The Western scientific program promises to reveal all the secrets of nature through systematic, rational inquiry. In so doing, it promises certainty beyond what superstition can muster and promises technological control over Nature superior to that of magic. As the technological products of science increase in complexity however, their intelligibility decreases. Technology is increasingly apprehended in terms of its “magical” effects, while the rational underpinnings become increasingly obscure.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke opined that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Expressing a similar sentiment, psychologist Carl Jung wrote: “Magic happens to be everything that eludes comprehension… It is difficult to exist without reason… and that is exactly how difficult magic is.” In its current marketing campaign, Apple Computer offers products that are “practically magic,” enabling glossy photography without knowledge of exposure, and other like “miracles.”
Early signs of trouble in the European Enlightenment Rationalist tradition emerged around World War I. The Dada movement was not nihilistic, as is often charged, but a reaction against the moral vacuity of the modern scientific outlook, and a criticism of the notion that empirical science is an inherently a-moral enterprise. While modern science takes its philosophical starting point from Plato’s equating of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the advent of mechanized warfare and chemical weapons in the First World War caused a profound disturbance in the Western psyche.
With the nuclear arms race after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engineered a stalemate policy of mutual deterrence that continues to imperil all life on the planet, as satirized by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove. Part of what sociologist C. Write Mills referred to as “organized irresponsibility,” the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, was devised by computer scientist John von Neumann, and modeled on the principles of game theory. For decades since, policy makers have essentially engaged in a hyper-rational planning regime for a technological apocalypse, where the flawed judgement of a single person can have catastrophic consequences globally.
Observing these developments in their infancy, Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in 1956:
“To speak of the ‘lacking sense of reality’ in modern man is contrary to the widely held idea that we are distinguished from most periods of history by our greater realism.”
“But to speak of our realism is almost like a paranoid distortion. What realists, who are playing with weapons which may lead to the destruction of all modern civilization, if not of our earth itself!”
“If an individual were found doing just that, he would be locked up immediately, and if he prided himself on his realism, the psychiatrists would consider this an additional and rather serious symptom of a diseased mind.”
Western science has largely delivered on many of the promises of magic, from practical control over matter at the subatomic level to the mastery of flight and tele-vision. Yet where sorcery is regarded as evil and dangerous, the rational products of science — which pollute, surveil, exploit and kill around the globe — are widely praised as the crowning achievements of our civilization.
Beginning in the occult tradition at the interface of alchemy, Hermeticism, and the kabbalistic mathematics of religious thinkers like Abraham Abulafia and Ramon Llull, the return of science to “magic” suggests the failure of the Rationalist tradition is complete, and should serve as a warning that we are rapidly entering a new era of superstition and barbarism, as we gleefully destroy ourselves with a new “magic” few of us understand.
The sporting goods company Under Armour recently launched a new PR campaign, “Rule Yourself.” In a television spot featuring Tom Brady, NFL quarterback for the New England Patriots, the cinematography depicts multiple clones of the quarterback “in training.”
As a literal, visual depiction of the social individual who is both unique and at once a product of mass society, the commercial is straightforward enough. Behind the glare of the advertisement’s celebrity individual, however, the depiction of the individual as merely one instance of a uniform, mass type reveals some telling information about what appeals to the intended audience: the producers of this advertisement espouse a view of individuality as a function of commodity fetishism. Consumers define their identity though the products they purchase; people satisfy a need for group membership by association with branding (i.e., Apple products are for creative types).
In this view, the individual in mass society is mass produced for mass consumption; the individual cherishes mass produced goods as if they were distinctive, special, unique, and intrinsically valuable. Individual subjectivity is a function of mass-produced desires. This is the situation Guy Debord was commenting on in The Society of the Spectacle:
“Each new product is ceremoniously acclaimed as a unique creation offering a dramatic shortcut to the promised land of total consummation. But … the objects that promise uniqueness can be offered up for mass consumption only if they have been mass-produced. The prestigiousness of mediocre objects of this kind is solely due to the fact that they have been placed, however briefly, at the center of social life and hailed as a revelation of the unfathomable purposes of production…”
Undergirding this message, the advertisement’s producers appropriated a number of motifs from NAZI propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 documentary, “The Triumph of the Will.” This “triumph of the will” whereby the mass media encourages the “individual” to “rule” his or her self replaces Hitler’s religion of the state with a contemporary religion of mass production. By the end of the commercial, there are enough clones of Tom Brady fill up an entire Nuremberg Rally.
Beyond the striking similarities in form and theme existing between Riefenstahl’s propaganda and the Under Armour advertisement, there is an additional, overarching unity: something about the demographics research performed by Under Armour’s PR firm suggested that today’s American audiences would be receptive to the same types of images that inspired NAZI followers during Weimar Germany‘s economic distress.
