Daniel Blanchard: Imposture

René Magritte, La reproduction interdite, 1937

For Daniel Blanchardthe third part of an essay preceded by the “Crisis of wordsand “Regarding what poetry does“.


The text entitled “Imposture”, which is summarised here, aims to examine the transformations that the present conditions of social life provoke in the common language and the difficulties that they contribute to creating in each of us to situate ourselves in relation to ourselves, with the other and with society. These conditions are part of modern processes of domination and they aggravate them.

In human language we can distinguish two poles, language and code. Each speaker of their language knows, especially if they ignore it, in the double sense of the word, and following the categories of linguistics, what they do when they speak and at the same time knows what the language does. They know that if they say carbohydrates or lipids, that they could replace these words with chemical formulas without their losing their meaning. But they also know that if they say sea, that the power of the meaning of this word is not restricted to the concept of a certain natural reality that exists on the terrestrial globe, but that it rather gives rise to a more or less diffuse mental and affective representation, and perhaps also a sensory representation, like a filigree, with innumerable meanings that this reality has formed in the spirit of women and men since the dawn of time until the very moment in which a singular individual pronounces it. Everyone knows, therefore, that language is endowed with a double power. On the one hand, that of encoding (one could even say encrypting in the sense of encrypting a message) the elements or things that we distinguish and put together to constitute the world, which thus prevents us from having to transport and exchange “the things themselves” when we want to deal with the other. On the other hand, language has a symbolic or figurative power that evokes, in the word as well as in the thing, a whole aura of aspects and meanings that it would be futile to try to know if they properly belong to it or constitute the sedimentation of thoughts and the feelings of all those who have uttered this word.

We generally say “natural language” to distinguish the language endowed with its two faculties (symbolic and codification) from what is only code: technical jargon, mathematical, chemical or other symbols, traffic signs, barcodes, etc. This qualification of “natural” may seem completely unjustified: it is evident that languages ??are products, masterpieces, of human invention. But if we look at it from the subjectivity of the speaking being, this word “natural” is certainly pertinent: the mother tongue, which is formed and develops at the same time as us, we perceive as a “second nature.” And at the same moment, with the incontestable evidence of a natural fact, the link between the word and the thing is imposed on us as rigorously necessary and not “arbitrary.” This thing can be perfectly defined, finished, and then the word only encodes it. But, as usually happens, it can also entail an element of vagueness, of non-determination, a part of reality that is constantly renewed and discovered throughout our lives, our exchanges with others, etc. What natural language tells us, speaks to us of, at the same time as it reveals a state of the world, is its incompleteness.

In each of us, language is both memory and that which reveals the world. In each one of us, but also in the society to which we belong. Language constitutes both the organ and the substance of the consciousness I have of myself and the world; and as a common language, it is one of the most fruitful matrices of social consciousness. That the maintenance of its symbolic power is vital for the psychic armour of the individual is something that is verified in the extreme circumstances in which the person is attacked in their elemental dignity, in the intimate certainty of being human, as certain narratives attest to of deportees and, today, certain testimonies about “suffering at work.” This vital character of language, which is both a figure and, so to speak, the body of dignity, of personal integrity, is also reciprocally affirmed in the fact that to assume this function, it is necessary for the words that are placed in our mouths be attributable to an identifiable subject, that they emanate from an individual or shared thought or sensitivity, at least locatable in the immensity of the social fabric of the words emitted. But today, speech circulates in a social space almost without references: who do I speak to, who speaks from me, who speaks to me, etc? We have alienated the language space to a multitude of emitters who are no one in particular. And perhaps even more serious: the common language is invaded by all types of technical languages ??that operate under the mode of a code. The words of a code do not need to be assumed by anyone. When we adopt them, under the pressure of the sovereign principle of instrumentality, we let go of our speech, we let the code speak in our place.

This type of speech, as well as the languages ??and jargons to which it belongs, implies nothing for anyone who pronounces it; it transmits a pure notion of things divorced from all characteristics of temporal or social subjectivity and free of any anchorage in a future. It captures them as fixed and finite, as science or technology cuts them from the flow of reality and fixes the kaleidoscope of the world in a particular configuration. In these artificial, objective languages, an experience is no longer said; it is precisely the object that speaks. We are nothing more than their vehicle: speaking machines.

The increasing influence that these objective languages ??exert on social exchange contradicts the principle of equal legitimacy that each of us has to speak (founding principle of every free society) and confers a privilege on competition and those who can (by right or by imposture) make use of it, thus reinforcing domination.

