ESR 11 Blog June 2021: Fabiola Fiocco

We have something.[1]

At the very beginning of the programme, one of the first events I took part in, offered by the University of Edinburgh, was a webinar aimed at postgraduates and researchers to help them going through the emotional roller coaster that characterise the research process. One part of the description stuck with me, in all its plainness and irony: “The academic community prides itself on its critical ability. But constant criticism has a cost”. The text referred to the emotional costs of always questioning oneself, of always being evaluated, of seeing one’s work dissected or rejected, and I would add of not being able to separate one’s identity from one’s work. In the short course, everything was targeted to the individual and the need to cultivate one’s self-esteem and resilience, circumscribing the subject as dependent on merely personal issues.

Within cognitive capitalism every social, communicative, and affective aspect of the individual is subsumed within the process of value production, a condition well summarised by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi in the expression ‘the soul at work’ for the soul is understood as the ensemble of the energies, abilities, and affects that transform “biological matter into an animated body”[2]. Also, the demand for ever greater flexibility and mobility, as well as a condition of extensive precarity, contribute to the definition of a working paradigm increasingly characterised by states of anxiety, panic, and depression.[3] It is thus important to problematise the affective costs of cognitive labour, and more generally of neoliberal production, and highlight the political and social character of certain psychophysical conditions in contradiction of a medicalisation process that often focuses on the individual as the sole source of the problem and solution. Also, the field of affects represents a major battleground to the extent that happiness and love become buzzwords that justify the incessant self-exploitation and investment of emotional and intellectual resources, contributing to the reiteration of a toxic and uncritical rhetoric of success: do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life – they say. In his analysis, Bifo examines how the field of desire, understood in Deleuzian terms, has been progressively colonised by a series of techno-political and economic forces, demolishing ‘the fragile collective architecture of happiness’ that had characterised the social and political movements of the late twentieth century and generating a mass of exhausted and sad individuals.[4]

As I wrote in my first blog post, the reflection on immaterial labour, and specifically on its affective and relational components, is crucial to my research project and it is something I already had the opportunity to address, albeit not exhaustively, in some initial writings. Moving forward I would like to better define my analytical standpoint and develop a more cohesive discourse in relation to emancipatory politics, socially engaged art practices, and the independent art sector. Yet, in these past weeks, I have mostly thought about the joy of research, the energy embedded in dialogue and exchange. In the second blog post I reflected on how theory helped me overcome some rational and emotional impasse, providing me with valuable and constructive interpretations – a relationship characterised by many ups and downs, and which has found a particularly fruitful and encouraging ground in collective work.

On June 3rd 2021, within the context of the FEINART Lecture Series, Maria Hlavajova, founder and artistic director of BAK – basis voor actuele kunst, read the manifesto To all those mad about studying, a text written collaboratively by Raoni Saleh and Joy Mariama Smith in 2018, reflecting on the process of studying, researching, and overall knowledge production and dissemination. I felt it was particularly timely, especially its emphasis on the perils inherent in isolation and alienation as well as the value of collectivity and joy. Also, I found this last point particularly significant as the authors overturn the idea of study as elitist and grim and hint to its political potential:

Joy and pleasure is the mark of learning. The joy of intellectual work must be revealed. Don’t alienate as a means of learning. Intellectual work requires sociality and movement. Joy and pleasure reaches deep and lets the learning sink wide within. Think about how joyful learning feels for you. We have something.[5]

Saleh and Smith’s manifesto also reminded me of another text, Theory as Liberatory Practice by bell hooks, in which the author, drawing from her personal experience, reflects on theory and its political relevance within disadvantaged contexts.[6] For hooks, theory represents a place for healing and self-recovery, in which to imagine different futures and elaborate one’s traumas and struggles. However, this is possible only if one decides to make it so, theorising outside hegemonic norms and parameters and not complying with them within the predominant system. Furthermore, the perceived distance between feminist theory and practice, perpetrated within the academia, for hooks only serves to weaken the power and reach of their combination, thus demanding from feminist activists not to shy away from theory but to engage with it, to reclaim it, and to make it a tool of their own struggle.[7]

I am aware that this post may inadvertently result in a romanticisation of theory and academic work, and this attitude has frequently led to overestimating the efficacy of many emancipatory experiences and movements. Nevertheless, I wanted to share these thoughts as research, especially when dealing with social and political issues can sometimes be frustrating or distressful. So, I don’t want to argue for the forced and uncritical enthusiastic attitude required by capitalism, but briefly reflect on the many emotions, often conflicting and even more often coexisting, that can occur during the process. Also, last week I had the opportunity to visit a very stimulating exhibition developed by understate project ltd. in the context of Glasgow International 2021. Titled too much (too little, too late), the show explored the idea of excess as a form of resistance, making one’s presence hyper-visible in everyday life. This made me think again about this idea of joy inherent in the encounter and exchange, and made me wonder: What form could an excess of emotions have in an often silent and solitary process like that of research?


Take care and speak soon.

[1] The title refers to R. Saleh and J. M. Smith, To all those mad about studying, 23rd November 2018,

[2] F. ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Soul At Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 115

[3] Given the format and scope of the blog post, I here outlined a quite simplified description of the phenomenon of pathologisation of work within neoliberalism. To know more, I suggest you to read the work of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Patricia Ticineto Clough, Mark Fischer, and Christian Marazzi.

[4] F. ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Soul At Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009,. 118-124

[5] R. Saleh and J. M. Smith, To all those mad about studying, 23rd November 2018,

[6] b. hooks, ‘Theory as Liberatory Practice’, Yale J.L. & Feminism, vol. 4, n. 1, 1991, pp. 1-12

[7] b. hooks, ‘Theory as Liberatory Practice’, Yale J.L. & Feminism, vol. 4, n. 1, 1991, pp. 5-8

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