Elodie Mielczareck, semiologist: “Bullshit is symptomatic of a change in society”
By Corinne Dillenseger
Bullshit is on the rise and some have become masters in the art of practicing it. But what is behind this reality? Why do bullshitters proliferate? Semiolinguist Elodie Mielczareck unravels the underside of this communication in a delightful, very practical-intellectual book: “Anti bullshit. Post-truth, nudge, storytelling: when words no longer have meaning (And how to fix it)” published this month by Éditions Eyrolles.
Les Echos START: What definition do you give to the word “bullshit” and why did you want to use this anglicism?
Elodie Mielczareck: Bullshit is a manipulation of language and happens when the words used, heard or read are opposed to reality as it is experienced. For example, if you are chief happiness officer and you act contrary to your role or you observe managerial practices that go against well-being at work. This is typically bullshit: talking about “white” and doing or seeing “black”.
This Anglicism is difficult to translate, it is in my opinion much more straightforward than French synonyms like “bullshit”, “foutaises” or “fadaises”. It is as ingrained in common language as other English terms. And that’s why I wanted to use it in the title of my book. It literally means “talking shit”.
Furthermore, it conveys a whole political context with post-truth - where appeals to emotion and personal opinions have more influence than the reality of the facts. This concept is also linked to the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House.
Why and how has bullshit tended to develop in recent years?
Bullshit spreads because it is permitted by language. This is made up of words, but also of images and symbols that can be found in advertising and logos. We are exposed to it every day via television, videos, social networks. This global architecture – words, images, symbols – captures our attention. It causes permanent disorder, especially when the injunctions are paradoxical. We are also witnessing a disconnect between reality and fiction, a loss of meaning. Bullshit is symptomatic of this porosity.
Today, we can talk about anything and everything. We no longer question the truth, we become part of a dynamic of narration which tells of one's own self or one's own self, in a confusion between reality and fiction. This ambivalence intrinsic to bullshit is a social fact, in the sense that it goes beyond individual consciousness. It is symptomatic of a change in society.
Is bullshit associated with lies and manipulation?
The difference between a bullshitter and a liar lies in the relationship with the truth. A bullshitter doesn't care what's true and what's false. He is more brazen than the liar. Remember Jérôme Cahuzac, accused of tax fraud. Caught red-handed, he will pretend that it is not his fault, but that of his dark side. Donald Trump with his “what ever” and “who cares” language tics doesn't have the slightest idea of what's true, and he doesn't care: he doesn't care about the truth.
The manipulator, for his part, seeks to have control over the other while the bullshitter is not in that relationship. The bullshitter is less interested in seducing or “getting people to do something”. He imposes his point of view on the other without expecting any particular reactions, just “with good reason”.
In your book, you demonstrate that storytelling is one of the bullshitter's preferred tools. This practice is often used by startups looking for investors. Could they be potential bullshitters?
I use the example of the Sauvage perfume advertisement by Dior where the hero played by Johnny Depp is symbolically ready to die for a bottle of perfume. It's ridiculous, it makes no sense. If the images and the significant forms of this advertising make you dream at first, the poverty of the story and the underlying injunction discredits the content secondly. Flattering the eyes is the domain of marketing, flattering the mind is the domain of meaning. Flattering the eyes and the mind is part of the enchantment of the world.
The same goes for an entrepreneur ready to pitch his project. If he focuses on the utilitarian dimension of his service or product, it's bullshit. On the other hand, if he bases his storytelling on the archetype that drives him as an individual, on the way in which he perceives his relationship to the world, he will emerge from his pitch, a story, a meaning, an emotion or a joy that will carry the public away. The pitch then becomes the manifestation of a personal founding myth.
You make a link between bullshit and pandemic. What is this relationship?
The health crisis has changed the way we interact. It has developed other codes of communication, remotely, such as videoconferencing and teleworking, thereby eliminating a whole section of non-verbal communication, and promoting their share of relational difficulties. For it to succeed, this digitalization of human relationships must be based on trust. But what have we observed? A significant number of employees experienced psychological distress, cases of harassment increased, and control procedures became more stringent. All this created distrust, guilt, disengagement.
Bullshit sticks to the anthropological, social and collective imagination of betrayal. Where there is mutual trust, there is no bullshit. Because trust has a contractual dimension. When this contract is no longer valid, the door is open to bullshitter.
Can we escape the bullshit trap?
Alas no. As it is a social fact, we are all immersed in it. This is completely normal. We are subject to the bullshit of others and we ourselves are bullshitters.To avoid it, we must be vigilant about the way we use words and those to which we are subjected. Also be attentive to the images and symbols that surround us because they are capable of transmitting messages to us. They have a power that we underestimate most of the time, because we live in a permanent publicity stunt (advertising and politics combined), where signs are devitalized and reduced to their utilitarian dimension.
However, there are places that escape bullshit: curiosity, humor and poetry. The philosopher Edgar Morin reminds us: “To live on prose is only to survive. To live is to live poetically. » As for humor, it allows us to tread lightly so as not to get caught up in the narrowness of a thought, or even an ideology. For example, memes on Twitter recreate reality endlessly. A way of reclaiming reality and public space.