As for what motivated me, it is quite simple; I would hope that in the eyes of some people it might be sufficient in itself. It was curiosity – the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the kind of curiosity that seeks to assimilate what is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower’s straying afield from himself? There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all. (Foucault 1985: 8–9).
Curiosity is a disposition that intellectuals sometimes accept in or amongst themselves, but which is rarely found to be present as an operational concept in their work.1 For them, the recognition of a personal propensity towards curiosity is tantamount to an admission, or an intimate confession, of the kind of secret we only barely dare to reveal once the investigation has been completed and in the margins of a body of research, whether in an introduction like Foucault’s or a conclusion such as this one,2 or sometimes even when it is too late, when, because of an overly long delay, curiosity can only be admitted to from beyond the grave, when one of your followers luckily lends you his pen to do justice to the burning motive that has discreetly animated you throughout your life:
There is now no practice, no institution, no zone of social space, sub-proletariat or intelligentsia, peasant or professor, marriage or unemployment, school or church, state or market, science, art, sport, the body, the media, politics, ethics, or the relations between the genders, age groups, ethnic groups or classes, whose study was not profoundly influenced by Bourdieu. For he managed to join the rigor of the scientific method with the inventiveness of the artist, an incomparable theoretical culture wedding authors that the canonical tradition is fond of opposing – Durkheim and Weber, Marx and Mauss, Cassirer and Wittgenstein, Husserl and Lévi-Strauss, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Austin, Gaston Bachelard and Erwin Panofsky – with a tireless practice of research deploying the complete gamut of techniques of observation and analysis, from ethnography to prosopography to statistics, in which he invested a libido sciendi without bound or bottom. Pierre Bourdieu possessed an insatiable curiosity for all experiences, all existential games, all social universes, and he would have wanted to live a thousand lives in order to understand them all, to capture their hidden causes and their intimate reasons (Wacquant 2002).
Beyond his admission to the sin of curiosity, I would like to underline the superb definition employed by Foucault that perhaps allows us to simultaneously understand ‘Bourdieu the enigma’, this insatiably curious man whose focus in his work on conservative modes of action is not a priori that compatible with the expression of curiosity. Between two possible forms of curiosity, Foucault chooses if not the best, then at least the most profound; in other words, ‘that which enables one to get free of oneself’. This is the paradox of the curious person: it is their detachment from themselves that reveals their identity more clearly. Curiosity is the antidote of habitus, it is a force that drives us to break from what we are; in this respect, it is a disposition that weighs against one of the central structures of sociology, not to deny it, but to set it in tension with reference both to Bourdieu’s unique biography and to the far more extensive space of everyday social life. The force of habit, which roots us to what we are, can be set in opposition to the appeal of curiosity, which draws us into moving beyond ourselves. In order to better understand social action, curiosity should thus be granted its proper place, its power, and its dignity – this is Bourdieu’s last lesson (in spite of himself?): as suggested by his loyal disciple Loïc Wacquant, Bourdieu’s own habitus was wonderfully oxymoronic given that it was the habitus (of) curiosity (‘Pierre Bourdieu possessed an insatiable curiosity’).
After having visited Bluebeard’s house, and having climbed from the cellar of Genesis to the attic of contemporary markets, it is now time to close the door once more, to conclude the curious destiny of curiosity, this vital disposition that was nonetheless long rejected but which appears to have rediscovered its vigour in the space of the markets. But is it really a question of concluding? Just as, given my subject matter, I preferred to use the term ‘teaser’ instead of ‘introduction’, I prefer (inevitably concerned with the ‘puzzle’ inherent to this very subject) to use the unusual word ‘closer’ rather than ‘conclusion’. The word has three meanings, the first being a closing device. Admittedly, this first meaning is hardly appropriate given that its appearance is via a compound word, ‘the door-closer’ (Latour 1988), that is to say the technical device designed to close a door. The door-closer device is interesting because it contributes to closing the door in combination with the lock, but without being confused with the latter of the two. Whereas the lock comes into play once the door is closed by marking a distinction between those who have the key and those who do not, or, as in Bluebeard, between those who are given it and those who are refused it – hence a curiosity device – the door-closer operates further upstream by closing the open door and, most importantly, by preventing nothing and no-one from opening the door in the future.3 Understanding a conclusion as a door-closer suggests that, after having turned each key one by one, and after having opened all the doors to allow us to explore the rooms of curiosity, we still need to find a way to avoid either leaving the doors open gaping wide or closing them again too hermetically, so as now to encourage an ordered movement between the space we have visited and other horizons to come. Closer is also a proper noun: it is the name of a celebrity gossip magazine that plays on curiosity, whose business is revealing celebrities’ secrets (such as the recent revelation of the French President’s secret girlfriend) and granting access to their private lives; in other words, arousing the passion of ordinary people for the ordinary lives of those they perceive to be extraordinary. However, after having played with the substantive (the door-closer) and in order to really understand what game is at stake in the use of the proper noun (the magazine Closer), we need to pass through an adjective of intensity: ‘closer’, meaning nearer. In order to be able to look through the keyhole one last time and to then close the door without blocking it, we must in effect come closer – for ‘closer’ in fact connotes proximity more than closure. Curiosity is a question of focus: it is a way of getting closer to the world that at first seems distant or foreign; it is a disposition involving if not adherence, then at least adhesion, a concern for ‘making something one’s own’, for creating a close relationship between oneself and the world. At the same time, the curious person often wants to conduct this rapprochement asymmetrically: there is a desire to simultaneously be as close as possible to what is seen whilst trying to appear as distant as possible from the point of view of the thing or person being observed. The ideal position for a curious person is thus seeing without being seen, seeing ‘closer from farther away’, as it were. In order to achieve this, an asymmetrical and partial solution has to be invented, in keeping with Laurent Thévenot’s ‘regime of familiarity’ (2001). Hence the fundamental importance of the door and its keyhole, which, when brought together, were undoubtedly one of the first devices able to allow this feat, before telescopes, spyglasses, and binoculars, and later microphones, cameras, and the various different forms of modern media that increase this possibility tenfold – the recent phone-hacking scandal involving the British tabloid News of the World demonstrates this rather well.4 If the (lay or professional) curious person operates in this manner, it is because the fascination being experienced is weighed against other feelings, such as the Rousseauian shame at allowing desire to become visible, but also the fear, caution, or even disapproval aroused by the things he or she wants to see and know but does not necessarily approve of, or to which access is prohibited. By getting closer, the curious person understands the risks involved in the absence of distance. To say ‘closer’ is thus to state and become aware of this problem; it is at once to follow the slope and to set oneself in opposition to proximity. I would also like to adopt this ambivalent position of the curious person, partly absorbed in the fascination of what is being observed, partly remaining at a distance in the interest of watching discreetly. I therefore suggest reconsidering things from closer/further away in order to play with the effects of the door-closer’s openings and closings, to explore the dynamics of proximity in the cases of both the newspaper industry and gossip magazines, and, if possible, to go ‘yet further’.
Let us open the door one last time, before it closes: first of all, let us move far back in order to get a better run-up for when we move closer to the curiosity of today. As we saw, the history and sociology of curiosity involve an astonishing cascade of three paradoxes. A first paradox is that the earliest of these dispositions was banned without delay by religion; a second is that science ended up killing curiosity immediately upon arousing it; the third is that this disposition, which the two morals in Bluebeard at once condemned and forgave, and which sociology and economics completely forgot about when respectively giving priority to habit and to interest, nonetheless proliferated within markets, through the invention and multiplication of technical devices capable of activating it.
We understand that the market multiplies the motive of desire, and thus generalises the logic that we might have thought had disappeared from the cabinets of curiosity. These cabinets underwent an initial expansion, giving rise to museums (Impey and Macgregor 1985; Findlen 1994); however, the increased access to collections was subject to two restrictions: on the one hand, although museums granted greater access to their own collections, these tended to be extremely limited and ordered according to thematic and taxonomic criteria, so that institutions lost the magical character of the curiosity cabinets’ exuberant bric-a-brac. On the other, even though they were open to a wider audience, institutional collections still remain subject to a restriction of the economic order: in a museum, the triple rule in force consists of not touching anything, not taking anything, and ‘paying to see’ (at least in most French museums!). The market has the advantage of removing these two restrictions: on the one hand, it reintroduces the generalised bric-a-brac of the curiosity cabinet, either in the traditional form of the bazaar (Geertz 1978), or, in more contemporary forms, in the mosaic of shops that displaces the disorder and multiplicity of the goods on offer to either a town centre or a shopping mall (Andrieu et al. 2004), or, in the fantasy of bringing together all the products of the great universal market (a concept so dear to economic theory) ‘under the same roof’, in the hypermarket (Grandclément 2008). On the other, and in contrast to the museum, each of these market forms are the object of paradoxically less severe forms of commercialisation and usage costs, since viewing here is always free and we only pay for what we wish to take away.
Krysztof Pomian was correct to emphasise the anthropological importance of collecting and its two distinct forces: the collection cannot be reduced to economic value, and it allows the invisible to be seen through the ‘semiophores’ it brings together. However, he was perhaps moving a little hastily when concluding that the essence of these objects was uselessness; that is to say that they had no use beyond the access they offered to the invisible, and that they were inalienable: removed from market logic, in other words. To begin with (and as Pomian knew better than anyone else), at the time of the first collections, certain pieces were considered eminently useful, in particular because of their medicinal properties. What is rare and curious also heals: the bezoar, the unicorn horn, and dragon’s blood are each said to have curative properties. The reasoning behind the identification of these properties often stems from analogical thinking, as was skilfully identified by Foucault (1973), and involves establishing a link between the object’s shape and its ability to heal: the calcifications of a snake’s head are reputed to absorb poison; the eagle’s stone in the shape of an egg supposedly prevents miscarriages; and so on (Schnapper 1988). Most importantly, the pieces in the collection are less inalienable than we might think. In fact, selling and choosing are merely two sides of the same coin: all collectors know that a collection is never static and must almost inevitably be linked to a corresponding market, not only for works to be acquired, but also very often for some of them to be disposed of to create the means for obtaining others. In other words, there is not a great divide between the collection and the market; there is certainly a difference, but rather than being a difference in nature, it is simply a difference in the degree, proportion, combination, and organisation of the logics of assembly and exchange.
