Medicine for the Masses

John Bargh – Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do (Touchstone Books)

I was dying to read this book: Before You Know It authored by Experimental Psychologist, John Bargh. However, I was cautious when the opening line read as follows:

“In college, I majored in psychology and minored in Led Zeppelin. Or maybe it was the other way around”…

Thankfully, I persevered, and although the Led Zep references did reoccur occasionally (making me kind of gag each time), it really did pay off. The project is a huge success. Bargh has done a wonderful job of pulling together such a wealth of research – a lot of which he performed — in such a narratologically pleasing, accessible, and insightful manner. He is likable, if at times he comes across sounding like a cringe-inducing dad. The book is deeply engaging in that it is so relatable and Bargh writes in a kind of welcoming, conversational while thoroughly informed tone. He cites countless experiments without sounding blandly reportive.

I must admit that my opinion isn’t exactly bias-free. I wrote a thesis regarding the application of neuroscientific theory to literature criticism and so I have been reading any and every book on neuroscience that I can get my hands on. Bargh’s ideology is right up my street – he even uses the same analogy for readdressing the way that we think that I used in my dissertation.

Bargh says, “learning to see what is hidden, we acquire a new set of eyes. Or maybe just a new pair of prescription glasses we hadn’t realised we’d needed.” My own work reads: “If our vision is blurry or our eyes strain we put on glasses so that we can see differently – better. If they don’t work we get a new prescription. If our vision changes we adapt the lenses. We don’t walk around with the same blurred views. Open up those windows. It’s about opening the closed mind.” This idea of developing fresh eyes really resonates with me, and I think it is one that could help a lot of people broaden their minds.

If Bargh’s literary capacity is sometimes swamped by the conceptual weight of what he is saying, this does not negate the validity of the concepts themselves. Like most social scientists he has a tendency to repeat himself until a point is at risk of losing its appeal. The concepts are sometimes lost in trailing sentence structures and unconvincing metaphors – for example, he describes a dream he had about an alligator turning over to reveal its soft underbelly as an analogy for turning his thinking upside-down. He talks about that alligator a lot. Forget the damn alligator.

For a book that so successfully conveys the subjective nature of the unconscious, it seems strange that it does not occur to Bargh that his alligator may only hold significance to him. It muddies the point and comes across as a candied technique to engage the reader. But, essentially, he is proving his own theories as he writes. Bargh’s recognition of the subjectivity of significance is well-evidence elsewhere.

I cannot help but apply Bargh’s research and proposed conclusions to my own life and my own subconscious reactions. I imagine that this is the point. Bargh explains that metaphors are rooted in neuro-physical responses — such as “cold-shoulder” and “warm person,” meaning that we actually feel the physical sensation which leads us to describe things in terms of temperature. I have come to suspect that the reason my temperature seems to swing from high to low at the drop of a hat has something to do with my emotional dysregulation.

What Bargh offers is medicine for the masses. One of my favourite parts of the book was the study revealing the ways in which fear motivates a lot of our important decisions and behaviours. Bargh says that “Under threat or fear people are less risk-taking and they resist change” and he shows us that we must not be afraid of change. He demonstrates how our memory “can be fooled by recent experience, but also by the fact that we pay selective attention to some things and not to others.” And perhaps most importantly, the book begs us to question our assumptions, to question in general. Bargh’s suggestions for lines of enquiry include:

“On any given day, how much of what we say, feel, and do is under our conscious control? More important, how much is not? And most crucial of all: if we understood how our unconscious worked – if we knew why we do what we do – could we finally, fundamentally know ourselves? Could insights into our hidden drivers unlock different ways of thinking, feeling, and acting? What might this mean for our lives?”

And one of my own:

Is it because I am depressed that I don’t like salad?

Bargh urges us to see that new ideas will only surface if we are amenable to them – that if you want to achieve something you must open up your mind to the possibility of doing so. I think that this ideology needs to be taught to people at an early age so that they can achieve a better level of control over their lives. The world might be a much better place if people were better educated about the processes of their own brains.

– Blair James



Of Freedom, Fornication and Flatulence

Anthony Burgess, Andrew Biswell and Germaine Greer – Obscenity and the Arts (Pariah Press, 2018)

Malta in 1968 should have been a haven for Anthony Burgess. More Catholic than the Pope (Malta, like Burgess, resented Pope John XIII’s modernising reforms), a tax haven (British ex-pats were taxed only 6 pence in the pound), and filled with the kind of vibrant, sunsoaked culture he had longed for back in stodgy old Britain. If Burgess designed heaven, it would look like Malta.

