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The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Semiotext(e) / Intervention Series) Paperback – 13 Nov 2012
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About the Author
Franco Berardi, aka "Bifo," founder of the famous "Radio Alice" in Bologna and an important figure of the Italian Autonomia Movement, is a writer, media theorist, and media activist. He currently teaches Social History of the Media at the Accademia di Brera, Milan.
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Berardi essentially makes two arguments. The first is that, unlike in Marx's time, the capitalist no longer actually has to do things or provide services in order to skim surplus value off the top. Today, money and profits have become entirely virtual, transnational dematerialized, and we are victims of economic forces which might as well be magic for all the understanding or control we have of them. Second, and as a result, the capitalist system is not only sick itself (witness the use of words like "depression" and "panic" in the financial media), it's also making people ill and mentally unstable.
On the whole this s a convincing analysis - it's just a pity that it's written in a self-indulgent style, employing the kind of deliberate exaggeration and fondness for paradox that European intellectuals tend to be so keen on. And it suffers also from repetition (it started out as a series of essays) and from having been written in the period of relative optimism that followed the 2011 Occupy movement.
So what has poetry to do with all this, I hear you ask? Not much, really, in spite of some confident statements to the contrary. Thus, poetry "is the semiotic concatenation that exceeds the sphere of exchange and the codified correspondence of the signifier and the signified". Got that? He's saying, in effect, that poetry is a kind of free speech, in all senses of the term. Maybe.
The book is rescued at the end, however, by a complete departure: an eloquent and scornful attack on the prevailing mode of cynicism, in which intellectuals worship power, compared to irony, which has a long tradition of opposing power. Maybe he's right. If not poetry, then maybe irony will save the world.
Part way through yet feels like a good read so far in as much as it does provoke.
When I have finished and if I remember I will add to here!
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The sickness, which is still upon us, is the disempowerment of human beings caused by what Berardi calls "semio-capitalism." Unlike early capitalism which grew up around networks of people trading material objects (wool, salt, copper, textiles), semio-capitalism trades in information. As we saw in 2008, it damages entire economies while enriching a few members of the financial class.
As traded assets become ever more abstract (derivatives of derivatives), the profits that befall the manipulators of these assets increase exponentially. (This is still going on unchecked throughout the globe in a high-risk manner - see Michael Sivy's recent article in "Time.") What happens to ordinary people when a privileged few create value by herding bytes through the infosphere via "chaotic flows of financial microtrading?" This book explores that question.
Aside from the financial sphere, information in general (news, technological discoveries, gossip, political scandal) has become a huge economic driver. The toilers in the media and cyber vineyards (what Berardi calls "the cognitariat") endure precarious terms of employment--for instance, being hired as contractors rather than employees. And those with other work lead lives increasingly severed from nature, meaning, and human contact due to our culture's increasing immersion in the infosphere. This leads to Berardi's notion of semio-inflation: "I say that semio-inflation is when you need more signs, words, and information to buy less meaning."
So what does poetry have to do with all this? Berardi draws a parallel between the increasing abstraction of financial instruments with a movement toward abstraction in modern poetry. According to him, this movement began in the 1800s with the Symbolist poets like Arthur Rimbaud, who proposed the notion of "dereglement" (deregulation). Dereglement in poetic terms meant divorcing the poetic image from its concrete referent to create mindscapes that transcended material reality.
In Berardi's words: "So the word and the senses started to invent a new world of their own, rather than reflect or reproduce existing reality." This rupture between word and tangible thing ushered in a new approach to language, making it into a more finely-chiseled tool for creating a human-centered world severed from the body of nature. And indeed the author is correct, for, as the 20th century progressed, we became more and more cut off from the world of the senses and of nature. We replaced the enlivening images of dream, myth, and poetry with the enslaving images brought to us by the media and advertisers.
If at first it seems preposterous to link increasing abstraction in finance with the same in poetic language, consider that all aspects of human culture are interrelated. Berardi is correct that the level of abstraction has increased in recent decades due to technological advances. However, this has been going on for a few thousand years. Since the discovery of mathematics we humans have been busily generating abstract notions from the concrete details around us, little by little creating a conceptual landscape that, like a house of mirrors, refers only to human concerns. Meanwhile we have relegated the body of the natural world, our own bodies, and our natural instincts to objects of exploitation. This theme has been fully explored in Ralph Abrams' book "The Spell of the Sensuous." However, as Berardi points out, the outcome of this trend is reaching grotesque proportions.
