David Berman and Epistemological Closure in the Propaganda State
by Jeremy Schmall
David Berman’s life has been one of failure and refusal. At least, that’s what he said at the very rare talk he gave at NYU on July 25th, the concluding event of the inaugural Open City Summer Writing Workshop. Although the idea of Berman being a failure was news to me—I am an enormous fan of his book of poems (Actual Air) and his former band (Silver Jews)—he does have a point. He didn’t follow up his book with another book, he refused to tour with his band for years, and when he finally capitulated, and the touring started to eke out money and win over a committed fan base, he quit music to fail at writing a memoir, and then nearly created a TV show based on his life, but walked away when he realized what that would look like. But both writing and music are behind him now. What he’s after instead—and which he communicated through a wide-ranging, associative, often sublime speech marked by long, meditative silences—focuses on his father, Richard Berman, a high-paid PR man who creates and disseminates misinformation on behalf of corporate giants. His work effects the choices we all make everyday.
It’s tempting to believe we have a wide spectrum of choices, and are operating at a zero-level, in which we receive information at a neutral remove—and then react—but is that possible? The amount of corporate (and other) propaganda already circulating in our minds—at the level of pre-conscious thought—is staggering. And that’s where the true power is. And precisely where that power is, you’ll find Richard Berman hard at work. There’s a detailed account up at Bermanexposed.org, but for the present discussion it’s enough to know that he goes straight to the public—with ghost-written editorials, TV ads, websites—fighting on behalf of the corporations who profit from (to name a few) genetically modified food, high fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, union busting, minimum wage stagnation, tanning beds, and puppy mills. Berman’s father is possibly the most evil man in America, according to Berman, working at the intersection of politics and industry, touching nearly every issue, and affecting how those issues are perceived by the public.
It is difficult to impose ideas onto people on the level of argument; people will resist, often outright and without consideration. The natural, critical, conscious mind serves essentially as a spam box, trapping and discarding the vast multitude of input we receive everyday. However, it can be bypassed. As advertisers and other propagandists have learned, there is a more effective (and more sinister) way to convince people of something: by hiding information, obscuring its true intention, delivering it through supposedly neutral mediums, and veiling it in Orwellian phrases (“The Center for Consumer Freedom,” a Berman shill company, for example, advocates on behalf of the gigantic food and restaurant industries, not consumers); the cloaking device sneaks information past the critical-conscious mind, and plants it in a place where it will unconsciously be used by someone when “deciding” how they feel about an issue. In other words, the subject’s zero-level becomes one of already siding with [blank] issue. And, crucially, at the same time, the self-reflective stance—I am an objective, rational, freethinking person—will appear unaffected and un-manipulated.
This is what I believe Berman means by “epistemological closure,” a phrase he used numerous times during his talk. It is essentially a closing-off of reality itself, the creation of a tight-fitting worldview produced by corporate propaganda in the service of corporate profits. This is propaganda that goes far beyond placing an argument into an “open” world where you are able to freely make up your mind on it. However, it is that experience (of “free thought”) which is how it must be perceived in order to work; and further, that perception is an extra dimension of the propaganda itself. That is to say, the full function of the propaganda creates the extra dimension of it being a simple, unadulterated “common sense” idea, freely and spontaneously generated “from within.”
When I produce a thought, personally, the experience feels spontaneous, willed, and unmanipulated. But is it? Though of course that’s how it feels, when I stop to consider the enormous amount of advertisements and other propaganda I unconsciously, and therefore uncritically, absorb on a daily basis, it becomes much more difficult to discern where “my” thoughts begin, and the “outside” manipulation ends. I have definitely had the experience of “independently thinking” that a certain style of (unavailable) clothing would look good, only to find it readily available in stores in a matter of weeks. Although I’d like to believe I have some bizarre fashion prescience, the much more likely scenario is that I had been somehow primed by subconscious advertising signals (clothing worn by actors on television and in magazines; some companies even employ attractive models to wear their brand’s clothing in visible locations in major cities); these signals reach an area in my mind from which I “independently” reach specific conclusions. Although this example might be a bit silly, I think it demonstrates how one is not necessarily “free” to make up one’s mind about something, how the influence can reach beyond the critical mind—bypass it altogether—and then suddenly appear as though independently created from within.
