Inevitably and with curious necessity, the recitation of trivia turns to the subject of death-counts. This is because the death-count is the ne plus ultra of trivia: “how many people died there.”
On the island of Hispaniola following the arrival of the Spaniards, over 400,000 Taíno Indians were exterminated – many through malice and warfare, but most through carelessness. In 1871, in the space of a single infamous week (“La Semaine sanglante”) 30,000 Communards were lined up against walls and shot. In the bloody sack of Magdeburg (”Magdeburger Hochzeit”) 25,000 burgher heretics were put to the sword by Imperial forces. In 1932, the military government of El Salvador slaughtered 40,000 peasants with great relish (“La Matanza”), having first invited them into the public square to air their grievances with the regime. The number of Jews “deported” from Hungary in the 40’s: 437,402. The number of kulaks “liquidated as a class” in the 30’s: 1,803,392.
Trivia is the end product of the atomization of history into a collection of unrelated “facts.” These facts have no meaning in themselves: their only point is to be stated as quickly as possible in the greatest numbers possible. Trivia is a war against history. The significance of the whole recedes behind an atomic phantasmagoria of facts and statistics. History is usurped by its own minutiae, great personalities by their own quirks, and events by their very dates. The spirit of trivia readily lends itself to competition and spectacle: the violence of hitting the buzzer replaces the labor of reflection just as the empty satisfaction of ‘getting it right’ banishes the divers pleasures of appreciation and the understanding. The game-show contestant enacts the trivialization of knowledge in the same way an animal is tortured to death for science.
Erudition becomes reflexive performance, a pointless demonstration of mnemonic capacity. “Many people only read because it saves them from being forced to think,” quipped Lichtenberg. Today trivia serves the same purpose: its ubiquity is coextensive with the suppression of all consciousness which is not rigidly contemporary. Plato’s admonition against writing in the Phaedrus is turned on its head: instead of a decline in memory leading to a falling away from experience, the tyranny of memory obliterates the concept of experience altogether; mnêmê, no longer the bondsman of the intellect, overthrows and subjugates dianoia, whose dilatory leisure and flabby incertitude it has in truth always despised.
In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1763) Kant described the appetite for tedious details and novel exotica as the “esprit des bagatelles,” and he wrote that it “exhibits a kind of fine feeling but aims at quite the opposite of the sublime.” For Kant in 1763, the feeling of the sublime was evocative of the dignity and moral grandeur of mankind. Of the passion for trivia, the aforementioned esprit, however, he wrote:
“A taste for all that is rare, little though its inherent worth otherwise might be – Epictetus’ lamp, a glove of King Charles the Twelfth; in a way, coin collecting is classed with these. Such persons stand under great suspicion that in knowledge they will be grubs and cranks, but in morals they will be without feeling for all that is beautiful or noble in a free way.”
Kant took issue with the seemingly innocuous fondness of some people for rare tchotchkes and precious curios on the grounds that such a passion forsakes the universality and noble perspective which is the calling of the human soul. Whereas the feeling of the sublime elevates its subject, the esprit des bagatelles risks marooning it in the land of objects: it substitutes trivial pursuit for supersensible vocation. Likewise, trivia replaces and destroys the concept of human experience as a historically delivered territory. As opposed to the imaginative outlay and sedulous energies on the part of the historian which Vico called fantasia and Herder Einfühlung, the careful task of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” trivia reduces all historical inquiry to the compilation of a catalogue of “facts” to be memorized and repeated ad nauseam. It crushes worlds with the snap of its fingers. Jewish trivia, Greek trivia, Chinese trivia, jazz trivia Calvino trivia – all these suns are extinguished so that the feeble light of our vapid cultural moment may enjoy utter dominion.
Heidegger perceived the threat of which the pop ascendancy of trivia is just a single fleeting manifestation. In his magisterial work Being and Time (1927), he wrote about the plethora of corrosive effects associated with the “they” [das Man] – the tendency to submit everything to a kind of averageness. According to Heidegger, the “they” is a lamentable if inevitable consequence of all Dasein (being whose essence lies in its existence, being whose very being is to “be” and which is concerned how exactly it “is” – e.g., human beings). With the waxing of the “they,” Heidegger swoons in one of the finest passages in Being and Time: “Every kind of priority gets noiselessly suppressed. Overnight, everything that is primordial gets glossed over as something that has long been well known. Everything gained by a struggle becomes just something to be manipulated. Every secret loses its force.”
The trivialization of historical knowledge is akin to an aspect of the “they” Heidegger calls “publicness” [Öffentlichkeit]. For Heidegger, publicness guarantees access to everything, but it does so at the cost of deforming everything in the same shallow, generic way. Things are robbed of their depth and particularity. “Every secret loses its force.” Heidegger writes that publicness is “insensitive to every difference of level and of genuineness and thus never gets to the ‘heart of the matter’ [‘auf die Sachen’]. By publicness everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed off as something familiar and accessible to everyone.” The category of trivia marks the encroachment of publicness into history. Trivia makes the whole of history familiar and accessible to everyone, but it does so at the cost of collapsing its breadth into a point and dispelling its secret magic. Although trivia involves a reference to historical particulars almost by definition, it never grants more than a superficial understanding of these particulars, instead covering them up in the bland positivism of the “they.” Trivia never gets ‘auf die Sachen.’
Truth is a negative concept and philosophy a negative activity: “I am the wisest of the Athenians because I alone know that I know nothing.” If genocide represents the final solution to the problem of making the universe intelligible, then it embodies a rage against truth, a violent tantrum thrown in response to its cunning and silence.
This, I think, explains the affinity between massacres and statistics, the attraction of trivia to the subject of death-counts. What massacres and statistics have in common is that both are predicated on the extermination of difference. But what in genocide is a rage against truth alters in trivia to a mere habitual discomfort. It takes the form of a frantic scurrying back-and-forth. From the mines of history ascend the carts with their paltry loads.