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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 20, May 13, 2023

Believing and Making People Believe | Michel de Certeau

Saturday 13 May 2023


From: Chapter 13, L’Invention du quotidien by Michel de Certeau (1980)

I like the word believe. In general, when one says “I know,” one doesn’t know, one believes.
— Marcel Duchamp, Duchamp du signe (Paris, Flammarion, 1975, p. 185)

Jews, Leon Poliakov once said, are French people who, instead of no longer going to church, no longer go to synagogue. In the comic tradition of the Hagadah, this joke referred to past beliefs that no longer organize practices. Political convictions seem today to be following the same path. One is a socialist because one used to be one, no longer going to demonstrations, attending meetings, sending in one’s dues, in short, without paying. More reverential than identifying, membership is marked only by what is called a voice, (voix: a voice, a vote) this vestige of speech, one vote per year. Living off a semblance of “belief,” the party carefully collects the relics of former convictions and, given this fiction of legitimacy, succeeds quite well in managing its affairs. It has only to multiply the citation of these phantom witnesses by surveys and statistics, to re-cite their litany.

A rather simple technique keeps the pretense of this belief going. All that is required is that the surveys ask not about what directly attaches its “members” to the party, but about what does not attract them elsewhere—not about the energy of convictions, but their inertia: “If it is false that you believe in something else, then it must be true that you are still on our side.” The results of the operation thus count (on) vestiges of membership. They bet on the erosion itself of every conviction, since these vestiges indicate both the ebbing-away of what those questioned formerly believed and the absence of a stronger credibility that draws them elsewhere: “voices” do not go away; they remain there; they lie inertly where they were, but nevertheless make up the same total. The toting up becomes a tale. This fiction might very well be an appendix to Borges’s Esse est percipi. It is the fable of a slippage which figures cannot register but which affects beliefs nonetheless.

As a first approximation, I define “belief” not as the object of believing (a dogma, a program, etc.) but as the subject’s investment in a proposition, the act of saying it and considering it as true—in other words, a “modality” of the assertion and not its content. The capacity for believing seems to be receding everywhere in the field of politics. That capacity once supported the functioning of “authority.” Since Hobbes, political philosophy, especially in the English tradition, has considered this articulation as fundamental. Through this link, politics made its relationship of difference and continuity with religion explicit. But the will to “make people believe” (“faire-croire”) that gives life to institutions, provided in both cases a counterpart for a search for love and/ or identity. It is thus important to investigate the ups and downs of believing in our societies and the practices that have their source in these displacements.

The Devaluation Of Beliefs

For a long time people assumed that the reserves of belief were limitless. All one had to do was to create islands of rationality in the ocean of credulity, isolate and secure the fragile conquests made by critical thinking. The rest, considered inexhaustible, was supposed to be transportable toward other objects and other ends, just as waterfalls are harnessed by hydroelectric plants. People tried to “capture” this force by moving it from one place to another: from the so-called pagan societies they led it toward the Christianity it was supposed to support; later it was diverted from the Churches in the direction of political monarchy; and later still from a traditional religiousness to the institutions of the Republic, the national organization of schools and its educational ideology, or various forms of socialism. These “conversions” consisted in capturing the energy of belief by moving it about. What was not transportable, or not yet transported, into the new areas of progress appeared as “superstition”; what could be used by the reigning order was accorded the status of a “conviction.” The fund was so rich that in exploiting it people forgot the necessity of analyzing it. Campaigns and crusades consisted in conveying and investing the energy of believing in good places and on good objects (to be believed).

Little by little, belief became polluted, like the air and the water. The motive energy, always resistant but manipulable, finally begins to run out. People notice at the same time that no one knows what it is. It is strange paradox that so many polemics and meditations on both ideological content and the institutional frameworks provided for it have not been (except in English philosophy, from Hume to Wittgenstein, H. H. Price, Hintikka or Quine) accompanied by a clarification of the nature of the act of believing. Today, it is no longer enough to manipulate, transport, and refine belief; its composition must be analyzed because people want to produce it artificially; commercial and political marketing studies are still making partial efforts in this direction. There are now too many things to believe and not enough credibility to go around.

An inversion is produced. The old powers cleverly managed their “authority” and thus compensated for the inadequacy of their technical or administrative apparatus: they were systems of clienteles, allegiances, “legitimacies,” etc. They sought, however, to make themselves more independent of the fluctuations of these fidelities through rationalization, the control and organization of space. As the result of this labor, the powers in our developed societies have at their disposal rather subtle and closely-knit procedures for the control of all social networks: these are the administrative and “panoptic” systems of the police, the schools, health services, security, etc. But they are slowly losing all credibility. They have more power and less authority.

Technicians are often not concerned with this problem, since they are preoccupied with extending and making more complex the mechanisms for maintenance and control. An illusory confidence. The sophistication of the discipline does not compensate for the fact that subjects no longer invest and commit themselves in believing. In businesses, the demobilization of workers is growing faster than the surveillance network of which it is the target, pretext, and effect. Wasting of products, diversion of time, “la perruque,” turn-over or inactivity of employees, etc., undermine from within a system which, as in the Toyota factories, tends to become a form of imprisonment in order to prevent any sort of escape. In administrations, offices, and even in political and religious groups a cancerous growth of the apparatus is the consequence of the evaporation of convictions, and this cancer becomes in turn the cause of a new evaporation of believing. Looking out for one’s own interests is no substitute for belief.

Believing is being exhausted. Or at least it takes refuge in the areas of the media and leisure activities. It goes on vacation; but even then it does not cease to be an object captured and processed by advertising, commerce, and fashion. In order to bring back some of these beliefs that are retreating and disappearing, businesses have begun to fabricate their own simulacra of credibility. Shell oil produces the Credo of “values” that “inspire” its top administrators and that its managers and employees must adopt as well. The same sort of thing is found in countless other businesses, even if they are slow in getting in motion and still count on the fictive capital of an earlier family, house, or regional “spirit.”

Where is the material to be found which can be used to inject credibility into these mechanisms? There are two traditional sources, the one political, and the other religious: in the first, the mobility or ebbing away of conviction among militants is compensated for by an over-development of administrative institutions and managerial staff; in the second, on the contrary, institutions that are disintegrating or closing in on themselves allow the beliefs that they long promoted, maintained, and controlled be scattered in every direction.

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