[iDC] "Let ¹ s Understanda Our Own Propaganda" by T. Conrad

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Sat Dec 17 14:34:55 EST 2005

Posted with permission by the author.


Let¹s Understanda Our Own Propaganda

³Propaganda² is thought of as a separate category of information that has as
its objective the ³systematic, widespread, deliberate² (as Webster¹s puts
it) spread of some ideology. But‹what if there is no such thing as
non-propaganda? What if all information is propaganda? Then the whole idea
of ³propaganda² begins to collapse into meaninglessness. Before that
happens, though, I would like to acknowledge that the idea of ³propaganda²
does represent a matter of emphasis, a question of degree; and we are right
to presume that some things are more ³propaganda-like² and others less so.

    It has been a key principle of leftist thought, from Marx to Gramsci,
that all cultural production is a product of underlying economic and social
structures‹in other words, that pictures and text are always ideologically
interpretable. Underneath every art object, every news story, every piece of
writing, every videotape, there lies an ideological, economic, social
³spin,² conscious or unconscious; and it is part of our duty, as
increasingly conscious cultural producers, to figure out how and what
ideological messages our own work is in fact supporting.

    Now of course, if something is socially or ideologically
³interpretable,² that does not mean it is ³systematic² or ³deliberate² in
its ideological spin, does it? ‹Or does it?

If I could turn for a moment to a much more conservative school of thought,
I would like to point out that even the old-fashioned ³New Criticism² school
of literary analysis put down an author¹s ³intentions² as impossible to
verify, and thus inappropriate to discuss: ³What are your Œintentions¹? What
are the Œintentions¹ of your work?² ‹these are questions that another person
can never answer for you, first of all; and second, what you say your
intentions are doesn¹t necessarily have anything to do with what your
intentions ³really² are. Moreover, it doesn¹t even matter what your
intentions are. For instance, I might build an enormous condom-covered penis
in my front yard, with the ³intention² of promoting safe sex practices; but
my work¹s interpretation by my neighbors would overwhelm my ³intentions,² as
the community would find this object weird and scandalous, and would not
find that it had anything much to do with health issues at all, in its

    If deliberate personal intentions‹even your own‹can¹t really be taken
seriously, and since any cultural work that you make is going to be
interpreted by other people, then the adjective ³deliberate² loses a lot of
its meaning. ³Deliberate,² in reference to ³propaganda,² could then only
refer to a group deliberation, an organized scheme or project to mount a
propaganda campaign. But this is still not clear. Some years ago, for
instance, the popular critic Tom Wolfe wrote a conservative attack on the
art world, claiming as his principal principle that the taste for modern art
was a deliberate conspiracy among a set of self-appointed New York
cognoscenti and art dealers. That is, he was claiming that modern art
(that¹s the whole of modern art, we¹re talking about here) was a vehicle for
³systematic, widespread, deliberate indoctrination²‹and that¹s Webster¹s
definition of propaganda. I think that there¹s some truth in what Tom Wolfe
wrote; on the other hand, any group of creative people contributing to a
shared cultural sensibility will fall victim to this same argument. So is
all cultural work propaganda, or not?

    Perhaps we could save the idea of propaganda from including
everything‹or at least including every cultural project, group, or work‹by
dropping the subjective term ³deliberate² altogether, and instead by judging
³intentions² or ³deliberateness² from the results, the impact, and the
reception of the work rather than from the statements or actions of the
makers. That is what the Reception Theory literary critics tried to do.  Of
course, in effect this brings us back very close to the leftist view, that
cultural values are all determined by social values and, leftists would add,

    Ok, you say, but not everything I do is propaganda, because 1) what I do
creatively is just what my friends and I naturally like and want to
do‹because it¹s the way I really feel about myself; and 2) the cultural
grouping into which my work fits, the ³scene² I¹m a part of, and the goals
of the kind of things I do, are purely artistic, not ³ideological² by either
intention or deliberation, and they are not supposed to be ³propaganda² and
are not making any kind of social comment at all; in effect, I am completely
ideologically neutral.

Well, these are important claims, and I want to look Œem over one by one.

    1. If you are doing what you ³just like² to do, then (as my friend Henry
Flynt asked years ago) why does it ³just² turn out that what you ³just like²
to do fits into a pre-established category, like art, or collecting insects,
or whatever, with its pre-existing rules, standards, and competitive goals?
In fact, saying that this kind of activity is just ³you² is exactly the
proof you should need to show yourself that the innermost workings of your
imaginings and desires have been constructed within you by the society
around you, that your own personal consciousness has been induced, in large
part, by the formative experiences that have shaped who you are. I think
that most people are ready to accept the idea that ³environment² has shaped
who they are; but most people also reserve a part of themselves for ³me,²
for the part where ³I am making my own decisions and shaping my own life
choices,² even though this is completely inconsistent. What is this weird
phenomenon that we find so difficult to expel from our thoughts? Answer: It
is an ideology of individualism, and ideology that has built itself into us
through the effects of the pervasively propagandistic surroundings in which
we live. Should I point to one teensy example? When you greet someone by
asking ³How are you?² you are turning their attention inward, reinforcing
their sense of physical and judgmental autonomy, their individual identity,
while simultaneously activating one of the basic tactics of hypnotic trance
induction: focusing the subject¹s attention on their own inner physical
sensations. The ³How are you?² ritual that is so pervasive among us, and is
regarded as supportive of the other individual, is a powerful propagandistic
tool for the ideology of individualism.

