rhetorical tactic is the voice of Enlightenment Reason talking. For those who do not underestimate intuition, this is a superfluous explanation. But it is necessary to bear this in mind – among other things, for precisely the reasons discussed by Bifo and explained by Sloterdijk. It is not difficult to imagine adjectives lurking in the shadows of an Enlightenment married with capitalism, ready to pounce on both authors. – Bifo forms his analyses into a holistic image of alienation that at times borders on a simplistic and easily assailed generalization. However, his text wants to be understood as a political, differentiating gesture, a pulling of the brakes, an ideological counterweight and meaningful extension of the meanings of everyday words in the interest of a critical hyperbole.
A kind invasion of life
Perhaps nothing suits Capital better than underestimating the boundaries discussed by Bifo. If we are resolute in defining where work begins and ends, then we can control our time, energy, and desires much better than if the boundaries are fluid.
Labor theory today must reconcile the fact that work, the working environment, and labor relations are no longer subject to the old mechanical and hierarchical forms of control with the fact that new forms of control are highly convincing at pretending to be based on democratic principles. Work today mixes boredom and unpleasant obligations with entertainment and unwinding. Enlightened managers do not forbid people from using the internet for personal use during their working hours, promote a friendly working environment, encourage employees to identify with the company’s interests, and enable flexible working hours. Nevertheless, the popularity of the Dilbert comic strip, films such as Office Space (1999), and TV series such as The Office (2001) indicates that reality is not as cheerful as it likes to pretend. The Office in particular offers a trenchant satire of the “mandatory friendliness” of corporate culture. Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) offered a cogent depiction of the status of the individual during the Fordist era; The Office is equally convincing in showing some of the aspects of workplace conditions today. Its characters, caught up in the dull ideology of success, languish in a working environment hopelessly polarized between dreams of success in the form of career advancement and the ever-present threat of making a fool of themselves.
Today’s much-vaunted non-hierarchality makes it seem as if we had achieved the goal of independence, but this reduced dependence on a hierarchy of people has been offset by an increased dependence on a hierarchy of values that in the past were cultivated after work and without economic motivation: flexibility, promptness, comprehensibility, obligingness, amiability. One possible pitfall is the boss/friend, who is supposed to replace the boss/supervisor. We allow a boss who is our friend to get closer to us, but the threat of his being dissatisfied penetrates our soul deeper than it would with someone whom we have kept at a distance, both personally and organizationally.
The ideology of success in life only rarely makes itself heard within the overall picture. We are familiar with images of this success from movies and TV shows, although even then at the price of uncanniness. Our consciousness most actively responds to them in moments of fluidity, rhythmic communication, lexical juxtapositions, the absence of shit, well-dosed compliments, pertinent humor, comprehensible entertainment, the avoidance of conflict, or the “right” phrases. In our perception, these moments of affirmation are unconsciously extended and converge beyond the horizon of the working day at a point whose yearned-for counterweight is responsible for our peace of mind.
Of course, today’s capitalist ideology is not the only interpretation of the world that is shaping mankind. But as a comprehensive way of bending and directing life forces, it goes the farthest and penetrates the deepest. Bifo says that the factory whistle has been replaced by the ringing of the mobile telephone. But this metamorphosis strechtes further: where the factory whistle signaled the end of work, the mobile phone in the pocket calls us back to work. The fact of being constantly available turns our attitude towards work upside down. Where the factory was a place of duty, today the entire day from morning to evening is a place of opportunity – the opportunity to allow our colleagues or our ambitions to overtake us. Few areas of life are immune to being intoxicated by this state of affairs.
Seafarers vs. homebodies
In the company of Sloterdijk and Bifo, it would be interesting to ponder the extent to which capitalism realizes the most intrinsic ideals of the Enlightenment while at the same time effectively trampling them. Bifo stops to look at this issue when he talks about intellectuals, but does not go so far as to incriminate the Enlightenment intellectual, that representative of universal values and defender of human rights and equality, who stands on the solid ground of reason. He merely asserts dryly that, as scientists have become components of a system of cognitive production and poets the blue-collar workers of advertising, any universal function has faded away and the intellectual has become a component of autonomously functioning Capital.
