Our capacity as human beings for imagination and story-telling makes us exquisitely vulnerable to exploitation by those who understand the properties of ideological power. Our natural propensity to credit commentary above any more detached understanding makes us more than prepared to open our minds to versions of ‘reality’ which are laced with some kind of appeal to our tastes, preferences or perceived interests. We are, one could say, naturally credulous. The societal apparatus which exists for the manipulation of our credulity forms an absolutely essential part of the technology of power. In everyday parlance this is, of course, for the most part what we mean by ‘the media’. But the news and entertainment media are not the only determinants of the way we see and interpret the world. Education and the related institutions of intellectual endeavour and instruction are also crucial to our understanding. None of this, of course, is lost on those in whose interest it is to channel the fruits of our labours into their pockets....
Once again, the attribution of greater reality to words than to worlds is already prefigured in the almost irresistible priority we accord as we grow up to commentary. Pretty well everybody is in this way primed to attach enormous importance to language, and I would not want to suggest that this phenomenon is in any way the invention of a cynical controlling power. It does not have to be conspiracy that rules our society (though sometimes it may be), but merely the sliding together of the interests which oil the wheels.
Modern philosophy, for example, has over the twentieth century come more and more to credit the importance of language and to discredit any notion not only that the world can be directly known (which certainly seems impossible), but that there is any point at all in speculating about what lies beyond language. There is nothing, says Derrida, outside the text; popular readings of Foucault privilege ‘discourse’ above all else; Rorty scoffs as the idea that our understanding could ‘hold a mirror up to nature’.
While these philosophers have serious, possibly even valid, points to make, their standpoint also lends itself wonderfully well to a society which seeks ideologically to detach its citizens from their embodied relation to a material world. Serious intellectuals seem to be the last to anticipate the use to which their work will be put. When, for example, Jean Baudrillard writes of the ‘hyperreality’ created by unfettered consumerism, it is all too easy for the edge of critical irony to be lost from his text and for it to become a kind of sourcebook for marketing executives, admen and other cultural illusionists. The whole notion of ‘postmodernism’ becomes popularized as the cutting edge of social and intellectual progress, distracting us from the (much more comprehensible) insight that what we are involved in is in fact a recycling of high capitalist economic strategies which reached a previous peak seventy or eighty years ago.
Psychology also has played an enormous part in helping to de-materialize the Western world over the past century. Freud managed to represent the significance of our experience as not only all in the mind, but most of it in the ‘unconscious mind’ such that it became well and truly impossible for us to criticize our world (just to criticize our selves, and that only with the help of a professional psychoanalyst). Indeed, for much of psychology, what goes on in the world, what are the material relations between individual and society, is a matter of complete irrelevance. All that counts is what goes on inside the individual’s head. Whatever the benefits of this view in terms of the hope it may bring to people of controlling their fate, it is an absolute godsend to those who have a less rarefied grasp of how to make the world work to their advantage. Thieves sack the mansion undisturbed while its occupants remain sunk in their dreams.