ILR Note : This is a brief extract from Mathias Desmet’s new book ‘The Psychology of Totalitarianism’‘ . Recommended Reading.
A digital conversation is not the same as a real conversation. We see this most clearly in infants. During the first six months, they learn to distinguish language sounds at an astonishing pace, but only while listening to someone who is physically present, not when listening to an audio or video recording (see Kuhl’s experiments). Early language learning is inseparable from the physical presence of the “other.” The child internalizes the mother’s (body) language, as it satisfies its physical needs with the warmth of her body, the milk of her breasts. The child breathlessly fixates on the mother’s face and imitates the expressions that play on it; it listens with the closest attention to the sounds she makes and even with its earliest sobbing and crying already echoes the melody and tones of her speech.
What’s more: This synchronization already takes place before birth, in the womb. Annie Murphy Paul’s experiments (“What babies learn before they are born”) show that the infant’s crying immediately after birth already bears melodic resemblance to its mother’s voice. And if a newborn listens to its mother’s voice through headphones while nursing on the left breast and someone else’s voice while nursing on the right, it will begin nursing significantly more on the left. The conclusion is inescapable: The child has already become familiar with its mother’s voice in the womb; life in the womb has predestined it to resonate with that specific voice.
After birth, the child further develops this primal resonance. This doesn’t happen haphazardly. The child achieves a kind of symbiosis with the mother through its creative imitations of her sounds and facial expressions; in this way, it will feel what she feels. As it takes on its mother’s happy expression, it also feels her joy; if it takes on her sad expression, it shares in her unhappiness. Something similar applies to the exchange of sounds: In the clinking and clanging of the mother’s language trembles the well and woe of her being, and the child who imitates that language resonates with it on the same psychological wavelength.
This early resonance between child and its (social) environment leads to a unique phenomenon: The young child’s body gets “loaded” with a series of vibrations and tensions that become embedded in the deepest and finest fibers of its body. They form a kind of “body memory” that not only programs the function of the musculature, glands, nerves, and organs, but also predisposes the child to certain psychological conditions, or disorders.
The human body is, in the most literal sense, a stringed instrument. The muscles that span the skeleton, and the body’s other fibers, are put on a certain tension in early childhood through imitative language exchanges. This tension determines with which (social) phenomena one will resonate; it determines the frequencies to which one will be sensitive in later life. That’s why certain people and certain events can literally strike a chord; they touch the body and, as such, touch the soul. It is for this reason that the voice can make the body ill. Or, conversely, heal it.
That is why the voice is of vital importance, especially at an early age. Lack of a voice is fatal to the young child. The Austrian-American psychiatrist René Spitz studied two groups of children whose biological needs (food, drink, clothing, housing) were satisfied in identical ways, except that one group had a stable psychological bond with a caretaker and the other did not. Spitz found that the mortality rate was significantly higher in the latter group.
This subtle physical dimension of linguistic exchange remains important throughout life. While speaking, adults, like young children, constantly mirror the facial expressions and postures of their interlocutor without even realizing it (see research into the so-called mirror neurons). This happens through a kind of inner imitation, through slight and imperceptible increases in muscle tensions. No matter how subtle, this is more than enough to gauge, in an immeasurably short time span, the deeper layers of the other’s subjective experiencing—whether that person is in pain, feels sad or happy, is perhaps just pretending—and to mimic it.
This leads to a remarkably direct connection between interlocutors. Professionally, I have been studying (psychotherapeutic) conversations in detail for fifteen years and have been able to ascertain this in a concrete way. To highlight a single aspect: People react incredibly quickly to one another during conversations. When one person stops speaking, the other usually begins in less than 0.2 seconds (the response time to a traffic light is, on average, five times longer). And this happens even if the speaker doesn’t finish his sentence, so that the other person cannot possibly predict when he will stop on the basis of the semantic structure of the sentence.