Sloterdijk does not mention Capital, but his observations regarding the fate of intellectuals and academics offers inspiring parallels. He believes that there is a fundamental incongruity between media forms and mental capabilities today; or it is at least much more visible: “Measured in miles, many people cover great distances, but the number of them that could be said to have been elsewhere remains consistently low.” In talk of the ingenious global system of sensors of today’s mediasphere – we can be virtual “eyewitnesses” anywhere in the world where something is happening – we slowly recognize corporate and human doublethink.
The mediated discovery and exploration of the world can open up new horizons for man, but more often than not all it does is to develop ever more spectacular forms of homebodiness. Physical movement resulting from the need to “go somewhere” might easily mean little more than clicking the left mouse button, but the destination is always a popular and easily reached place. Even the spontaneous exploration and discovery typical of the early days of the web have today been replaced by constantly optimized and aggregated popularity rankings. Personalized strolls through the information jungle have been replaced by the single-lane Web 2.0 highway.
Nevertheless, Sloterdijk argues that a certain level of homebodiness is necessary even for science and academic philosophy. Although science likes to dream about its non-dogmatic nature, it constantly maintains a defensive wall around itself in order to keep out bothersome or difficult-to-categorize outside phenomena. As stated in the introduction, Sloterdijk knows more than enough about this issue, and convinces us of this fact through his transhistorical observation regarding the opposition between thinkers of “down-to-earthness” and thinkers of maritime situations: “It is a contrast that has not ceased to widen since 1600. This division between these two types of thinker is one of the most important factors in the psychodrama of modern reason. Here we come across a phenomenon that we have touched on continually throughout our discussion - the opposition between those who move in thought and those who, for this activity, prefer to sit down. In modernity, the fact that professional reason is described by the possession of a Chair speaks for itself. (…) all the continental thinkers have done everything to anchor reason in the state and its mainland principle. It was at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries that William James first contributed to fluidifying the situation after the restoration of sedentarism by German philosophy. In his own way, he was as world-open, as multi-empirical a mind as Nietzsche, for whom nautical metaphors, needless to say, were a decisive part of his modus operandi. Perhaps this is why Nietzsche and James are still the great impossible in continental and university philosophy.”
Sloterdijk insists that the Enlightenment has chronically failed when faced by the normalization among Enlightenment thinkers, and that we are still waiting for Nietzsche’s seafarers. Ultimately, enlightenment also involves improving epistemic systems by making them immune to new concepts. Man is constantly learning how to defend himself against future provocations by the new, and to again and again rediscover dry land where he might cast anchor in order to observe the sea from the shore – be it everyday routine or academic formality. The Nietzschean seafaring ideal can only be aspired to from below, developed within ourselves, and awakened or promoted in the Other. Western science is only now taking the first steps at persevering at sea; the perspective of truth as an aesthetic criterion is only beginning to be an acceptable challenge.
Reflecting upon man
Sloterdijk is aware of the fact that any attempt at explaining today’s human condition, asking the question of “what is man,” or tracing changes using the usual tools in the usual places (culture, politics, or economics) is no longer guaranteed to be sufficiently fruitful. Since, in his view, we are witnessing man’s redefinition from a humanitarian and national perspective towards an ecological and global horizon, we need a new synthesis instead of constant fragmentation and categorization. Like trying to study the margins or our field of view, attempts at exploring the outermost limits of contemporary experience will always be doomed to failure, but Sloterdijk nevertheless tries to do so. With the ascent of the third stage of globalization, he argues, we have forgotten about the globe in the same way that we previously forgot about the heaven of the metaphysicists, which was supposed to be a source of perfect order. The consciousness of people who are born today, says Sloterdijk, no longer resembles the oceanic consciousness in which Freud postulated the emergence of a sense of mystic union with the universe. The anthropological impacts of globalization, however, are still in their early stages.
