The Valley of Sleep

Mind Control and Happiness in the Modern Era

Valley

The following is strongly influenced by writers Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. Their work has proved that our time is not without hope.

The Meltdown         

In 2008, what seemed like an ‘’out of the blue’’ moment, American finance company Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and companies such as AIG, Merryll Lynch and many others came extremely close to sharing LBs fate. In the history of neo-liberal economics and the financial casino called ‘’Wall Street’’ it was a catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions. They sunk a great amount of banks along with them, and as a result are accountable for the greatest financial crisis in the US since the Great Depression. How did this happen? In one word, subprime. In detail, the decision of the US government to entice deregulation among the finance industry lead straight to reckless lending and a housing bubble that ultimately produced a logical impasse: the financial meltdown and the stock nosedive of 2008. This led to massive foreclosures of homes, long-term unemployment and all the ails of a recession.

The bright, bald heads of the finance industry, most notably Henry Paulson of Goldman Sachs, lately the secretary of the US Treasury, marched up to Congress and asked them to vote on a bail-out motion, meaning they asked Congress to bail them out with 700 billion dollars of taxpayer money. Congress voted no, implicitly stating that Wall Street should take care of the mess it had caused. Then, just when you thought that the highest judicial body in the country had asserted its worth, behind the doors a deal was made and hands were shaken. The decision of Congress was overturned. Wall Street got their money. What seemed like a golden opportunity of the US government to abolish an economical structure that clearly doesn’t serve the people, the financial sector got 700 billion to conserve the system and liberties that made the meltdown possible and gets to continue making mistakes that, when you go down the latter, cause unemployment, homelessness, chronic poverty, suicides and starvation.

The catastrophe of 9/11 inflamed the US enough to wage an incredibly expensive war internationally (the real reason, we now know, being oil) and to build an extensive network of espionage, devoted to monitoring its citizens domestically. A financial meltdown that has global impacts does not change a thing. No wars are waged, no laws are passed, aforementioned bankers are not even indicted. The financial firms are saved but those that have been deeply affected by the meltdown, losing their jobs and homes, continue to suffer. And as they suffer, they continue to pay taxes that go straight to Wall Street, to the pockets of the men that screwed them over and wrecked the economy.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is criminal activity we are witnessing here, perpetrated in plain sight. The irrelevance of Congress in this case exemplifies the amount of power that the financial elite has gathered in the US. It is a plain coup d’état, as Michael Moore put it. The difference between Wall Street and the Mafia is that organized crime normally causes mainly local disturbance, whereas organized crime on a corporate level affects everyone, everywhere.

How did this happen? Why is there not a nationwide reprimand by the people, an uprising, a mass protest, nothing? It is quite frightening to see that when we finally witness injustice as crude and clear as this, an exclamation mark of political injustice and avarice, the masses are so docile that literally nothing happens. Occupy Wall Street was a scattered, marginal and lazy exercise in chic political consciousness amidst ”the young middle-class”. Why do those who expect revolution find only sleeping men, a globe in a state of such unrelenting and profound unconsciousness that not even the final quakes of disaster could shake it from its slumber?

The proposed answers are manifold, but the only one in my opinion that can illustrate the problem at its most elusive core is acute sensory manipulation mixed with elaborate mechanisms of social control.

Chaos

Some say that the greatest, most unfathomable mystery of life is life itself. With life we mean the story (or a mundane type of autofiction) that we tell ourselves of our time on earth, but also our sense of reality, what it is like to be here, now. Our reality is a constant, living, breathing and multilevel contradiction, a chaotic omnium gatherum of sound, sight, feeling, information, stimuli, illusion and anxiety. This is what reality is in its rawest form: it is a mess of stimuli that bombard us from the outside and of personal thoughts that haunt us from the inside and help stir the pool of consciousness to reach an even more profound state of confusion.

This pureness, this vast underground of the mind where everything flows unconstrued and chaotic, is not a place where we are welcome. It is a no-man’s land, an uninhabitable wasteland where we see that no superior force, nothing, controls our world, nothing except the story that we write ourselves of that universe of tangled and chaotic information. Seeing this level of reality gives us a vast responsibility, that of constant creation for ourselves and for those around us.

