Our Beloved Stupidity
António Guerreiro

Stupidity makes us reactive, igniting indignation, a redeeming idiophobia and denunciation. But, evidently, it is almost always the stupidity of others that is at stake, since our own, practised in the first person, is nothing but a more or less provisional episode, though overcome, a weakness that has happened in the past and that we can only feel sorry about now: “I was really stupid!”

The attitude that consists of always naming the stupid and defining stupidity as something other that one must expel often falls into a classic form of stupidity, the ostentatious exhibition of a presumption of intelligence. That risk was successfully identified by Robert Musil in a lecture delivered in Vienna in 1937. It became a vital reference for those who study this persistent theme, which must be faced with a sense of urgency. Starting with the title, Musil came straight to the point, treating it as the subject matter of a brief treatise: On Stupidity (Über die Dummheit). To reduce the risk of falling into the traps that stupidity presents against presumed intelligence, Musil moved cautiously, introducing the metadiscourse and suggesting modesty as “the most important weapon against stupidity”. And, with humour and the strong analytical sense that turn-of-the-century Viennese culture had imparted to him, he explained to his audience that every intelligence has a corresponding stupidity, thus granting it the same universality that Descartes had given to common sense. In a page of The Man Without Qualities, we find the most eloquent and irony-filled formula to prevail over the dialectics between stupidity and intelligence, the idea that there is an integral relationship between the two: “And after all, if stupidity did not, when seen from within, look so exactly like talent as to be mistaken for it, and if it could not, when seen from the outside, appear as progress, genius, hope, and improvement, doubtless no one would want to be stupid, and there would be no stupidity. Or fighting it would at least be easy.” What Musil refrains from is answering the question that he asks in the beginning with a definition: “Just what is stupidity?” We are left to assume that it is not possible to define the matter.

Nonetheless, it is a perennial topic that has always aroused the interest of philosophers and writers. With greater or lesser success, there are some who have embarked on a phenomenology of stupidity. And those who, reflecting on its genesis, described it as a “scar”: as Adorno and Horkheimer did in the last section of Dialectic of Enlightenment. The difficulty in fighting it stems precisely from its character of a hard protuberance, of something robust. Engaging in open warfare with stupidity has almost always been useless and often a bit stupid (we have tried to veer away from the idea of a declaration of war in the conception of this Electra issue).

Flaubert was perhaps the first to grasp this trait, by defining stupidity as “something unshakable; nothing attacks it without breaking itself against it; it has the nature of granite, hard and resistant”. He knew what he was talking about. The stupidity that he was obsessed with was the kind expressed by the French word bêtise, which evokes bestiality, the descent into an animal-like state. Stupidity, bêtise, idiocy, imbecility: here is a constellation of terms that are difficult to tell apart and form a problematic universe. We take a very particular interest in Flaubert because, for him, stupidity was not a theoretical question (he never intended to produce a theory of stupidity), but a historical one. His idiophobia was expressed this vehemently: “Against the bêtise of my time, I feel floods of hatred that choke me. Shit rises to my mouth as in the case of a strangulated hernia.” And, in this way, he initiated an analysis of epochal, social, political and collective stupidity, which is not the same as individual stupidity, associated in our minds with a lack of intelligence and measurable on an intensity scale. Since Flaubert, the idea that there is a modern form of stupidity has taken shape, related to the social form of the “bourgeois” and to mass culture. Hence the idea that each age concocts its particular manifestations of stupidity, as a “language” that belongs to it. Flaubert tried to capture the stupidity of his age by collecting its “clichés”, in a Dictionnaire des idées reçues that was, perhaps, to be the second part of his unfinished work Bouvard and Pécuchet. These are the names of the two idiots that take the idea of an encyclopaedia of all knowledge ad absurdum, representing it as a farce. Devoted to a succession of failed tasks, these stupid servants of science succumb to the utmost discrepancy between theory and practice.

