The Struggle for Control of the New Techniques of Conditioning

A cartoon showing adults interacting with children - Reinforcement and Punishment

Text on psychological manipulation and influence from International Situationniste #1.

Submitted by Fozzie on November 24, 2022

Translated by Ian Thompson, March 2015. Proofread and Edited by Anna O’Meara & Mehdi el H. From:

“It is now possible for us to unfailingly trigger and direct the responses of men in predetermined ways”, writes Serge Chakhotin concerning techniques of public influence1 used by both revolutionaries and fascists between the two world wars (“The Rape of the Masses : the Psychology of Totalitarian Political Propaganda”2
, Gallimard). Science has continued to progress ever since: there have been advances in the experimental study of the mechanisms of behaviour; new uses have been found for existing technologies; and new technologies [for influencing behaviour] have been invented. For many years, there have been trials of subliminal advertising (by editing unrelated images, 1/24th of a second in duration, into films, – [that are] perceptible to the retina but that remain beneath conscious recognition) and of inaudible advertising (using infrasound). In 1957, Canada’s National Defence Research Service carried out an experimental study into boredom, in which subjects were isolated in a hermetically-sealed3 environment (a constantly-lit cell with bare walls, furnished with only a comfortable couch, and absolutely devoid of smells, noises, or variations in temperature). Researchers observed extensive disturbances in behaviour; in the absence of sensory stimuli the brain failed to maintain the standard4 level of arousal needed for its normal functioning. They could therefore conclude that dull ambiences have a harmful influence on human behaviour, and hence explain the unpredictable accidents that occur during monotonous work – which will certainly5 increase with the extension of automation.

The testimony of a certain Lajos Ruff, published in the French press6 at the start of 1958, takes take this a step further7 . His account (dubious in many respects, but not lacking in detail8 ) describes the “brainwashing” he allegedly endured [at the hands of]9 the Hungarian police in 1956. Ruff claims he had spent six weeks locked in a room where the combined use of well-known techniques10 had aimed at — and eventually succeeded in — making him lose all faith in his own perception of the outside world and in his own personality. These techniques were: the resolutely alien decor of this closed room (transparent furniture, a curved bed); the lighting, with a bright light11 from the outside shining through at night (he had deliberately been warned about the light’s psychological effects, but had no ability to shelter [from it]); psychoanalytic methods used by a doctor in everyday conversation; various drugs; simple deceptions which enhanced the effects of these drugs (even though he had every reason to believe that he had been unable to leave his cell for weeks, he would wake up [dressed in] damp clothes and muddy shoes); the screening of absurd or erotic films, combined with the occasional performance of other scenes in the room itself; and lastly, visitors who spoke to him as if he were the hero of an adventure series (set in the Hungarian Resistance) which he was forced to watch (from the details in these films and in his real-life encounters, he ended up feeling the pride of having taken part in the action).

Here we must recognise the repressive use of a constructed ambience that has reached a fair level of complexity. To date, all the findings of impartial scientific research have been ignored by free artists, and put to immediate use by the police. In the United States subliminal advertising has raised some concern, but the public has been reassured by the announcement that the first two slogans to be broadcast would be innocuous 12 . These persuasive messages are“Ils influenceront dans ces deux directions” – literally “They will influence in these two ways”: “Drive slower” and “GO TO CHURCH.”

The entire humanist, artistic and legal notion of the sacrosanct, unalterable personality is doomed. We have no displeasure in seeing it go. But it should be understood that we will [actively] join the race between free artists and the police to test and to improve the use of the new techniques of conditioning. The police already have a considerable head start in this race. Its outcome [will result in either]13 the outbreak of passionate and liberating environments, or the scientifically controllable, impervious reinforcement of the old world’s environment of horror and oppression. While we speak of free artists, no artistic freedom is possible until we seize the means accumulated by the XXth century – which we see as the real means of artistic production. Those deprived of [such means] are doomed not to be artists for these times. If the control of these new means is not entirely revolutionary, we could be dragged towards the police[-state] ideal14 of a beehive-like society. The domination of nature can be either revolutionary or become the absolute weapon of the forces of the past. The Situationists place themselves at the service of the need for forgetting. The only force that the Situationists can expect anything of is the proletariat (theoretically without a past, compelled to reinvent everything permanently, which in Marx’s words “is revolutionary or nothing”). Will the proletariat be of our times or not? The question is important for our purpose: the proletariat must realise art.

Translator's note: As this new translation was being produced, I cross-referenced it to an existing translation made by Reuben Keehan, available on-line here. I would like to acknowledge the work done by Reuben Keehan, and the real assistance his translation provided. However all final decisions (for better or worse – which is for the reader to decide) in this translation are mine alone.

  • 1“méthods d’influence sur des collectivités” – techniques of influence on communities”
  • 2Title of the English version of Chakhotin’s book – translated by E. W. Dickes (Alliance Book Corp, 1940)
  • 3“un environnement aménagé de telle sorte que rien ne pouvrait s’y passer” – literally “an environment adjusted in such a way that nothing can get through it”
  • 4“moyenne” – can also be translated as “average” or “normal”
  • 5“destinés à” – literally “destined for”
  • 6“et en libraire” – redundant phrase not included
  • 7“On va plus loin” – literally “We go further”
  • 8“ne contenant aucune anticipation de détail” – literally “not holding back any advance of detail”
  • 9“que lui aurait fait subir la” – literally “which he would have [been] made to endure [by] the”
  • 10“moyens” – literally “means” or “resources”
  • 11“rayon lumineux” – literally “luminous beam”
  • 12“seraient sans danger pour quiconque” – literally “would be harmless for anyone”
  • 13“De son issue dépend pourtant” – literally “From its outcome yet depends”
  • 14alternatively “policé” can be the past participle of the archaic verb “policer” (literally “to civilise”) – so there is an alternate rendered of “civilised ideal”