As this responsibility is not something we would consider comfortable, we avoid it, we escape it and the closest we get to it is in our dreams. The way we escape it is to create an arbitrary story of our world, of its history and its future. The way we tell this story, how we read the chaos, is of course relative and susceptible to revolutions. Right now, one can also see how easily it is being manipulated.

The Promise of Sleep

There has been a lot of talk about the power of the media to render the audience ‘’impotent’’. Chris Hedges describes this phenomenon as a sort of non-stop diversion that feeds the viewer fantasies in order to keep him from seeing the true state of reality and society. Being an avid consumer of mass media is to severely weaken one’s capacity to see one’s own culture and society clearly and objectively. Of course pulling oneself out of one’s surrounding context is difficult even without the psychological abuse of mass media, but even the most basic willingness to question one’s surroundings seems not to be there anymore.

Spending extensive periods of time consuming products of mass media is voluntary indoctrination, meaning that by consuming mass media one subjects oneself to popular opinion that might, depending on the situation, differ greatly from actual reality. They say the secret of effective learning is repetition. What is mass media, especially commercial television, if not repetition? The news media repeats the same forms, the same stories, the same values that run as an undercurrent below the barely varied forms of representation. Television repeats the same series, that re-enact the same story arc, with little or no variations. Not to mention commercials. Commercials are being openly referred to by influential psychologists as a form of brainwash , but still they stay on the air due to the channels’ financial dependency on commercial air-time. They have become the most important corporate tool of ensuring the enticement of potential buyers and the loyalty of old customers. They are also a modern, elaborate and highly cultivated form of what we used to call propaganda.

A commercial is always simplistic. The point is to appeal to the masses and to reach as many people as possible. But there’s more hidden to it. In a commercial we see beautiful but gaunt, unreal people who show no real personality or emotion, if not in relation to the product. A commercial is a simplified cut-out version of reality. And what it is supposed to tempt the consumer is exactly this: a comprehensible, simple reality. Because in our minds, the best gift and blessing a product can give us is to simplify our reality, to take away the unrelenting insecurity of daily life. But commercials are deeply cut-off from actual reality, which is clearly evident  in their creepy, simplistic and often discriminating image of what reality is supposed to look like. A modern commercial is not satisfied in mimicking reality, it creates reality. It does not only sell a product, it sells a better version of reality. A commercial reality is simple : the power to purchase and gained wealth are the greatest weapons in fighting the chaos that awaits us at every corner.

In large doses, the currently average amount of television consumption per person being a huge dose, this simplistic image of life starts to weigh in. It infiltrates our reality and neutralizes our need to construct independent meaning of our own life. Our meaning is dictated to us. It becomes a comfortable fantasy, where reality is simple, easy, and best of all, it makes sense. And, most importantly, the way to turn reality controllable is to consume. The message is that as long as you consume, you are welcome to a simultaneously collective and private fantasy in which happiness is very easy to acquire. You are able to pursue your fantasy by collective inauguration and acceptance, but the peak of the consumer fantasy is reached individually. It is a way of being alone together.

Suddenly you feel less attracted to question why there is poverty and violence around you, why you can see people on the bus who don’t know what to do with all their money sitting next to people who are dying for they have absolutely no money. Effective exposure to constant repetition has damaged one’s ability to relate to others and to different ways of perceiving the world. It becomes insane a thought that the world could be any other way than it already is.

Shock and Deprivation

Shock treatment was used as one of the techniques applied to the test subjects of Doctor Ewen Cameron of McGill University in Montreal. He was hired by the CIA to research effective means of interrogation, in essence what we call torture techniques. Shock treatment was originally experimented with with hopes to erase the mind and memories of the patient and ‘’to build him from scratch’’. Nowadays, we are witnessing a different, more subtle way of shocking the mind.

