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Jean Rouaud : "In the Face of Mercantilism, Ours Is a Formidable Power"

Translated Monday 20 January 2014, by Isabelle Métral

A writer who won the Prix Goncourt in 1990 for his novel Les Champs d’honneur. (Fields of Glory), and author of many other novels, poems and essays, Jean Rouaud invites his readers in his last essay entitled Manifestons notre désintérêt (Let Us Show Our Lack Of Interest), to cast a sidelong, poetic glance on the global capitalist world around us in order to invent practical ways of “bypassing the dictatorship of the markets”.
Jean Rouaud was interviewed by Pierre Chaillan

Fields of Glory

HUMA : In this early year, the centenary of WWI, a lot of potentially historical debates have resurfaced. The literary production it inspires is very important. It was very present in the run-up to the prix Goncourt in 2013. You yourself won the prize in 1990 for Les Champs d’honneur (Fields of Glory). How do you account for the strong wave of popular interest?

ROUAUD : Of course you could say that WWI was the founding event for the 20th century, that it called the century’s tragic tune, that to take an interest in it would be an attempt to understand the historical mechanism that brought about or contributed to bringing about the massive exterminations that punctuated all of the previous century in the aftermath of the war. Maybe in order to learn lessons. That would be the “reasonable” answer.

But I am personally inclined to think that WWI plunges us in a state of paralysis. It was the last “classical” conflict: two armies confronting each other on the field (and you know how deeply ploughed it was by bombshells, tunnels, trenches, and how deeply imprinted those pictures still are in our memory). No ideological conflict, this, no inner qualms; defending one’s country is one of the most obvious and simple reasons for enlisting.

And in that sense it was, as a matter of fact, “the last war of all wars". It was also the last “victory” of a French army and as such marks the end of France’s building process. What is being sought in the coming celebration of that war has something to do with the past before France withdrew from the international scene, from before the French identity crisis. The last period when France appears to have been a glorious country, united and indivisible like the republic itself. Which, of course, is pure fiction. In this respect, this tearful celebration speaks volumes on the present state of the country.

HUMA : Concerning the state of this country, your last essay Let’s show Our Lack Of Interest is formidably precise. Its fine writing nevertheless offers a penetrating vision into the hyper-“liberal” and hyper-technological society.

ROUAUD : It is a pamphlet in the full sense of the word. With a political, non-analytical bias. This is no analytical manifesto. To cast a sidelong, distanced glance has a specific relevance. Poetry is one means of investigating reality. Originally, the idea was to deal with political questions poetically. The poetic language consists in playing with words. In “Let us Show Our Lack Of Interest", I set out from a phrase that was recurrent in the president of the Republic’s speeches : “We must reassure the markets.” No one took him up on that and pointed out how terrifying the phrase is, since it describes the markets as monsters, kinds of Baal divinities, that must be continually fed, in the name of the exclusive logic of profit, by sacrificing first the Greek people, then the Spanish, Irish, French peoples and so on. To reassure the markets then, one had to bow before the IMF platform, before the dictates of the Brussels Commission. And no one protested that rather than reassuring the markets, we should ask the markets to reassure us. Just look at the unemployment rate, at the relocations and so on. That’s enough to conclude that the markets don’t care a fig for people. People are none of their business.

HUMA :You are very careful never to use the word market, but you use the plural instead, “the markets”, something like a proliferating entity…How significant is the difference?

ROUAUD: I do, yes. For the way words are used has been seen to change radically. For years the talk was all about the market, namely “the invisible hand of the market”. We know what that means, an iron hand in an iron glove. From the time the market became the markets, these were divided. Now it is a known fact that it is always harder to strike at several entities rather than at a single one. All resistance groups are aware of this. Once a system is divided up, it is more difficult to strike at the centre. All highly centralized empires collapsed at one go. The market did not want to go the way of the Aztec empire, so it decided to split up into equally elusive “markets”. The whole correlated semantics is being deployed. And no one notes that one and the same discourse is relayed everywhere: measures must be taken to satisfy the markets, to reassure them. But no one asks the markets to reassure us; and besides as the markets are not reassuring, the question is why should we go out of our way to reassure them.

HUMA: In order to describe today’s productive system and consumers’ society, you use the image of the self-destructive cassette as in the series Mission Impossible…

ROUAUD: What is clearly asserting itself is the dematerializing strategy. But why? The reason is that material things must be produced. Which requires raw materials. Which also implies hiring labor. Now labor can be pressurized but only just so much or it rebels. The ideal for markets is therefore to sell hot air, just nothing, like wave-lengths. It was clear enough with computers. The floppy disk was replaced by the DVD. And now, the latest computers do without any material media, no DVD even thanks to the “numeric cloud”. We are all to become dependent on that “numeric cloud” overhead.

