I’ve been thinking a lot about obedience and control.
In 1962, Stanley Migram released the film Obedience, the more popular record of the findings of the so-called ‘Milgram Experiment’, published formally in the following year as ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience’ in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Milgram’s (in)famous experiment, attempting to determine the effect of authority on human behaviour, took place at the same time that Adolf Eichmann was on trial in Jerusalem, while a world continued to reel from the revelations of what a single regime had done using only the most up-to-date methods.
Hannah Arendt, covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (eventually published as her now well-known book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil), records the final statement of Eichmann (p. 118, emphasis added):
His hopes for justice were disappointed; the court had not believed him, though he had always done his best to tell the truth. The court did not understand him: he had never been a Jew-hater, and he had never willed the murder of human beings. His guilt came from his obedience, and obedience is praised as a virtue. His virtue had been abused by the Nazi leaders. But he was not one of the ruling clique, he was a victim, and only the leaders deserved punishment… ‘I am not the monster I am made out to be,’ Eichmann said. ‘I am the victim of a fallacy.’
‘Never again.’ But, up until that point within the 20th century, similar genocidal actions to those of the Nazis in the Holocaust/Shoah had taken place in the Belgian ‘Congo Free State’, of the Armenians in Turkey, and under the eventual Ally, Stalin, in the Ukraine. The Nuremberg Trials of the immediate post-war period could barely staunch the psychic wound that the industrialization of empire had brought about, and Arendt’s report of Eichmann’s trial led to an enormously disquieting picture of an ‘evil’ that was brought about simply by the mechanistic actions of industrialized imperialism.
And so, Milgram’s experiment.
The experiment divided apparently random pairs of test subjects into ‘teachers’ and ‘learners’. The learners were responsible to learn a series of word pairs on which they would then be tested, given a series of four options from which to choose in each instance. In separate rooms, the teacher and learner communicated by microphone and a light panel, which allowed the learner to indicate their choice for each question.
Additionally, the learner was strapped into an electrode that would deliver an electric shock—administered by the teacher—when the learner got an answer wrong or refused to answer. The electric shocks were, according to the experiment’s design, to increase with each wrong answer.
Of course, this experiment had nothing to do with teaching and learning, but rather with socially-manipulated obedience. The person running the experiment acted as an authority figure, urging the ‘teacher’ to carry on with the experiment, no matter what. The ‘learner’ was always an actor playing a control part, including disclosing in front of the teacher the fact that he had a heart condition. At a certain point, once the voltage reached a certain level, the learner actor would begin grunting with pain, and then complain that he was worried about his heart, and then, eventually, ask to be let out. At a certain point, the learner stops being responsive at all.
A shocking 65% of teacher subjects continued the experiment until the lethal full voltage of 450 had been achieved, with nothing but the pressure of a lab-coated experimenter egging them on, and four dollars in compensation.
‘The court did not understand him: he had never been a Jew-hater, and he had never willed the murder of human beings. His guilt came from his obedience, and obedience is praised as a virtue. His virtue had been abused by the Nazi leaders.’
Deleuze and Guattari, in their book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, describe a metaphor for Marx’s notion concerning the transition from early to late capital, namely the shift from awareness that capital is generated by labour to the notion that, somehow, labour earns capital from a pre-existing source. They deal with this in a section that I will be discussing in a post later this week, talking about society as a metaphor of the human body, but a human body as seen through the eyes of a schizophrenic delusion. (If you’ve never read Deleuze and Guattari, don’t worry—stick with the metaphor I’m going to describe today, and we’ll get to the more complex metaphor of the body without organs later this week.)
Their metaphor is called ‘the miraculating surface’, and it wasn’t until I’d taught this book for a couple of years that I realized that the miraculating surface they imagine is a vinyl record:
Machines and agents cling so closely to capital that their very functioning appears to be miraculated by it. Everything seems objectively to be produced by capital as quasi cause. As Marx observes, in the beginning capitalists are necessarily conscious of the opposition between capital and labor, and of the use of capital as a means of extorting surplus labor. But a perverted, bewitched world quickly comes into being, as capital increasingly plays the role of a recording surface that falls back on all of production.
Like a record playing back over the traces of the labour that produced it, but apparently ‘miraculating’ the sound of the recording from its own surface, the product of our labour becomes something that we strive for as though we did not own it in the first place. We are alienated from it.
What Marx deals with in a purely economic fashion, Deleuze and Guattari are attempting to draw into a metaphor for the functioning of all society. The irony that they expose in Anti-Oedipus is that the control structures of society are essentially arrogated from those who are controlled. Eichmann, Milgram’s unwitting subjects—these simply write large what happens on a small scale on a day-to-day basis. The sites of control—like the electricity cables stitched into the humans in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix—are installed early and emphasized often. These are the local, the little, the seemingly insignificant sites of control that we accept on a daily, hourly basis.
Obedience is a key to the functioning of society, and we become deeply vexed when faced with regularized disobedience.