The visual media, to which we are exposed every day, has gradually broken image and sound to minuscule fragments, all the while reducing our experience of an image into an incoherent mess of color, shapes, cacophonous sound, all served to us with inhuman speed. It is a heavy rain of grenade fragments. It is no longer a message, a form of communication. It is hostile. It is not meant to communicate, but to scramble. The newest commercials and music videos serve as examples of this. They exist only to please, to tickle the brain with high speed stimulus to achieve the most primal form of pleasure, the pleasure arising from seeing a lot of colourful shit go ’round and ’round really fast. It sneers at attempts to support independent thought, or any kind of thought whatsoever. But the attempt at pleasing the most base level of the masses hides a more sinister motive.

Exposed daily to this new form of communication, ‘’the shock image’’, over time the brain, being the most elastic and sensitive part of the human body, will reform and its synapses will reorganize according to the reality it now has to confront on a daily basis. A human being is the most adaptable creature on earth, and the brain is the most adaptable part of the individual. By changing the environment, you change the brain. This transformation is inevitable, for there are rarely any instances or places where there are no screens luring your attention. Exposure is frequent and mundane, and it keeps growing. It is a merciless game : there is no escaping the techniques of neutering the mind, because when there isn’t a screen, there’s a newspaper, a book, a radio, or at the very least there is someone regurgitating something they heard on the aforementioned, further spreading that which has already got out.

I don’t know if there have been studies on the long-term effects that our new and rapid media culture has on sleep, but I bet that one of the effects is a sort of corrosion of REM-sleep. The stream of ‘shock images’ that affect the brain disrupt its ability to rest. The brain is constantly overloaded, constantly reforming, constantly ‘’out of breath’’, and when it should rest, it can’t escape the constant ‘’white noise’’, the dull and meaningless bombardment of images and sounds that captivate it, yet rarely nurture it. The brain is kept from reaching REM-sleep, remaining in the semi-alert, dreamless, light sleep called slow-wave sleep (SWS). The brain is in a sort of limbo, unable to rest because it has not actively worked. It has only been held hostage by a stream of random stimuli, the same stream that occupies it when it would be time for it to shut down. One could call it ‘’a neurological sit-in’’ by electric stimuli.

The quality of sleep is thus disrupted, damaging one’s capacity to think rationally, to analyze, to form coherent ideas and opinions of his environment. The ultimate goal is to damage critical thinking. A person suffering from sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation becomes so weak that one can make him do practically anything. He is, as Ewen Cameron described, a ‘’clean slate’’. A cruel but just metaphor would be to excite an epileptic with flashing lights just enough to induce unconsciousness and slight convulsions, and keep the subject in this state for days on end, keeping him alive but incapacitated.

I say sensory deprivation not in the sense of the classical form of sensory deprivation (meaning denying someone stimulus for all the senses, e.g touch, sound and light), but the deprivation of what we used to call normal interaction with the world around us. For when the brain is overloaded, and the human consciousness is filled and lagged down by a bombardment of information and rapid stimuli, the broadband crashes. Things such as a simple story, a piece of music over three minutes in length, abstract thoughts and long conversations become increasingly harder to digest, for they require concentration and therefore energy that one no longer possesses due to a chronic state of over-excitement, that drains one’s mind and body.

This mental and spiritual nutrition is so essential to the mental well-being of an individual, that without them he begins to feel deprived and suffers. Attempts to re-engage with normal exercises of the mind may fail, for the brain has adapted so well to the new forms of information and visual communication that the individual fails to concentrate on, or even understand, for example, music, art or someone else’s point of view, the very basic tools of connecting with reality and broadening one’s mind. But the more plausible hypothesis is that he won’t even  find the motivation to try. The culture of white noise now provides his enjoyment, at the same time draining him mentally and physically. But the illusion of well-being, and especially of belonging to a large group of people (‘’the mass is always right, you know.’’) is so strong, that the genuine human needs might be severely muffled by the implanted needs, and the real needs remain unsatisfied. The feeling of being right, of being part of a seamless consent, is enough to satisfy an individual and thus keep him distracted.   

