Thierry Bardini is a tenured professor and Director of the Department of Communication at the University of Montreal. He has a degree in agricultural engineering (ENSA Montpellier, 1986) and a doctorate in sociology (Paris X Nanterre, 1991). Since 1990, his research has focused upon the history and sociology of cyber culture. He is currently directing a research program funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada entitled Biological Bricolage and the Tensions of Liberalism.
BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ said the bumblebee
“In terms of information, victory is no longer a matter of a war of position (…), but one of movement: the generation and sustaining of attention over a prolonged period, inciting new dynamics that encourage one’s message to be cited, copied, and commented upon, leaving the opposing viewpoint in a void of indifference. The triumph of influence over authority, in certain respects of the ‘soft’ over the ‘hard’, is a harbinger not of the end of the conflict, but rather its extension into new areas.”
—François-Bernard Huyghe, 2011. “Une guerre de l’attention (“A War for Attention”)” Médium 4 (29): 66-83.
Homo Nexus and the XXIV Philosophers
All who Nature’s tribes are swelling
Homage pay to sympathy;
For she guides us up on high,
Where the unknown has his dwelling.
– Friedrich von Schiller, Hymn to Joy, 1885
“Blogs and social networks are a new form of this infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.” This metaphorical citation, attributed to François Jost, is the true cornerstone, if not the touchstone, of our discourse. It assigns a new theme (or rather ‘content’ as opposed to ‘form’, according to Jost) to the famed phoros (or vehicle) that modern people know as “Pascal’s sphere.” Since this new form is supposed to be found in blogs and social networks, I asked Google and Wikipedia what they knew about this sphere (Facebook did not answer, and Twitter is too short). According to these authorities, it has a long legacy among the Classical world, since it originated with Empedocles (5th century BCE), or Aristotle (4th century BCE) or perhaps even the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. It was subsequently found among a plethora of authors: Alain de Lille (1116/17–1202/03), Vincent de Beauvais (1184/94–1264), Saint Bonaventure (1217/18–1274), Jean de Meun (1240–1305), Meister Eckhart (1260–1328), Jean Duns Scotus (1266–1308), Jean Gerson (1363-1429), Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444), Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), Rabelais (1483/94–1553), Robert Fludd (1574–1637), Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) and finally, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). A narrative trope underlying this legacy through the foremost attribution to Aristotle leads one to believe that, in the 13th century, probably between 1210 and 1230, the Book of the XXIV Philosophers was compiled in Toledo, Spain – a pale imitation of the banned text which was thought to have been the Stagirite’s work, entitled De Philosophia, which had been rediscovered a few years earlier. According to Jacques Follon, this book – considered one of the most mysterious and Hermetic texts, as well as one of the most important in the history of Medieval philosophy, and even the entire history of philosophy – contains the first appearance of this phore, or agent of the divine. Nevertheless, this attribution of original status is not so paradoxical if one takes into account that the version attributed to Alain de Lille (who had already been dead seven years before the supposed date of the composition of the Book of the XXIV Philosophers) differs in one word from that of the original book: the vehicle is said to be “an intelligible sphere,” rather than an “infinite” one, even if its sense remains, at least in its early usage, the divine (as in “God is…”). Like Françoise Hurdy, whose book he discusses, Follon insists upon the lexical difference of the phore (agent) when unraveling the prior history of the book. In fact, this apparently minor difference enables us to distinguish between the book’s Neoplatonic and Aristotelian origins. To Plato we ascribe the “intelligible” (most frequently meaning unrecognizable through the senses, imagination or reason), namely, the concepts of theology, subsequent hermeticism and diverse forms of mysticism. To Aristotle, the “infinite,” let us say, more philosophical, scientific and mathematical approaches; however, it was also an essentially pagan one, for which he was condemned and proscribed in 1215. Actually, the spherical metaphor presents an entire series of modulations between these two poles and should, by rights, be written in Latin, with a space in brackets that designates the area of modulation: sphaera [ ] cuius centrum est ubique, circumferentia nusquam. According to the preceding list of authors, the modulation can be “intelligible” (as is the case with de Lille, Saint Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, or Gerson), or “infinite” (per Nicholas of Cusa), or even “infinite and intellectual” (according to Meister Eckhart and Rabelais). Only de Beauvais and Bruno introduce no modulation. In his work Le Roman de la Rose, Jean de Meun even dares to say “marvelous”; Pascal, who opts for the infinite, might possibly have added “astonishing,” or even, if Jorge Luis Borgès is to be believed, effroyable or “terrible.” However, behind all these variations upon the concept of the phore (agent), lies more extensive variations upon the theme. While the first referents consider the divine, the metaphor is subsequently applied to the universe, nature, and finally, to living creatures – there too, with some modulations. Nicholas of Cusa was the first to apply the concept of the phore to God, but also to a new theme, “the machine of the world.” Indeed, Rabelais also revisited the divine, but Bruno, Pascal and the modernists who came after him adapted Cusa’s innovation: thenceforth, it was the universe that would be the central theme of the metaphor of the infinite sphere. In passing, another interesting variation, one that could be considered as part of the motif, appeared in the works of Bernardino of Siena in his defense against the accusations of heresy made against him: sphera intellectualis, cuius centrum, idest creatura, est ubique (“the intellectual sphere, i.e. the center, is everywhere”).
