The Pundits And Us: Traps Of Our Commentariat Society

Staying updated with the news has become a way to pass time, but there are real effects on the health of the polity.

France's 24-hour news network BFMTV
France's 24-hour news network BFMTV
Nicolas Truong


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?

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!