“Only conjugate!”—The meeting and fusion of round or irregular bodies

Taking my time (and tea) with "Bifo" Berardi's words
READINGS:

2 Peter 3:8-9

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 


From Chapter XXII of E. M. Forster’s novel of 1910, “Howards End”

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

From Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s “And: Phenomenolgy of the End” (Semiotext(e), MIT Press, 2015, pp. 21-23) — an earlier translation of the book can be found at this link and the MIT translation from which I was working can be found at this link:


Conjunction . . . can be viewed as a way of becoming other. Singularities change when they conjoin, they become something other than what they were before, in the same way as love changes the lover or the conjunctive composition of a-signifying signs gives rise to the emergence of previously inexistent meaning.
    [. . .]
    Conjunction is the meeting and fusion of round or irregular bodies that are continuously weaseling their way about without precision, repetition, or perfection. Connection is the punctual and repeatable interaction of algorithmic functions, straight lines and points that overlap perfectly, and that plug in or out according to discrete modes of interaction that render the different parts compatible to a pre-established standard.
    Passing from conjunction to connection as the predominant mode of conscious interaction between organisms is a consequence of the digitalization of signs, and of increasingly mediatized relations.
    This digitization of communicative processes induces a desensitization to the curve, and to the continuous process of slow becoming, along with a concurrent sensitization to the code, or to sudden changes of state.
    Conjunction entails a semantic criterion of interpretation. In order to enter into conjunction with another organism, the first organism sends signs to the other, signs whose meaning can only be interpreted in the pragmatic context of their interaction by tracing an intention, a shade of what remains unsaid, conscious and unconscious implications, and so on.
    Connection instead requires a purely syntactic criterion of interpretation. The interpreter must recognize a sequence and be able to carry out the operation that is foreseen by the general syntax (or operating system); there is no margin for ambiguity in the exchange of messages, nor can intention be manifest though nuances.


From Yanis Varoufakis’ short BBC film for Newsnight called “The West Needs A New Deal”

Fear of machines that can liberate us from drudgery is the sign of a timid and divided society. The Luddites are amongst the most misunderstood historical agents. Their vandalism of machinery was not a protest against automation it was against social arrangements that deprived them of life prospects in the face of technological innovation. Our societies must embrace the rise of the machines but ensure that they contribute to shared prosperity. Every citizen must be granted property rights over part of the wealth the machines produce . . . a Universal Basic Dividend.

—o0o—
ADDRESS
“Only conjugate!”—The meeting and fusion of round or irregular bodies

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

Since they were published in 1910 Forster’s famous lines been picked up, especially within liberal circles, as a rallying cry, not only for generally better connections to be made within society as a whole but, as his use of the words “prose and passion” suggest, it is also a plea for people to connect the rational and emotional aspects of their being. What I want to do today is to show why, for various very important reasons, we urgently need to replace Forster’s famous phrase, “Only connect!”, with “Only conjugate!” But let’s start with “connection.”

As you heard in our readings, in the modern digital age — and this caveat is important for we are no longer in 1910 — the contemporary Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi feels that connection has become all about smooth, frictionless, punctual and repeatable interactions; it’s all about creating compatibility between the machine and society’s various parts according to pre-established technical/societal standards; it’s all about speed of connection and about becoming highly responsive to fast flows of rapidly changing information. It is vital to see that understood this way connection leaves “no margin for ambiguity in the exchange of messages, nor can intention be manifest though nuances.” The power of the pre-determined code becomes utterly dominant.

I’m sure you can see why the phrase “only connect” is, today, received and promoted with gusto by certain sectors of industry and society. I could pick many examples to illustrate what I mean but, today, I’ll pick supermarkets and their increasing tendency to install automated check-out tills. They use them because they want to get their customers through the tills as frictionlessly and as fast as possible — a desire that is increasingly being shared by many customers too. One friction they all want to remove is the human-to-human conversation we can have with the other person serving us on the till. Meeting someone, being kind and respectful towards them, observing the general decencies and niceties of life together, talking about the weather or our holidays, all these things get in the way and slow the transaction down. In the new world of connection this inefficiency needs to be removed. Of course, automated tills also instantaneously stock-check and cash-up and pass all this information on in the blink of an eye to logistics and to the bank speeding up the process of consumption even further. All along the line as many human connections as possible are being removed because the aim is to “only connect” and human beings simply aren’t good enough at this new kind of connection because there’s an actual biological limit to the speed and amount of information we can process. In the new connected world we’re slow, slow, slow and wildly inefficient.

Most of us can see in one way or another that the digitization and automation of our world is beginning to stop us from engaging in something central to human-being, namely a deep involvement in the countless continuous processes of slow becoming. The way things are unfolding means there is set aside no time — nor are we being given the resources (financial and social) to set aside such time — to engage in a reflective interpretation of our world, there is only time for the constant  high speed transmission of digital information. This is having profound consequences when it comes to, say, our news. it is becoming rarer and rarer to find any news outlet prepared to give time over to presenting informed, slow, reflective, interpretive commentary on this or that event, time is only given up to the presentation of new information gleaned from this iPhone video footage, from this Twitter feed or that Facebook page on this or that fast-moving event. 24/7 news is all about fast, frictionless information flow. It’s all only connect, only connect.

