Art, Science, literature, all the intellectual activities that are gathered under the term of culture, are usually presented as the production of "great men" at the service of the whole society.
This figure of the great man presents culture to us as the product of a relatively lonely activity but addressed – if not accessible – to all. It would be hard to find examples corresponding to such a model in real history.
In reality, culture is rather addressed to cultured people. Even in the case of what is called "popular culture", is made by and for people who share the same culture. More precisely: reality is the antithesis of this too quickly accepted model: peers are addressed by their peers, exchange their work in relatively closed networks. There are not really such things as "great men" but rather groups, milieus, schools, etc... There is not a more direct relation between creators and the "public", the "city", “customers” or "the society", but initially a direct exchange between the formers. At most between the activities of these networks, and the rest of the society there is a sort capillary relationship, media hyped by techniques, architecture, urbanism, etc.
All that, one will admit is not very satisfactory for a democratic and egalitarian spirit. Perhaps it is even less satisfactory for a pragmatic spirit concerned with effectiveness. Indeed, these partitions are restraints for the circulation of knowledge and ideas, and especially for their realization. History shows us that when groups venture too far from the majority of the people among whom they live, being avant-garde, they endanger their conquests, if not their existence.
The problem is rather generally admitted, and solutions have long been actively sought. Those then, are distorted by the unanimously accepted model, and if one objects that culture never was that, he will be told that it must precisely become that. One will possibly question the figure of the great man, of the genius and of inspiration. It will not be disputed that culture must be made by producers, for consumers. And yet it is this initial assumption which is wrong.
Without playing too much on words, culture is nothing like a product for human consumption. It is not even a product, it is rather a means of production. In which aspects would the "consumption of culture" be a different thing from what Pascal calls "entertainment"? In this case, culture would at most be a means of production means for entertainment.
Continuing along with this absurd thread, one could legitimately ask the question: would democratizing culture mean to democratize access to entertainment, or to democratize the production means of entertainment? *One shall observe the conflicts that are already focusing on this absurd question. But culture is not there.
Let us come back to the basic model: A certain number of particularly gifted men produces cultural goods for the benefit of others less gifted. This model is sometimes partly criticized. Authors dispute that they are particularly gifted and will rather want to point out their craftsmanship, their method, their technique; things essentially much more accessible than a "gift" at the cost of the required efforts. Others will insist on the benefit of collaborations or the means put to work. Some others, sometimes with opposing arguments, will question the fact that culture is at the service of whomever, if at all. Sometimes they will point out that the benefit of all is very often the alibi of those who rule or exploit them. All that is true, but only partially true, and the model is therefore not seriously questioned.
Reading and writing might well be said to be the first claim for a democratization of culture. (One could add to counting, if it were not already an inherent part of writing.) Reading and writing are a whole, one does not do, nor does not know one without the other. One can only read to the extent up to the level where one can write. It is impossible for one to understand the subtleties of a text, if he is unable to approach them through writing. It is to some extent true of any intellectual activity.
The objection here is immediate: can't one dance without knowing how to play music, move with the cinema without knowing to direct a film crew? Let us be wary about what seems too obvious. Not just anyone will dance to any music; a raver on a Chinese traditional air, or a Chinese peasant on techno. One will not reach that without some cultural preparation. Even more significant will be the work that the musician himself shall have to accomplish, to reach that point. Particularly, he shall have to avoid abandoning himself to his own creativity, to which its large audience might not be sensitive. On both sides, each one will move away from the conditions of a true musical creation.
On the other hand, everyone knows that the greatest pleasure, and the best condition for musical creation consists in playing together. In any intellectual activity, the Mathematician for example, will experience great difficulties communicating with the ones who do not master his art, and in any case, will not succeed in communicating his thoughts without leading them in their approach. When one understands this point properly, he sees that this is not only the way culture is democratized and disseminated, but more specifically the way that imagination and human creativity are stimulated.
To acquire culture implies learning how to master methods, instruments, languages, techniques, etc.
This has always been known. The ruling classes who praised their (so properly called) classical music, always had at least a piano in their house, and even in the masses, ownership of popular musical instruments was just as frequent.
Today, there is almost only one instrument for everyone and all their intellectual activities; an instrument that must be used if they want to do something with others: the personal-computer. The personal-computer hence ends up being found everywhere. It is at the same time, an excellent tool for creation, training and exchange.