Moreover, and thanks to the commercial uses of curiosity, we have already seen how collecting has been making a dramatic comeback for some time, on the sides of both supply and demand. In regards to demand, the market encourages the spirit of collecting by increasing the amount of potential acquisitions, but also, and paradoxically, through inviting a number of actors who, out of either boredom with (or even repulsion towards) aspects of its dominant utilitarianism, develop ways of changing it, escaping it, investing it with culture, or re-enchanting it (Belk et al. 1989). For all that, the market for its part ‘recovers’ these practices in order to make collections themselves a marketable product in their own right, something that we learn when we are young, from the collections of Panini or Pokémon images designed for children (Allison 2003), and, into adulthood, from magazines selling collectable items part by part (e.g. Atlas and Altaya in France) and, more generally, from the various products whose purchase makes even more sense if one already owns a set (works by an artist, a panoply of sports gear, Apple computer products, and others). In terms of supply, the market has long been feeding and intensifying the collecting spirit by playing with the multiplication and continuous variation amongst series of objects, thanks in particular to the power of fashion and its collections (Godart 2009). Even more subtle is the harmonious arrangement and presentation of ‘product lines’ in the distribution sector, that here involves reversing the process, so not inviting customers to assemble products that ‘go together’, but, by playing instead on the seductive nature of such assemblages, instead inviting these same customers to transgress them, to undo them, to consume them – this is, as we have seen, one of the principal powers of the art of the window display. This overview of the proliferation of forms inherent to devices of market curiosity helps us to finally understand that curiosity is a delicate balance between revelation and mystery; in order for it to continue, curiosity must both be satisfied yet remain frustrated. In Bluebeard, and following this scheme, if we do get to the end of the tale to discover what lies in the forbidden cabinet, it is perhaps because we had hoped all along, albeit in vain, to discover why the beard was blue.
The generalisation of curiosity and its devices ends up rendering irrelevant Hirschman’s beautiful model (1977), by reopening the two Pandora’s boxes that each contain the motives for action respectively placed there by economists and social actors: one labelled ‘interest’, the other ‘habit’. As Hirschman suggests, Adam Smith closed the lid on his own box by channelling human passions towards interest. Interest is used as the general equivalent of passions, and thus succeeds in pacifying them by directing them towards the quest for material goods, rather than towards a desire to possess directed immediately towards others. Sociologists like Elias and Bourdieu have demonstrated that actors have themselves built their own box, by submitting the diverse motives for action to mechanisms of internalisation and social reproduction, at the price of ever more stifling self-control and routine. Hence follows the twofold idea of the domination of humankind through two forces: market and society. This view of the world certainly remains largely valid: social norms and price systems contribute considerably to the shaping and homogenisation of powerful practices. For all that, actors, and particularly those of the market, paradoxically cannot continue to be satisfied by the hegemonic reign of calculation and routine. By rendering all entities commensurable, calculation rids the world of meaning and establishes competition as an inferno that aligns all magnitudes against a single dimension and towards the lowest. The result is the emergence of an interest in moving beyond interest, in finding the means to ‘cut short’ calculation (Cochoy 2003), by playing not only with qualitative rupture, but also with other motives for action, amongst which curiosity features prominently.5 Routine, by trapping practices in a circuit, eventually becomes the source of weariness and boredom. Now, these last two feelings, which sociology has curiously ignored despite them being extremely common and widespread, nonetheless prepare the expression of curiosity that then acts as the impetus for reopening the two Pandora’s boxes and releasing all the motives for action locked up inside.
However, we are now confronted with a certain confusion. I was speaking about curiosity but here find myself being drawn into talking about other motives for action, such as weariness and boredom. I began with curiosity as it operates as a metonym for the key, and continued with weariness and boredom, as they serve as auxiliaries to curiosity and help in the opening of the two Pandora’s boxes of habit and interest. Curiosity, encouraged by weariness and boredom, is however only the precondition for a far richer game, in that it liberates many other forces of action. This is why it was logical to begin with curiosity: it undoes habit, arouses other centres of interest, makes values discernible, opens up emotion, and finally allows a thousand other motives for action to proliferate, including pleasure, greed, desire, nostalgia, charity, fantasy, altruism, abandon, and the like: so many motives of which interest, habit, and curiosity are but three.
In this sense the market is as polychromatic as a rainbow. Indeed, and contrary to a view that has been widespread at least since Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1968), the market is not just the somewhat uniform grey drab hue of utilitarianism and interest; its appearance could not even be satisfactorily described in the bichromatic shades of interest-habit that sociology had the merit of introducing. With the help of curiosity we understand that the market possesses a palette of colours and patterns infinitely richer and more iridescent than is postulated in classical critiques of the market. The market is filled with a thousand motives for action on the sides of both supply and demand, and of course (above all?) in the social-technical mediations that invent, embody, and combine these motives in order to match them with each other. In the end we discover that the cabinet of market curiosity is not only cluttered with objects, it is also overflowing with subjective and intangible entities that only exist because of their double attachment to both people and objects. Materiality, rather than rendering subjective richness sterile, instead awakens and multiplies it. We recognised the quality of products, initially as one-dimensional and variable (good or bad, as in Akerlof 1970), then multi-dimensional (as in Lancaster 1975). Thanks to the flow of dispositions between people and through things, we ought to now rediscover the quality of people, in the old sense of people of quality(/ies) but also in the more modern sense of people who are qualified; in other words, people in whom qualities are incorporated or to whom they are attributed. The effort of qualification is twofold: whereas economics and sociology have described to the point of exhaustion the qualification of products and their surrounding social space, the symmetrical operation of the qualification of people remains to be described.6
The first confusion leads to another, this time lexical. The game of captation cannot be reduced to the twin pair of a disposition and dispositif (device). In fact, upon reflection, the initially seductive pun that grounds this dichotomy proves far too restrictive. I described curiosity as a disposition for the sake of simplicity in order to move quickly and to avoid becoming entangled in an overly theoretical discussion. However, strictly speaking, I should have specified that, although curiosity does indeed sometimes appear as a disposition – that is to say either as a naturally occurring inclination in the Aristotelian sense, or incorporated through culture in the sociological sense – in other circumstances it is also an emotion. It can thus be a sudden urge that, once activated, can in turn become either a passion – that is, an objective that is given to us or that we give ourselves (in fact, Thomas of Aquinas and tradition both deal with curiosity in terms of passion) – or a reason, a calculation of the kind we came across with the libido sciendi, in other words a powerful cognitive aptitude for ordering the world in correspondence with the objectives we pursue.
This inventory of the different facets of curiosity sets us on the road to a less approximate approach towards the forces of action. We now have four types of motives: dispositions, but also emotions, passions, and reasons.7 These motives are connected in part to Weberian registers of action, given that dispositions are related to routine, emotion to affects, passions to value-rationality, and reasons to means-end rationality. A (re)turn to taking this repertoire into account begins with a redefined sociology of ‘social mo(ti)bility’: the expression would no longer (only) mean the movement of people between strata and social groups, but also the mobile circulation of the motives that underlie people’s actions within or beyond these groups and strata. Such a sociology makes it possible, for instance, to put calculation (reason) and routine (disposition) back in their place amongst many other possible motives for action, to observe the relationships between calculation and other motives for action, to examine how these motives can be made to play with or against one another, and so on. In light of this inventory, it would be more accurate to speak of devices as relying on ‘motives’ rather than on dispositions.8 The range of motives for action represents a real challenge for the provision of a social explanation, as the more I increase the number of reasons, routines, passions, and impulses for and of action, the more uncertain I make the explanatory model, and the more I undermine what we have patiently worked to distinguish and simplify. Nevertheless, the sociologist’s problem is also, and above all, that of the actors who work hard to try to identify, or even imagine, motives for action that can be used to anticipate and control the actions of other people, and also to confuse forms of self-control. That said, if wanting to do the job properly, the sociologist has no other choice than to take note of the multiplication of motives and to describe the ways in which they are mobilised.
The awakening of curiosity through the ‘breaking away from calculation or routine’ that I have foregrounded here in fact demonstrates that dispositions are less ‘buried’ in subjects and more ‘used’ against them: innovating and managing an ‘economy of surprise’ is the responsibility of the supply side; even weariness and boredom, which might be thought of as appropriately interior to the subject, can be extensively cultivated and come to act as so many aids to the expression of curiosity. Thus we understand that curiosity is not always a motive that is spontaneously available, but that, on the contrary, must very often be aroused, awakened, and activated, as Bluebeard allows us to understand particularly well: the character in the tale is anything but seductive and yet he is able to seduce more effectively than anybody else. His power of seduction therefore lies somewhere other than in himself: it is grounded in the character’s ability to identify a motive for action that is adapted to the situation (curiosity) and to construct a device capable of activating it (a system of rooms and keys), in order to transfer it to the target to whom it corresponds, or to awaken it in her. This manner of activating curiosity might lead us to believe that we were witnessing a mechanism of pure manipulation, including an ‘activator’ who has complete control over both the mechanism that activates the motive, and the action of the person being ‘activated’. Fortunately, the inventory and study of curiosity devices has shown us how simplistic this kind of approach is: on many occasions we saw how the hope of activation sometimes manipulates the activator more than the person being activated, or, to use Perrault’s words, ‘It can be difficult to tell which of the two is the master’. Moreover, the confrontation between activator and activated only provides a very imperfect indication of the eminently plural character of the entities involved in activating curiosity; just as the actors involved in a dialogue are but the ‘ventriloquists’ of other elements expressed through them and influencing what they say (Cooren 2010), those caught up in playing the game of the captation of curiosity are also the expression of the logic inherent to the tools they handle and which are often beyond their control – window displays that are able to attach us to a crowd of objects and customers, advertising devices as fascinating to advertisers as to consumers, electronic tools that can pull both marketing and customers in unexpected directions. All in all, the exposition of these initial issues points towards the need to explore in greater detail the social mechanisms through which markets are animated.
