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Superconversations Day 50: Martin E. Rosenberg responds to Franco "Bifo" Berardi, "The Message of Francis"


Left: Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Innocent X (1650).
Right: Francis Bacon, Study After Velazquez’s Portrait Of Pope Innocent X (1953).

“…I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.”
–William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

“We have now in front of us two interdependent questions that are central to this lecture:
How can one best understand ethical know-how?
How does it develop and flourish in human beings?”
– Francisco Varela, Ethical Know-How

In his piece, Franco Berardi uses the election of Pope Francis and his public pronouncements on “ethnic violence, political oppression and economic exploitation,” to which we might add the Pope’s recent condemnation of reckless ecological exploitation, to reflect on faith, friendship and compassion, comparing his words and symbolic deeds with The Buddha, as Berardi contemplates the end to faith and the birth of something akin to the love of one’s neighbor as an answer to the ills of our contemporary world. Using Nanni Moretti’s recent film “Habemus Papam” as a cultural moment to reflect on these larger forces at work, Berardi seeks to illuminate what he considers a possible dawn (or sunset) of a human civilization that has moved beyond faith, and towards something else.

Now I am not a Catholic, or a Christian, and my own Jewish identity has become heterodox through long practice of Eastern meditation and study of Vedic and Buddhist philosophy, and equally long practice as a scholar trained in a number of schools of theory, including what was once coined “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” along with political activism since the 1960’s. So what follows should be registered as coming from an outsider who does not assume the spiritual authority of the Pope, or of the institutions that he represents.

For even the most generous assessments of Pope Francis’s recent contributions to discourses addressing the range of long-term and imminent threats to human civilization require us to subsume even the gravity of a April 11, 2015 Misericordiae Vultus which began “a Holy Year of Mercy” into the category of words and not deeds.

The opening quotation from William Faulkner seeks to highlight this gap between words and deeds, in order to address the possibilities for human transformation, and I reference it in light of this recent, self-conscious wielding of papal authority to address these grave threats to human civilization directly. We have seen this gap all too easily in the recent behavior of the Catholic Church and all the other religions, my own included. For I remember the reaching out of Pope John Paul to the Jewish community in the mid-1980’s, including a candid apology, as the representative of the Church, for past behavior in fostering anti-Semitism, only to also to note the just previous revelations (through the trial of Klaus Barbie and the writings of Christopher Simpson among others) of the role of the Catholic Church not only in fostering fascism in Europe, but in using its institutions to smuggle ethnic Waffen SS soldiers involved in the slaughter of Jews from Eastern Europe through its institutions to South, Central and North America at the end of World War II. Or, more recently, we can recall the staunch public moral stances and political organizing on issues such as abortion (and sometimes capital punishment), while playing a global shell game with pedophile priests, so that a Monseigneur in Philadelphia and a Bishop in St. Louis would eventually come under criminal indictment when the public outrage made it impossible to ignore. Berardi confronts this gap between words and deeds in his account of the unprecedented resignation of Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger), previously Head of the Office of the Defender of the Faith who was responsible for the Church response to the child sex abuse scandal, calling this Pope’s resignation an “acknowledgement of the political impotence of ethical reason.”

Berardi contrasts this resignation with the remarkable series of pronouncements by the newly elected Pope (the Argentinian/Italian Michel Piccoli), and considers remarkable Pope Francis’s insistence “upon the superiority of compassion over truth.” Berardi goes on to offer to substitute “compassion” for “empathy,” and with a nod toward his own political commitments, “solidarity,” a very different reading of this word from the previous Pope John Paul. He does so to unveil a more subtle reading of Pope Francis’s intention: that he seeks to realign the values of the Church away from transcendent certainty toward contingent tolerance, towards “mercy, compassion and friendship,” in the face of a “hopeless perception of the future.” Berardi then goes on to pronounce that “faith is over.”

Berardi believes that the Pope himself now believes that “we must abandon hope: the world machine is ungovernable, and human will is impotent. Only friendship is left.” Berardi finds that, in the recognition that “despair is the only appropriate intellectual stance in this time,” he wants to place on the table of discourse the conceit that “Friendship is the force that transforms despair into joy,” because while “despair is the mood of the intellectual mind,” he wants to argue that “joy is the mood of the embodied mind.” So what I would like to do now is to reconcile this embrace of “Joy” with the question “so what do we do now?”