    ³So?² ‹I can feel you thinking; ‹³So what! So, I am a part of the world.
Duh. AndŠ??? What am I supposed to do about this? Stop making art? Or is
this all a lot of bullshit that adds up to nothing, if everything is
propaganda; because then nothing is propaganda, since there isn¹t any
non-propaganda!² Well, the general idea here is that if we could get a
³propaganda detector² going, so that the (frequently) hidden ideological
baggage of our activities and work could become a part of our conscious
thinking, then we might be able to make better choices about what to do, and
what we really want. If everything has a propagandistic side, but we often
lose track of that side, or ignore it, or it¹s hidden, then a ³propaganda
detector² would help us perceive more accurately the effects of our
activities. For example, suppose I ³just liked² the idea of putting my arms
around a woman and holding her close, then taking off her clothes and having
sex with her. I could even be thinking that my ³just liking² that idea came
to me biologically, and had nothing to do with propaganda. Yet clearly the
act of rape itself is propagandistic in nature, because it carries a
terribly intense and damaging message of patriarchal domination. Since I
understand that fact, and since that fact is echoed in the society around
me, I would totally resist that ³just liked² idea. Now let¹s suppose I ³just
liked² the idea of making a video to show at Squeaky Wheel that attacked our
Buffalo public access cable TV facility because (let¹s say) I couldn¹t get
my show on in a good time slot. ³Just² a personal expression, not a
political statement or ³propaganda²‹or is it? In a city as racially
polarized as Buffalo, my video would of course be received by the cranky
white people in my audience (if there are any that come to Squeaky Wheel) as
a reaffirmation of their racist suspicions about the public access station,
which is primarily operated by members of the African American community.
Any black audience members would have their propaganda antennas up all the
way, and would sense a hostility that would reinforce their own doubts about
the possibilities of participating in a racially mixed cultural scene. Once
again, a sensitivity to the propagandistic or socio-political implications
of my idea would help me decide not to realize it.

    So far the theory I¹ve touched on has all leaned to the left,
politically. That doesn¹t mean that there¹s no understanding of ³propaganda²
on the right, though; far from it. It¹s just that the right tends to be
skimpy where it comes to theory. But in practice, the right‹which I take as
including the corporate world, or at least corporate management‹probably has
the sharpest propaganda strategists anywhere, and probably launches the most
focused and duplicitous propaganda of anybody. Aside from ³news,² which is
the trickiest propaganda to figure out, the most humongous shitload of
propaganda is advertising. Any book that deconstructs advertising is by the
same token a propaganda ³how to.² The history of advertising, as pictured by
astute critics like Stuart Ewen (Captains of Consciousness), reflects
conscious ³deliberations² aimed at developing a pervasive American
³consumer² ideology and a level playing field for marketing. The toolkit of
advertisers has embraced the subtlest psychological tactics imaginable,
including those I¹ve alluded to with the ³How are you?² example above. And
of course being ³systematic² and ³widespread² is the avowed aim of
advertisers, whose goal in the end is to shape our thinking to their model.
So an understanding of advertising offers many tips for us in our efforts to
unveil the hidden ³propagandistic² (that is, ideological) programs that may
reside, latent, in our own work.

    2. Now let¹s look at some work that is ³purely artistic,² and that might
easily convince us of its ideological neutrality. As an example, I would
like to consider the kind of work that is least likely of all to appear
propagandistic, and that to all appearances has a minimal relevance to
propaganda: abstract art. By this term, I intend to address all kinds of
work in any medium in which formal principles‹design, rhythm, fragmentation,
process, materials, and decontextualization‹provide the dominant effects in
the work. Most artists whose work is abstract or formal tend to think of
their work as politically neutral, unconcerned with social issues, solely
technical, and esthetically rewarding simply in terms of its own inner

    I have made work with this kind of values; I still make work with these
values. I won¹t try to discount the proven validity of the authentic
esthetic experiences that can arise in the presence of abstract work. In
fact, what I would like to do is refute the notion that because abstract
work does not (in itself) acknowledge its own propagandistic values, that it
is then discredited and valueless (or worse).

