Emerging From the Media Fog

Emerging From the Media Fog

Marcel Gauchet pleads for a re-enchantment of the world of information.

Philosopher and historian Marcel Gauchet agreed to deliver his reflections on the present crisis in the media to Le Devoir on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of its founding. “In reality, the media have cannibalized themselves with the result a sad de-specialization of the press from which people expect some thoughtfulness. I deeply believe that it’s necessary to have the courage to do complicated, difficult stuff because that’s where the future lies.

A universal spirit, grand master of the magisterial synthesis, Marcel Gauchet takes an interest in the “genealogy of modernity,” in what sets the western adventure in human history apart. We owe basic works on the history of religion, psychiatry, democracy and education to him. “The Disenchantment of the World,” published a quarter of a century ago, revealed the progressive and inexorable loss of the religious idea in the West. His latest essays continue his thought by examining the advent of democracy, the invention of a new way of governing ourselves without the convenient recourse to divine diktats.

Born in 1946, historian and philosopher, director of study at the École des hautes Ètudes en sciences sociales (School for Graduate Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris and at the Centre de recherches politiques Raymond-Aron (Raymond Aron Center for Political Research), Marcel Gauchet is also editor-in-chief of the magazine Le Débat since its creation in 1980. He maintains a personal blog. Gauchet remains one of the most atypical and respected intellectuals France has produced since May 1968.

How do you characterize the media’s present situation?

The situation is not simple to describe. There has never been more information in circulation – ever. Only everything depends on what one covers by that term and on how the relevance of that information is judged. People know more and more things about more and more subjects; that’s true. One may access an extraordinary mass of information on just about everything. But is that the sole function of the media? Don’t they serve to transform the substance of the world into information? It’s not certain.

If one propose a more rigorous definition of information, understood as that which helps us to comprehend what is happening in the world today, it’s not certain that the present overabundance represents an improvement. It could even be a veil that prevents us from finding our way around in the world. We know more and more things about insignificant things. Our big problem, altogether new, therefore comes down to fighting against this overabundance. That for me is the determining character of the present situation.

We’ve gone from an economy of scarcity, in which information was scarce, expensive and difficult to obtain, to an economy of overabundance in which one may procure plans for the atomic bomb in three clicks and know everything about the private life of the king of Thailand. In fact, we are permanently in a fog because we fail to extricate ourselves from too much. It’s unprecedented. Our brains are struck with the obesity syndrome. There’s too much there to stuff ourselves with and everyone binges. Consequently, our problem comes down to learning how to navigate in this stream that disconcerts us and where, in truth, we have more trouble all the time finding the relevant illuminating information that gives us a handle on the movement of things.

So there can be too much information. That’s difficult for a journalist to hear….

Take the recent example of the Copenhagen conference. I was fascinated by the disproportion between the gigantic media tom-tom around this global meeting and the fact that – to this day – we don’t really know what took place during the negotiation. So there were a thousand reporters, all the possible and imaginable photographs and images, but not what counts!

I have just read the first text that at least proposes a probable scenario in the magazine, “The Economist.” It incriminates the Chinese and explains how everything happened, roughly, in the wings, but without entering into the details, with a very quick turn. You see the temporal distance! It’s fascinating to think of the contrast between that hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute coverage and the fact that we’ve understood nothing, that the media have given us no way to understand what really took place.

I’m not even talking about all that people tell us without allowing us to understand it. Think of what we’ve lived through around the financial crisis and the shady goings-on that surround it. We remain in enigma and chaos.

I’m not even talking about the historic defeat of the American media, the press especially, which had always dazzled by its independence and which allowed itself to be recruited and stuffed at the time of the intervention in Iraq. We witnessed a gigantic media manipulation.

How do you explain this transformation from, as it were, guard dog to government lap dog?

There’s been a kind of slide in the spontaneous function journalists ascribe to themselves with respect to news coverage. I would dare to say that audiovisual media, radio and television, have imposed their cognitive model everywhere, including on the written press, the model of which had been entirely different up until now. The purpose of the written press was reporting, of course, but especially analysis, intelligibility. The other media lived on that, moreover, borrowing the written press’s analytical substance. There was a change, a switch. Now the model demands that reality be echoed, that the movement be followed by the minute, without seeking perspective and comprehension.

Everything happens as though, mentally, the TV and the radio have taken over the totality of the media. It strikes me, moreover, that Internet users on on-line news sites, often have the same reflex. They write, but, in fact, they reason as though they were on television. They’re super-speedy, [working] in time that leaves them gasping for breath, without looking to understand. The Twitter network operates altogether in that spirit. What purpose does it serve to pass around in writing the rough equivalent of what you have elsewhere? In reality, the media have cannibalized one another, with as result, the sad de-specialization of the press – from which reflection is expected.

