Imagine that you are involved in a very profound experiment, an experiment in passivity. This is no normal passivity we are talking about here however, this is passivity taken to an extreme – an extreme that very few people would ever believe possible. In this experiment what is needed is for the test subject – yourself – to relinquish all original or independent thinking. So far so good – that doesn’t sound too hard. Lots of people seem to be able to pull this off. You decide to throw yourself into it and give it your very best shot.
To start off with you can begin with the basics. Let’s say that a friend suggests that you go somewhere, that you do something, and whatever it is you go along with it. Whatever is suggested, you are happy to agree to. Suppose you agree to go the pub to meet up with some of your mates. You are sitting there with your friends drinking a lager – somebody makes a comment, offers an opinion on some subject and you nod in agreement. He’s got a point there. Someone else comes out with a remark – you agree with that too. You are getting the hang of this – there’s nothing to it.
But now you have to take it to the next level. It’s no longer good enough just to go along with suggestions and agree verbally with other people’s opinions – you have to really agree. You have to totally accept what is being said. You have to accept unquestioningly. The drink has been flowing for a while now and tongues are being loosened; underlying prejudices are now being aired. One guy comes out with a forceful statement regarding a certain minority group who he sees as being responsible for the break-down in the moral fabric of society. It is not enough simply to agree with your bigoted friend – you have to embrace his viewpoint. You have to see the world through his eyes, feel deep down in your very bones that what he is saying is absolutely, fundamentally, poignantly true.
It turns out that your friend is a closet fascist brimming over with hatred and violent solutions to all the problems of the world. He explains to you – encouraged by your evident openness to his ideas – that what is needed is urgent, uncompromising action. Our glorious homeland is surrounded on all sides by enemies, infiltrated by those who would do us harm. They need to be exposed and cracked down on. Eliminated. Drastic action is the only way, the only answer. In addition all the scroungers and malingerers in society, all the ‘useless eaters’, need to be rounded up and dealt with in the only way they understand.
You drink up his words. His words are nectar. You can now see the necessity for yourself – you feel how urgent the situation is. You feel righteous anger towards the enemies of society and a fierce pride in your country; you want to get out there on the streets and start clearing them of all the scum that generations of weak and corrupt governments have allowed to accumulate there. The winos and the gypos, the freaks and the weirdos. Beggars. People from other countries. You hate them so much. You hate them so much you could vomit…
That is of course just one particular scenario to help get the flavour of what we are talking about. The principle of extreme passivity applies in a much wider way than this – it applies across the board, under all circumstances. It applies not just to people you might meet and be influenced by, it applies to the whole world, to the entirety of the environment that you inhabit. For the sake of the experiment what you have to learn to do next is ‘agree with the instructions implicitly encoded in the environment you find yourself in’.
Our environment is on one level physical, but much more significantly with regard to this experiment, it is on another level ‘non-physical’ or mental, which is to say – it is an ‘information environment’ which we are required to adapt ourselves to. One way to explain the ‘information environment’ is to say that we are provided with all sorts of cues for how we are expected to act, how we are required to behave, what we are expected to take seriously. We live in a world made up of messages, in other words – messages that have the function of telling us what to do and how to do it. We live in a world composed of ‘informational contour-lines’ the function of which is to guide and shape our perceptions, our thinking, and our behaviour.
Everywhere we go in the designed environment there are messages. Low-key ones that we don’t tend to notice and high-profile ones that make a big claim on our attention. The physical aspect of our world is embedded with coded instructions. Just to give a simple example of this sort of thing – chairs in a waiting room tell us to sit down; magazines on a waiting room table tell us to be prepared to wait. Street markings and signs tell us where to go; fences, walls or barbed wire tell us that we can’t go somewhere. Peoples’ clothing tells us stuff too: it tells us about the status of who we are dealing with, it tells us how we are to treat them. A suit tells us that someone is a respectable member of society and can be trusted. A policeman’s uniform tells us to obey him and a Judge’s garb requires us to respect his authority and not question his judgements. Fashionable attire also carries a message – it gives us information about the ‘coolness status’ of the wearer, it commands a different type of respect.
And along with all that implicit information there is also information of the explicit variety. What we call the news is ‘explicit information’ and whilst on the face of things it tells us ‘what is going on in the world’ it also tells us – in a less obvious way – how we are to look at that world; what we are to focus on and what we are not to focus on. ‘What is going on in the world’ is only of secondary importance – what is really important is how we are to evaluate and understand the world, what are the issues to take notice of. Our modality of perception is defined and redefined every time we watch the news or a ‘news program’– our minds are trained without us ever realizing it. Our minds are instructed or trained not so much by the information they receive, as by the way this information is presented, by what it left out, by what never gets mentioned. And most of this information comes not from TV or newspapers or magazines but from other people, who faithfully reproduce the patterns of perception that they have been trained in.