From this perspective, the conclusion really is like a ‘door-closer’ in the manner of the mechanism described above: it is a device whose responsibility is to ensure that any closure is not definitive but temporary, and thus to simultaneously provide for the possibility of reopening the space that has been visited by anybody wishing to continue this sketched investigation of curiosity (which includes the author of these words!). In fact, from this perspective, instead of using the metaphor of the hydraulic door-closer, I ought to prefer that of the ‘magic door’ (another type of door-closer) that opens doors when we walk over a carpet or in front of a photoelectric cell designed for the purpose. Ever since they were invented, the miracle of these sophisticated doors that open and close ‘by themselves’ has enchanted children. However, although ‘magical’, these doors are no less than devices of ‘control’: their mission consists of practising their magic in a single direction, forward, and to the exclusion of a return. If only I were also able to discover a force that would help me achieve such progression!
In spite of all the religious and moral obstacles that have stood in its way, curiosity therefore truly remains a fundamental force of action; it is one of the forces that can still be used to thwart the unidimensional retailer, as we will see by closely placing this tiny little page, whose origin and status I will detail later, under the microscope:
Americans are born curious
A CLOSED DOOR is as irresistible to an American adult as a closed box is to a baby. Americans just have to see what’s inside. They hate secret sessions. Mystery. Diplomacy in whispers. And it’s a good thing.
The more they dig into the dark corners, turning the flood of their curiosity on political figures, crimes, injustices, heroes, and villains alike – the better for America. For when their curiosity is satisfied, somehow the soft spots have disappeared. America is tougher and stronger.
Find the men and women who have a thirst for knowing all the facts, and knowing neat information, and you will find the Americans who are helping push the country forward.
For them, the Saturday Evening Post prints the whole story. Not just a fragment seen through a keyhole, but a bay window view. For them, the Post is ‘America between two covers’.
And this same curiosity, this extra measure of confidence in the Post, extends to editorial and advertising pages alike. Year after year, surveys serve only to reaffirm the fact that people like to read adverts in the Post… and that they are more likely to see your advert there than anywhere else.
THAT’S ONE REASON why food advertisers – to cite just one field – last year invested more of their advertising money in the Post than in the next 3 weekly magazines combined.
Could I have dreamt of better material for reviewing the road we have travelled along and the lessons we have learnt? In this text, I find ‘curiosity’, its ‘closed door’, and ‘keyhole’, the ‘bay window’ of a display window, ‘advertising’, and ‘teasing’, all contained in an enigmatic message that only makes sense once you read the small print. Only the Data Matrix and smartphone from my fourth chapter are missing, but it would be inappropriate, to say the least, to reproach a text from 1940 for their absence when we could not reasonably expect them to be included! What’s more, the text brings us back to the very starting point, towards the fundamental anthropology of curiosity established by Genesis, although it makes a curious inversion: whereas in Genesis, God immediately and severely punishes the emergence of curiosity, here the same Creator is instead given credit for his invention: it is ‘thank heaven’ that Americans are ‘born curious’! It is as though with time, the discovery of America, and the development of American civilisation, divine wrath had been appeased to the point that God eventually went back on his initial condemnation and endowed humans with the very disposition that he had originally refused them. In this version, the curiosity of Aristotle and the Church are ultimately reconciled, and even merged, in the form of a disposition that has finally been incorporated into human nature – defined as universal and congenital – ‘Americans are born curious’.
What is the effect of this curiosity? It is to lead all the citizens of America to irresistibly seek that which is hidden from them: ‘A closed door’, we are told, ‘is as irresistible to an American adult as a closed box is to a baby. Americans just have to see what’s inside’. This image of a closed object or door brings with it a twofold lesson. On the one hand, the metaphors of the ‘door’ and the ‘box’ highlight the crucial role of technical devices in activating curiosity, even if congenital. On the other, by distinguishing a particular device for each stage of life, from the ‘baby’ to the ‘American adult’, the text presents this disposition as being not just universal but also permanent – curiosity is present in everyone and, far from diminishing with age, it drives us throughout our life. Above all, by anchoring curiosity in childhood – an anchorage which is strongly emphasised by the photograph of the near-naked baby with its box – the text aims to turn the curious exploration of the world into the very expression of ingenuousness, and of a return to original innocence, according to a sales pitch that, while reminiscent of Myriam, is this time not in the slightest ambiguous,9 as if it were Myriam as a child that was being depicted. Furthermore, our curiosity is not only excused, but is suddenly given a dignity and a moral function. Curiosity, like interest in the Smithian mythology of the market, should guarantee public virtues. More so, in fact: whereas with Smith and Mandeville interest remains a private vice whose indulgence paradoxically ensures collective virtue, curiosity itself shares this condition of virtue with the public good it enables: ‘And it’s a good thing. The more [Americans] […] turn the flood of their curiosity on political figures, crimes, injustices, heroes and villains alike – the better for America. For when their curiosity is satisfied, somehow the soft spots have disappeared. America is tougher, and stronger’.10
Behind the assertion of the ‘native’ dimension of curiosity, and behind the defence of its ‘positive’ contribution, this text introduces a theme which we have barely touched on until now: that of the public space, the press, and the particular role that curiosity plays there. The text refers to both American politics and its ideal of transparency, inherited from the liberal tradition, and to the recent past of American journalism, to the glory days of ‘muckrakers’, in the wake of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (2010 ) and, more generally, to the ‘Progressive Era’ movement (Glad 1966), of which the Progressive Grocer, the magazine that published this text, is one incarnation, as its title very clearly shows. Praise for public curiosity functions as a call for complicity with another species of curiosity, that of the press and journalists. Journalists are inveterately curious; they are ‘muckrakers’ who do not believe in appearance alone and who want to know more, and, in order to do so, they hunt down scandals, track ‘affairs’, and tirelessly seek to break open guilty secrets in order to deliver them to the public.
In other words, it is the job of the press to exercise everyone’s curiosity by proxy (an act of delegation highlighted by the anaphoric repetition of ‘For them [Americans]’). As always with professional dynamics (Freidson 1988), the legitimisation of a profession is achieved by establishing a difference between experts and laypeople: after having been discreetly suggested, the distinction between the curiosity of the public and the curiosity of journalists is made the object of a subtle differentiation: whilst the former is characterised by the simple and private images of an innocent box and a more provocative keyhole, the latter, whose ambition is supposedly much broader and less questionable, is linked, significantly, to a metaphor implying transparency and a view that is unanimously accepted and collective: the window. ‘[That which is published by the Saturday Evening Post is] Not just a fragment seen through a keyhole, but a bay window view’. The text aims to show how important the difference between the devices is by emphasising, through the use of repetition accompanied by an inverted distribution of italics – ‘the whole facts, neat, [/] the whole story, […] a bay window view’ – that, in contrast to the keyhole, which restricts vision to a truncated piece of information, the display window is naturally oriented towards a comprehensive, panoramic view. According to this sales pitch, seeing everything is paradoxically less reprehensible than seeing only a fragment, as the complete image is less deceptive than a detail might be. In sum, the mediation of journalism makes a strong contribution to the trivialisation of curiosity: the intervention of a specialised third party multiplies the occasions for being curious; it reduces the cost of doing so considerably, in terms of effort as much as responsibility; it increases its reliability, by palliating the risks of errors of judgement associated with the falsities of a partial view, thanks to its demand for systematic and exhaustive information. The press also makes curiosity less reprehensible and more legitimate: since the fourth chapter we have known that, by abandoning the keyhole in favour of a window that is wider, more complete, and transparent – the display window – a window that is most importantly licit, which occupies ‘its rightful place’, the public is encouraged to look collectively and without shame at the elements offered up to its gaze. Thanks to the display window of the press, the public discovers that curiosity, far from being a shameful and misplaced inclination, also appears to be an astonishingly important resource, possessing a powerful capacity for exploration and emancipation.
This text defends the press and, as in any case for the defence, one must of course be attentive to the role played by rhetoric. The art of oratory lies here not only at the heart of the argument, as we have just seen by studying the way in which the text supports a form of professional curiosity, although it is more discreet in the beginning and less inhibited at the end.
In the beginning, the promotion of curiosity is based on a very subtle, logical argument consisting in the assertion of the innateness of curiosity in order to better encourage its acquisition. The assertion relies on its performative virtues:
The more ‘naturally’ curious you think you are, and/or that others are naturally curious, the more curious you will become, and it will thus be ‘abnormal’ not to be curious like other people. And if I am telling you this, it is because being curious is not enough. You will thus be more inclined to be curious if you accept you already are, that you have always been and cannot cease to be so, for being curious is as natural as breathing.
Thus the text ‘ascribes’ the disposition of curiosity in the way I mentioned in the introduction: it supplies it and naturalises it; it naturalises the more effectively to supply it. If Americans are indeed born curious, they cannot help being curious or admitting to being curious; their birth and their recognition of curiosity are closely connected. The fundamental point of this procedure is to remove guilt: the press needs to legitimise public curiosity in order to support its own exploratory activities. The two types of curiosity – profane and professional – support each other, and thus, in order to ensure this remains the case, in order to avoid the investigations of the press being viewed with suspicion, the guilty curiosity of the public needs to be transformed into a virtuous quest. This transformation begins with the naturalisation of the disposition, and continues with an extraordinary reversal, in which the very hatred of curiosity renders it legitimate: ‘They hate secret sessions. Mystery. Diplomacy in whispers’; the paradox requires that the loathing of mystery comes to reinforce its adoration.
But what is this text, and why does it defend both the press and curiosity? What is the intention and the status of this new narrative that has the effrontery to attempt to overturn thousands of years of condemnation of curiosity, in order to do the reverse via the mediation of the press, one of the pillars of American democracy? This ambitious text that navigates between fundamental anthropology and the power of democracy is in fact a tiny text, a simple advertisement, and an ordinary publicity insert, which appears when leafing through a trade magazine for small independent grocers. It is here, and particularly at the end of the text, that the uninhibited promotion of the press as an economic object appears. We are in the presence of one achievement of copywriting among (innumerable) others, this literary form created by advertising which was often originally entrusted to professors of literature. At the beginning of the twentieth century, this consisted in accompanying a slogan, advertisement, or image with a skilful and elegantly written sales pitch (Presbrey 1929). This text thus appears as a small masterpiece of commercial rhetoric: it aims to fold an entire world within a few simple words, thanks to the mise en abyme of the slogan whose mission it is to promote and clarify: ‘America between two covers’.