When people talk to one another, they sense each other very sharply because they perceive the slightest changes in intonation, voice timbre, facial expression, body position, rate of speech, and so on. Like flocking starlings, they form one organism. They are connected with one another through a psychic membrane that transfers the slightest ripple in body and soul. In every exchange of words, no matter how trivial, people show themselves to be perfect dance partners; they are subtly united through the eternal music of language. We make love more often than we realize.
This complex phenomenon degrades when digitized. Digital interactions always have a certain delay; exclude certain aspects of contact, such as scent and temperature; are selective (you see only someone’s face); and create the constant, unpleasant preapprehension that the connection may drop. As a result, digital interactions are not only experienced as reticent and stiff; they also give us the feeling that we cannot really (physically) sense the other. In the words of workplace leadership expert Gianpiero Petriglieri: “In digital interactions, our minds are tricked into believing that we are together, but our bodies know that we are not; what’s so exhausting about digital conversations is being constantly in the presence of the other person’s absence.”
From here, we see a direct association between digitalization and depression. In classical psychoanalytic theory, depression is associated with the frustrating experience of helplessness, induced by the passivity or absence of a loved one (usually a parent, in childhood). Subsequently, you pay the “Other” with the same currency: You yourself become passive (i.e., depressed). Digital “connection” leads to a similar dynamic: You feel helpless with respect to an Other, whom you experience as absent and unreachable, and react with frustration and passivity (i.e., feeling exhausted).
Digitalization dehumanizes a conversation. This usually happens in a hidden, insidious way, but sometimes it can also be felt very sharply. A recent example from my psychotherapeutic practice: A woman in her early forties wakes up one night with her hands covered in blood and realizes she is miscarrying the baby she’s been yearning for her entire life. She asks me, sobbing, for a conversation—a real conversation. In such a situation, anyone can sense that the digital wall will not be scalable for the words in which the drama seeks its expression. Unless there really isn’t any other possibility, offering a digital conversation in such a situation seems indeed almost inhumane.
Similar examples can be extracted from educational settings (the enthusiasm of the teacher, which is almost physically palpable in a classroom does not tolerate the journey through a fiber optic cable); work environments (the support of a project leader is diluted in an online meeting); love life (try to salvage a wavering love, with all the linguistic torment that characterizes it, through online communication); and actually any situation to which a person must be fully accompanied by his humanity.
If all this is true, then why are digital interactions so attractive? Why did we happily give up chitchatting for text messages, long before the coronavirus crisis? It is convenient to communicate in this way with people who are far away; this is certainly true. However, there is also another, psychological factor at play. Uncertainty is the preeminent characteristic of human experience—no other animal is so haunted by doubt or plagued by existential questions—and this is especially true of our relationship to the Other. How can I do good for the Other? Does he like me? Does he find me attractive? Do I mean something to him? What does he want from me?
In a digital conversation, in which the Other is literally kept at a distance but can still be reached, these eternal questions and the associated uncertainty and fear become less acute. The sense of control is far greater; it’s easier to selectively show some things and hide others. In short, people feel psychologically safer and more comfortable behind a digital wall but pay a price for it with the loss of connectedness. This brings us to a theme that will recur repeatedly in this book: The mechanization of the world causes man to lose contact with his environment and become an atomized subject, the kind of subject in which Hannah Arendt recognized the essential component of the totalitarian state.
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Science adapts its theory to reality, whereas ideology adapts reality to theory. This includes mechanistic ideology, which attempts to adapt reality to its theoretical fiction. It aims to optimize nature and the world. We already mentioned genetically engineered plants and animals, lab-printed meat, and other artificial products, but it extends much further than that. Some argue that menstrual periods are a superfluous inconvenience and advocate for eliminating them with artificial hormones and turning the female cycle into a single, flat line. And after years of experimenting with “growing” cow and dog fetuses in an artificial womb, which is little more than a plastic bag (see figure 3.1), some people believe that it’s also time to replace a mother’s womb with a synthetic sack.