So the point we are making here is that with all of these messages, whether they are of the explicit or implicit variety, the experiment you are involved in requires that they be obeyed instantly. Extreme passivity means that you must obey them without thinking about what you are obeying; for the sake of the experiment you must obey all these messages without even thinking at the time that you are obeying! The process has now become ‘fully automatic’ and you are now a fully automated ‘obeying machine’…
This is where the big revelation comes in, the big secret, the thing no one ever tells you about: when you graduate to this level of passivity, this level of ‘unquestioning-ness’ (where every single command-impulse that comes your way gets obeyed so automatically that you never think “I am obeying the impulse”) then something quite unexpected happens. Just to explain this ‘transition point’ a bit more, it is as if you get an itch but as soon as you get that itch you scratch it and because you scratch the itch straightaway you never actually register it as an itch. You obey ‘the command to scratch’ which is the itch so immediately, so unthinkingly, that it goes away again as quickly as it comes into existence; the command translates instantly into the action and so you never notice the command. There is therefore no ‘decision-making’ in this process. There is no decision; the itch is its own decision and your assent doesn’t come into the equation.
So at this point the equation is “The itch equals the scratch”. There is no difference between the two – it is all a fluent mechanical process, a string being pulled which raises the arm of the puppet. If we look at the command impulse of the message as being ‘the itch’ and the specified behaviour as being ‘the scratching’ then we can see that the same thing happens here. The impulse is its own decision and so there is no need for a decision-maker, there is no need for a volitional agent. There is no need for you to agree even, that is a given, that is taken for granted.
So one way of looking at this ‘loss of the decision-maker’ is to say that I no longer notice the instructions, I just notice myself carrying them out. But there is more to it than this – when I notice myself carrying out the instructions, obeying the impulse to do this, that or the other then I perceive this as being my own decision. I perceive this as my own impulse being obeyed…
It feels, in other words, just as if it was me who wanted to do this, that, or the other. I feel like the originator of the decision, the author of the action or thought. And yet all I really did was to unquestioningly and inattentively obey the relevant impulse when it came my way; all I did was to be extremely passive about the whole thing and let it happen, for all the world as if I wasn’t even there at all…
To the extent that I am unquestioningly identified with the external authority that makes all the decisions however, we could say that it was ‘me’ that decided to do X, Y, or Z. The point is that when I abdicate as an autonomous agent, and facilitate there being ‘no gap at all’ between ‘trigger’ and ‘reaction’, then there really is no one there, no one to say that I did or did not decide to go along with the impulse. The agree-er is gone; the need for an agree-er is gone. There is only the impulse. There is only the programme, the ‘external authority’ behind the impulse-sequence.
When I passively identify with the external authority, then, it is not just that I feel that “What the external authority wants is also what I want” but rather that the distinction – the crucial distinction between myself and the external authority – has been quite lost. I am no longer a factor to be considered. There is only the external authority left in the equation – it is the hand and I am the glove!
The fascinating thing that has happened here therefore is that through the process of passive identification the genuine ‘I’ has been lost and has been replaced by the ‘I’ of the system, which I am happy to mistake as being ‘the real thing’. I assume that there is a real ‘I’; I assume that I am present as an authentic self, but this assumption – this ‘automatic perception’- is a mirage, a fiction, a phantom appearance with no reality to it whatsoever. There has been a murder (the heinous murder of the true self) but there are no witnesses and thus – as Jean Baudrillard says – the crime goes unreported. No one ever worries about it. We carry on as normal, as if nothing at all had ever happened…
Or we could say that this is similar to what happened in J.G. Ballard’s story of when he was a schoolboy held in a Japanese internment camp in China in World War 2. Ballard relates that one prisoner had died, and that rather than report the death, as they were supposed to, the other prisoners concealed the death and used the dead man’s identity, his credentials as an actual living person, in order to claim the extra ration of food ever day. In the same way, when the true individuality is lost its ‘credentials’, its ‘papers’, are used by the system that has ‘taken over’ or absorbed that individuality to create the surface-level appearance of an ‘I’, the phantom of a true individual, the two-dimensional illusion of an autonomous self.
The point we are making here is that an ‘obeying machine’ which is a fully-integrated part within a bigger machine is not really an individual ‘part’ at all – it is the bigger machine!
So at this point – finally – the experiment in extreme passivity has been successfully completed. Congratulations are in order – you have penetrated to the very heart of the mystery! The only thing is however that you are no longer there to know about it.
You have obeyed yourself right out of existence…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.