The Chatroom Society
Though there may not be a great writer left, literature still rules. Though it may be the age of the Xbox, reality TV, blogs, and Dan Brown (of whom Salman Rushdie recently said, with a very British sense of humor, that it’s bad to murder writers . . . except maybe him), this is still the age of belief in literature—judging by the resilient power of utopias, the overwhelming wave of fictions, the grip of the same old storylines on our commodified lives, and the civilized consensus about the need and virtues of “culture.” People read less, but ideas once derived from books, and now turned into circulating rumors, are all they have. Nowhere does this appear more clearly, more spectacularly, and more like a caricature than in France, the country where CEOs and politicians alike will be truly successful only when they finally turn to writing, where each year the literary awards of the fall season turn into a national trauma, and where real heroes are not medieval knights and war resistants but their literary creators. Jean-Paul Sartre revealed (in his 1960 autobiography, Words) that he chose very early to be a writer rather than a real-life hero after briefly comparing his physical and writing abilities, and France is like this. We are also the country, most recently, where one single long and rather hermetic text bitterly divided every party, every company, every family and neighborhood: the 489-article EU Constitution, rejected by an unexpectedly high 55% of French voters when submitted for their approval in the May 29 national referendum.
The pros and cons of this fateful constitution were being debated everywhere, with the usual blackmail and frightening lies serving to keep citizens democratically addicted to their elected officials, but also with an unprecedented feeling of live democracy, both in the streets and in newspaper columns. The pros: continuing the EU construction process without selfishly endangering it; building a united world-class entity able to resist both American imperialism and the Chinese economic boom; adopting an abstract yet open-minded treaty (full of great clauses on the “fundamental human rights” of European citizens) in order to give it soon enough a substantial political reality. The cons: levelling down fiscal and welfare policies at the expense of member countries who have a strong tradition of state regulation; favoring financial markets over social priorities and low inflation over high employment; endorsing the long-standing EU philosophy of open markets (including in our century-old public sectors) and technocratic rule without even trying to build an alternate Europe by and for the people.
The text of the constitution could be read in either direction, depending on where you looked among its many sections, its warm principles and cold-blooded statements. And while the whole process of EU construction has amounted to favoring deregulated markets over social solidarity, defenders of the latter (hence of the No vote) in the referendum campaign used bad faith and cynical tactics to misrepresent the text in order to boost their political careers.
Despite such a proliferation of readings (was there a class for this text?), the stunning democratic victory on May 29—with all due disrespect to the Eurocentric, neo-Kantian notion of “democracy”—was the victory of a positive No over an enslaved Yes, of silent subalterns over experts of the Word, of lower classes over higher incomes, of small provincial towns over large cities and Paris. The victors were a scattered and invisible “multitude” (even though Antonio Negri, the father of that concept, favored the Yes vote), which is both scary and exhilarating—as they were in fact made up of an unprecedented mix of Le Pen’s fascist admirers, right-wing nationalists, Trotskyists from two competing leftist parties, and anti-globalization aficionados from all sides.
However, a real outsider (say, an American) witnessing the odd discussions of last May would have been struck less by the actual arguments on each side than by the overall rage and passion raised by the referendum: forget about the end of politics, forget the yellow press, the TV format of political language, the general indifference and depoliticization of all Western citizens turned into selfish consumers! Debating ideas seemed to have suddenly become a full-time obsession for more than 42 million voters, who appeared more interested than they’d been in the last twenty-five years of ordinary elections. But why, then, did I feel that it all sounded more like a TV talk show or the impossible sound of an internet chatroom than like a real-life democratic agora?
I’d call it the paradox of the chatroom society: a post-industrial, post-social universe where general anomie and new technological devices have promoted and at the same time terminally devalued dialogue. “Dialogue” is now the ultimate existential commodity; entering into it offers one’s only chance to have sex, it supplies the moral justification for the herds of pollsters and market analysts hungry for your opinion on anything, and it cloaks politics in a performative construction of the “general will.” Yet dialogue has changed from a key element of socialization to the familiar companion of a billion lonely lives. Think of chat as the end of dialogue, or on-demand dialogue as the end of social life. The chatroom society, where you meet and work and purchase and negotiate through (mostly online) dialogue, may well be “more” democratic than Athens’s agora or the free meetings of 1960s student movements, as far as numbers are concerned, but it only proves that democracy is now just the noise drowning out the steady hum of real power. “Democracy” confiscates democracy in the very process of pretending to pass it on, offering it as an individual fetish to each single voter (or chatter, or consumer) the better to hide that it’s all being decided elsewhere. No matter how we voted on May 29, the pluto-technocrats were going to have their way with our countries. You can always chat forever, since dialogue is no longer what power is about. Habermas still promotes the “ethics of discussion,” but all we have is the spectacle of it.
In the chatroom society, where you’ll be famous for fifteen minutes and then will chat online the rest of the time, you still have the annoyance of being with others—as soon as you step out into a nervous crowd after two hours of these surrogate dreams on the monitor. Which recalls an old existentialist experience: you stare at someone in the train to the point of feeling you are that person, and then wake up from this fantasy hating both the upset Other, now raising his eyebrows, and your cowardly self, lost in confused apologies. You explain: I wish I were you—not for your objective qualities, stupid!—just to not have to face you or even look at you any longer.
If the paris subway is the perfect site for that Sartrean experience, riding a Vespa through the streets of Paris may be the best way to enjoy a different kind of experience, a territorial one made of lines crossing and intermingling, lines of flight and bus lines, soft lines and hard lines, a molecular (or micropolitical) experience dealing more with interstices and agility than with your poor individual self sitting on an Italian moped.
So here we go: offline flesh is a sad thing, it feels like I’ve read all the books, and I have even quit smoking Moroccan hashish with the silly idea that trading the torpor of life for the efficiency of living was a wise move—but nothing remains more enjoyable, nothing is closer to an orgy of freedom, a real social interaction with and without my fellow Parisians, than riding my Vespa across the gridlocked traffic from the western Champs-Elysées to the eastern end of Belleville ten miles away. I’ll debate the future of Europe with you—but let me first enjoy the thrill of a ride away from the gridlock of the chatroom society.