Monday, December 7, 2009

Psycho-Cybernetics (and Ghosts)

The nervous system and the automatic machine are fundamentally alike in that they are devices which make decisions on the basis of decisions they have made in the past.

(Norbert Wiener)

Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.

(Dorothy Parker)

In one of my all-time most formative books, How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles has described and traced the origins of an important strand in the contemporary ways of thinking about ourselves to the twin revolutions of information theory and cybernetics. She also showed that, as is so often the case, the original thinkers who came up with those paradigm-shifting ideas - this time in the areas of engineering and computer science - demonstrated from the outset a keen understanding of the broader implications of their discoveries. Indeed, Norbert Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings appears just as cogent and compelling today as it must have been when it was published, in 1950 - possibly more so. Other books along the way haven’t stood the test of time quite so well, but as always I’m just as interested in those.

The vintage of this one - 1960 - shows it took just over a decade for the fundamental insights of cybernetics to be recycled wholesale into pop-psychology and the self-help movement. The central proposition of Maxwell Maltz's Psycho-Cybernetics is that our consciousness avails itself of an impersonal servo-mechanism - which others call the unconscious - to achieve its goals. These goals in turn are mental pictures produced by the imagination, chief amongst them the self-image, which sets ‘the limits for the accomplishment of any particular goals’ and outlines therefore the ‘area of the possible’ (p. ix). So it’s up to you (or, more precisely, your conscious foremind) to form a self-image that is success-oriented, thus turning your creative mechanism into a success mechanism as opposed to a failure mechanism (p. x).

While its rhetoric has shifted somewhat, self-help literature still employs many of these ideas concerning self-image psychology and the visualisation of a set of personal goals around which to construct one’s identity. But it shouldn’t surprise us that it was a plastic surgeon who articulated them first. Besides observing that changing a person’s appearance can ‘cut deep into the psyche as well’, causing significant improvements in a patient’s personality and outlook, in the course of his practice Dr. Maltz found nonetheless that
in some cases, the patients continued to feel inadequate and experienced feelings of inferiority. In short, these "failures" continued to feel, act and behave just as if they still had an ugly face. (p. vi)
Beauty is more than skin deep, concludes Maltz, and if an exterior change isn’t accompanied by a change in the patient’s image of self, those feelings of inadequacy are not going to go away. Fortunately it just so happens that you can make cosmetic changes to your psyche that will make you a better, happier person.

Psycho-cybernetic interventions are twofold, then: first you remove unwanted memories that are unpleasant (ugly) and unproductive (in that they cannot provide useful negative feedback), then you replace them with 'synthetic experience', that is to say a vivid, detailed imagining of who you want to be and what you want to achieve, which your mind - which after all feeds on images - will be compelled to regard as true.

It’s pretty much all there is to it, except in order to expand the advice to book-length Maltz goes into various degrees of sometimes confusing detail, amongst a plethora of platitudinous section titles like 'More years of life and more life into your years' or 'Crisis brings power', and broadening his perspective to include pseudo-scientific notions such as the life force and an extrasensory universal consciousness. We’re at the threshold of the New Age, but under the firm tutelage of cybernetics and a new science of mind that was just then being born. It’s the world of Philip Dick’s simulacra.

The implications for memory are significant, and bear directly on our recent discussions on witnessing history and being faithful to authentic experience. If you could reinvent yourself, rewrite your life story, would you bother to include your failures, traumas and transgressions? Here’s what Maltz has to say - in what seems like a direct response to a comment of Carl Dyke’s from last week - under the headline 'Let sleeping dogs lie':
Our errors, mistakes, failures, and sometimes even our humiliations, were necessary steps in the learning process. However, they were meant to be means to an end—and not an end in themselves. When they have served their purpose, they should be forgotten. If we consciously dwell upon the error, or consciously feel guilty about the error, and keep berating ourselves because of it, then—unwittingly—the error or failure itself becomes the "goal" which is consciously held in imagination and memory. The unhappiest of mortals is that man who insists upon reliving the past, over and over in imagination—continually criticising himself for past mistakes—continually condemning himself for past sins. (p. 66)

What Maltz suggests instead, with a startling surgical metaphor, is to give yourself ‘a spiritual face-lift’ in order to ‘remove your emotional scars’. This operation, to be completely successful, has to leave absolutely no trace. So for instance - and please believe me when I say that this is the actual example in the book - a woman who had been counselled by her minister or psychiatrist to forgive her philandering husband needs to do more than that: she must actually forget the incident altogether. Then and only then will (marital) harmony be restored.