In Berardi’s invocation of The Buddha early on, and in his closing remarks concerning the joy of the embodied mind, he is engaging in a very different kind of discourse from that of The Catholic Church, and one wonders if he seeks to argue that, under the leadership of Pope Francis, this Church seems to subsume the discourse of the various branches of Buddhism into its bosom, so to speak. For there are strong connections between Buddhism and contemporary cognitive science, and the term “embodied mind” has only been coined since Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch published their manifesto establishing embodied cognition as a new paradigm in cognitive science, called The Embodied Mind, in 1991. A book as much about comparing this new paradigm with Mahayana Buddhist epistemology, as it was about the features of the paradigm itself, it appeared, astonishingly, not from the famous Shambala press, but from MIT, and is still considered very seriously, now 16 years after Francisco Varela’s death in 1999.

In it, Varela, Thompson and Rosch delineate top-down controlling and bottom-up emergent cognitive processes coexisting in embodied cognition, and perhaps it is to this distinction that Berardi has turned in his comparing the legacy of Pope Benedict (a former Hitler Youth anti-aircraft gunner), and that of Pope Francis. Perhaps this explains his singling out Pope Francis’s pronouncements concerning a shift in the metaphor of the Church as a “military field hospital” to heal the physically and morally sick: “Healing wounds is our mission….and we must start from below.”

This embrace of compassion (or alternatively, empathy and solidarity) “from below” makes Berardi seem to superimpose a narrative derived from Buddhism and contemporary cognitive science onto an interesting series of changes in the discourse of the Catholic Church, no doubt due to the leadership of the current Pope. It is interesting to see this from a rhetorical perspective: a hybrid science/philosophy narrative superimposed on The West’s Grand Narrative in recognition of the profound failure of that narrative.

But the question remains: what are we to do in the face of that failure, and in the face of the grave threats facing human civilization? The reason for my citing Francisco Varela’s final book, Ethical Know-How (1999), is to confront the cynicism, fear, and hopelessness that undergirds this appeal to friendship “from below” as we head to the edge of the cliff. For Francisco Varela, hopelessness was not an option, and that empathy and solidarity come not out of some conceptual framework to make us feel better, which makes it just another form of faith. Varela argued that empathy arose of embodied experience, that it was a form of know-how, and capable of cultivation. Interestingly, it was Pope John Paul who often cited Emmanuel Levinas as an important influence, and it was Levinas who argued that the great un-thought of Western philosophy was how was it possible for one person to see through the eyes of an Other.

My recent scholarship on embodied and distributed cognition in jazz addresses this very point: how is it possible for human beings to be both embodied and distributed at the same time; how is it that jazz musicians report being inside the minds of an ensemble as a collectivity? How is it that they report on the experience of an emergent whole larger than that sum of the individuals involved? More to the point, to generalize the implications of my thought experiment: in light of the reference to the term “solidarity,” how can one get individuals to spontaneously behave in accord with the best interests of all, without coercion? Certainly Varela, and if one reads the remarkable recent work of his colleague Evan Thompson, as well as the research on the beneficial effects of meditation in universities, there are those, in the face of hopelessness, who do not necessarily want to walk off the edge of the cliff just yet, despite the intellectual charm of those who find ways to make the accelerating march of us lemmings more efficient. One fact that a lot of Western intellectuals find hard to swallow is that what these researchers seek to demonstrate is that this “joy” is not doctrine but emerges out of the bodily basis or human experience: it is felt, not believed. This is what Varela means by “ethical know-how,” and there are many ways that it can be cultivated.

Obviously, our problems are intractable, and Berardi’s attempts to demonstrate the change in the Catholic Church Grand Narrative might not convince many, but I wish here simply to demonstrate my empathy for his attempt, and to indicate, that the grounds for Berardi’s arguments exist in realms of serious philosophical and empirical research, as well as personal practice. Namaste, baby!

Originally trained at the Berklee College of Music before receiving his PhD from University of Michigan, Martin E. Rosenberg is a Member of The New Centre for Research & Practice whose theoretical research is focused on Science, Technology and Culture. He has lectured at University of Warwick, Harvard University, and the Art Institute of Chicago, amongst many other places.


