10 years later, Heath did my argument much better than me, here.
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.
Never ascribe to laziness that which can be explained by people knowing their own lives better than you do.
Freedom is not simply the right of intellectuals to circulate their merchandise. It is, above all, the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their “betters.”
One extremely common claim in popular writing about society and the mind is that people are being dramatically influenced by malign or uncaring forces.
- electoral interference (online ads controlling your votes)
- online ads (controlling your self-esteem or body image or altering your desires)
- violent videogames (videogames turning you into a crim)
- porn (controlling your beliefs about sex, or humanity in general, or again turning you into a crim)
What is this idea, that the Russians can spend $0.5m and totally pervert American political process, while Michael Bloomberg can spend $1,100m and die on his feet? (Do the Russian really understand America 10,000 times better than the Bloomberg campaign? Does taking the gloves off allow you to do this much better?)
Call this view, in which humans are extremely easily programmable, a first-order model of human psychology. Input means output. You are being incepted and psyoped all the time, and it works.
Radicalism implies that everyone is brainwashed
But it’s not just journalists who are absurd about the size and simplicity of these effects. Many interesting “serious” academic theories accuse us of being brainwashed: “You lack information; now, open your eyes”:
People have this naive equivalence between a fantasy and a preference, a voluntary simulation and an increased inclination to do
- the unconscious mind (you’re so unconscious you don’t realise you’ve a massive unconscious)
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),
Gramscian Hegemony. Chomskyan consent. Foucauldian biopower.
Whether the culprit is folk theory, oppressive social structures, blind academic paradigms, or just our own narcissism, we’re told that our intuitions make fools of us. that our attitude doesn’t reflect our objective position. All-too-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, latent ideology, cultural hegemony, Repression, ‘simple’ paradigmatic underdetermination, and so on.
Many of us love to be accused: the above theories are the biggest doctrines in the intellectual culture of the humanities. 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.)
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.
Everyone’s at it
It’s not just the French and the Arts boys who rely on this.
The anti-postmodernist “grievance studies” / Fashionable Nonsense / “victim studies” view requires exactly the same kind of accusation of false consciousness as does Marxism and critical theory do:
“All these thousands of intelligent people must have fallen into an ideology that blinds them - or must just be innumerate - or must just be in a purity spiral…”
Now, false consciousness clearly exists - witness the cult of the British monarchy among basically all working-class English people But it is a nuclear option, an irreversible form of ad hominem
better to assume different values, different priors, and different aims in general And leave our critique on the level of particular bad scholars (better! Particular bad papers)
I foolishly wrote off anthropology and sociology in 2013-2017, and was lucky to find some remarkable, realist scholars in each since.
How I stopped valuing radicalism itself
I remain radical in some ways. I think our ignoring the suffering of others - the global poor, nonhumans inside and outside our industrial farms, or future generations - is monstrous. I think that we should work very hard to overcome many bad parts of our biology (with longevity, gene therapy, new moral intuitions). I think that one of the most pressing problems in the world is making sure that future AI systems go well. My government has recently been involved in a number of terrible crimes. There is so much wrong with the world. A good place would be radically different, and the longer it takes us to get there, the more misery will be recorded.
But I no longer use “radical” as a compliment and no longer value the label. Thatcher was a radical; Stalin was a radical; Kaczynski is a radical. Just being strongly opposed to the status quo, or just taking direct action to change it, is not laudatory.
Two problems with treating it as an end:
1) it’s supremely difficult for a radical to not hold most people in contempt. Largely undeserved. Election go the other way? “It’s not that people have honest differences in values, ideas about the good, or about what causes the good. Instead they’re rubes, or sadists, or egotists.”
2) you’ve allowed something other than either truth or goodness into your objective. Mere novelty, mere contrariness, mere extremity.
Been in the Wars
The pomo critique of pop and globalised pop
people never passively absorb cultural messages... "The incandescence is not simply a surface market quality. It produces, is driven by, and reproduces further forms and varieties for everyday symbolic work and creativity, some of which remain in the everyday and in common culture far longer than they do on the market."
Critics of global pop culture have in mind a world of passive consumers, homogenized and manipulated into Marx's notorious sack of potatoes. It is nothing of the sort... The semi- and non-literate masses of the Third World invariably react to Western cultural influence in a non-passive manner, reinterpreting what they receive in the context of their own cultures... something new [to them], although still local, emerges </div>
Epigram</div>It’s a curious thing, that the mental life seems to flourish with its roots in spite, ineffable and fathomless spite. Always has been so! Look at Socrates in Plato, and his bunch around him! The sheer spite of it all, just sheer joy in pulling somebody to pieces – Protagoras or whoever it was! Ye shall know the tree by its fruit.”
- DH Lawrence
## See also * The great Joseph Heath * [Mako Shen](https://deaexmachinus.substack.com/p/machines-society-16-mass-sleeping) on dream arguments, false consciousness, and the nervous energy currently called woke.
Tags: philosophy, politics, epistemology, becoming