At the end of the period of capitalist triumphalism and neoliberal
ideological hegemony, must we return to the old analytical categories ofMarxism and the political strategies of the twentieth-century workers’movement, to the horizons of democratic socialism or revolutionarycommunism? Nothing would be more inconclusive. The capitalism ofmass networks that was fully implemented in the 1990s has producedsocial forms that are completely irreducible to the Marxist analysis ofclass. The categories of the critique of political economy are nowinsufficient, because processes of subjectivation traverse fields that aremuch more complex. A new disciplinary field is starting to be delineatedin the encounter between the territories of economics, semiology, andpsychochemistry.
Semio-capital is capital-flux that coagulates in semiotic artefacts
without materializing itself. The concepts forged by two centuries ofeconomic thought seem to have disintegrated; they seem inoperativeand incapable of comprehending a great deal of the phenomena thathave emerged in the sphere of social production since the time whenproduction became cognitive. Cognitive activity has always been at thebasis of human production, including production of a more mechanicalvariety. There is no human labor process that does not imply the exerciseof intelligence. But now cognitive capacity is becoming the essentialproductive resource. In the sphere of industrial labor, the mind was putto work as a repetitive automatism, as the physiological support ofmuscular movement. Today the mind is at work as innovation, aslanguage and as a communicative relation. The subsumption of the mindunder the process of capitalist valorization leads to a genuine mutation.
The conscious and sensitive organism is submitted to competitivepressure, to an acceleration of stimuli, to constant attentive stress. As aresult, the mental environment, the infosphere in which the minddevelops and enters into relations with other minds, becomes apsychopathogenic environment. To understand semio-capital’s infinite
Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System, 2007
game of mirrors, we must outline a new disciplinary field delimited bythree aspects:
–the critique of the political economy of connective intelligence;–the semiology of linguistic-economic fluxes;–a psychochemistry of the infospheric environment that studies the
psychopathogenic effects of economic exploitation on the human mind.
The process of digital production is tending to assume a biological
form. It is becoming like an organism: the nervous system of anorganization is analogous to the human nervous system. Every industrialenterprise has “autonomic” systems, operational processes that mustfunction for its survival. What was lacking from organizations in thepast were the links between pieces of information, corresponding toneurons interconnected in the brain. The networked digital businessfunctions like an excellent artificial nervous system. In it, informationflows quickly and naturally, like thought in a human being, and we areable to use technology to govern and co-ordinate groups of people withthe same speed with which we can concentrate on a specific problem.
According to Bill Gates (Business @ the Speed of Thought), the conditionshave now been created for the realization of a new kind of economicsystem, centered on what can be defined as “Business at the speed ofthought.”
In the connected world, the retroactive loops1 of general systems
theory are fused with the dynamic logic of biogenetics in a post-humanvision of digital production. Human minds and human flesh will be ableto integrate themselves with the digital circuit thanks to interfaces ofacceleration and simplification: a model of bio-info production isemerging that produces semiotic artefacts capable of automaticallyreplicating living systems in accordance with the laws of the capitalisteconomy. Once fully operative, the digital nervous system can rapidlyinstall itself in every form of organization. This means that it is only inappearance that Microsoft concerns itself with software, products andservices. In reality, the hidden aim of software production is that of wiringthe human mind into a network continuum2 of the cybernetic type,destined to structure the fluxes of digital information via the nervoussystem of all the key institutions of contemporary life. Microsoft needstherefore to be considered as a global virtual memory that can bedownloaded and installed at any time. A cyber-panoptikon inserted inthe fleshy circuits of human subjectivity. Cybernetics finally becomeslife, or, as Bill Gates likes to say, “information is our vital fluid.”
The digital nervous system progressively incorporates itself into
the organic nervous system, the circuit of human communication,recodifying it in accordance with its operational parameters and specificvelocity. But in order for this transformation to take place, the body-mind [corpo-mente] must undergo an infernal mutation, one we are nowseeing unfold in world history. To understand and analyze this process,neither the conceptual instruments of political economy nor those oftechnological analysis are sufficient. The production process is becomingsemiotic; the formation of the digital nervous system involves andenervates the mind, the social psyche, desires and hopes, fears and theimagination. It follows that if we want to analyze these productivetransformations, we must concern ourselves with semiotic production,with linguistic and cognitive mutation. And this mutation occurs bymeans of the spread of pathologies.