This existence of an authoritarian mindset in the American psyche — and specifically, a desire for submission to authority — it at once at the core of most modern marketing, and something that psychologist Erich Fromm viewed as a defining problem for modern civilization itself. In Fromm’s view, modern civilization’s mastery over nature has cut humanity off from its most basic ties to psychic life: that is, with freedom comes the threat of isolation.
Fromm identifies totalitarianism as an answer to the threats of isolation associated with individual freedom: the aggressive authoritarian attempts to destroy the world and the threats it contains, whereas the submissive authoritarian seeks meaning by identifying with the goals of a group. In both cases, the impulse is a feeling of powerlessness.
This sense of powerlessness associated with modern civilization — in spite of our technology, which truth be told, is becoming increasingly inscrutable and even “magical” — is something many observers have called attention to. A member of a mass — as opposed to an individual, or a member of a public — is by definition in no position to influence the mass. A member of a mass is carried by herd mentality. The key distinctions between mass society and a public sphere comprised by individuals was summarized by C. Wright Mills in 1956:
“In a public, as we may understand the term, (1) virtually as many people express opinions as receive them. (2) Public communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against—if necessary—the prevailing system of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations. When these conditions prevail, we have the working model of a community of publics, and this model fits closely the several assumptions of classic democratic theory.
“At the opposite extreme, in a mass, (1) far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media. (2) The communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect. (3) The realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action. (4) The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion.
“The public and the mass may be most readily distinguished by their dominant modes of communication: in a community of publics, discussion is the ascendant means of communication, and the mass media, if they exist, simply enlarge and animate discussion, linking one primary public with the discussions of another. In a mass society, the dominant type of communication is the formal media, and the publics become mere media markets: all those exposed to the contents of given mass media.”
The image of authoritarian submission offered by Under Armour is more insidious than that offered by Hitler because it is cast not in the guise of some cult of personality, but of individualism. In this advertisement, Tom Brady is not issuing commands to the television audience. H hides is the vast network of market research, economic analysis, psychology research, PR, and production that constructs the modern self, which mass produces all the commercial products which the individual uses to “advertise” his or her own individuality. All the hair coloring, clothing, food, media — all of it.
This hidden aspect of American authoritarianism was alluded to in Fromm’s 1941 book, Escape from Freedom. Fromm wrote:
“Anonymous authority is more effective than overt authority, since one never suspects that there is any order which one is expected to follow. In external authority, it is clear that there is an order and who gives it; one can fight against the authority, and in this fight personal independence and moral courage can develop. But … in anonymous authority, both command and commander have become invisible.”
It is worth pointing out in this connection, that most modern advertising is really just propaganda: a distortion of truth (Tom Brady cannot actually clone himself) that appeals to emotion (Tom Brady signifies strength and discipline even for couch potatoes) in order to induce some behavior or belief in the audience (parting with cash).
The idea that the human body and human mind are essentially a machine has proven powerful — and profitable. Near the dawn of modern behavioral science, already scientists recognized the threats this posed to individuality. In his 1968 book, General System Theory, cognitive scientist Ludwig von Bertalanffy lamented:
“The concept of man as mass robot was both an expression of and a powerful motive force in industrialized mass society. It was the basis for behavioural engineering in commercial, economic, political and other advertising and propaganda; the expanding economy of the ‘affluent society‘ could not subsist without such manipulation. Only by manipulating humans ever more into Skinnerian rats, robots buying automata, homeostatically adjusted conformers and opportunists (or, bluntly speaking, into morons and zombies) can this great society follow its progress toward ever increasing gross national product.”
In recent years the NFL has increasingly embedded nationalistic overtones in their televised spectacles, including F16 flyovers, football-field-sized American flags, and veterans displayed prominently on the field.
This past season, Pepsi got in on the action, plastering their logo all over a multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier to defend the homeland from Coca-Cola while cross-promoting their product with the SuperBowl Halftime show.
In terms of the content of the Pepsi commercial, the spectacle is reminiscent of the scene in Apocalypse Now where a USO show involving Playboy Bunnies in the Vietnam jungle degenerates into an orgy of male aggression.
The relationship between military might and commerce is an old one: the Navy, specifically, is provided for under Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution. While the Founders were wary of standing armies, a navy was viewed as essential for protecting trade routes. Today, this function would seem to extend to protecting corporate brand-name identity.
The Miller Brewing Company is running a TV advertisement in which they take credit for inventing subliminal advertising. Perhaps the claim is in jest, yet there is a dark undercurrent where a large corporation brags about how effectively they can manipulate their customers.
Miller Lite Subliminal Advertising
The purpose of advertising is to manipulate the perceptions of consumers. Advertising creates desires where previously none existed in order to create demand for the output of industry. Discussions of economics generally assume that supply follows demand: if this were the case, however, advertising would not be necessary. In many cases, supply creates demand — and advertising is an instrumental part of this process.
That advertising alters perceptions is not a trivial fact: it is central to advertising’s effectiveness. Nissan is running an advertisement boasting about the safety features they incorporate into their automobile design. After detailing the automobile’s safety features, the advertisement concludes: “the only thing left to fear is your imagination.”