One may wonder how such a conception of culture as the one described above, could be so unilaterally imposed – why, and especially when. As regards the question of "how" one can already put forward the answer: by detaching a "culture of classics" from a "techno-culture". Regarding this question, "when", one can answer: with the rise of totalitarianism which put an end to the avant-garde’s progress in first half of the twentieth century. Heidegger is the main and the most consistent theoretician of this cultural model, and of opposing it with "technique". The answer to the question "why" can result from the preceding ones: so that a democratization of culture does not interfere with the control of the means of production. On the whole, it is a way of admitting the need for the dissemination and the sharing of knowledge, and ideas while refusing them.
It is also a way to isolate a necessarily local "culture of classics", from a necessarily universal scientific and technical culture, to prevent them from mutually feeding each other, and finally to sterilize them. In fact, it certainly is a way to reduce culture to an ethnic, geographical, national, and non-universal dimension, while destroying the conditions of its development. In fact, the Modern West justifies and enforces the superiority of its local culture upon the universality of its scientific culture.
Just as access to culture is by no means access to the consumption of entertainments, access to technique is not access to technology. Technology, is the integration of technique in the object – the productive object, tool, machine, or the consumable object, goods, or services. The appropriation of such an object does not suppose the appropriation of its associated techniques. Quite on the contrary, the technological object often saves us the need for understanding a technique that it puts into work for us. Just as technology is very often used to de-qualify the worker without necessarily putting to work very new techniques, it may as well be used for de-qualifying the user. The critic of the dominating model of culture is also the critic of technology.
One will note that a critic of the model, which dominated almost a century, does not come from the world of literature or the arts, nor of philosophy or of the Social Sciences. It comes from the other side of the culture, precisely of the data processing specialist engineers.
Such a situation is certainly not without some sort of concealed relationship, with the fact that the personal-computer became the universal instrument.
The innocent claim for freely accessing the source code of the software programs irresistibly appears, even for those who are unaware of its practical meanings, as a powerful detonator, which ends up contaminating, by focusing for them, all aspects of intellectual life. It is then not very difficult to prolongate this reasoning until exceeding the false question, knowing if the progress of technique makes the happiness or misfortune of men. It is contrary that the dispossession of any access to the technique which condemns them to become the toys of those which, without even possessing it, only have the right to direct it.
What determines the success, the value of an intellectual work, or at the very least the satisfaction of its author and of who discovers his work? The fact that it opens the door towards other inventions, other creations. Whatever the narcissistic satisfaction or financial advantages the author may draw from his work, whatever the pleasure another may draw from discovering his work, most significant is the prolongations that others will make of it, as well as the ones that in turn they will enable him to do.
This is why researchers, artists, authors... tend to gather and work in networks, not to say to hunt in gangs. The effectiveness that they get has much more value than a public success or than any other reward, of which in the course of time, those which marked posterity were often deprived of.
This appears to raise problems. The first problem is that these mediums and these groups must manage to get in trade with the rest of the world in order to acquire the means they need for their work, or if only for survival. The second problem is more serious. One can easily admit that the agricultural world does not have anything else to offer but foodstuffs and raw materials. Of intellectual work, one expects the means of its reproduction, rather than consumer goods, might it be of a productive consumption. It rather proposes the exchange of production means, rather than of consumer goods. The dissemination of ideas and knowledge is not easily separable from the means of their reproduction.
The model and the prototype of Western civilization is the Florentine Renaissance. It consists primarily in a milieu of artists, engineers, poets and philosophers taking the power in an Italian Republic. Except if confusing their "Cultural revolution" with the sumptuous festivals that the Médicis gave, this "intellectual power" was not put at the service of the people but rather for self-service. "The Prince" – in fact the dynasty of Médicis -- is much more the guard and the guarantor of the power of this cultivated elite, a part of which it is entirely, rather than a real "employer" for the benefit of the city.
This model may be criticized, and first because it was not very viable. On several occasions the power was put down, for the great benefit of the court of France, where Leonardo da Vinci and Pico della Mirandola took refuge, Galileo was condemned by the church, all Italy was subjected to the theocratic and feudal power of the Holy Roman Empire, and this workshop of modernity ended up moving towards Northern Europe. Is it really criticizable because it would have been better if the Médicis had indeed been the employers of these intellectuals to the service of the city, or because it would have been preferable that their concerns and practices had spread?
It should be carefully considered that the first answer could only mean the control of culture by the Masters of the city. As for the second answer, it is not necessary to have much imagination to understand that a generalization of the cultural practices would radically transform the culture, to the point that it would be absurd to preach one without the other.
