It’s late April 2022 in Bologna and we meet in Franco’s apartment. He shows me
his collection of collages he produced in the Covid period, his art therapy to
fight off depression. The paintings can be found here and there online,
exhibited under the pseudonym Istubalz. We’ve come together to discuss his
latest book The Third Unconscious, The Psycho-sphere in the Viral Age
(published in English by Verso
<https://www.versobooks.com/books/3725-the-third-unconscious>, translated by
Bifo himself into Italian). He wrapped up the manuscript during the Summer of
2021, midway into the Corona pandemic. Different from his 2020 diary, the book
already attempts to frame the pandemic. There’s hardly any time for reflection
as we’ve moved into the next crisis.
Before I departed from Amsterdam our Institute of Network Cultures
<https://www.networkcultures.org/> published the English translation of
Franco’s latest essay, The Precipe
<https://networkcultures.org/blog/2022/04/15/the-precipice/>, on Russia’s
invasion of Ukraine. Two months into the war, I am taking a break from the
Tactical Media Room campaign at home. With the support of Annaliza Pelizza, I
took up a residency at Umberto Eco’s former semiotics department. Afraid that a
debate about foreign affairs, the depressing state of the EU and the role of
the US and NATO may lead to a ritual exchange of banalities over the latest
factoids and expose inevitable generational and regional differences, it turned
out better to instead take a dive into the underlying mental conditions of our
The message of this short book is simple: we urgently need to engage with the
future of psychoanalysis. The discovery of the unconscious in the 18th and 19th
century resulted in the founding of psychoanalysis as both a therapy and tool
for cultural analysis. Later, of course, it became an industry. In response to
the emphasis of its founding fathers on denial and sublimation, the second mode
of the unconscious, associated with Lacan and even more so Deleuze and
Guattari, stressed the element of production. For them, the unconscious is not
a theatre but a factory. Fifty years into the liberation of desire probe,
Berardi proposes a next angle: a third unconscious that circles around an
understanding of the social dimension of the mind, in a world that is no longer
focused on growth and (schizo)productivity but on extinction and degrowth.
Berardi calls for the development of new critical concepts that can help us to
understand today’s spectrum of emotional attention. We must practice “riding
the dynamic of disaster,” which he calls an accurate description of “our mental
condition during the current earthquake, which is also a heart-quake and a
The seamless transition from Covid into the war in Ukraine reinstates the
collapse of the bio-info-psycho circuit under the weight of the ‘stack of
crises’ (my term), the succession of catastrophic events. There’s a deeply
unsettling and often profoundly depressing inevitably lurking about this
atmosphere of accumulating disaster: the all too real sense that life is on the
brink of total collapse and imminent disaster.
With his psychoanalytic invention, Berardi has made a clever move, escaping the
dull regulatory dead-end street into which Europe’s marginal social media
critique manoeuvred itself. Who’s still using the internet, after all? With the
contemporary art system becoming a woke stage, the old European white man is
advised to step back. Refusing to stop thinking, over the past years Berardi no
doubt had to cope with a strong fluctuation of moods himself. Readers can
easily identify the mental disposition of the author. Luckily, The Third
Unconscious proves the advantage of a certain distance on events. The medium of
the long essay or book helps, in this respect. Berardi remains one of the few
European intellectuals with such a phenomenal seismographic sensibility, in
particular toward the dark states of the young minds, glued to their devices.
Reading the pulse in this way, in tune with the world of youth, is something he
shares with the late Bernard Stiegler.
For doom scrollers, tired of reading nostalgic statements such as
analogue=potency versus digital=exhaustion, the activist Berardi offers a clear
alternative: “It is based on liberation from the obsession with economic
growth; it is based on the redistribution of resources, on the reduction of
labour time, and on the expansion of time dedicated to the free activity of
teaching, healing and taking care.” To get there Berardi proposes a
“psycho-cultural conversion to frugality and friendship.” But before we can get
there, it is crucial to work together on the correct diagnosis of the present.
Geert Lovink: The Third Unconscious is not a Covid diary. How do you look back
at the past two years? It doesn’t feel like it’s over, despite history
accelerating with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead of orgasmic
celebrations many seem reluctant and have internalized the regime of social
distancing, quarantines, and lockdowns. Let’s call this Mental Long Covid. How
would you describe it?
Franco Berardi: We’re in a situation that never ends, that is always feeding
fear. What is lacking is the cathartic moment, the orgasm, the moment you start
a new life. We long for the end but it is not coming. I have a friend, a
psychiatrist who suffers from long Covid in the medical sense, and she
describes it as a condition of physical distress and weakness, the inability to
move on. It is a state of permanent exhaustion.