In order to confirm all this, I checked out the website I’Intern@ute in the section “Your Opinions” where I found some opinions on this citation, here attributed to Pascal. According to “Rr” (from Nice): “Pascal ensures the perpetuation of this quote but is not its brilliant progenitor, no more so than Alain de Lille (Alanus Insulis [sic]), who was the first to quote it, apparently citing Aristotle” (Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, 26 March 2014). As per “Pierre” of Issy les Moulineaux: “In fact, Nicolas de Cues [sic] affirms that “the world has no circumference… Thus the Earth, that cannot be the center, cannot be deprived of movement… The poles of the world do not exist…the machine of the world, has, so to speak, its center everywhere, and its circumference is nowhere…the blackness of the earth is not proof of its vile nature… The Earth possesses the same elements as the sun… Even the corruption of the things of the earth…does not constitute valid proof of a lack of nobility.” —N. de Cues [sic]” (Nicolas de Cues [sic] 1401–1464, May 14, 2008).
Meriem Rose’s (Blida) opinion: “I think that this quote is very pertinent for human beings.” (La Vie, 20 November 2007).
Finally, a comment by François Macré (from Veynes): “By definition, God is “all that exists,” since “nothing” exists beyond God. So this quote from Pascal really does apply to God. Moreover, this citation is not a metaphor. In reality, a sphere of infinite radius has a center that is accessible everywhere and a circumference that is accessible nowhere (or rather, only with a radial value). In fact, wherever one might find oneself in this sphere, one is, as a matter of course, at an infinite distance from its edge, in every spatial direction. Thus, in this case, one is invariably at the “center.” QED. A sphere with an infinite radius has an infinite number of centers. Consequently, God is an energy system of infinite radius. And each one of our individual consciences of perception is its center.” (God and the Universe, 18 April, 2007)
Evaluation of the internet surfers:
Opinion of Rr (Nice) *****
Opinion of Pierre (Issy Les Mx) *****
Opinion of Meriem ROSE (Blida) *****
Opinion of François MACRÉ (Veynes) *****
Oh yes, it was also a popularity contest, and François and Meriem won. Like good postmodernists, they joyfully stepped forth in the manner of Meriem, who considers that “human beings” (i.e. the creature among creatures) is now the [main] theme, or like François, who uses Bernardino of Siena’s variation in the same manner. We applaud the happy winners (end of commercial break).
What should be the “formal cause” of the citizen?
Sir Jeffrey Amherst asked Col. Henry Bouquet: “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox [sic] among those disaffected tribes of Indians?” Bouquet responded: “I will try to inoculate the Indians with some blankets that may fall in their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.” A pleased Amherst replied to Bouquet: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
I have said that the metaphor of Pascal’s sphere is the touchstone of your speech and now I will explain myself. I hope that you will pardon my long, archaeological preamble, but, in my eyes, it is of interest for at least one reason. It shows that, while the theme changes, its agent remains more or less the same, give or take a few modulations, and therein lies exactly the point. Now everyone seems to agree on the human substance, and Saint Bernardino’s creature has conquered the center of Pascal’s sphere, even to the point of forgetting his “sublime misanthropy,” as Voltaire put it. Today, the opinions of Meriem and François prevail, and now everyone is once again a kindly humanist, in a hip way: the creature of creatures is now a cybernaut. One who, if you all are to be believed, is the new hero of the story, since it is said that social networks imply self-heroization. We’re all heroes, we’re all connected. However, I sense your hesitation when it comes to the modulation – are we talking about ordinary heroes, which, according to current fashion, implies that our constantly asserted singularity might in the final analysis be our only common point, our one conformity? So, how do we modulate this sphere? Is it marvelous, astonishing, or terrible to behold? I will spare you “infinite,” now it’s a bit pleonastic, considering this new “form”; the same goes for “intelligible,” no one seems to still remember what it meant back when we still believed in spheres. It seems that you are hesitating. The same goes for terrible. Nevertheless, you do not intend to give in to this fatality; you think that it is just as possible to find your place, create a space for discussion, to push the walls back to allow new thoughts to be expressed. In order to accomplish this, you practice the tactics of diversion, a semiotic guerilla war with the very weapons of marketing (agit-prop, Instagram style). In short, you resist Pascal-esque dread.