This is why Bifo’s introduction into the vocabulary of the conversation the idea of conjunction is very helpful and, in a moment I’ll turn to that. But firstly it’s important to get something off the table and that’s a very common, immediate response to this connected world, namely, luddism, the desire to set about destroying the machines or, at the very least, refusing to engage with the new technology in any way. You will recall from your school-days that the Luddites, possibly named after a certain Ned Ludd, a young apprentice who allegedly smashed two stocking frames (i.e. mechanical knitting machines) in 1779, were a group of English textile workers and weavers who, in the early 19th century began to destroy weaving machinery as a form of protest. But, as Varoufakis points out their destruction of machinery “was not a protest against automation it was against social arrangements that deprived them of life prospects in the face of technological innovation.” I agree with Varoufakis in thinking our “societies must embrace the rise of the machines” but only insofar as we simultaneously “ensure that they contribute to shared prosperity” by, for example, creating a Universal Basic Dividend (UBD). Now, as important as the idea of a UBD is today I don’t want to be side-tracked by a conversation about it, rather I simply want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that we give up totally on the new connective technologies. But what I am saying is that we must resist with every fibre of our body the social arrangements that are being brought along with the current technological innovations that are depriving us all of life prospects. So let’s now turn to conjunction. 

Bifo suggests that conjunction is “the meeting and fusion of round or irregular bodies that are continuously weaseling their way about without precision, repetition, or perfection.” Not only are we individual human-beings that bunch of round or irregular bodies but so too are our various different philosophical or theological ideas, musics, poetics, stories etc., etc..

To tease out what Bifo’s going on about here let’s make me the round body and make you the irregular body. Now, for us to enter into conjunction I must send signs to you. The meaning of the signs I am sending you can only be interpreted by you in the pragmatic setting of this service and conversation if you can trace something of my overall intentions, get a sense of what remains unsaid by me, recognise that there exist both conscious and unconscious implications in what I am saying, and so on. It’s a really complicated process that requires the kind of slowness and commitment on both sides envisaged some two millennia ago by the writer of 2 Peter where one day is like a thousand years.

Bifo writes:

“Conjunction . . . can be viewed as a way of becoming other. Singularities change when they conjoin, they become something other than what they were before, in the same way as love changes the lover or the conjunctive composition of a-signifying signs gives rise to the emergence of previously inexistent meaning.”

This is one reason why it’s sometimes such hard work coming to this church, because — although it might sound odd at first — here my primary aim is not for us to connect but for us to conjugate as together we try to become something other than we were and, and this is vitally important to grasp, to express a living hope that, as our different round and irregular bodies and ideas meet through the sharing of signs, something new, exciting and creative will emerge — some new religious, philosophical, political or social insight will begin to shine that can help us all to have better life prospects. But, as I have already indicated, this is a slow, “provisional and precarious” business, one that is always ambiguous and nuanced, one that must always be “based on sympathy, the sharing of pathos.”  It is not a process that can proceed at speed and smoothlessly and frictionlessly.

If you want such smooth and frictionless religious connection then I’m afraid you’ll need to seek out a considerably more orthodox religious setting than this. But, if you do seek such a community out, be warned, because such orthodox communities can only achieve connection (in Bifo’s sense) by first making you into individual units compatible with their own already predetermined codes of creeds and dogmas so that when you meet together on a Friday night, Saturday or Sunday morning you can connect with each other in some smooth, frictionless way, merely passing information to each other at speed without the bother of having to do any tricky, craggy and exceedingly slow interpretation.

What is true in the religious setting needs also to be seen as true in relation to our involvement with technology. We need to ensure that its understandable need for high-speed connection doesn’t simultaneously destroy our human ability slowly to enjoy and savour the business of conjugation. We need to maintain as central the places where our culture’s slow conversation can take place in communities such as this one, in parks, on promenades, in cafés, pubs, clubs and we need to make available to all people the resources (financial and social) to be able to avail themselves of the opportunities presented by such places and so have a real chance to add to everyone’s life prospects. 

I’d like to conclude by returning to Forster’s words. I hope you can see that to “only connect” in the sense understood by Bifo is not to cease to be an isolated beast or monk but actually to become them; it is to succumb to an isolating sickness unto death where there is no time to stand and stare, no time to reflect or to interpret, no time to learn to conjugate the extraordinary, wondrous irregular verb that is your life, indeed all lives, lived with others.

Also notice that connection (in Bifo’s sense) is beginning to ensure that we live in fragments, connected, yes, but forever apart, just as was a cog in the machine or is today a silicone chip in an endless high-speed information chain.  

The only way creatively and healthily to resist this, in my opinion anyway, is to:

Only conjugate! That is the whole of my sermon. Only conjugate the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only conjugate, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

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