Of course, what is being promoted here is less America, its anthropology and its forces of democracy and more its ‘cover/s’, with the double meaning of journalistic reportage and covers made of paper. In fact, this text is advertising the Saturday Evening Post, or rather it is advertising both the paper and the advertising that can be placed in it. It is vaunting the dynamic that is particular to the press as a two-sided market (Rochet and Tirole 2003), that is to say, as an enterprise geared towards a double clientele – both its readers and its advertisers – ‘this same curiosity, this extra measure of confidence in the Post, extends to both editorial and advertising pages alike’, as our text explicitly states. The America between two covers is both the country and its public: the paper gives access to that to which, and to those to whom, it gives access. In other words, the Post sells the existence and profile of its readers to advertisers, places advertisements in the path of its readership, and in order to do so finally promotes the supposed effects of this double investment: ‘Year after year, surveys serve only to reaffirm this fact that people like to read advertising in the Post… that they are more likely to see your advertisement there than anywhere else’.
The Saturday Evening Post is not just any newspaper: at the time of this advertisement, it was one of the main American popular magazines and thus, simultaneously, an enormous publicity vehicle. Between 1903 and 1928, the volume of advertising in the magazine rose from 162,319 lines to 4,108,509 lines, an increase of nearly 400% in the space of two decades! (Presbrey 1929: 443) However, even if the Post is not just any newspaper, it is, all the same, one paper among others in the magazine market. America is to be found not only between the two covers of the Post, but also between those of competing newspapers, and from this point of view, it is important to assert its specific advantage: ‘food advertisers – to cite just one field [the one that interests Progressive Grocers advertisers!] – last year invested more of their advertising money in the Post than in the next 3 weekly magazines combined’. This implies that ‘between the two covers of the Post, you not only find America, but also investments in advertising that are as well placed as banknotes in an interest-bearing account, the proof being that advertisers rush there en masse and more than to anywhere else. Wouldn’t you be mad not to do the same?’ To the question’s uncertain answer, one might as well add imitation by other suppliers, about the power of which Harrison White would much later theorise (White 1982).
But there is more. This double game of public and market spaces, far from limiting itself to the enclosure of the covers that protect the content of this newspaper and its competitors, also extends to the mille-feuille of information and publicity inserts: the America which is housed between the two covers of the Post is itself placed somewhere between the two covers of the Progressive Grocer, a paper which is itself placed between the dual public of its advertisers (including the Saturday Evening Post) and its readers (grocers). In this staggering game, in which advertising devices become enshrined within advertising devices, the organs of the press and their public echo back the image of the box, of secrets being enveloped and the hope they will be revealed: in the same way that the child seeks to know what is inside the box, readers seek to know what is inside their papers, brands seek to know what papers their customers are reading, and on and on. When all is said and done, this game functions as a new and astonishingly reflexive curiosity device: within the pages of Progressive Grocer, within the frame of the publicity insert, the exciting box of secret America works hard to excite an attention towards the Saturday Evening Post, the exciter of attention.
This insert therefore has a very clearly commercial and situated character: it is an old advertisement which appeared in August 1940, lost between two pages of an obscure trade magazine aimed towards the declining profession of small independent American grocers. However, paradoxically, it is this commercial and situated character which gives this advertisement a very general scope, enabling it to better grasp two essential forces of curiosity: curiosity as a commercial ‘trick’, but also curiosity as a taste for current affairs, the inclination that everyone has towards these curiosities of the moment, the sharing in which enables a belonging to a public (Tarde 2006). To be curious is not only to be consumed with the desire to see what is to be found on the other side of the door, but above all, to be consumed with the desire to know what is currently happening behind the door: to such a degree, in the modern world more so than in Bluebeard, is the flow of current affairs, news, and events greater than the stock of past secrets. To approach – to be nearer, closer – is thus to be closer in space as well as time, to be right up to the here and now. In this movement for getting closer, organs of the press like the Post, to a greater extent than the door of yesteryear, occupy a central position, insofar as it is they who allow us to ascend from Genesis not just to the most burning current affair, but also to the most timeless, if understanding current affairs as a theme and not a period. To conclude this journey I will therefore focus on the press as a general device for arousing curiosity.
The press, as the advertisement of the Saturday Evening Post suggests, draws its power from the revelation of secrets. Therefore, its success rests on the paradoxical connection between an inexhaustible reservoir of hidden information on the one hand, and a generalised demand for transparency on the other. Unsurprisingly, the press therefore revives the fundamental importance of the secret (so skilfully analysed by Simmel); as the sociologist notes, it plays on this delicate balance between sharing information and maintaining a domain that is reserved, both of which are necessary to social life:
All relationships of people to each other rest […] upon the precondition that they know something about each other. [But] the reciprocal knowledge, which is the positive condition of social relationships, is not the sole condition. On the contrary, such as those relationships are, they actually presuppose also a certain nescience, a ratio, that is immeasurably variable to be sure, of reciprocal concealment (Simmel 1906: 441–448).
However, the nature of the press is such that it goes beyond the type of reciprocal relationships that interest Simmel. The press makes a profession out of divulging secrets, and, by doing so, also emphasises their counterpart – curiosity – which becomes a tool for the public sharing of information about the world, with the result that there is a continuous shifting of the boundary between the secret and public spheres of social life. Thus, accompanying every secret is a concern about its discovery, about the act so well encapsulated by the three words ‘disclosure’, ‘divulge’, and ‘revelation’. The first puts the emphasis on the disappearance of an enclosure which has to this point been hermetically sealed; the second insists upon the ‘public’ destination of this operation (etymologically, to divulge is to put make something available to the vulgus, to provide access to the crowd); the third indicates what is at stake in the first two by stressing the objective of veracity. The press is thus the location of an active curiosity which combines the forces of serendipity and enquiry: journalists seem to be as attentive to the information they seek as to that which appears incidentally. Among the latter, one finds not only the colossal wave of dispatches fed in by press agencies (Czarniawska 2011) but also, more rarely but more spectacularly, the ‘leaks’ which, in certain sensitive cases, feed into newspapers from the outside.
The ‘leak’ is a fantastic vector of curiosity because, as the term itself indicates, it suggests a hydraulic accident, a failure of a previously watertight system, and therefore a sudden outpouring of information that was if not unsuspected then at least not known about, which in itself attracts/excites attention. Over the past few years, the public exploitation of leaks so beloved of investigative journalism has been newly extended and intensified, with the appearance in 2007 of Wikileaks – the website whose name means, literally, ‘collaborative leaks’ – which presents itself as a participatory organ of the press to which anyone can bring to the attention of everyone – on a global scale! – sensitive information that they have been able to gain access to. Wikileaks thus became known for making public a list of members of the BNP (the extreme right-wing British party), for publishing the huge collection of private text messages sent in the United States on the day of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, and for putting online the video of the blunder by the American army in Iraq in which civilians can be seen being shot like rabbits (LeMonde.fr 2010). Yet more recently, Wikileaks published 91,000 confidential documents concerning military action undertaken by the coalition in Afghanistan, revealing the activities of a mysterious ‘Task Force 373’ (responsible for numerous blunders and which takes its orders from beyond the command of NATO), the existence of a much higher number of civilian casualties than had been publicly estimated, and the double game played by Pakistan which, behind its official support of the United States, on occasion supported the Taliban rebellion (Fournier 2010). On 28 November 2010, Wikileaks also made public the content of 250,000 American diplomatic telegrams, considerably embarrassing not only the United States authorities, but also many other countries and foreign ministries.
It is fascinating to observe the extent to which the revelation of secrets, far from leading to their abolition, relies rather on their conversion, on their staging, and on their substitution. Concerning conversion, the Wikileaks model is founded on the guarantee of anonymity given to informers who can submit their documents either via a secure Internet connection or by post: when it comes to revelations, the rule is that the price of obtaining a leak of secrets is guaranteeing the secrecy of sources! Concerning staging, Wikileaks takes care not to reveal the information that it has at its disposal in a brutal manner but rather plans its revelations very astutely and conscientiously. Thus, when the video revealing the American blunder in Iraq was published, the site, akin to an electronic Myriam, had already skilfully aroused public curiosity first by announcing that it possessed an ‘exceptional document’, and then by declaring that it was being spied on by the CIA. In the case of the ‘Afghan files’, Wikileaks invited major international newspapers such as the Guardian, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel to be the first to hear its revelations, while asking them to wait until 26 July 2010 before revealing the content (LeMonde.fr 2010), a delay designed to attract attention (or heighten tension) for the benefit of its own site, the only place where the information that had been partially published by the press could be accessed in its entirety. The same strategy was used in the case of the diplomatic telegrams, which large international dailies had access to several weeks before the revelations were announced in public (Ourdan 2010). Finally, concerning substitution, one cannot forget the astonishing leaks that flowed from the leak machine itself: a few weeks after Wikileaks revealed the Afghan war secrets, we learnt that rape charges had been pressed against its founder and charismatic organiser, Julian Assange, which led, in the space of a few hours, to a search warrant being first issued and then retracted. Much later, on 18 November 2010, the Swedish public prosecutor’s office issued a warrant for the arrest of the Wikileaks founder (LeMonde.fr 2010b). Behind this troubled affair, it is if the revelation of public and private secrets are mutually exclusive – symptomatically, Julian Assange himself has always maintained an air of great mystery around his own life (Thomas 2010). With Wikileaks, therefore, we understand the way in which the media play on the maximal differential between collective and political forms of exploration, quite distinct from the private concerns of the market, and the arousal of a desire to know that is highly personal and highly intimate.
The way in which the media arouses public curiosity about the world’s secrets (of which Wikileaks provides such a spectacular illustration) does in fact emerge from a very general scheme in which substance is inseparable from form. To illustrate this point, I propose to use the Woerth-Bettencourt affair, which was the talk of the town in France over the summer of 2010, at the same time as the Wikileaks Afghan revelations, which incidentally shows that Americans are not the only ones who are ‘(born?) curious’!
