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The Perversion of Evidence
One reason for the invincibility
of crude social power is its lack of theoretical dogmatism
and its pragmatic readiness to adopt a belt-and-braces strategy
when it comes to securing its position (that is to say, it
has no integrity). While the promotion of make-believe
remains a central technique of loosening the individual consumer's
grasp on the world, attention is still given to controlling
the processes through which we traditionally evaluate reality.
The approach to scientific evidence is a good case in point.
The societal apparatus which exists for the manipulation of our credulity forms an absolutely essential part of the technology of power. In everyday parlance this is, of course, for the most part what we mean by the media. But the news and entertainment media are not the only determinants of the way we see and interpret the world. Education and the related institutions of intellectual endeavour and instruction are also crucial to our understanding. None of this, of course, is lost on those in whose interest it is to channel the fruits of our labours into their pockets. In recent years the encroachment of Business into areas once thought (no doubt naively) to stand apart from commercial interest has been perfectly obvious. Universities fall over themselves to replace academic standards with business ones and corporate intrusion into schooling no longer causes much surprise or indignation (George Monbiot's exposure of the extraordinary influence of corporate power on the public sphere in Britain2 seems to have caused barely a ripple).
This is not necessarily part of a consciously directed process. As I have tried to show in previous pages, conscious direction is in any case largely a myth. As money-power capital flows into fewer and fewer hands, it creates a network of interest that maintains and accelerates the process, rather as the streams which form the rivers and the rivers themselves as they flow to the sea may carve their beds more deeply. There is indeed a degree of impersonality in the way the market structures itself which side-steps the will of those who become caught up in it.
In this way the interests of significant, if relatively small, sections of society become hitched to the necessary process of disguising the fact that a system designed to maximize the profits of a few cannot at the same time run to the advantage of the many. The growth of advertising and public relations, the arrival on the political scene of a new profession of spin-doctor, etc., testify to the importance of controlling public perception. Apart from those summoned to the financial elite who manage the economy of the free market, the best and brightest of our youth are recruited to the media of make-believe. Making people believe that what is least is in fact most in their interest has become a societal task of the first importance.
Once again, the attribution of greater reality to words than to worlds is already prefigured in the almost irresistible priority we accord as we grow up to commentary. Pretty well everybody is in this way primed to attach enormous importance to language, and I would not want to suggest that this phenomenon is in any way the invention of a cynical controlling power. It does not have to be conspiracy that rules our society (though sometimes it may be), but merely the sliding together of the interests which oil the wheels.
Modern philosophy, for example, has over the twentieth century come more and more to credit the importance of language and to discredit any notion not only that the world can be directly known (which certainly seems impossible), but that there is any point at all in speculating about what lies beyond language. There is nothing, says Derrida, outside the text; popular readings of Foucault privilege discourse above all else; Rorty scoffs as the idea that our understanding could hold a mirror up to nature.
While these philosophers have serious, possibly even valid, points to make, their standpoint also lends itself wonderfully well to a society which seeks ideologically to detach its citizens from their embodied relation to a material world. Serious intellectuals seem to be the last to anticipate the use to which their work will be put. When, for example, Jean Baudrillard writes of the hyperreality created by unfettered consumerism, it is all too easy for the edge of critical irony to be lost from his text and for it to become a kind of sourcebook for marketing executives, admen and other cultural illusionists. The whole notion of postmodernism becomes popularized as the cutting edge of social and intellectual progress, distracting us from the (much more comprehensible) insight that what we are involved in is in fact a recycling of high capitalist economic strategies which reached a previous peak seventy or eighty years ago.
