Book Review: Breathing Chaos and Poetry by Franco “Bifo” Berardi

FALL 2019

by Jocelyn Holmes

Cohort ’18

If chaos is the new normal and order of our reality due to an era of conjoined technology and information, and fueled by capitalism, how do we learn to coexist with chaos? Italian Philosopher Franco "Bifo" Berardi confronts this condition of chaos in his book Breathing: Chaos and Poetry, and asks “Is there a way out from the corpse of financial capitalism?”(Berardi 64).

Bifo sees the power of financial capitalism today as “based upon abstract relations between numerical entities”(57). Chaos lies at the intersection of financial capitalism and life itself contributing to what Bifo calls a “contemporary condition of breathlessness” (56).

Bifo defines chaos as the new ‘normal’ and order of our reality thanks to the era of conjoined technology and information. Further, he states that we enter a state of chaos “when our environment that is too complex to be decoded by our available explanatory frames, an environment which fluxes and circulates too quickly for our minds to elaborate” (318). He explains that “when the acceleration of cyberspace breaks the rhythm of mental time, and we no longer know what is relevant in our surrounding environment, this is what we call ‘chaos’”(346). Bifo sees the only “premonition of a possible harmony inscribed in the present chaos” or pathway of “liberation from the oppression of financial capitalism” in the metaphor of poetry (44). While Bifo declines to define poetry, stating that “poetry is the act of language that cannot be defined, as ‘to define’ means to limit,” his understanding of poetry encompases the notion of art as he refers to poetry as “the excess that goes beyond the limits of language, which is to say beyond the limits of the world itself”(132).

One example Bifo gives of our present condition of chaos lies in the issue of migration and debates surrounding immigration worldwide. He expresses his concern about “wave of migration from the Mediterranean Sea” that faces “unrelenting rejection from European governments” (853). Bifo sees this rejection as symptomatic of paranoia and the “idiocy of protecting racial identity.” He argues that rather than fearing a cultural shift in identity “Europeans, should stimulate immigration” and embrace the economic benefits. He uses Italy as an example of such benefits where “migrants are playing an important part of the country’s social security income” (979). If, as Bifo proposes, the only line of escape from the suffocation of chaos lies in poetry, how might poetry in the form of art intervene in a condition of chaos such as surrounds issues of immigration?

Can an example of the poetry that arises in response to the collision of chaos and life be found in Barca Nostra, Christoph Büchel’s 2019 installation at the Arsenale for La Biennale Di Venezia? Büchel’s controversial readymade installation of the fishing vessel involved in the 2015 disaster in the Sicilian channel — now deemed the Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwreck — addresses the chaos, desperation, and life threatening issues surrounding immigration. As an art installation, this vessel that was involved in the deaths of an estimated 1000 migrants, has been criticized as “absolutely vile[1]” or a “privileged, violent stunt[2].” Arguments against the inclusion of Büchel’s installation in the Biennale stem from the artifact’s primary connection to the tragedy. Embodying a senseless loss of life, Büchel’s Barca Nostra brings to mind Picasso’s painting depicting the 1937 genocide of the small Basque town of Guernica. Perhaps a comparison between Picasso’s Guernica, 1937 and Büchel’s Barca Nostra demonstrates how such art not only represents chaos as a historical artifact, but may be transformed into the realm of the poetical through art as a tool of political subversion and ethical conviction. Büchel demonstrates his poetical intentions by redefining the vessel as a “collective monument and memorial to contemporary migration” (Büchel). This redefinition of the fishing vessel as a “monument and memorial” causes the object to transcend its original content and context to become the art entitled Barca Nostra. The transformation of the object into art recontextualizes Barca Nostra as an expression of poetry that condemns the collective policies and politics, that Büchel argues, “create these kinds of disasters” (Büchel). Rather than allowing life to be invaded by flows chaos that Bifo warns threatens to “paralyze the social body and stifle breathing into suffocation (Berardi 58),” perhaps both Picasso and Büchel demonstrate a means by which art as poetry instructs us on our responsibility to others, offering hope that from such art we may learn to breath with chaos.

In Breathing, Bifo concludes that in the present condition of chaos, “only poetry will soothe the suffering of the engineer’s mind and the poet’s mind, and will act to reverse the financial sphere’s grip upon language” (59). The process of “breathing with chaos” or “chaosmosis” which he defines as “osmosis with chaos” is where a “new harmony emerges, a new sympathy, a new syntony” (236). Bifo offers hope that through poetry, we might return to the rhythm of our own breath and learn to breath with chaos.

[1] Absolutely Vile' or 'Powerful'? Christoph Buchel's Migrant Boat Is the Most Divisive Work at the Venice Biennale by Javier Pes

[2] The Privileged, Violent Stunt That Is the Venice Biennale Boat Project by Alexandra Stock

Bifo Berardi's "Breathing: Chaos and Poetry" book cover
Photo: Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra installation at the Arsenale for La Biennale Di Venezia 2019. Photo by Jocelyn Holmes
Photo: Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra installation at the Arsenale for La Biennale Di Venezia 2019. Photo by Jocelyn Holmes

Citation

Berardi, Franco "Bifo". Breathing: Chaos and Poetry. Semiotext(e). Kindle Edition. 2019.

Büchel, Christoph. “Biennale Arte 2019: Christoph Büchel.” La Biennale Di Venezia, 21 May 2019,

www.labiennale.org/en/art/2019/partecipants/christoph-b%C3%BCchel.

Pes, Javier. “'Absolutely Vile' or 'Powerful'? Christoph Buchel's Migrant Boat Is the Most Divisive Work at the Venice Biennale.” Artnet News, Artnet News, 29 May 2019, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/barca-nostra-1548946.

Stock, Alexandra. “The Privileged, Violent Stunt That Is the Venice Biennale Boat Project.” Mada Masr, 29 May 2019, https://madamasr.com/en/2019/05/29/feature/culture/the-privileged-violent-stunt-that-is-the-venice-biennale-boat-project/.

“Rethinking Guernica. Picasso's Twentieth-Century Work-Icon Close-Up.” Repensar Guernica, Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia, 2019, https://guernica.museoreinasofia.es/en#introduccion.