Neoliberal culture has injected into the social brain a constant
stimulus towards competition, and the technical system of the digitalnetwork has rendered possible an intensification of the informatic stimulitransmitted from the social brain to individual brains. This accelerationof stimuli is a pathogenic factor that has wide-ranging social effects. Thecombination of economic competition with the digital intensification ofinformatic stimuli induces a state of permanent electrocution that leadsto a diffuse pathological condition; this pathological condition manifestsitself as panic syndrome or attention disorder.
Panic is an ever-more widespread syndrome. Until a few years ago,
psychiatrists hardly recognized this symptom, which belonged ratherto the Romantic literary imagination and was associated with the feelingof being overwhelmed by the infinite richness of natural forms, by theunlimited power of the cosmos. Today panic is ever-more frequentlydenounced as a painful and worrying symptom—the physical sensationof no longer succeeding in governing one’s own body, an acceleration ofthe heart rate, a shortness of breath that can lead to fainting and paralysis.
Although, to my knowledge, there exists no exhaustive research on
this issue, the hypothesis can be proposed that the mediatization ofcommunication and the consequent rarefaction of physical contact canprovoke pathologies in the affective and emotional spheres. For the firsttime in human history, there exists a generation that has learned morewords and heard more stories from television than from its mother.
Attention disorders are increasingly widespread. Millions of NorthAmerican and European children are treated for a disturbance that
manifests itself as the incapacity to concentrate on an object for morethan a few seconds. The constant excitation of the mind by neuro-stimulant fluxes probably leads to a pathological state of saturation. Ifwe want to understand the contemporary economy we must concernourselves with the psychopathology of relations. And if we want tounderstand contemporary psychochemistry we must take into accountthe fact that the mind is invested by semiotic fluxes that follow an extra-semiotic principle: the principle of economic competition, the principleof maximum exploitation. Ever since capitalism has connected to thebrain, it has inserted into it a pathogenic agent, a psychotic meme thataccelerates pulsations until they become tremors, to the point of collapse.
During the 1990s, the culture of Prozac was inseparable from the
culture of the new economy. Hundreds of thousands of operators,directors and managers of the Western economy have taken innumerabledecisions in a state of chemical euphoria and psychopharmacologicallightheadedness. But eventually the body [l’organismo] caved in, unableto support indefinitely the chemical euphoria that had sustainedcompetitive enthusiasm and productivist fanaticism. Collective attentionis now supersaturated and this is provoking social and economic collapse.
Just as with a cyclotimic3 organism or a patient affected by bipolardisorder,4 the financial euphoria of the 1990s was followed by depression.
This depression is also of the clinical variety; it undermines motivation,initiative, self-esteem, desire and sex-appeal. To understand the crisis ofthe new economy, we must begin from the psychic experience of thevirtual class; we must reflect on the psychic and emotional state of themillions of cognitive workers who animated the scenes of business,culture and the imaginary during the 1990s. The psychic depression of asingle cognitive worker is not a consequence of the economic crisis, butits cause. It would be simple to consider depression as the consequence ofa bad business cycle. After having worked happily and profitably for somany years, share value plummets and our brain worker5 suffers a badcase of depression. That’s not what happened. The cognitive worker hasfallen into depression because his or her emotional, physical andintellectual system cannot indefinitely support the hyperactivityprovoked by the market and by psycho-pharmaceuticals. It’s as a resultof this that things have started to go wrong on the market. What is themarket? It’s the place where signs and the need for meaning, where desiresand projections meet. If we want to speak of supply and demand, thenwe must think in terms of fluxes of desire and in terms of semioticattractors that have lost their appeal.6
In the Net economy, flexibility has evolved into a form of labor
fractalization. Fractalization means the modular and recombinantfragmentation of activity time. The worker no longer exists as a person.
