The central character of the novel Preventative Disorder is a young journalist who discovers the excesses and delirium of the media machine in a Paris press office. He allows himself to be initiated into techniques of manipulation by an older colleague, George, a man in the grip of a kind of metaphysical disgust. One night, an overly friendly rat turns up in the press office and seems to be trying to initiate a dialogue with the human race… During an assignment to Luxembourg to report on a European Union summit, the young journalist is surprised to discover that the proceedings are dedicated to “good neighbourliness with rats.” Human consumer society has reached crisis point and only the rats, which offer their services as living garbage disposal units, can save mankind’s lifestyle. And the best news the human race has ever received is that the rats are willing to mop up not only man’s material squalor, but also his moral squalor.
Against the backdrop of a narrative that glides from the real to the fantastical and back, the reader is witness to the rise of a new “media dictatorship” and discovers the existence of a mysterious press agency, which recruits new talent capable of dreaming up future “scenarios of disorder.” Now that the mass media have taken over the world, they have to produce preventative disorder in order to have news reports to file and to feed mankind’s appetite for sensation. Peace and real progress would spell the death of the media machine, which is why it also interested in always being a step ahead of real history and in concocting the next global scandal. In this novel/manifesto, Matei Visniec, himself a radio journalist (he worked for the BBC from 1988 to 1999, and since 1990 he has worked for RFI) attempts to provide an X-ray image of these new forms of brainwashing.
Every now and again I feel like telling George: stop, you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, why not enjoy the city, look how beautiful it is, it takes your breath away when you see it from on high, look how harmonious it is, and on a day like this, with a clear blue sky, you can almost count the people, even the lifts going up and down the metal lacework of the Eiffel Tower are crystal clear… Why don’t we talk about a day like today?
“Did you say something?” asks George.
“As for myself, I’m getting dirtier and dirtier,” George continues. “I’ve started doing things I never did thirty years ago, when I started out in this trade. I no longer even consider myself a journalist. No. I’m a gravedigger. When I take my seat in front of the microphone to read the news, I straight away sense how torpid the listener will be if I don’t supply him with enough dead bodies, enough abjection, enough tension… When I have only three or four dead bodies in a newscast, I know it’s game over. The other out there won’t be listening to me. Or else he will be listening in a more and more superficial way, while his attention wanders off… Yes, that’s the truth, if my newscast has only three or four dead bodies, then I won’t be taken seriously. I can almost feel the other’s accusation, as if I weren’t doing my job properly. For a news bulletin to be interesting, I need at least ten dead bodies. In other words, a two-digit number. And as soon as I start talking about ten, eleven, twelve dead in Gaza, in Israel, in Iraq, in Afghanistan or even in the Ivory Coast (although as a country, it seems too far away), my newscast takes off. Are you listening to me or not?”
I don’t answer. Conversations with George are also extraordinary because you don’t have to answer him. Yes, a lot of the time I say nothing when he asks me something, as I get the impression it doesn’t bother him. You can even not listen to George. You can sit at the same table as him and think of something else. You can smoke a cigarette in front of him while gazing at the ceiling. You can jot something down in a notebook or flick through a magazine. None of these things seem to bother him as long as you remain seated at the same table as him, in a nondescript café or in the eighteenth-floor café of the Radio Palace. George abruptly becomes uneasy and boggles his eyes only when you get up to go to the toilet or back to your computer.
“What are you doing? Have you had enough?”
There’s another thing I like about George, or rather my friendship with him: once you start to know all his theories by heart, you get the feeling that you are their co-author. Ever since I became a journalist, I too have had the feeling that the profession is hiding something from me, that it forces me to tread on shifting sands… And like George I feel as if the dead of this world have invaded my everyday life. Like George and like hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of other journalists on this planet, I start my newscast with the latest killings or massacres, or with the latest sensational statements to have come from the mouths of the politicians I detest. How many of us journalists on this planet are subject to the same reflex? To make our newscasts punchy we need at least one new festering wound to have suddenly appeared on the body of mankind. It might take the form of a bloody terrorist attack, of a kidnapping with hostages at risk of being executed by strangulation at any moment, or a spectacular ethnic cleansing operation somewhere in the Caucasus or Balkans (although the ones in Africa are also good). This new wound or rash on the face of mankind might take the form of a terrible air or rail disaster or some other kind of disaster (a landslide, forest fire, earthquake, or tsunami), or a terrible moral disaster (a corruption scandal, massive electoral fraud, etc.). But opening with death and dead bodies isn’t enough. After the death toll, if my newscast is going to stay punchy and not come down, then the violence has to remain present… Then I can move on to an urgent summit to discuss death or on to various resounding statements about the fight against terrorism or the fight to end hunger or poverty, about the fight against organ-trafficking or other dirty, sinister human activities consonant with death. In any case, everything is a fight in this life, and we journalists have to have commerce with this fight. And that’s not all… A true newscast, a powerful newscast capable of keeping the listener on the edge of his seat, also has to include an exciting/moving/titillating subject taken from the upper echelons of power… The ideal newscast should then move on to a morbid subject, perhaps about paedophilia or cloning, and as a final touch it will require a few words about the latest progress in euthanasia, which is to say, a person’s natural right to a dignified, medically assisted death when he is suffering from an incurable illness.