In the same way, we understand technology only a little, even though it can no longer be taken out of the equation. It was not until the last century that we began to understand the historical role of the written word and began to ask the first critical questions regarding new technologies. The popular moral ideas of science and technology still oscillate between the Biblical metaphor of original sin and a naive faith in autonomous course of historical progress. In the same way, to stubbornly insist on specific solutions and events means to remain fatally blind to the underlying conditions that form us. On the other hand, man is reflected upon ever more frequently today, and not only by philosophers. What else is the Hollywood barometer of navel-gazing, searching, reinterpretive, spiritual, and documentary films than a new self-colonization? Even the act of filling seemingly apolitical media space with reality shows, the point of view of “the common man,” public voting, and make-believe interactivity can be read as a catharsis, shock therapy, a cultural reboot, and an opportunity for synthesis.
In claiming that the world is overanalyzed and symbolically overnominated, Sloterdijk joins a long line of intellectuals dating back to the scandalous dawn of postmodernity. We can no longer seek out or decipher meaning, Sloterdijk claims; we must begin to construct it from parts that are in and of themselves without meaning. Bifo comes to the same realization when he returns to the thirty-year-old conflict between Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault regarding the nature of desire and its role in emancipation. On the one hand, we have the idea of accelerationism as an exotic version of “politique du pire,” i.e., the politics of the worst possible choice. Accelerationism instructs not towards resistance, but towards the radicalization of capitalism, whose inner contradictions are supposed to cause it to collapse instead of being kept alive by a moderation of these conditions. On the other hand, we have Baudrillard’s media theory, according to which acceleration and cognitive excess in terms of an overdose of reality are no longer possible, since they end in an implosion of meaning and the disappearance of the event.
To restrain, slow, and temper, or to expedite the path to the end? Speedboat, submarine, or steamship?
The disappearing time for thought
Bifo leans towards Baudrillard’s view, and calls for an evaluation of the idea of wealth. He proposes a definition of wealth that is not based on economic factors. Since, however, his idea remains defined in the negative (i.e., what it is not), it is up to us to say what it is. And although we could reproach Bifo for generalizing even in places where our attention is most focused, we will read these instances as a clever silence and an impetus for updating the solution ourselves.
Right at the outset, we can debate Bifo’s claims regarding the dominant understanding of wealth: although he hits his target, he does so “only” in terms of language. Although the word “wealth” really does most commonly bring to mind images of financial abundance, we have not behaved like this in practice for a long time, if it ever was actually the case. To say that we are exclusively or primarily interested in money is to ignore a whole range of motivations consisting of our dreams, identities, or admiration for others. Even when we admit that it is about money, its numerical expression serves more as a yardstick for something else: success, status, power, rapacity, enterprise, advancement. It is as if Bifo has forgotten his own considerations regarding self-realization. Not even the souls of managers are ruled solely by money.
Where Bifo talks of the decline of carnality, we will counter with the contemporary cult of the body and health and food, without accepting these phenomena as uncritically as they frequently are. And where Bifo reflects upon the decay of forms of human community, our response will not satisfy itself with the choice between automatic arguments regarding the loss of physical contact and a naive belief in the democratic healing effects of communications technology. Instead, we will take into consideration the fact that, although from a technological point of view our share of mediated communication has increased at the expense of direct communication, we have at the same time seen the lively development of new or the renewal and recombination of old forms of community culture. Even technology-mediated communication is being transformed in a constant process of negotiation with us, its users. Electronic communication has described a long arc since the early 1990s. Its transformations have occurred blindly, but have not been self-directed, nor balanced, orderly, or without the possibility of discerning subtler forces at play, specific decisions, and reified desire. We can erase neither the interests and power strategies of internet companies, nor the weather conditions of internet fashion.