As a life long Catholic, I am relieved to have Pope Francis. I was not a fan of Benedict for many reasons. My brother is one of the top environmentalists for wetlands in the USA and Mexico. He has read the entire 200 page document on the environment by Pope Francis and says it is remarkable. I have taught at Barnard for twenty years and now teach at Yale. I find it amusing that most commentators immediately declare themselves secular atheists or Buddhists, as though being either a religions Jew or Christian makes one a moron. Since the Frankfurt School began to dominate most departments, things like “divine inspiration” and any mention of a spiritual dimension of life have become suspect. At Yale I lecture on creation myths, and all kinds of ancient mysteries where agricultural renewal was certainly linked to religious practice… Osiris and Eleusis being prime examples. While Adorno embraced environmentalism late in his life, many religions going back probably to the Neolithic have been tied to nature cults.

Bifo’s language exudes hope and faith, if not in God and truth, in his words used, friendship and compassion, that he correctly associates as Chrit’s true behavior on Earth, versus the more aggressive qualities ascribed to Him for the purpose of violence and intolerance. An avowed atheist with no beliefs in the afterlife or God here on Earth, his statements are full of grace, yet seem contradicted with a conclusion that humanity’s fate is witnout hope and its abject failure of 21st century socio-political economics will be its continuous ruin. He is quite correct in his perspective on Pope Francis, and his teasing bit of intrigue about the death of Pope John Paul I.

The current Pontiff leads a denomination that I was raised in with fond memories, and left because of a lack of accountability at all levels and refusals to overturn a structure that perpetuate evil like those of two men who I believed in as great leaders. One was the repeat pedophile, Fr William J O’Brien who I knew personally as my junior high priest. The other Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago who was a man who presented grace and peace, yet was posthumously exposed as knowing of and approving the continued reassignments and promotions of O’Brien. (sources are the thousands of pages released to the public by the late Cardinal George in an agreement regarding the lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Chicago, which I read and cited O’Brien one of the 33 worst offenders). I am not nalive to believe in immediate and radical change. I made a personal choice, and respect the dignity and authenticity of eveybodys choices and individual paths of faith.

Now, Bifo’s personal and heartfelt perception of Pope Francis are similar to my own. He’s a man who I admire, and is a joyous global leader of great power (wow), and a personal practitioner of humility, compassion and friendship. His words during a ninety minute impromptu discussion with reporters on gis plane late hislate last year actually opened the locked gates in Illinois thousands pf miles wawy awayofduring the final days passaheated debate of marriage equality legalization. Asked his position on such an issue, he simply said, “Who am I to judge.” That short response gave politicians in his fold who were adamantly against the bill, a politically safe place under his robes and many voted for its passage with Papal cover come reelection. God works in wondoriysand wacky wondrous ways. Here is the contradiction of a man running a denomination that I will not return, for valid and good reason. Yet, I cannot know his mind. I only saw his heart and what it enabled. It was friendship for others and compassion for them, and that is what Bifo, Francis and i all Ibelieve, and that’s all I can go on with the others i mert along the way, even the three of us on the internet.

Me? I am an avowed Christian who holds the beliefs as sacred and holy which Bifo chooses to not. That’s okay. He would be a great friend and a great dinner guest to discuss these and other topics of his writing that theyI’ve found intriguing and truthful over thd last fiur years. I think we both hold to the truth that salvation of either my soul or the entirety of humanity begins when the other is my friend - and by other I mean every “other” - and compassion is the driving force of my intentions and behaviors, which has to be love. Franco and I come at this from binary sets of beliefs (and maybe include Pope Francid), and the three of us only find resolution in a shared friendship and love of neighbor.

Bifo, if you’re reading this, I’d like to invite you to dinner at my home - pasta with gravy and all the traditional Italian courses along the way. That invitation goes out to Pope Francis, too, who is welcome to an Alberico dinner with Bifo or anytime you are in Chicago. How is that for an aswer to the “who are the two people you would invite to dinner” game?!? if you asked me this morning this would never be an answer. Wonderful.

My friends, here is to peace from friendship and compassion,