From almost time immemorial, as regards any form of writings, the circle of the readers did not exceed much the circle of those who were in the position to write. The reading practices extended. How could writing practices also not extend? Would one fear that there would soon be more authors than readers to read them? It is time to understand that this was about always the case. The circle simply extended.
At this same time, also a culture of consumption developed, separated, as we already saw, of the scientific and technological culture: consumable and very often disposable literature *, so little was it intended to resist to the changes of fashion, or to result in anything else than possibly derived products; records, films, etc., and even a scientific popularization of the same brand. The existence of such products is not always a bad thing, far from it, since each one can find pleasure in their consumption. Confusion, uncertainty that borders between this production of entertainment, and the intellectual work itself can also be a good thing.
Precisely, this was seen as a vector for culture democratization, which is going one step too far.
The twentieth century was the century of the masses: mass production, mass media, mass ideology... It was determined by an industrial gigantism (oil, automobiles...), giving to the political institutions a role of managers of the economy and industry, and to the giants of industry and trade, a political role. In the hands of both, time also generated a mass culture. This resulted in the fact that success, the success of any project undertaken, initially had to meet the condition of being imposed on the masses.
The principle of mass society is that nothing exists if it is not under the eyes of all. This relies on the erroneous but reasonable belief, that a thing is visible since it exists. From there, one passes to the extravagant belief that a thing exists as soon as it is visible. This resulted in a race for visibility, publicity, propaganda, celebrity, up to the point to make of what was initially a means, become the only means, and finally the ultimate goal.
The model of the mass culture is addressing the multitude. The significant point here, is less how the receiver perceives such of way of addressing him, nor how he would end up – or not – believing that any expression is ultimately addressed to him – him, as a private person as well as an element of a Great Collective Whole. The significant point is rather how the author, the producer of every thought, knowledge or work, internalizes this addressing the multitude. The question may simply be translated as follows: "who am I speaking to" as soon as I produce a statement or a work which exceeds the private sphere? Though held back, it is an essential question.
Except in certain pathological cases, any person can speak. When he speaks, everyone sees well enough whom he is speaking to. The orchestra that leads the ball sees well enough who dances. The professor knows his pupils, the one who writes a research report has got some idea of the colleagues who will read it. What does it mean to pass from such a circumscribed relation to an ad infinitum opened relation?
One can speak in a restricted group without being constrained by the fact that unknown people joined the group. It is however probable that the arrival of unknown people will cause changes in the statements. As a matter of fact, one adjusts his thoughts based on what one knows of his interlocutors.
It is probable that from a certain moment on, what one will knows of his interlocutors will no longer be anything more than the fruits of his own imagination. In any case it will not be what they will have let him learn from them.
It may happen that someone speaks to a crowd, whether singing or playing to it, one will then adjust his own behavior to the reaction of this crowd. The bigger the crowd is, the more the crowd's reactions will be close to a trance – cries, applause – and on the other hand, the less one will be able to perceive the reaction of only one person at that same time. Besides the reaction of this one person will tend to disappear in the reactions of the crowd.
Not anyone gets an occasion to speak to a crowd (there is not enough crowds for everyone). Each one is however trained to internalize such ways of addressing crowds. The important point is not, as one often underlined, that the spectator identifies himself with the popular orator or the star, the important point is that by this identification, on both sides each one assimilates this posture towards the crowd, assimilates the crowd as being the ultimate interlocutor, and irresistibly fixes his own thoughts on this posture.
Whoever made the experiment of addressing the public had to observe that he was searching for faces on which to find support. Preferably they are well-known faces, and that requires that the audience is not too numerous.
If he sufficiently practiced, he may have noticed that this attitude is disastrous, except when really shouting to this person or these people, or answering their calling out. At best may he switch quickly from one face to another. He will gain in effectiveness if he is not addressing anybody in particular, if he officiates for a virtual being, to some extent.
One could put forward that any intellectual work is not a two terms relation (transmitter, receivers), but at least a three terms relation. This third character is a virtual being, however a determining one. That practically means that one hasn’t control nor freedom of his intellectual activity without having first some control of this virtual being. One can have an idea of the stake that controlling this virtual being represents, by recognizing it under its names such as "the public opinion", "the citizen", "the spectator", etc... The one who controls it can deprive anyone of any stating power. He has even nothing left to state anymore since every statement will be his own.