Box 5. The Woerth-Bettencourt affair
The Woerth-Bettencourt affair began as the Liliane Bettencourt affair, and concerned the octogenarian heiress of the L’Oréal group and the richest woman in France, before spreading to also involve Éric Woerth, Minister for Employment in the government of François Fillon. It all started as a family dispute between the mother (Liliane), and her daughter (Françoise) who filed a complaint in December 2007 for an ‘abus de faiblesse’ [the exploitation of a physical or psychological weakness for personal gain] of which her mother was allegedly the victim. For several years, Liliane Bettencourt had in fact shown uncommon generosity towards her photographer friend, François-Marie Banier, giving him gifts worth nearly a billion Euros. The ‘affair’ began on 16 June 2010, when the information website Mediapart, and the magazine Le Point, published extracts from Liliane Bettencourt’s private conversations, recorded by her butler without her knowledge. These recordings brought Patrick de Maistre, the billionaire’s asset manager, into the picture. He is heard not only giving a report on Swiss bank accounts and a possible transfer of funds to Singapore, but also inviting the elderly lady to make donations to associations that financed members of the UMP, the majority party of the President, including a man whom he called a ‘friend’, Éric Woerth, treasurer of this party and minister for the Budget at the time… and husband of Florence Woerth, an employee of Clymène, the company managing Liliane Bettencourt’s assets, of which he was the director. Patrick de Maistre also mentioned that Patrick Ouart, the Elysée’s legal counsel, whom he ‘saw regularly on her behalf’, had told him ‘that the prosecutor Courroye was supposedly going to announce on the third of September that [her] daughter’s request was inadmissible. The case would therefore be closed’. From then on the revelations did not stop. At the end of June, Le Point revealed that Éric Woerth had personally bestowed the Legion of Honour on Patrick de Maistre, and, on 31 August, L’Express revealed that it was indeed Éric Woerth who had taken the initiative to apply for this decoration, in a letter dated March 2007. The hiring by Florence Woerth in the company directed by Patrick de Maistre in November of the same year (after the awarding of the Legion of Honour) raised suspicions of corrupt practice. But the affair did not stop there. On 7 July 2010, Claire Thibout, Liliane Bettencourt’s former accountant, stated at a hearing that political figures regularly came to the billionaire’s residence seeking ready cash and that Éric Woerth had received €150,000 to fund Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign (but Le Canard enchaîné – a weekly satirical newspaper – would reveal on 21 July that the former accountant had received €400,000 from the billionaire’s daughter, raising suspicions regarding the sincerity of her declarations). The prosecutor Philippe Courroye launched three inquiries into issues of tax avoidance, laundering the results of tax evasion, and conflicts of interest, but did not refer the matter to an examining magistrate. The magistrate, Isabelle Prévost-Deprez – responsible for the inquiry into the abuse of the state of weakness and a colleague of prosecutor Courroye at the court in Nanterre, but in open conflict with him – ordered that supplementary information be provided following the revelation of the secret recordings. On 16 July, the magazine Marianne revealed that a cheque for €100,000 had been drawn on one of Liliane Bettencourt’s accounts four months before the presidential election, and that Éric Woerth and Patrick de Maistre had met a few days after it had been paid out. The Minister announced his resignation from his post as treasurer of the UMP, and on 2 September finally admitted that he had initiated the request for the Legion of Honour for Patrick de Maistre. On 20 September, after two of its journalists had seen their telephone bills intercepted by the General Directorate of Intelligence, Le Monde filed a complaint against person unknown for ‘violation of the secrecy of sources’. The prosecutor for his part (using the complaint for violation of investigational secrecy lodged by Liliane Bettencourt’s lawyer after the publication of an article in Le Monde), requested that the police examine the telephone records of the two journalists in order to show that his colleague and rival, Mrs Prévost-Deprez, had been speaking to the press. In light of this step, on 29 October, the general prosecutor of the court of Versailles (the hierarchical superior of magistrate Courroye), ordered the latter to open an investigation into all dossiers for which he was responsible, and sought the opinion of the Court of Appeal as to whether it would be possible for all dossiers processed at the Nanterre court to be moved elsewhere (several weeks earlier, the President of the Court of Appeal, having been approached for an opinion by a political figure, had recommended that an examining magistrate should be appointed, but this was unsuccessful due to the absence of the power to issue a court order). On 17 November, the Court of Appeal decided to move all the dossiers to the Bordeaux court, while the general prosecutor’s office recommended that they be moved to Paris on the very same morning.
(According to Laurent (2010) and other press articles. See the dossiers of Le Figaro, Libération, Le Monde, Le Journal du dimanche, the special issue by Le Monde on the affair, and others).
With regards to substance, this affair brings together, astonishingly, almost all the ingredients that might be found, usually singularly, in this social form that we call a ‘scandal’, and which is presented as ‘something which reveals, almost in the photographic sense of the word, pre-existing relationships of power, structures, positions, or norms’ (De Blic and Lemieux 2005). Indeed, the Woerth-Bettencourt affair assembles a story of troubled friendship and difficult family relationships around matters of finance; it unites political issues, suspicions of conflicts of interest, and the illegal funding of political parties, and institutional questions around the separation of judicial and executive powers, not to mention the place of the press and its freedom to provide information – all of which is grounded in social and financial relations, with the affair involving one of the jewels of the French luxury goods industry, tax issues, and problematic personal relationships between the social, financial, legal, and political elite. All these elements are echoed in the collective conscience, either because shared public issues are involved, such as the requirement for an independent judicial system, the imperative of equality of treatment by the law, the concern to guarantee the freedom of the press, the rule against using public institutions for the benefit of private interests, or because, on the contrary, it deals with issues which resonate within the private sphere, including family relationships, friendship, personal relationships, questions of dependence, and personal vulnerability – elements that, even if one cannot identify with them, then at least can be related to one’s own experiences, values, and beliefs. The extraordinary marriage of this almost exhaustive collection of circumstances and issues (possibly in the collective conscience) forms a potentially explosive mixture, one likely to arouse public curiosity and/or indignation and therefore to generate a flow of attention towards the press, perhaps with the risk of a degree of saturation. Today it paradoxically seems that ‘too much is too much’, which can not only, as a Durkheimian theory might suggest, set in motion a major movement of disapproval, but also engender apathy, weariness, and resignation amongst some sections of the public, at least until another affair occurs – for example, the arrest of the Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a possible presidential candidate, for the alleged rape of a chambermaid in a New York hotel room – and re-ignites public excitement about crimes that certain personalities of this world may (or may not) have committed or about conspiracies of which they may have been the victim (it all depends)… constantly supported by the press, in all its forms, even supported by astonishing devices for participation such as ‘CoveritLive’ (see below, chaper 4).
Indeed, with respect to the press and its tools, exciting curiosity depends just as much on the appeal of substance as on the seductions of form; it relies at once on attempts to fan the flames of public and democratic debate and democracy and the concern to support the very existence of the press as an economic activity, in a context where this activity has itself been weakened by the spread of the internet, the development of the free newspaper (Metro, 20 Minutes, Direct Soir, and others), and the proliferation of sources of information that overflow the official framework of ‘old’ media. To ensure its survival, the press plays on forces of formal curiosity which it has long controlled, but also draws new resources from the very internet technology that remains a threat.
The first force consists in attempting to renovate, in a manner as sophisticated as it is subtle, the teasing approach inherent to headline displays that aim to arouse the desire ‘to know more’, to discover the inside pages, and therefore buy the paper. Paradoxically, it is Mediapart, an exclusively online information source and one of the most innovative media operations in France, that uses the power of its front page and its headlines in the most traditional way.
Mediapart, as an exclusively online press operation, has chosen an economic model in which content is paid for and is presented without accompanying advertising. That is to say, the reader has to ‘pay to view’ or rather ‘pay to view more’ to be able to read entire articles. As suggested by the paper’s mascot – the small old-fashioned newspaper seller in the top left of the screen – although they stick to tradition by offering free access to front page news (symbolised by the day’s date in the image), it is only really possible to gain access to content by buying a copy of the paper that the little man holds so tightly and well-guarded under his arm. On the sensationalist front page, designed to launch the ‘Revelations about the L’Oréal heiress […]’, the largest font size is used for high-profile figures: the President (Nicolas Sarkozy) comes first, followed by his Minister for Employment (Éric Woerth), while the ellipsis of the explanatory elements creates a brutal association (itself reinforced by the irreverent omission of titles and first names) between these two public figures and an affair concerning tax fraud. The colon (‘:’), which usually carries the promise of elucidation, only acts to thicken the air of mystery… and excitement. Here we are invited to penetrate an ‘affair’, a word which is already exciting in itself and one which is all the more so as it is presented to us not only in classical terms as a ‘revelation’, but in the even more titillating language of ‘stolen secrets’. Only by reading the lead paragraph is a corner of the veil lifted, which rearranges the order of the names in the headline:
An astounding new development in the Liliane Bettencourt affair. The only daughter of the billionaire, convinced that her mother has been stripped of her assets, has sent the Criminal Investigation Department clandestine recordings of conversations between the L’Oréal heiress and her chief advisers. These audio documents, discovered by Mediapart, reveal various financial operations designed to avoid tax, relations between the minister Eric Woerth and his wife, as well as interference in the case by the Élysée (Mediapart 16 June 2010).
But what exactly are these ‘financial operations designed to avoid tax’ which are being hatched in the secrecy of Liliane Bettencourt’s private residence? How are the Minister and his wife involved? What steps has the Presidency of the Republic actually taken? To find out, one only has to click to ‘Read more’; however, if this command is obeyed, a screen for subscriptions appears. It is not possible to buy separate editions; the only concession offered is a trial period of fifteen days for the special price of one Euro. One must therefore not simply pay, but pay over a considerable period of time. The same mode of contractual and monetary access to the paper’s contents is also presented in the upper right-hand corner of the banner at the top of the screen, like the modern counterpart of the newspaper seller of yesteryear: to ‘open the paper’, to enter Mediapart, you either need to subscribe, or, if already a subscriber, enter a username and password. At each point of entry to the site, we are therefore confronted with a three-part scheme, reminiscent of the tricks in Myriam, with an eye-catching title, a lead paragraph which shows us a little more, and then a final promise, consisting here of directing us towards a subscription that will enable us to know the final part of the story.
