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The Struggle for the Control of the New Techniques of Conditioning

Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1958)

Translated by Reuben Keehan

"IT IS NOW POSSIBLE for human reactions to be triggered in a predetermined direction," writes Serge Tchakotine on the methods of influence used on the community by revolutionaries and fascists alike between the two world wars (Le viol des foules par la propaganda politique, Gallimard). Scientific progress since that time has been constant, with advances in the experimental study of the mechanisms of behavior; the discovery of new uses for existing systems; and the continuous appearance of new inventions. For many years, experiments have been conducted into subliminal advertising (with the insertion into films of unrelated images at one twenty-fourth of a second, undetectable to conscious perception but nevertheless sensible to the retina) and silent advertising (with ultrasonics). In 1957 Canada's National Defense Research Service carried out an experimental study into boredom, in which subjects were isolated in a hermetically sealed environment (a constantly lit cell with clear walls, furnished only with a comfortable sofa, rigorously devoid of sound, smell or variations in temperature). Extensive behavioral disturbances were noted by researchers. In the absence of external stimuli the brain was incapable of remaining in the state of regular excitement necessary for its normal functioning. They could therefore conclude that boring surroundings have a negative influence human behavior. This would certainly explain the unpredictable accidents that occur in monotonous labor, which would no doubt increase in frequency with the extension of current forms of automation.

A report by Lajos Ruff, published in the French press at the beginning of 1958, takes all this a step further. His account, suspicious in some regards but not lacking in detail, describes the "brainwashing" he underwent at the hands of the Hungarian police in 1956. Ruff said that after having spent six months imprisoned in a cell where a combined use of well-known methods was aimed — and finally succeeded — at making him lose all belief in his perception of the outside world and even in his own personality. These methods included: the resolutely other furnishing of this closed room (transparent furniture, a curved bed); the lighting, with the addition each night of a rayon glow from outside whose psychic effects had been deliberately intended, but could not be determined; psychoanalytic procedures used by a doctor in everyday conversation; various drugs; basic mystifications enhancing the effects of these drugs (so that he would believe that he had been able to leave his cell for weeks, waking up with damp clothes and dirty shoes); projections of absurd and erotic films, mixed with other scenes often produced in his cell; and finally, visitors who addressed him as if he was the Hungarian Resistance hero of an adventure story from another series of films that he was forced to watch (from the details of these films and in his lived encounters, he ended up feeling proud to have taken part in the action).

We must recognize here the repressive use of ambient construction realized at a rather complex level. Free artists have neglected every discovery of disinterested scientific research, which has then been put to immediate use by the police. With subliminal advertising giving rise to some concern in the United States, everyone has been reassured by the announcement that the first two slogans to be used will be completely innocuous, saying more or less: "Don't drive too fast" and "GO TO CHURCH."

It is the humanist, artistic and juridical conception of the unalterable, inviolable personality that is utterly condemned here, and we watch its departure with pleasure. But it should be understood that we plan to dive headlong into the race between free artists and the police to experiment with and develop the use of the new techniques of conditioning. The police already have a considerable head start. The outcome depends on the appearance of passionate and liberating environments, or the reinforcement — controllable scientifically, smoothly — of the environment of the old world of oppression and horror, whichever comes first. We talk of free artists, but no artistic freedom is possible until we seize the accumulated means of the 20th century, which we see as the real means of artistic production, and which condemn those who have no inclination to be artists of the times. If the control of these new means is not totally revolutionary, we can be led towards the police-state ideal of a society organized like a beehive. The domination of nature must be revolutionary or it will become the weapon of the forces of the past. The situationists place themselves at the service of forgetting. The only force capable of doing anything is the proletariat, theoretically without a past, which in Marx's words "is revolutionary or it is nothing." When will it be then — now or never? This question is of the utmost importance: the proletariat must realize art.