He or she is only an interchangeable producer of those micro-fragmentsof recombinant semiosis that enter into the continuous flux of the Net.
Capital no longer remunerates the worker’s prolonged availability forexploitation; it no longer pays a salary that covers a working person’sfull range of economic needs. The worker (a machine endowed with abrain that can be used for fragments of time) is paid for momentary,occasional and temporary services. Work time is fragmented andcellularized. Cells of time are for sale on the Net and businesses can buyas many as they want without being obliged to contribute in any way tothe worker’s social security. Cognitive labor is an ocean of microscopicfragments of time; cellularization is the technique that makes it possibleto recombine fragments of time within the framework of a single semio-product. The cell phone can be considered the assembly line of cognitivelabor, thanks to which the total dependence of cognitive labor is realized.
The intense and prolonged investment of mental and libidinal
energies in the labor process has created the conditions for a psychiccollapse that has passed into the economic arena with the recession andthe fall in demand; it has passed into the political arena in the form ofmilitary aggression. The use of the word “collapse” is not metaphorical;it describes what is happening to the Western mind with clinical accuracy.
The word “collapse” refers to a genuine pathological case, one that investsthe psycho-social organism. What we saw in the period after the firstsymptoms of economic decline, during the first months of the newcentury, was a psychopathic phenomenon of overexcitement, hearttremors, panic and, finally, decline into depression. Economic depressionhas always involved a crisis of the psycho-social equilibrium, but nowthat the production process has integrated the brain in a substantialway, psychopathology has become the most important aspect of economiccycles.
The attention time available to the workers involved in the informatic
cycle is constantly being reduced: they are involved in a growing numberof mental tasks that occupy every fragment of their attention time. Theyno longer have time to dedicate to love, tenderness or affection. They takeViagra because they don’t have time for sexual preliminaries. They takecocaine to be constantly alert and reactive. They take Prozac to cancelout the sense of meaninglessness that unexpectedly empties their life ofany interest. Cellularization has led to a kind of permanent occupation
of life time. The result is a psychopathic mutation of social relations. Thesigns are clear: millions of packets of psycho-pharmaceuticals sold; anepidemic of attention disorders spreading among children andadolescents; the quotidian use of Ritalin and other drugs at school; apanic epidemic that seems to be spreading through the fabric of everydaylife.
The mediascape7 is the continuously evolving media system, the
universe of transmitters that send signals to our brain in the most variedformats. The infosphere is the interface between the media system andthe mind that receives these signals – the mental ecosphere, thatimmaterial region where semiotic fluxes interact with the receptionantennae of the minds scattered across the planet. The Mind is theuniverse of receivers. These receivers are of course not limited to receivingsignals; they also process and create them, thereby setting in motionnew processes of transmission and provoking the continuous evolutionof the mediascape.
The evolution of the infosphere in the video-electronic era—the
activation of increasingly complex networks for the distribution ofinformation—has produced a leap not just in the power and speed, butin the very format of the infosphere. No corresponding leap has occurredwith regard to the power and format of Reception.
The universe of receivers—the ensemble of human brains, of real
people made of flesh and fragile and sensual organs—is not formattedaccording to the same standards as the system of digital transmitters.
The functional paradigm of the universe of Transmitters does notcorrespond to that of the universe of Receivers. This asymmetry manifestsitself in various pathological effects: permanent electrocution, panic,overexcitement, hypermobility, attention disorders, dyslexia,information overload, the saturation of reception circuits.
This saturation results from a genuine deformity. The format of the
universe of transmitters has evolved, multiplying its powers, while theformat of the universe of receivers has not been able to evolve in as rapida manner—for the simple reason that it is based on an organic supportstructure (the human brain-body) that has an evolutionary pacecompletely different from that of machines.
What is presently unfolding could be defined as a paradigmatic
discrepancy, a rift between the paradigms that determine the universeof transmitters and that of receivers. In such a situation, communication
becomes an asymmetrical, disturbed process. We could speak of adiscrepancy between an endlessly expanding cyberspace and cybertime.
