Is “Cancel Culture” Producing a Generation of Ignorants?

INTERVIEW – In his brief and incisive work Cancel!academic Hubert Heckmann dissects the phenomenon of cancel Culture, imported from the United States, and the danger it represents in France. To reduce a work to the role of a political message is to misunderstand literature, he adds.

Hubert Heckmann, attache, is professor of medieval literature at the University of Rouen. He is the author of Cancel! From the culture of censorship to the erasure of culture just published by Intervalles, in the collection “Le point sur les ideas”.


FIGAROVOX. – The expression of cancel culture(erasure culture) isn’t that an oxymoron?

Hubert HECKMANN. – Initially, as in the expression “corporate culture”, “culture” did not designate in anglicism cancel culture than a set of behaviors within a community united by values. These are practices of ostracism (Cancel) from people whose comments are considered offensive by members of certain ideological communities. But these values ​​and these behaviors transmitted by cancel culture they have implications for culture itself, understood as the domain of intellectual and artistic activity. The term cancel culture it is a controversial term that is only useful to the extent that it allows us to describe reality: the rise to power of a culture of censorship leads in fact to a real setback, to the threat of an erasure of the culture.

Does canceling culture reduce the work to its author?

From this point of view, the cancel culture it acts as a paradoxical effect of the cult of the artist: the romantic myth of genius and then the self-promotion of the contemporary artist have relegated works of art to the background, behind the person of the author who captivates public interest. Believing that we are talking about art, we often comment on the life of the artist. But art is above all the works, which must be considered for themselves if we want to be able to understand and appreciate them. However, for contemporary art, the work no longer resides in the object but in the experience that the object will cause, and therefore in the discourse that conditions and accompanies this experience, which can lead to blurring the boundaries between the work and the person of the artist. To apply this conception of art to works of the past is to fall into anachronism. The artist as a person should not be able to avoid moral judgment, but this does not affect the aesthetic judgment, of a completely different nature, that he carries over his work. Knowing that Michelangelo was of an execrable temperament does not lead me to prefer the paintings and sculptures of gentler artists to his works…

Literature is an art whose peculiarity is to take words as matter, but no true art finds its reason for being in the function of communication.

Hubert Heckman

By making the literary text an ordinary discourse that should provoke adherence or rejection depending on the values ​​and the message it implies, the cancel culture Does it degrade literature?

If the works are reduced to the role of a message, then they must be “loved” (in the very restricted sense of I like it social networks, which is the manifestation of a membership), or fail them. This is to misunderstand the specificity of literary genres, the diversity of reading levels, the power of irony brought about by the effects of displacement or citation… For example, the novelist is too often attributed with the words he puts into mouth of his characters. . It is not just literature that is degraded by such a reductive reading, it is more generally our ability to accept and deepen nuance, even in our ordinary discourses that is also impoverished.

The game of ambiguity, which is the basis of the art of writing, appeals to the reader’s imagination to provoke his reflection: literary works are not collections of opinions and commandments with unequivocal interpretation. Literature is an art whose peculiarity is to take words as matter, but no true art finds its reason for being in the function of communication. Kundera writes in The wills betrayed: “Since the political tendencies of an era are always reducible to only two opposing tendencies, a work of art inevitably ends up being classified on the side of progress or on the side of reaction; and since the reaction is bad, the inquisition can open its trials. (…) I have always hated, deeply, violently, those who want to find an attitude (political, philosophical, religious, etc.) in a work of art, instead of looking for an intention to know, to understand, to capture this or that aspect of reality.»

What is a literature that respondsto the needs and criteria of an era»? Are we making the book a consumer product that can no longer be part of the long term?

Some French publishers are already using sensitivity readers, responsible for examining manuscripts to identify passages that may be perceived as offensive or derogatory towards minorities. However, as Belinda Cannone writes,stupidity gets better”: new susceptibilities are continually incubated, each time more delicate on topics that yesterday seemed innocuous for the most “conscientious” and “awake” readers. The books that meet the commercial and ideological specifications imposed by today are, therefore, those that are destined to sink faster into opprobrium or, if the author is lucky, into oblivion… I quote in my book the case from an author who confesses, just a few years after the publication of a novel, that what he had written became shocking since the #MeToo movement. The expiration date has been reached! The permanent “cultural revolution” of social networks invites the creation of a disposable literature, “cancellable” as conformism advances.

