‘Sin your way to heaven and get slaughtered: A byzantine general problem of the self’ (part two)

Filed under:Sin your Way to Heaven and get Slaughtered — posted by Schizostroller on March 21, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

In the book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce describes an incident where in the fifties in the early days of television, a man becomes disturbed by voices coming from the set his wife and daughter are watching downstairs, he descends the staircase and blasts the TV with his shotgun. He kills his TV. Today such ideas are known as ideas of reference, but let us explore the experience further, the artist Joe Banks in the book Rorschach Audio talks of the Latvian author Konstantin Raudive who believed that it was possible to record the voices of the dead in magnetic tape. Jeffrey Sconce, who also explores the weirdness of media, tells the story of the Fox sisters and their early table knocking spiritual séances. They started the spiritualist church, and the Victorian fashion of talking to the dead took off. The Fox sisters later admitted they had been faking it, but by the end the Spiritualist church had reached a critical mass and such shock announcements were hardly going to stop a good thing. Both Sconce and Banks take such haunted media back to early telegraph systems that required the dots and dashes of Morse code. They note that such ‘haunting’ changed with changes in media technology over the years. A similar media portrayal of haunted media was in Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, where the hero thinks a radio station is playing encoded messages just for him. This scenario Joe Banks relates back to Gombrich’s discussion of projection. In his book Art and Illusion, Gombrich follows the path of art and changes of technique throughout art history and the complicit path of the art viewing public. Like many books on cognition today, he looks at optical illusions and the way the mind perceives the illusion. He then reverts to a story of his days in the Second World War where he was seconded to military intelligence at the British Broadcasting Service’s ‘Monitoring Services’ to interpret radio signals. He discusses the methods used to do so: “It was in this context that the guided projection of our understanding of symbolic interpretation was brought home to me. Some of the transmissions which interested us most were barely audible, and it became quite an art, or even a sport, to interpret the few whiffs of speech sound that were all we really had on the wax cylinders on which these broadcasts had been recorded. It was then that we learned to what extent our knowledge and expectations influence our hearing. You had to know what might be said in order to hear what was said. More exactly, you selected from your knowledge of possibilities certain word combinations and tried projecting them into the noises heard. The problem was a twofold one – to think of possibilities and to retain one’s critical faculty. Anyone whose imagination ran away with him, who could hear any words – as Leonardo could in the sound of bells – could not play that game.” (p.171)
As Gombrich quotes William James “When we listen to a person speaking of read a page of print, much of what we think we see or hear is supplied from our memory. We overlook misprints, imagining the right letters, though we see the wrong ones; and how little we actually hear, when we listen to speech, we realise when we go to a foreign theatre; for there what troubles us is not so much that we cannot understand what the actors say as we cannot hear their words. The fact is that we hear quite as little under similar conditions back home, only our mind, being fuller of English verbal associations, supplies the requisite material for comprehension upon a much slighter auditory hint.” (p.170)
This is backed up by modern cognition theory, in his textbook on cognition, Daniel Reisberg describes how implicit memory works, cognition works better on background associations. With regards learning primed and elaborated learning, especially when familiarity is involved, recall is superior just mechanical learning. However with regards this implicit memory, we also have the problem of the ‘illusion of truth’, that is with memory, a primed piece of knowledge, even one that is explicitly framed as false on first hearing, when triggered again at a later date when combined with a hint that such knowledge is true, will give rise to the ‘familiar sense’ that it is true. As Joseph Goebbels argued, tell a lie often enough and it will become the truth.
If we return to Gombrich’s experience of interpreting signal from noise during the second world war, we also have the problem of familiarity. With regards the relation to background noise, just as Gombrich argues in Art and Illusion, Reisberg refers to experiments by the psychologist Jacoby where sentences were played over noise, those sentences that had been primed earlier were heard more clearly than unfamiliar phrases, what’s more the noise was considered to be less harsh and quieter even when it was played at the same volume (p.192).
In his book on consciousness the philosopher Daniel Dennett describes blindsight. Blindsight occurs where there is damage to the eye (usually part of the retina) and whilst the person retains some vision, there is a part of the breadth of vision that is shut off. However due to its learning capability the mind fills in this part of the line of sight and objects can be ‘seen’ in the area of damaged vision.
So, is there a sense where hearing voices is a form of emotional pareidolia? Well… possibly. However this explanation alone is insufficient. Why do others not have such experiences? So far there have been two lines of enquiry, the trauma work associated with Intervoice (especially) amongst others; and the work on pathological communication that goes back to people like Bateson and Laing. With the Hearing Voices Network this has often been supported by group work, which before their adoption goes back to the work of Tavistock clinic, and Wilfrid Bion and work with traumatised war veterans (Laing also worked at the Tavistock clinic before leaving to found Kingsley Hall and the Philadelphia Association). The Tavistock clinic’s department involved at that time was their human relations unit and also worked extensively with advertisers and multinational companies.
Within clinical psychology, one of the most advanced therapies used with voice hearers outside CBT (and historically previously the path stemming from object relations psychoanalysis, the work of Melanie Klein and in France, Jacques Lacan. Wilfrid Bion was a student of Melanie Klein) is the work of people like Dirk Corstens, Eleanor Longden and Rufus May – their Talking With voices therapy, which draws off of the Gestalt work of Hal and Sidra Stone. The Stones saw the personality as consisting of sub-personalities, the most well-known of theirs is the Inner Critic, but there are also the Pleaser, and the Pusher (one can, and perhaps should come up with one’s own depending on what ‘voices’ talk to us the most). These are ways of explaining the different conflicting drives that we all have, the therapy was originally developed with non-voice hearers, where these were aspects of the inner personality. But Corstens, Longden and May have been able to adapt it to voice hearing with a modicum of success. One of their arguments is that when voice hearing is distressing then these alienated parts of the self are seen as hostile, the point of the dialogue is to mediate to normalise the experience and hopefully work through the trauma and iron out any pathological communication. As such this is a valid psychological technique. But in the next few articles I want to look at how this relates to broader problems of governmentality and where we can find our own strategies as mad activists for survival when austerity brings in cuts and sanctions and the relationship between us and the state and the means of production becomes more vital in the face of often contradictory and often impossibly conflicting demands that take little account for class and circumstance. Strategies of the self as mad practices of everyday life.


Banks, Joe – Rorschach Audio: Art and Illusion for Sound (2012) Disinformation
Corstens, Dirk; Longden, Eleanor; May, Rufus – Talking with voices: Exploring what it is expressed by the voices people hear (2011) Psychosis 1-10 iFirst Article
Gombrich, E.H. – Art and Illusion (1986) Phaidon Press
Resiberg, Daniel – Cognition (1997) Norton
Sconce, Jeffrey – Haunted Media (2000) Duke University Press


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image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace