The Stanford Prison Experiment
You Are Warden, You Are Inmate
Our institutionally enrobed psychologists are so proud of their experimental apparatus - but when’s the last time they experimented with experimentation? Has anyone taken it upon themselves to prove the efficacy of their methods? The Stanford Prison Experiment seems to signal the end of interesting social experimentation anywhere within a large radius of academia: they didn’t like what they found. Ever since, they’ve been accumulating a mountain of wishful conclusions, hoping to bury the disturbing vision under a crushing weight of mutually reinforcing prejudice, faulty unconsidered method, and silent unspoken conspiratorial terror of political ostracization.
What are they so afraid of? What does the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrate? That we are indelibly tribal creatures; that our moral sentiments are shallow and vitiated, that we don’t know who we are, until we are tested. That the vast majority will fail the test of integrity: however, this also means they will pass the test of tribal instinct. They will choose the winning side, they will make accurate guesses about probable victories, they will quickly and effortlessly realign their emotional investments and discover rationalizations for any and all participation required to ensure victory over “them”. My work does not seek to denigrate the tribal creature: it only looks like a liar’s game when contravening the shameful clothing it was forced to wear up until that point - in other words, the modern human being is a hypocrite because it’s forced into too many inarticulate, incomplete, and contradictory tribal contexts, not because it’s incapable of fidelity. Modern morality is largely ashamed of itself, ashamed of humanity, ashamed of its essential hypocrisy and therefore seeks grandiose compensations, calling them categorical, “universal” and “the Good”. The sycophantic modern human creature, cowering in a corner of his cell, gathering information to be used against his friends, consoles himself by believing that his intimate gossiping concern for everything and everyone is “compassion for all sentient life”, rather than an informant’s dragnet. “Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter” is what the East German Stasi used to call them, and according to their own records they generally numbered at about 200,000, or 1% of the population: but that’s 1% of the total who are willing to explicitly cooperate in programs of oppression, rather than implicitly. That’s 1% who are willing to take the risk of exposing their real motives to themselves - of learning who they are - so desperate is their thirst for the Punitive City. But it’s anonymity and plausible deniability that is the safest and generally winning strategy in this game: tribal unrest, the crisis of treachery and betrayal which constitutes the modern tribeless condition, defines the Nash equilibrium we call “hypocrisy”.
It’s reported that Felix Dzerzhinsky, arguably the godfather of all 20th century secret police, once told Lenin that secret police work could only be accomplished by “saints or scoundrels … but now the saints are running away from me and I am left with the scoundrels”. But what is a saint in my terms? A professional scoundrel, a conman who has convinced more than half of himself and thus in a sense is no mere liar - which is why Dzerzhinsky was complaining about being left with the amateurs.
Keeping up the churning confusion of modernity, the punishing waves of alienation and nameless loss which creates novel opportunities for unique forms of power - such as coveted roles within the secret police - goes by other names: “permanent revolution” is what Trotsky would call it. Thus is the secret behind political posturing revealed: to the degree that one is a miserable but ambitious wretch, one delights in shallow political advocacy because it disrupts existing hierarchies and creates temporary power imbalances which can be exploited. Social media is largely the platform for a million and one wannabe politicians and demagogues: the middle and upper classes now raise their children as though they were already celebrities, encouraging the cultivation of virtual image at the earliest possible stage, so that they may be ready to compete in an increasingly virtual and reactionary social sphere…
But what we’re witnessing in the Stanford Prison Experiment is not actually tribality, but tribal instincts within the confines of civilizational scarcity. One of the Foucaultian insights no one seems to have internalized, is that architecture not only expresses but enacts forms of coercion: it maps possible social configurations, subtly delimiting possible attitudes and outcomes. Human tribal instincts inside a cage should not be judged as though that’s what they essentially are. I insist that a great deal of what’s known as fascism, are the tribal instincts pushed to a critical threshold - an emergency protocol, not their healthy functioning.
No one asks what happens when you take the same impulses and put them outside, beyond the reach of modern architecture and artificial scarcity. There is the possibility that the Punitive City and prison behaviors represent an adaptive pattern: a prisoner in the enemy camp, the dissolving tribe. The women are willing to remarry, the men are willing to defect.
What do I mean by “phylopsychology”? Every group psychology I’m aware of, fails to take into account the fact that we are tribal animals, with functionally tribal responses. Ever since its inception in France and England in the early 19th century, sociology would rather ask why the human being fails to conform to the brutal but supposedly sublimely rational mediations of civilization, and in answer draw up a list of “cognitive biases” and outline novel educational opportunities for psychiatric torture, than take seriously the idea that we are already well-adapted for another context.
