Continuums on a Continuum

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In part I of my last blog series (which started on March 25th, 2014) I took an in depth look at Henry Giroux’s 2013 book entitled America’s Education Deficit and the War On Youth. I used cognitive scientist turned political commentator George Lakoff’s work in the area of cultural cognitive models (i.e., the liberal Nurturant model versus the conservative Strict model) as a backdrop. My plan was to mention the topic of continuums, however, there simply was not enough room. So, I thought I’d talk about continuums in a separate post. Giroux got me thinking about continuums because in America’s Education Deficit and the War On Youth he often talked about how our schools in specific and our society in general are being militarized. I found myself saying, “Yeah, but Giroux is only looking at the ‘military’ side of militarism and not the ‘civilian’ side.” I tend to look at things as existing on continuums. Here’s where this view started for me.

I’m a big fan of philosopher and social critic Jacques Ellul’s work in the areas of religion, technology, and propaganda. The first book I read by Ellul was The Technological Society (1954). Next was Ellul’s 1965 book entitled Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Somewhere along the line I read The Presence of the Kingdom (1948). This is just the tip of the iceberg because Ellul was a prolific writer. In Propaganda, Ellul makes the point that propaganda exists on a continuum. According to Ellul, there is a symbiotic relationship between the individual and the propagandist: The individual demands propaganda as much as the propagandist wishes to produce it. This goes along with Ellul’s twin ideas that there is no such thing as the individual, and there is no such thing as the mass. The individual and the mass are connected via an individual – mass continuum. The mass needs the individual and the individual needs the mass.

We are all of us an individual person and a mass person at the same time. When I stop at a red light, in that moment I am both an individual person and a mass person, and the other drivers around me appreciate my individual – mass behavior. I would suggest that Freud’s concepts of the ego and the superego speak to this continuum reality. Ellul effectively suggests that the individual demands propaganda because, for better or worse, propaganda is part and parcel of cultural cognitive models or maps. Cultural cognitive models are models that allow individuals to map individual experience to mass experience. And propaganda must be constructed and delivered by the propagandist in such a way that the largest number of people are able to map individual experience to mass experience. Cultural cognitive maps are archetypal in nature. Typically leaders embody, maintain, represent, and express this archetypal energy. “The queen is dead, long live the Queen.” What does this mean? Simply, the individual queen may be dead but the Queen archetype must live on so that “individual to mass” mappings can live on. The wholesale destruction of archetypal energy is a highly traumatic event as anyone on the losing side of a presidential election will tell you.

The next time I encountered this idea of things existing on continuums was during my read of Sander Gilman’s 1999 book entitled Making the Body Beautiful—A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery. Gilman points out that many of the plastic surgery procedures that civilians are familiar with—nose jobs, repairing burns and scars, and even breast reduction and enlargement—were developed in military theaters as ways of addressing the physical traumas of war. This should come as no surprise. But Gilman makes a point that I find fascinating: The work of developing plastic surgery procedures cannot start and stop as wars start and stop. In other words, plastic surgery procedures exist on a continuum that links civilian plastic surgery procedures with military plastic surgery procedures. Plastic surgery procedures (which Gilman traces back to the seventh century) never go away; they just seamlessly move back and forth on the civilian – military continuum.

Gilman’s idea that plastic surgery procedures never go away—they just exist on a civilian – military continuum—really got my brain spinning. Gilman sounded like Ellul: Propaganda doesn’t go away; it just moves back and forth between individual and mass. I started to look around for more proof of this concept. The next book I found was social critic Gore Vidal’s 2002 book entitled Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated. Yeow! Vidal makes the same point: War never goes away; it just moves between civilian form and military form. To quote the title to a History Channel cable TV program: Tactical to Practical. Lets not forget that starting in the 1950s (during the Cold War) the Internet was principally developed by the military as a way of protecting against a wholesale disruption of communication channels in the event of nuclear attack. If you’re reading this blog post, you’re on the civilian – military continuum. Heck, the Internet itself exists on a civilian – military continuum.

Propaganda’s kissing cousin—pornography—sits on the civilian – military continuum. Many modern forms of pornography were inspired by the military’s desire to keep the troops happy, attached to home, and constantly reminded of what the fight was all about. Thus was born the pin-up girl. And when the conflict was over, the pin-up girl welcomed the troops home (thus giving birth to soft porn magazines like Playboy and Penthouse.) Today many forms of civilian pornography uphold the civilian – military continuum. This topic was of interest to our Foundation and back in our 2001–2002 fiscal year we made a grant to Florida Atlantic University in support of Women’s Studies professor Dr. Jane Caputi’s video project entitled The Pornography of Everyday Life. When I was a graduate student in counseling psychology back in the mid 1990s I conducted a research project centered on the images contained in teen magazines. What I discovered (and I have no doubt nothing has changed) was that teen magazines (which are targeted at 8–12 year-olds) are shot through with images (either explicit or implied) of rape, torture, bondage, S&M, and death. In an email during the Abu Ghraib debacle (2003–2004) Dr. Caputi suggested that we should view the graphic and disturbing Abu Ghraib images as part of the Everyday Pornography process. I would suggest that the Abu Ghraib images represent implosion of the civilian – military pornography continuum.

Thinking about continuums triggered my memory. I remembered a lecture where the presenter mentioned that in Greek and Roman times, armies were not permanent. Most of the men fighting in armies back then were farmers. If memory serves, Agamemnon’s shield contained farming scenes as a way of reminding farmers that once farming season started, they could go home. This presenter made the point that the idea of a standing army that did not disband with the seasons was a huge technological leap forward in the world of military science. Standing armies may mark the beginning of the civilian – military continuum that holds war.