Equally important to epistemological closure is the structuring of our “free” choices. We might be offered an infinite set of options, without quite realizing that what we’ve been offered is merely a subset, a range of choices that is acceptable only so long as it stays in that narrow range. The truly, fundamentally different choices are kept off the table, out of sight, invisible. For example, where I grew up, in a small suburb in southern Ohio, when I was hungry it often appeared to me that I had a wide range of choices. In my head I would literally go down the list of where I might eat: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Hardee’s, Big Boy, etc., trying to figure out what I was in the mood for. Although I was offered a high quantity of choices, the actual range of foods I had to choose from was pathetically limited; in fact, most fast food chains have nearly identical menus (small variations on the same meat-based sandwiches, french fries, and soft drinks), while adopting an outward stance of being radically different from their competitors. I’m free to choose, but my choices are structured in a very specific way. In that epistemological world, the truly revolutionary stance would be to choose what’s not offered as a choice, to eat only “free” food from my garden, or to adopt a so-called “freegan” lifestyle and eat only what’s discarded.
Sometimes one is only free to choose provided they make the “correct” choice. Was it not this kind of “choice” Saddam Hussein faced in 2002-2003? The ultimatum given to him was a) “fully” cooperate with the UN inspectors, or b) admit he had weapons of mass destruction, or c) face an armed invasion. There was no fourth option, that of “choosing” actually not having WMDs. So, even though he had no weapons of mass destruction (and therefore couldn’t “fess up” to having them), and although he was complying with UN inspectors (who could search his compounds indefinitely, only to be forever “kept away” from the “secret” WMD stash), his only real “choice” was to face an armed overthrow of his government. Similarly, recall how the Iraq war mantra in the US became that of “choosing” between “fighting them over there, or fighting them here.” Not fighting them at all was never given as an option.
Berman’s father is currently scaring people about the national debt in the guise of “nonpartisan” single-issue ads called “Defeat the debt.” Why? So that in the next presidential election, a full two years away, people will be “primed” for the inevitable GOP talking point of national debt (forget that the debt only matters when Democrats hold office). Abstract fear now (in the manner of “nonpartisan” ads, editorials about the debt, destitute-looking “Uncle Sam” actors in major cities theatrically asking people for help paying the debt) will translate into concrete action later (voting against Democrats), without the subject realizing the connection. In the lead-up to the election, therefore, when the voter hears Republicans speaking about fiscal restraint and the “ballooning” national debt, the thought (e.g. Democrats have irresponsibly created an enormous amount of national debt) will spring up in the subject’s mind as though they’d independently created it. The illusion of the willful, objective, rationally-thinking subject remains totally intact. This, of course, is effective mind control, of complete “epistemological closure,” as Berman would say.
Berman’s goal now is to become his father’s nemesis, to shame him into quitting his business, or to at least admit what he’s doing is wrong. To do this, Berman is creating a documentary film, which is something Berman doesn’t want to be doing. He doesn’t like it, just how he didn’t like writing, and how he didn’t like touring. He’d rather be at home in Nashville with his wife. But now he has a “mission.” He likes that word. He thinks we should have missions. “Fear of losing what we have prevents us from giving all we got,” he said a few times. He’s older now, he found God “for a little while,” he’s finished with writing and music, and now he’s thinking of the second half of his life. He knows he can’t change his father. He’ll concede that his cause may already be lost. He might break against the epistemological wall he’s throwing himself at, but in so doing he might also open up a gap in our reality, a glimpse at something beyond the possible. Perhaps now is the time to admit the possible has failed. The impossible remains.
Jeremy Schmall is the founder and co-editor of the Agriculture Reader, and the author of the forthcoming book of poems, Jeremy Schmall & the Cult of Comfort (X-ing). His work has been published in PEN America, Laurel Review, Washington Square, and Forklift Ohio. His last essay for HTMLGiant was “Poetry as Site of Resistance” (6/18/09) He lives in New York City.