Friday, August 17, 2012

The Place Where Three Roads Meet


The common element linking these stories, aside from the theme of memory, is the use of hypnosis, and its relationship to memory. Hypnosis has always fascinated the hell of me. What exactly is hypnosis, and what does it tell us about our minds that it is so easy to lull them into this strange, suggestible, pliable condition? We don’t really know, or any rate, have yet to articulate a precise and final theory of what hypnosis is, and how it works. Rather, we know that it is real, and that it works, but beyond that, it remains, like the placebo effect, a strange anomaly that feels just a little out of step with everything else western science excepts about the properties of the mind. In brief, hypnosis is a seemingly conscious (in the sense of being awake) state of mind whereby, on some crucial level, the part of our mind that acts as a controller, a calculator, a judge, or a foreman on the factory floor of our behaviour and actions, goes on holiday. At some point in our development into adulthood, we realize that our behaviour must be carefully monitored and judged. We realize that we walk around with a great many things on our minds, and a great many things that we might like to do or say, but it is not always prudent that we should share or do these things. We become self-controllers, actors, and careful, even paranoid, mediators between our inner worlds, and the conventionalized outer world through we move. Hypnosis seems to lead the subject to relinquish that self-controlling aspect of the mind, or at any rate, to transfer it to the hypnotist, allowing him or her to call the tune.

In one sense, of course, hypnosis is not that strange or exotic. The hypnotic trance, with varying degrees of potency, suffuses every aspect of our lives. Hypnotic is a term of the highest praise when applied to the arts; we seek always to be hypnotised, or lose something of our selves and the immediate world around us, in music, movies, books, conversations, and love. (One aspect of the hypnotic state that relates it to the experience of art is the apparently heightened willingness on the part of the subject to imagine and pretend, to behave as though something were the case. In this sense, art, hypnosis, and the erotic dimension of life all share this tendency to facilitate a return to the childhood activities of pretending and role-play.) We are also, of course, constant self-hypnotists, and when not directly concentrating on some difficult task or another, we flit in and out of the immediate world around us, going back and forth to our interior monologues and reveries. The city streets and its organs of public transport are the great, staid playground of the somnambulist, and the constant intersection of memories, waking dreams, and fugitive desires.

However, if hypnosis is just an extreme instance of something very routine and all-pervasive, its very extremity remains deeply shocking. No matter to what degree we are entranced by movies, reveries, or physical attraction, in most instances, the controller remains somewhere in the background, ready to hit the brakes if things get really out of hand. In this sense, we can draw both a positive and a very unsettling resonance from the phenomenon of hypnosis. On the positive side of things, the childlike openness and willingness to play and imagine in the hypnotic subject reminds us that the world is, after all, whatever we can pretend or imagine under the constraint of physical laws (and the moral laws that derive from the irreversible consequences of those physical laws). On the other hand, though, the brisk and absolute submission of the subject to the hypnotist’s will is very troubling. It reminds us of other varieties of all-pervasive trance: the hypnotic and abusive power of the strong over the weak, the hypnotic power of the State and the culture industry, and the numerically unlikely, but historically ubiquitous, tyranny of the few over the many. Do we really long so much to subjugate our autonomy to the will of an authority figure?

Sadly, there is much evidence to suggest that this is the case. The infamous Milgram experiment conducted in Yale University in the early 60s suggested a worrying human tendency to follow the orders of an authority figure, even to the point of abandoning personal conscience. Similarly, the Stanford prison experiment, conducted a decade later, divided participants into prison guards and prisoners in a simulated prison environment located in the basement of the Stanford psychology faculty. While the Milgram study focused on the capacity for latent cruelty in people placed in authoritarian roles, the Stanford experiment suggested that people tend to fall into the roles of both sadistic authoritarians and submissive subjects with disturbing ease. Role-play and hypnosis again; induction is always easier than you would imagine. These subjects are much in the ether at the moment, owing to Craig Zobel’s controversial and divisive film Compliance. Compliance raises the spectre of the strip search prank call scam, an apparently decade-long series of prank phone calls which sounds like the stuff of urban myth. The scam involved a prankster phoning small town restaurants or grocery stores (usually McDonalds), claiming to be a police officer, and persuading the managers to perform strip searches, and occasionally more bizarre and lurid actions, on female workers. These incidents culminated in a particularly serious and disturbing event in a McDonalds in Mount Washington, Kentucky, in which an employee was stripped, held under false arrest for 3 and a half hours, and sexually assaulted by the manager’s fiancĂ©. Just as in the macrocosom of society at large, inciting people to adopt authoritarian and submissive roles appears to open Pandora’s Box; and nobody asks questions until the trance is broken. Compliance is apparently provoking large walk-outs at every screening; viewers are incensed by the idea that people could be so stupid. Like the stage hypnotist’s performance, it is difficult to believe.

Anyway, one final metaphor that we might extract from the subject of hypnosis, which is also probably the final metaphor that we could extract from hypnosis: it may be that our entire lives are an elaborate and slowly induced hypnotic spell. The induction period begins during infancy and childhood, and consists of a series of cues and prompts, many of which we will be unable to consciously recall later on. The trance proper begins when we have attained some degree of maturity, in adolescence or early adulthood. The voice tells us to act as though we were a man, or a woman, and we dutifully act out a serious of absurd and comical mimeographs, clutching and manipulating the thin air as though it contained a variety of objects. And maybe we perform these acts with a knowing twinkle in our eyes, or maybe in deadly earnest; but if we could see ourselves as the audience members do, we would never believe how easily our will had been bent to the hypnotist’s guile. The fact that all this is not entirely a metaphor has facilitated the emergence of a secondary category of hypnotist who specializes in the breaking of the trance: a Gurdjieff, an L Ron Hubbard, and many a trickster between.

The Interlude was brought to you by the Linguaphone Company, makers of the CEREBROPHONE:


Back to our cultural history of aliens and mind controlled sex slaves shortly.

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