Stupefaction – Encyclopédie des Nuisances

Bouvard and Pécuchet

A 1985 article denouncing the fake “communication” disseminated by the mass media of our time that is really nothing but a unilateral flood of “information” or “socially harmful noise” in which nothing is called by its real name, as a force of stupefaction and for the creation of well-informed ignorance, where, amidst the generalized falsification of reality, “a view of the whole can never be formed”, and even self-evident truths “dissolve in the surrounding cacophony” in which they recede into the distance of unverifiable hypotheses, as exemplified in the endless media speculation concerning the Moro kidnapping.

Stupefaction – Encyclopédie des Nuisances
(Encyclopédie des Nuisances, No. 5, pages 89 to 95)

Merely by examining the modern means at its disposal, the process of stupefaction—deafening, “extreme bewildering by means of a loud noise”—leaves us vaguely dazzled by the multiplicity of transmitters that contribute with “noise” of every kind to the stupefying present, to the loss of consciousness of our time. We shall encompass a large number of them under one heading, by tranquilly asserting that all existing information must be considered, by virtue of its most general function, to be socially harmful noise.1

The very use of language is being lost, not to speak of communication. It is of course clear that the latter is actually unilateral communication, i.e., information; when, for instance, a specialist in authoritarian monologue boldly asserts that he is “a passionate devotee of communication”. But the corresponding realities have become so rarified that the coexistence of the words, “passionate” and “communication”, in the mouth of an advertising executive itself passes largely unnoticed, while the suggestion that there might be a conflict between information and communication sounds almost bizarre, for the former has developed only to the detriment of the latter until it appropriated its very name with impunity, the final homage rendered by the lie to the truth. Such a claim is in any event illogical; as if there could be a kind of communication that was not perfectly satisfied with the accelerated circulation of information and would therefore evoke an essential need to dissimulate this fact when in the presence of genteel company. No other theory of modern revolutionary critique, however, has been as overwhelmingly confirmed as this one. Yet this is the case only because its truth is today almost impossible to communicate: the evidence that confirms it, amidst the media noise that stupefies our contemporaries on a daily basis, is precisely that which at the same time actually renders it inaudible. Just like other basic truths, amidst the general resignation, it seems to be of use to no more than a handful of people, and is nothing more than the personal fantasy of a few isolated individuals, since it could be quite useful to everyone but no one wants to make use of it. There are times when lying does not entail any risk because the truth has no friends: then the truth takes on the semblance of a mere hypothesis, and is taken even less seriously insofar as no one wants, or is able, to verify it. Almost no one cohabits with the truth. It is as if it was some kind of useless toil in a world full of pleasures easily within the reach of everyone. But these pleasures, which are not so easily obtained after all, are not really pleasures, either. And the reality of unhappiness compels dissimulation, giving rise to a vicious circle from which few are able to escape.

When there is no intention to communicate anything that is true, the need arises for regular supplies of lies and fairy tales. And when it is the existing information that is placed at the disposal of the citizens, it is more than likely that it does not need to communicate anything: there is an abundance of means within the reach of all that enable everyone to speak of everything concerning which they have no experience, so that they do not have to say even one word about the disastrous experiences of their own lives. “Bouvardism and Pecuchetization”2 are therefore the two teats of informed ignorance from which a generous torrent of the contaminated milk of modern inanity flows. If you want to talk about real life, you would have to begin—let us observe a little hygiene—by cutting off the flow of information to the citizens, to wash their minds clean of everything that has been dumped into them by the media sewers, the only authorized sources of information. Otherwise, the simplest things would be the hardest ones to express, because there is almost no agreement about a language that can name them. The reason why information, although its flow is renewed on a daily basis, is still capable of delivering an infinite quantity of trash, is actually quite simple: there is an infinite number of ways to not call things by their names; many more than those that apply the correct term. But once this term has been discovered, there would be no use in repeating it every day, because those whose recognized social usefulness, or remunerated social usefulness, consists in talking every day, never use the correct term. When people agree on a precise definition, they do not need someone to inform them of it on a daily basis; when they know what a State is, for example, they don’t need anyone to reveal the nature of its secret services to them. Do they tell us every day that the world is round? To the contrary, it seems that they go to extremes to pound into our heads the beliefs that the commodity is basically honest, that our leaders are competent and, should the question ever arise, that we can “obtain pleasure” and even “realize our potential” from our jobs. Information of this quality would not stand on its own merits for more than one day at a time, or even more than one hour, if it were to have the least competition. Thus one can understand that the only power of the lie and of the confusionism of information consists in their being our daily bread, without any other side dish.