One knows well, at least intuitively, this virtual third-party, this is why one tries to exorcise it in a triangular relation: public discussion, interview. One addresses one or more people under the eyes of an audience. Possibly, the relation with this audience in flesh and bone can be presented to another larger and invisible audience. The fact is that one is always under the eyes of a crowd, of an undifferentiated mass.
This virtual third-party is always present in writing, would it only be because the reader is always absent during the process of writing. Even in the case of a private letter, the virtual third-party is then, to use again Derrida's formula, the différance of the real recipient. It is by means of writing too that one has the better hopes of controlling it. It is enough, when writing a private letter, to imagine its public revealing, even in the long run and of one's full willing, for the virtual third-party to try to take the pen. It is so true that knowing how to write, once the lexicon and syntax is known, is to know what to do of this third-party.
It is easily understandable that mass communication makes such a control very problematic.
The man of today, the one who writes these lines among others, is a product of mass communication. This means that the least autonomous and personal thought is an extremely complex operation for him. What is remarkable, it is that such operations may, in spite of all be possible, and that one may then think just as well, or at least not more badly than he always did. Writing, and then its reproduction, already had largely complicated things. These difficulties once overcome, the strength of the spirit was finally increased in the process.
This virtual third-party, which is in the essence of the Spectacle, and the spectacular character of the twentieth century culture, is losing step by step any consistency.
On one side, modern communication means virtually offers to anyone, a possibility to address the entire mankind, and on the other side, by offering this to more and more people, they withdraw any chance of such a realization. The new conditions are due to the multiplication of radio and television channels, of books and newspaper titles and their decreasing printing quantities. The ultimate point is the Internet, where each one may virtually address the whole world, while knowing very well that the whole world is not interested in each person.
We all are today products of the mass communication, while being in the objective situation not to believe in it more. The man of today is in this paradoxical situation to no longer be able to place himself in the posture of addressing the multitude, while having the greatest difficulties to conceive himself in a different position other than being under the eyes of all. It is important to avoid a psychological or sociological interpretation of what has just been said, because it would be sterile. It is important to understand it from a linguistic, semantic, semiotic, pragmatic, and thus technical point of view. The fulcrum that may be used is to consider the conditions of effectiveness of any statement or any intellectual work.
Let us assume the existence of a mass culture made for all. It would then be produced by professionals. Those would constitute a branch of the production. It is probable that this branch would be divided into two: one that would produce entertainment and spectacle, and another one that would produce a type of knowledge that would immediately be exploitable in the other production branches, without relating to the common brand of people. It is more or less the model of culture in the twentieth century.
Such a model has at least two serious disadvantages. It does not allow culture to be disseminated. It even supposes a will to prevent this dissemination in the name of the corporative interests of those who produce it, and who finally give place to those whom have the rights and the patents on it. The "public" is satisfied to consume ready-made products in the form of entertainment or of technology. It does not allow either the actors of culture to be constituted into an autonomous elite or avant-garde. They may only be "workers of the culture" or "researchers", or be pushed back in the margin of a "counter-culture".
A marginal counter-culture under such conditions is a myth. It is probable that what stands for it will only reproduce the mass culture under the colors of volunteer work. It will be a kind of experimentation and inspiration reserve, a manpower and think tank (assuming that this counter-culture would be, where would then be culture itself?) To say things in an even simpler way: refusing the model or submitting to it leads to the same dead end – why? – because this model is not a viable one.
The model is not viable because of a certain number of consequences that it draws with it: It generates a Pharaonic industry of entertainment, that may well be producing value in strictly monetary terms, but actually does not produce anything at all on the whole, and is only a ruinous extravagant expenditure, constituting what George Bataille called ‘The Accursed Share’ 1. It trains the researchers to improve the candles rather than to search for electricity. It forces each one to daily reinvent the wheel and to perhaps be sued if he teaches it to another, etc.
Much similarly to psychology and sociology, it is important to avoid an economic, political or legal approach of what has just been said. The intellectuals, the artists, the researchers of the twentieth century only wondered too much whom or what they were to be useful to, at the service of whom or what they were to put themselves. Such justifications hardly cover unclever claims about incomes, subsidies, statute or standards of living.
If the knowledge and the understanding of the world, the improvement of our cognitive tools, the acuity of our intuitions... are not justification as such, one wonders what would then mean "useful" or "useless".
The only worthy question is, then "how": what are the conditions of success.
1“The Accursed Share” (La Part maudite), Georges Bataille, written between 1946-1949, published by Les Éditions de Minuit. English Translation, 1991.