An article first published in 1986 in the journal Encyclopédie des Nuisances addressing the decline of literacy, critical thought and books in the era of mass communications and the spectacle and the broader implications of this trend for liberation.
Primer - Encyclopédie des Nuisances
(EdN no. 6, pages 131-136)
A primer is “a small book for teaching children how to read”. Furthermore, a literate person is, according to the definition published by UNESCO in 1962, one who “has acquired the essential knowledge and skills which enable him to engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning in his group and community, and whose attainment in reading, writing and arithmetic make it possible for him to continue to use these skills towards his own and the community’s development”.
When we reflect today, both in modern societies as well as those that are on the path to modernity, on what it means to be capable of “effective functioning in [one’s] group and community”, not to speak of “[one’s] own” or “the community’s development”, it immediately becomes clear just what is meant by “essential knowledge and skills”. The brief period of time that has elapsed since this definition was elaborated, during which the standards for these measurements have changed, throughout the world and at the various levels of the social hierarchy, cannot conceal the fact that everywhere the only thing that this literacy requires is the ability to read the user’s instructions in the manual of servitude, of writing the answers to the questionnaires of the state, and of calculating precisely the share of survival allotted to each person. And so that they do not come talking to us about the spiritual riches that we shall egotistically enjoy, and to which we shall easily have access, we need only mention the case of the peasants of the Haute Loire or those of Upper Volta. In fact, the majority of humanity must be maintained in a vaguely literate state of ignorance, not so that they may like esthetes appreciate the treasures of culture, but so they can endure the most sophisticated obscurantism of spectacular culture. Who could possibly think that the culture of an American student constitutes anything like a “privilege”?
The UNESCO definition thus has the merit of revealing, thanks to its involuntarily restrictive character, the step taken from the old illiteracy, which was really incompatible with the functioning of a modern economy, to the illiteracy of extended ignorance. The new illiteracy never ceases to display, of course, particular traits that seem to link it to the old illiteracy: inability to write, extreme impoverishment of vocabulary and syntax. In this case, however, language has also been equally affected, since the new illiteracy palpably responds to a decomposition of language, by way of which the famous gap between spoken French and written French has been abolished, a gap concerning which many foolish things have been said, and on the basis of which, in order to more or less authentically abolish it, some famous writers (Céline, Queneau, et al.) have easily introduced a dubious stylistic originality. The richness of spoken French, from the diverse argots to the simple language of the people, has degenerated in the appalling melting pot [in English in the original—translator’s note] of the jargon of journalism, technocrats, advertising, etc. In this decomposition one can see, as in the disappearance of popular songs, the effects of the loss of all collective autonomy in relation to the commodity and the state. The pseudo-argotic terms that enjoy an ever-diminishing period when they are fashionable, far from expressing the agreement of a community to break with the social norm, proclaim a servile attachment to false complicity in conformity and in a familiarity with the commodity. And their rapid dissemination is not a result of their promulgation by an institute or a government ministry, but due to the fact that they respond to a furious need for identification (with spectacular fashions, with imposed roles, with what exists) that is wreaking havoc. Faced with the stereotypes of conformism and the language of slogans, the use of the resources of the common language of the past takes on the cast of an argot (insofar as it represents an act of rejection), just as the affirmation of the general interests of humanity seems like a personal obsession.
According to recent assessments, the vocabulary and grammar skills of a large majority of Americans do not advance after the age of twelve or thirteen years (and what years! What did they do during those years!) This is why many of them have a great deal of difficulty understanding a subordinate clause. In France, there are those whose efforts are devoted to trying to make us take a step backwards that would enable us to read Proust instead of bothering with the basics: “The specific difficulties of French grammar and writing are currently holding back the development of machines and programs capable of using and addressing the written and spoken French language. This situation causes France to seriously run the risk of cultural marginalization and technological and industrial regression.” (Sud-Ouest, October 21, 1985). Thus, linguists and computer programmers are going to feed our antique French through their grinders and we should have no doubt that they shall emerge from them as poetically transfigured as the verse, “The flesh is sad, alas, and I have read all the books”, which was restored by a translation machine to read, “The food is spoiled, unfortunately, and my library is empty”.
