Mass Propaganda and the Architecture of Our Panic
How to Analyze Emotional Manipulation in the Age of Psychological Warfare
It has been some months since I have been analyzing the various techniques, strategies and words the conservatives have been using to sway the public. The problem is that at a logical level it seems all too obvious and hence incomplete.
Russian citizens are not supporting Putin simply because they blindly believe the stories about economic progress he is feeding them. Trump is not the US president because Americans simply ‘fell’ for his lies. Modi is not the supreme leader of India because Indians are unaware of the hollowness of his claims.
The facts are more often than not readily available, freely circulating at least in the countries which have maintained some semblance of freedom. The days of totalitarian control over information has passed. This is not some twentieth century dystopia.
The issue is much more complex. It is more personal, brimming with emotion, an attachment of identity to a leader. The propaganda machines have never completely targeted the Truth because it was never on their side. Their real aim was always to control our emotional existence and use that as the Iron curtain against reality itself.
In my personal experience I have heard voters say that they would rather live in trash than vote for ‘anti-nationals’. This was during the Municipal elections in Delhi, where Modi’s BJP had already been in power for 10 years — resulting in a crumbling infrastructure and a filthy city. Indeed the voters have reelected them for the next 5 years again.
India’s central government’s own reports have freely admitted that India witnessed a 5 year high unemployment rate in 2016, hinting that even regime feels that it won’t lose anything by admitting the truth. These statistics have neither changed the self-congratulatory speeches of Narendra Modi, nor has it altered his follower’s reactions.
Something similar has been observed throughout the world. Despite hours of myth-busting and calling out lies, Trump’s popularity continued to surge and his fans remained loyal.
We all can identify the emotional reactions which helped sustain totalitarian regimes of the past and still aids the neo-fascist governments of our day. But the analysis of scholars and commentators end with the word ‘irrational’ and some vague theory which doesn’t give any insight into the psychological workings of Humans.
Don’t get me wrong, I do feel that logical analysis of discourses, words, images and texts are crucial to understand anything. But this kind of thinking can never fully grasp the emotional restructuring which is taking place due to mass propaganda and media saturation.
We can’t help but realize that not only has our political climate changed, but the way we exist and feel has also been altered.
Our Amygdialian Existence
The poverty of rationalism is that it has this need to negate emotion. This false dichotomy is the primary reason that all kinds of analyses have been self mutilating in modern times. And throughout modern history some sudden ultraconservative movement has always ambushed the march of reason and progress and completely confounded its grasp.
Perhaps it is time that we finally let go of this pseudo-stoicism. Logic and rationalism can not only co-exist but also nourish each other. Indeed curiosity, the driver of all intellectual pursuits, is pre-rational and intensely emotional. Who can deny that the vision of creativity depends on the twin eyes of emotionality and reason? If you burst one of them, you get complete blindness.
Our emotions are not some evolutionary residue the human mind has to incinerate and get rid of. It is our existential feedback mechanism which we might not fully understand and which might be dysfunctional at some level, but nonetheless makes life worth living.
I am not the first one to talk about this need to move away from exclusive rationality. But there are some eternal problems in this proposal.
Unlike rational arguments, emotions lose their quality in the dry representations of language. This is because emotions are primarily experiential. We can’t transfer information about emotions through words but we need to induce it and invoke it in another person’s psyche. This might be true for everything, but it is essential when we try to communicate emotionality.
The Cathectic Structure
This experiential aspect of emotions don’t mean that they don’t have a structure. There are patterns, cycles, regularities, disruptions and a generalized mood of a person or perhaps even a society. A certain emotional experience may predominate a nation, such as the ‘Great Depression’ in 20th century America.
In our context it is the media saturation that seeks to dictate what we should feel, when and how. Indeed one of the key identifiers of our experiential age is the violation of our Truth-morality. US citizens might locate this in the Trump tapes where he openly boasted about his sexual predation. The subsequent and overwhelming justification of this as either trivial locker room talk or as his machismo trampled basic human dignity. In India, the daily lynching of people because of the mere suspicion of beef consumption and the celebration of such murderers as national heroes are yet more examples.
This mass saturation often results in feelings of frustration, fear, the realization that somehow you are drowning under a sear of noise or a great wall of despair hinting at the absence of any optimistic future. I term this as ‘Discourse Drowning’ where one’s voice, dignity, security and freedom seems irrelevant in the vision of ‘society’ and the mass consensus of people. The feeling of despair and triumph of dehumanizing ultra-conservatism is manufactured first in the online realm, which is picked up by mainstream media and finally results in tangible mobilization and mass political support.
This is the best example of making words into ‘flesh’ so as to say.
This process and structure of emotion can be analyzed by the concept of cathexis. This term was coined by Freud to indicate a psychic ‘charge’ which gets associated with certain mental objects or events. An example might be feeling pain when you revisit a site of previous accident or pleasant nostalgia when you visit a place where you had your first kiss.
In sociology Connell used this concept to study how people related to each other in emotional terms in the context of gender.
The discursive analysis carried out in this publication will look into how the structure of emotions within and in-between individuals and groups are targeted by discourses.
I will focus on mapping this via sensory metaphors
The Body as a Bridge
The problem of language and emotions has already been solved. Poets and novelists have for centuries mastered the art of inducing rather than representing emotion. The pop culture writer’s advice, ‘Show Don’t Tell is a testimony to this basic mastery and skill.
The way to analyze and communicate the cathectic structure is using the technique of poets and employ sensory descriptions to invoke feelings in the flesh of the readers. Even though I do not completely agree with him, we need to relook at the basic argument of Mcluhan — that media is an extension of the human senses.
Thus, the sensory metaphors find a centre stage in the study of cathectic structure and the emotional architecture of our fast changing societies. Discourse Drowning is one such example.
In the subsequent projects this kind of analysis will be one of the main components along with the study of discourse.
After all, the crisis we live in is not an intellectual one but an existential one.