The new media culture of ‘’shock images’’ locks the individual into a very narrow mental space, where there are only the simplest pleasures and the simplest ways of obtain them. These pleasures are by no means spiritual but rather material, they don’t need long-term commitment but are immediately available to those with the capital to purchase them, they don’t require emotional attachment but can be disposed of in a second, they don’t offer an indirect gratification, such as striving to find the truth, but favor direct gratification in telling you exactly what you want to hear, even if it is an outright lie . The simplest pleasures (in visual products, such as music videos, films, series, etc.) are mainly sexual, cleansed of any literal or complex conceptual content, linked to even more simplified shapes, lights, rapid fluctuation of colour and music that requires the minimum attention span of a few seconds. The point is not made on thought but on feeling. The design is ingenious in the way that it drowns the people in quick pleasures, making it extremely hard for them to regain consciousness about the world around them, about the state of their life and society. While I’m writing this, I find an unnerving similarity between what I’m writing about and a certain hypothetical world described by one Aldous Huxley eighty years ago.

We are witnessing a complex mechanism of control that sustains itself, that has almost no need for external control or leadership, for it is built on human nature and the human tendency to choose pleasure over responsibility fully supports the structure of the mechanism, even perfecting it, taking it to its logical extent. The abuse and scrambling of the human mind perpetrated by commercial media alters our capacity for critical thought and by keeping the mind in a state of fatigue, disorientation and shock subjects us to manipulation and control. This mechanism makes it all too easy to manipulate the way we grasp reality and how we construct our individual story and the story of history. And while we construct our narrative, we tend to invest our money into the powers that promise us the comfort of sleep but affect us in such a disturbing way. It is the most effective and successful way of reducing the masses into bovine docility in human history.

Popular Hostages

Full-on manipulation perpetrated by the commercial media is one way of answering the question why we haven’t yet witnessed a large-scale civil unrest in the United States. But the core of the problem is purely social. Social extortion has always been one of the most effective ways of keeping the masses at bay. The most effective aspect of social extortion is that it requires no outside control. The masses control and regulate themselves by fear.

In school, especially high school, one learns the value of social capital. Social capital endows one member of a particular social group with more influence and credibility than others. One can gain social capital by emblems of wealth, slick rhetorical skills, social connections, confidence and audacity. With children and preteens, however, we see that the best way to gain social capital is to badmouth others, to talk behind the backs of others, to spy on others and to question the loyalty of others to the social group. This makes it hard for a member of the social group to rise up and to differ in opinion, for questioning the leader with the highest social capital can mean banning from the group and the rise of the social capital of others.

I won’t go deeper into the complexities of social life, for it is a topic of a completely different article, but let’s just say that it is a game in which it is very important to know where one stands in social hierarchy and capital. A badly timed attempt to go against the shared consent of a group might drain the rebel of his social capital and make him invisible. And no one wants to be invisible in school.

This is classroom sociology, but albeit simple, in its simplicity lie the core mechanisms that rule the world of grown-ups and form what is called mass psychology. One of the key motivators in the construction of mass psychology is the pleasure of being right. With this I mean the pleasure derived from knowing that one belongs to a large group of people that thinks the same way and shares similar values. And the larger the group, the more courageously one can attest of being ‘’right’’ about something. The pleasure of, let’s face it, feeling like one is not alone, motivates a vast amount of people to share opinions and information, ironically attesting their identity through mass opinion. They find comfort in unity and the fact that, with such large numbers behind them, they need not actively think anymore. For in a large group, someone must have thought things through, right? The latter is, in essence, the core problem of mass culture.

