Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: propaganda (page 1 of 1)


Fifty or sixty years ago, one of the most common genres of nonfiction book in this country concerned advertising. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Naked Society (1964), Wilson Bryan Key’s Subliminal Seduction (1973), and the many books that addressed the effects of television generally but included advertising as an essential element of their critique: Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug (1977), Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978), George W. S. Trow’s In the Context of No Context (1980), Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). 

This kind of book doesn’t get published any more, because writers and publishers alike know that those authors definitively lost the battle they were fighting. And the white flag of surrender was run up the flagpole when David Foster Wallace published his brilliant and still-relevant essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in 1993. 

DFW’s essay is the Kafka’s Leopards moment in the American response to television advertising. Here is Kafka’s little parable: “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers. This is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.”

forgetting and propaganda

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda:

To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; he is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man’s inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but he does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within few weeks. Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented.

This situation makes the “current-events man” a ready target for propaganda. Indeed, such a man is highly sensitive to the influence of present-day currents; lacking landmarks, he follows all currents. He is unstable because he runs after what happened today; he relates to the event, and therefore cannot resist any impulse coming from that event. Because he is immersed in current affairs, this man has a psychological weakness that puts him at the mercy of the propagandist. 

Cf. my comment from a few years ago that “Silicon Valley serves the global capitalist order as its Ministry of Amnesia.” 

a new theory of propaganda

(An idea for a book I’ll never write) 

One of the most famous scenes of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four begins this way: “It was nearly eleven hundred, and in the Records Department, where Winston worked, they were dragging the chairs out of the cubicles and grouping them in the centre of the hall opposite the big telescreen, in preparation for the Two Minutes Hate.” As the office workers gather around the television, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the great enemy of the state, appears on the screen. “The Hate had started.” And people know what to do: “Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room…. In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy…. The Hate rose to its climax.” And then it is over. It is now time to chant a hymn of praise to Big Brother.

The scene has always been noteworthy for its disturbing power, but since the rise of social media it has become a central image of our time, and the phrase “Two Minutes Hate” is widely used to describe those moments when someone (usually inadvertently, though sometimes intentionally) arouses the outrage of some Twitter cohort or Facebook faction. 

The relevance of the Two Minutes Hate to our social-media world is so obvious that we rarely pause to notice the fundamental difference between what happens in Orwell’s novel and what we do: no one organizes our sessions of loathing.

In Orwell’s novel, the Two Minutes Hate is a deliberate exercise created, scheduled, and enforced by the government for propagandistic purposes. It is a carefully designed strategy of negative reinforcement (loathing of Goldstein) followed immediately by positive reinforcement (love of Big Brother). But nothing like that happens in our world. We all know that Big Brother does not exist, and yet we feel his presence all around us. No centralized political force pulls our puppet-strings, and yet we feel pulled upon nonetheless. No one organizes a Two Minutes Hate, and yet Two Minutes (or Several Hours) of Hate we have, day after day after day. We affirm one another in key responses and exclude those who fail to exhibit those responses. (Note that what’s happening here is the performance of responses, not beliefs as such.) We monitor, we police the boundaries.

And it’s not just about Hate. It’s all the other emotions as well, experienced in some mysteriously synchronized collectivity. Some studies suggest that when people sing together in a choir their heartbeats synchronize; when they shout together on Twitter their emotions do the same. We live in a world of propaganda that succeeds beyond the imaginings of the propaganda-masters of the past, and yet no one has designed it. No one is organizing or scheduling it. It seems just to be happening, somehow. The propaganda of our world is emergent and ambient, and those two traits make it harder to understand and harder to combat. 

In the preface to his justly famous book on propaganda, Jacques Ellul wrote, “Propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world.” And he continued, 

In the midst of increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to persuade man to submit with good grace. When man will be fully adapted to this technological society, when he will end by obeying with enthusiasm, convinced of the excellence of what he is forced to do, the constraint of the organization will no longer be felt by him; the truth is, it will no longer be a constraint, and the police will have nothing to do. The civic and technological good will and the enthusiasm for the right social myths — both created by propaganda — will finally have solved the problem of man. 

We have clearly not reached the point at which the police have nothing to do; but in many respects, certainly among our cultural elites, Ellul’s forecast has largely come true. Without anyone directly telling them or persuading them to do so, they have, as their “enthusiasm for the right social myths” demonstrates, come to love Big Brother. Propaganda has ceased to be the function of government and become instead a kind of collective self-soothing, with social media networks the primary instruments.

Future historians of propaganda will not be able to do without Ellul’s book but will need to reconsider its significance in light of the realization of some of the prophetic elements of the book. His definition — “Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulations and incorporated in an organization” — will need to be revised. 

And for those who wish to use rather than merely understand propaganda: Deliberate propaganda in the future will, if it wishes to be effective, need to mimic the character of emergent propaganda. Anything more direct will seem too, too crude.