If one is particularly fastidious with regard to precision, we could discuss, for example, when considering a French socialist, the respective advantages of the epithets, crook and bum; bastard sometimes sounds too strong, while lout usually sounds too weak. But when it comes right down to it, if we are really determined to faithfully describe something, all these terms fall far short of the countless expressions that we could apply, and therefore, we only increase our distance from reality. These days, any kind of relation can be established between the most disparate realities, while the compellingly necessary relation between, let’s say, the Findus brand of frozen foods and the thought of a Fabius,3 will never be expressed, and no one will point out how nonsensical, illogical and intellectually despicable it is to allow two things that are so similar to exist and not unite them in a harmonious whole, in order to vomit them up together.

With regard to information as to other matters, quantity attempts to supplant quality, with the inevitable result of the proliferation of the arbitrary and the useless, since the necessary and the useful have become spectral and imperceptible. It is true that in a system that evinces a tendency to become, strictly speaking, nobody’s business (although, of course, some people make it their business to promote this loss of control), everyone has a lot to learn, from the composition of a chemical food to that of the P2 lodge, and from the public intrigues of occult powers to the occult intrigues of public powers. When the realities and problems we experience are never managed by those of us who are affected but by other people who are completely beyond our control, we have to endlessly inform ourselves, in order to know where the world is heading in its out of control race to doom. Since such a task is an overwhelming undertaking, some information technology busybodies propose to comfort us with this sort of consolation: “It has been calculated that, on average, during the course of his life, one human being is exposed to one billion bits of useful information. Eighty billion men have lived before us. Therefore, throughout the course of human history eighty billion billion bits of information have been processed. Thanks to computers, however, 30 billion bits of information will be processed by each human in 1985 and twice as many in 1986. Therefore, in just two years more information has been processed than was processed during the entire previous history of humanity until our time. Today, one human life corresponds to 100,000 lives of the men of the past, in terms of information processing” (Thierry Breton, Les Échos, supplement of June 28, 1985). His vaguely anthropoid computer terminal seems to have short-circuited its microprocessors in its calculations, but who cares, you definitely do not need to process billions of bits of data, not even one, to recognize what a “man’s life” means when it is devoted to data processing, a life so “connected”, so “wired”, so “digitalized”, that in two years he will participate in a more substantial history than all past history combined. In other times, men who lived 100,000 times less than what we can today experience by way of computers would have easily found the word to define that type of life. Abject, for example. But now, the simple expression of such a judgment is nothing, in the ears of well-informed people, but the sign of a desperate bitterness worthy of the most turbulent failures of the past: an era that produces by the bucketful intellectual prodigies of the caliber of Thierry Breton, discovers with a great deal of logic or much logical support, that Machiavelli was a mediocrity, a calamity, a failure.

The publication where this non-thought multiplied by 100,000 is expressed has a decidedly polysemic title, “Les Dynasteurs”, and one of its publishers instructs us that it is the “outcome of a project built upon various words that evoke dynamism, creativity, life-giving faith, devoted to the reality and the usefulness of the entrepreneur within our modern industrial society”. Leaving aside the qualities this over-elaborated neologism attempts to evoke, we shall observe that the quality that it unfailingly does evoke is the only one that is not mentioned: if that repugnant word has any meaning, it is that of expressing the ambitions of the dynastic entrepreneurs and their new feudalism. Ambitions that are clearly manifested, that is, with perfect foolishness, when these creative dynamos, a few lines later, tell us about the symbols thanks to which they expect to spread their faith in the usefulness of the entrepreneur and to evangelize the masses of heathen consumers: “We have entered the information society. Businesses, large and small, know the role and the importance of their logos in communicating with their various publics…. The coat of arms of the knights of the Middle Ages was and still is synonymous with moral values and physical qualities. The coat of arms and the logo have many more things in common than just analogies. They share the same will to overcome.” Neither more nor less. Therefore, we can dream of a new heraldry that will faithfully transcribe the “moral values” and the “physical qualities” of entrepreneurs and their commodities. We shall see, in the kingdom of the Frigidaires, how barons will ride to battle bearing a shield blazoned with croquettes on a field of vomit….

Sometimes, we must confess that words fail us, not because the realities they describe are too multifarious but because they are all too similar, too full of the redundant ordinariness of a world with no other perspective than the consecration of what exists. With regard to coats of arms and heraldry, the creation of words and pertinent descriptions, we must speak of the popular argot, concerning which it has been said that, having been born from hatred, it no longer exists. Since odious realities have not disappeared, they must have engendered the capacity for hatred. Passionate men capable of loving much and also of hating their world seem like dinosaurs in an era marked by amorphous indifference, where venality and the lack of courage pass for cynicism and cleverness. Like all passions, hatred requires energies that cannot be mobilized by those who must process billions of bits of data, energies that no machine can give them. But even mere insults are beyond the capacity of the slave chained to his computer screen. Like a man of the past, honest and ill-informed, Chesterton called attention “to the words that are like weapons rusting on the wall, to the most choice terms of abuse becoming obsolete in face of rich and even bewildering opportunities in the way of public persons to apply them to”. And his observations deserve to be quoted in extenso, since they are unfortunately most timely: “It is indeed strange that when public life presents so wide and promising a field for the use of these terms, they should be suffered to drop into desuetude. It seems singular that when the careers of our public men, the character of our commercial triumphs, and the general culture and ethic of the modern world seem so specially to invite and, as it were, to cry aloud for the use of such language, the secret of such language should be in danger of being lost” (G. K. Chesterton, William Cobbett).