The sense in which Flaubert uses the word cliché is not that of classical rhetoric: it is the repetition of a formula that appears automatically, crystallized and mandatory by the abandonment of all thought and criticism. Cliché is everything that extracts, from the hyperbolic principle of identity, the strength to continue ever more vigorously: “It is what it is,” “War is war,” and forget about it, because “There are no free lunches.” The Flaubertian negative passion was revived by Barthes, in his critical analysis of the stereotype, “this nauseating impossibility of dying” and, more indirectly, in his “mythologies”, which were also, in their own way, an inventory of “idées reçues”. But this time, in the age of mass media and consumer society, it was necessary to analyse the new mechanisms that fabricated and distributed them, hiding them behind the screen of ideology. That is why the critique of ideology, with its demystifying goal, was the huge task undertaken by the generation that reached their peak in the 1960s and 1970s, who invested a great deal of their intellectual energy in “theory” and “theoretical work”, as it was called at the time.

Is there a present-day boom in this social, collective and political stupidity? This perception is probably as illusory as the idea taken up by each generation that we are at the edge of the abyss. But the configurations of the present universe of communication simultaneously enhance and slow down this age’s stupidity. They are a pharmakon, both the poison and the medicine. It is true that the tools for exercising critical reason have lost their force and the critique of ideology now seems a thing of the past. But it must be noticed that this critical reason has often become the opposite of itself, as Adorno and Horkheimer have clearly shown.

The social impact of television and, more recently, new communication technologies is enormous. But we should refrain from thinking that the media mechanisms that multiply and amplify stupidity belong exclusively to our own age or that there was ever a time when everything was virtuously and immaculately intelligent. Karl Kraus’ fight against the journalism of his time was a fight against venality, ignorance and stupidity. Flaubert said that stupidity consisted of wanting to reach conclusions (and Barthes continued in the same vein, when he wrote that “stupidity is the euphoria of the place”, i.e. that indiscrete glee arising from self-complacency and satisfaction with ourselves). Well, drawing conclusions is what is practised most in a regime of instantaneous communication that promotes opinion.

If stupidity, as we understand it here, drawing on a Flaubertian matrix, is a typically modern phenomenon, it is also true that it does not present exactly the same characteristics today. Flaubert intended to isolate it and identify its occurrences. On the contrary, it is no longer possible to isolate present-day stupidity, as it is disseminated everywhere. It is identified with society as a whole, with the rules of the social and political game, following and even creating the flow of culture. For instance, in the forms of diffusion and legitimization, can anyone distinguish between entertaining literature and literature that assumes a strong responsibility towards the tradition from which it emerges (in a dialogue with literary history) and its own time?

Peter Sellers (Mr. Chance), 1979

Peter Sellers (Mr. Chance), 1979


Stupidity has also become the law of political discourse, as an order, a diktat, coming from diffuse entities endowed with a coercive force. It is well entrenched and there is no dethroning the idea that we cannot escape it: being intelligent on the stage of political action and debate is equivalent to knowing how to bow before the rules of stupidity, i.e. it represents pragmatism without ideas, politics that have eradicated the concept of the political, actions that are always legitimized by the same discourse, and tactics that end up coinciding with strategies. “Stupidity is our symptom”, wrote the American philosopher Avital Ronell, whose text can be read in this issue on the topic.

The stupidity of our time can no longer be isolated in the figure of the bourgeois. It is the prerogative of an anonymous figure (no longer even the man/woman-in-the-street, as the culture of the elites is not so different from theirs) who did not appear on this planet so very long ago. It is an uncharacteristic figure, of a ghost-like triviality, devoid of all greatness. Musil distinguished between two forms of stupidity: stupidity as a lack of intelligence and stupidity as the renunciation of intelligence. It was the latter, the “higher stupidity” (Musil), the more dangerous one, that triumphed as a “disease of culture”. In an attempt to identify it with a form and a volume, it could be said that its most distinctive trait is obesity.

The editorial obesity of all bibliographic species, including literature (a writer who fails to publish every year is an intermittent contributor to literature, with provisionally suspended rights), the obesity of exhibitions, the obesity of information, the obesity of communication, the obesity of supply and consumption: everything happens according to an accelerated movement that takes things beyond their very purposes, ultimately negating itself in its excess. This is called hypertelia. And, while we are at it, here is an anodyne, almost naïve question: why do we identify fat with stupidity and intelligence with thinness?