The only thing missing to make such practices completely identical to the breeding programs in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is for the mother’s voice to be replaced by the monotonous repetition of conditioning messages. In such a case, the melodious echoes of the mother’s voice will no longer be reflected in her newborn’s cries. Instead, the baby will arrive in the world, already “socially adapted.” Other advantages cannot be underestimated. The future parents will be able to continue their normal lives during the nine months of “pregnancy.” It isn’t yet entirely clear as to whether the presence of the child will be allowed to change life at all after the synthetic womb opens and the child is “born.”
The synthetic womb is not as far away as we think. The only thing required to persuade a society that is gripped by the mechanistic ideology is a slew of “experts” daily presenting statistics and data in the media, informing us that artificial wombs protect fetuses a few percentage points better against viruses and pathogens than the not-so-sterile mother’s body. Within this logic, anyone who chooses natural pregnancy will be considered unfit as a parent—such people would expose their child to unnecessary risks, even before birth. Whether dissident voices could override such logic remains to be seen. Life itself can be defended only in terms of metaphor and poetry, yet these usually sound less loud than the monotonous droning of mechanistic arguments.
These trends fit within the broader vision of an ideal society. Institutions that preoccupy themselves with the society of the future, such as the World Economic Forum, consider it a matter of course that the world will move toward a digicosm, a “society” in which human life is mainly conducted online. Strangely enough, the twenty-first century environmental movement is following this trend in lockstep. Insofar as it travels the “ecomodernist” route, it aims to save nature by protecting it from man. In those terms, living in the countryside is a crime, just like lighting a wood stove and eating a piece of real (read: not lab-printed) meat. Within such logic, the ideal life is spent indoors, on an intravenous drip. The fact that man and nature form a mystical unity and can exist in harmony is considered to be a romantic and unrealistic idea, even downright dangerous, considering the pressing issue of the climate change.
This social vision tends to intersect with so-called transhumanism. This is a contemporary iteration of the mechanistic ideology that considers it desirable, even necessary, that future humans merge physically and mentally with machines. Transhumanists want to replace the chaos of writhing bodies with a strictly technological internet of bodies. To this end, bodies have to be saturated with microchips and be monitored via a powerful internet. Once this is achieved, it will not only be possible to fight crime and sexual harassment more efficiently than ever before, but also to carry out genetic correction and preventive medicine through the collection of biometric data and replacing the body’s natural resilience with vaccine generated artificial immunity. Even the human mind would benefit from these developments. In 2020, Elon Musk announced that, within five years, we will no longer need clumsy human language—that source of eternal misunderstanding—because he will provide a microchip that can be built into the brain and that will allow humans to communicate via flawless digital signals.
What follows should come as no surprise: Within this utopia, they also want to control weather conditions—that source of angst for farmers worldwide since time immemorial—by means of radical mechanical-technological means. Such measures are considered indispensable due to global warming, and the technologists believe they can do so. For example, they can obscure the sun by placing “smart” mirrors between the Earth and the sun, by launching sulphate clouds from rockets, or by detonating chalk bombs in the stratosphere. Mechanistic ideology always lives on credit! In the future, once perfect knowledge has been achieved and perfect technology has been mastered, it will translocate the man-machine into paradise. Yet for now, it mainly makes people sick and depressed.