Here is a simple and concrete truth which, in short, judges for an entire epoch those who are considered to be assiduous depositaries of the secrets of language, the intellectuals, those old specialists in public expression whose craft only survives in symbiosis with the great industry of media-induced stupefaction. Responsible for vague lies and arbitrary revelations, without scruples, without conscience and without honor, foul, necessarily foul, they are so corrupted by the habit of spectacular monologue that they can only perpetuate the mere semblance of what was in the past called the “debate of ideas”. In order to do this, however, they need ideas and the ability to debate them, neither of which they possess. Interchangeable puppets of mass brutalization, satisfied with the fact that they still enjoy some prestige and that they still receive their salaries, their positive support for what exists distances them ever more from the method and the medium of an intellectual activity worthy of the name. It will be understood that we shall not go into details concerning the cultural conformism amidst which even the boldest are too respectful of too many things to avoid being held in contempt. When these people expatiate on the general conditions of non-communication, within which they have the power to speak, a power that entails a proven powerlessness to make the slightest critical use of it, they do so in order to show how grateful they are for the information they are made privy to by lifting, once in a while, the veil that covers a few state secrets, in order to be able to pride themselves on this supply of nourishment that is precisely calibrated to the weak development of their capacity for indignation. For anyone who has not renounced the desire for authentic communication, for anyone who is not an impotent intellectual, the real scandal is not the fact that the information technicians lie to us more or less often, but the reinforcement, by way of their falsifications as much by way of their revelations, of our separation from the practical means of truth; a separation that is evidently the origin of the imposture of the communications media and all their particular lies, rather than the unfortunate result of their policies and their interests.

And above all, they never stop talking to us about extremism, when the harsh realities that they try to address are too big to handle, ever since the origins of the modern stupefaction, for the kind of people who never concerned themselves with social critique, or in any case, not in the revolutionary sense of the term. Thus, Charles Nodier writes in The Country of Dreams: “The peasants of our villages who, for hundreds of years, have been reading fairy tales and believing them, now read newspapers and proclamations, and they believe them. In the past there were fools. Now they are stupid: this is progress.” And Chesterton, in the book quoted above: “The chief mark of the modern man has been that he has gone through a landscape with his eyes glued to a guidebook, and could actually deny in the one anything that he could not find in the other.” This ability has evidently proven to be more and more useful, and has therefore further developed, as the countryside has deteriorated with the progress of civilization. It was in this same sense that Musil also wrote, more than fifty years ago, that in this society, “There are always many more possible ways of approaching an extraordinary event through the newspapers than there are by actually experiencing it; in other words, in our times the essential takes place in the abstract, and reality is only an accessory”. The abundant information is precisely the invasion of the abstraction, which confines to the accessory the concrete part of reality that each person can experience for himself. For the isolated individual, this part of reality must decline yet more in a subjective sense due to a lack of a communication that would be capable of verifying it. And we have thus been transformed into so many ignoramuses who are subject to being taught by other ignoramuses; since our media educators have themselves been educated according to the needs of the dominant non-communication, where all problems must be posed in such a way that the solution depends on those who possess the means of leaving it unresolved. The underdeveloped state of information, in its almost total reign over social expression, has dialectically demonstrated that it was necessary, in order to prevent the possible, to falsify the real.

From the days of Musil to our times, we have seen that the very reality of the “accessory” cited above, concerning which everyone can have direct experience and knowledge, so to speak, has evaporated: even the most trivial everyday things have become extremely mysterious, concerning which it is impossible to know anything for certain. Of course, we are still officially informed, as consumers, of certain monstrous deformities inflicted on things that, in other times, when you did not have to deal with so much information, we did not have to be informed about, and which transparently and easily corresponded with their outward appearance. We can, for example, consult the Dictionary of Food Additives in order to decipher the hieroglyphics that decorate the commodities disguised as foods, to identify them as the stigmata of the extinction of their use value. Just as ignorance of the law is no excuse, from now on everyone must know chemistry; and if you are poisoned, your have only your own ignorance to blame: you were not well-informed, you were like a man of the past.