Another, more insidious, consequence of this mechanisation is that it applies the principle of instrumentality to ourselves. The adoption of this objective language entails an objectification of ourselves. Where is the “I” of the competitive athlete located, if not outside her/himself, in an apparatus in which s/he is subject to the managers of sports institutions, their coaches, specialised doctors, and the like? This “I” possesses a body that is their instrument, their machine, their “Formula 1” car, which they must regulate, condition, feed with special fuels, etc. Essentially, we too direct the same foreign gaze upon ourselves. To talk about ourselves, we first have to split the physical and the psychic, since Christian dualism has inflicted this weakness on us. Then we adopt a language of security, the language of those who know and act. It is the very language of the doctors of the soul and the body and of all the specialists who look after us or, even worse, the language of the businessman (I “manage” my sexuality, I “sell” my ideas, I “do business”…).

The representation that we thus construct of ourselves is deeply frustrating and distressing. If hard science only manages to construct discontinuous, and often incompatible, images of the human being, both psychic and physical, we laymen can only give ourselves fragments that are even more incoherent, approximate and often false, and which, furthermore, are daily denied and replaced by others. Thus, what we see, from the outside, as ourselves, is nothing more than a horrible chimera. Unless it is an anticipated vision of our decomposition… The demand that we make of ourselves when looking at ourselves as an object is that of functionality and transparency. We block out in ourselves the aberrant, the disturbing, the secret: we realise the ideal of the Puritan. The height of Puritanism today is pornography, the mechanisation of eroticism. From this perspective, our ideal self is the machine.

We are not talking here about the machine of the mechanical age, with which we mainly dealt at work and which dominated the worker by force and the denial of their humanity. In the computer age, the machine imposes itself on us through the fascination and seduction exerted by its resemblance to ourselves. Furthermore, it does not abandon us, it accompanies us both in our professional and private lives. He is our double. Unless it is the other way around and we are its double, since we may ask if we do not grant it, consciously or not, a reality superior to our own. Here we find the “Promethean shame” analysed by Günther Anders, this feeling of inferiority that takes hold of us in the face of the perfection of the machine and its actions. Anders relates this feeling to the “shame” that exists in human beings for having been born. We are the fruit of an unfathomable and limitless history, the fruit of the contingent encounter between two human beings, themselves born and contingent… But we are also, to return to the words of Hannah Arendt, a beginning. We are a random and unfinished being… And now, here before us is the machine, emerging completely armed from Athena’s skull, finished, perfect, which though certainly used and amortized, neither lives nor dies and it carries out the tasks proper to our arms, our hands, our mind… with a power and infallibility that ridicules us.

The temptation to mimicry is also strong. It sometimes leads to overcoming oneself, but sometimes also to reducing oneself: to not asking more from one’s own mind than from the computer. Among the millions of essays and stories produced each year by supposed science or journalism, how many are reduced to a series of factual propositions that are added, subtracted or combined (contradicted) without any thought to give them meaning? …

Now, the deadly seduction of the machine and the objectification of our word under the influence of instrumental language, are exercised with the greatest virulence in what constitute the two most decisive moments of our daily life, work and consumption, the latter today converted into an activity almost as technical as work. In other words, to return to Hannah Arendt’s analysis, in the day-to-day production-consumption of our lives, memory is so to speak forgotten or denied, this memory that at the same time illuminates our freedom and forms the very flesh of our natural, living language.

This memory, this consciousness of having been “born,” is rejected, eroded, by the constant flow of the order that harasses us from all sides and confines us to the present. This memory is also eroded by the invasions of what is “proper” to each person and through which operates the increasingly systematic control of daily life by the various bodies of power (political, police, financial, medical…) and that is particularly translated by our subjugation (in the cybernetic sense) to what in English are called “socio-technical apparatuses”, memory cards, etc. How can we distinguish our own voice in this babble? Just as medical technoscience places us on the outside of what we perceive as our interior, in the same way the flow of images, sounds, words that surrounds and saturates the atmosphere of the planet, and beyond, traps us in a species of ether of mental and sensory substance that at the same time exceeds us immensely and penetrates us intimately.

This almost impossibility of distinguishing what speaks to us from outside from what speaks in us (almost: because a spark of revolt is enough to dispel this confusion) gives domination much more insidious powers than before. The discourse of power, whether totalitarian or “democratic,” crudely betrayed its origin, even when it aimed to penetrate and format the interior of minds: Orwellian newspeak, Victor Klemperer’s L.T.I., “false Stalinist speech”, the bluff of democratic representation… Lies, misinformation and ideological distortion certainly continue to be instruments of domination (cf. Chomsky), but today mental domination and linguistics mainly resorts to a system of universal participation (it is imposed on everyone) and generalised (it deals with everything).