The architect of the original Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, has had enough fortitude to faithfully stand by the results of his famous experiment. Yet he is also clearly not up to the emotional challenge of assimilating the lesson: he wants to wax tragically poetic about “how good people become evil”. What’s comical to my eye, is how even this mainline Marxist-Weberian sociological interpretation, oversteps what the majority are willing to accept: the postagricultural human race is primarily populated by the peasant type, who still needs to believe in a categorically demonstrable good and evil. The assertion, “I would never!” stands at the heart of all the blustering “refutation” of this experiment. Academic sociology and psychology has gone as far as making it formally impossible to repeat: they created a “standard of ethics” which forecloses actual social experimentation - thus what has taken place in these fields since, are 10,000 repetitions of false experimentation. With their sterile questionnaires and utterly riskless “experiments”, they ask their participants to pretend to have a feeling, to pretend to have something at stake, to pretend to be acting socially - without establishing sufficient illusion to actually induce social behavior such as Zimbardo’s experiment did: therefore what has been studied for decades now, is the sociology of false sociality. Which would make an interesting subject in itself, were it studied properly: every result of academic sociology and psychology should therefore be examined under the light of these questions: “How are the subjects falsifying a social response? What does the falsification tell us about what the human race wishes were true? What were the expectations of the researchers and how did the subjects sense and anticipate them?”
I’ll allow Zimbardo to speak for himself when describing the coping strategies of prisoners:
Prisoners coped with their feelings of frustration and powerlessness in a variety of ways. At first, some prisoners rebelled or fought with the guards. Four prisoners reacted by breaking down emotionally as a way to escape the situation. One prisoner developed a psychosomatic rash over his entire body when he learned that his parole request had been turned down. Others tried to cope by being good prisoners, doing everything the guards wanted them to do.
Quoted from prisonexp.org
In modernity you have a few choices:
Shallow symbolic rebellion
Complicity and authoritarian identification
Each of us dips into each of these strategies a little here and there, creating tapestries of denial and hysterical displacement with varying artistry. There is the rebel without a cause who later becomes an entrenched punitive conformist; there is the anxious wreck who covertly delights in lowering the quality of life for everyone else; there is the psychosomatic genius who protects himself with illness… Generally it is this last type whom I prefer: those who are capable of transformation of psychic pain into physical, are also capable of the reverse - something generally overlooked in the analysis of what is called “shamanism”. Psychosomatic phenomena is relatively the norm in the human species: the difference is a matter of degree and imagination. The human being is sick: thus it is that spiritual practice is properly termed “making medicine”…
The prison is a terrifying imbalance of power which reveals underlying unconscious mechanics of identification. Freud called this “transference”:
During the parole hearings we also witnessed an unexpected metamorphosis of our prison consultant as he adopted the role of head of the Parole Board. He literally became the most hated authoritarian official imaginable, so much so that when it was over he felt sick at who he had become – his own tormentor who had previously rejected his annual parole requests for 16 years when he was a prisoner.
Lessons from Abu Ghraib:
Women are just as likely and able to commit torture as men.
The pattern is as follows: the stupid little people commit the deeds, the authorities wink. Thus is blame sufficiently diffused: the perpetrators are typically former victims repeating a history of abuse; while the authorities are people of protected status fully accustomed to complicitude, hypocrisy, and skillful ex post facto moral reasoning. No one is to blame, everyone is guilty.
The worst offenders are always underachievers, overlooked wannabes, chronic losers, and ambitious police and paramilitary. There is a long chain of implicit systemic violence at work in these “scandals”: they are merely the last element in a long displacement of violence and the accumulated humiliations of civilization. Only at the very tail end, in an isolated prison on the other side of the world in a chaotic newly occupied country, does the repression finally lift: and we witness what has accumulated in the human collective.
Everything which one of us does is the responsibility and response of every one of us: this is a worthwhile perspective, and I believe that you will not be able to digest and assimilate the long history of atrocities until you learn to accept the force of its truth. We are all responsible: there is one human psyche, and it is capable of everything of the worst as much as everything of the best. Until you accept this axiom, you will remain trapped within the moral illusion, unable to tell the truth, and have no access to the equally valid assertion of our universal innocence. There is no other final redemption and liberation of the human creature.
What is the meaning of the prison? As metaphor, as symptom, as expression of genetic and historical forces?
The essence of sociality. What is social? The wide-eyed obsequious answer we generally hear, is “cooperation”. The prison teaches something else: the essence of sociality is infraspecies exploitation selectively repressed, which generates hierarchies of dominance for the optimization of group function. In other words, cooperation is a coincident byproduct of inhibition due to competition between roughly equivalent agencies: establish an imbalance of power, and this constant competitive thirst for dominance will percolate out from the corresponding willingness to be dominated. We are all potentially warden and inmate. The ape is both greedy and fearful: he wants power and will delight in it at the first opportunity no matter how petty and shortsighted, but he also fears exclusion through moral censure and thus learns to hide his schemes and wait for the right moment. Character and ethical integrity are rare because they are not adaptive for social life: what does “character” mean but the inability and unwillingness to adapt to novel social imbalances of power? Integrity is an expensive liability which rarely pays. Poverty and isolation are generally its fruits: one must therefore learn to delight in these things, if one is to possess the rare gem of autonomous self-respect.