As Michel de Certeau has taught us in times past, tactics, the one thing endemic to guerrilla war (which is in fact, the absence of the former) is an art of the weak whose only grounds are those of the other. You seem to relegate the sphere to the realm of spectacle and act like guerrillas on its own turf, or as you say yourselves: it was by publishing the news on communities of women mostly dedicated to advice on makeup and boyfriends that we initiated discussions on equality. You’re poaching on the territory of the “Young-Girl,” because, according to Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl: “The Young-Girl is the final cause of the spectacular economy, its immobile prime mover.” Fine, Tiqqun is mistaken in their evocation of the intelligible sphere, without even realizing it. The Young-Girl is by no means the “final” cause, but rather the “formal” cause of the “spectacular” commodity-economy. This is confirmed by the trickster Marshall McLuhan, who put it aptly, if not setting it out with as much clarity. The media’s formal cause is their public (which is, consequently their subject, as we currently say in France). Whatever the case may be, you expect to be practicing an oblique form of stealth marketing, also referred to as viral marketing or buzz marketing, one of several means of creating a sort of “2.0 version” of electronic word of mouth. That is to say that you would be ensuring that the above-mentioned Young-Girls, the object of your campaign, would themselves be doing the essential exchanging of their own messages on the net. “Furtive” refers in computing parlance to a stealth virus, one that infects covertly, without revealing itself, thus avoiding virus detection software. The operative term in your prose is good old “infiltration,” conceived here as a new “virtual” form of entryism. It consists of, to cite the site somewhat elliptically, of “appearing to be credible […], of proceeding with a certain form of clandestinity […], in order to infiltrate spaces […], appropriate the codes of social networks in order to better infiltrate [various] communities […] that would enable one to acquire traction and visibility.” The program is clear, the tactics deemed acceptable. It’s simply a media matter, understood under the umbrella of “means,” as in “the ends justify the means.” But what exactly are the ends?
I would quickly go on to advance the following: the end of the loss of interest of these former citizens (as one would have put it in 1794). Biopower is now available as a cream, pill or spray…too cool! Seriously, your aim is to link the themes of buzz to the realm of citizen communication […] thus purveying alternative content of another dimension, be it political, social or political […]; producing useful, committed communications to support social issues, such as raising awareness, transforming behaviors, or building support for a given project. Buzz is just a means to achieving that end, and in no way an end in and of itself, not “buzz for the sake of buzz.” Your intent is to raise Young-Girl out of her torpor, appropriating the very grammar of her usual broadcasts in order to awaken the citizen within her. However, this cannot be justified unless ONE imagines her as slumbering, or at least as somewhat dumbfounded in the face of the spectacle of current events. The overall panoptic nature of events manifests in every shape and size. There is one to fit every purse, gender… too cool! No, but seriously, one must recommit the Young-Girl to the good and just causes of the moment. Indeed, like all other indigenous tribes of the hip contemporary blogosphere, those ONE refers to as “digital natives,” are universally disenchanted. Same evil, same cure, but it is nevertheless symbolic: it encompasses disillusion, discontent, bitterness, frustration, but also rebelliousness and dissidence. Moreover, you yourself imagine that, since the appropriation of the message by the individual, or the disseminator is central, one must accept the latter’s control of the message. Then one must react to the commentaries and the parodic diversions, and, as the case may be, elaborate responses. In short, they no longer believe in the system, they no longer vote, they can no longer muster indignation over the violence of the prevailing icons of the pervasive prostitution, or…they don gilets jaunes (yellow jackets). One must at least use a far more monstrous meme to wake them up, such as an unnatural alliance on the level of Kim Jong-Un with Kim Kardashian (but even then, I can still see one of them laughing and finding it all too cute).
