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Symbolic Exchange and The Trap

Author: joe

Sunday, 11 March, 2007 - 23:10

I was 17 when the Berlin wall was flooded over by hordes of retro 80s-permed East-Germans. I was at the house of my first girl-friend and it may not be unconnected that I believed that I lived in a world where things got better with time - that we're on some (as I only later learned cynically to call it) Hegelian journey to an ever better world.

I was 26 when I finally sat down and got my head around Paul Rabinow's presentation of Chomsky vs Foucault and (as he saw it) their opposing views of the examinability of human nature. By this time I was corroded enough to be swept along by Foucault's deconstruction of the institutional motives behind every instance of human discourse, but intellectually curious enough to wonder whether Chomsky wasn't onto something with his fundamentally structuralist proposition that human nature might be a knowable thing.

I'm not sure that being 34 and watching Adam Curtis's latest adventure into televisual propaganda that is 'The Trap' will be as seminal, but it is worth comment right now. I love his programmes, but in a somewhat problematic elitist manner, I have 'issues' with this one.

Before watching I heard at least two radio reviews of it in which it was praised for being intelligent for TV, but damned for its flaws in polemic. However, in watching it I was unprepared for my over-riding response - which was that it was surprising that Foucault would make such good telly.

Televisually it is journalism - not gonzo, but nevertheless featurish in its one-sidedness - but as close to polyphony as TV gets, with its intersection between (unattributed and frustratingly unverifiably quoted) images and deterministically argued voiceover.

As a media lecturer it is hard to escape the feeling that this is going to be a great clip to illustrate the Foucauldian relationship between discourse and power, especially in relation to the psychiatric industry's will to legitimacy. The downer in all this though, is the sick feeling at the back of my throat that, not unlike the discourses Curtis damns, this is an egregious example of manipulation and self-serving ellipsis of the worst kind - possibly inescapable due to the simulative medium for which it was made (can't let my distaste for TV pass by without comment), but partly too, of course, because Curtis can't afford a dissenting voice.

If anyone with half a grasp of political history were to be interviewed with full knowledge of Curtis's agenda, they would necessarily point out that his notion that John Nash is the cause of modern woes is ludicrous; his example of the prisoner dilemma is as far from the usual prisoner's dilemma as you could get; the idea that the psychiatric profession's attempt to gain legitimacy in the 80s was an attempt at a 'new kind of control' is a desperate form of amnesia; and his conflation of rationality and impersonality is deeply simplistic.

Curtis problematised Nash's version of game theory by presenting his schizophrenia, but his argument that his equations went on to become the basis for an era of cold war politics is unsubstantiated. The prisoner dilemma as most of us know it shows that collaboration is a better strategy than betrayal, even if for selfish motives - and in the so-called deterministic world of the gene, what is the difference between selfishness and selfish altruism? Neither selfishness nor altruism exist at the mathematical level that game theory addresses. The psychiatric industry was exposed in Foucault's genealogy of the doctrine as being the will to power from its inception in the Enlightenment - far from a new thing in the 80s. And finally, since rationality, as predicated on human logic, is merely a constructed, self-negating reflexive system, recognised now by most mathematical and scientific methodologies, to portray it as somehow 'inhuman' is stereotypical and simple.

However, to conclude in as elitist a fashion as I began, I recommend this programme to anyone who hasn't yet realised that the world is not getting better as we hurtle inevitably towards the implosion predicted by last weeks' obituary filler, your friend and mine, Jean Baudrillard. I await with interest to hear what exactly 'The Trap' is, if it is not that we tend to unquestioningly believe what the TV tells us, whether the voice is a manipulative politician, or a manipulative film-maker.

Categories: adam-curtis, jean-baudrillard, TV, propaganda, michel-foucault, freedom, manipulation, game-theory,
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