I next ran into the continuum idea through my read of anesthesiologist Ronald Dworkin’s 2006 book entitled Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class. Dworkin puts behavioral drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin on a continuum. Echoing Ellul, Dworkin suggests that individuals demand so-called “happy pills” as much as psychiatrists and general practice doctors wish to prescribe them. According to Dworkin, the behavioral drug continuum was principally set up when two desires met each other: individuals (especially stressed out parents) wished for quick and easy happiness; and psychiatrists and general practice doctors wished for respect, prestige, and, well, money.

The meeting of these two desires spawned what is known as the biogenic amine theory (serotonin is an example of a biogenic amine). As Dworkin makes clear this theory simply holds that if you can manipulate biogenic amines, you can manipulate a mood disorder like depression. Thus was born SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). It was (and continues to be) a match made in heaven (and in the accounting offices of pharmaceutical companies). Rather than accessing a cultural cognitive model to map individual experience to mass experience, people simply wished to take a pill. And take pills they did (do). As Gary Greenberg tells us in his 2013 book entitled The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry, many of the theoretical and philosophical shifts reflected in the new version of the DSM—the DSM 5, which is the handbook of psychiatry and most of the mental health world—represent shifts away from the happy pill continuum that Dworkin describes. Greenberg’s research reveals that as annual behavioral drug sales pushed past billions of dollars the happy pill continuum began to implode threatening to take the profession of psychiatry down with it. Something had to be done before the psychiatry ship went down in a swirl of articles providing evidence for the psychiatry research – pharmaceutical company marriage, thus was born the DSM 5. [1]

So, why are continuums important? Well, lets return back to Giroux’s book America’s Education Deficit and the War On Youth for a moment. As mentioned above, Giroux describes how schools in specific and society in general are being militarized. OK, I might agree with him on this point. But Giroux insists on pointing at military institutions (and the politicians who support and fund them) as the sole cause. This view ignores continuums. Sure, violent military themed video games are obvious occupants on the civilian – military continuum, but what about mothers and daughters using plastic surgery outings as a bonding experience? Are they not on the civilian – military continuum? Gilman would say that they are. And that new smartphone you just bought. It’s on the civilian – military continuum. Teen magazines—yes, teen magazines—are on the civilian – military continuum. If you wish to reduce militarism, you will have to express a desire to reduce plastic surgery procedures, smartphone use, and teen magazines. But wait a minute … don’t we use plastic surgery procedures, smartphones, and teen magazines to preserve war during times of peace? Yup, we do. And don’t we need peace propaganda (which takes the form of advertising Ellul tells us) as much as we need war propaganda? Yup. Regardless, we need ways of mapping individual experience to mass experience.

As Ellul makes clear, propaganda and its machinery cannot go away when war stops; it has to take on civilian form, put on civilian clothing. To stop war propaganda you would have to stop advertising. Good luck with that one. To stop psychiatrists and general practice doctors from writing prescriptions for behavioral drugs, people (especially parents) would have to stop demanding them [again, see note 1], stop demanding quick fix happy pills. If you ignore continuums it is real easy to blame end members such as the military, propagandists, big pharma, and even doctors. Heck, just the other day I saw the following headline: Drug Dealers Aren’t to Blame for the Heroin Boom. Doctors Are. Doctors are now being called “the new neighborhood drug dealer.” Consider this recent article: New Study Says Doctors Can’t “Just Say No” to Their Patients. If you wish to demilitarize our society, sure, throw out violent military themed video games, but also be prepared to throw out the Internet and smartphones (both examples of cybernetic feedback systems, which were principally developed by the military starting in the 1950s). Giroux points to armed guards as a sign that classrooms are becoming more military like, more prison like. I’ll go along with Giroux on this one, but I’ll go a step further and point to that tablet sitting on that student’s desk delivering an eCourse. (For more on this topic see the article entitled Minority Students Should Weigh Pros, Cons of Online Education.) To me, using my continuum view, a tablet has the potential to imprison minds while preserving the military. For more on the topic of the Internet’s potential to imprison minds, see Nicholas Carr’s 2012 book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Continuums are a bear because they tend to push us to look in directions we would prefer not to (like ourselves).


[1] As I was putting the finishing touches on this post I ran across this interesting article: Psychologists Debate Adding Another Attention Disorder to the Books. Consider this excerpt from the article:

Psychologists are working to determine if sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT)—marked by daydreaming, mind-wandering, and lethargy—has a clear set of symptoms and can join the ranks as a legitimate disorder. If it does, it’d open up an opportunity for more pharmaceutical treatments in an area that some experts argue is already over-diagnosed and over-medicated due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Well, separating psychiatrists and big pharma didn’t last long. Sluggish Cognitive Tempo! Really? Sounds like SCT is just another way of saying, “Kids who are not able to access Executive Function skills will act cognitively sluggish.” But rather than, 1) understand what is going on in our society that so many kids are not able to access Executive Function skills, and, 2) help kids achieve EF skills, we potentially feed them more behavioral drugs that, according to ADHD researcher Russell Barkley, do very little if anything to help kids access EF skills. Sadly, an intervention like helping kids achieve EF skills would serve to disrupt the quick fix continuum that seems to link parents, teachers, and administrators to big pharma. I agree with Giroux when he says that we need people to be reflective and able to engage in critical thinking. But behavioral drugs keep us from those EF skills. So too heavy use of day care and pre-K programs (which Giroux favors). Continuums are a bear to break down once set up because they so effectively facilitate, for better or worse, individual to mass mappings, mappings that we simply could not live without. I guess you could say that the only way to fight a mapping is with another mapping, which is why “just say no” will never work. It’s hard to map your life on “no,” which is why no’s referent ends up taking on such power and allure.