My writings seek to deconstruct the narration of current affairs as distributed to the public. By taking a linguistic hermeneutic path I attempt to reveal the rhetorical devices grounded within the techno-scientific calculative culture that is characteristic of liberal democracies. I relate particularly to the self-contradictions in the Zionist discourse regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its mutual interaction with world politics.

Friday, September 02, 2005

‘BLACK BOXES' – the overt manifestation of the covert

Dr. Ariella Atzmon ©

“One can own a mirror; does one then own the reflection that can be seen in it?"
Wittgenstein, Zettel:

The relevance of this Wittgenstein remark (Zettel sec:717), hints at the rhetorical language of propaganda used in the course of contemporary democracy and its links to false images of science implanted in the public consciousness in the course of contemporary science education.
With reference to recent political events following the September 11th disaster, let me examine the use and abuse of the ‘Black Box’ terminology. The expression ‘Black Box’ crops-up whenever it is necessary to elucidate an enigmatic event by transforming the covert into an overt clear-cut exposition. As related for example, to the airplane crash in Queens NY on the 12th of November 2001, the report of that event might reveal a device for the subversion of people’s minds. We should ask: how is it possible that the people of NY were so easily convinced in just two hours, that the event was an accident and not another terrorist attack? The fact is that the moment the announcement on finding the 'magic' Black Box (claimed to consist of ultra- digital information technology) was made, all the news channels suddenly replaced this news item with reports of the invasion of Kabul by US troops.
What is meant by a Black Box? Does it signify the urge to decipher something in order to achieve transparency, or does it specify an opaque entity, its content doomed to remain unknown?
The maneuvering of the notions imposed on the 'Black Box' metaphor, originates in philosophical behaviorism representing a locked, opaque object - impenetrable to any inquisitive investigation. All the in-put/out-put (stimuli/response) conditioning that triggered the sophistication of brain-washing propaganda (or advertisement) is grounded in this behaviorist notion of Black Boxes.
The ‘Black Box’ terminology entered the philosophic vocabulary in relation to the Carnap Skinner debate around the status of theoretical terms[1]. The behaviorist argument asserts that since theoretical terms links initial input observable entities with output factual data, it is possible to skip the theoretical framework, as represented by a ‘Black Box.’ Hence, reality is supervised as an efficient summation of evidential reports, as long as it meets the requirement for predictions and explanations. This view enables to keep up with a descriptive methodology, releasing the reporter from referring to the contextual meanings in use. Consequently the whole weaved conceptual framework that activate daily practices keeps being disguised from the public. In Anthony Wilden words: "You can not beat strategy with tactics…. If you are strategically illiterate you don't know you don't know…."[2] It has to do with political ethics, as contrasted with authoritarian democratic cynicism where people are left with tactics, making strategy and the idea of strategy a secret never to be revealed.
Thus, cynically, the same ‘Black Box’ nowadays simultaneously portrays an opaque entity beside a transparent key for unveiling information. This covert/overt ambiguity provides a rhetorical mechanism for the disclosure of something that might be lost and is aimed at enhancing peoples’ trust that things are firmly under control.
Rhetoric in the course of Liberal democracy manifests a positivist-behaviorist approach that complies with the truth theory of correspondence, i.e. associating a name to a thing. It links a term to sense data in order to ratify meanings by using a rule of correspondence.
An alternative mode for validation of statements is to distance ourselves from observable attributes, interpreting a term by coherence criteria - where a meaning is understood in the terminology of relationship and difference.
Education can be seen as a key for implanting the correspondence theory of truth as all-inclusive. Most recent educational programs are lacking a serious engagement with an abstract theoretical terminology. Contemporary education is a bizarre blend of two rival philosophical movements namely; positivism and phenomenological constructivism. The efforts invested in instructing students to construct reality in terms of their own experience are blurred between Husserelian phenomenology and Positivist- behaviorism. While the first stresses genuine expression alongside the experiencing of pure phenomena, the second view advocates rigorous methodological conduct for the articulation of descriptive reports. The uncontrolled zealous devotion to the experiencing of solid factual data reveals the educationist’s ignorance. Educational programs can be seen as a ‘Hailing process’ where the student is told “follow me, I am about to teach you how to construct your own reality.”
Confidence in factual data is rooted in the Lockian Ideational Theory of Meaning referring to language as representation. Representational thinking treats reality as if it were a picture "placed before" the subject. Fallacious images of scientific thought describe language as a 'vocabulary of things.’ According to this view, communication is enabled since words signify ideas in a perceptible way. Consequently language is essentially a tool for the interaction between human minds. Hence, our thoughts are viewed as an amplification of sequential ideas that associate a vocal sound, giving it the same meaning. The link between our minds and the objects which are perceived by our senses, is mediated by the process of name giving.