Cyberspace is a network that includes mechanical and organiccomponents, and its processing power can be accelerated endlessly;cybertime is an essentially lived reality, linked to an organic support(the human body and brain), and its processing pace cannot be acceleratedbeyond relatively rigid natural limits.
Ever since he wrote Speed and Politics in 1977, Paul Virilio has
maintained that speed is the decisive factor in modern history. It is thanksto speed, Virilio claims, that wars are won—not only military ones, butalso commercial ones. In numerous publications, Virilio demonstratesthat the speed of movement, of transportation and motorization hasallowed armies to win wars throughout the last century. Ever since ithas become possible to substitute objects, goods and people with signs—that is, with virtual and electronically transferable phantasms— thelimits of speed have been expanded by the most impressive process ofacceleration that human history has ever seen. There is a sense in whichone can say that space no longer exists, since information can travelacross it instantly and events can be transferred in real time from oneplace on the planet to another, becoming virtually shared events. Butwhat are the consequences of this acceleration for the human mind andthe human body? To understand them, we must consider the thinkingand feeling organism’s capacity for the conscious elaboration andaffective assimilation of signs and events.
The acceleration of information exchanges has produced—and
continues to produce—a pathological effect not just on the individualhuman mind, but also on the collective mind. Individuals are not able toconsciously process the immense and ever-increasing quantity ofinformation that enters their computers, their cell phones, their televisionscreens, their electronic diaries and their heads. And yet it seems essentialto follow, know, evaluate, assimilate, and process all this information, ifone wants to be efficient, competitive, victorious. The practice ofmultitasking,8 the opening of hypertextual windows of attention andthe constant passage from one context to another all tend to deform thesequential modalities of mental processing. According to ChristianMarazzi, who has concerned himself in various publications with therelations between the linguistic economy and affectivity, the latestgeneration of economic agents is affected by a genuine form of dyslexia:they are unable to read a page from beginning to end according tosequential procedures, unable to focus attention on one object for a
prolonged period of time. Dyslexia becomes an increasingly widespreadcharacteristic of cognitive and social behavior, to the point where thepursuit of linear strategies becomes almost impossible.
Some (like Davenport and Beck, in the book Attention Economy), speak
of an “attention economy.” But when a cognitive faculty becomes part ofeconomic discourse, this means that it has become a scarce resource.
There is a shortage of the time necessary for paying attention to thefluxes of information we are exposed to and must evaluate in our decision-making processes. The consequence is in front of our eyes: political andeconomic decisions no longer respond to any long-term strategicrationality; they simply obey immediate interests. What is more, we areless and less inclined to freely contribute our attention. We no longerhave the attention time for love, tenderness, nature, pleasure andcompassion. Our attention is ever more besieged, and therefore we devoteit only to our career, to competition and economic decisions. In any case,it’s clear that we cannot replicate the insane speed of the hypercomplexdigital machine. Human beings are tending to become the ruthlessexecutors of decisions taken inattentively.
The universe of transmitters—or cyberspace—now operates at
superhuman speed; it cannot be adequately coordinated with a universeof receivers—or cybertime—that is incapable of going any faster thanthe physical substance of the brain, the slowness of the body and theneed for caresses and affection. A pathological rift opens up and mentalillness spreads, as testified to by the statistics and above all by oureveryday experience. And as pathology spreads, so too do drugs. Theflourishing industry of psycho-pharmaceuticals sets new records everyyear; the sales of Ritalin, Prozac, Zoloft and other psychotropics increasecontinually, while alienation, suffering, desperation and terror, the desirenot to exist, to not have to fight constantly, to disappear all increase,along with the will to kill and to kill oneself.
When an acceleration of productive and communicative rhythms
was imposed in the Western metropoles towards the end of the 1970s,we witnessed a drug epidemic of giant proportions. The world was leavingits human epoch to enter the era of machinic and post-humanacceleration; many sensitive organisms of the human variety began tosnort cocaine, a substance that allows one to accelerate one’s existentialrhythm to the point of becoming a machine. Many other sensitiveorganisms of the human kind injected heroin into their veins, a substancethat de-links a person from the pace of their environment. The epidemicof powders that erupted between the 1970s and 1980s produced an
existential and cultural devastation of which we have yet to take stock.
