Discretion Is the Better Part of Value

(Addendum to “Reich: How To Use”)


Here are some specifics on my Reich article. . . .

The 18th-century French author Marivaux wrote a play entitled “How Spirit Comes to Women.” (You can easily imagine how!) . . .

I want to draw your attention to a difficulty in translating this text into English. In French, publicité refers both to “advertising” and to “public welfare,” res publica, what belongs to the public. These two quite contrary senses make for a striking play on words, which I am developing in depth in my Encyclopédie des Apparences, but I don’t see how it can be rendered in English. . . .

Misery is in fact the sole real property of the unhappy public. In this sense misery is common, communal — but only secretly so, not publicly.

In contrast, commercial publicity speaks of something that does not belong to the public, but it speaks of it in a public manner.

Thus, publicité includes three moments:

a) It is the character of that which belongs to the public, of that which the public possesses, of public property. But, this public property may very well be nonpublic, secret, not revealed. This is the case with misery.

b) It is that which is known by the public, that which is done in its presence. But, this knowledge may very well concern something which does not belong to the public. This is precisely the case with commercial publicity (advertising) in particular and with the spectacle in general. Thus, in the spectacle, that which is public in the sense of “done in the presence of the public” is the totality of individuals and their relations. But this totality, even though it is composed of nothing other than themselves, does not belong to them. They are stripped of their own substance.

c) Finally, the third moment is the unity of the first two; the unity of that which belongs to the public and that which is known by the public. In a word, real publicité in the sense of 1789-1793. It is communism, community; the workers councils were a timid experience of this type of publicité. It is “practice which sees its own action.”

In a very Hegelian language, this third moment is the totality of individuals suppressing itself in favor of the immediateness of the individual. The totality then becomes the concrete substance of the individual and the individual becomes the substantial power of the totality which exists for itself, as person. (Heil Hegel!)

The French term publicité renders all that, including that grotesque perversion of publicité, advertising.

I also want to clarify what I mean by “idea” in the phrase “the idea of its suppression.” I have a very materialist conception of this term. What I mean, for example, is the taking of the Bastille by the people of Paris on 14 July 1789. That’s what I mean by idea. This very material “idea” comes to people the same way “spirit” does.

In short, what I mean by idea is the third moment of publicité. And that’s also what I mean by spirit.

It’s both a material fact (the taking and destruction of the Bastille, material fact par excellence) and the contrary of a material fact, the suppression of this collective fact in favor of the immediateness of the individual. In a word, consciousness, the consciousness of that which makes itself. Etc.

Finally, I want to clarify the role that character plays for me, so that a too great importance is not given it through the reading of this article.

I take character in Reich’s sense for a mere symptom, for the symptom of an effect which is still hidden, which still operates in the dark, and which can only operate in the dark, since awareness of it is inseparable from its destruction by the “people in arms.” In my view, character is nothing but a symptom of the spectacle effect (which is itself only a particular form of the value effect).

On the other hand, inasmuch as it is a symptom, character can be an effective means of publicizing a secret misery, a misery still hidden. For the symptom, even if it is a symptom of an as yet unknown malady, cancer for example, is no less certainly a symptom of it, which at least lets the sick person know that he is sick and not in good health, which he might believe in the absence of the symptom.

But I think that to make character an independent entity, with its own history and its own rationale, is a misuse of the notion.

In any case I am developing all this in the Encyclopédie des Apparences, which should appear here at the end of the year. . . .

(Letter from Jean-Pierre Voyer to Ken Knabb, 20 April 1973)


Addendum to Voyer’s Reich: How To Use. Translated by Ken Knabb. Reprinted from Public Secrets (1997). This version supersedes the original translation issued as a leaflet in 1973.

No copyright.

[Original French text of this letter]