The acknowledgement of this disillusionment is far from being limited to you, and has even been raised in a more direct, if more unpleasant, manner. Bring on the great numbness, the digital anesthesia! As Pink Floyd put it as early as 1979, in their album The Wall, “I have become comfortably numb.” Digital pins and needles in prosthetic legs, our arthropod-future: our means of transport have transformed our global village into gigantic anthills, our hyperindustrial media churns out a global society of withdrawn individuals, “easily led, tribalized persons who seem to be heading towards an anthropomorphic social organization of cognitive, even reactive, agents, who, like ants, tend to produce, not symbols, but rather digital pheromones,” as the expert Bernard Stiegler states. Just like Pokemons… too cool!
Astroturfing the Agent Image, or, Through a Scanner, Darkly
Perhaps it’s high time we asked whether it [sic], like the medieval Feast of Fools to which it is distantly related, was always just a socially sanctioned release valve—a tactical outlet for class resentments and pent-up dissent over social injustices and economic inequities that might have found a more profoundly political expression if they hadn’t been harmlessly exorcized through rituals of resistance.
– Mark Dery, 2010.
Stealth marketing practices can sometimes be illegal or at the very least contrary to the professional code of ethics, as one well knows: “thus appropriating the spirit of virality places the designer at the ethical limits of their profession,” as you say. However, that is the least of the risks. Like its predecessor, “social marketing,” it might also prove susceptible to appropriation by the counter-culture, as in the past, and thus one runs the risk of foundering in an infinite regression of deflection upon deflection, ad infinitum, like the sphere. To put it plainly, what becomes of stealth marketing when it becomes socially aware? Is it a sort of Social Marketing 2.0? Or rather, is it a new phenomenon, “vicial” (viral + social) marketing, and if so, how does this new phenomenon transcend the problems of the former?
The trouble is that social marketing has obviously already been recycled, and that its “true/false” campaigns are now part and parcel of the arsenal of stealth marketing among businesses. Marketing literature is full of advice for exploiting the social values of the target market in order to present the product in a respectable light within its sphere of the consumer market. It is then recommended that shrewd companies invest in “social causes” in order to progressively develop a positive and respected company image that can contribute to its branding. Even worse, if they wished, they could practice a bit of astroturfing, simulating a spontaneous protest movement concerning a product, a brand or an organization. Imagine, then, the risk of one’s appearance at the Café Cunni, if some rude cybernauts, more paranoid than playful, saw it as an astroturfing campaign against the Café Pipe (“Blow Job Café”), which then consequently gains greater visibility… You merely look like you wish to create suggestive and sensual visual communication in response to the brutality of the images of the Café Pipe; but isn’t there also the risk that queer Young-Girls who are also alienated might perceive it as just one more heteronormative campaign, based on the model that “masculine = brutal” and “feminine = sensual”?
Or yet again, is there not a risk that the alienation of the Young-Girl might, in return, infect your own marketing practices, or worse yet, your very creativity? As [Bernard] writes: “We are obliged to confirm what we already knew, that the more personal the message, the better it is relayed.” Better, or more, that is to say worse, coarser, more sensationalistic, etc., or, as Michael Jackson would say, “bad is the new good.” The extreme simplification of a message […], soppy or spectacular epiphenomena devoid of any real informational value, or “toned down” as they say. Unfortunately, it seems that there is nothing new under the sun here, at least since the rhetors, first the Latin ones, then the medieval, began to insist on the need for gore in the images of the theaters of memory. Since the first century BCE, the Latin rhetorical treatise Rhetorica Ad Herennium has insisted upon the same necessity, outlining the same risks:
We ought, then, to set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in the memory. And we shall do so if we establish likenesses as striking as possible; if we set up images that are not many or vague, but doing something [imagines agentes]; if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness; if we dress some of them with crowns or purple cloaks, for example, so that the likeness may be more distinct to us; or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint, so that its form is more striking, or by assigning certain comic effects to our images, for that, too, will ensure our remembering them more readily.
