« The reality is in crisis

ENTRETIEN AVEC CHRISTIAN GODIN

The current philosophers who think about the multi-dimensionality of reality, who approach moral questions without pretence and without fearing the repression of right-thinking are not (enough) numerous. Christian Godin, professor emeritus of the University of Clermont-Auvergne born in 1949, is one of them. After having explored the themes of utopia (2000), The End of Humanity (2003), the Triumph of the Will (2007), from La haine de la nature (2012), of The Demoralization (2015), Capital Sins and Today’s Common Places (2018), in his new essay, published by Champ Vallon, he tackles The Crisis of Reality. Forms and mechanisms of an impeachment.

Bernard Legros interviewed him electronically. Reality or virtuality?

For some time now, essays (by Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, Fabrice Flipo, Jean-Marc Ferry, Kevin Cappelli, Bertrand Vergely) have been appearing that attempt to explain these disturbing phenomena in the midst of the rise of fake news, « post-truth » and « alternative facts ». If propaganda and disinformation have existed for a long time, as well as the simulacra and processes of derealization pointed out by Jean Baudrillard at the end of the 1960s, what is the specificity of these new manifestations? Is this unprecedented in the history of civilization?

Of course, propaganda is as old as the States and rumor as old as popular fear, but there are two essential differences in this field, which are correlated, between today and yesterday. When the Pharaoh had the victorious story of a battle he had actually lost engraved on the stones, he did not have the formidable technical equipment that we have and his lie only deceived a limited number of people. The two essential differences between the ideology of today and that of yesteryear are the power of the technique that supports them (writing on the one hand, digital on the other) and the extension of their power (local in the past, global today).

Kairos: What difference do you make between truth and reality?
Between reality and reality?

Christian Godin: There is no truth except from and through the symbolic function. Truth is a logical value dependent on language, provided that the latter is sufficiently complex to understand the function of negation (the dance of the bees can neither deceive nor conceal). A statement is true if its conclusions are consistent with its premises (logical truth), or if it is consistent with reality (physical truth). Reality can be defined as that which exists outside of representation, thus of language, even if, of course, it can only be apprehended by it. No so-called « idealist » philosopher of the past has ever contested the reality of God nor that of his own thought. Even a phenomenism as radical as Buddhism cannot avoid representing universal illusion and nirvana as realities. Noun adjectives such as beautiful or real have a wider extension than nouns (beauty, reality). For example, the Romantic conception of beauty is broader than the classical conception of beauty because it includes the strange, and even the ugly or the monstrous. At the limit, the real merges with the being, since the immediate, empirical reality is reduced to the rank of particularity. There is however another of the real, its negative, the unreal. But how to avoid thinking the reality of the unreal, in which case it is reality that encompasses the real? There’s no way around this kind of turnstile.

The escape from reality is also observed in the unbridled subjectivism of our contemporaries. Does solipsism have a bright future ahead of it? You go so far as to speak of « the numerous and violent attacks against reality »…

Indeed, among the factors of erasure of reality (which includes several modalities: forgetfulness, indifference, hatred, repression, destruction…) subjectivism is one of the main ones, because it goes hand in hand with a relativism incompatible with the elementary idea of objectivity. But it would be necessary to make a distinction between subjectivism and individualism because it seems that from now on the individual works against the subject, which, a few decades ago, would have seemed incomprehensible. We see it with narcissism, which appears at first as an exacerbation of individuality, but which can in a second time be analyzed in terms of destruction of the subject, thus of the individuality which is a dimension of it. The more the subject is empty, that is to say dissociated from the real, the more he will feel the need to provide him with simulacra that will take its place. Selfies are these simulacra.

On the other hand, isn’t technoscience imposing itself as a hyper-reality with totalitarian tendencies?

The totalitarian dimension of contemporary technoscience had already been suspected by philosophers such as Günther Anders, Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas, strongly influenced on this point by Heidegger. The two essential characteristics of totalitarianism, the absolute control of lives and destructive violence, are found there. Technoscience substitutes its world for that of nature — even ecology admits this replacement as an inevitability, since it speaks of environment rather than nature. Is it a hyper-reality? I’m not sure. « Hyper » means exceeding and increasing. The so-called augmented reality is in reality (it is the case to say it!) a diminished reality.

Are not the representations today almost completely detached from reality, even though they do not constitute « a reliable epistemological basis to conclude to the reality »? (Jean-Marc Ferry, 2019) ? If so, would we see a kind of double detachment? With what consequences?

