Aesthetics, Choice and Behavior Modification:
Prelude to a Psychology of Applied Transgression


"Eeny, meany, chili beany. The spirits are about to speak!" – Bullwinkle J. Moose
"Are they friendly spirits, Bullwinkle?" – Rocky Squirrel

"An organism is said to choose when it responds in a way that makes it impossible for another response to occur.

... For the utilitarians, a choice was right if it promoted the greatest good for the greatest number; economists have appealed to the maximization of utility, as in the theory of subjective expected utility; and behavioral scientists speak of the optimization or melioration of other consequences. Choice is needed only when there is no other measure of probability of responding. It is true that if a man does not do one thing, he will do another or do nothing, and that if you want him to do A and not B, you have only to make the "expected utility" of A greater than that of B as by describing favorable consequences or reinforcing A more frequently. But you are changing only relative probabilities. Contingencies of reinforcement are much more powerful than the "expected utilities" that follow from instruction, and rate of responding is a more direct measure of probability than a choice between alternatives." – B.F. Skinner


Posit: Learned helplessness is an essential condition for civilization to succeed (in the biological sense, that is, to continue on its merry way without irritating encumbrances like revolutions or mosquitoes). Learned hinderlessness is never discussed in any school or psychiatric institute. The issue has always been control. Unfortunately, we can't seem to teach mosquitoes anything. Potential revolutionaries or reactionary children, on the other hand, may be apt pupils. Suppose there was a course of instruction called "The Psychology of Applied Transgression", beyond even Asger Jorn's "Institute for Comparative Vandalism"?

Dystopias are always portrayed as worlds void of transgression. It is a dream of utopianists as well. It is the goal of civilisation – uniform, ordered movement where neither prediction nor prophecy are necessary. Learned helplessness is the acquired and accrued tendency of behavior to transcend from movement into catatonia. It is the end of a journey, the cessation of exploration. It is the rapid extinction of behavior patterns which are not only not reinforced, but downright hindered, together with the inductive generalization that any attempt at individual movement is a fruitless undertaking. It brings death to imagination. Undertakers are always needed in the general economy! Prolonged catatonia is death, the only condition which makes choice irrelevant, since movement itself is impossible.

Experimental controls, environmental controls and social control are all attempts to eliminate or constrain the influence of intervening variables. These variables are nothing if not contingencies of reinforcement, influences which actually suggest even more variability or "drift". The caged animal is physically helpless. It's life experience habituates it to display behavior patterns of dependence on the experimental administrators to the point (or of such strength) that it will return to the cage even if let loose. Constraint gives it a sense of security when reinforcement (the conditions for survival) is predictably, if only intermittently experienced with the pull of a lever, the push of a button. The Metaphor of the black box is much more applicable to our situation than the "prison", as B. F. Skinner alluded in his dystopia, Walden Two.

Control is the condition of survival, even when, on release, the cage is itself removed from the room. In the presence of food, the animal might frantically search for a lever or button, some learned trick to perform before pursuing the food. The mouse has learned political economy. Fortunately, at least if you are a mouse, there are enough attractive variables or points of greater interest (contingencies of reinforcement or variability in the environment) outside the lab, tricks performed for survival can eventually be replaced with merely living, but not without attendant scars. The rupture in the conditions of living comes not with the opening of the cage door (as necessary as that is), but with the shaking off of old, and now unnecessary behavior patterns. After a time, if the controls are gone – perhaps the window was left open – these behavior patterns, the requisite dance for food, extinguish. If they do not, the little furry guy himself does. In the context of "living", contingencies of reinforcement may be rephrased as "contingencies of encouragement", a context which would not be considered "punishing" but full of possibility. Being "constrained" by encouragement sounds absurd, but describes the nature of operant conditioning: behavior follows the direction in which it is encouraged! It is our Orwellian language games which introduce paradox.

On the other hand, people who have been taught that they are above and beyond such things as instinct or intuition, that the aesthetic sense (the ability to respond to interesting stimuli, to follow what appears appetizing) is the private domain of artists endowed with rare genetic material and specialised instruction, will not be able to get beyond their acquired helplessness and seek out assistance from the gifted or make demands on the willing or the "inferior", which is to say, "subduable". The dance goes on. The punishing context of the history and present perception of modern culture is self-reinforcing, self-justifying only by restricting the aesthetic response to its own jurisdiction through environmental control – difference is not tolerated.


What is not mentioned by a pure stimulus-response (the control paradigm) portrayal of universal helplessness, the idea of a totality of futility when responses to aversive stimuli consistently fail, is that this generalisation may also have positive or adaptive consequences. If personal helplessness does not interfere with one's self esteem as Heider's attributional theory suggests,[1] it is as easily likely to lead to the cognitive assessment that the task or goal is itself impossible and others' claims to success are illusionary (or even delusional). Very often this assessment is correct. That is, self-esteem might not be questioned (persistent radicals rarely adopt the character armour of low self-esteem when their projects fail, at least not in public – when they do, their personal revolution loses all meaning and they cease to be labeled "radical").

For example, Lenin, Stalin and Mao did not bring communism to East Europe and Asia, only an alternate version of capital. In fact, their proclamation of victory abruptly put an end to any attempts to pursue this course above ground. This did not eliminate the reproduction of anarchist and communist "dissidents" no matter how many were shot or rounded up and sent to the gulags or re-education camps. Another example, the "radical" worker's movement shifted from the goal of general strike to local work-place struggle, sabotage of machinery to sabotage of labour time (utilisation of sick days, local strikes, work slow-downs, "slacking") when it was discovered general consensus could not be achieved. The point is that the generalisation that the revolution against everything under the sun is not possible allows one to reassess the goals and address behavior toward more immediate ends, more under-the-table transactions, more achievable possibilities.