The “dictatorship of the heart”, wrote Kundera, is the present form of bêtise. The stupidity related to the world of emotions, i.e. affective stupidity, now has powerful instruments of empathy at its disposal, so it can propagate. Television stands out among them, surviving as a device of empathetic torture. An allegory of “solar stupidity” (to use a Musilian category), created and promoted by television, is the story of Being There, a novel by Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski, which inspired a Hal Ashby film with Peter Sellers in the leading role. It is the story of a gardener, Mr Chance (in Portugal, the film was named Bem-vindo, Mr. Chance/Welcome, Mr. Chance). Addicted to television, he started expressing himself through long and embarrassing silences or with the artifices of TV language, out of context and disarmingly elementary. His discourse of solar stupidity is matched by the intelligent stupidity of those who interpret him, who ascribe superlative qualities to him (shrewdness, depth, wisdom) and put him forward as the president of the United States. In 1979, when Hal Ashby’s film premiered, it could be seen and construed as an allegory. In the light of recent events, it is even prophetic.

We live under the tutelage of affective capitalism. Feelings used to be rarely expressed outside of the private sphere and would only be the subject of a public and possibly collective treatment (as, for example, in the theatre) through artistic and literary mediation. They now take up the entire public sphere: from advertising to the media industry, from politics to journalism, from entertainment culture to literature. The great writers of literary modernity not only did not feel any affection for their readers, but also believed that they should even treat them with hostility and challenge them to a complex intellectual game. This attitude, developed as a programme, does not exist today, nor did it have to exist. We have fallen, however, to the opposite pole: to narrative literature; in the last few decades, we have seen the re-emergence of literary and thematic conventions that create an easy first-level adherence. Today the existence of a new “world literature”, no longer in the sense of Goethe, depends on “empathy” processes. This magic word, until very recently reduced to extremely strict and erudite use, has become a common currency whose value is inflated in all domains. Empathy is everywhere, proliferating and invading like cancer cells. Even workers, thanks to the overflowing empathy of bosses and companies, are now “collaborators”.

Alongside affective stupidity, Musil talks about – in passing and without defining it – aesthetic stupidity. We know what it corresponds to: Kitsch. We have thus reached the epitome of stupidity. It is not that Kitsch is an exclusive phenomenon of our time. Far from it. But today it is regarded with absolute indulgence; it has become the element inside which we are living. Nothing realizes the Kitsch ideal as much as proximity, which is the law of the media. A critique of Kitsch is as difficult today as a critique of ideology. A contemporary of Musil, another important figure of Viennese culture from the beginning of the 20th century, Hermann Broch, produced an analysis and critique of Kitsch, as stupidity translated into the language of art. The theory of Kitsch devised by Hermann Broch is an aesthetic theory that claims a necessary and immediate link to ethics. He defines Kitsch as “the element of evil in the value system of art”. The harshness and puritanism with which he branded the Kitsch phenomenon turned Broch into an unsurpassed reference in this domain (see, for instance, how Kundera took up his message). He aims his criticism at a culture turned towards pure effects, which in its repetitive and dogmatic strategies (the dogmatic element is vital in the definition of Kitsch, as Broch sees it) even creates a type, or a figure, the Kitsch-Mensch, the Kitsch-person. This critique can be contrasted with the weak resistance, if not the enthusiasm, with which the generalized aestheticization of society has reached its completion in our time. Adolf Loos, the architect of the manifesto Ornament and Crime, called Vienna the “Potemkin city” – as artificial as a film set. Pretty much all historical cities today are Potemkin cities, in conformity with the monoculture of tourism. As we build “smart cities”, there is the opposite movement of the stupidification of cities. These two things are probably not contradictory – they are the two sides of the same coin, and this double movement can be detected in many other domains, in the time of artificial intelligence. But we tend to forget that we need to locate stupidity beyond its opposition to intelligence. The proof is plain to see: never before has there been a time that produced so much intelligence and that is so dependent on it; nonetheless, due to the demon of inversion, never has stupidity been so encouraged and felt as a threat. Even the most intelligent invention of our time, the Internet, which is intelligence in a pure state, is under suspicion and some even say that it will make us stupid. We do not know, and we cannot know, if the stream of stupidity is proportionally larger today than it was in other times, but it is possible to say for sure that, in our time, it flows with less critical resistance and through channels that allow it to meander very peacefully.