“Does the Story Make Sense?” Historian Johann Chapoutot makes an observation: the great stories that have long given meaning to the passage of time are falling apart. Truth and facts became relative, allowing conspiracy and ignorance to emerge in the structuring of stories capable of making sense of events.
There has certainly never been a single meaning given to the story. Religious providentialism, the “getting richer” of capitalism, or the bright future of communism have little in common. But these stories have been structuring for hundreds of millions of people. And for Johann Chapoutot, professor of contemporary history at the Sorbonne, the meaning of history is a fundamental question inscribed in the human heart.
For centuries, in the West, religion has been structuring itself. Then it was replaced by the mass ideologies of the 20th century, with fascism, Nazism, communism, he develops in the program Tout un monde Thursday. “Today there is no longer a dominant historical narrative, the era is one of fragmentation”, he observes.
It is the de-Christianization of the West that has led to questioning in a much more acute, even more anguished way, the meaning of History.
The question of the meaning of history would not have arisen in the same way 150 or 200 years ago. “This question is itself taken in a historicity”, specifies the historian. “More than 200 years ago, for example, meaning in the West was given, individually or collectively, by the meaning of the Christian religion. (…) Will. This question, therefore, did not pose itself in the same way as it does today. It is the de-Christianization of the West, a massive historical phenomenon, which has led to a much sharper, even more anguished questioning of the meaning of history.”
The 20th century was marked by great mass ideologies, mobilizing and deadly: fascism, Nazism, communism. These narratives, or ideologies, tried to forge a meaning in History, like capitalism and its ultraliberal version in their own way.
Political doctrines replace religion
“Providentialism, according to which everything in history is dictated by divine providence, was the matrix of these stories of meaning”, reports the specialist. “Its withdrawal, between the second half of the 19th century and the end of the First World War – under the influence of de-Christianization, itself accentuated by urbanization, development of science, literacy, and also dramas such as the Great War – left an enormous void, precisely at a time when meaning was needed.”
The First World War, with its 20 million deaths if we add soldiers and civilians, in fact imposes the need for mourning, with a history that gives it meaning. “However, it is precisely at this moment that Christianity retreats. Hence the void left for other discourses of meaning, which can be described as political or civic religions of the 20th century. They are political doctrines, but they go far beyond the proposed doctrines in the 19th century, integrating questions that were previously assumed by religion: what is the meaning of my existence, is there life after death, what is community?
Fragmentation of stories
The political assumption of this issue has at times had disastrous consequences. The “political religions” of the 20th century have not all disappeared – like China, where communist ideology is the basis of President Xi Jinping’s centralized system – but there is a fragmentation of narratives, describes Johann Chapoutot in his book “Le Grand Récit” (PUF 2021).
“This fragmentation is also due to the technostructure of message dissemination, with the participatory web and social networks that, by their algorithmic logic, confine and communitarianize the various recipients of these messages”.
The conspiracy explains everything to you and places you in a community of elected officials, unlike ordinary mortals who still wander in the darkness of ignorance.
For the historian, the contemporary logic that today most closely resembles the great histories of the past may well be a conspiracy. “The conspiracy matrix consists of resuming the matrix of providentialism, dispensing with God, but keeping the Devil, a negative and evil force that explains much of what we live in”, he describes. “This is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons for the success of conspiracy sensibility, for like providentialism in the past, it explains everything to you and places you in a community of the chosen, unlike the common mortals who still wail in the darkness of life. ignorance. .”
And it doesn’t matter if the meaning may seem questionable, even absurd. Johann Chapoutot even coined a term – limitlessness – to describe this desire of certain multibillionaires to free themselves from all limits and constraints.
“It is the denial of the existence of physical and planetary limits, of the limits of the existence of our bodies. Its projection into a fantasized eternity. It is limited to a circle of people, who incidentally benefited from the neoliberal destruction of states and the general deregulation of the economy, as they accumulated colossal fortunes in violation of tax and labor laws, also benefited from disastrous globalization and repeatedly moved to capture considerable wealth to their benefit, which now gives them a power to which States would be well advised to set up a very firm bar”.
Thus, denounces Johann Chapoutot, the approximately 42,000 satellites aspirated by (the richest man in the world and head of Starlink, editor’s note.) Elon Musk, “is totally delusional”. “After destroying our environment, these people want to steal our sky”, he scolds.
The denial of geoplanetary boundaries, a fantasy reserved for a very small portion of humanity that can afford it, is based on the ideology of survival of the fittest.
“This limitlessness fits very well with social Darwinism, a very powerful ideology of the second half of the 19th century. This idea is that a small caste, rich enough to pay, can survive, safe from the chaos and destruction that it will have generated. , first taking refuge on floating islands in the ocean, and then going to Mars. In the delirious, anti-humanist, deeply criminal fantasy of these people, it is the repetition of all scenarios, of all the most terrifying dystopias that science fiction offers us since the 1960s.
Radio subject: Patrick Chaboudez
Web adaptation: Katharina Kubicek