During the Summer of 2009, some comrades, thinkers and poets decided that we would like to hold a gathering, an intense seminar, to engage with the ideas raised by the writings of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. It was only in that year that much of his work, spanning four decades and a wide variety of topics, had begun to be translated into English in a substantial way. But that is not to say that Bifo was unknown to us. Over those decades, his numerous shorter essays and commentaries were translated and circulated. Within a certain political and artistic milieu, Bifo was indeed quite a well-known figure, often associated with – and even held to be emblematic of – a certain kind of Italian radical politics, post-workerism (or autonomism, as it is often referred to in the English-speaking world), that mixed together an analysis of class focused on the primary of social struggles with an engagement with language, culture, media, subjectivity and the arts. It might be said that Bifo enjoyed the somewhat unfavourable status of being well known for his association with certain eruptions of social movements, and less so for his actual writing and analysis – although it is perhaps debatable whether that is a bad thing after all.

The publication of several books thus seemed to provide an excuse and reason for putting together an event. And with this in mind, a small group of us started planning to hold a 4-day seminar at the arts and political discussion venue 16 Beaver, located auspiciously in the heart of the financial district in Lower Manhattan.Footnote 1 Introducing presentations on the first night of the seminar, Bifo began with what he described as a very personal problem, but one that ended up being quite useful for framing the ongoing development of his thought, as well as this special issue of Subjectivity. Bifo started by saying that when addressing his friends he has a great difficulty of saying ‘I’. Rather than speaking in terms of ‘I’, he speaks in terms that relate to a collectivity, to a ‘we’, and more particularly a relationship to a ‘we’ formed through politics of social movements. From there, he proceeded to elaborate an analysis of Rekombinant,Footnote 2 a project that he had coordinated with Matteo Pasquinelli for a number of years but had decided to end not long before.

Over the next few days, Bifo made presentations on a number of different subjects, ranging from the anti-globalization movement to the psychopathological nature of labour in contemporary capitalism.Footnote 3 He also focused on developing an analysis of the subject in contemporary philosophy and political thought, moving from a framework of autonomist analysis of class to the schizo-analysis of Deleuze and Guattari, and finally exploring the dynamics Bifo claims are blocking off the emergence of a new radical subjectivity within the present. Bifo's presentations were interwoven with presentations and discussions from other thinkers (McKenzie Wark, Jackie Orr, Claire Pentecost, Stephen Duncombe), engagement with collectives focused on media and subjectivity (MayFirst, The Icarus ProjectFootnote 4), and a visit to the Coney Island Museum (which was, coincidentally, showing an exhibition about the 100th anniversary of Freud's visit to Coney Island) (Figure 1).

Figure 1
figure 1

Bifo at Coney Island.

Underpinning all the topics and discussions was an in-depth consideration of the nature of collective becomings, whether manifest in the eruption of new political movements, within the workings of the economy, or in the artistic sphere. In that sense, describing the collective process that led to the planning of such a seminar, and following that, this special issue of Subjectivity, is not to describe something incidental to the subject at hand, but rather its quite integral part. Bifo's ideas and work are very much formed through an engagement with the forms of collective becomings in projects and movements that he has been immersed in. Bifo's work has become known not just for its analytical value divorced from any context, but precisely through ways in which he expresses and develops, in theoretical terms, the issues raised within the collective becomings of movements he has been involved in, most notably the currents of Autonomia in Italy during the 1970s.

Although it is difficult to summarize succinctly a complicated and rich history of social struggles, one could try to describe the experience of Italian autonomism as follows: whereas in many parts of the world the student-worker revolts of 1968 seemed to peter out relatively quickly, in Italy they continued to burn on for nearly a decade, proliferating into a multitude of different forms.Footnote 5 Although they started as the self-organized contingent outside of the unions and political parties, and thus were still roughly focused on the problems of industrial labour and factory production, the mutation of autonomist politics through the 1970s broadened to include a much wider mutation of society.Footnote 6 There was a progression, as it would have been described at the time, from the movement to society, from the bounded factory to all throughout the social factory, and from a focus on particular labours to the socialized forms of labour found through everyday life. This broadened focus came to include a politics of gendered labour (through an emergence of autonomist feminist currents),Footnote 7 self-organized spaces of squatting and cultural spaces, and a bringing together of what elsewhere would have been thought of under the category of ‘counter-cultural’ and artistic avant-garde topics with that of militant resistance. It is in this conjecture that Bifo's thought and politics emerged and were shaped, from his involvement in the early workerist currents in the 1960s to attempts to create mass media forms of avant-garde aesthetic interventions, such as in the founding of Radio Alice, the first pirate radio station in Italy.