Nissan Safe Driving Myth
An advertisement that instills the perception that driving is safe can have tragic consequences: driving is just about the most dangerous thing the typical American does on a daily basis. In the last 13 years, 2,977 Americans have died from terrorism. Since 2001, some 468,743 Americans have died in automobile accidents. On average, automobiles kill more Americans every month than terrorists killed on 9/11. Yet the policy implications of these two figures could not be more different.
Were Americans to perceive the true dangers inherent in driving, perhaps Federal highway subsidies and automobile manufacturer bailouts would arouse more indignation than they have, while the time and expense and social changes ushered in by the War on Terror might be redirected towards changing social values to discourage driving — by creating walkable neighborhoods and funding mass transit effectively, for example. This would certainly save more lives than military adventures abroad. Advertising and marketing exert a subtle though profound effect on the perceptions of Americans, influencing what policies are permissible.
Advertising creates reality. Advertising creates mass psychology. This influence is not benign, nor like the fabled boasts of snake oil salesman, but orchestrated perception management campaigns by organized industry meant to benefit organized industry. To the extent that advertising is ubiquitous, and to the extent that everybody assumes that advertising involves exaggerations or lies, the outcome is in many ways affected subliminally — without being noticed.
During the first Gulf War, The Topps Company (best known for selling baseball cards) engaged in a bit of war profiteering by selling Desert Storm trading cards.
One card featured a young Dick Cheney — then Secretary of Defense — with his menacing grin intact:
The back of the card gives biographical details for the military-industrial complex ringleader:
A relevant feature of the military-industrial complex is its relationship with the rise of the managerial society: note that, as Secretary of Defense, Cheney controlled “budget allocations.” Since his position was appointed rather than elected, the military resources he controlled were essentially outside the realm of democratic accountability.
Walmart has figured out how to charge more for their cheap imported goods: they now offer a credit card. If Walmart customers take out Walmart credit cards, then, presumably, all the consumers living hand-to-mouth now can make their interest payments directly to Walmart, instead of to the bank. Just cut out the middle man:
Walmart Credit Card
The language used in the advertisement above is conspicuous for a number of reasons. The sales persons are clearly trying to mislead the customers in the advertisement, promising a future filled with impossible high-tech wonders like “jet pack tennis shoes.” This type of deception is normal only insofar as consumers are accustomed to the lies and distortions associated with marketing — on a daily basis, the typical consumer is told more lies than truths. The advertisement also conflates spending with saving — two activities with opposite implications or one’s cash flow.
Spending has been equated with saving for some time. While this might sound a little “Orwellian” to some — a contradiction in terms that everybody accepts without thinking about it — this is just one more instance where PR and marketing is able to subvert human rationality.
If you assume — like most economists — that individual consumers are rational, benefit-maximizing free agents, who choose the most product for the least money, then there is no good way to account for why somebody would buy a low-end Lexus instead of a fully-loaded Toyota. One could appeal to status appeal to account for why somebody would buy a low-end Lexus instead of a high-end Toyota, but such an explanation would have to be made on sociological terms rather than economic terms. If one wants to explain this phenomenon in economic terms, one has to abandon the notion that consumers are rational. Abandoning the assumption of human rationality, in turn, can lead one in various directions: this either makes a claim about human nature, or, alternatively, one can look for influences in the culture that undermine rationality.
Perception management is the bread-and-butter of the PR and marketing industries. Marketing manipulates individual perceptions by creating new desires where none previously existed. PR replaces an individual’s perceptions with a corporation’s preferred perception. Spending becomes saving, you can’t live without the new smart phone — even though you’ve been living just fine for years without it. Must-have fashion accessories are not must-have in the same way as food or water, they are accessories — though the PR industry’s preferred terminology reveals an important fact of social psychology.
Violent Shopping at Walmart
The tactics used by PR and marketing are able to elicit the most primal types of violent reactions among consumers seeking to gratify not basic needs, to to acquire scarce resources, but the desire for must-have accessories, and even mass-produced semi-disposable gadgets that will wind up in landfills before too long.
According to reliable sources, “G.I. Joe is the code name for America’s daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”
G.I. Joe Broadcast Energy Transmitter
In this clip from the 1987 film, “G.I. Joe: The Movie,” America’s elite fighting force is preparing to test the Broadcast Energy Transmitter, a new technology that promises to deliver free, wireless energy to the whole world.
While America is trying to deliver free energy to the world, the terrorist organization Cobra tries to steal the technology, and keep it for itself.
There was, though — once upon a time — a Golden Age, when information came on floppy disks, and file sharing was a key selling point for personal computers. Back when, corporations encouraged us to copy files freely between ourselves, and it raised nary an eyebrow to hear that “a hobbyist in Michigan starts a local Apple Computer Club, to challenge other members to computer games of skill and to trade programs.”