Then illegal drugs were replaced by those legal substances that the white-coated pharmaceutical industry provides to its victims; the epoch ofanti-depressants, of uppers and mood regulators began.
Today psychopathology reveals itself more and more clearly as a
social and, more precisely, a socio-communicative epidemic. If you wantto survive you have to be competitive; if you want to be competitive youhave to be connected—you have to continually receive and process animmense and growing mass of data. This provokes constant attentionstress and a reduction in the time available for affectivity. These twoclosely linked tendencies spell devastation for the individual psyche.
Depression, panic, anxiety, a sense of solitude, existential misery. Butthese individual symptoms cannot be isolated indefinitely, aspsychopathology has done until now, and as economic power wantsthem to be. It’s not possible to say: “You’re exhausted, go take a vacationat Club Med, take a pill, go on a cure, get off my balls, recover in thepsychiatric hospital, kill yourself.” It’s no longer possible, for the simplereason that the issue is no longer a small minority of crazies or a marginalnumber of depressives. It’s a question of a growing mass of existentialmisery threatening to explode in the center of the social system. It’s alsonecessary to consider this decisive fact: as long as capital needed to suckphysical energy from its exploited and from its slaves, psychopathologycould remain relatively marginal. Your psychic suffering didn’t mattermuch to capital when you only had to turn screws and handle a lathe.
You could be as sad as a solitary fly in a bottle; your productivity washardly affected because your muscles still functioned. Today capital needsmental energies, psychic energies. And they’re exactly what’s going tohell. That’s why psychopathology is exploding at the center of the socialscene. The economic crisis results largely from the spread of sadness,depression, panic, lack of motivation. The crisis of the new economy wasprovoked in considerable part by a crisis of motivation, by a waning ofthe artificial euphoria of the 1990s. This has led to disinvestment and, inpart, to a fall in consumption. In general, unhappiness functions as astimulus to consumption; to purchase something is to suspend one’sanxiety, to counteract one’s loneliness, but only up to a point. Beyondthat point, suffering has a negative effect on the desire to purchase. Soconflicting strategies are developed. The masters of the world certainlydon’t want humanity to be happy, because a happy humanity wouldnot let itself get caught up in productivity, the discipline of work orhypermarkets. Nonetheless, techniques that can reduce happiness to a
tolerable level are being studied, in order to postpone or prevent a suicidalexplosion, in order to induce the desire to consume.
What strategies will the collective organism follow in order to escape
this factory of unhappiness? Is a strategy of deceleration, of the reductionof complexity possible and conceivable? I don’t believe so. In humansociety, potentiality cannot be definitively canceled out, even when itreveals itself to be lethal for the individual and, in all probability, for thespecies as well. Such potentiality is regulated and kept under control foras long as possible, but in the end it is inevitably actualized, as happened(and will happen again) with the atomic bomb. One possible strategyconsists in the upgrading9 of the human organism, the mechanicaladjustment of the human body and brain to a hyper-fast infosphere.
This is the strategy commonly defined as “post-human.”10 Finally, astrategy of subtraction is possible, a strategy of distancing oneself fromthe vortex—but only small communities will be able to follow it,constituting spheres of existential, economic, and informationalautonomy from the world economy.
1. English in original.
2. English in original.
3. “Cyclotimic,” is a medical term for manic depression or violent mood swings.
4. English in original.
5. English in original.
6. English in original.
7. English in original.
8. English in original.
9. English in original.
10. English in original.
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Commonwealth Local Government Research Colloquium Cardiff, UK, 13-15 March 2011 NOT TO BE QUOTED WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR Place-based leadership in a global era Robin Hambleton Professor of City Leadership Cities Research Centre University of the West of England, Bristol Email: Abstract This paper examines the major challenges now facing local governments across the wo