This issue of Subjectivity, which could be thought of as the first major engagement with Bifo's work in English, reflects this. It is not just a collection of essays that take Bifo's ideas as their starting point, but rather a collection of essays that all start from the conjuncture of Bifo's ideas, the issues and conditions raised by them, with forms of collective becomings in the present. The purpose then is not to consider Bifo's work in isolation, but rather to develop it as a tool, one that is explored through continued usage and application. One of the most common, and most unfortunate, ways in which academic analysis tends to treat the knowledges and ideas produced by social movements, and by collective creativity more generally, is to find a proper name or two that diffuse creativity can be attached to and associated with. This strategy creates a kind of intellectual enclosure, individualizing ideas into forms more amenable to management and historification. This seems to be the case, especially, when we indeed find ourselves at a moment in which, as Matteo Pasquinelli (2011) claims in a recent article, ‘Italian theory’ has achieved a certain kind of hegemony within certain academic discussions, much the way that ‘French theory’ did in the 1980s. The problem with this is that in addition to focusing on a limited number of individual authors and attributing everything to them this often runs the risks of cutting off the more radical forms of analysis that have been developed in favour of a few concepts that can endlessly be circulated shorn from the circumstances and concerns that gave rise to their formulation in the first place.

This conjunctive approach is perhaps the most productive and valuable feature of Bifo's writing, and autonomist analysis more generally: its ability to act as a kind of crossroads for bringing together different forms of political analysis and social theory, to act as a bridge between them. Although autonomism is most widely known through the success of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's book Empire (2000), as well as the subsequent follow-ups Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009), the autonomist ‘tradition’ of thought circulated within various social milieus well before the success of that book, and continues to do so into the present. In the English-speaking world, this has been seen mainly as a way to bring together a Marxist analysis of class, although one that is greatly expanded from a more narrowly oriented focus on industrial labour and its politics, with the conceptual tools of post-structural analysis of subjectivity and culture. The same can be said of the broader constellation of autonomist social theory and analysis, which has opened up a very productive re-conceptualization of a wide variety of areas including immigration and borders (Mezzadra, 2004; Papadopoulos et al, 2008), the production of subjectivity (Read, 2003; Thoburn, 2003), finance (Marazzi, 2008; Mezzadra and Fumagalli, 2010), politics within the university (Moten and Harney, 2004; EduFactory Collective, 2009), gendered labour in capitalist governance (Federici, 2004; Driscoll, 2010), networks and media politics (Terranova, 2004) and subtraction from networked control (Galloway and Thacker, 2007; Bratich, 2008) among many others.

This collection is also one that involves the collaboration of, to borrow Deleuze and Guattari's phrasing, the conceptual personae from different traditions. And, as with the engagement of a distinct set of authors and/or tradition of analysis, a number of new conceptual terms appear, which are used in specific, occasionally idiosyncratic, but ultimately illuminating ways. A number of these are explained in the glossary section that follows the editorial. But there is one term that is perhaps most central for the overall theme of this issue – the notion of class composition, particularly in relation to ways in which Bifo's work is involved with the project of rearticulating the idea of class composition for present conditions. Class composition is most closely associated with forms of unorthodox Marxist thought developed in the 1960s, particularly in the writing of Mario Tronti and Raniero Panzieri (Wright, 2003). The argument they made was that for too long analyses of capitalism and class dynamics had focused too much on how history was shaped by economic and political elites, which is to say how it was shaped by Capital. Rather, Tronti and Panzieri suggested that analysis should begin from looking at moments of revolt and insubordination, from wildcat strikes and the refusal of factory discipline, or in other words a reversal of perspective from which analysis begins.

According to this argument, the history of capitalist development is determined not by the internal logic of capital or its contradictions, but rather the necessity of dealing with working-class insubordination and refusal, and finding ways to turn these antagonistic energies into new forms of accumulation. The classic example illustrating this is how the revolt against factory discipline and working conditions in the 1960s and 1970s led to the development of more highly automated, flexible and decentralized post-Fordist production methods. Or, how the desire for a greater flexibility in work contracts and living conditions were transformed into precarious and insecure labour. The concept of class composition is useful in understanding the relationship between the powers of revolt and refusal found within radical political movements, or their political composition, and the ways in which these capacities are territorialized within the shifting of the overall production process, understood as technical composition.