    During the 1980s and 90s (and more recently in Europe, at last!) the
culture world roused itself to a persistent wake-up call about its
responsibilities concerning issues of social identity. Grudgingly responding
at first to feminists and black power advocates, then to many more of us,
the dominant culture began to acknowledge diverse voices, and then in fact
to insist that these voices, which were effecting a cultural and social
revolution, were brought to the fore. In short, an ideological agenda was
abroad, was welcomed in many quarters (though far from all!), and provided a
measuring stick against which abstract art was generally found abysmally
wanting. This was a swing of the ³pendulum² away from the 1950s and 60s
obsession with abstract art, an obsession that had (conveniently) neglected
or ignored the propagandistic elements of abstraction. In the 1950s abstract
art had been systematically exploited by corporate America as a
propagandistic device for supporting a powerful and ³neutral² image of
capitalist market culture. Then in the 60s Clement Greenberg was the
evangelical theorist of abstraction, distracting the public from the fact
that abstraction was distracting the public, and the artists, from the
looming social issues that boiled over in the antiwar demonstrations. The
³pendulum² swing was a more than welcome corrective! But lately, and
inevitably, we have begun to tire of propagandistic hammering on identity
politics, a pathos that was increasingly excluding other systems of values,
including (but not only) those at the other end of the ³swing.²

    Today artistic work must retain its awareness of the gains that have
been made in the area of cultural diversity, but at the same time we want it
to deliver its messages with elegance or flair, and to be well made. The
time of a simplistic statement of the problem is past; now the work must be
fleshed out in some way, ³well done.² But how something is done, the way in
which work is executed, is a direct and exact reference to the work¹s formal
aspects and values. We begin to see that advertising has been there before
us: the formal elements in advertising are dominant; that¹s why the
commercials are separate from the programs! And as one looks back over the
historical course of artwork that is recognized and praised for its value as
propaganda, we see a startling profusion of formalist approaches‹the
collages of Heartfield, the constructivist posters of revolutionary Russia,
the design-conscious peace posters of Peter Max. How is it, then, that in
all propaganda abstract and formalist principles‹the apparent antitheses of
propaganda‹provide so dominant a function?

    The answer I have to offer involves areas of psychology that have been
more exploited by the right than the left:  perceptual and motivational
psychology on the one hand, and on the other hand the most recondite region
of psychology‹not the intellectually turgid theoretical domain of
psychoanalysis, but hypnosis research. Many findings of perceptual
psychology have of course long been incorporated in design principles, for
example the expectation that the moving eye will follow a border or line.
And advertising research is plowing up new psychological turf relentlessly,
continually exploring the perceptual and motivational advantages of using
particular colors, of using a particular schedule of presentation, and so
forth. However, what I would like to suggest goes further, toward a more
general accounting for ³the formalism that sells,² and an explanation of the
need to rely on abstract and formal devices for designing ³content-oriented²
messages‹whether they are framed as news, narratives, documentaries, or
simply advertising (propaganda pure and simple).

    It was a hallmark of the later work of Milton Erickson (1901-80), who
for decades was America¹s premiere hypnotherapist, that by deliberately
puzzling or preoccupying his clients¹ conscious attention, he was able to
achieve a more direct relationship to their unconscious processes‹including
the clients¹ fundamental sense of self, their habitual behaviors, and
certain of their attitudes; in short, he was able to address the places
where their psychological problems were seated. Usually, but not always, his
³depotentiation² of conscious processes was characterized by a condition he
called ³trance.² What I¹m getting at here is that the most
clearly-understood pathway to the seat of our ideological outlooks, our
habitual behaviors and attitudes, bypasses our conscious processes‹and in
particular, it seems that the route is most direct when the rational mind is
set aside or directed to other things. The tactics that are used by
Ericksonian therapists to depotentiate conscious processes include boredom,
distraction, confusion, and interruptions. Some examples will help to show
how these tactics are related to classic formal structures in media and
other art.

The use of extended durations that is common in structuralist and conceptual
media works (which is to say formalist media works) is usually treated as an
exploration of an altered sense of temporality or expectation. Said another
way, these works are boring; yet boredom is, as these works themselves
demonstrate, in fact productive of a renewed orientation toward those
fundamental (ideological?) actuators, expectation and the value of passing

An example of the distraction technique (cited in Stephen Gilligan¹s
Therapeutic Trances) is to ask the subject ³to count backwards from 1000 to
1 by 3¹s, or verbalize the alphabet forwards while visualizing it backwards
(i.e., saying ³A² while seeing ³Z², saying ³B² while seeing ³Y², etc.)Š.²
The similarity here to certain formal/conceptual paintings, films, and even
performances is pretty striking.

Erickson himself once used confusion to rattle and destroy his opponent in a
debate, simply by deliberately and persistently using sloppy grammar and an
incorrect choice of words; that is, he wielded a formal disruption of
syntactical and semantic usages as a propagandistic weapon.

The interruption tactic includes introducing meaningful nonsequiturs or
rapidly changing the subject‹which are stock formal techniques.

And so forth‹with repetition, multiple communication modalities, allegorical
and figural meanings, confusions of reflexivity, and so on. The wherewithal
for distracting and depotentiating conscious mental processes is almost a
direct translation of the formalist artist¹s toolkit.

    What I have to suggest here, then, reflects my own personal ideology. I
believe that there is still much significant work to be done in the
development and thorough understanding of abstract and formal art making
tools, and that these tools have a prominent role to play in the work of any
propagandist. And since what we do is bound to be propaganda anyhow, we owe
it to ourselves and our friends and collaborators to make sure that we fully
grasp the ideological spin that is either overt or hidden in the propaganda
we make. 

Tony Conrad
Buffalo, August 2003

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