Saturday, April 7, 2007

Institutionalization, objectification, authority and hegemony


I have never liked the easthetic feel I get when I think or say the word "hegemony." The accompanying sensation is one of breathing through a dank, brown sponge filled with spores of mildew. There's probably some psychological subtext in that for me. However, I find myself able to use it more after hearing this wonderful explanation in an audio of a talk Stan Goff gave at a University in Maine last year, titled Iraq and Exterminism. Here's what he said:

It’s much easier to exercise control over a population whenever they consent to their own domination. They sort of accept the official story, accept the official ideology and then we all just sort of go around and cooperate. That kind of control, where we internalize the control, is hegemony. Where when I come up and hold a gun on you and you do it out of naked fear, that’s coercion. And the idea is you’ve got sort of hegemony on one pole, exercising ruling class power and coercion on the other pole and as hegemony fails then coercion becomes the more prominent instrument.

As we look around the world right now, Latin America in particular, we are seeing a sort of continental drift with a definite shift to the left, and it’s created all sorts of political instability… The immiseration of the people on the periphery in the world system right now has doubled over the past thirty years. Globally hegemony is not working any more.

As hegemony breaks down as a method of control, which is an indication of a larger sort of crisis of the system itself, then coercion becomes more and more the instrument. What we are seeing is just an acceleration of that process where the neocons sort of jumped on this “surprise from the sky” on 911, the acceleration of an agenda that was already inevitable, hegemony was always going to give way to coercion at some point.

In my first post in this Blog I introduced the Zimbardo prison experiment and his book he's just released titled The Lucifer Effect. I have his website linked on the side bar.

What I'm seeing Dr. Zimbardo talking about is the problem of the hegemonic element of control, where the actor takes on the structure of the system and internalizes it. What was remarkable to him, and others now I suppose, was how quickly the people in the experiment took on their roles and acted them out. From a recent interview on Democracy Now!:

The experiment was scheduled to run for two weeks. By Day Two, the guards were going far beyond just keeping the prisoners behind bars. In scenes eerily similar to Abu Ghraib, prisoners were stripped naked, bags put on their heads and sexually humiliated. The two-week experiment had to be canceled after just six days. Zimbardo tells the full story of the landmark study in his new book,

I want to link this article: The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years?

I'm interested in why authority works both in a prison setting and in society. So is Zimbardo, especially it seems after the way his experiment went. I don't see "society" and a prison as necessarily distinct or seperate issues once the notion of "institutionalization" is added to the mix. Zimbardo's experiment raised some serious questions about the institutionalization of power and inherent features built into institutional power that appear to effect behavior, potentially in all of us, in ways that are not necessarily obvious. It can raise some very serious questions about our own sense of autonomy, our range of self actuation, and perhaps our own self conceived heroic efforts to be good persons in the world.

From that article I linked above:

Zimbardo's primary reason for conducting the experiment was to focus on the power of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behavior that generally would repulse ordinary individuals. "I had been conducting research for some years on deindividuation, vandalism and dehumanization that illustrated the ease with which ordinary people could be led to engage in anti-social acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous, or they could perceive of others in ways that made them less than human, as enemies or objects," Zimbardo told the Toronto symposium in the summer of 1996.

From the perspective of the researchers, the experiment became exciting on day two when the ["]prisoners["] staged a revolt. Once the ["]guards["] had crushed the rebellion, "they steadily increased their coercive aggression tactics, humiliation and dehumanization of the prisoners," Zimbardo recalls. "The staff had to frequently remind the guards to refrain from such tactics," he said, and the worst instances of abuse occurred in the middle of the night when the guards thought the staff was not watching. The guards' treatment of the prisoners ­ such things as forcing them to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands and act out degrading scenarios, or urging them to become snitches ­ "resulted in extreme stress reactions that forced us to release five prisoners, one a day, prematurely."

The experiment was brought to a close after only six days, because Zimbardo more or less "woke up" to the realization it had gotten out of hand. Here's an explanation of the process that helped him to "come to his senses" and the role Christina Maslach played:

Later that evening, Maslach said, she suddenly got sick to her stomach while watching guards taking the prisoners with paper bags over their heads to the bathroom before their bedtime. Her fellow researchers teased her about it.

After leaving the prison with Zimbardo, she said, he asked her what she thought of it. "I think he expected some sort of great intellectual discussion about what was going on. Instead, I started to have this incredible emotional outburst. I started to scream, I started to yell, 'I think it is terrible what you are doing to those boys!' I cried. We had a fight you wouldn't believe, and I was beginning to think, wait a minute, I don't know this guy. I really don't, and I'm getting involved with him?"

Zimbardo was shocked by her reaction and upset, she said, but eventually that night, "he acknowledged what I was saying and realized what had happened to him and to other people in the study. At that point he decided to call the experiment to a halt."

Says Zimbardo: "She challenged us to examine the madness she observed, that we had created and had to take responsibility for."

Some people think she's a hero, she doesn't. Interesting. I think she's a hero. I think her reaction and wilingness to express them is heroic in light of the dark implications of the situation with her own peers standing by, even imposing pressure by teasing her.

For me, reading about it brought back my first memories of going into boot camp. Very powerful, very surreal sensations that I've never forgotten. Strong feelings of not wanting to be there, not wanting to follow the orders I was being given, yet the knowledge at the same time of all that was known as that very young person, socially provided choices from my eighteen formative years, from the (minimal) level of sophistication of my parents and what they could share from that level about how to behave in such a situation for me, all of which seemed to leave me with no good choices I could imagine, and it felt like something I really had to do. I guess that's best described as something within the realms of conformity, because I remember looking at the high fence with the barbed wire on top and imagining how I would get over it and where I would go. And conformity is one of the issues being explored in this dark experiment for me.

There are lots of issues in this to explore. Especially since you've raised the issue, I would like to explore more in the direction of role-playing, because that was one of the points of criticism raised about the experiment, perhaps in hopes of finding something light in the darkness implied. How much of what we do in our life is about role playing, any? A lot? A rite of passage, like a marriage ceremony, boot camp, graduation, can be seen sometimes more, sometimes less formally as a change of one's personal role in society. One is no longer a single person, one is no longer a civilian, one is no longer a student, that sort of notion. What does that mean to an individual? How can and how do people deal with what that means? I think it may vary a lot. But what are the forces that keep that variance within some normative range, and how much societal tolerance is there for variation?

Two images for some thoughts, one from the 1971 Stanford Prison experiment, completely invented by the players in their roles, the other from recent atrocities at Abu Ghraib:

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