To take this argument into a more specifically subjectivity and media-oriented direction, one could relate the above to the rise of more participatory forms of media production and interaction. A class composition analysis with regard to the rise of participatory media would look first towards developments in participatory media practice coming out of movement organizing, marginal art practices and so forth. This would include, for example, looking at the rise of zine production, pirate radio production, such as the role of Radio Alice in the so-called ‘diffuse creativity’ of the Metropolitan Indians and related current in 1977 (Berardi, 2009), pirate television production, as well as open source production and the hacking of other media forms. An autonomist approach to understanding the rise of participatory media would focus on two major themes. First, how many of these practices emerged as politically antagonistic forms of interaction before they became integrated into the workings of a capitalist media assemblage. Second, although the increasing reliance of forms of capitalist valorization on participatory media practice makes it necessary to reconsider its potentials as part of a radical politics today, it does not mean that its potential has been compromised because of this process. An excellent example of this kind of autonomist analysis is Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greg de Peuter's work (2009) on video games and empire, which draws out these very elements: from turning the dispersed labour of coders and hackers into a resource for capital and military training, to the possibility of turning these dispersed labours into tools for an emergent gaming multitude.

This issue picks up on themes that have appeared through the entire publishing history of Subjectivity as a journal, from the editorial in the first issue, through various essays that have appeared then exploring areas such as self-valorization and the common (Harrison, 2011), neoliberal subjectivity (Burkitt, 2008; Layton, 2010), austerity and anti-consumerism (Bramall 2011), contemporary media culture (Gill, 2008), radical subjectivity after hegemony (Pitcher, 2011), the entanglements between affect and technology (Clough, 2008), as well as many others that touch on related themes. It is not so much that the articles contained ask totally new questions, but rather that they approach the questions that underpin continued enquiry into the nature of subjectivity today from different angles and perhaps through that to see something that was not perceived before. Having introduced the general conceptual approach of the issue, let us now turn towards the particular contributions. Much like the work of Bifo, this issue moves in a broad conceptual arc from a focus on labour and subjectivity, broadening out to a consideration of aesthetics, through to the question of the recomposition of political subjectivity.

‘Angels of Love in the Unhappiness Factory’ by Dave Eden, situating Bifo in relation to several other key autonomist thinkers, namely Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and John Holloway, opens the issue. Although all these thinkers analyse the relationship between capitalism and subjectivity and employ many of the same conceptual tools, they often end up coming to significantly different conclusions. If Marxist thought is traditionally based on a particular conception of the relation of the proletariat and capital, and how the emergence of revolutionary struggles holds the potential to transform both the objective conditions of production and the subjectivity of the working class as political actors, this relation has been radically transformed by shifts in the production process. Subjectivity, it is argued, has taken on a central role in the labour process itself. Eden teases out the differences in Bifo's approach to this question as compared with other autonomist thinkers, pointing out how his argument could lead to a politically more pessimistic set of conclusions, or perhaps a more measured assessment of the potential for revolt in present conditions of labour.

Following on from that, Abe Walker takes up the question of ‘The Labor of Recombination’. He begins by recalling on an often-ignored passage on unions in Deleuze's essay on control society. What role could the union, as an organizational form, play in the vastly transformed conditions of labour? Whereas the work of Deleuze does not give much indication on this question, Walker argues that Bifo's writing takes up a very similar question, pointing both towards the potential and pitfalls of a labour politics in which many of the assumed categories of analysis appear to prove no longer tenable, from solidity of forms of value production to the argued dissolution of the worker as discrete subject and the main site of exploitation. Bifo argues that capitalism today is less concerned with exploiting the labour of individuals’ lives than it is with harvesting compartmentalized amounts of labour that have become highly abstracted and dispersed through informational and communication technologies. The disappearance of the worker as a discrete subject undercuts the possibility of any politics based, whether or not explicitly, on the continued existence of the worker as a discrete subject. Rejecting the idea that this analysis leads to pessimistic conclusions, Walker takes up and works with elements of Bifo's work and the broader autonomist tradition to look at the concept of subjectivation as an open, molecular becoming, as it relates to labour. If the labour movement, even if drastically redefined, remains an important site of struggle, what strategies become possible within the dispersed circuits of immaterial production?

Moving on deeper into the question of subjectivation of the labour force, we turn next to Anja Kanngieser and her essay ‘Collaboration, competition, aspiration: creative labour in Shanghai’. If Bifo's work and autonomist tradition in general are marked – as they surely must be – by the social, cultural and historical conditions of their emergence, how do they fare when employed under entirely different circumstances? Following the work she has done as part of the ‘Transit Labour: Circuits, Regions, Borders’ project,Footnote 8 Kanngieser engages with the complex and ambivalent conditions encountered by the emerging creative labour force in Shanghai. Although the conditions faced by young Chinese creative workers are in some ways quite similar to those affecting creative and immaterial workers in other countries, the differences in political and technical composition raise important questions about the limits of an autonomist framework for analysing labour in such a context. Kanngieser works through the productive tensions of these questions, focusing on processes of subjectivation, collaboration and individuation among these creative workers, in order to reconsider the kinds of political registers that resonate with the conditions of their labour.

