Malicious Acts

Observations on the Academic Milieu (1):
Délation & Méchanceté

Délation: Surreptitious denunciation
The French term délation captures a range of acts in which people anonymously, and in a cowardly fashion, denounce another person to authorities capable of punishing the person named. Variants of such practices are historically widespread. Thus, for example, the Doge of Venice had a mailbox outside his palace in which people could surreptitiously (under the cover of night as the saying goes) deposit letters denouncing crimes and vices of their fellow Venitians. Most famous of all are the lettres de cachet of the Ancien Regime whose contorted history reveals the insidious uses of the reversals of sovereign power from below.
Délation is a practice of safety: the practice is carried out in its underhandedness and secrecy in as safe a manner as possible. It provides the doer of the deed particular pleasures: initially the relief of not being caught in the act; even if nothing comes directly of one’s malevolent desire, a dépositaire can at least have a moment of symbolic revenge for grievances real or imaginary. If more follows—family members or neighbors sent to prison—so much the better, so much more glee.
The practice of délation contributes to a milieu whose affective mood is one of suspicion. Action and counter-action, while conveying and threatening retribution or betrayal, are nonetheless carried out beneath a surface of politeness and even cordiality. These contradictory moods (politeness and expectations of deceit) combine to put into motion a fundamentally treacherous milieu.
To the degree there are minor countermand practices available in such a milieu, they consist in the logic that one betrayal can potentially always be countered by another. Furthermore, since the practices in this milieu undercut trust, the authorities as recipients of said deposits might well be themselves suspicious of the motives and character of the one making the charges—not to mention their veracity. Hence safety is accompanied by danger.
Méchanceté or Malice
Today, we observe a widespread practice in academia (although it operates as well in many other milieux) which differs in significant ways as a practice from délation. We use the French term méchanceté, (usually translated as malice although that translation is not fully adequate) as a cover term. The term applies to a range of practices but specifically refers to minor nefarious and malicious rumor-mongering of an anonymous—but not uniquely individual—sort.
In this practice there is no direct denunciation to a specific authority regarding specific acts. Rather, the referent of this form of accusatory and denigratory practice is less precise than délation and seeks to discredit, smear, and undermine the person or group named without any mechanism to punish or bring them to justice. Both of the latter ramifications would entail some form of public defense of the accusations and within the logic of malice that is to be avoided at all cost in this normative field.
We observe that elite graduate students appear to be especially prone to engaging in such practices, which in no way exempts those at less prestigious institutions from their own variants and registers of denigration as we have come to learn. As such graduate students operate in a dominated position in a dominant institution; especially if there is low information about the hierarchy or direct practices of the exercise of power the resultant uncertainty seems to produce accusatory speech acts of a distinct vagueness as to content but intensity in their conveyance.
A guiding principle of this practice is that no responsibility will ever be taken for the products produced. Such discursive products are meant to function as part of “what we all know,” or more accurately they are acrid contributions aimed at producing a milieu in which minor treacheries and reinforcement of the training in ressentiment are the desired mood.
We observe that méchanceté operates within a regime of security. In a regime of security there are actors who make interventions that pose risks. We have observed that such actors are often divided by those inscribing the rationality of this regime into the good and the bad. Once this divide is established, identifying bad actors becomes a duty, a duty that conveniently exempts the one making the identification from self-reflection on their own or the other’s mixed motives or the diversity of contexts in which similar actions might well take on disparate meanings and ramifications.
This practice is open to a number of minor means to evade responsibility. One we have witnessed recently is betrayal understood as a form of spontaneous yet forced into the open délation. A graduate student named by one of his fellow graduate students as one source in an expanding web of malicious characterization, reacted (in a pale-faced and self-righteous manner) by betraying his friend once a post had indicated that an unnamed student had been the source of the speech act. The elite graduate student was upset and indignant about this act of counter-méchanceté which he equated with délation, apparently an unacceptable blurring of genres.
In this instance, we observed an interesting after or side effect: confessions abounded. The betrayed friend confessed that he had heard such nefarious slander many times before. And, he was asked, what did you do about it? He had no answer to this parry as clearly he had previously done nothing. In a parallel manner, the once smug actor would justifiably claim that he had not initiated this malicious web but was merely an actor in the pre-existent network (that is the theoretical self-justification).
After blaming his friend for making things public, he then denied that his speech act had had any meaning or significance at all. He muttered when pushed to explain the grounds of his utterance: “irritated: I just said it.” “Why,” we asked, “were you irritated?” The response, repeated several times in slightly variant forms turned on the term condescension. We observe that the term is used as an accusation. Following the path-breaking work of Jeanne Favret-Saada, we observe that paranoid style accusations are not actually directed at a specific referent but rather function to firm up a mood.
In this situation, those slandered had the possibility of knowing the source (individual or collective) and trajectory of the speech act. Consequently, it was possible to enact one of a range of counter-actions that were available given that the stage of preparedness had been anticipated and worked on in a preliminary fashion. More generally, however, the only response to the polluted fog of such accusations is to bring them into a venue where one form or another of public response is required.