GL: In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt states that the power of
authoritarian rule is to create isolation and loneliness. Around the same time,
in the early 1950s, David Riesman describes a similar phenomenon in The Lonely
FB: In my book, I quote the famous words of a Canadian doctor that warned
against sexual intercourse during the Covid period. At that moment I became
aware of the transformation of proximity, meaning the relations of bodies in
space, meaning the characterization of the body of the other as a sanitary
danger. If you are seventy, like me, this may be an intellectual object of
study, but when you’re sixteen this may change your perception of the future.
It may have a long-term traumatic effect—another manifestation of long Covid.
There is a sharp increase in suicide among the young population, a rise of 39
percent in Italy.
GL: Cyberculture has prepared this condition over the past thirty years with
virtual sex, online dating, telephone sex, and webcams, up to the metaverse.
Sexual intercourse at a distance is an integral part of global culture.
FB: The pandemic years have not changed this direction, but rather manifest as
a final acceleration of already existing psychological and economic tendencies.
We’ve not experienced a paradigmatic shift. You can see this at the level of
precarization and the virtualization of work and increased mental exploitation.
Tragedies can help to change the course of history, but this has not happened.
GL: What is hyperconnected loneliness? This condition seems to be paradoxical.
As Sherry Turkle’s book title says: we are alone together. We are surrounded by
so many others. The dominant platforms are called “social” media for a reason.
But there is no space for reflection in solitude. Social media constantly
disrupt you, even if you try.
FB: Over the past twenty years there has been a transfer of embodied social
time into a disembodied empty time. Online you are socially engaged, you do not
quit society, but you abandoned the possibility of meeting the body of the
other. The year 2020 completed this process. Even before Covid, we experienced
a culture of fatigue in the sense of regression and stagnation at many levels.
This sense of alienation was already perceived, in your work, mine, and others.
The psychopathology of the hyperconnected world is well known.
In 2017 I was tired. I was sick as well and put on an automatic reply saying
that I was sorry and that I was not able to check my email because of my
fatigue. A friend responded that she was anxious that I was lost for the world,
please don’t do this, she wrote to me. You can say I am old, and a lost case,
coming from the analogue era. However, when I am required to remember five
different passwords and pin numbers to check my sanity situation, that’s
causing stress for everyone. These sorts of oppressive data regimes are
draining our cognitive capacity. This is also part of Mental Long Covid.
The fall of 2019 was a significant period. We saw many protests, worldwide,
from Santiago in Chile to Hong Kong. The widespread collective disaffection on
a mass scale can be read as a sign that endemic exhaustion was no longer
bearable for many. I witnessed many movements, from 1968 and 1977 to the
anti-war protests in 2003 and Occupy in 2011. In 2019 I had the impression that
the various protests diverged and lacked a common motive and language. At the
level of subjectivity, they are contradictory. A political strategy is becoming
impossible to find. In 2011 you had the movement of the squares, from Cairo and
Damascus to Madrid: different circumstances but the same conceptual framework.
I call it the convulsive moment.
GL: In the book, you make a call to forget our origins. Is this why you shy
away from saying something about Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, and
related Instagram-driven movements? Do you believe in the revolutionary
potential of identity politics?
FB: Identity can sometimes be a tool to create solidarity. At the same time, it
is a trap. Identity is a misunderstanding, also a philosophical concept.
Identity means the construction or perception of difference concerning the
other. My identity is different from yours. In this context, I prefer a concept
from Simondon: not identity but the differentiation process that makes it
possible for me to become an individual. This is what he calls individuation.
If you think that the foundation of solidarity is identity, the next step is
war. The identification of the nation in European history means war, and this
is what we’re currently witnessing in Ukraine.
GL: You go to Spain to attend the meeting of the psychoanalysis association
there. Also, you are part of a Latin seminar of psychoanalytic practitioners
that meet on Zoom twice a week and work with the old friends of Guattari who
are preparing a meeting for the fiftieth anniversary of Anti-Oedipus. What do
you propose to them?
FB: I am reading Freud and Ferenczi again and have to admit: their writing is
naive—for instance, Freud’s analysis of war neurosis. Even Ferenczi cannot
understand what’s happening on the collective level of psychic suffering. This
is beyond the horizon of psychoanalysis, even for Jung, who’s the only one that
speaks of the collective unconscious. This indicates that we are on the brink
of a significant scientific and philosophical discovery. This will neither come
from cognitive psychology nor neuroscience. We need to locate it inside the
realm of psychoanalysis. I do not believe neuroscience will take over. It
understands 99 percent of what happens inside the brain in terms of
distraction, decision making, and memory but what they overlook is the human
sensibility. Human behavior is not a deterministic feature. Something is not
explainable in terms of causality.
GL: Would that be the social? Your opening sentence states that you explore the
ongoing mutation of the social Unconscious. I would add the techno-social …
FB: I recently reread a book of Félix Guattari that I translated myself into
Italian and that I know very well, Le Capitalisme Mondial Intégré, as he is one
of the few thinkers to see the relation between the unconscious and technology.