Ever since the Renaissance, Giulio Camillo (1480–1544) understood that the aim of these imagines agentes was not only to be part of a form of “artificial memory,” but rather to stimulate the imagination, and, as such, to participate in “improving concentration thus benefiting from an empathetic recollection.” What agents do your images serve? A deliberately distorting mirror” you might say, to echo the expression of one of your female citizens. So, to make things simple, it could be resumed thus: how to do things faster and better, how to anticipate one’s own integration, as WE used to say in Frankfurt, in short how does one thwart in advance one’s own recycling? How does one not flounder in what [Theodor W.] Adorno once before, with all the contempt of which he was capable, called a “shop clerk’s culture”? And if one avoids this fall, does one not then risk minimizing the effectiveness of the intervention? Should one not then renounce any sacrifice, particularly that of one’s own good taste, or style that is below the belt: “So, why can’t he lick as well?” or, would there be some virtue in not avoiding the smutty? “Spiteful tongues! Ha ha!”
On the topic of these rituals of resistance that he questioned in my epigraph for this last part, Mark Dery concluded, without committing himself unduly: “But that, wise crowd, is a question I leave to you.” All is fair when it comes to the war for attention; as WE well know, the recipe consists of being “transparent to readers, [and] opaque to the media.” Confusion is one of the good tactics for the awakening of the Young-Girl, and for, as in chess, remaining a few steps ahead of one’s own recycling. At least since Snow Crash, that is to say 1992, yes, even before the World Wide Web, we have known that the virus of today possesses three modes of existence: computational, biological and social. Consequently, when the recursively named Hiro Protagonist finally asks his hacker colleague Juanita, “So, is this Snow Crash a virus, a drug or a religion?” she shrugs her shoulders and answers, “What’s the difference?” Nothing ever escapes from Pascal’s sphere, but, I think you already knew that!
From the melancholy of Baudelaire’s century to the invasive depression of the current day, the morbid shadow of the alienated individual is cast upon the last flickers of modernity. Not just one, but millions of specters haunt the interminable twilight of capitalism. In view of this pitiable spectacle, the average guy is seized with a paradoxical desire: on the one hand, giving it a swift kick in the ass, or, on the other, pausing a moment to whine in tandem with it… me too, my brother… ONE is tempted to tell him, “Come on, act!” before realizing that the capacity of reaction is just exactly what they are lacking. Thus the alienated individual, the ultimate hyperindustrial wasteland, troubles us even if it fails to move us. This turmoil, contagion… Me too… The alienated individual distresses us with their unbearable presence, implacable, a sort of existential double constraint. Annoyance or sympathy are generally of no avail, hence a third way is often taken: I turn away, I avoid their empty stares, I hasten my pace. Defection, disowning, dereliction. Good gracious! Is this not precisely the road to alienation? Did I say implacable?… All together now, as one would at Alienated Anonymous: “Hello, my name is Mister X, and I’m alienated.”
Do you still worry that the totalitarian state is not sufficiently preoccupied with you? Are you afraid that no one, not even a censor at work, will read your e-mail? Do you fear the moment when you won’t receive any more junk mail? Do you want the star MC to speak again to you personally? Does the idea that the system is not even bothering to erase all trace of your presence after you die gnaw at you? Do you worry that WE will not realize quickly enough that you are a recovering smoker, a heroin addict on the rebound, a former coke head? Do you fret that no one has yet realized that you are hooked on Prozac, Viagra or Ritalin? Do you contemplate with apprehension the day when you can freely give yourself over to your consuming passion for slot machines, porn, or reality TV… even scrapbooking? Do you fiercely desire that this dancer, that bodybuilder or chat room perform just for you? Does the idea that your collection of stamps, charming little cows, or glass rings will never be taken up and added to by anyone else obsess you? Do you have a fetish for italics, a mania for quotes, are you an addict of asides? Do you ever feel like you’re at the point of departure? If you do, join the club – after all, there’s always room for a new member. Only the alienated can respond to the alienated on their own turf, with sympathy. WE call this the social, the commons, the community to come. Only humor will save us from it.
Montreal, January 4, 2019
Infiltrating Social Networks: How to Work and “Work Around” Social Networks to Convey a Message
Thierry Bardini, Caroline Bernard, Anna Jobin, Jean-Noël Lafargue, Nicolas Nova 14 March 2019, HEAD – Genève.
Round table as part of the colloquium To Buzz or Not to Buzz: A Look at Virality, March 14, 2019, HEAD – Genève.
Virus, Viral, Virality: From Germs to Buzz▸ Thierry Bardini and Dora Moutot, interviewed by Caroline Bernard and Jérôme Baratelli
Thierry Bardini, The Sphere of Virality, 2019
Thierry Bardini, personal website