In a shift from an analysis of cultural labour to aesthetics, Michael Goddard develops an analysis of Bifo's usage of film aesthetics in his essay ‘Cinematic and Aesthetic Cartographies of Subjective Mutation’. In his more recent writing, Bifo has focused heavily on the role of technology and communication in the shaping of subjectivity through the workings of technological automatism. Whereas Bifo has carried out this analysis focusing on how it affects the domains of labour and politics, in this essay Goddard investigates how Bifo's analysis also operates through aesthetic categories, in particular the usage of film and media art. Goddard argues that Bifo's work is shaped around a kind of artistic cartography generated through the examples Bifo employs, and that a consideration of these mutating terrains of subjectivity can provide a way to further deepen the analysis of labour and subjectivity within post-Fordism. Goddard further suggests that a consideration of how these artistic works are used can lead to conclusions and analysis different to those developed by Bifo. Although Bifo's analysis often seems to lead to a quite pessimistic conclusion that within the present there is no possibility for an emergence of a new form of social recomposition, Goddard suggests that the aesthetic works Bifo engages with can point towards an emergence of new forms of antagonism, modes of expression and collective becomings.

Finally, we turn to Giuseppina Mecchia and her essay ‘Politics of the Subject in the Postmodern Novel. The Case of Giuseppe Genna’. Mecchia addresses the question of subjectivity and collective becomings as explored in the writings of several young Italian novelists, most notably Giuseppe Genna. She looks at Genna's novels In The Name of Ishmael, Dies Irae and Italia De Profundis to examine ways in which Genna described the technological, political and cultural formations shaping the emergence of subjectivity. Mecchia shows that changes in the novel form provide a unique way for framing and narrating a certain kind of desperation of the present moment, but in a way that also reconstructs the present moment and opens up new spaces for freedom and imagination. In many respects, this is exactly the work that Bifo's analysis itself performs, embodying a kind of pessimism of the intellect paired with an optimism of the will. Similarly, an analysis of Genna's novels can provide a set of relevant questions through the very form they take, namely the detective novel. If the present is characterized by a state of desperation, a murder of hope, then the detective is obliged to ask ‘whodunnit’? Similarly, the loss of any sort of stable centre of narrative still begs the question of the kind of narrative we might want to compose in such circumstances. To pose the question through the novel form brings to mind the rise, in the last 2 years, of the ‘Book Bloc’, where individuals have defended themselves from police attack at protests by using shields decorated as the covers of novels and political tracts. Wu Ming, an Italian collective of novelists, described the book bloc as ‘culture itself that's resisting the cuts’ to social spending as the ‘books themselves are fighting the police’.Footnote 9 If books and culture are taking to the street, what kind of sensibility can be animated through and against the changing conditions of aesthetics, labour and politics? And what could the role of cultural production play in answering these questions? (Figure 2).

Figure 2
figure 2

Bifo with concept chart.

Bifo's work, perhaps unsurprisingly, does not provide any set or definite answer to these questions, as much as it raises deeper and more troubling questions: although an interrogation of those questions concerns a more solid foundation for a flourishing of new forms of collective becomings. Although Bifo's analysis has tended to be quite sceptical about the possibility for an emergence of new forms of collective subjects within the present – precisely because of how overwhelming flows of communication, information and digital labour overwhelm the capacities of subjectivation – it may very well be that present conditions only serve to disprove the outcomes expected by theory. In both Precarious Rhapsody (2009) and After the Future (2011), Bifo concludes with an analysis of how political art is only capable of registering the drastic and irreversible changes occurring within collective psychic conditions. Sitting here, writing this editorial in the Fall of 2011, having witnessed the amazing uprising of the Arab Spring, ongoing revolts in Greece (and other parts of Europe), and the massive proliferation and building of the Occupy Wall Street movement (with its most visible manifestation in the United Kingdom situated outside St Paul's Cathedral, a stone's throw away from London Stock Exchange),Footnote 10 it seems that the suggestion that collective subjectivation is blocked off might be bit premature. Even if this is so, then Bifo's work and those engaging with similar concepts and problematics raise issues that are well worth considering.