TCS Daily

Rebel Without Causality

By John Holbo - June 16, 2003 12:00 AM

A couple years back, Douglas Rushkoff (pundit, professor, novelist, media guru) wrote a good book, Coercion. In it he ventured boldly among the persuasion professionals - advertising, PR, neuro-linguistic programming. The usual suspects. Spin makes the world go round. It is all rather fascinating.

It is intriguing to learn, for example, that in the 60's the CIA employed a hand-to-hand interrogation technique, a staged psychodrama affectionately known as "Spinoza and Mortimer Snerd" - a compound more potent than sodium pentothal, apparently. (For those too young to remember, Spinoza was a 17th Century 'god-intoxicated' mystic - or arch-rational atheist, depending whom you asked; Snerd was a wooden dummy dandled over comedian Edgar Bergen's knee from the 30's to the 50's.)

Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are the bits of the book where Rushkoff pretty much loses it. Example:

"If we stop to think about this invisible hand working on our perceptions and behavior, we can easily become paranoid. Although we cannot always point to the evidence, when we become aware that our actions are being influenced by forces beyond our control - we shop in malls that have been designed by psychologists, and experience the effects of their architecture and color schemes on our purchasing behaviors - we can't help by feel a little edgy. No matter how discreetly camouflaged the coercion, we sense that it's leading us to move and act ever so slightly against our wills. We may not want to admit consciously to ourselves that the floor plan of the shopping center has made us lose our bearings, but we are disoriented all the same. We don't know exactly how to get back to the car, and we will have to walk past twenty more stores before we find an exit."

The floorplan made me do it? Yet Rushkoff rushes in, where an angel might fear to tread. He buys a big-ticket item: "The fact is, everything is coercive." Why? Everything affects us, that's why.

What's wrong with this thought? To pick on what is almost a minor point: it is so sweeping that it undercuts principled indignation at malls, which can now be no more ethically objectionable than molecules. Dostoyevsky's Underground Man passed this way before: "The laws of nature have mistreated me constantly, more than anything else in my life." Why get hot under the collar about penny-ante practitioners of neuro-linguistic programming when there are big-time 'hidden persuaders' out there, like the Law of Gravity?

Backtracking, it's not that Rushkoff is wrong about how malls work. (Their owners, we may grant, get value for money for floor plan design.) It's not even that Rushkoff is exceeding his brief as journalist and media critic by several orders of metaphysical magnitude. The problem is: Rushkoff hasn't fingered what really bothers him. He does not really aspire to do James Dean one better: rebel without causality. No, as Rousseau observes, the real trouble is: "the nature of things does not madden us, only ill will does."

If freedom is absence of coercion (a plausible first stab at definition), then the Jack London protagonist struggling against the elements, praying his last match catches, is more free than the strolling window shopper. The shopper's possible actions expand with happy exponentiality. Yet she is battered by innumerable (weak) coercive forces. Out in the snow, possible lines of action dwindle to a thin wisp. On the up-side: no one around for miles = no coercion = freedom. If he dies? Well, it was nothing personal.

It is a puzzling feature of this modern life that, as we become more and more comfortably insulated from impersonal forces that decimated our ancestors - polio, freezing to death, crop failure - we can contrive to feel, as Rushkoff does, more put-upon than our ancestors. (We are, he apocalyptically opines, living through "end-stage propaganda".) But the puzzle has a solution of sorts: look around. How many elements of our environment are artificial, i.e. intentionally fabricated? Nowadays there is will, for good or ill, in the nature of all things. Very maddening, to the one who sees it that way.

Approaching from yet another angle, modern life has backed Rushkoff squarely into - Spinozism. He believes that to be actuated by causes of which one is unaware is to be - Snerdly. By contrast, to achieve understanding of the causes of one's actions is to be free. As former Senator Bob Kerrey puts it, swallowing Rushkoff's line, hook and sinker in the course of a blurb that grace's Coercion's bright, eye-catching cover:

"An important book ... a clear warning to Americans who are unaware of power of words to intentionally mislead the reader, listener or viewer. Read this book and nobody gets hurt."

Those more natively skeptical of over-the-top 'no strings attached' sales-pitches may feel it is safer to give the dummy the last word, however.

Edgar Bergen: "Today I'm not going to ask you what makes you so stupid."

Mortimer Snerd: "What's the matter? Are you losing interest in me?"

Snerd recognizes and accepts his own essential, inescapable nature. There is wisdom in that, surely. (Spinoza agrees with this much.) From here on out, the hand-to-hand psychodramatics of the interrogation of our subject gets rougher.

But seriously, folks, the wonder of media criticism - especially when it goes off the rails, which it always does - is how philosophical it is. (That's why it goes off the rails, if you are curious.) And philosophy is nice because, why, I suppose it holds a mirror up to... hey, look, some shiny thing in the window over there.

Author's note: The interested reader is encourage - but in no way coerced - to reconstruct this column as a comprehensive review and interpretation of The Matrix: Reloaded ... if you feel like it.

John Holbo teaches philosophy at the National University of Singapore.

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