The media were born along with modern democracies. Must we therefore see the result of a radical change in our societies in their profound mutation?

The evolutions of our societies are contradictory and go in different directions. What is rather flagrant at this time is the very heavy bent marked by individualization and emotionalization, also by the facility, I must say, fostered by the type of audience that concerns itself with the immediate and which lives the cult of emotion, that has somewhat renounced understanding. In reality, people’s attitude in our democracies consists of telling themselves: “We can’t do much on the public stage, but we have the private sphere.” From time to time, they throw a glance at the world, but they don’t understand anything any more, and when they do understand something, the obvious solutions are not even applied.

So, a maximum privatization and a very narrow vision of information. That’s the heavy loss of the present. But it’s not history’s final word. Democracies always oscillate around individual freedom, but also around collective choices and the will to collectively orient the world by discussion and understanding. It’s this aspect that is marginalized by democratic discouragement.

I believe the future is still there. I believe that the recent crisis encourages people to invest themselves emotionally again, to take back the controls so we don’t run into a wall. The environmental question is moving in that direction. It’s there that the true problem of relevant information will be posed once again.

Education is also in crisis. Is there a connection with the crisis in the media, the same causes creating the same effects?

The conditions for democracy are not automatic. Democracy must concern itself with its own conditions of operation. Having educated or informed citizens does not happen by itself. There must be the will and we must pose the problem to ourselves in a systematic way. In both cases, we arrive at the limits of neo-liberalism in the very large sense, which has been the spirit of our democracies for thirty years.

That spirit tells us that education is a private affair, that everyone should fend for himself, read what he wants and watch what he wants, that that’s nobody else’s business. There’s an obvious share of truth there: education is not indoctrination, nor is the press propaganda. Nonetheless, we cannot reason in that manner alone. We must propound the problem of education and the media in a better way if we wish to obtain societies that comply better with our ideals of peoples’ autonomy and ability to govern themselves collectively.

You manage a review yourself; you have a blog, but intellectuals seem less and less present on the public stage. What role may they play in this context?

The university seems to me to be in no better shape than the educational system in general or the media. The whole development of the university is under reconsideration. What kind of intellectual production are we talking about? Four specialists speak to a fifth one. According to the accepted formula, it’s all about knowing everything about almost nothing! On that score, whom do you expect that to interest? Everyone has two readers, each 10,000 kilometers away from the other.

There’s a phenomenon of esotericization and specialization that marginalizes intellectual and university production in relation to social life. That is, moreover, a movement much encouraged by the authorities that govern us. It’s less of a nuisance for them …

Besides, intellectuals are no less disoriented than other citizens by the evolution of the world – which escapes them as it does everyone else. Unfortunately, the number of relevant and effective reflections with respect to the way the world is going is not very great. We are in the midst of such a brutally abrupt change that no one knows its extent. I hammer away, moreover, at getting out this review with its modest circulation to try to keep this little flame burning around that requirement of understanding the world. Moreover, I am not pessimistic because there now exist very great means for the diffusion of ideas. We’re at a crossroads. The reign of universal stupidity and confusion is not a given.

Do you believe a fundamental change in the media – or in the press, at least – is possible, one that would revive their analytic abilities?

Probably that will start in a very small way. When I talk to press bosses, they accuse me of elitism. Except that the first newspapers were highly engaged and very small. Mass marketing came later, about the time “Le Devoir” was born, at the beginning of the twentieth century. In a democracy, what is elitist at first has a tendency to spread because the masses understand that that’s where it’s happening; they’re not stupid.

There will be a palette of technical means, that’s obvious. I believe deeply that one must now have the courage to do really complicated stuff because that’s the future. It’s even an excellent entrepreneurial bet.

On the other hand, I don’t believe that “we’re all journalists” will last. I don’t believe at all that permanent commentary is going to last. None of us is going to spend four hours a day trying to untangle ourselves from complete idiocy, daft rumors and false information. We need trustworthy people, paid to do the work of information triage and explanation.

So I believe that we’re moving towards second-degree media. There will be first-degree media that cover, that go along [with events]. But there will also be trustworthy media with their experts to put verified and selected news into perspective. The profession seems to be making itself commonplace with the mass marketing of its practice. I think that, on the contrary, we shall return to a true and demanding journalistic professionalism.

Le Devoir, published in Montreal, is the Québec newspaper of record. It was founded in 1910 by Henri Bourassa and is Canada’s sole independent large-circulation newspaper.

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.