From Propaganda to Perception Management
As some of you know, I spent a few years in my formal studies at university in what was then called “propaganda analysis”.
Today, “propaganda” has been itself rebranded as “perception management”, a perhaps more accurate term but also a bit like putting lipstick on a pig. In some ways, “perception management” represents the synthesis or intersection of advertising techniques and the techniques of psychological warfare. It has become more “scientific” since its early days during the First World War, and in that sense, perhaps much more effective. We are daily surrounded, penetrated, violated by the stuff, which is, of course, what that movie called The Matrix was all about.
It was my studies in propaganda/perception management that led me into the fields of perception and consciousness. If there was a silk lining to my studies of the manipulation of perception and consciousness, it was that I had to turn my attention to the facts of perception and consciousness. What are these things that the propagandist is so desirous of controlling and manipulating? Today, perception management also goes by names like “spin” or Stephen Colbert’s wonderful term, “truthiness” — the appearance of telling the truth without actually telling the truth.
As is said, “the corruption of the best is the worst corruption of all”, and that’s quite applicable to the effects of perception management. In our busy lives, we have become quite vulnerable to being “turned” by pre-digested information, and we live in the midst of endlessly repeating propagandas of all kinds for this way of life or that way of life. Repetition is, perhaps, the core technique of propaganda, as Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels also knew. Repeat something absurd or false often enough, and people will eventually come to believe that it is true. It becomes “the common sense”.
If propaganda has become “perception management” it is also because of the incorporation of the conclusions and results of neurological science into the propagandist’s toolkit. In fact, the whole point of “perception management” is to bypass consciousness and reason completely and speak directly, or appeal directly, to lower brain functions, particularly the reptilian system or “lizard brain”. For that reason, much propaganda can appear completely nonsensical or irrational or absurd, because it is not its intention to engage the mind in dialogue, but to evade discourse and dialogue. So, in that sense, most perception management has “subliminal” targets.
So, when you are studying these techniques, you necessarily have to make the subliminal, liminal, as it were. You simply have to try to understand perception and consciousness and intentionality and how these can be manipulated without the target audience perhaps even being aware that they are being controlled and manipulated. That’s much the gist of that quote from former influential Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, which I’ve cited on occasion,
“The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.” — cited in Chomsky, “Security and State Power“
Perception management is, in some ways, old hat. It is, after all, the gist of the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The key difference is that it has, today, been systematised, rationalised, and become “scientific”, with even a kind of secretive guild of practitioners sometimes referred to as “public relations specialists” or “communications consultants”. Sometimes it is called “public diplomacy”. However, underlying the superficial “rationality” of it is something far older — the magical structure of consciousness. It has its roots there, in magic.
So, there’s a certain irony in the fact that the dangers of propaganda and perception management are compelling us to wake up to the realities of perception and consciousness, even if simply as a requirement of mental hygiene and self-defence. It really is ubiquitous. We really do live in “the Matrix” in that sense. And like Neo in The Matrix, we must become conscious of it, and you are going to be hindered and discouraged — maybe even threatened — every step of the way.
And I think Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical method” and cross of reality can also help us in that respect.
As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, propaganda and perception management is more virulent in democracies than in totalitarian states, although we tend to associate propaganda with the latter. That, in itself, is a success of the propaganda system — this distraction, deflection, or diverting of attention and perception. It even has a formal name: “direction by indirection” (which is to say, to “mis-lead”). Democracies have a problem of political organisation that dictatorship states don’t have. In dictatorships, power is often very visible and propaganda is also very visible, and often clumsily so because the state relies on truncheons and threats of violence rather than persuasion. Rule is by diktat. Dictatorships are monologues, where democracy is dialogical (at least, in principle). Power and rulership is granted by something called “informed consent”, which is an open invitation to control the meaning of “informed” and “information”, which is the task of the so-called “hidden persuaders” and secretive power-brokers.
The exercise of power thus takes a different course in democracies than in the dictatorships or in monarchies or theocracies or oligarchies. Power also is fourfold in that regard, and Rosenstock-Huessy wrote a very interesting essay on political systems called “Polybius, Or the Reproduction of Government”. (The essay, if you are interested, appears as Chapter XI in his online copy of I Am An Impure Thinker. It is an application of his quadrilateral model or cross of reality to the interpretation of political systems). Ancient Athens rotated through all four types in its history — dictatorship, oligarchy, democracy, monarchy. Rotation or repetition is the very principle of the “pagan world”, as represented in its fundamental symbol, the ouroboros, self-devouring, self-regenerating. It is the image of what we call “fate”.
This is the symbol of “paganism”, and unfortunately, it is the kind of world and consciousness we are recreating for ourselves with “the death of God”. In this understanding, human beings were ruled by “fate”, were simply playthings of the gods, and in which nothing truly new could enter or be allowed to enter. This is “eternal recurrence of same”. The Christian cross actually became the antidote to the ouroboros. Instead of a “fate”, human beings acquired a “destiny” freely chosen. This was the new consciousness that punctured the enchanted circle of the ouroboric world, as even depicted in this illustration by Jacob Boehme
Jesus did something remarkable to time. He is called also The Lord of Time. He changed time. He gave it direction and purpose, but also that time and death had no ultimate power over man. So, it’s no accident that, with the “death of God” also, it is now the “common sense” to conclude that the cosmos has no purpose or direction or meaning, so we are in danger of returning to the closed world of the ouroboros once again. It’s not likely democracy can succeed in such a world where “fate” rules, since fate negates the idea of choice. Fate is necessity, and necessity is tyranny.
So, we are once again enclosing ourselves within a bubble of perception. That’s the gist of a few titles like The Closing Circle or The Closing of the American Mind, or of Blake’s “Single Vision”, and so on. The idea of “progressive time” is something we owe fundamentally to Judeo-Christianity. Jesus closed one era of time and began another, which is quite remarkable. That’s the significance of the symbol of the crucifix.
So, symbols can be very powerful summaries of very complex things, but these symbols tend to be corrupted and distorted by propaganda, so that they lose their power to communicate “spiritual” truths and realities. Gaining control of the meaning of symbols is one of the most insidious effects of propaganda and perception management. Propaganda often comes speaking the rhetoric of “choice” and “freedom” and “liberty” when, in fact, its surreptitious aim is to enslave perception and intentionality and to make the exercise of free choice impossible.
You might recall the “good ole days” when someone had “character” or “reputation”. This was considered all important. No more. Today you simply need your “brand” — your image. The substantive aspects of your character need not be included in “the brand”. It only matters how you are perceived, for as is now said “perception is reality” or “to be is to be perceived”. It is your key to survival in “the Matrix”. Your actual character may have nothing to do with your “brand” at all, so everyone becomes a propagandist and perception manager, too. Everything comes wearing masks, and to confuse oneself with the mask or image is what we call “narcissism”.