Knowledge, Power, and Institutional Imaginaries

As with much of my life and work, I find inspiration in the least acceptable places. That’s not to say that I feel these sources of inspiration ought to be unacceptable, but merely that advertising them as the sources of one’s inspiration is commonly thought a ‘bad thing.’ Whatever.

Robert Anton Wilson (RIP) remains a huge inspiration on me and my work – I think his model of consciousness, as elaborated in Prometheus Rising, is more convincing than a lot of more mainstream ones, and at any rate, he commonly puts me in my place. That’s a good thing.

So, here’s the quote I’ve been trying to find for a while now, on the relationship between the production of knowledge in different people, predicated on their position in a hierarchical relationship, and the degradation of useful knowledge as a result of that hierarchy. Brilliant.

Every authoritarian structure can be visualized as a pyramid with an eye on the top. This is the typical flow-chart of any government, any corporation, any Army, any bureaucracy, any mammalian pack. On each rung, participants bear a burden of nescience in relation to those above them. That is, they must be very, very careful that the natural sensory activities of being conscious organisms—the acts of seeing, hearing, smelling, drawing inferences from perception, etc.—are in accord with the reality-tunnel of those above them. This is absolutely vital; pack status (and “job security”) depends on it. It is much less important—a luxury that can easily be discarded—that these perceptions be in accord with objective fact.

For instance, in the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, the agent had to develop a capacity to see godless communists everywhere. Any agent whose perceptions indicated that there were actually [242] very few godless communists in this country at that time would experience cognitive dissonance—his or her reality-tunnel was at variance with the “official” reality-tunnel of the pyramid. To talk about such perceptions at all would be to invite suspicions of eccentricity, intellectual wiseacreing or of being oneself a godless communist.

The same would apply to a Dominican inquisitor in the middle ages who lacked the capacity to “see” witches everywhere. In such authoritarian situations, it is important to see what the Top Dogs (alpha males) see; it is inconvenient, and possibly dangerous to see what is objectively happening.

But this leads to an equal and opposite burden of omniscience upon those at the top, in the eye of the pyramid. All that is forbidden to those at the bottom—the conscious activities of perception and evaluation—is demanded of the Power Elite, the master class. They must attempt to do the seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. and all the thinking and evaluating for the whole pyramid. But a man with a gun (the power to punish) is told only what the target thinks will not cause him to pull the trigger (write the pink slip, order the court-martial). The elite, with their burden of omniscience, face the underlings, with their burden of nescience, and receive only the feedback consistent with their own preconceived notions and reality-tunnels. The burden of omniscience becomes, over time, another and more complex burden of nescience. Nobody really knows anything anymore, or if they do, they are careful to hide the fact. The burden of nescience becomes omnipresent. More and more of sensory experience becomes unspeakable.

As Paul Watzlawick notes, that which is objectively repressed (unspeakable) soon becomes subjectively repressed (unthinkable). Nobody likes to feel like a coward and a liar constantly. It is easier to cease to notice where the official tunnel-reality differs from existential fact. Thus SNAFU accelerates and rigiditus bureaucraticus sets in—the last stage before all brain activity ceases and the pyramid is clinically dead as an intellectual entity.

We also propose that “national security” is another semantic spook, an Empedoclean knot; that the search for national security [243] is the chief cause of national insecurity and a potent anti-intelligence mechanism. As Leary writes:

Secrecy is the original sin. Fig leaf in the Garden of Eden. The basic crime against love… The purpose of life is to receive, synthesize and transmit energy. Communication fusion is the goal of life. Any star can tell you that. Communication is love. Secrecy, withholding the signal, hoarding, hiding, covering up the light is motivated by shame and fear. As so often happens, the right wing is half right for the wrong reasons. They say primly: if you have done nothing wrong, you have no fear of being bugged. Exactly. But the logic goes both ways. Then FBI files, CIA dossiers, White House conversations should be open to all. Let everything hang open. Let government be totally visible. The last, the very last people to hide their actions should be the police and the government.”

-Robert Anton Wilson. Prometheus Rising, pp. 241-243


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