In the prison environment, repression lifts and we see human sociality for what it always was in virtual statespace: which also means, our hypervigilance and misanthropy were after all not so misplaced, but because we had only petty scheming and backbiting as personal testimony, we sometimes wondered whether it wasn’t ourselves who were petty… Fear not therefore: you are already armed with the knowledge and instinct to defend against the excesses of the unholy ape. It may seem a contradiction to say on the one hand, “Human tribality should not be judged while imprisoned”, and on the other hand to say, “The essence of sociality is hereby revealed”: but I say it nonetheless. The tribe is actually the most humane form of sociality, because it is a functional compromise between the indifference of the flock and the punitive normalcy of the colony: there is a discernible scale of social function, wherein many of the apex predators sit in the middle. But the hymenoptera insect colony is termed “eusocial”, because of the prejudices of modernity: maximum sociality and “the Good” have been considered synonymous for some time and formulated as such since at least the English utilitarians… Actually everything edifying and decent about social life, everything which makes travel, conversation, and friendship worthwhile, is its unrealized and imperfect nature: freedom and dignity lies in imperfection, improvisation, and the futilities which demand disciplined creativity - in other words, the spirit of nomadism.
What are the historical manifestations of the gestalt called “prison”? I see one in the past, and the other in the future.
Slavery. To the precise degree that a species is social, it is capable of enslavement: thus ants enslave. Some species of hymenoptera cannot survive in any way other than by enslaving another species. This is also the meaning of agriculture and husbandry, and why again the ants are capable of it. Slavery is not some unique human evil, it lies at the heart of the problem of the organic: how does an organism acquire predominant power at an emergent level of competition? Predation and slavery - which are only the initial and final expressions of the same function. This is the point at which my own biosemiotics diverges from the driveling hopes of academe and the likes of Thomas Sebeok.
Realized modernity. Modernity strives to distribute the roles of master and slave equitably among us all: the institution and spirit of slavery has not been abolished, it has been dismantled and reassembled elsewhere. I consider the work of Foucault invaluable: and yet few seem to be able to read him honestly, and look rather to mine it for the ammunition of political posturing - they would rather seem to join the fight against “the man”, than discover the fight within their own beliefs and motives. Why can’t they stand him? Because they lack the emotional strength to endure the insight: one must possess a large hidden reserve of meaningfulness to endure the cold hard stare of modernity such as it peeks through Foucault.
I will have much more to say concerning the Punitive City.
But allow me a phylopsychological digression. The purpose of the beauty response in men, is not only to judge the reproductive fitness of a female at a glance, but the capacity to be seduced. But sufficient seduction for sexual reproduction is easy - a few shortlived hormonal responses are all that’s required. The exaggerated aesthetic faculty of the human male is something more: to seduce him into tribal life and tribal loyalties. The tortured male, torn between violence and peace: women have been conditioned to find this type most attractive of all.
Why do I rely so heavily on the resurgent sense of beauty in my rhetoric? Why does it seem so important to constantly point the way back to a redemption? As though I were to leave traces behind us as we venture further into a wilderness. Because we have reason to be doubly afraid: afraid because our hearts are children and easily tremble, and afraid because the wildernesses of modernity are actually worse than that of our ancestors. More brutal, more nightmarish, more panoptic, more personally impersonal and thus worthy of paranoia: Foucault should be read in small doses and digested thoroughly, in order to internalize the importance of his work… His overly erudite French excesses of style don’t actually do his insights justice - the scope of what he’s talking about is not generally clear because he insists on such detailed analysis… Leave it therefore to a poet of terror, who seeks to make a sharp vision of modernity clearer: this is why I have need of so many rhetorical downbeats, in which our emotional endurance can catch up and expand. It is emotional intelligence and strength we’re after: raw intellect is cheap, explicit logic is easy. The unconscious implicit logic, the invisible architecture of the breathing human world, the transgenomic factors seeking expression through humanity itself: we are so sure that our civilization has conquered nature, but it is very likely that all civilizational forces are merely a competitive form of life seeking to exploit us. The realization of modernity is this debt falling due: a technologically dominant future is very likely to be merely the next recursive plane of a very old war within the confines of life itself. “The bentback bow”: too many assume that “life” is necessarily some unary force, and forget that its essence is competition and exploitation - there are not only many species of life, but many species of the alive.