Unlike to the newspapers of yesteryear, the subscription requirement draws a strong boundary between inside and outside, which is itself a vector of curiosity. The sense (‘the meaning’) and the cens (from the French: the fee to be paid and thus here ‘the restriction’) of this division are emphasised and explained by another counterpoint which, like the previous one, is found in the black banner running from left to right: the identity of ‘The newspaper’ (Le journal) is only understood in relation to ‘The club’ (Le club), this closed circle which is clearly separate from the paper itself and run only by subscribers, even though its content can be read by the public. More specifically, the Mediapart club is a small society which, if not secret, is at least privileged, and allows the subscribers who wish to do so to ‘participate’ (not only by posting opinions but also their own content), to have access to reading or writing ‘blogs’, and even to organise the drafting of special ‘Editions’. When compared with the Club, the section of the paper reserved for professional journalists appears as an area that is even more privileged and restricted (Canu and Datchary 2010). The name Mediapart is a good interpretation of the paper’s concern to engage readers in an exciting ‘Media-centred participation’ experience (Ibid., my emphasis). However, the same name also has the inseparable connotation of the idea of a ‘media apart’, with the double meaning of an atypical paper but also a private paper, a medium made up of private conversations, exclusive content, and discussions, and each of which are therefore as exciting as the other because of their exclusivity and because they are shared amongst the restricted circles of subscribers and journalists.
Concerned to find a new economic model that might guarantee their survival, the old traditional papers for their part offer variants of the same strategy. Perhaps with the exception of Le Canard Enchaîné (literally, ‘The Chained Duck’, a leading satirical newspaper, whose website is more a refusal to be a website!11), they generally combine a website with more or less restricted but free access on the one hand with the sale of conventional paper copies on the other, not only at the risk of the partial cannibalisation of the two forms of publication or their profitability, but also in the hope that the internet will provide a display window for, and a step towards, the purchase of (and ideally subscription to) conventional or online content. For example, the Le Figaro website offers a wide selection of articles online but also takes the opportunity to sell subscription forms and to experiment with new ways of connecting with the paper issue (see below). On the Libération and Le Monde websites, online articles (which are open to all) co-exist with others which are reserved for their subscribers (identified by a white cross in an orange rectangle for the former and by a golden ‘subscribers’ edition’ tab for the latter), in the hope that frequenting one will arouse an interest in the other. The Le Monde website completes this common strategy with an intermediate solution consisting of offering two versions of the same article: a free one which is reduced to the essential elements, and the full one which you can obtain by referring to a message which reads: ‘Read the full article [hyperlink] by [writer X] in the Subscribers area or in Le Monde dated [date] available on news stands on [same date] from 2 pm’.
However, taken together, all these options are only hesitant variations, from one paper to another but also within the same paper over time – of one and the same teasing logic – consisting in giving partial access to information and in dazzling readers with the advantages possessed by the elected, the happy few, and the privileged readers who have access to the full articles. This technique relies on two principal devices. The first consists in playing with the sequential scheduling of information. This means ‘distilling’ the ‘news’, in the sense of scriptural alchemy, and revealing it progressively, moreover without it being necessary to make hypotheses concerning a strategic withholding and a planned revelation of the available information, given that the format of the press itself, by definition (at least until the appearance of the internet) cannot but present information in a limited way, sequentially, bit by bit. Indeed, when we talk about leaks, we would be wrong to think that this is a one-way operation, that the only effort to be made is to open the breach: as leaks are made public, access to information is often tightened; as in a good hydraulic system, this therefore means ‘increasing the pressure’. This is used to maximum effect by Mediapart, which, since the summer of 2010, seems to have deliberately favoured the coverage of ‘affairs’ (for example, the Bettencourt affair, but also the Karachi affair, the Mediator affair,12 and more), and the restrictions on their accessibility. The second journalistic teasing technique consists of ensuring that access to information is made more difficult through the creation of an ‘à la carte’ press, which lies somewhere between being free and subscription-based, and follows the logic of concentric circles, in which access is granted not only to information but also to a group, to a coterie, and a privileged caste, akin to the Harvard final clubs (Grousset-Charrière 2010) or to the strata which distinguish subscribers to airline frequent-flying programmes according to their air miles (Kjellberg 2010). Implementing this kind of system involves organising a ‘courtyard market’, as if Bluebeard had targeted not a single woman but groups of women, for example by organising a visit similar to the contemporary ‘private sale’. This strategy, resembling the so-called ‘shelf talkers’ in supermarkets, charged with signalling the discounts made available to a shop’s loyalty card holders, involves assuring members of their privileges as much as it does demonstrating to non-members the cost of remaining on the outside, and therefore, inversely, what they can gain by signing up (Cochoy 2007b). Here, amongst all the conceivable motives for action, curiosity is supported by jealousy, even vanity and a certain gregariousness, by arousing a concern for ‘being one of them’, to ‘not feeling like a second class citizen’, and for ‘being in the know’.
If the first force of journalistic curiosity consists in renewing the art of teasing, the second consists in practising a twofold rapprochement. The first operates in space (‘closer’), by allowing scattered and distant readers to enjoy the impression that they are ‘as close as possible to events’; the second, extends into diachrony, by offering each person the possibility of ‘living in the moment’, and of ‘following the present’. The power of this double reconciliation – this game of intimacy and reality – has increased significantly in recent years, not only, as we have seen, with the possibility of readers entering into the very heart of journalistic production, in the numerous blogs, in collaborative articles, and in the interactivity in the form of posted comments (Canu and Datchary 2010), but also through the promotion of new ways of ensuring continuous and immediate access to information, with the development of online ‘chat’, the continuous posting of dispatches, tweets, RSS feeds, among others; in short, the flood of all these various exciting pieces of news, which are not there because we seek them out, but paradoxically because they have come to us, and because they give us the impression of having crossed the globe, through serendipity, at the mercy of the twin movements of dispersal (Datchary 2010) and exploration (Auray 2011). Furthermore, certain devices allow these two forces to be combined, by soliciting the participation of the public in topics of the moment, such as, for example, the instant surveys offered daily on the Le Figaro website (Fig. 22).
The device is threefold, as the sequence of three illustrations shows. Firstly, ‘I’ (the internet user looking at the screen) am asked to give my thoughts on a matter of opinion – for example: ‘Are you in favour of banning the burqa in public areas?’ It appears as though it were less a matter of my own curiosity as a reader (I of course have, or believe I have,13 my own beliefs on the proposal, and would not therefore a priori be curious about myself) and more the pollster’s, who is trying to probe the soul of the population. However, between the question and the binary ‘yes/no’ alternative that I am offered, two separate elements intervene which change the situation: I learn that during the very instant it takes me to peruse the question, 52 people have already responded, while 9,046 have already voted. Thanks to these instantaneous indicators, as the potential 9,047th voter, I understand that in facing my screen and by clicking on either answer I will not only be able to generously share how I feel (an altruism which I, and others like me, often baulk at with conventional surveys), but above all, I will also instantly know the total breakdown of all the opinions, as well as realising that I will not be able to know where I stand without casting my own vote. This is the force of the device: this survey arouses my curiosity in relation not only to the question asked, but also the answers given. It mobilises a sense of belonging: the desire I have, or which comes to me, to know not only how the answers are distributed, but also where I stand in relation to them. Everything rests on my desire to know whether my personal feeling, which I of course have to formulate blindly and in advance, is on the side of the majority or the minority, which I will discover in the second stage, after clicking:14 an overwhelming majority of 83.52% of those who voted declared that they were in favour of a total ban of the Islamic veil; only 16.48% were against it. I now finally know which side I am on, or almost: of course, on the one hand, the opinion of participatory internet users on the Le Figaro website tells me nothing about the paper’s typical readers, and even less about the opinion of French people; but on the other, I have at least learnt where I stand in relation to an impressive group, which, while admittedly anonymous and whose contours are unclear, is nevertheless very much present and significant, comprising all those who have, like me, just voted. Furthermore, I am more inclined to connect with them as a series of icons allows me to ‘post’ comments (‘React’), to show my enthusiasm (‘Like’), to circulate the information (‘Share’), and so on.
The device does not stop there: the next day, in the daily paper version, the full result of the previous day’s Internet survey is published. The figures are roughly the same, with 86% of people in favour against 14% who are reluctant for the veil to be banned. However, the final tally of respondents has greatly increased; in the end 41,453 curious people took part: the survey’s total lack of representativeness has its counterpart in the highly unusual quantity of opinions that were registered in comparison with conventional surveys, which generally only involve a thousand people (due to the law of averages according to which this sample size is sufficient to obtain sufficiently reliable results, with a margin of error of a few percentage points). What is even more interesting is that the insert finishes with two opposing elements. The previous day’s results have barely been announced when the new day’s question is asked: ‘Should smacking be banned in France?’, as serious a question as the previous one, and which one can immediately answer by returning to the website. Or why not express your opinion by other means and give in to the sadomasochistic use of premium-rate numbers (another form of ‘smacking’ which could perhaps benefit from being banned given the cost!), or vote by text message (for 50 Euro cents) or, worse, by telephone (56 cents). Conversely, the box ends with a retrospective ranking of ‘yesterday’s most-read articles’, thus giving an idea of the issues that interest the participatory internet users of the Le Figaro website: in first place, the fine given to a veiled female driver, which was in the news and provoked the previous day’s survey; this was closely followed by the threats aimed at the President of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party (Jean-François Copé), after he proposed the ban on the burqa to the National Assembly; then a different story (‘two homosexuals buried alive’ in Cher); an American decision paving the way for the extradition of the director Roman Polanski, under house arrest in Switzerland for a historical rape charge, and finally, in last place, an item on international politics concerning the attitude of the Liberal Democrat (LDP) candidate in the elections to the House of Commons.
