PARIS — In radio or TV news studios, experts and essay writers, journalists and public speakers are invited to comment on the news of the day, all the time. Is this democratic progress or ideological slippage?
What's certain is it's persistent background noise. A constant hubbub. A heady ambient music that seems to put information and opinion, reason and passion, knowledge and experience on an equal footing. From social media to 24-hour news channels, the commentariat society expands its influence across public spaces, through controversies and off-the-cuff analysis.
Does its spread represent progress for democracy that could be defined, with the framing of French philosopher Jacques Rancière, as the power of "anyone" or evidence of the tyrannical power of spoiled individuals to say "anything"? A sign of position egalitarianism or opinion relativism? Is it an ever-increasing social demand for participation, outspokenness and blunt speech or a technological-commercial injunction to display one's irresistible impulse, to create fakes and clash? The significance that has been attributed to commenting, in any case, is troublesome even at the highest levels of the State.
French President Emmanuel Macron has warned about the risks of the phenomenon: "The main problem, to me, is the crumbling of hierarchies, implicitly provoked by the society of permanent commentary: the feeling that all is equal, that all voices are equal, the voice of a non specialist who has an opinion on the virus is worth the same as that of a real scientist," he declared emphatically during a December interview for L'Express magazine.
From social media to 24-hour news channels, the commentariat society expands its influence across public spaces.
The health crisis has probably made it worse. Leveling and smoothing effects of television: On TV or radio sets — that are now filmed — the voice of an editorial writer and that of an epidemiologist are placed on the same level. "The self-declared pundit delegitimizes everything that was reasonable, and now anyone can feel free to doubt official discourses," French essay writer Christian Salmon said. "To the point where we have doubts about everything." This echoes Macron, who told L'Express, "The psychological and social consequences are terrible, because we end up not believing in anything."
The dominion of the commentariat, or punditocracy, reflects the ever-increasing influence of the media, which often occupy the space deserted by public places, political parties or even labor unions. Back in 1988, Guy Debord, co-founder of the Situationist International and author of Society of the Spectacle ("La Société du Spectacle") wrote that the media had colonized and destroyed the public spaces of the past. And today, it is precisely the pundits who have turned into a spectacle, as news becomes entertainment.
"We keep ourselves updated also to pass the time," says French journalist Jean-Sébastien Ferjou, himself a regular invité to talk shows. It might be one of the reasons why the sports model has spread to the political and intellectual sphere, with sparring matches, battles and duels that are often hatched up beforehand.
BFMTV's Ruth Elkrief speaking with President Macron — Photo: Manuel Blondeau/Aop.Press/ZUMA
Valérie Jeanne-Perrier, Professor of Information and Communication Sciences at the Sorbonne, and head of the Celsa School of Journalism, describes the news today as "background noise," responding to a permanent drive to grab the public's attention. "It is the media ratings and especially the digital measures that are multiplying all of the commentary," she went on. On social media, "emojis" keep offering a wide range of moods, feelings and reactions. "Our digitized society is two-folded and is governed by algorithms'', Professor of Information and Communication Sciences at Rennes-II University Pierre Musso said. "Feedback dominates and the action-reaction cycle prevails, as shown by the "like" and "dislike" options on Facebook."
Public space is informed by media technology. Constantly using the emotional register and putting reason aside has created certain "Monsters 2.0" such as fake news, harassment, and the increase of violent content. "There are things one can do in a virtual space that would be unacceptable in the real world," notes Pauline Escande-Gauquié of Paris-Sorbonne-Celsa University.
The measurable society — ruled by numbers — also produces a literally limitless world. "The presence of hateful reactions should not lead to a uniform vision of commenting", Valérie Jeanne-Perrier said. "We often focus on their downfalls, but most of them call for solidarity and peer support, and help, in such a hard time, shaping an ethics of care."
But still. Many intellectuals, including Christian Salmon, think that in this commentariat society, "reasoned deliberation gives way to a release of transgression. And they are wondering how to behave in a public space that does not look so much as the one described by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, which appeared in the bourgeois salons of Europe during the 18th century, in which citizens and intellectuals shared progressive ideas, and opposed absolutism..
The figure of the "specific intellectual" was conceived of by French philosopher Michel Foucault to refer to the researcher who engages in the public space with a determined knowledge but without meaning to say "the right-and-the-true for all". [...] That is why, according to French historian Gérard Noiriel, "he can only step into the public space on issues he has already studied for years. However, this figure seems today stuck within the continuous flow of discourses for which we have to share our opinion at every opportunity.
There are things one can do in a virtual space that would be unacceptable in the real world.
The conditions for intellectuals and journalists are quite similar today. What is the point of claiming legitimacy based on an ethics code and an occupation if the figure of the journalist is reduced to that of a commentator who randomly gives his opinion on TV? "There is a high risk, indeed, that the whole profession might lose its credibility, particularly when commentators neglect facts, as we see far too often," media historian Alexis Lévrier said. "Especially since news channels often deem ‘editorial writers' people who have nothing to do with journalism." Yet most of the time, you do not become an editorial writer without having worked as a reporter and having had experience in the field.
There is the risk of disrupting the journalistic function but we also see the art of political diversion. "The increasing importance of the commentariat is a blessing for those in power, who can more easily manipulate the news cycle by instigating topics to divert attention or direct it to issues they control," says Cécile Alduy, semiotics specialist and Professor of French Literature at Stanford University.
From ideological manipulation to the logic of discrediting truth, the reign of the pundits may represent a bona fide threat to democracy. But what if it was the other way round? "A commentariat society is a democratic society," said French sociologist Arnaud Esquerre. "Social media have made public some of those conservations that had been confined to the private sphere," they said.
We can acknowledge the democratic virtues of sharing opinions without falling into the trap of the punditocracy. And to avoid this flow of words and images that can look like a comedy of the "I know nothing but will say everything," that French actor and director Pierre Richard made fun of. "The problem now is no longer about allowing people to talk, but to provide them with the empty spaces and silence of solitude where they would finally find something to say," wrote French philosopher Gilles Deleuze back in 1985. And what if the arrival of the commentariat society became an invitation to learn the importance of how to keep quiet?
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