The ideal of sharing a similar interpretation of the same linguistic sign concurs with techno-scientific language. This language authorizes the use of linguistic signs as clear-cut signals, narrowing the multiplicity of expressive utterances, making way for the most determined communicative descriptions or reports. The techno-scientific language gains its power due to education systems governed by scientism[3]. Education, that operates as a selective membrane for the meaning in use protects the social order by signalizing the linguistic sign.
The Freudian-Lacanian idea that what has not acquired meaning can never be known reveals a vicious circle, where the rhetorical game signalizes meanings. The scientific cover-up allocated to findings, grasped as clusters of factual data formulating a suitable basis for rational reasoning, is connected to the citizen’s self-image in democratic, liberal society. Consequently the rhetorical representation of signalized, scientific language becomes part of an ideological illusion of freedom of choice. Thus, the liberal promise of emancipation is related to human beings as individuals whose rational abilities grant them the ability to judge, choose and plan their life-style competently in the framework of democratic life. Planting positive attitudes in favor of a system where given data serve as the basis for legal, moral and ethical judgments raises individual illusion regarding freedom of choice. In the western, liberal democratic milieus it is agreed that calculative thought, based upon well-established punctuated evidence, is preferential upon personal impressive verbalization. The weight bestowed in advance on digital descriptions considered to be legitimized reports is based on an arbitrary linguistic contract. Hence, the more the scientific façade of a statement is enhanced, the more its authorization is recognized. A hegemonic approach to language as correspondence (i.e.; representation) defines MEANINGS in terms of what should be included or excluded under a specific term. The political conclusion is that the promise of modernity for self-realization, including some postmodernist hopes for emancipation, are mediated by an a-priori tendency to signalize the sign.
The prestigious status of scientific thought, spurred an obsessive drive in the philosophy of science to demarcate between the scientific and the non-scientific (Popper). The necessity for demarcation preserves the criteria for what is considered valid and what should be thrown-out as meaningless. ‘Credible’ information amasses its authority via science images that proliferate in liberal societies, namely: referring science exclusively to organized factual knowledge. The compulsive occupation with the problem of demarcation reflects a struggle for control over the legitimization of specific modes of information. Popular acceptance of the positivist images of science is reflected in the media, in the courts, in achievement assessments, in I.Q. testometry and so on.
Science is self-maintained via narrow definitions of rationality which relate judgments to a link between a concept and its experiential attributes. But in order to examine whether something can be considered ‘rational,’ one must utilize the concept of rationality invented by the selfsame designers of the same widespread science images. This may be compared to a situation where the police investigate itself. I would say that the same approach that plants the illusion of free choice, simultaneously blocks the possibility for emancipation.
My argument can be clarified by the illustration of a final pre-election TV. confrontation between the main rival candidates. That style of interview with the trickery rhetorical sound bites in a ping-pong game, dictates a race where the opponents’ statements are restricted to no more than ten seconds at the most. The question is: “how is the process of rhetoric designed, so that what a politician is unable to say on TV in a sound bite of three minutes, he will never get a second chance to speak about at large?
One may describe pre-second world war rhetoric as a deductive Euclidean inference relying upon axiomatic assumptions, keeping within the bounds of coherence. In contrast to those styles, postwar western rhetoric presents us with a sort of T.V. “espresso” style, defined by Arthur Koestler as ‘short,’ ‘instant’ and ‘concentrated.’ The politician, with the aid of P.R. companies, will succeed as long as he blends, briefly in one gulp, the proper ingredients in the right dose, so that he may be simultaneously convincing, pleasant, and sufficiently vague to cover as many people as possible under the same umbrella. So, information is not just what is coming out of the T.V. screen, but those corresponding algorithmic modes of reasoning which pave the way to how we listen to the news.
By choosing a substantial word (such as evil, or terror) and charging it with a univocal meaning, optimal obscurity is achieved
Identification of the indicators of a successful rhetorical blend presents to us the subtle role of education that disappears from view precisely because of its importance. It is education that fixates the false images of science, which support the rules for how science should be presented to the public.
By using Lyotard’s terminology of the ‘Differend’ I argue that the victims of science images are unable to make a claim against scientism, because there is a latent web of rules which imposes shared agreement about ‘what science means.’ I propose that not only is education itself safeguarded within the patterns of scientism, but also that education fortifies scientism, establishing a self-maintaining system by the dissemination of its power.
