Surrealpolitik

Cultural Gaslighting

Posted: September 4, 2016 11:49:42 AM

By John Schoneboom

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[This article reproduces a talk I gave at the symposium Writing Between the Lines: Exploring Creative Writing as a Research Methodology, held September 3, 2016 in Cardiff, Wales. It suspiciously resembles my pub talk, How Surrealism Can Save Us From Fascism, shamelessly repeating a joke or two, but it brings a bit of a different angle and is elaborated at somewhat greater length. And it has lovely slides.]

You can see in the title slide a still from the movie Gas Light with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. That's where the term gaslighting comes from and I'll shortly get into all that. But I'll start by telling you a little bit about the novel I'm writing. It's called The Science of a Single Cabbage, and it's about a guy called Bodhamari Arbop, who is a security operative in a high-security city that suffers from strange events, which are presumed to be terrorist attacks. Monuments start to wobble, and later crumble. Arbop has to figure out what's going on, but every time he follows a clue the trail leads back to himself. Absurd, surreal adventure ensues in which Arbop has to try to tell the real from the unreal in a place where reality is unusually plastic.

When I write, I like to create a generous version of reality that includes dreamlike elements, the unconscious, and things we don't ordinarily notice -- to blur a few lines between interior and exterior -- without getting too annoying about it. One of my goals is to write books that are readable (call me crazy). Pure surrealism tends to be insufferable. That's why I stopped calling myself a surrealist. Also because my advisor told me that Surrealism was dead and that I was probably a postmodernist. So as a compromise now I just say I like to write in a surrealist mode. Similarly, there's obviously a political element to the novel, but not in a heavy-handed way, because overtly message-driven political novels are -- let's face it -- unbearable. Having said that, irrationally enough, my entire talk will be about the political context and why I take a surrealist approach to it.

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There's a lot of fiction in our reality, a lot of reality in our dreams, and our solid world of cold, hard facts is actually prone to evaporation upon closer inspection. As a writer with a surrealist bent, that's basically my starting point. When we look around and we wrestle with questions like "why we are always at war" and "who is doing what to whom," what we have are not so much facts as narratives.

We're creative writers. Narrative is what we do. Our narratives are not entirely unlike those of journalists, historians, and politicians. We all inevitably create a strange mixture of the real and the purported, the presumed and the unexamined, along with the empirically verified. The difference with us is that we explicitly acknowledge our fictions. We're honest liars.

I think that's maybe one reason why creative writing matters as research: Reality is narrative. When we introduce, alter, or spin a narrative, we change reality. Single Cabbage is partly inspired by a desire to explore and expose what I see as the flimsiness or unreality of certain realist narratives that we are offered these days, with particular reference to terrorism and the national security state.

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This picture works pretty well as a problem statement and saves us a lot of words. It's not bad as a solution statement either, the power of poetic resistance. I contest this out-of-control riot-gear reality by writing fiction in a surrealist mode, rather than essays in a persuasive mode, because I don't want to argue about this issue or that issue. I want to influence a mind-set by undermining the reader's certainty about reality -- that is, the reader's acceptance of the narrative's parameters. I want to suggest that the clothes have no emperor. Surrealpolitik is my response to the realpolitik of total surveillance, torture, kill lists, indefinite detention without charge, militarized police -- in short the unaccountable exercise of arbitrary power and the loss of civil rights. We're given a reason why that's all necessary. I want to ask the question: how real is that reason? How do we know that it's real? Which brings us to cultural gaslighting.

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Gaslighting is a term used in psychology for a form of mental abuse in relationships where one person is able to impose a whole false reality on another person. It comes from the movie Gas Light, which we've seen in the first slide, in which an evil husband, Charles Boyer, convinces his wife, Ingrid Bergman, that she's going crazy for believing her own senses instead of his unlikely stories. If she dissents, she'll be institutionalized, but the alternative is to believe in the unreal. Either way he gets away with his criminal activities, which involve looking to steal some jewels. So cultural gaslighting applies that idea of an imposed falsified reality on a wider scale.

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Falsified reality? Well, we know we've been treated to a few lies and some propaganda over the years, especially when it comes to threats and (what gets characterized as) responses to them. My frame of reference is mostly the United States but to some degree the West generally is also implicated; the UK is certainly not immune. This speculative notion of cultural gaslighting suggests that these deceptions are perhaps not just isolated anomalies or aberrations within a generally trustworthy narrative, but that the whole narrative has been compromised. It's the difference between saying the system is broken, we have to fix it, and saying no, the system is working, we have to break it.

Cultural gaslighting suggests our protectors might be the ones we ought to be worrying about, that the bad guys have gotten control of the whole circus. It suggests that the horrible things that happen elsewhere to the Other in our name might one day be visited upon us as well, that we might be on a slippery slope toward something we're not well prepared to imagine.

