Three Perspectives on Death, Suicide and Mass Murder – Part III

Nihilism + Spectacular Stupidity = the tragedy of the late-modern hero

Franco Berardi

Heroes is a disturbingly playful and ironic rumination on the glib logic of murder and suicide in the age of financial capitalism. “Inspired” by the Dark Knight shootings in Aurora, Colorado (“what most impressed me was the metaphorical density of an act that could be interpreted as breaking the separation between spectacle and real life…or real death, which is the same”), Berardi’s argument wagers that the disruptive effects and influences of neoliberalism (“the agony of capitalism and the dismantling of social suicide”) might be better understood through an examination of the “madness” of crime and suicide in all its half-deliberated horror.¬† Berardi’s study of the “heroes” of a culture of “nihilism and spectacular stupidity” theorizes a tragic condition where spectacle and is conflated with reality, where “identities are perceived as authentic forms of belonging”, developing a cartography of the ideas and writings of the infamously depraved as they react to the disruptive mutations of neoliberal socialization.

The sensibility of a generation of children who have learned more words from machines than from their parents appears to be unable to develop solidarity, empathy or autonomy … Random recombination of frantic precarious activity has taken the place of political awareness and strategy … Now, the task at hand is to map the wasteland where social imagination has been frozen and sublimated to the recombinant corporate imaginary. Only from this cartography can we move forward to discover a new form of activity which, by replacing Art, politics and therapy with a process of re-activation of sensibility, might help humankind recognize itself again.

Berardi’s study of mass-murderers (a mix of teenage and college-age men like James Holmes, Harris¬† & Klebold, Pekka-Erik Auvinen, Raymond Cho, Anders Breivek) develops by elaborating on the nihilistic sloganeering characteristic of the killers’ manifestos, correspondence and creative writings. Among the more compelling of these accounts is the study of Cho, which posits a schism between the language of domesticity and the language of socialization rent open by a gap between his Korean upbringing and his American schooling.

At school, Cho was expected to write in a language that he could not speak, while at home he listened to and spoke a language he could not write. The language of operational interaction, for him, was different from the language of affection and intimacy. The experience of linguistic dissociation might have played a significant role in the development of Cho’s mental distress – which led him first to be hospitalized, then to be diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder know as selective mutism…Cho’s experience is possibly only an extreme form of that dissociation of language and affection which is generally widespread among those who are learning more words from a machine than they do from their mothers. A paralysis of emphatic relations, and an increasing fragility of the common ground of interpersonal understanding, are becoming common features in the psycho-scape of our time.

The hinge on which Berardi’s speculations pivot is an elaboration of his earlier themes (e.g. semiocapitlism – think Baudrillard). The thrust of this theoretical maneuver is an elaboration of an abiding condition of nihilism in societies that have succumb to the machinery of capitalist deterritorialization. In such states, “the generalized perception of widespread corruption is neither a superficial impression, nor the deterioration of the moral character.”

It is a systematic effect of the randomization of value. When value can no longer be determined by the precise relation to work-time, its determinant values factors become deception, swindle, violence.

In Berardi’s read, financial capitalism is an example of “annihilating nihilism”. After Nietzsche and Heidegger, in the absence (or perhaps recess) of any ontological foundation for judgement, nihil becomes the condition through which a hermeneutics of value, meaning and sense can be elaborated. Conversely, the annihiliation of financial capitalism (think of credit-default swaps, for example) “destroys the shared values (both moral values and economic values) produced in the past by human production and democratic political regulation, in order to affirm the primacy of the abstract force of money”.

“annihilating nihilism” – a page from James Eagan Holmes’ journal

This pattern of annihilation appears to extend into the nature of work under just-in-time production regimes (think of how temporary labour works, for example, in which capital buys up packets of time/labour while remaining indifferent to the fate of the interchangeable bearers of that labour).

As we move into the age of info-labour, there is no longer a need to invest in the availability of a person for eight hours a day throughout the duration of his or her life. Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from the interchangeable and occasional bearers. In the internet economy, flexibility has evolved into a form of fractalization of work…Fractalization is the modular and recombinant fragmentation of the period of activity. The worker no longer exists as a person. He or she is only an interchangeable producer of micro-fragments of recombinant semiosis that enter into the continuous flux of the internet.

The situation of fractalized labour yields to a situation of boundless precarity, particularly in terms of the “contractual guarantees of the continuity and regularity of jobs”.

Berardi’s conclusion turns away from the cartography of mass killing and towards political questions that share an affinity for ideas we might associate with the accelerationist turn:

The brain mutation that is underway can be described as a spasmodic attempt to cope with the surrounding chaotic infosphere and to reframe the relation between infosphere and brain. The social brain is obliged to cope with traumatic phenomena. Not only the psychic dimension of the unconscious is disturbed, but the fabric of the neural system itself is subjected to trauma, overload, disconnection. The adaptation of the brain to the new environment involves enormous suffering, a tempest of violence and madness. My question is: does consciousness play a role in this process of mutation? Does imagination consciously act on the neuro-plastic process? Can the conscious organism do something when it is taken in a situation of spasm?

It follows that this “horrible project” is trying to find ethical methods and terms for withdrawing from this brutalization: “how can we remain human, how can we speak of solidarity, while abandoning the emptied and ineffective field of political action?”