The Public Mind

Photo Source Urban Isthmus | CC BY 2.0

People at the British Ministry of Information “do not know much about the public mind . .. What is wanted in that ministry is a little less Lincoln’s Inn Fields and a little more Gracie Fields.”

– J.B. Priestley, News Chronicle, 1940

“Radio is the most powerful and most revolutionary weapon which we possess in the struggle for the new Third Reich.”

– Joseph Goebells, 1933

“Among the myriad roadblocks in the way of sensible democratic discourse in America is the fact that Mark Zuckerberg runs what may be the most powerful communications platform ever assembled.”

– Eric Alterman, “Working the Ref,” The Nation, Sept. 10/17, 2018

Yes, it is no longer radio but cyberspace, and no, Mr. Zuckerberg is in no way the new Joseph Goebells, and yes, we still do not know much about the public mind. I would say that Mr. Zuckerberg is slowly being coached toward understanding that Facebookis the most powerful communications platform ever assembled and that it has a great deal of power over the construction of the public mind.

Gracie Fields was a populist English music hall sensation in the ’30s and so represented in Priestley’s view the public mind, and Lincoln’s Inn Fields connoted fashionable London, representing an elite package of aristocracy and Oxbridge mind. Our American “public mind” began with an egalitarian promise that sought commonly shared societal and political aspirations established governmentally by checks and balances and societally by a recognition of “certain unalienable Rights.”

And so, the American public mind ought to have a unity and coherence to it shared by all, there not being a sense of anything public as a confederation of losers disdained by an elite class of winners.

We are now far from that public mind ideal.

The way in which we now construct the public mind — here I make my apologies to those who believe they personally construct their own mind regardless of the surrounding public world — is quite different than the way Goebbels sought to do so. His was an ideological campaign carried on through his principle of propaganda, found here.

In our post-truth, millennial mindset, the campaign is not carried out ideologically or governmentally — here I make my apologies to those who are enveloped in fears of the “Deep State” — but by the branding operations of what we call the “free market.”

Accordingly, what we find is that the public mind is in a kind of Chinese boxes state. The outside box we see is tattooed in unique individuality and self-empowerment illusions.  We imagine that we create ourselves by our own choices, regardless of conditions and circumstances. Plus, what is personal really has no relationship with the social that we cannot ignore or dismiss.

Inside that box is our hyperreality box, one in which reality is replaced by simulacra, simply because spinning reality most effectively advances profit making. We all live in artificial paradises, the rich perhaps replacing the realities of their own humanity more disastrously than the poor do, while the poor replace the conditions of their own lives with a yearning for the hyperreal of the rich. Thus, both inhabit a hyperreal mind fashioned by market rule.

The next smallest box within the other two represents, in military speaks, “conditions on the ground,” whose presence we refer to when we describe a naïf idealist whose feet never touch the ground. For example, a condition of unemployment, lack of health care or a pension fund, and pressing credit card debt can, when it is hidden within the hyperreality box, appear not as real as the threat of Bernie Sanders-like puppet socialism, or the “Brown, Black and Gay Assault on America,” or the Coastal Elite’s campaign to take away your gun, or caravans of illegal Mexicans taking your job.

In short, no matter how hard and fast the “conditions of the ground” may be, they, in the human life-world, are subject to mediation. If you are a critical thinker, you refer to it as interpretation. If you are a marketer, you refer to it as branding. Nothing reaches us unfiltered; we ever mourn and love and hate within the cultural stories, past and present, of what these may be.

We fancy that what we hold in law, namely, res ipsa loquitur, that the thing speaks for itself, is violated in the human context. If the “human factor” and that context could be erased — cyborgs anyone?– the world would speak to us unfiltered. It is an odd wish for humans who cannot be other than human and live among humans to have, a not very cleverly disguised death wish. Perpetual war anyone?

What obviously is the case is that we live in the stories we tell about the world and we live within a culture in which the most powerful stories are created by our very powerful economic system and dispersed now through cyberspace, a communicative platform that is itself enwrapped within that powerful economic system. Thus, calling upon Mr. Zuckerberg or Mr. Page and other tech moguls to distance themselves from the wellsprings of their success and allow res ipsa loquituris our delusion.

What branding gurus know is that it is far easier to construct the public mind than to try and decipher it, most certainly because there is within the smallest, most interior boxes of the psyche, all manner of impenetrable, very opaque, personal reality transformations beginning quite early.

Thus, there is never a place within us in which “conditions on the ground” stand apart from our own story making. In the same fashion that the thing itself does not speak, it is also never free of us. We are from the get go enwrapped in the world and it in us. Rather than ferret out the many scenarios here — the task of the non-pharmacy psychotherapist — marketers and branders employ volume and repetition to transmit subtexts that are appealing pre-reflectively, affectively reaching us via the gut or higher up in the reptilian brain and either overwriting our own branding of reality or somehow meshing with it. It is Branding 101 to know that it is far easier to go low than go high, in politics as well as sales.