This last detour via England, as fortuitous as it is unexpected, sets us on the right road: it reminds us, by chance, that we should be directing our gaze across the Channel. In order to gain a better understanding of the question of the feedback between the interactive Le Figaro survey and the daily paper version, I intend in fact to draw a parallel between this device and an installation created by the British sociologist, Andrew Barry, and the artist Lucy Kimbell, in the context of the major exhibition ‘Making Things Public’, organised by Bruno Latour and Pieter Weibel at the German contemporary art centre (ZKM) in Karlsruhe in 2005. The theme of this exhibition consisted in showing that there are a thousand different ways of assembling and bringing to life a public, other than those involving conventional political institutions, that include laboratories, supermarkets, financial trading screens, environmental controversies, and others (Latour and Weibel 2005). Among the various installations designed to address this proposal, the one devised by Barry and Kimbell possessed an elegance, a simplicity, and a rare efficacy (Barry and Kimbell 2005).
The two photographs make it possible to understand the function and intention of the device. In the top image, we see a series of twelve transparent tubes containing different coloured badges. Each colour, and therefore each tube, corresponds to the endorsement of a particular civic gesture. For example: ‘I recycled’, ‘I said what I believe’, ‘I used public services’, and so on, with each statement printed on the badges. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to choose those badges which corresponded to activities that they had recently carried out, and to pin these badges to their clothing. The immediate and participatory engagement with the work allowed visitors to break down the anonymity of the crowd to some extent, thus promoting an exercise in reciprocal curiosity – by consulting each other’s badges between themselves, each person was now able to access each other person’s civic identity and the degree of engagement (see the bottom picture). It also offered people the possibility of obtaining an instant measure of the distribution of the different endorsements among visitors by consulting the levels of badges in the different tubes (see the top picture).
The interactive Le Figaro survey and Barry and Kimbell’s installation work in largely the same way. Both of them aim to measure a public, but above all, to create that public and to bring it to life. Here we find the mechanism that is so well described by Gabriel Tarde, who relates the existence of a public to the establishment of a physical or mental relationship among its members, and thus emphasises the role of curiosity towards others in a curiosity about the state of the world:
We have dealt with the psychology of crowds; we still have to deal with the psychology of the public, as understood in this other sense, namely that of a purely spiritual group, a scattering of physically separate individuals whose cohesion is entirely mental. […] The reader is generally unaware that they are being subjected to this persuasive, almost irresistible influence of the newspaper that he usually reads. As for the journalist, he will be more aware of his obligation towards his public, whose nature and tastes he never forgets. The reader is even less aware: he has absolutely no idea of the influence exerted over him by the mass of other readers. It is, nonetheless, undeniable. It affects both his curiosity, which becomes the more intense if he knows, or believes it to be, shared by a broader or more select public; and in his judgement, which strives to agree with that of the majority or of the elite, depending on the issue at hand. I open a newspaper that I believe is from that day, and I avidly read some news; then I notice that the issue is a month old, or a day old, and it immediately ceases to interest me. Where does this sudden disgust come from? Have the facts lost anything of their intrinsic interest? No, but we tell ourselves that we are the only person reading them, and that’s enough. This therefore proves that our lively curiosity holds on to the unconscious illusion that our feeling was shared by a large number of minds. A paper from the day before or the day before that, when compared with today’s paper, is like a speech read out in your house compared with a speech heard in the middle of a huge crowd (Tarde 2006).
Tarde tells us that each person is accordingly more curious about the world when they know that others are too. Each one of us only gives value and meaning to objects that allow us to relate to others through the same shared experience: whether it is in Tarde’s example of reading the daily newspaper, or in participating in the instant survey on the press website, or in the experience of Barry and Kimbell’s installation. What is new is that newspapers seize reflexively upon the social curiosity that is discreetly attached to the reading of a newspaper in order to animate their public, to arouse the public debate that is their profession to inform, and thus to position their publications more effectively.15 We therefore have a better understanding of how significant the difference is between the classic survey and the interactive survey mentioned above – in one case a limited but representative sample, in the other a large but unrepresentative population. We would be wrong to criticise the interactive survey for its low level of representativeness, which may mask the opinion of a more significant population, but in which the law of large numbers shows little interest. The objectives of the two tools are quite different. In contrast to the ordinary survey, the participatory survey is intended less to measure current opinion and more to stimulate public participation: the device strives both to encourage circulation between the different versions of the paper and to constitute the public required for this circulation. The idea is that of a catharsis, a setting in motion, of gathering everyone around an issue which draws people out of their isolation in order to enrol them in a collective experience.
However, and once again, the orientation of this experience varies according to substance and form. Comparing the newspaper and the installation is enlightening. In Barry and Kimbell’s installation, the range of the choice appears to be very broad, as there are no less than twelve options, but one may also choose to make multiple choices which are not mutually exclusive. However, upon closer inspection it becomes obvious that the choices being offered all, without exception, derive from the affirmation of a single inclination: one that is virtuous, public, and civic. In the same way that our motives for action are often communicated to us by external sources, our political choices are here narrowly framed as a list of actions which is, if not without a loophole – abstention is of course possible – then at least without an alternative. The messages which can be displayed are: ‘I used public services’ (salmon pink), ‘I kept myself informed’ (red), ‘I bought ethical products’ (orange), ‘I supported a political organisation’ (yellow), ‘I protested’ (green), ‘I raised issues’ (blue), ‘I recycled’ (blue), ‘I signed a petition’ (pink), ‘I obeyed the law’ (purple), ‘I said what I believe’ (grey), and so on. All things considered, Bluebeard’s citizen wives of this installation are invited to wear the colours of a rather monochromatic rainbow, if I may risk using this oxymoron as a final nod to the subject of my book: the expression (or rather the implementation) of personal motives functions here as the projection of a discreet but genuine social normativity.
The use of the Le Figaro participatory survey works according to a completely different register, one midway between public and political issues and more private and differentiated practices. The questions asked are of a very particular type – here are some examples: ‘Should the Catholic Church authorise the marriage of priests?’ (11 March 2010); ‘Should smacking be banned in France?’ (12 March 2010); ‘Are you in favour of a police presence in schools?’ (6 May 2010), among others. These questions are usually set against a backdrop of events which are likely to generate public attention and lead to the voicing of their convictions: paedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church, the arrest of a veiled woman, incidents of violence in schools, and the like. The participatory survey calls forth events and issues which challenge the collective conscience or, more precisely, which stir up a divided conscience. Indeed, this device shows us that appealing to social conscience does not necessarily invoke Durkheim’s common and unanimously shared sentiment: on the contrary, it acts to build, mobilise, and oppose binary collectives around the opposing values that are under debate, including public freedoms and secularism (the burqa), religious institutions and sexuality (the marriage of priests), children’s rights and educational methods (smacking), the securitisation of schools and the safety of pupils (police in schools), and more. While Barry and Kimbell’s installation animated the public, Le Figaro ‘scolds’ its readership in all senses of the word: it generates a clamour; it incites the noise of at best a debate, and, at worst, a fruitless confrontation, carried along by the emotion and passion of the moment, which is hardly conducive to the objectivity and cool-headedness required for the examination of societal issues.
A yet more sophisticated and effective way of arousing public curiosity in the emotion of the moment is offered by the extraordinary device ‘CoveritLive’, which, when a particularly ‘hot’ topic arises, allows subscribers to online papers, like LeMonde.fr, to experience not only the excitement not just of instantly receiving the influx of dispatches previously reserved for press agencies, but also of interactive participation in the real-time production of this very information. In fact, not only are readers able to continually read the dispatches but they can also ‘Send questions or comments’ (see bottom of the screen, figure 23), which will, if approved by the moderator, join the flow of dispatches and/or motivate journalists who are ‘running the live feed’ to respond. Both sides are thus able to feed into the furious/curious echo chamber of this public forum, hypnotised by the punctual temporality of the instant, and to enrich it by including images, videos, tweets, and hyperlinks (including to instant surveys, even if LeMonde.fr itself does not support this option) in the ‘CoveritLive’ dispatches.
And after the first Fall comes another – or a redemption, as in the last example? The lack of perspective makes you giddy! – a double fall, in fact: on the one hand, with the press, we encounter once again the original sin of the Bible which marked the beginning of this book, as newspapers make a profession out of playing with the sin of curiosity; on the other hand, the democratic hope borne by the press risks falling back at any moment into the commercial quagmire, especially when, in a spectacular act of regression, the press reverses the course of history and abandons its hard-won status as a display window to return to the initial keyhole phase and to a form of curiosity as vain as it is voyeuristic – the ‘lusty gaze’ that was denounced by Saint Augustine. It is, of course, with the ‘celebrity’ press that this regression reaches its peak.
The sensationalist magazine is, indisputably, a ‘people press’ and a ‘peep-hole press’. As a people press, it is a press that offers the public the chance to satisfy its curiosity about celebrities (people); but as a ‘peep-hole press’ – literally, a press that ‘leers’ through the keyhole! – it is a press whose intention is to appear as the only means of satisfying this curiosity. In order to penetrate the lives of celebrities, you have to go through the keyhole of the speciality magazine. The work of the locksmith here usually takes a plural form. As suggested by Closer’s graphics, with no fewer than four circles designed to resemble the viewfinder of a camera – one for the price, one for the ‘Closer scoop’, two for photographs taken with a telephoto lens – the covers of magazines like this take on the appearance of an opaque rectangular door covered with keyholes, each of which is designed to show us the point of view of the paparazzi lying in wait to snatch these images and which give us glimpses of what might be seen on the other side of the door, inside the magazine, if we are prepared to pay the price (Closer offers an ‘exceptional’ price: with the reduction from €1.50 to €1, they have given us a saving of 50%!).16 The approach of professional voyeurism is explicitly asserted: on the one hand, the terms ‘scoop’ and ‘exclusive photos’ suggest the expert monopoly that we have to buy into in order to access the privacy of the stars; on the other, the proliferation of photos, bodies, names, and revelations (‘the steamy past of the candidates’; ‘Christophe Maé [a French pop star]: madly in love’, etc.) demonstrate the magazine’s skill with using blatant voyeurism. The latter is also reinforced by a three-way act of mirroring: on the left, we learn that Loana, a former icon of public exhibitionism,17 is ‘unrecognisable’; at the top, we are promised ‘news’ on the ‘steamy past of the candidates’ of ‘Secret Story’ – the reality television programme of the moment, with the all-seeing eye as its logo, that draws on the Big Brother format, also used in so many other countries. Finally, with ‘(female) readers let themselves go’, the magazine’s readers themselves are carried away into the endless game of mirrors of ‘reality TV’ voyeurism, in this game of ‘democratising the gaze’ and identification that Jean-Claude Kaufmann (2001) and Dominique Mehl (2003) recognised so well. This game is repeated diagonally, in the bottom left of the cover, with the expression ‘everyone at the beach’, whose delicious ambiguity (‘everyone’, meaning really everyone, or really ‘all the stars’) seems to invite the reader on holiday with celebrities – here, with the Swedish model and sex symbol, Victoria Silvstedt.