One thing is certain, however: we are not so naïve as to believe that they normally give us such precise descriptions of the multiple anomalies that comprise our environment. We shall just point out that this periodic “frankness”, which is announced with so much fanfare when such incidents do take place, always postulates the same resignation as before the fait accompli, an acquiescence that it had already in fact obtained by its manner of appearing without the possibility of reply and then disappearing without any consequences. The bombardment of information to which the broad-based party of artificial unintelligence is devoted, which proclaims the absurdity of synthesis, has no other purpose; it is the preventive attack against the formation of a critical judgment capable of drawing conclusions based on the facts. “Things are not so simple!” will be, for the informed spectator, the last word in knowledge. And when the facts are too compelling to avoid drawing some conclusions, and extracting some pure truth, it is too old-fashioned for the mill of confusionism, and the smallest particle of evidence is immediately contradicted, adulterated, expanded, and distorted by ten, a hundred or a thousand more bits of information, so that a view of the whole can never be formed, even when there is a desire to offer something like a coherent explanation; but instead this sum of information overwhelmingly establishes the impossibility of reaching the truth of certain facts, the memory of which tends moreover to dissolve in the surrounding cacophony.

This manner of preventing the drawing of a conclusion has been perfectly utilized, for example, in the assassination of Moro, concerning which all kinds of things and their contraries have been said, so that the basic truth, the fact that the Red Brigades were used by a faction of the Italian State, could be tolerated as one possible interpretation among many others, so that, no matter what happened, it would have no consequences at all. Speculation could therefore proceed endlessly concerning the Mossad, the CIA, the KGB, and all the rest. For this very reason, when the forests of the northern hemisphere die and the ignorant population establishes a relation of cause and effect between “acid rain” and the disappearance of those forests, all kinds of experts will appear from nowhere who will attribute the death of the forests to some kind of virus, totally independent of, and without any relation to, acid rain, “which gets the blame for everything”. This has the effect on us, contrary to the dissuasive blackmail of the specialists of every stripe, according to whom one never has enough information to pass any judgment, of causing us to think, first of all, that one must know how to judge this world as an oppressive unity, from which we all suffer, in order to be capable, on that basis, to recognize information as consisting of confusionist interference, propaganda, falsification and the lie, which reveal essential realities of the Economy and the State.

Indeed, we have no qualms about acknowledging the fact that the information dispensed by the communications media can be used and, as any reader will have noted by now, we have used it. This information is not legible, however—there is no connection between the different bits of information that can contribute to a more or less accurate account of the social terrain—if we do not start from a point of view that is radically hostile to the system that is responsible for our dependence on the information of the communications media. Where the monolithic nature of the lie does not reign as it does in the bureaucratic countries, the truth is in effect even more evanescent because it cannot be recognized even as a contrary. The western system of the lie has been revealed, with the passage of time, to be more disconcerting than its foolish eastern precursor, due to its way of informing us about everything so that nothing is really known.

We are confident that this Encyclopedia will offer our contemporaries a means of reaching an agreement in order to counter the immense means of modern stupefaction. Faced with the evident coherence of our intentions, only two solutions are possible: either we are totally out of our minds, or else we are very much in accord with reality. Between these two interpretations, each may choose according to his experience, his tastes, and his interests. But if someone adopts the second interpretation, he will also have to accept the fact that by working in this manner we pose a threat to all the managers and opportunists of stupefaction. For no one, nowhere, says what we are saying. It is therefore necessarily the case that there are vital interests that want to conceal such important evidence, but we shall reveal it, to their misfortune. And this is only the beginning.

***

Translated in 2013 (revised in 2018) from the Spanish edition entitled, “Aturrullar”, published in Encyclopédie des Nuisances, La Sinrazón en las Ciencies, los Oficios y las Artes: Artículos selectos de la Encyclopédie des Nuisances [Irrationality in the Sciences, the Trades, and the Arts: A Selection of Articles from the Encyclopédie des Nuisances], tr. Miguel Amorós, muturreko burutazioak, Bilbao, 2nd ed., 2007.

The original article in French, entitled, “Abasourdir”, may be consulted with all the other articles published in the journal, Encyclopédie des Nuisances, online at: http://archivesautonomies.org/spip.php?article1792.

  • 1. The French word, “abasourdir”, can mean, among other things, “to stun” by means of a loud noise, as well as “to stupefy” (from the Latin, stupere, to be struck senseless). For reasons of readability, the word is translated in this text as “stupefy” although in two places the word “stun” would perhaps be more appropriate (where the effect is attributed to “noise”). [American translator’s note.]
  • 2. From the title of Flaubert’s unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet. These characters embodied the bourgeois spirit of that era, typified by imbecilic vulgarity and well-informed ignorance, qualities that are also the dominant spirit of our era. [Spanish translator’s note.]
  • 3. A socialist cabinet minister, a grotesque champion of the kind of modernization required by the Market [Spanish translator’s note].