Psychology also has played an enormous part in helping to de-materialize the Western world over the past century. Freud managed to represent the significance of our experience as not only all in the mind, but most of it in the unconscious mind such that it became well and truly impossible for us to criticize our world (just to criticize our selves, and that only with the help of a professional psychoanalyst). Indeed, for much of psychology, what goes on in the world, what are the material relations between individual and society, is a matter of complete irrelevance. All that counts is what goes on inside the individuals head. Whatever the benefits of this view in terms of the hope it may bring to people of controlling their fate, it is an absolute godsend to those who have a less rarefied grasp of how to make the world work to their advantage. Thieves sack the mansion undisturbed while its occupants remain sunk in their dreams.
In her book No Logo3, Naomi Klein demonstrates
how uninterested many modern corporations are in the actual material
products that carry their brand. The products themselves may in fact
be manufactured at rock-bottom cost by contractors located in 'export
processing zones' in the developing world, with competing labels 'often
produced side by side in the same factories, glued by the very same
workers, stitched and soldered on the very same machines'.The 'value
added', the vastly inflated costs of these objects which go to feed
the corporate structure, is what is crucial, and it is spun out of
nothing, pure marketing make-believe.
If, as I sometimes think it is, Psychology is the greatest intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century, it is one whose sheer economic importance is not to be underestimated!
Examination of the Business lexicon testifies to George Orwell's prescience, for largely it is a vocabulary of opposites, designed to simplify our thought such that we are no longer able to represent to ourselves the poverty of our experience. Where there is emptiness, there shall be hype. Examples:-
Target (tough new, setting of)
Unstable and insecure
Fleeting media creation
Person deprived of work Old
Revert or deform public into private structures
Strip assets and sack
Complete executive inaction
|Surveying 'the market' in the USA at the turn of the millennium, Thomas Frank provides a brilliantly caustic analysis of corporate make-believe and its attendant vocabulary: The Big Con, Guardian, 6.1.01. This language is so absurd as to be almost beyond satire. For a little light relief, however, see another Guardian contribution, this time by Tony Benn (23.1.02).|
Effectively, then, we find ourselves cut loose in a world of words where what is true and real is a matter of what we can be persuaded to believe. Those who profit most from this state of affairs will be those best able a) to control the use of language and b) to exploit the capacity of language to introduce us to an infinity of realities.
In The Origins of Unhappiness I described the way in which the conceptual frame of Business came during the nineteen-eighties to be imposed right across the cultural board. No established social practice or institution was left out: education, health, sport, leisure and travel - and of course government itself all were flooded with the same debased and simplistic language of business and accountancy. Absolute values such as Truth and Right, features of the now discredited Enlightenment, were replaced with the crude market criteria of what pays. Nothing has changed since to impede this process.
Whoever controls language, controls thought. We now have installed at the heart of our culture a generation barely able to think outside the parameters of business. Reality is described and experienced in terms of competition, cost and profit; worth is judged in terms of wealth and status. The whole conceptual and linguistic register of our lives has been collapsed into one dimension, and with it our capacity to experience ourselves as anything other than business successes or failures: what matters is not the contribution you make to the social world, but how much money you can make from it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the once idealistic youth of our universities it is commonplace, for example, to come across students of medicine who, seriously worried about the money and status attached to their proposed career, yearn instead to become management consultants. Not to have a Mercedes by the time youre thirty is to have failed in your lifes project.
The philosophical subtlety that at the highest intellectual level acknowledges the relativity imparted by discourse to our ideas of reality is, however, by no means reflected in the tabloid world we are now forced to inhabit. The reality which Business culture and ideology offers us is not presented as one alternative among several, but as the real world to which all of us must shape up if we are not to end up hopelessly at the bottom of the heap.
the universe of discourse suffers a rude intrusion of reality
which somehow catches us all out, and we are left open-mouthed,
not knowing quite what to make of our situation. The story
of the railway network in Britain provides an excellent example.
|For exposure of a similar contrast between words and action in the field of education, see Nick Davies's article on despair in the classroom, The Guardian, 2.11.00.|
It is therefore recognized and expected that the person-in-the-street will assume a fairly direct linkage between descriptions of the world and the world itself. What ordinary people think, what they conceive of as the truth, is of the utmost importance as their actions (particularly of course, their actions as consumers) are likely to be based upon it. The best, most convincing description of the way things are comes in this way actually to constitute how they are in fact. The traditional struggle to represent the world in words is replaced by a struggle to create a world in words. The success or otherwise of this project is measured in terms of credibility.