This is not to argue that all this is presently the case. It is to raise the question: how do we know it's not the case? Does it seem sensible to assume that all the lies have been exposed? Or might a few have slipped past us? How many? How big? How far does it go? How would we know?

Cultural gaslighting, you see, gets a bit paranoid.

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So, there's a case for artists getting paranoid. Complacency makes for bad art, and paranoid art is the urgent opposite of that. I will add that this is paranoia in the same sense that philosophy and science are paranoid. How do we know what we think we know? What can we verify? These are straightforward questions in philosophy and science, but in politics we run into trouble very quickly if we ask questions about why we should believe what we are told about enemies. Even though we know the Soviet missile gap was a lie to start the Cold War, or that the Gulf of Tonkin attack was a lie to start the Vietnam War, or that weapons of mass destruction was a lie to start the Iraq War, if today we question the truth of what we're told about Al Qaeda or ISIS, we'll get called the worst possible name: Conspiracy theorist!

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Nobody wants to be a conspiracy theorist. Eww! But actually, as a pejorative, it's kind of a new thing. As recently as 1960, the sitting US president, Dwight Eisenhower, was using his farewell address to warn us about the military-industrial complex. What a nut job! Nobody today would ever even get to run for president with crazy talk like that. Fortunately of course he turned out to be wrong. As we all know, the military-industrial complex eventually shrank away into nothing and turned out not to be a problem. [<< pssst...that was a joke!]

Worrying about conspiracies used to be a perfectly respectable thing to do. Ol' Thomas Jefferson here did it all the time. The US was largely founded on the expectation of tyrannical conspiracies, as the quotes on the slide suggest. But today if we go there we can feel we are entering the forbidden zone. Unfortunately, if you want to test reality, if you want to see if there's something you're not supposed to find, you have to go where you're not supposed to go. We have to head into the forbidden zone to look for cracks in reality's façade, places where the narrative breaks down. That's how Ingrid Bergman got free in Gas Light. She got hold of a crack in the narrative. But of course terrorism is obviously real so I don't know if we're going to find anything.

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Oh my goodness what's all this? These are all interesting stories, and I could have filled up a dozen more slides like this one without undue strain. I won't go into all of them, but a few quick highlights might be amusing. You have al-Baghdadi, terrorist mastermind of Al Qaeda in Iraq for years, suddenly admitted by the US military in 2007 to be a fictional character. Never existed. They even identified the elderly actor who played him in his taped statements. But even after this admission, for three more years he'd occasionally appear in the news, issuing statements, escaping from prison, being in firefights. Sometimes these later articles would even acknowledge that the man in question was thought to be fictional. Where is the line between realist and surrealist now?

You have Zubaydah, "top Al Qaeda lieutenant," or so it was asserted by everybody for years, "CEO of Al Qaeda", "number two guy," the man who planned the embassy bombings and 9/11, the man the famous torture memo was literally written for. The official account of Al Qaeda in the 9/11 Commission Report relies extensively on his torture testimony; he's cited by name 54 times. In 2009, forced to respond to a habeas corpus petition, the US government quietly admitted Zubaydah was not and had never been associated with al Qaeda. He knew nothing about it. He had had nothing to do with the embassy bombings or 9/11. I'm sure you all remember those big news stories that came out after this mind-boggling confession by the United States, the huge headlines blaring that top officials had repeatedly told gigantic important lies, forcing all those officials to apologize and recall the 9/11 Commission Report and admit it was all a bunch of hooey. Remember? No? Me neither. Yeah. There were no consequences. Just a quiet little admission, and a lot of nothing. The narrative is nothing if not resilient.

There are lots more stories like these, cumulatively suggesting a shadowy world of intrigue involving complex relationships between intelligence agencies, terrorist groups, politicians, the media, dare I say that military-industrial thingy that Eisenhower ranted crazily about, and in short a great deal of cynical manipulation of people and narratives. Now, to be fair, all these stories also have different sides, lots of room for interpretation, lots of room for debate. Don't take anyone's word for what they mean, least of all the word of someone with admitted surrealist tendencies. The point is that these stories can be spun in various ways but the one thing they really can't do is justify a sense of certainty about anybody's narrative. About the only thing they justify is scepticism.

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So, the obvious question to me is why can't we ask the obvious questions? We don't have to leap to the conclusion that the moon landing was a hoax. But given the quantity and magnitude of the known fictions, surely it makes a lot more sense to question official narratives than not to. It makes more sense to scrutinize sources and demand verification than to shrug our shoulders and uncritically accept more of these kinds of stories. It's the old fool-me-twice thing. Isn't that just common sense? Therefore, the fact that the most-obviously-begged questions are precisely the ones that are most taboo makes the whole subject irresistible to me as a citizen and as a writer. And there is a lot at stake in this house of mirrors.