Of course, there are also days when the press agency wires don’t supply enough dead bodies. For a journalist, these are black days, which seriously affect a newscast’s upward trajectory. George calls them days of drought. Either the press agencies haven’t been doing their job on such days, or the members of the human race have neglected to slaughter each other for a few hours. But a passing drought shouldn’t punish audiences and shrink ratings. If we find ourselves confronted with a newscast that has a low percentage of horrors, we resort to the technique of evoking previous death tolls. Nothing can stop us from fighting the drought through commemoration.
Let’s suppose that today in the Middle East there have been only three deaths. Well, in that case we can remind the listener that since the beginning of the latest conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which is to say, in the last four years, the number of people killed has been 4,333, of which 3,314 have been Palestinians and 948 have been Israelis. With a little ingenuity we can formulate the news item as follows: the latest terrorist attack in Israel has claimed three lives, bringing the death toll of the Intifada to 4,333, etc. etc. And with a little more ingenuity and aplomb, we can make the sentence even more punchier by getting in the death toll at the outset: The death toll of the four-year violent Intifada has risen to 4,333 after an attack carried out today by Palestinian terrorists in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, which claimed three victims…
On days of drought we may therefore resort to this technique and repeat the death toll from a war, ethnic conflict, or a catastrophe over and over again, which allows us as journalists to keep the emotive potential of a newscast at a high level, even if the news materials for the day in question aren’t up to the task. There are dozens of little tricks we can use. Let us suppose that today in Iraq only one American soldier has been killed. In itself, this information is weak and doesn’t bring very much emotional content to the spectacle that is my newscast. Not unless I begin the item with an overall death toll. An American soldier was killed today in Iraq is a news item that is null, if I can put it like that… But if I say another American soldier was killed today in Iraq, bringing the total toll of U.S. lives lost in the conflict to 1,012, then everything changes. A four-digit number will cause every listener to sit up and take notice. Now I can sense I’ve got my listener hooked. And because I’ve got him hooked, I can quench his thirst for macabre items with another two or three sophisticated statistical pirouettes. I can tell him, for example, that this means an average of three American soldiers have been killed every day since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, although this is lower than the rate during the Vietnam war, when an average of ten American soldiers were killed every day and significantly lower than the rate during the conflict in Algeria, when France lost an average of six soldiers a day…
It’s amazing, but when I utter all these words, I can sense how the man at the other end has pricked up his ears. He has grown as addicted to news as I am. He can’t start the day without ingesting a dose of horror. And at night he can’t go to bed unless he has immersed himself one last time in the world’s misery.
Last decade, if you remember, ended with the planetary political and diplomatic scandal known as the Wikileaks affair. A computer genius managed to publish on his website hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables, forcing the world’s politicians openly to admit what everybody else already suspected, namely everybody hates everybody else and our “civilisation” is nothing but a hypocritical form of ballet with rigid rules. The Wikileaks scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. The scenario of worldwide preventative disorder dreamt up by the team that dealt with the Wikileaks file is merely the beginning of a new era. Now that terrorism has used up its media power, our Agency is wagering for the next ten years on the preventative disorder produced by transparency.
It’s a promising field. If you have computer training and a good imagination, our Agency will welcome you with open arms. We are putting together the teams that will unleash the huge scandal of absolute transparency. Some of them are already in training. In the next ten years preventative disorder will be generated almost exclusively by the publication of every secret document in the world. The media machine will feed on diplomatic, economic, political, scientific, medical, technological and financial secrets, as well as others of a sexual or personal nature. Technically speaking, since every active person owns a computer, a mobile phone, one or more credit cards, a satellite GPS, and various other connexions, he can no longer have any secrets. In the West and the emerging countries, every active person (who works, makes telephone calls, earns money, pays taxes, has a social life, nurtures ambitions, and maintains a system of relations) is therefore a transparent person. In other words, somewhere, somebody knows everything about that person. Logical conclusion: we are embarking on an era of a new form of totalitarianism, the totalitarianism of transparency, to be precise. The secrets already stored about the planet’s active people will be able to feed a huge quantity of scandals, polemics, enquiries, ruined careers, resignations, suicides, and assassinations for at least ten years. To sum up, this means that the media machine will have food, food, food.
Yes, gentlemen of the press, and I speak to all those who have recently joined our Agency: we shall not be out of work. We shall have a huge amount of work to do. We shall break audience records. Billions of brains are at our disposal and all I want is that they should listen to us, that they should drink up our news and information, our exposés and revelations.
Total transparency will be the nightmare of the decade to come, and at the same time the most beautiful media story ever written.
(PD Media Agency. Internal document.
Level of confidentiality: AAA. Source: Sicklyleaks.)
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Matei Visniec’s latest novel is the best he has published to date. In Preventative Disorder Visniec shows he possesses the skills of a good storyteller, always providing just enough information to arouse the reader’s curiosity. The things the reader finds out in the first one hundred pages neither override his capacity for understanding nor offer him everything on a plate, but rather draw him into the act of reading.”
“With this novel, which is ultimately about the production and consumption of information, written with bittersweet humour and sparkling intelligence, Matei Visniec the prose writer wins you over once and for all.”
“Inspired from his own experience (Visniec is a journalist at RFI), the novel provides an inside look at the journalism phenomenon and the workings of the media machine.”
“The novel reflects on the astonishing phenomenon of the present-day information overload. For, paradoxically, hyper-informed man is also paralysed.”