The people press is a sensationalist press, in the literal double sense of the sensational scoop, and of the sensation of emotion: this form of the press promises to open up a dizzying gap between public and private spheres. The public figures that it displays to us, or rather that it proposes we see through it, are publics, but that which interests this press and its readers is the anecdote, and, above all, the intimate: we follow affairs of the heart and the body, thus inaugurating a new deviation from the Durkheimian concept of the collective conscience: the source of the thrill here is neither the civic goodwill of the ZKM installation, nor the divided social convictions of the Le Figaro participatory survey, but the strong and defined states of a public pleasure in private intimacy. The people/peep-hole press has taken the baton from the Sartrian keyhole, but this time without any great risk of it being caught, unless perhaps it falls into the hands of a public that is not its own, and this public reads it in places that are unsuitable, beyond the secret closed doors of its home. This press undertakes the commodification of the keyhole to an extreme degree: by allowing a crowd to simultaneously observe the same scene, it manages to transfer to the keyhole that which provided the display window with its exclusive advantage.
This type of approach appears to be becoming increasingly important, not only in the people press and on reality TV (as has just been examined), but also, and above all, on the internet, on Facebook, blogs, dating websites… in short, these various curiosity devices that bring together the absolute privacy (at least, up until the advent of smartphones) of the domestic world with the absolutely public nature of a public form of media. With these new tools, millions of people can, in the same instant, share the same keyhole; millions of others can view/be offered to be viewed by others in ways that are more or less voluntary or complacent: the voyeurism of some is completed by the forced or consenting exhibitionism of others, and vice versa, thus clouding the definition of and perceptions about ‘privacy’ (Kessous and Rey 2009). Beyond the curiosity of a libido-sciendi, or of the commercial or investigative exploration of the press, today’s subjects, thanks to modern media, are able to experience an anecdotal, often playful curiosity, which includes a wealth of identity constructions (Kaufmann 2001), but which may also occasionally produce tragic effects. This was demonstrated to us in the sad story of Tyler Clementi, a homosexual American student who, after discovering that his lovemaking had been filmed without his knowledge and put online by two of his ‘friends’, ended his life by jumping from a bridge (Foderaro 2010). In a curious reversal of the fairy tale, in this news story it is as if it was not Bluebeard and his retrograde morals, but his wife herself, or rather his wife’s curiosity, that suddenly became the guilty party responsible for a death (which is also her own, in return).
From The Saturday Evening Post to Closer, and by passing through Le Figaro and Mediapart, we have thus examined the ambiguous facets of curiosity. This motive oscillates between rise and fall, between a device for knowledge and a market device for distraction, and between a critical force for civic awareness and a tool for voyeurism which is at best shallow, at worst fatal. On the one hand, curiosity is rich in emancipation: it is curiosity that keeps our mind open to the world, which stimulates us to look around ourselves, to not be taken in, to think outside the box – insofar as showing oneself to be curious, authorising serendipity, being open not only to that which we seek but also to that which we encounter, is perhaps the only way of making discoveries that are worthy of the name. On the other hand, and as Heidegger reminds us, in reviving the Augustinian tradition (which is explicitly cited), curiosity is rich in distraction, namely, in a form of an inclination that, if it is not guided with an adequate sense of purpose, can veer off at any moment, lose itself, or lose us, to the point where we are paradoxically further from this (‘closer’) proximity to which it was thought to provide access:
If liberated curiosity concerns itself with seeing, it is not to understand what is being seen, that is, to access a being for its own sake, but only in order to see. It only seeks the new in order to jump to the new from this new towards the new. So if it goes there in order to concern itself with such a viewing, it is not to seize it and to be in the truthful position of knowing, but out of a concern for the possibilities of abandoning oneself to the world. Curiosity is also characterized by a specific incapacity to stay as close as possible. So too does it no longer seek the leisure of the considered stay, but the uneasiness and excitement which the new always gives it, and the incessant changing of the object that it encounters. Because it does not remain, curiosity concerns itself with the constant possibility of distraction (Heidegger 2010: 146).
* * *
What, finally, is curiosity worth? Any promise of curiosity is in danger of arousing an immense disappointment: here is a book which, after having begun with the sacred, has lowered itself inexorably towards the profane, at first with the popular tale of Bluebeard, then moving to the inventory of market devices, before finally, after a brief leap into the investigative press, finishing in the inconsequentiality and vulgarity of the people press! Here too is a book which, after giving the impression of managing to break free from the moral sanction that has weighed upon curiosity ever since the Church’s founding fathers, closes by coming back, through Heidegger, to this very form of sanction. So many pages just to come back to the starting point! More worrying still is that the disastrous disappointments have been rendered multiple. Between the cover and the present conclusive words extends the much more serious disillusionment of the ‘false curiosity’ that results from something specific being expected and seeing this expectation going unfulfilled. Unmet expectations are always highly frustrating: ‘I am furious that I did not find what I was led to expect; that is, neither the surprises that seemed to be promised to me, nor what I would have liked to see’. For example, this book is quite unembarrassed about saying almost nothing about the social effects of technologies of curiosity. It obscures the subject of the digital divide and the noticeably socially discriminatory character of technologies of curiosity; it does not say enough about the strong powers of distraction associated with these technologies, which diverts actors’ attention away from more essential social and political issues. These are legitimate and necessary questions;18 ignoring them exposes the sociologist to the accusation of failing in his (so-called) duty of criticism or metacriticism (Boltanski 2011).19
Even worse, the failure to exhibit a ‘curiosity about curiosity’ confirms the very failure of the book’s project. I wanted to show that curiosity is a widespread social inclination. Now, the only tangible data that I was able to collect in relation to this proposal – my enquiry into the use of the Data Matrix – actually goes against my hypothesis, showing that the propensity towards curiosity and/or the efficacy of curiosity devices is particularly rare and delicate. Today’s wives of Bluebeard (including ‘bearded ladies’: the image here also includes individuals of the male sex!) do not necessarily have the keys to open the doors that they are presented with, and, even when they are provided with them, find the doors too heavy, too complicated, and too slow, while they only have a very absent-minded interest in the keyholes that they are offered and the wonders that gleam at them from the door’s other side. However, two things merit attention. First, the logic of seduction (even when non-commercial) operates through its lack of restriction, which involves a quite considerable ‘power loss’. From this point of view, at least curiosity is less intrusive and more participatory than classical forms of advertising. Above all, curiosity often functions as serendipity, which also applies to this book. Perhaps from this perspective a curiosity about curiosity is nothing more than a pretext: it is one form of curiosity among others, and it should therefore not distract us from all the other curious things that might cross its path.
Has this last promise been fulfilled, however? Has something been discovered between these pages? From the point of view of readers, at least for some of them, a negative response cannot be excluded. Each of these such responses would thus arise from a different source of disappointment, all equally embarrassing to me, given that I made a contract with the reader to which, although you might have missed it, I have been committed throughout. Of course I imagine that I do not need to be accountable to all those who might complain about being thrown off balance by the piling up of references and objects, by the slightly uneven mixture of a sacred text and profane desires, literature and computer games, sociology and issues of the market, economics and commercial devices; in short, by a visit to a junk shop which strongly resembles a new species of curiosity cabinet. These readers can have no complaints, as they were warned in the very first lines: this book is not for them and if they have read it in spite of everything, the fault is theirs! In contrast, I would be inclined to have more regard for those who might instead think that the journey was perhaps less ‘baffling’ than was announced, either because I mistakenly lured them with the promise of surprises that did not materialise – ‘this book, pah’, concludes the reader, ‘I knew all this!’ – or because the demonstration is unconvincing and scattered with mistakes, blunders, omissions, platitudes, and so on. If I have only stated what is already known; if my text has shortcomings, insufficiencies and contains errors, I could by definition not have anticipated these difficulties. Some people might be infuriated that they did not encounter the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) affair that was nonetheless promised to them on the back cover, except in two brief allusions, moreover reduced to aspects of form rather than of substance: does misplaced curiosity nowadays still deserve to be punished?! A final disappointment of this type may consist in finding that the content of the book is more limited than might have been suggested by the title. After having first entitled this work ‘the sociology of curiosity’, conforming to the obvious concerns of my disciplinary and institutional foundations, I changed my mind at the last minute, because, to my mind, it deals not just with sociology but also with the philosophy, anthropology, history, psychology, and economics of curiosity, because I thought that an overly narrow disciplinary restriction would not wholly do my project justice, and because it seemed relevant to play reflexively with the economics of surprise, as presented in chapter 4. I nonetheless remain a sociologist, and, even more narrowly, a sociologist of markets, an affiliation that orients my work and undoubtedly curbs my own curiosity more than I would like, something for which readers from other disciplines, or with no particular disciplinary orientation (or those who are more curious than myself) would have every right to reproach me for. I do not therefore know what to say to all these people, except to repeat that disappointment is part of the game and to suggest to them that in having one’s disappointment conjured up lies another lesson in curiosity.
All disappointed curiosity is, as we have seen, extremely ambiguous. In Bluebeard, the bodies are for his wife a disappointment, but also a punishment; they are the future image of her own fate, her death. But these same bodies are also an exquisitely perverse surprise for the reader;20 without them, the tale would lose all its charm. In one way or another, disappointed curiosity cannot therefore be disappointing. In the history of curiosity, disappointment is part of the game, and, because it is present, it only renders more beautiful those rare occasions when it is disappointed or thwarted, and more ardent the more innumerable attempts there are to deny it. Indeed, it is the combination of a thousand disappointments and a few rare moments of satisfied – and fruitful – curiosity, which continually spurs us to begin again, to explore the other side of the door – and to move closer in order to move further away.