One can imagine his chagrin upon arrival as he was caught up in a minor fracas over vehicle registration and a major fracas over forty-seven books from his private library. Seized by the censor for obscenities as diverse as sex, drugs, blasphemy, homosexuality and feminism, the books were sent away to be burned as Burgess, a lifelong enemy of censorship, trembled with rage.

To cap it all, his own novel Tremor of Intent would be seized by the censor under its French title, Un Agent Qui Vous Veut du Bien, and burned for its depravity, while the same book was thoroughly commended under its Dutch title Martyrenes Blod, or, “Martyr’s Blood”.

Filled with liberal zeal, Burgess began a letter writing campaign, was interviewed for the local Maltese papers and delivered with a public lecture under the juicy title “Obscenity and the Arts”. It is this lecture which is the centrepiece of Pariah Press’s new book.

Improvised in a typically Burgessian manner, the lecture itself feels like a series of polished witticisms strung together around a central theme. It lacks the unity of his written essays, but is perhaps more energetic, and more direct in its assertions as a result. His trusty thesaurus is left on the shelf.

A biographical introduction from Andrew Biswell accompanies the essay and does an excellent job not only of situating the lecture but also the importance of Malta and battles over censorship in the life of Burgess overall. This is accompanied by some nicely reproduced photographs and two interviews with Burgess taken from Maltese papers.

The second part of the book is a response to Burgess by the renowned feminist scholar Germaine Greer. As much a passionate advocate of free speech as Burgess, Greer takes the author to task for the manner of his defence. The result is a fascinating demonstration of how two writers can agree upon a position in deeply conflicting ways.

Burgess’s love of free speech is rooted in a respect for free will. By an idiosyncratic welding of Catholic doctrine onto English liberalism, Burgess decrees that to ban a book is to limit the free choice of evil, and that it is the divine possibility of choosing good that distinguishes Catholic spirituality from brute materialism. A Catholic government that bans books denies free will, and so cannot be said to be Catholic at all.

The Maltese government would certainly have disagreed with Burgess’ theologising. Such arguments are, after all, much more the line of John Stuart Mill than the Gospel According to John. This is perhaps why Burgess sets aside theory and argues by example; why not ban the bloodthirsty Shakespeare, or the purgative Swift, or the carnal Rabelais? For their obscenity has value, and moral value at that.

Burgess draws a line between the improving arts, which challenge and provoke, and pornography which has a purely mechanical function. Neither, Burgess argues, should be banned, for it is up to the individual to distinguish the one from the other: something a semi-literate clerk in the censorship office is certainly not qualified to do for us.

Here enters Greer. Greer’s arguments, to the modern reader, are equally idiosyncratic, if slightly more sympathetic than Burgess’s. She argues the counterculturalist’s case for obscenity as in-itself valuable (as Burgess swanned around Malta, she points out, the editors of Oz magazine were facing prison time for publishing cartoons) and that, done properly, obscene material can act as a kind of aversion therapy.

It is when Greer takes Burgess to task for condemning the practice of shitting on someone’s doorstep (perfectly acceptable in some countries, we are told), that Greer’s argument shows its limits. Sixties-type permissiveness, we are reminded, often enjoys its own contrarian provocations to the point of destroying its own arguments. Better to blow minds than change them.

Greer’s feminism acts as a counterbalance to this tendency in her writing, however. Condemning porn’s ready availability, she demonstrates its exploitative practices through her own outrageous treatment by her male co-editors at Suck magazine. What matters, she argues, is not the freedom to indulge obscenity, but cultivating the self-awareness necessary not to be depraved by it.

The real meat of Obscenity and the Arts is this tension between voices in agreement. Government censorship, as Biswell points out, is now largely a thing of the past. The argument for free speech has been won, largely through the negative critique of government ineptitude.

Positive critique, however, seems to have slipped by the wayside in recent years. The default position of many young people at university today is a form of soft neo-Puritanism that sees no benefit to hearing out other opinions and tolerates free speech purely because they are against the return of bans. It doesn’t help that the case for free speech is so often taken up by right wing blowhards that it has become synonymous with them in a highly regrettable manner.

This book is not a comment on these contemporary issues, but in its arguments (and Adam Griffith’s artistic responses, also included) there is a certain timeless provocation. In the face of public shaming, both the obscene and the anti-social must be defended.

I highly recommend this book. It is a beautiful object and compulsively readable. It also fits perfectly inside your jacket pocket, guaranteeing that you won’t be able put it down.

Joe Darlington