Taking our cue from Carl’s discussion of a therapeutic approach to history, we could call this therapeutic memory. But instead of launching all too predictably into questioning its value, I want to highlight a set of connections which again feed back into the discussion we’ve had in the last few posts. For the nineteen-sixties were also the decade of the death of the author, a turn of events that Italo Calvino linked explicitly to the ideas of Shannon, Weiner, Turing and von Neumann.

In a lecture originally delivered in November of 1967 in Turin and other cities and later published as an essay entitled ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’, Calvino described writing as the work of a servo-mechanism, a goal-oriented act whose outcome is not predetermined by the tightly bound subjective I of the author, but rather takes place at the intersection of culture, language and probability. The idea, which had already been put forward more radically by Borges in 1940 - in the Library of Babel, you will recall, there are no writers or authors, just perennially perplexed readers - is based on a less crude understanding of cybernetics than Maltz’s, but shares some of the same fundamental propositions. Chiefly, that there is knowledge which exists outside of us, floating in the culture and obeying the rules of language, and that its discovery amounts to stumbling upon something which was already there. Furthermore, this is just as true now, in our highly complex and densely symbolic societies, as it was for the first storyteller of the tribe.
The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but to test the extent to which words could fit with one another, could give birth to one another, in order to extract an explanation of the world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative, and from the arabesque that nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates performed as they unfolded from one another. (p. 4)

Ultimately it’s not just the author, but the individual itself which dissolves into the act of speaking/writing. ‘The psychological person,’ explains Calvino paraphrasing Tel Quel, ‘is replaced by a linguistic or even a grammatical person, defined solely by his place in the discourse’ (p. 5). And if stories obey the rules of language and grammar, why not personal histories, why not History? What stops us then from rewriting all of our selves and society itself, playing with its vocabulary until we have found a hopefully more just and better functioning narrative? And if it were possible, wouldn’t it be worth sacrificing memory, opening up your already-written-past for endless reinvention? So long as it is what it takes.

I won’t attempt to answer that. I turn to Psycho-Cybernetics again and ask myself instead: what kind of object is this? A quaint little book, remarkably still in print - although the new cover leaves out the fantastic piece of sloganeering in the picture at the top of the page, making no mention of Maltz’s original profession - it hardly resembles the building block of a new utopia. Its tone is frequently shrill, asking you to reserve your judgment on it for at least 21 days, during which time you should reread chapter two at least three times a week. It leaves a pitifully token amount of room to write some words of your own at the end of each chapter. At page 156 it abruptly cuts to a commercial, this one,

and then again at the very end it hawks a programme designed to ‘GIVE YOUR CHILD A SUPERIOR MIND’. Says the coupon: ‘If I am not convinced that it can show me how to increase my child’s intelligence and potential for success, I may return it within 30 days, and owe nothing’. I am not reassured by this, I think I can see some cracks in the edifice. Or perhaps it’s the ghosts of the id evoked by Calvino in a counterargument to his own terse cybernetic vision:
The power of modern literature lies in its willingness to give a voice to what has remained unexpressed in the social or individual unconscious: this is the gauntlet it throws down time and again. The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts. Dreams of progress and reason are haunted by nightmares. (p. 17)

Maltz said nothing about ghosts or nightmares. His franchise has now been taken over by a former martial arts champion who dresses like Fu-Manchu and is available to come to speak at your company for a fee.

Maxwell Maltz. Psycho-Cybernetics - A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960.

Italo Calvino. 'Cybernetics and Ghosts', tr. Patrick Creagh. In The Uses of Literature (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986), pp. 3 - 27.