The vision of alienation as sketched out by Bifo should keep us on the alert, but should not prevent us from being open to constantly emerging foci of spontaneous resistance encountered by the invasion of work into leisure time as well as by the fear of the erosion of privacy. The historical transformation of attitudes towards personal information may still be waiting for a thorough analysis, but even now a critical observer can see that the voluntary as well as forced nature of these changes is not as one-dimensional as the newspapers claim, and that the cardboard bogeyman of Big Brother has long served to conceal problems about which competing stories are just being written. In fact, the English language has already managed to expand the general concept of “leisure time” with informed terms such as “quality time” or “face time.”
We should also be capable of stopping to ask how robust the phenomenon of interpellation as discussed by Louis Althusser actually is today – to ask ourselves how obediently we stand at attention when communications ideology orders us to answer the telephone, answer our e-mail, or reply to a chat message or to an opinion in an internet discussion forum, no matter how banal, intimate, or human these situations present themselves to us. It is very telling that a long-time online debater knows (but also need not know at all) how easily the impulse to reply to a provocative post can be emotionally transformed in a matter not of days or hours, but minutes and primarily seconds. At some points of the matrix, time for thought is painfully absent, causing circulating media contents to be desaturated. This reduction then becomes the norm, because comprehensibility is to information as aerodynamics is to means of transport. We thus easily find ourselves in a situation where incomprehensibility exists next to nonsense, and it takes time to differentiate between the two. So while by its nature incomprehensibility does not hide the element of secrecy, comprehensibility effectively evades politically undesirable doubts.
Regardless of whether comprehensibility is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same, whenever we pass on information, at that moment – more so today than ever before – we are acting politically, whether we are aware of it or not. Sloterdijk, who after his controversial lecture found himself personally at the epicenter of explosive media attention, reminds us how much we like to overestimate the uniqueness of the individual. It is difficult to admit that we in fact behave more like conductors of excitation with our input and output in a system that distributes tension. Particularly in a highly saturated media environment like ours, we forget that our autonomy is directly dependent on the extent to which we slow down incoming news and edit, filter, verify, or perhaps even put a stop to it. It is not just the philosopher’s role to ponder today’s strengthening ties between ethics and energetics. Sloterdijk sees one axis of contemporary morality in the personal communication permeability. In the end, it is hesitancy that may be a forgotten virtue.
Deadlines make things easier
When it comes to the question of whether to intentionally speed up the process of alienation or to slow it down, Bifo answers indirectly with a reference to the mood depicted in Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona (1966). In the character of the actress who for unknown reasons no longer speaks and has ceased to communicate, Bifo sees a similarity with the self-preservational, attenuating elimination of communications circuits as the only meaningful response to overload. Except that in this case the word “attenuate” makes sense only from that side of the problem where we evacuate our attention. On the other side, we are constantly rediscovering and cultivating forms of positive protest without resorting to negation or to adjectives such as alternative, slow, or healthy. Speeding up in order to slow down or overdosing in order to induce a physical need for tranquility can be understood as an unexplored process of many forms, diverse potencies, and actively combined opposites.
The phenomenon of procrastination, which in recent years has made it into the general consciousness, is best understood against a media-ecological background. Living from morning to evening in an environment in which – despite an endless variety of activities and possibilities for rest – we find it increasingly difficult to escape demands for our undivided attention, means that our most valuable resource is not time, but energy set aside for concentration. In a situation in which we find it increasingly more difficult to dwell on one thing and are losing the ability to resolutely persevere in long-term efforts while not putting off for tomorrow the start of something new, the epidemic of procrastination is shifted towards a personal perspective – a perspective which we cannot whip ourselves out of through collective notions of success, where rest is not merely the act of gathering energy for future work, where life is not eternal escape, where people endeavor to not be “taken hostage by great themes” (Sloterdijk), and where deadlines are revealed as what they truly are: a source of dependency.
Seen from the outside, this may mean a change in lifestyle. Seen from the inside, it means remaining aloof to the impulse to classify, understand, abbreviate, forward, simplify, control, and unwind. In other words: to head out to sea and persevere.
Taken from Doubting No.4, first published in Czech bi-weekly A2 and translated by Mr von Pohl.
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