For example, on a transparent level, a person made redundant might respond to an anti-immigrant tirade. This is a level easy to be branded, an almost public exposure. However, on a subliminal, latent level, all manner of fears, desires and antipathies are so privately held that they cannot be easily mined to suit the objectives of marketers. Re-orienting such psyches in the direction you want now involves replacing fears, desires and antipathies unreachable with those that suit one’s purposes. I would point out that redundancy of not just your job but of everything including your analog time worn presence moves now at digital speeds, a kind of progress welcomed by “free” enterprise to the detriment of everything on the planet but profit.

A politics of hate is more easily triggered among those who feel cheated, left out and redundant while still breathing than among those who live in relative ease and for whom a societal order of things is ordered in their favor. And so the public mind is constituted differently and manipulated differently by an economic system that prefers control and ownership of that mind to the risks of insecurities and instabilities of no such control and ownership.

Personal beefs and antipathies are in a politics of hate scaled beyond the personal and form a corrupted public mind. In short, hate is appropriated and commodified. Hatred thus is in need of targets that are easily provided for those already in search of them. This version of the public mind is structured by market rule against those who threaten market rule. Liberals, however, are weak threats to this rule, though you can say that as the threat level rises — think of Bernie, Warren, and AO Cortez — so too does the counter force of hate lobbying.

But Liberals are not our default representatives of the public mind because, simply put, they have a questionable relationship with “the public.” The Tea Party, the “New California movement, the Freedom Caucus, and the loyal Trump followers, among many anti-Liberal groups, appeal to a public from which Liberals have disassociated themselves. And that disassociation seems not to be the result anti-Liberals preference for capital rather than labor.

Among Liberals, it appears that fear, withholding recognition and representation, hierarchy, distinctions and discriminations, avoidance and neglect are the low grounds haunting a politics proclaiming community, diversity, equity, inclusion, and mutual aid, all of which require confrontations with a financialized, precariat making capitalism which prosperous Liberals, like prosperous Neo-liberals, are not willing to make.

If we look at the neighborhood mappings of our cities, we see that those not driven to a politics of hate by their happy circumstances are driven to separate themselves from those who are. Those who have no reason to find someone or something to blame for the state of their lives congregate with their peers and distance themselves from all others. While this separation does not preclude working for Liberal causes and indeed for the public good, it shapes a distorted public mind.

Those distortions, or more specifically, contradictions and hypocrisies, are not lost on those for whom politics is not a leisure time activity.

What we wind up with then is a public mind, however buried it may be in private hang-ups, which has been privatized by the aims of a powerful economic system. To effectively fashion a public mind promoting the “General welfare” and not one so easily vulnerable to the end game of our “free” market requires, at bottom, a kind of education that is contextualized within the power structure of both economics and communication, within our virulent form of capitalism and its delivery system, cyberspace.

Here education at once recognizes and mounts a response to this power structure so that the politics ruling a government “of the people, by the people and for the people” are confronted with the economics of market rule, so that history isn’t pursued in some vacuum of pretended neutrality, science is taught as a pursuit of not profitable discoveries whose costs to the planet and humans are deemed irrelevant, literature and the arts in their privileging of the imagination are placed at the core of the quality of the public mind, and the philosophy of mind expands in terms that G.B. Vico considered in his 1725 La Scienza Nuova in which society was now free to design and create a public mind which is itself free of a branded hyperreality and free also of its extension via cyberspace to the office of the presidency itself.

We seem shackled in our glorious Information Age with a “failure to communicate,” a failure not caused by insufficient technology or no technology but drums and smoke signals but one caused by a tsunami like flooding of the transmission channels. This in turn overwhelms the human receptivity channels, confusion resulting in narrowed focus relief.

Ironically, we are now all about recognition of diversity and difference, boasting of our multi-tasking, multi-platform capacities when in reality we are increasingly confined to a limited recognition state, purely as an escape from the never ending bombardments of cyberspace’s social media.

The populist mind is so created, a mind narrowed into strongly etched channels, etched of course by the strong marketing and branding capabilities of our market rule culture, capabilities in which we Americans, as Orwell wrote, excel: The Americans always go one better on any kind of beastliness, whether it is ice-cream soda, racketeering or theosophy.” (Keep the Aspidistra Flying1936). We do go one better when it comes to shaping a public mind that is sensible not to the public but to profit.

The populist mind, which has held sway in the consumer and entertainment world of simulacra and the hyperreal, working under the auspices of market rule, had already inhabited politics but Donald Trump brought that mind into an order of things that had previously denied its supremacy in American culture.

That populist mind is less than what a society filled with the pretensions that we have requires. Also, less than what we need is a mind filled with a disdain for a great part of the public it sees itself elevated above and beyond. A democratic egalitarian society represented by a government that values people above profit cannot be kept alive by either a mind driven by hate and manipulated by profiteers nor by a mind seeking only escape from a public shunned as haters, fools and losers.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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