Facts are slippery. Debates are endless. And this to me is why the surrealist approach to narrative is useful politically. Surrealism doesn't try to trade competing facts or engage in debate. It contests reality fundamentally and directly from an essentially philosophical perspective. It questions all our assumptions about what is inevitable, what is real, what are the ontological givens, what is going on, and it enlarges the scope for imagination. Reality says you're the one doing the gripping. That's your job. "I'm just reality. Here I am. Grip me." Get a grip! You're losing your grip! The surrealist approach says no, it's reality that's got a grip on your mind and we need to loosen it so we can breathe better, see better, think better, and make better narratives.

Of course I do not presume that my readers will be ignorant or credulous and need me to teach them anything. On the contrary I presume they will tend to possess an uncanny intelligence and great sophistication, not to mention exquisite taste. So for me, job number one, write a worthy story, and make sure it serves up its darkness with plenty of laughs (a personal preference to negate the drearily earnest as well as a natural result of trading in absurdities). Secondarily, I would hope that reading the book would affirm or embolden that part of us that already knows the world is a more fluid place full of stranger possibilities than your average newspaper would have us believe. If it also made even a single reader feel slightly extra queasy next time we're told we don't have the right to a trial anymore because of some putative new al-Baghdadi somewhere, I would also find that gratifying.

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Always seeking truth, believe the truth shall set us free. Would like to consider your analysis.

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arielky
September 14, 2016 11:28:03 PM
Wonderful! Ultimately our view of our shared reality is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves... the stories (fabrications) we are told, and the stories that we believe. In my personal life, I have rewritten my past many times as I learned new facts or gained a different perspective on what had happened, and then, everything I knew shakes out differently, has a pattern that wasn't there before.

I enjoyed reading this because I am in complete agreement with everything you've said, and I am enthralled by your concepts and choice of words... cultural gaslighting, perfidious, pejorative, and simulacrum. The stories we tell are powerful, and words are powerful, and the truth sets us free. So I want to support your efforts and engage with you and others here. I am very honored to be the first one to comment. Let me add a couple other thoughts to what you've started... first, it might be helpful to identify "crooked corporations" on a scale of 1-10 in corruption and on another scale of 1-10 in the negative impact they have on the planet and people's lives. We might want to explore the Mandela Effect of altered timelines, and definitely go into jumping timelines. I've been involved in a community in Arizona, which I've been kicked out of for being a troublemaker. I asked too many troublesome and disturbing questions, and I've made this place my research project all year. What to do with my findings? I've decided to write a fictional account of what has transpired here. And did I succeed in jumping timelines? Perhaps, time will tell. I do know that at one point that I considered that I had failed, but perhaps not, as more is revealed. It doesn't matter all that much, the point is that I carried out the experiment, and perhaps next time I won't. So I'd like to be known in your book as a pioneer time jumper of the 21st Century. I think you will want to weave me in as a character, or at least as part of a character. And may I ask, why the title, "Single Cabbage?" Does it have anything to do with Alice in Wonderland?

Also I want to properly introduce myself. My name is Ariel Ky. I am the Crystal Visionary.
(I'm resubmitting this, since it doesn't seem to have posted, but you may not be following it that closely, so if you see it as being submitted twice, that's what happened.)
Always seeking truth, believe the truth shall set us free. Would like to consider your analysis.

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I'm a writer with an interest in all aspects of how we construct, filter, protect, and subject ourselves to reality. My first novel Fontoon was published...

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John Schoneboom
November 19, 2016 05:08:58 PM
Good god, can it be this long since I've checked back here at my own site to see if anyone's posted any comments?! Answer: apparently. Apologies for this long delay. Pioneering time jumpers are of course always welcome here.

As for the title "The Science of a Single Cabbage," I'm glad you asked. I stole it from Terry Eagleton, who is among other things an eminent literary theorist. In his wonderful book The Event of Literature he was talking about postmodernism's reluctance to universalize anything, and defending the idea that some things really did have to be widely generalized. His example was cabbages. There's no such thing, he said, as the science of a single cabbage. It has to be a science of all cabbages. He is right, or he was, because now he's wrong. Now there is The Science of a Single Cabbage. Strictly speaking, he is now both right and wrong. This is the sort of contradictory dualism that we need to be able to tolerate if we are to attain any sort of wisdom. But at the same time you're not far off with Alice in Wonderland either, just not for the cabbages. You might consider gift-wrapping a choice cabbage and sending it back to that community in Arizona. They can puzzle over whether it is a peace offering or some advanced form of incomprehensible sarcasm, and like Terry Eagleton they can be both right and wrong whatever they decide.

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