Other linguists, whose buffoonery is less disturbing because they work for decrepit social-Mitterandism, have been given the responsibility by the “Left Priority” club “for inventing 86 new words that will make history”: the result is “serpub” for “public services”, “map” for “modernization of the apparatus of production”, and even “rasmod” for “reorganization and modernization” (Le Canard enchaîné, November 6, 1985). The retreats prepared by this Fabius-style agit-prop, being the hasty attempts to create a Newspeak that they are, are poorly-inspired by an electoral campaign based, contrary to all the rules of the game, on the certain victory of the opponent (“Help, the Right is coming back!”). But they are not even very notable or scandalous, since the entire language is no longer anything but a huge redundancy indefinitely repeating the syllogisms of conformity; which undeniably justifies the mobilization of simplifying formulas abbreviating the proclamation of the nullity of thought, so that even the slightest hint of language will be a useless complication. Thus, when a bureaucrat of what is still called a trade union (in this case, the CFDT) declares, with regard to a new method of labor integration—the “quality circles”: “After all, why shouldn’t what is good for business be good for the workers?” (Libération, December 14-15, 1985), he lets us understand that such open support for the interests of what was previously called the employer will be successful if it is expressed in terms of “map” and “rasmod”. We, recalling 1968 (“The trade unions are whorehouses”), shall more adequately summarize this conclusion of the old reformism by means of the formula, “close the houses of ill-repute”.
The particular fate of reading is inscribed within the general loss of judgment and therefore also of language and of vocabulary. Even if the spectator knows how to read in accordance with UNESCO’s definition, because he is saturated with images, noise and lies, the barrier that separates him from important writings, Swift’s humor, for instance, is just as real as the strictly defined inability to read a text. Furthermore, there is an irrefutable practical criterion that can be applied to this theme. If only a few individuals know how to read Swift (or Marx, or Debord), so what! But the problem is not exactly that people do not know how to read subversive texts. Despite the fact that the Bible appears to be the all-time bestseller, the book has been the principal material instrument for the establishment of a secular culture. At first, preserved in monasteries, and then multiplied in university libraries, the book, when it spread throughout the world thanks to printing (and the introduction of paper in Europe), made the memory of what had been done, thought and felt by previous generations accessible to everyone: modern historical consciousness which, based on the framework of the city and the direct dialogue that it allows, placed the general interests of humanity on the horizon, is in this respect the offspring of the book. Was it Lichtenberg who pointed out that the inventions of the printing press and gunpowder took place at about the same time? The book in any case was a long-range weapon in the historical struggles of the modern epoch and, considering its long history, one can say that it has served above all the forces of emancipation.
Indeed, the book, which can be manipulated and reproduced at will, gave writing a larger audience, a veritable collective existence, and at the same time generalized the freedom of individual reflection, the ability to judge based on evidence, which was previously restricted to a tiny minority. And this material change transformed intellectual activity at the same time. It was soon said that thought put into writing and thus made fully public, partook of the nature of time: unlike the language of magical-religious revelation, it has to be admitted that its truth is oriented towards the future, towards a possible verification; it understood itself in the continuity of a history of consciousness, as memory and as project. And this can be demonstrated in any writing of value, regardless of the “genre” in which it is placed by scholarly classification. On the other hand, what is characteristic of the literature that turns people into idiots, regardless of any esthetic criteria, is precisely the fact that, ingested for the purpose of taking one’s mind off a stretch of time, it remains a dead letter, without any project, without any poetry, because it has no time ahead of it. Because it is only a matter of greater or lesser skill in the use of a stereotyped convention, and this applies not only to romance novels of the Harlequin variety but also to those refinements of that genre such as Pérec.1
On the other hand, in the confrontation between memory and imagination that makes reading a more intense passage of time compared to the prevailing poverty of feelings and ideas, there is a merit that allegedly can compensate, but in the final accounting in a vulgar and despicable way like all compensation. The book, like “a special way of living” (Flaubert), can also be, for both the writer as well as the reader, a way of not living, of resignation, such as is abundantly demonstrated by authors and intellectuals; indeed, they demonstrate this trait all the more, insofar as today the specialists of the written word must compete with great difficulty with the spectacular substitutes for life. The book, however, only poses the question of the historical scope and the human use of a text as a privileged technique of memory and of the dissemination of thought, such as used to exist in the old pre-spectacular culture: the answer belongs, in every epoch, to those who know how to refresh this memory by making the truth live in the present (such as, for example, the Surrealists or the Situationists). In short, the book is only a means, but it was the means of a society in which culture represented its partially conscious historical dimension: that is still too much, of course, for the dominant dream of a final glaciation managed by the automatic memories of machines and their programs. With regard to this point, with the final solution of the problem of language, the life of words will yield to the circulation of signs.
It is not possible to review the subjective aspect of the question—language resonating with reading, time passing with the rhythm of the daydream or meditation, all that is so trivial and unprofitable for the dominant organization of brutalization—without being overwhelmed by a vindicating nostalgia for the past, a survival of a buried world. In the schizophrenic time occupied by programmed leisure, a succession of dispersed instants with neither result nor process, one loses the subjective ability to read, to inhabit objectivized time; one loses the memory deposited in a book, and the ability to reconcile the latter with one’s own time. Likewise, a constructed space is adapted to the time of those who use it; a different time, a different life, they can always readapt to it. Except when it is a matter of a product of modern architecture, that is, of the very impossibility of adapting to it, since it creates the need to watch television, to consume prefabricated time. Thus, a product of modern publishing, which is not made to be read, is fully justified by its buyer’s inability to read. And conversely, the disappearance, qualitative and quantitative, of the time set aside for reading in the everyday life of the consumer, reinforces the tendency towards the liquidation of written memory.