The triumphant music of the mechanistic ideology always contains a discordant note. If we know anything by now, it’s that the achieved convenience always comes at a price, and that price usually becomes apparent only after it’s too late. The fluorine compounds in Teflon pans and the PFAS in water repellent raincoats turn out to be carcinogenic. So is the ethylene oxide used in hundreds of everyday products. The connection between chemicals and chronic, noninfectious, degenerative diseases, the so-called diseases of civilization, is basically well known, but that doesn’t stop or redirect the relentless drive to push “civilizing” further down that road. The greater the impact of mechanistic science on the world, the more it becomes clear that we’re creating problems for which we can hardly find a solution. The ever-thickening plastic soup in the oceans and the nuclear waste that remains active for hundreds of thousands of years are just a few examples. Those problems were, in principle, clear from the start to those who had the eyes to see it. In the eighteenth century, the British painter and poet William Blake, for example, already had a keen sense of the destructive and dehumanizing nature of the mechanization of the world. In a sense, his entire oeuvre testifies to it. Unfortunately, he was, and remains, an exception.
Why is mankind so hopelessly seduced by the mechanistic ideology? Partly because it’s under the influence of the following illusion: that one is able to remove the discomforts of existence without having to question oneself at all. This is best illustrated by modern medicine. The cause of suffering is typically traced to a mechanical “defect” in the body or to an external entity, such as a pathogenic bacterium or virus. Its cause is localized and can (in principle) be controlled, managed, and manipulated without the patient having to wrestle with any psychological, ethical, or moral complexity. “A pill helps you to get rid of your problems,” “Plastic surgery frees you from your complexes without having to question the origin of your shame and embarrassment.” While the practical applications of mechanistic science make life easier, in a sense, the essence of life eludes us ever more. Much of that process takes place below conscious awareness, but the sharp increase in acute mental suffering is an unmistakable sign that is discernible at society’s surface.
The Enlightenment man could hardly help but cling to utopian optimism. In the nineteenth century, industrialization heralded the disappearance of the aristocratic and class society, and associated local social structures. Man tumbled out of his social and natural context, and as he fell, meaning dropped away too (see chapter 2). In this “disenchanted” mechanistic world (Max Weber), life became meaningless and a-teleological (the machinery of the universe runs without meaning or purpose), and religious frames of reference also lost coherence. Anxiety and unease, once tied to the oppression and abuse of the aristocracy and clergy, began to drift ineffably around in the human soul. Frustration and aggression, once held in check by fear of hell and the last judgment, proved increasingly easy to mobilize. The prospect of an afterlife dwindled and was readily replaced by belief in an artificially created, mechanistic-scientific paradise.
It is here that we, together with Hannah Arendt, situate the undercurrent of totalitarianism: a naive belief that a flawless, humanoid being and a utopian society can be produced from scientific knowledge. The Nazi idea of creating a purebred superman based on eugenics and social Darwinism, and the Stalinist ideal of a proletarian society based on historical-materialism are prototypical examples, as is the current rise of transhumanism. When we hear about such ideologies, we like to believe that they are the products of deranged minds. This is a misconception. Plato, for example, found eugenics a commendable practice that had a place in his ideal state. And the twentieth century taught us that this practice does indeed lead to certain “successes.” The systematic abortion of fetuses with genetic predispositions to thalassemia in Cyprus resulted in this hereditary blood disease almost completely disappearing from the island.
We have to seriously ask ourselves the following question: Why not follow the principles of eugenics? As a social strategy, it can be rejected on purely ethical grounds, but it is crucial that we also be capable of rejecting it on rational grounds. The essence on rational grounds might be this: Eugenics may sometimes lead “locally” to desired results, insofar as it concerns “combating” “undesirable” characteristics; from an overall point of view, however, it has more disadvantages than advantages. Government regulation of the intimate sphere leads to psychological despair and, ultimately, to a decline in physical health. (We will further elaborate on this theme in the final chapters.) Even within the context of an ideology that would make physical health its ultimate goal, eugenics is a questionable strategy that ignores the complexity and subtlety of the human being.
As Hannah Arendt states, totalitarianism is ultimately the logical extension of a generalized obsession with science, the belief in an artificially created paradise: “Science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.” In the next chapter, we will delve more deeply into one of the core features of both the mechanistic and totalitarian discourse: a naive belief in the measurability of reality and the excessive use and misuse of data and statistics.