002. feedback loops of thought & power
Thoughts are exogenous. What we think about from moment to moment is influenced–consciously or subconsciously–by our job, our friends and family, our education, our past experiences, the culture we engage with, the language we speak, the movies we watch, the websites we visit, the art we view, the music we listen to, and so on and so on. Our subjective experience of the world is a vector of force on our minds.
Of course, thoughts are also a vector of force on the world. Every experience I just listed is the product of someone else’s thoughts and how they choose to convey them. By reading this post, you are accepting the influence of my thought on your thoughts. Steven Pinker calls this is the essence of communication; the effective transmission of thoughts between brains.
At the scale of society this back and forth of force creates a big feedback loop. The model depicted above is clumsy, but it’s my best attempt to tie together multiple theories of power into a coherent structure with “thought” as the subject of interest. Those theories are semiotics, media theory, neo-marxism, and post-structuralism.
Representation :: Semiotics
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”
George Orwell, Politics and The English Language, 1946
Representation of thought takes the form of words, phrases, images, sounds and symbols. Orwell emphasized that power over language (or semiotics more generally) is about as close as one can get to power over thought itself. Even within our minds we cannot escape the boundaries of the symbols we use to express ideas – an abstract concept without a name or words to describe it isn’t a concept at all. A 2001 study found that English speakers and Mandarin speakers conceptualize time differently as a byproduct of their respective linguistic structures. Findings like this support the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, which suggests that our interpretation of reality is heavily influenced by the language we speak.
Media :: Media Theory
“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Marshall Mcluhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1994
Representations are conveyed at scale through media, the forms of which have influence over the thoughts conveyed through them. It’s no coincidence that Facebook became a hotbed of political activity in 2016 even while Instagram–under the same ownership–never gave the slightest whiff of election year drama. Instagram is, however, overhauling the design of our restaurants and the way we eat. Different forms of media give rise to different expressions of influence on our thoughts. Media is a form of power, as Fox News, Hollywood, and the rise of social media celebrities make clear. A 1978 Canadian study found that children exposed to a toy commercial chose to play with a mean boy who had the toy over a nice boy who didn’t have the toy. Children who didn’t see the commercial preferred playing with the nice boy despite his lack of toys.
Culture :: Neo-Marxism
“Ideas and opinions are not spontaneously "born" in each individual brain: they have had a centre of formation, or irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion-a group of men, or a single individual even, which has developed them and presented them in the political form of current reality.”
Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 1929-1935
Media exerts force on our norms of social relation, our culture. Antonio Gramsci proposed that power was exerted through cultural hegemony, a dynamic in which the worldview of elites becomes the culturally accepted norm. Margaret Thatcher’s famous Gramscian defense of market fundamentalism became a slogan; “There is no alternative”. A parallel concept is the Overton window, in which political actors struggle to define the bounds of what policy ideas are considered plausible and mainstream.
Of course, there is a relationship with material power that isn’t fully captured by the model. A 2014 US study of thousands of policy opinion polls between 1981 and 2002 found that public support among median-income Americans for a policy had no correlation with the likelihood of that policy passing as legislation. If 100% of median-income Americans supported a policy, it had only a ~30% chance of passing as legislation. If 0% of median-income Americans supported a policy, it still had a ~30% change of passing as legislation. In contrast, the preferences of those in the top 10% of income earners were well-reflected by legislation.
Epistemology :: Post-Structuralism
“There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations”
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1977
As the post-structuralists point out, the context of our culture dictates our modes of knowledge; the epistemology of the enlightenment was a product of Western culture. The cultural force of modernism reinforced and expanded the primacy of positivism just as post-modernism gave rise to post-positivism (and vice versa). Foucault saw power wielded by academics who held sway over our notions of truth and over which methods of arriving at truth would be deemed legitimate. Just as semiotics set the bounds of what thoughts we can express, our available epistemologies set the bounds of what thoughts we can encounter.
Each phase of this cycle–representation, media, culture, and epistemology–informs the phase after it. Each phase shapes, constrains, expands, or manipulates the thought that passes through it. Some of this is done with intent, most of it is probably not (here is a great debate on agent-centric vs structural models of power).
Of course this model is massively oversimplified. There are clearly recursive loops between phases and with systems external to the model (again, I’m bringing in Neo-Marxism but not talking about resource distribution?)
But I’m not trying to create an accurate map of reality here. I’m trying to reconcile multiple theories of influence. As political philosopher Hanzi Freinacht points out, thinking “both-and” is a philosophical escape hatch from both the warring grand-narratives of modernism and the self-immolating deconstruction of postmodernism. If we can begin to synthesize disparate theories of social reality, maybe we can find truth in the common ground we didn’t know we had all along.