This is the universe of discourse where the spin-doctors dwell, but the world in which it places us is a strangely fragile one. For although the media and marketing technocrats vie with each other to foist upon us that reality most profitable to themselves and to the influences which control them, it becomes pretty obvious that we are not talking here about what most people think of as reality, but about make-believe of differing degrees of credibility. At the heart of this whole enterprise, then, there is a contradiction: credibility what people can be persuaded to believe is the ultimate goal of spin, but in the popular mind their remains an indissoluble, though inarticulate, link between what is believable and what is real or true. Credible worlds, in other words, are not the same as real ones. Business fakes a world which it sells us as the truth, but is fatally undermined by the truth that lies beyond it.
For language need not be simply the means whereby we create an infinity of relative worlds (that is to say, a snare and delusion). On the contrary, it may be used in the struggle to decode our experience of reality, to give us a sense of what is actually happening in the world. Precisely the point of the Business take-over of language, of the frenetic collective voice of the media, is to drown out the possibility of our articulating to ourselves the nature of the reality in which we are caught up.
A walk round Nottingham city centre
I havent been here for
a while. Theyve now unveiled the huge new structure
replacing the Victorian buildings they knocked down at the
very centre of the city. Idiotically, Id been hoping
it would be a bit like the new building in London or Berlin,
energetic and impressive even if all about corporate power.
But its almost indescribably horrible, a total disappointment:
tacky and garish. For some reason it reminds me of an inflated
version of flaking 1950s structures you used to see at French
Channel resorts. Over-literal, as if its meant to look
like a boat: incongruous streak of blue punctured by portholes (picture). It looks cheap, and falsely cheerful. In effect,
theyve wrecked the heart of the town.
The first task of any oppressive power is to strip the subjective voice, the languaged sensibility of the embodied person, of authority. If you are to be gulled by the make-believe of the public relations world, the last thing you must be permitted to credit is the evidence of your own senses (who do you think you are an expert or something?). This is because the ability of the individual embodied subject to evaluate the evidence of his or her experience is the ultimate defence against illusion.
This is very far from saying that our subjective experience is infallible. The vulnerability of personal experience to error i.e., of being wrongly interpreted in words means that we need to take great care to check on its validity before we act on it in any irretrievable way (this process, in fact, constitutes the heart of scientific method). The subjective perspective needs to be evaluated intersubjectively (which brings it as near as possible to being objective) but there is still, ultimately, no authority beyond it. Furthermore, the representation to ourselves of our own experience, and the processes of checking it against the experience of others, all take place in the medium of language. The fallibility of words gives us plenty of reason for being careful with how we use them, but no reason at all for abandoning our project of trying to understand the world.
There has, over decades, been an unremitting onslaught
against the art and science of interpreting ones own experience,
to such an extent that many people consciously or unconsciously find
it impossible to have an opinion without the prostheses of the media
or the prescriptions of one or other of our modern doctors of meaning.
The first task of any rebellion against Business dominance is to re-establish
the integrity of the universe of discourse; that is to say, to return
to the search for words that describe the world as accurately as possible.
1. This phenomenon is encountered in pure form in the volume edited (in utterly good faith but with dismaying results) by Colin Feltham: Controversies in Psychotherapy and Counselling, Sage Publications, 1999. For a powerful critique of the corruption of the psychology industry see Tana Dineen's Manufacturing Victims, Constable, 1999.
2. George Monbiot. Captive State. The Corporate Takeover of Britain. Macmillan, 2000.
3. Naomi Klein. No Logo. Flamingo, 2001.
This page last revised 5/2/01
The structure of social space
The experience of self
The technology of profit
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