The distinctiveness of western propaganda is founded upon the fact that both liberalism and the scientific revolution came into the world arm-in-arm. The main characterization of western propaganda is that latent commitment to support pervasive statements by well-established, evidential proof. Actually, all those I-philosophies (from Descartes to Husserl) that stress that human rational ability can facilitate a close correspondence between the realm of abstract meanings and the realm of reality as perceived by the senses, have supported and protected liberal democracy ever since.
Taking the Heideggerian stance regarding the human subject as being shaped by language rather than by his mind and his personal experience, undermines the human self-image as an individual empowered with the capability of rational free choice. Since the concept of individuality is the cornerstone of liberal democracy, Heideggerian philosophy endangers the whole texture of the western rhetorical machine. Heidegger’s view of language as the ‘home of being’ affords us an innovative gaze into the route taken by propaganda for trapping peoples’ minds in the webs of the hegemonic discourse.
In the name of “scientific neutrality”, scientism confuses science with technology, and thereby the definitions for “rationality,” and “objectivity” are narrowed. This is how liberal democracy becomes entangled with scientism by virtue of the praise given to human, calculative, sovereign reasoning. But this reasoning illusion is manipulated by the behaviorist approach that treats the human mind as a Black Box, conditioned by the stimuli/response procedure. In other words, in this way kidnapped meanings, which correspond with overt, evidential reports, replace scary covert warning alerts. I assert that this subversive manipulation of human minds is an unethical act. It is another version of brain washing in the framework of liberal democracy, which even more intensifies the gap between calculative reasoning and ethical judgment.
Lyotard titled ‘the Differend’ as “the case of conflict between two parties that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments.” The ‘ Differend’ illustrates precisely the logic of the dominance of discourses that are relied upon, and at the same time support experiential evidence. As such, it marks a point of incommensurability. Scientism is typical of genres which attempt to increase harmonious consonance by ignoring alternative discourses that confront us with an absence of rules for a clear-cut judgment. The legal system, in the course of liberal democracies, relates to harm assessments and evidential proof in order to validate statements. But, there is no simple viable route for moral or ethical proof. Even if there are rules for what should be described as judgment, they are inaccessible because of their ethical nature. When the issue at stake is justice, legality, which has to do with the complications of statutes, belongs to a calculative culture, so it needs proofs, supported by factual evidence, but for moral judgment there are no simple proofs.
In the course of the liberal paradigm, the variety of interests and traditions necessitates a state apparatus accepted by all. Secular liberalism established the civil legal system as an all-embracing means for stabilization, the resolution of conflicts and the legitimization of its rule. Thus, in liberal regimes, rhetoric turned from being concerned with how politics is supposed to cope with ethics, into trickery, an instrumental maneuver attempting to find the means by which to adjust the law to politics. According to the utilitarian approach, ethics became a calculative apparatus for the assessment of harm caused by the ‘evil other.’ Liberal democracy put a barrier between morality and ethics on the one side and legality on the other. Even the notion of the word innocence as related to terror(ized) victims is weighed in accordance with the ideological affiliation of the victims. In reference to Israeli spokesmen, democratic civilian victims are innocent compared with Palestinian kids (always killed by mistake).
There is relief in the act of philosophizing even though one is not a philosopher. The populist current view referring to reality as a ‘vocabulary of things,’ i.e.: representation, prevents an encounter with the sublime. The ‘Black Box’ propaganda style blocks the ability to contemplate vague positions that entail doubts and uncertainties. Thus, the citizens of liberal democratic countries are left defenseless as an easy prey in the hands of a subversive- persuasive rhetoric.
Faith in clusters of data presented by ‘Black Boxes’ expertise leads to civic irresponsibility and alienation. I would say that despite the song of praise to ‘democracy’ we are likely to find ourselves withdrawing to the pre-democratic era!

[1] The behaviorist argument which was pointed out by B. F. Skinner in Science and Human Behavior (1953), was elaborated by Carl Hempel as the Theoretician’s Dilemma.’
[2] Wilden Anthony (1987), The Rules are no Games, (London: Routlage & Kegan Paul) p.48
[3] By 'scientism' I mean an excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques, as well as a belief in the applicability of the methods of the physical sciences to othe fields, especially human behavior and the social sciences

[I wrote this paper for the 27th IMISE conference, The University. of Klagenfurt, Austria (2003).
[I am aware that our present days are loaded with too many disastrous events, and thus some of my case studies might be considered 'long forgotten'. They are displayed just to support my argumentation regarding the authoritarian rhetorical power of philosophical Behaviorism. I am convinced that undermining the Black Box deceitful devices of propaganda, which are rampant in western democracies, particularly since WW2, necessitate a well established discussion that reveal the way liberal democracies are safeguarded and even armored by techno-scientific calculative modes of reasoning. I hope that by epitomizing the way calculative thought takes over all other modes of human thinking some of the subtleties found in the EYE FOR AN EYE and the other article will be clarified. ]

Ariella Atzmon