Berardi's solution is "reactivation of the social body," that is, forging links between us and other living beings and the planet we all inhabit. And this is where poetry can heal us, because the original task of poetry was making and carrying meaningful connections with our elemental surroundings. Berardi urges a re-enchantment of language to awaken our collective psyche, so that we can "shift from one paradigm to another."
Poetic imagery expresses that which cannot be expressed in ordinary language. The power to create and to understand poetry depends on our being able to take the time to pay attention to the non-verbal language of each other and the world, so as to have the "ability to understand what cannot be expressed in forms that have a finite syntax." In other words, taking time to restore our six senses, our intuition, and our wisdom. Thus poetry is subversive, since it is "what in language cannot be reduced to information, and is not exchangeable, but gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning: the creation of a new world."
Berardi obviously has a deep understanding of the power of poetry, and yet his prose is not poetic. It is densely packed with abstract words. Many of the words are undefined and difficult for the reader to parse. What is deterritorialization? Indexicalization? Mathematical interfunctionality? And I'm still not sure I'm using the term semio-capitalism properly, since I never found a definition for it. (I ask the author's forgiveness if I have used it incorrectly.)
In a book about the merits of poetry, there has to be a way to talk to us that is more along the lines of Wordsworth's notion of a poet as a "man speaking to men." Some of the problematic prose may be due to the translation - I recently read an interview in Spanish with the author (Literal Magazine), and it was a much easier read. Still, it seems that Berardi's prose is aimed at fellow intellectuals--a great many of whom, I would guess, are already open to his ideas.
Despite this, I was deeply moved by this book. I am neither a leftist nor an intellectual, but I have always valued poetry, dreams, and the natural world, all of which our modern commercial juggernaut has trashed. Because I am not a leftist or even a standard liberal type, I am comfortable speaking of "soul," and I think it fitting to use the word here: Berardi describes a social body which has withered because it has lost its soul, and lost touch with the soul of the world. But that withered body is not the end of the story. As Alan Kay said, "the best way to predict the future is to invent it." This book will inspire you to invent another world.
The unfortunate Achilles heel of this work originates from how enamored the author is with an unsubstantiated romantic nostalgia for past social life. A few chapters that illustrate this fixation are "Cojunction/Connection," "Composition and Recombination," and "Rhythm and Refrain." In each of these chapters the former term represents a concept that supposedly characterized "the good ol' days" of the social body while the latter represents the evil twin concept (perversely cold, heartless, purely transactional ect.) that has either eclipsed, poisoned, or otherwise compromised the old term's spirit under financialized capitalism. From the second one: "When I say composition, I mean a form of shared respiration: cospiration, conspiracy, growing together, conjoined expectations, coalescing lifestyles. When I say recombination, I mean compatibility and functional operativity. When the relation between social components (individuals) is predominantly recombinant, the social organism stiffens and gets frail: solidarity becomes difficult." and "...precaritization makes the social body frail at the level of work, while virtualization makes the social body frail at the level of affection." The problem here is that there's never any recognition on Berardi's part that these shift's may also have a lot to do with new difficulties inherent to organizing a human population that is to date around 7.5 billion and quickly rising rather than *just* inexplicable ruling class sadism. As such, his concluding thoughts and prescriptions for social action are predictably non-responsive or worse. In particular, his reverence for the emancipatory potential of irony towards the end seems as if he's trying to lead people into a disastrous trap (albeit a pretty one).
Basically, check the book out if you're looking for some creative and inspired ways of wording or conceptualizing contemporary techno-capitalist phenomena but don't expect any especially useful conclusions or calls to action out of this thing because this guy is stuck in a childish fantasy: "Unless they are seized by avarice -a psychotic obsession- all that human beings want is a pleasant, possibly long life, and to consume only what is necessary to stay fit and make love." *gags*
I would have given it a fifth star if I hadn't found his use of language so complex and challenging that I suspect only those of us fascinated by the complexities of the recent global financial collapse, would stay with.
I had to look up, and then struggle with, semiotext (which this spell check doesn't recognize). Not only is it part of the book's title, but is central to the book's thesis. It refers to how invented language and concepts – that refer to other concepts rather than any actual event or thing – have become the basis for international finance.
If you are as eager as I am to make some sense of what happened when everything fell apart in 2008, and where we now are, and liable to go from here, maybe you will have the patience to stay with what I think is a brave and insightful effort by Berardi.
I am not a fast reader, but I have now spent hours and weeks with this short book, reading a paragraph, then going back to reread it. His insight is as helpful as anything I've yet read. I don't know yet whether – besides his prediction of major upheaval and unrest – he has much helpful to say about how to navigate the way from here.