HUMA: A very poetic term, this, “numeric cloud”. Is this meant to give a shine to something that is not really positive?

ROUAUD: Of course. We are incited to applaud this technological breakthrough by using this positively, extremely poetic term, the “cloud”. The big IT groups are laying hands on all intellectual human works worldwide. Whatever work we want to have access to, we’ll have to apply to them since as result of this dematerialization they’ll be nowhere to be found. And yet our culture, knowledge, our science for centuries have depended on these being passed around and handed down : books, then later records, or films. It’s no longer possible now. Each time we must go through one of those positions, like poll stations. And when the computer is KO’d, all it contains immediately vanishes. You’ve got to buy everything again, every time. It is impossible to transfer the data from one to the next precisely because everything has been done in order that it cannot be downloaded.

HUMA: There is a logic behind this dematerialization. You say that it meets the objective of increasing profits with finite resources…

ROUAUD: That is true for intellectual works since, as you know, one of the biggest groups has decided to digitize all the books extant in the world. It is a gigantic enterprise! But they have a Pharaonic budget. As big as the US budget. And then they will own all of mankind’s intellectual works without having spent a cent on them! They have not paid for these works. Just the cost of digitization, so next to nothing. And this trick will make them monstrously rich without their having contributed to the emergence and creation of these works, which are the achievement of mankind’s history. They are taxing millennia of human history. All of this would fall into these giants’ pockets.

HUMA: the phrase you use is “the dispossession of know-how”

ROUAUD: The idea is to make people entirely dependent. You are not supposed to do anything yourself but must immediately call on specialists and other experts. As a child, a person my age, for instance, would see his or her father lift the hood of the car and more often than not succeed in repairing the engine. But these days the tune goes : woe to you if you dare tinker with anything, whether your car, your printer, they will threaten you; Your insurance will not pay you back if you unscrew one part you are not supposed to… You are deprived of a know-how that is part of your self-sufficiency. Everything goes to that effect. The same applies to ready-made meals. Whereas the art of cooking goes back to the paleolithic, now, all of a sudden, people find themselves in a situation where they don’t know how to feed themselves! It is clear that this is a strategy to make people totally dependent and reduce them to the status of consumers of a know-how that they do not or no longer possess.

HUMA: You might have been satisfied with this barbed satire of this mercantilism, "financialization", dematerialization, but you go further than this by evoking counter-move, namely the “demonstration of our lack of interest”. What exactly do you mean by this?

ROUAUD: Ours is a formidable power, the power to say: “We are not interested!”. For years we have had Steve Jobs brandishing vacuous nothings, the new desktop or cell phone. With each so-called innovation, rumor had it that people slept three nights in sleeping bags outside the Apple shop in order to be among the first to be served. Now it is worth knowing that as soon as you have bought this new gimmick, there are already fifty prototypes ready to be put on the market. Within three months you will be told that you are terribly square, the most old-fashioned person on earth.

This is not just consumption, this amounts to force feeding You find yourselves keeping your beak open, like geese! Now ours is a formidable power. We can show our lack of interest. Let’s take an example: I have got that old cell-phone. It is perfect to make calls and send text-messages. All the added applications introduced are invariably meant to make us dependent and to make us buy the new model. In the face of this mercantilism, you can simply retort: “But we’re just not interested! We don’t need that. It does not change my life.” More often than not it is like a sweet, it is something that seduces you on the spot, very quickly, and then makes you dependent. The ideal goal of the market is to spread addiction. But there are remedies and cure for addictions. You can break free from your addictions.

HUMA: You also suggest that we might benefit from something else. Has this got something to do with class?

ROUAUD: Even as I started with a pun on the markets that need reassuring, it is obvious that lack of interest is the very antithesis to interest. All markets are fueled by interest, meaning profit. To lose interest in what they offer means challenging their worldview and bringing to a halt that infernal machinery that will make us dependent. To lose interest is to look away and take an interest in what is really important to us, and first of all proximity.

HUMA: You mean that what you call one blip is enough to bring all the machinery grinding to a halt and so it is important to think of fair solutions thanks to the entente cordiale between human beings?

ROUAUD: One fact that is not depressing is that numerous experiments are being tried. For two centuries we have always worked and lived under a highly centralized organization. Today, thanks to the internet precisely, tremendous initiatives are emerging that bypass the dictatorship of the markets. Of course it’s still a marginal trend. It won’t rock the big groups as yet, but it is clear that sometimes they grow alarmed…

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