Certainly, this analysis can be made, many examples, many facts will confirm it. But we must not forget that the world of representations is far from being homogeneous. Perhaps in the human past it was not as heterogeneous as today. Let us consider that in all disciplines, we are living in the golden age of science, that is to say of objective knowledge. Take archaeology, geology, climatology: they give us an increasingly faithful and precise representation of our present and past world, such as there has never been an equivalent in the whole past of human history.

In your new essay, you distinguish several forms and mechanisms of the destitution of reality. Some of them are already known to the amateurs of philosophy — presentism, negationism, conspiracy, nihilism -, others less so — artificialism, simulationism, predictionism and fictionalism. Can you define these?

These terms, which are not neologisms, are easily defined by their radical. Artifice, simulation, prediction and fiction have in common that they substitute themselves to the immediate presence of the natural reality, of the objective reality and of the present reality. The inflectional ‑ism refers to a work of systematization. For example, our information media now spend more time telling us about what can happen (this « can » being declined in a multitude of modalities, from arbitrary hypothesis to calculable probability) instead of what has happened. The term « speculation » is a sign of this metamorphosis: it is no longer a question of thinking reality as it is but of envisaging it as it can be. In the same way, the tools of physics and biology serve us today less for the knowledge of reality than for its manipulation.

On an anthropological level, how do you see the expected deployment of virtual reality in all social strata? What role does digital technology play in the destitution of reality? Will it still be possible to teach, to transmit, to create society?

The big problem, the big challenge, is that virtual reality cannot make a common world. « One bed for two dreams » is a Chinese saying. I can only meet others, make society with them in the physical world. It is clear that the digital world tends to remove this world and replace it with its own. I believe that we are witnessing the disappearance of global societies in favor of particular communities. But it is also possible that at the same time a global society is emerging. Let’s not forget that the characteristic of a society, unlike a community, is that the people who are part of it do not know each other and that their interests are divergent.

Our world seems to be both socially desymbolized — by the loss of traditional values and the influence of technology

- and over-symbolized on the cognitive level — by the hegemony of signs over things. How do you explain this contradiction?

I think that this contradiction is more apparent than real, and that we do not use the notion of symbolic in the same sense in both cases. The hegemony of signs over things can very well correspond to a desymbolization of representations. Let’s compare a handwritten letter, as millions of them were written in the past, and an e‑mail. The poverty of the language of the latter is striking. There is a lot of talk about the collapse of biodiversity, but the collapse of linguistic diversity is also radical. It is predicted that by the end of this century, nine tenths of the world’s languages will have disappeared. In parallel to this process, the remaining languages will have been considerably simplified, and therefore impoverished.

Do we live in a civilization of images? I remember this philosophical experience I had in the summer of 1987: standing in front of the Grand Canyon of Colorado, I was disappointed, I found it less beautiful than the pictures I had seen before! You are talking about « the incapacity of the spectators drunk with images to drink the real at its source »…

Indeed, we are so caught up in the images that reality disappoints us. The phenomenon of the precession of the images on the reality, which reverses the immediate and logical relation (which contributed, since Plato, to devalue the images as simulacra) was well analyzed by Baudrillard. It can only have a destabilizing effect on our relationship to reality. Wonder is the feeling that we are seeing things for the first time, and with images, reality comes second. Admiration is the feeling that things are greater than we are and that they do not need us to exist, but with images, the real is in a state of dependence, it seems to us not to be up to the task. Unlike travel, tourism is preceded by images, and it is these that constitute it, hence this impression of erasing the world. We could also give the example of sex, now preceded, accompanied and constituted by pornography.

Don’t our developed societies urgently need stability, rather than permanent change? Shouldn’t they draw on the best of the past to build the future?

But this wish is impossible. Governed and structured by technoscience, contemporary societies are engaged in irreversible processes. This is a big difference between modernity and tradition. Tradition not only ensured repetition, but also made it possible to go back. We have never invented and we will never invent machines to slow down or machines that are less efficient than the previous ones. This irreversibility is imposed on the scale of universal history, whose horizon is that of the atomic age and the climatic and environmental catastrophe.

Even if certain phenomena are irreversible on a civilizational scale, such as climate change, isn’t it disheartening to talk about irreversibility in other aspects of our lives? Doesn’t this signal the end of politics and the triumph of authoritarian disaster management? About the technician system, two conceptions clash, that of Jacques Ellul, who postulated its autonomy, and that of Theodor Kaczinsky who noticed on the contrary that its products are creations of the man imposed to a majority of men by a minority of others, and thus that the technician system is a matter of political power. If I understand correctly, you lean towards Ellul?

