09/03/2012

on calling people brainwashed

(c) Honoré Daumier (1865) 'Crispin and Scapin'

I can only suggest that he would combat false consciousness to awaken people to their true interests has much to do, because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the people snore.
- Erving Goffman


All interesting theories accuse us of being brainwashed: "You lack information; now, open your eyes":

  • Tectonics (on solid ground)

  • the unconscious mind (you're so unconscious you don't know you've a massive unconscious)

  • Relativity (space-and-time is squishy; no space without objects; no one thing can move)

  • the Everett interpretation (all possible things actually happen)

  • the germ theory of disease (the world's so dirty you've no idea how dirty)

  • Radical feminism (you're so oppressed you don't know you're oppressed, and/or you're so sexist you don't know you're sexist)

  • Or more generally Critical theory (you're so oppressed you don't know you're oppressed).

  • eliminative materialism (you're so evolved you don't know you're evolved)

  • Wittgenstein II (you're so linguistic you're constantly lost in the woods of your words)

  • genealogies of anything (you're such a slave you don't know you're a slave),



Whether the culprit is folk theory, oppressive social structures, blind academic paradigms, or just our own narcissism, we're told again and again that our intuitions make fools of us. Told that our attitude doesn't reflect our objective position (this attitude also known as being human). The conceptual brainwashing involved in all this goes by a number of names depending on the scope of the alleged 'wash: bad faith and doublethink, false consciousness, hidden ideology, cultural hegemony, Repression, 'simple' paradigmatic underdetermination, and so on.

And many of us love to be accused: the above theories are the biggest doctrines in intellectual culture. What is it about certain concept changes that make us such enthusiastic masochists? Can we only be made to listen to theory when there is a slap in it for us?

Now, in the above I conflated scientific revolutions with political identity-work. I suppose I should stop doing that and become serious, since, unlike (most) natural science, the political kind challenges us in a desperate existential way - it accuses us of misunderstanding ourselves, not just continents, disease, or motion. We're still so conceited about our self-knowledge that we can't help but be stung by the suggestion of programming, and stung, I reckon, to morbid curiosity and codependency.

(The difference between a belief in hard determinism and the belief that everyone is brainwashed is a subtle one.)

The effort to deprogram us can take a few targets, some more tractable than others: there's your shite assumptions (particularly prevalent in the folk theory of gender); your ignorance of the structures that you are formed and active within, whether these are causal structures (as when we imagine our magic free will in the face of neuroscience) or social (as in the popular theory of late capitalism's spooky mind-control).

- Your doublethink and your emotional habits. (e.g. knowing that you're a healthy weight but being nagged by body image issues regardless.)

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So what is it that makes us enthusiastic masochists over these ideas?

Well, there's the delicious drama of it, their portentous invitation to reason; or the backup it gives to the enduringly moronic Great Man theory of history ("Thanks to Him, we now Know!") but I think the key driver is brainwash theory's indirect invitation to narcissicism. For the 'masochism' of accepting really new theories is just a stage, after which we get to claim to have transcended our brainwashing, and to feel that we've joined a vanguard; a little pocket of knowledge in a corrupt and stupid world. (And: "Now to impose our will on the deluded.")

This new brainwashing - the arrogance of the self-conscious theoretical élite - is far harder to rinse away. woe betide us.

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Where do we draw the line between provocative dialectics and dickery?


Two important men are having a careful conversation on military training. What do you call the guy who, having no particular competence or interest in the matter at hand, jumps in the conversation, systematically contradicts everyone with contrived arguments, ridicules the two competent discussants, reorients the conversation on a completely different topic, then leaves the audience baffled and walks away, laughing? That Troll is Socrates in Plato's Laches.
- Olivier Morin


Am in your unexamined life, reducing you to absurdity. Since at least Gorgias and Socrates, the rule seems to be "fuck with people's heads as much as you like if you do it in the name of Logos". But what then separates iconoclasm from trolling?
  • Sincerity? Not always; Nietzsche and Derrida, for instance, are probably insincere for sincere motives (not to mention Robert Anton Wilson).

  • Novelty? But the broken taboos lauded as momentous Events in human discourse when done fictionally by De Sade, DH Lawrence, or Henry Miller are out-squicked daily for real on 4chan and dump.fm. They can't be called political expression anymore. (Though note that hacktivism was born there, right amid the paedophilia and lolz - This has led to Anonymous declaring itself "the face of the Internet", when it is truly more reminiscent of the anus...)

  • the thought's historical Consequence? (Whether it happens to catch on?)

  • Or is it just the troll's social status? (If so, this is really to say that nothing separates them.)

(c) Honoré Daumier (1848), 'Two Uprising'

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