The culture of the cancel perpetuates the old bourgeois illusion: it represents the realization of progress and sees in the cultural heritage only a garbage dump of history where the same defects that remain to be denounced today among the enemies of progress accumulate…

Hubert Heckman

You are addressing an absolutely essential point: respect forthe cultural alterity of past ages“. How to avoid anachronism and judgment of past times?

The reader who judges the past by the yardstick of his own moral criteria is just as detestable as the tourist abroad who is indignant at customs different from his own! For a long time, bourgeois culture was seen as the end of an evolution by which the past had to be interpreted. the cancel culture perpetuates the old bourgeois illusion: it defends the realization of progress and sees in the cultural heritage only a garbage dump of history where the same defects that remain to be denounced today among the enemies of progress accumulate… On the contrary, we must work to remove to bring out otherness, the strangeness of ancient cultures, from questions that arise in the present without making the past the projection screen of our contemporary moral concerns. To get out of this new ethnocentrism, it is necessary to perceive and make the differences in the cultural order felt, because they are the ones that measure time. Reading works of the past can be as overwhelming as an encounter, but there is no authentic encounter without the recognition of otherness, and this represents a real risk for our increasingly aggressive and rigid.

What is the “autototalitarianism of society” that Václav Havel spoke of?

If the cancel culture may recall certain excesses typical of totalitarian societies, the comparison finds its limit because we do not live under the reign of Nazi or Stalinist terror: the victims of cancel culture are not yet physically removed, thank God! And yet, ideological intimidation works, without even resorting to the threat of the camps. the cancel culture therefore it resembles the communist system of the 1970s in Eastern Europe, which Václav Havel described as “post-totalitarian” because it prolonged the dictatorship without employing the means of repression of Stalinism: “In the post-totalitarian system, the line of conflict de facto passes through each individual, because each one is in his own way a victim and supporter of the system. Therefore, what we understand by system is not an order that some would impose on others, but rather something that runs through the whole of society and that the whole of society helps to create.r».

Authentic literature has always represented a danger to social conformism, precisely because it cannot be reduced to a single message.

Hubert Heckman

“L’auto-totalitarisme de la société”, this is the phenomenon that gives me soumets for lâcheté aux mots d’ordre ideologiques, pour me faire bien voir de semblables que j’incite à obtempérer en me temps que je cede myself. Social networks today recreate such a system of surveillance and reciprocal intimidation whose consented victims of cancel culture they are also the first guard dogs. The autototalitarian gear is activated by collective impudence, but it can be stopped by the grain of sand of individual courage.

How to make literature survive?

Literature has seen others, it will survive. Authentic literature has always represented a danger to social conformism, precisely because it cannot be reduced to a single message. The violence of the lawsuit initiated against literature will not surprise the historian, and perhaps literature was better off in the days when it was attacked by fanatics, well-intentioned people and the political police, than in the days when it was only arouses indifference. But wanting today to “protect” young people from a moral contagion spread by the literature and art of the past, we only aggravate the rupture of cultural transmission. In fact, the cancel culture it widens inequalities and increases social exclusion, leading directly to the opposite of the good intentions it proclaims: by hindering a generation’s access to knowledge and culture, it seriously damages each person’s ability to move towards reflexivity and autonomy, harming first and foremost the poorest and the weakest.

What worries me, more than the survival of literature, is the question of our own survival in a society that is prohibited from seeking what is true and beautiful because everything must be subject to the demand for good, indexed to the fluctuating price of morality. . values ​​in the stock market of good feelings. Would we be cowardly enough to give up the search for truth as well as the search for aesthetic emotion, under the sole pressure of a few vociferous provocateurs who have decreed that knowledge and pleasure are to blame? The thirst for truth and the thirst for beauty are inexhaustible. The commercial production and political regulation of ideologically correct art will never quench this thirst, or even quench it.

Cancel! From the culture of censorship to the erasure of culture, Hubert Heckmann, Editions Intervalles, col. “The point of ideas”, 72p., €9.Interval edits

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