In memory of David Bowie, who died today aged 69 in New York, we share an extract from Franco 'Bifo' Berardi's Heroes.
"Only through irony and through a conscious understanding of the simulation at the heart of the heroic game, that the simulated hero of subculture still has a chance to save itself."
In the book The Wretched of the Screen, Hito Steyerl recalls David Bowie’s 1977 release of the single ‘Heroes’.
‘He sings of a new brand of hero, just in time for the neoliberal revolution and for the digital transformation of the world. The hero is dead – long live the hero! Yet Bowie’s hero is no longer a subject, but an object: a thing, an image, a splendid fetish – a commodity soaked with desire, resurrected from beyond the squalor of its own demise. Just look at a 1977 video of the song and you’ll understand why: the clip shows Bowie singing to himself from three simultaneous angles, with layering techniques tripling his image; not only has Bowie’s hero been cloned, he has above all become an image that can be reproduced, multiplied, and copied, a riff that travels effortlessly through commercials for almost anything, a fetish that packages Bowie’s glamorous and unfazed post-gender look as product. Bowie’s hero is no longer a larger-than-life human being carrying out exemplary and sensational exploits, and he is not even an icon, but a shiny product endowed with post-human beauty: an image and nothing but an image. This hero’s immortality no longer originates in the strength to survive all possible ordeals, but from its ability to be xeroxed, recycled, and reincarnated. Destruction will alter its form and appearance, yet its substance will be untouched. The immortality of the thing is its finitude, not its eternity. In 1977, the punk band The Stranglers delivers a crystal-clear analysis of the situation by stating the obvious: heroism is over. Trotsky, Lenin, and Shakespeare are dead. In 1977, as leftists flock to the funerals of RAF members Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan Carl Raspe, The Stranglers’ album cover delivers its own giant wreath of red carnations and declares: NO MORE HEROES. Anymore.
In the classical tradition, the hero belonged to the sphere of the epic imagination, separate from tragedy and lyrics. The hero was someone who subjugated Nature and dominated the events of history with the strength of will and of courage. He founded the city and warded off the demonic forces of chaos. This vision can still be found in the time of the Renaissance, and Machiavelli’s prince can be considered the hero of modern political narration: the man who establishes the nation state, builds the infrastructures of industry and gives shape to a common identity.
This epic form of heroism disappeared towards the end of modernity, when the complexity and speed of human events overwhelmed the force of the will. When chaos prevailed, epic heroism was replaced by gigantic machines of simulation. The space of the epic discourse was occupied by semiocorporations, apparatuses for the emanation of widely shared illusions. These games of simulation often took the shape of identities, as with popular subcultures like rock, punk, cyberculture and so on. Here lies the origin of the late-modern form of tragedy: at the threshold where illusion is mistaken for reality, and identities are perceived as authentic forms of belonging. It is often accompanied by a desperate lack of irony, as humans respond to today’s state of permanent deterritorialization by enacting their craving for belonging through a chain of acts of murder, suicide, fanaticism, aggression, war.
I believe that it is only through irony and through a conscious understanding of the simulation at the heart of the heroic game, that the simulated hero of subculture still has a chance to save itself.
In the year 1977 human history came to a turning point. Heroes died, or, better said, they disappeared. They were not killed by the foes of heroism, rather they transferred to another dimension: they dissolved, they turned into ghosts. So the human race, misled by mock heroes made of deceptive electromagnetic substance, lost faith in the reality of life and its pleasures, and started believing only in the infinite proliferation of images. 1977 was the year when heroes faded and transmigrated from the world of physical life and historical passion to the world of visual simulation and nervous stimulation. That year was a watershed: from the age of human evolution the world shifted to the age of de-evolution, or de-civilization.
What had been produced by labour and social solidarity in the centuries of modernity started to fall under finance’s predatory process of de-realization. The conflictive alliance between industrious bourgeois and industrial workers – which had left the public education system, health care, transportation, and welfare as the material legacy of the modern age – was sacrificed to the religious dogma of the Market-God.
In the second decade of the twenty-first century the post-bourgeois dilapidation took the form of a financial black hole. This new system started to swallow and destroy the product of two hundred years of industrious ness and of collective intelligence, and transformed the concrete reality of social civilization into abstraction: figures, algorithms, mathematical ferocity and accumulation of nothing in the form of money. The seductive force of simulation transformed physical forms into vanishing images, submitted visual art to spam spreading, and subjected language to the fake regime of advertising. At the end of this process, real life disappeared into the black hole of financial accumulation.
The question now is to see what’s left of the human subjectivity and sensibility and of our ability to imagine, to create and to invent. Are humans still able to emerge from this black hole; to invest their energy in a new form of solidarity and mutual help? The sensibility of a generation of children who have learned more words from machines than from their parents appears to be unable to develop solidarity, empathy and autonomy. History has been replaced by the endless flowing recombination of fragmentary images. Random recombination of frantic precarious activity has taken the place of political aware ness and strategy. I really don’t know if there is hope beyond the black hole; if there lies a future beyond the immediate future.
Where there is danger, however, salvation also grows – said Hölderlin, the poet most loved by Heidegger, the philosopher who foresaw the future destruction of the future. Now, the task at hand is to map the wasteland where social imagination has been frozen and submitted to the recombinant corporate imaginary. Only from this cartography can we move forward to discover a new form of activity which, by replacing Art, politics and therapy with a process of reactivation of sensibility, might help humankind to recognize itself again.
- read more on the Verso blog:
(No) Future, (No More) Heroes: Benjamin Noys on Berardi's Heroes
The Sex Pistols' 'God save the Queen', with its closing refrain 'No Future', The Stranglers' 'No More Heroes', and David Bowie's 'Heroes', are all released in 1977. On the one hand, this is the end of the future and the end of heroes, the apocalyptic moment when the 'two sevens clash'; on the other, this is the beginning of another future and other heroes, seen in the fragile optimism of Bowie's 'we could be heroes / just for one day' or, more disturbingly, in the signs of the emergent neo-liberal counter-revolution. The apocalypse, however, would be disappointing.