Unlike the participation that totalitarianism demands through terror, liberal participation pretends to be interactive, which is obviously false, since the two parties do not interact on the same level of equality, as can be seen in the relationship between the pollster and respondent. The system that coupled, very schematically, representative democracy and consensus manufacturing (Chomsky), that is, brutal and insidious propaganda, responded to the needs of the government of a mass society. It remains in force precisely when it comes to mobilising and managing the masses, in the waging of war, for example. But for the ordinary functioning of society, mass government has been transformed and perfected as a management of the particles that make up these masses. Computer science, its monstrous memories, its innumerable search and transmission mechanisms (snitching) evidently favours this management “in a grand way”, that is, individual by individual and in “real time”, that is, through constant monitoring. But the central mechanism of this system is precisely what is not mechanical: it is the injunction, addressed to each person, to define themselves according to all their parameters: as citizen, consumer, father, son, etc. The injunction to consent is hidden behind the injunction to define oneself, evidently in the terms of social engineering.

To Bow to this command, to constitute ourselves as an individuality-barcode that represents us, certainly simplifies material existence. However, we lend ourselves to it with a complacency that resembles voluntary servitude, as if we were renouncing the demand for equality in exchange between humans. And rather than trying to know, on our own terms, what we are, whether as individuals or as a collective, we prefer to hear it from the mouths of the political scientist, the sociologist, the sexologist, etc. Thus, this effectively objective discourse that constitutes us from the outside is, to a large extent, itself taken from the dominant regime of the social word, which is that of manipulation: the “.com”. The only area where the sanction of reality is still valid is that of technology and so-called “hard” science, which further reinforces its power of fascination and the temptation to impose its logic on the entire field of human life. But unlike traditional societies, today’s society does not lock us into an identity. Capitalism lives by putting itself in permanent crisis. This also goes for each of us: it is our responsibility to adapt by constantly questioning and redefining ourselves. This results in a devaluation and inter-changeability of the qualities that define us. Evidently, it creates and enriches the illusion of equality: the king can hide his nakedness under the incognito of a subject. The logic of representation is thus carried to identification.

The mass media are the essential instrument of this imposture. Their slogan, explicitly or implicitly repeated tirelessly, is “we are you.” Television lends itself well to this imposture, since it is based on the confusion between those who see the image and those who see reality. The screen screens my own view of the world and coagulates my view along with that of millions of other viewers. Thus I am denied any personal place in the community. “Immense voice that drinks our voices” (Henri Michaux). Television is one of the most diffuse and most invasive components of this ether of mental and sensory substances that both carries us and penetrates us. “Soluble fish” tormented by the unattainable demand of “realisation”, our dominant condition is to be lost. And symmetrically, domination today seems to base its perpetuation mainly on the meticulous and constant liquidation of the conditions of fixation of a consciousness and coagulation of a subject, without however renouncing authoritarianism and brute violence. Hence, some formulations that Hannah Arendt applied to the human condition in a totalitarian regime are pertinent: this “solitude”, this “desolation” of the one who even in his solitude sees himself “deserted from his own self”, and this devastating disappearance of the “space between men”… It is there where the other emerges that no “difference” could contain and where questions and answers can be exchanged and where responsible commitment, one towards the other, is possible. In a machinic society (totalitarian state, army, “self-regulating” market) the individual has no other responsibility than to fulfill his function and not at all to assume the ends or the consequences of his mission. This is the principle behind which Eichmann hid. His pride consisted in having renounced the faculty of judging and, consequently, his language was perfectly stereotyped, as Arendt points out.

Before Eichmann, we could place Claude Eatherley, the pilot of the reconnaissance plane that gave the signal to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. Not only does he reject being a hero because he knows that he was nothing more than a cog in the machine, but what he did as a cog he judges as a crime and he claims his guilt… and not in the name of a religion or an established morality, but only out of the demand to be fully a man (cf. See his correspondence with Günther Anders).

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To invoke the case of Eatherlay – but there could be many others -, is to seek to relativise the scope of the picture outlined in this text. Eppure si muove [Yet it moves]: since the person, the individual, the faculty of judging, the conscience, the subject, the faculty of speaking one’s own language… survive. The map is not the territory. This picture is not reality: it excludes from it almost everything that creativity and conflict produce. It is, in some way, a “delirious metaphor” that perhaps refers to what Dalí called the “paranoid-critical method”. It is a flare that, fired from a precise point, illuminates for a moment a limited portion of the landscape, knowing that it will only appear more widely when it is illuminated by other flares, fired from other places…


Espai en blanc – Tomar la palabra: “Impostura”, Daniel Blanchard (16/11/2009). This essay is preceded by two other essays: “Crisis of words” and “Regarding what poetry does“.

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