February 2, 2014

Complete Control


In early 2014, thanks in no small part to the Snowden leaks, weíre now aware (if we werenít already) we are living in a country, a world, in which intelligence agencies are collecting and saving all of our phone calls, text messages, and every damned keystroke we enter into the computer. We canít step out our front doors without being filmed by multiple cameras. Spy drones controlled by assorted law enforcement agencies are hovering over major cities across America, and large corporations are conducting widespread surveillance programs of their own. NSA official Bill Binney has stated publicly that we are now ďliving in a police state.Ē The same president who said many goofy things over the years, like ďwe donít spy on our own citizensĒ and ďwe donít torture people,Ē has likewise stated publicly that he doesnít intend to do anything about this blanket surveillance (though if heíd said otherwise Iíd know he was lying). Even the new Mayor of New York, who ran on as liberal a set of promises as you can imagine, is already calling for more cameras, more behavioral restrictions, more bans, and I canít say Iím in the least shocked.

           I could go on and on, and you could too. Most people donít seem terribly upset about this, swallowing wholesale the ancient rancid lie that itís all necessary for our own good and is designed to protect us. Those who are upset about it are essentially helpless. What can they do about it anyway? Write editorials? Organize protest marches? Itís all laughable. Even the hackers who really could do something worthwhile are too busy sucking up credit card numbers and posting dumb jokes on supposedly secure websites to bother.

           Iíve been writing about this since the mid-nineties. I even tried to satirize it in a novel, only to have the real world outdo anything I could come up with before I finished. Back then I was considered paranoid. Today anything I had to say would either be redundant or a simple, boring reiteration of the facts. So Iíll let someone else do the talking instead.

           At the moment weíre fast approaching the hundredth birthday of the late visionary Beat novelist and grand old man of the underground William S. Burroughs. Celebrations marking the day -- the fifth of February -- are taking place across Europe and here in the States (though the New York events arenít happening until April for some reason). Oh, thereíll be concerts and art shows and lectures and readings and what-all have you, and oh, what a fine old time itíll be. Underground Luminaries of all sorts have signed up to participate, and while Iím glad heís being given this much attention, still, I canít help but find it all a bit ironic that his centenary should coincide with this particular moment in history.

           The participants at assorted events will undoubtedly focus their energies on reading some of the more outrageous passages from his novels Naked Lunch, Junky, and The Western Lands, and while thereís nothing wrong with that, personally Iíve always been a much bigger fan of his non-fiction essays. It was in his essays that he clearly and almost scientifically outlined his more radical ideas (that language is a virus from outer space, for instance), and while some of them were a bit kooky (weíve yet to bring down civilization with tape recorders), a few were frighteningly dead-on.

           After a quick scan of the headlines I canít help but think of his 1978 essay ďThe Limits of Control.Ē Written in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, and nearly a quarter-century before the attack on the World Trade Center, it would be easy to call it a prescient work, but like Machiavelliís The Prince it was based on a very old and inescapable historical model. I canít reprint the whole thing here, but I highly recommend you track it down and read it for yourself. Itís not that long. Here are a few pertinent passages to whet your appetite and maybe get you to hear the evening news a bit more critically:

        ďConsider a control situation: ten people in a lifeboat. Two armed self-appointed leaders force the other eight to do the rowing while they dispose of the food and water, keeping most of it for themselves and doling out only enough to keep the other eight rowing. The two leaders now need to exercise control to maintain an advantageous position which they could not hold without it. Here the method of control is force -- the possession of guns. Decontrol would be accomplished by overpowering the leaders and taking their guns. This effected, it would be advantageous to kill them at once. So once embarked on a policy of control, the leaders must continue the policy as a matter of self-preservation. Who, then, needs to control others but those who protect by such control a position of relative advantage? Why do they need to exercise control? Because they would soon lose this position and advantage and in many cases their lives as well, if they relinquished control.Ē

        ď...We now see that another essential factor in control is to conceal from the controlled the actual intentions of the controllers. Extending the lifeboat analogy to the Ship of State, few existing governments could withstand a sudden, all-out attack by all their underprivileged citizens, and such an attack might well occur if the intentions of certain existing governments were unequivocally apparent. Suppose the lifeboat leaders had built a barricade and could withstand a concerted attack and kill all eight of the rowers if necessary. They would then have to do the rowing themselves and neither would be safe from the other. Similarly, a modern government armed with heavy weapons and prepared for attack could wipe out ninety-five percent of its citizens. But who would do the work, and who would protect them from the soldiers and technicians needed to make and man the weapons? Successful control means achieving a balance and avoiding a showdown where all-out force would be necessary. This is achieved through various techniques of psychological control, also balanced. The techniques of both force and psychological control are constantly improved and refined...Ē

        ď...(C)ontrol also needs opposition or acquiescence; otherwise, it ceases to be control. I control a hypnotized subject (at least partially); I control a slave, a dog, a worker; but if I establish complete control somehow, as by implanting electrodes in the brain, then my subject is little more than a tape recorder, a camera, a robot. You don't control a tape recorder  -- you use it. Consider the distinction, and the impasse implicit here. All control systems try to make control as tight as possible, but at the same time, if they succeeded completely there would be nothing left to control. Suppose for example a control system installed electrodes in the brains of all prospective workers at birth. Control is now complete. Even the thought of rebellion is neurologically impossible. No police force is necessary. No psychological control is necessary, other than pressing buttons to achieve certain activations and operations.

        ďWhen there is no more opposition, control becomes a meaningless proposition. It is highly questionable whether a human organism could survive complete control. There would be nothing there. No persons there. Life is will (motivation) and the workers would no longer be alive, perhaps literally. The concept of suggestion as a complete technique presupposes that control is partial and not complete. You do not have to give suggestions to your tape recorder nor subject it to pain and coercion or persuasion.Ē


          Okay, me again here. Given the hilariously catatonic reaction among the American population to the revelations concerning the NSA program, the ease with which those in power blithely dismiss any silly would-be concerns, and the seeming impregnability of the present control system, it leaves me wondering what will happen in the years to come. As described above, we seem to be approaching a state of complete control, despite the faint, weak, and sporadic mutters of dissent here and there. Burroughs has quite a bit more to say about this in the essay (which is why you should read it even though you probably wonít), and as much as I hope heís right, somehow I get the sinking feeling he was merely being an optimist.

          I probably donít need to point out once again that weíre all fucked, so I wonít. Just try and keep your heads down for godsakes, duck that radar, and stop looking up bomb-making instructions on that internet. There are better and easier places to find those. And to Mr. Burroughs, with fondness, I offer a happy birthday and a thank you.


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