Literacy, as a factor of integration into the world market, acknowledged by every underdeveloped bureaucracy as a fundamental task of the local economy, cannot be considered, in view of its destruction of the old forms of memory and culture, with the tranquil satisfaction exhibited by Marx when he spoke of the commodity as the heavy artillery that will knock down all the Great Walls of China. Precisely with relation to China, the adoption of the Roman alphabet will allow, better than any kind of censorship, for the ruling power to assume control over the fate of all the writings of the past, to rewrite them or to reserve them for specialists and official experts. This extreme case, however, is not limited to such exotic locations. In our countries, the continuity of the system of writing cannot be shattered in such an abrupt way, yet the ability to read the works of the past is just as seriously endangered as it is in China. The habituation to the passive reception of spectacular signs, the obscuring of the meaning of words by the propaganda of the mass media, the artificially constructed amnesia that consists in not going beyond the modernity that we can only with difficulty call the educational system, everything combines to make the writings of the past fall into the domain of pseudo-erudition, the corporatist code of bureaucratized culture. The history of consciousness (in its diverse theoretical, poetic, etc., forms) will become inaccessible and incomprehensible as such, and all of its possible future, deposited in books; the consciousness of history will be blocked much more easily. Elsewhere we shall speak of the “hieroglyphs emitted by these commodities stripped of nourishment, as the stigmata of the extinction of their use value” (see our article, "Abasourdir" [“Stupefy”]), such as we now recognize in the obesity of the “critical apparatus” that smothers important texts from the past, the sign of the extinction of their common use. For example, a text as brief and as decisive as the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude by La Boétie, can become so overwhelmed with thought-debris of the Lefort type that it is hard to locate the text itself, as was also the case with the volume published by Payot that was inflated with university steroids.
We shall undoubtedly return to the theme of modern publishing, considered as the production of “non-books” (which is what the professionals themselves call them), in which the decomposition of logorrhea only anticipates that of the paper upon which it is printed, destined for the pulp mill within thirty years. Meanwhile, it is evident that the superabundance of books is no proof at all in favor of reading, any more than the abundance of images testifies to the advance of the visual sense. And above all, because real culture does not reside in the university nightmare of the impossible exhaustive bibliography, but in a qualitative use that brings to life the texts that testified to a higher humanity, which has nothing to do with the bored admiration of a guided tour, conducted by self-proclaimed experts.
A good indication of the capacities of an era in this regard is provided by its manner of translating: indeed, we know that every translation is at least faithful to the spirit of its time. The translations of our time give one a sense of its misery and sterility from the moment that one attempts to restore all the things that it is incapable of encompassing. When the professors undertake to translate Kafka, for example, we cannot determine whether they know German any better than Vialatte,2 but we can be sure that they are less familiar with French. And we may mention the terribly intuited realities of the machine in The Penal Colony, since in our time the chains of tortured humanity are made of computer printouts. As for these professors, there will be those who would say that they have to make a living, too. We do not think so. And if we do not soon put an end to their excesses, you may be sure that other victims will bear the burden of their pedantry: we must fear for Poe, since it is well known that Baudelaire was no assistant professor of English. The day will come when they will give us a detailed list of their inconsistencies.
The fact that the fate of the reader is of such concern to the authors of an Encyclopedia should not surprise anybody; although we would consider the possibility of a complete loss of the ability to read with the greatest indifference if it were only to affect our work and not so many others of such proven value. Nor, in such a case, would we feel obliged to add new pages to those that already exist, which are for anyone sufficient confirmation of the reasons to strike a blow for liberty. We disapprove of those words of Mallarmé where he says that, “everything in the world exists in order to become a book”. But there are some books that allow one to get a glimpse, as is also true of a lesser number of encounters, of a more accomplished world than the present pestilential decomposition.
Encyclopédie des Nuisances
Translated from the Spanish translation:
Encyclopédie des Nuisances, “Abecedario”, in La Sinrazón en las Ciencias, los Oficios y las Artes: Artículos selectos de la Encyclopédie des Nuisances, tr. Miguel Amorós, Muturreko Burutazioak, Bilbao, Second Edition, 2007, pp. 52-60.
Originally published as “Abécédaire” in L'Encyclopédie des Nuisances no. 6, Paris, February 1986, pp. 131-136.