Your first question indirectly points to the perhaps irreparable divorce between the necessarily critical character of theoretical analysis and the less necessary requirement of practical effectiveness, or between what Gramsci called the pessimism of intelligence and the optimism of will. But how can we fail to see that irreversibility, which is the very logic of the history of science and technology, also affects the whole of human existence, both individual and collective? The idea of return is a beautiful myth, but it is a myth, both on a personal level (we never start over) and on a general level (the return to a supposedly pure origin is a fatal illusion). That said, if the human will cannot suppress the direction taken by History, it can bend it. And this is the difference between Fate, against which we can do nothing, and determinisms, which make action possible from the moment we know them. This being so, the end of politics understood as a conscious, voluntary and conflictual action can very well be envisaged. After all, this is what a certain liberalism tends to do, since its origins, and also the technocratic project that aims at replacing the government of men by the power over things. Marx said that men make the history that makes them. In Critique of dialectical reasonSartre theorizes this circle with his concept of « pratico-inertia »: the product of the will, that is to say the whole of its effects on nature and on the social world ends up becoming a resistance which not only opposes the will frontally, but diverts its objectives. It is true that new techniques are imposed by a minority on a majority, but this minority is itself the product of the technosphere whose agents are perfectly interchangeable. Without Bonaparte, there is no 18 brumaire, while without Ray Kurzweil, there would have been transhumanism anyway. Politics (provided one accepts the postulate that it is the expression of human will, which is debatable) is the management of contingency (which populisms are unable to understand). There is virtually no contingency in the technosphere. From this point of view, I am indeed closer to Ellul than to Kaczinsky, with this nuance, however, which is considerable, that I do not think at all that, as Ellul maintained, technology is our sacred, that it has taken the place of the sacred. In reality, technology is the most formidable power for the desacralization of the totality of reality.

You note that « we have everything to fear from the future ». but if we look at the techno-progressives, their faith in the future — in their future! — is intact. Think of transhumanist messianism, for example. Does it come back to what you call predictionism?

When I say that we have everything to fear from the future, I am speaking less in my own name than I am interpreting a common opinion, at least in the West. This being said, if our belief in Progress seems now impossible in view of the multiple disasters of the past century, our belief in progress resists well: we still think that the growth of the GDP, that the increase of life expectancy and that our societal laws are progress. All the more so since the historical past, once an object of admiration and an example for the present, has become an object of shame and has only a repulsive function. To answer your question more precisely, I think that indeed the transhumanist « messianism » is of a predictive type, because it is not of the order of religious hope (which is why the term « messianism » is not adequate) but of technoscientific projection. Transhumanism is not a utopia, in the banal sense of the word, but a program backed by both specialized knowledge and techniques and a considerable economic investment, which was not the case of any utopia of the past.

About negationism, is it related to the dogmatic skepticism of our time? Against Gilbert K. Chesterton — whom you quote — saying that since men no longer believe in God, they are ready to believe in everything, Hannah Arendt argued on the contrary that in a society where lies and disinformation reign, the consequence is not that men believe in anything, but that they no longer believe in anything…

Skepticism is a rational attitude, and when it is systematized, it is the name of a philosophy. This is why one cannot speak of skepticism about denial. Let’s not forget that it goes hand in hand with a hyper-credulity that is the opposite of skepticism. The same individual who questions thousands of documents and testimonies will consider as evidence anything that might challenge them. This attitude could not be more contrary to that of doubt. The denier knows in advance what he will find before he looks for it. Its step is ordered by an unconscious phantasmatic. On the other hand, there is perhaps no incompatibility between « believing in anything » and « believing in nothing ». This was seen most recently in the containment of the Covid-19 pandemic. The same people who bought into the rumors (both negative, regarding causes and responsibilities, and positive, regarding miracle cures) sometimes gave up thinking anything at all. But let’s not forget that « believing in nothing » is an untenable position because it is self-contradictory: one can only disbelieve a statement on the basis of an opposite belief, in the same way that the thesis according to which justice does not exist is only possible on the basis of a certain idea of justice, which contradicts this thesis.