Guattari is not doing this from the nostalgic humanist perspective. On the
contrary. He speaks about the potential of the machinic unconscious. I ask:
what is the spatial character of the social today? My current obsession is with
the inability of psychoanalysis to deal with the current techno-social
unconscious. The seminar I participate in looks at this from a Latin
perspective, which may be different from an Anglo-Saxon or a Chinese one. Marx
and Darwin are part of our toolbox to understand the present, but Freud is no
longer in the mix.
GL: Is this because the Freudian perspective got compromised by marketing?
We’re aware that we can be influenced in subliminal ways, we know our sexual
drives, many young readers would think.
FB: Psychology has become an integral part of capitalist consumerism. But
beware: that doesn’t mean that psyche is no longer relevant. On the contrary.
The psychoanalytic perspective is the most crucial now but it is missing. We
badly need a psychoanalytic understanding of the present, more than an economic
one. The social production of loneliness, competitive behavior, and aggression
are as real as economic exploitation.
GL: As a member of the Guattari circle, back in the seventies in Paris, how do
you look at the “Werdegang” or demise of the second unconscious?
FB: That’s the neoliberal unconscious as described by Massimo Recalcati in his
2010 book The Man Without an Unconscious—a subject without a deep well of
unconscious desire, obsessed with immediate enjoyment. No more delayed
gratification. In this system, the unconscious has been externalized and
exploded in the social imagination. Without realizing it, the authors of the
1972 Anti-Oedipus sketch out the genesis of the neoliberal unconscious. They
speak of the explosion of the unconscious as a happy process of
liberation—which is legitimate. But the reality is the implosion of it. If you
want to understand this, read Michel Foucault’s 1979 seminar La Naissance de la
biopolitique. Several years later Foucault was indeed able to articulate this
mechanism. He understands the mental aspect of the Thatcher moment. Covid has
exposed the impossibility to continue with the second unconscious, which is
dead, but we are living inside the dead corpse. We’re still living under the
threat of economic growth, liberation, etc., while stagnation is our daily
GL: How would you describe the current culture of fear and anger, of
resignation and stagnation? In your book, you pair concepts such as extinction
and exhaustion with impotence.
FB: Now you are entering the realm of the unknown that urgently needs to be
studied. We don’t know what’s going to happen and don’t know what should be
done to escape the current crisis. We must go deep at this moment of
catastrophe. Is there a therapy or a political strategy to overcome the current
GL: After studying and describing one particular form of the techno-social
mental condition, namely sadness as the twenty-first-century manifestation of
melancholia, I came to the conclusion that the description alone is not
sufficient. Sadness, by design, is going nowhere. The recognition as such does
not lead us to a political strategy. At best, we get a deeper understanding of
the current stagnation.
FB: In your new book Stuck on the Platform you are not proposing sadness as a
way out. However, what we can say is that, for instance, Putin is a product of
a long-lasting depression, on the verge of collapse, which at this stage means
taking that jump out of the window. At this very moment in time we are at the
point of suicide. How do we get out of this situation? My intuition tells me
that depression is the therapy for depression. We should go the homeopathic
way. The depressed persona today is the one who understands reality best and
does not experience a desire or see a future in his or her own life. It is the
only person who can tell the truth to him or herself. We should validate this
position and see it as a starting point in political terms.
Here I come to my keyword for 2022: resignation. In Christian terminology,
resignation means the acceptance of the will of God. You must accept and
resign and not refuse. If you do not trust God and do not believe, like me,
even if you count the bishop of Bologna among your friends, like me, what is
the meaning of resignation for us atheists? It means abandoning the
expectations we had. Let’s abandon the idea that the future will be expensive.
Forget the equitation of larger being better. That’s over. You remember
Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, which meant that on a small level we could
find better ways to expand. No, that’s really over.
The intellectual, mental, and cognitive resources of the planet are exhausted,
even in China, where we witness a significant movement to abandon work due to
mental but also procreation exhaustion. Think of the hikikomori phenomenon in
Japan of young hermits that have totally withdrawn from society. When a
Japanese friend visited me in 2008 and told me about the one million
hikikomori, I felt bad for them, how horrible, and he told me he had not left
his room for six months until he discovered the autonomia concept and
understood the affinity of the autonomous stance with his condition. Try to
take the Tokyo subway. Try to work in an office in Tokyo. This is when I
started to think about the paradox of depression in our time. When the social
becomes so competitive, so repressive, better to close off and go for
loneliness as the better option. No more human beings, I want to be alone.
Monastic life gets a new meaning.
(This is the original text. A shorter version was published by e-flux
Thanks for your edits, Grammarly, Ned and Mike).
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