Making the visible invisible

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« The poem is the veil that makes the fire visible, that makes it visible by the very fact that it veils and conceals it. It shows therefore, it enlightens, but by dissimulating and because it retains in the darkness what can only be enlightened by the obscurity and by keeping it obscure until the clearness that the obscurity makes first. The poem fades away before the sacred that he names(1).  »

Any addiction is, by definition, problematic: it is a consumption that one cannot do without despite the nuisance it causes. Some addictions are of course more onerous, nebulous, insidious and pernicious than others. The screens we are talking about here are multifunctional; time-consuming, they are also ubiquitous (present everywhere), contributing to blur the difference between the public and private worlds. They would however have the virtues of their vices, that is to say to be tools of emancipation, communication and culture. The screen would be the modern poem. Invoking common sense, however, allows for certain interpretive short-circuits that tend to prove the contrary.

Let us note, to begin with, that the first meaning of screen is that of protection and obstacle (14th century). It is a kind of piece of furniture used to protect oneself from the direct action of fire (Littré 188(2), cf. Le Robert, 1979). The screen thus prevents both injury and vision. It is only in the XIXth century that it comes to name a surface of projection (1864), until becoming, hundred years later, the « small screen ». The screen then (un)veils what it wants to show and only hurts the viewer who is not warned of the dangers it represents. This constitutive ambiguity — to veil and reveal — is declined in three times: atomism, conformism and autism.

The screen is first of all an atomizer of society, i.e. it produces dissociety2. It is a tool of isolation (now called containment) that prevents or even discourages face-to-face communication. By invading, in a way that is moreover totally indiscriminate, the private and public spheres, it undermines the conditions of possibility of individuation, that is to say of becoming-self. The destiny progression requires of course intimacy and autonomy, but also intersubjectivity and contact. It requires concrete human relationships, the only ones that guarantee access to metacommunication (Bateson, 1951) and to all that is embodied and kinetic in it (Birdwhistell, 1952)(3).

Of course, the screen, like the telegraph in the past, can claim to create links and allow communication, but the price to pay is very high. The screen is, indeed, a tool of standardization which allows to reduce the level of consciousness of the spectators as one reduces a sauce, by evaporation of the sense. It is the surest ally of conformism, the nuisance of which has been all too obvious since the survivors of the concentration camps published their testimonies and experimental psychology specified the behavioral variables. The purpose of the Nazi concentration camps was as political as it was economic: to create a mass of people to ensure that the industries were supplied with perfect cogs, that is, with mechanized slaves. The individual must be destroyed and solidarity abolished. Moreover, by torturing some people, one terrorizes the entire population and ensures that the prey feels guilty and endorses the narrative — Nazi for the occasion — of his alienation(4).

A few psychologists have helped to understand the mechanics of conformity; the pioneers are Arthur Jenness (1932), Muzafer Sherif (1935), Solomon Asch (1951), Stanley Milgram (1963) and Philip Zimbardo (1971)(5). In short, their (aggregated) conclusions are as follows: if, by definition, the conformist gives in to peer pressure, the latter is not necessarily explicit and is often unconsciously accepted. Why? Acceptance follows either a normative influence or an informational gap. In the first case, the subject seeks to reinforce the feeling of belonging to the group; in the second, he relies on the collective intelligence to compensate for a lack of personal knowledge. There are three possible scenarios: acceptance (the subject pragmatically endorses the group’s opinion, without changing his or her personal judgment), internalization (the subject is convinced that the group is right), and identification (total adherence, without any ulterior motive). It is this last possibility which is the most effective, as we will see.

Finally, the screen arouses a form of idiocy, if not autistic awareness. When the subject is both atomized and conformed, he acquires a consciousness that could be called schizophrenic or autistic: « The spectacular consciousness, prisoner of a flattened universe, bounded by the screen of the spectacle, behind which its own life has been deported, knows only the fictitious interlocutors who maintain it unilaterally of their merchandise and the politics of their merchandise. The show, in all its extent, is its « sign of the mirror ». This is where the false exit of a generalized autism is staged(6). « The consciousness of the united individual is replaced by the unconsciousness of the atomized clone.

In conclusion, we must return to the techniques of atomization and standardization in the light of George Orwell’s story. The use of lies, infantilization, guilt and fear are ultimately very effective. Terrorizing with an anxiety-provoking narrative and arbitrary coercive measures, on the other hand, allows one to take possession of bodies and minds. This effort to make the other crazy (Searles, 1959)(7) was described by Orwell with the help of « doublethink »: it is a matter of consciously and unconsciously taking what one knows to be false as true — unless the circumstances require one to realize that this falsehood is a true falsehood. When the manipulation is obvious, the prey is obliged to do the work of alienation itself and to take refuge of itself in the nets of madness. Clinically, actors are asked to be effective psychotics.

Michel Weber

Notes et références
  1. Maurice Blanchot, L’espace littéraire, NRF Gallimard, 1955, p. 241.
  2. Jacques Généreux, La Dissociété, Seuil, 2006.
  3. Jurgen Ruesch et Gregory Bateson, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1951 ; Ray L. Birdwhistell, Introduction to Kinesics, Louisville, University of Louisville Press, 1952.
  4. , par exemple, Bruno Bettelheim, « Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations », in Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 38, 1943, pp. 417- 452 ; Leo Löwenthal, « Terror’s Atomization of Man » Commentary 1, 1945/1946, pp. 1–8 ; Viktor Frankl, Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager, Wien, Deuticke, 1946 ; Primo Levi, Se questo è un uomo, F. De Silva, 1947.
  5. Arthur Jenness, « The role of discussion in changing opinion regarding a matter of fact », in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1932, 27, 279–296 ; Muzafer Sherif, « Autokinetic effect » experience, 1935 : Muzafer Sherif, « A study of some social factors in perception », in Archives of Psychology, 1935,   27, No. 187, 23- 46 ; Solomon E. Asch, « Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment », H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men, Pittsburgh, PA, Carnegie Press, 1951, pp. 177–190 ; Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority. An Experimental View, New York, Harper and Row, 1974 ; Philip G. Zimbardo, The Lucifer effect. Understanding how good people turn evil, New York, Random House, 2007. Michel Weber, Pouvoir de la décroissance et décroissance du pouvoir. Penser le totalitarisme sanitaire, Chromatika, 2020.
  6. Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle [1967], in Œuvres, Gallimard, 2006, p. 585, citant Joseph Gabel, La Fausse Conscience : essai sur la réification, Éditions de Minuit, « Arguments », 1962.
  7. Harold F. Searles, « The Effort to Drive the Other Person Crazy-An Element in the herapy of Schizophrenia », in British Journal of Medical Psychology, XXXII/1, 1959, pp. 1–18.
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