Brainwash: History, Cinema and the Psy-Professions

 

brainwash

The Hidden Persuaders project group  at Birkbeck, University of London will be holding a two-day conference on 3-4th July on the Psy-professions in cinema. To register, see https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/brainwash-history-cinema-and-the-psy-professions-tickets-16380168525

The history of cinema, like the history of psychoanalysis, psychiatry and psychotherapy, percolates with Western suspicions that our minds are susceptible to covert, even unconscious manipulation. Cinema and psychoanalysis—two essential exponents of subjectivity in the twentieth century—have been celebrated as royal roads to the unconscious, catalysts for our dreams, and means of self-discovery and human emancipation. But cinema and psychotherapy, Freudian or otherwise, have also been castigated for their special capacity to tap the unconscious, and as tools for mind control, even as they have depicted and shaped understanding of what it means to have or to manipulate a mind. 

 Early cinema had frequently explored the hypnotic processes it was accused of inducing. But the intersecting fears of mind control at the movies and in the consulting room seemingly entered a new stage of complexity with the Cold War. New theoretical and visual languages of ‘brainwashing’ emerged, and the ideas of Pavlov and of Freud were often placed side by side. In the decades after 1950 (the year in which the word ‘brainwashing’ was coined), film further explored subliminal interference. Roles for ‘psy’ experts working for shadowy organisations were to feature, and the dangers of psychological experiment returned again and again. 

 Visions of ‘conditioning’ and ‘programming’ resonated on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Work such as Shivers (1981) by the Polish filmmaker Marczewski explored the communist indoctrination of young people. In the West, films such as The Mind Benders (1963), The Ipcress File (1965), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Parallax View (1974) played upon conjoined political and psychological terrors of brainwashing.  Most famous, ironic, and perhaps most imitated of all works in this tradition was The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Meanwhile, many specialist commentators in the human sciences explored the vulnerability of the ‘captive mind’, considered the psychic effects of ‘totalitarianism’, the nature of induced desires and manufactured anxieties, advertising, not to mention extreme sensory experiences (and deprivation) in shaping behaviour and thought. The limits of an individual—or a group’s—capacity to remember, to will, to know, and to organize were probed; and terms such as ‘regression’ and ‘automatism’ gained a substantial new purchase.

 In this workshop we ask whether the Cold War obsession with brainwashing was a break with past narratives and anxieties over mental manipulation and suggestion. We consider how far cinema, television and video have been caught up in this history of hidden or coercive persuasion, and how far they have changed the terms of debate. What forms of human experimentation inspired interest in brainwashing, and vice versa?  And how and why did depictions of automatism on screen so often connect to fears of the ‘psy’ professions?

 In addressing these questions we revisit some iconic and obscure brainwashing sagas of the past. By re-examining Cold War films and some of their precursors, we invite discussion of the representation of coercively altered states of consciousness—the dangerous spell that film and ‘the talking cure’ have been said to exert. We ask: how have ‘suggestion’, ‘hypnosis’, ‘automatism’ and ‘brainwashing’ featured in these stories? What plot lines and visual aesthetics has ‘brainwashing’ inspired? Why did the clinical expert feature so prominently in such films? How and why have fears of brainwashing figured in the critique of the therapeutic encounter? What should we make of the role of hypnosis in the early warnings about the dangers of cinema (and its darkened rooms)?How might we map and historicise such fears and fantasies? Do the same fears recur, the same plots unfold, or do hypnosis and brainwashing play out differently, in Europe and the US, East and West, pre-war and post-war? 

For more information about the The Hidden Persuaders project, led by Daniel Pick at Birkbeck, University of London and funded by the Wellcome Trust, see their website: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/hiddenpersuaders/

 

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