- Mindfulness for Radicals
Minneapolis, Monday 25 May 2020. George Floyd’s murder by asphyxiation by a white police officer is preceded by the repeated vocalisation of the words ‘I can’t breathe’, the exact same words that had been vocalised by Eric Garner six years prior. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s Breathing: Chaos and Poetry, published in late 2018, poignantly opens with an earnest acknowledgement of Eric Garner, and these three words that have now become a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter participants and allies. Mobilised by Berardi’s own urgent sense of an ‘asthmatic solidarity’ (15), Breathing is a call to arms that urges its readers to take the psychosocial condition of breathlessness seriously. Yet, despite its attempts to provide a handbook that diagnoses current social ills and restores us to a post-capitalist utopia, Bifo’s erratic conceptual toolkit produces a disembodied, non-relational category of breathing that offers little in the way of theorising the potential of human flourishing beyond computational governance.
Written originally in English and copy-edited by Robert Dewhurst (one of the associate editors at Semiotext(e)), Breathing treads on familiar deterritorialised ground. Bifo revisits ideas and provocations from earlier publications such as Precarious Rhapsody (2009), The Uprising (2011), and Heroes (2015) to suggest that our late-capitalist condition, governed by the ‘chaos’ of unregulated, accelerating flows of information and stimulation, can only be ameliorated through the aleatory indeterminacy of poesis. Breath, therefore, serves as the metaphor for an exodus from technological measurability and capitalist exploitation, and for reclaiming mental and corporeal autonomy. Although Berardi does not attempt to theorise breath in relation to labour, or to the class of workers he has elsewhere called ‘cognitariat’, insofar as it functions as a figure of corporeal autonomy and liberation, breath is tacitly posited as ‘anti-work’.1 Often reminiscent of neo-Buddhist appropriations that one may find in a yoga studio or a mindfulness podcast, Bifo’s account of breath conflates tempo, rhythm and velocity, assigning breathing a slow temporality and an anti-accelerationist agenda (see 16–18, 47, 99, 128). Equally, and in keeping with a strand of autonomism that tends towards primitivist, naturalising conceptions of human corporeality (as is also the case in, say, the autonomist feminism of Silvia Federici), Berardi’s conception of the subject, and of the body politic constituted by such a subject, manifestly operates within a rigid apparatus of dualisms: body-mind, affect-reason, nature-culture, life-death. [End Page 126]
Breathing is arranged in nine chapters, but these can be read in any order, since the writing is marred by repetitions, and there is no apparent rationale organising the material – whether rhizomatically understood or not. Swaying between Negrian joyful militancy and Baudrillardian dystopianism, Bifo deploys the affective and rhetorical tropes that have come to epitomise his distinctive brand of agit theory lite: romanticised accounts of May ‘68 and his life in New York in the late ‘70s (69–70, 122–123); hagiographic David Bowie citations (141–143); proclamations supported neither by sustained philosophical speculation nor empirical evidence (24–28); literal readings of films and novels (72–79); caricaturised social portraits gleaned from websites and news stories that he happened to have read; gnomic assertions with mystical pretentions (10, 21, 142–145); and comedically absurd pseudo-philosophising (49–50, 58, 95). In these exaggerated social, psychological and philosophical pronouncements, Bifo offers us a recognisably Eurocentric image of ‘America’ that metonymically equates the United States with capitalist postmodernity, and where the online-dating, porn-consuming millennial precariat are suffering from being unable to enjoy ‘slow eroticism’ (99).
Bifo’s earlier post-operaist concerns of theorising post-Fordist modes of production appear to have given way to a theologically-inflected form of vitalism. Such vitalism, despite its apparent similarity to the post-humanist, ecological materialism of Jane Bennett, whose Vibrant Matter is explicitly drawn upon, remains fiercely – and technophobically – anthropocentric (111–114). While Bifo claims that ‘this book is about breathing as a vibrational search to attune oneself to one’s environment’ (139), his quasi-spiritual articulations of breath do not once...