Social extortion is what happens when one feigns an opinion or interest in order not to anger the group one belongs to. This is best seen in social groups of children, or in tightly knit religious communities. The self-censorship of those who don’t want to complicate their lives is a major part of the bizarre and horrifying silence of nations facing injustice. A mass of people will literally watch the most shocking horrors and not act out of fear for one’s neighbour. The enticement to preserve unity and shared opinion, and meanwhile one’s own happiness, is the crown jewel of the mechanisms of mass control. There is little anyone can argue against it. One’s silence is enough to keep things the way they are, and especially the middle-class is keen on keeping things the way they are, having a lot to lose. Throughout the history of societies, this pressure towards a national unity of opinion has been fluctuating between loose and tight, a tight national identity being classically enforced through propaganda. The pressure becomes in fact so intense that the few with the courage and intellectual prowess to actually challenge the powers that be are completely silenced, indirectly or directly. This mechanism of self-censorship is manifesting itself particularly strong in the United States.

It is evident that in a political system such as that of the United States, where media control and widespread surveillance combine their power to make sure people stay submissive and afraid, the level of social extortion is extremely high. It is no accident that the US has the greatest film industry of the world, Hollywood being its most notable symbol. A system that allows criminal conduct on the highest level of politics and governmental abuse needs to pump its citizens full of fantasy and disorienting stimuli to keep it dormant. The film industry is also a great way of creating consent and feeding people values that keep the system going. When a great mass of people that keeps coming back to a source such as the cinema for entertainment and escape has absorbed values (made to control them) for fifty years, naturally only the most resilient can resist the temptation of total consent, the promise of happiness by adapting to the happy family values of the majority. Only a few realize that the fact that these values are popular doesn’t mean that they’re right. In face of such a unanimous mass, how could one speak up? How does one conjure up the courage to give up the happiness promised in belonging to the great big happy family called America? Only by proving that this alleged ‘’safety’’ of adaptation to the popular opinion is an illusion can one hope to wake up the masses.

The Silence of Sleep         

In the history of western civilization, one cannot find a state of dormancy as deeply troubling as that of our time. Especially with the rise of the mass media, capable of widespread brainwashing, indoctrination and even neurological disorientation, and information technology that extends the grasp of electric stimuli into nearly every waking hour of our lives, it is now easier than ever to evoke passivity in the masses. Especially my generation, the young, have voluntarily accepted a sort of waking sleep in which the fantasy of fiction and the unconsciousness promoted by commercial media keep them unaware of the gross injustices perpetrated in their society. They deny their power to change their social environment and help those around them.

Especially those with enough money to live without financial worries often live in a state of self-indulgence, a narcissistic dream in which the greatest possible amount of pleasure must be harvested from the world while it still stands. Their existence precedes the existence of others around them. Pleasure is the only moral code. Everything else is disposable. These people are not awake, they are fast asleep. Unfortunately, at the same time these people could be our greatest hope in fighting injustices and changing the system.

The story of humankind is a not a story dictated by a ‘’world spirit’’ or the laws of entropy. It is a story formed of pure chaos by man himself, a story of which man holds responsibility. Right now this story is being manipulated and rewritten by those who gain money from the suffering of others. Our story is being rewritten in as to justify these actions and make them seem natural and right. In this new story, the good guys are the rich and the beautiful, and it is their birth-right to rule and exploit the 99 percent, the weak, the poor, the lonely, the sick, the old. In this new story, the great majority exists to support the small elite of better people. In their story, this is their right as the people chosen by God, the Alphas, the chosen and the blessed. In another story, the story of the masses, this right has been gradually overtaken through manipulation, lies and corruption. It is not a power given, it is a power taken. The new story of the chosen people spreads through the media and from person to person like wildfire, slowly becoming the official story of our time. The great sleep of the masses is the necessary evil for the rewriting of history and the human narrative.

The only hope of awakening from this strange dream of comfort, pleasure and the infinite sea of consumer products lies in the final crash of the system. As the crimes of the elite become more and more audacious and the great majority becomes poor enough to fall out of the network of mass media and superficial pop culture, the means of control become ineffective and people start awakening to a world where they are no longer in control. I hope that in such a future people will find the courage to take responsibility of the world, not ruled by God, or chance, but by them, to mold and rewrite the chaos of human existence into a story in which a new and better social order bestows human life with meaning and fulfillment. In this story, people will live in a reality so tolerable that they will find no need to escape into a fabricated fantasy, a lie that is our shared daydream.