Let’s come to conspiracy, a phenomenon that you take the trouble to dismantle quite rightly. However, on the one hand, isn’t this term too easily drawn today as a rhetorical weapon to silence critical and dissident voices? On the other hand, if a Great World Conspiracy is improbable, we must recognize that history is full of small and medium-sized plots. You seem to give no credibility to false flag operations (False Flag). For example, concerning the Reichstag fire in 1933, the hypothesis of an operation set up by the Nazis is plausible and defended by several historians…

No one will seriously dispute the historical reality of plots and conspiracies (one should carefully distinguish between these two terms: conspiracy has an objective, such as the seizure of power or the assassination of a head of state, while plot has a more general purpose, such as the domination or elimination of enemies). Incidentally, the burning of the Reichstag by the Nazis themselves is more than plausible, it is a proven fact. You are also right to denounce, under the guise of conspiracy, an instrumentalization aimed at discrediting honorable critical attitudes. In the political field, descriptive terms such as fascism or totalitarianism are often used for polemical purposes, as insults that have the function of delegitimizing opposing positions. A philosopher must have enough intellectual probity to stick to the constative use of these words. The term « conspiracy » should be reserved for globalizing explanations that are characterized by their Manicheanism and irrationality. « Irrationality » because conspiracy says a lot about the unconscious psyche of the person who defends it, but nothing about reality itself. It is, for example, absurd to believe, as did Abbé Barruel (the ancestor of today’s conspiracy theorists), that the French Revolution was provoked by the Freemasons who wanted to put an end to Christianity, just as it is absurd to believe, as do a number of Africans, that the AIDS virus was invented by the Whites to eliminate them.

You write (p. 283) :  » Today, the term nihilism is used to designate sometimes the extreme weariness of a world dedicated to universal relativism, sometimes the extreme violence of those who prefer annihilation (by suicide or destruction) to the nothingness of their existence « . And further (p. 305): « Although divergent in their conception of human life, the two nihilisms, the liberal and the Islamist, present, according to us, an obvious parallelism […]. Their common metapsychological root is the death drive. Both aim at the destruction of the world, the first by techno-economy, the second by jihad. Is there a recipe for getting out of this infernal alternative, where the affirmation of certain values on the one hand, and the negation of any value other than economic on the other, are like two sides of the same coin?

If nihilism, in its two present forms, appears to be the destiny of the world today, it is of course possible to escape it, whether in one’s personal or collective life. Even if the capitalist techno-economy is totalitarian, as we have seen, it is no less true that it does not govern, without oblivion or interstice, the totality of reality, of consciousnesses and of lives. Not everything is capitalist in a capitalist system, even if it is globalized, as shown by what remains of the welfare state, the social and solidarity economy and the practice of giving. The vast majority of human beings who inhabit the earth today are not nihilists. She seeks to create a decent existence for herself, without hatred or destruction. This is true of the Arab-Muslim world, as well as of the Western world, the Chinese world or the African world (these are linguistic conveniences, I do not presume any homogeneity in these « worlds »). It is nevertheless true that the logic of universal history goes, it seems to me, in the direction of nihilism, even though nobody would want general destruction. No one ever wanted the collapse of biodiversity, yet every member of humanity is working on it, even if only a little. Similarly, to take a trivial example, no motorist ever wanted the traffic jam in which he or she finds himself or herself, and this traffic jam was never decreed by any minister, it is nevertheless true that traffic jams occur every day and that each motorist contributes to them. The death drives are by nature unconscious, it is only some of their expressions that are conscious, and even then they are only partially conscious.

Jacques Lacan had already foreseen that the humanity of late modernity would move towards a collective psychosis. Do you agree with this? Don’t the consequences of the covid pandemic illustrate this prediction?

Lacan did not speak of « collective psychosis » when he spoke of psychosis as a possible destiny of humanity. The psychosis of the « collective psychosis », has indeed little to do with the psychosis that psychiatry and psychoanalysis deal with. When we talk about collective psychosis, we almost always refer to a general panic movement. From a psychiatric and psychoanalytical point of view, psychosis is defined by the double destruction of the relationship to reality and of the personality. If there was anything psychotic, in the technical sense of the word, about the recent pandemic crisis, it would be in the denial attitude adopted by some citizens and politicians, rather than in fear. The containment, which was the immediate effect of this crisis, is characterized by two opposite features. On the one hand, an obvious loss of the sense of reality (empty city streets, the development of telecommuting), but on the other hand the renewed perception of the simplest reality (the chirping of birds, the presence of other family members, a new attention to food…). We must therefore be careful not to draw hasty and overly general conclusions. This being said, whatever its severity and duration, I believe that Covid-19 will only be an epiphenomenon in the history of humanity. There may be a slowdown or acceleration in some areas, but certainly not a general shift.

Interview by Bernard Legros

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