Global helplessness ("Resistance is futile!") represents the tragic end of the spectrum of possible responses. Debilitating OCD represents another end. The potential toward catatonia, the extinction of self-motivated behavior itself, is of no use to the general stasis (or the unchanging state of civil progress, the inhibition of periodic crises or "dis-tractions"), hence institutionalization of the depressed and the phobic who are two standard deviations from the desired norm of productive compliance.

Institutionalisation takes the form of 1) architectural habilitation, as in hospital or gas chamber and 2) rehabilitation, as in psychiatry, social welfare/voc-rehab and psycho-pharmaceuticals. It is the same whether the deviation is a matter of constitution (of the state or the individual) or mis-fortune, a potential for a 'real' helplessness acknowledged by all. Obviously, extinction of behavior itself is as well not practical to revolution, therefore a certain range of deviation must always be tolerated. Within one standard deviation, it is called creativity. Any more than this is "transgression". We persist in finding a use for everything, if only as a prop for something to ridicule; otherwise there is the garbage disposal.

In this context, persistent reactionaries or revolutionaries not prone to self-imposed exile are thought to express an unfounded death-wish. Unlike mere criminals who do nothing more than "milk the system", "reactionaries" are never tolerated when there is suspected a danger they might be mimicked, as if there is nothing left on the globe to explore except its abrupt edge. That order would be called chaos. Their very existence is considered an affront to proper parenting and therefore, an insult to one and all.


Neither Chomsky and the sympathetic semioticians, nor experimental behaviorists still operating within a stimulus-response paradigm[2] seem to recognize mutuality and a level of aesthetics involved in learning (although Skinner comes much closer when he posited the almost interchangeable simultaneity of stimulus and response – we equally draw and are drawn, are revolted and revolting, push and are pulled in non-dialectical processes[3]). Might this 'sensory impairment' or blind-sightedness be because of the one-sided cause-effect, fore-and-aft operations (we might say "the politics of everyday life") working to produce both their worlds, worlds in which choice is irrelevant and any sense of alterity is irreverent?

Irreverent physicists are now talking of forces (urges) of self-similarity (fractal cartography of coastlines portrays the equivalence of all Norwegian fnords) and attraction to fractures ('fracticity', or the urge to diversify, fractify) operating throughout nature. And we call this "Chaos Theory". In its simplest form it is represented by gargantuan NASA computers equiped with windows paintbrush as a butterfly. If we look closely, we find anomalies hiding in every dark alley. Best not to travel those streets, where an intervening variable might kick you in the ass. François Rabelais wrote of panurgics (universal labour, great work) in the 16th century[4], just ahead of the invention of the alarm clock in Europe which announced the necessary equivalence, the self-similarity of work time and prayer time. He portrayed the possibility of movement unarticulated by the ringing of bells.

Outside the lab, identical conditions or sets of contingencies never produce identical responses precisely because there are no identical sets in the first place, only attractive and distracting sets of similarities, all surrounding even more attention-grabbing oddities. When mimicked, rehearsed and repeated, they are no longer odd and we call them "habit". Even a peculiar odor is lost rapidly – we habituate – even though neither of us has left the room. Repeated exposure produces something like boredom and in fact, a sort of nasal amnesia until we are separated for a time, and then re-united. The nasal aesthetic is renewed, as strong as ever. Rehearsal (hear again) resurrects that which we thought was carried away in a hearse at the first toll of the death bell. Or was that the alarm clock telling us to forget the dream and get ready for work?

Repeated or intermittent exposure relegates the one-time peculiarity to the sonic realm, "background noise". This suggests we may forget (become "mindless") by the very same process by which we learn conscious discrimination, the way we know our abc's. When we consider something especially worth remembering, we attempt mimicry, search out similarities, establish new symbolic associations (incorporate it with what is already familiar – we give it "kinship", "sympathy") and/or we attach a label. How soon we forget that habits are always open to re-evaluation along any number of dimensions besides utility, and they are, in fact, open to transgression and ultimate extinction. This works for individuals as well as cultures, and applies equally to our own habits and to our co-habitants. We also forget that extinct behavior patterns are never content to stay buried. A haunting is just a bad habit looking for a more welcoming home. And yes, Bullwinkle, there are also friendly spirits.

The contradiction inserted into any equation will always live on in its solution. The world itself comes to resemble climate-controlled laboratories and ourselves, genetically altered neuro-physiological computing machines navigating simple mazes during the day, relaxing with a glass of carrot juice before retiring, and racing in treadmills on the weekends just to keep up our fitness. Our brains are now taught to model computers, yet they tell us it's the other way around. When the telephone appeared across the land, we were told the frontal lobes resembled the operator's switch-board at the telephone exchange. The homunculus has survived medieval alchemy and found a comfortable home in the deep structure of Chomskian linguistics. Another way of saying all this is that the world is not a machine, not even machinic, and certainly not a mathematical equation calling for a final solution, say, 42.


Operant conditioning is the modification of behavior already undertaken. It demands self-motivation and personal agency or it would be a logical absurdity: psychological "control" (changing behavior) could otherwise be rendered down to simply changing or removing a stimulus to effect a desired response. Sheep herders have never found this a useful tactic. Had he come to the mountains of Arizona or Wyoming, Skinner might not have had to spend so much time in the lab, where he learned that torturing his small furry pets did not produce very good performances. He gave them bigger houses and more levers to push. In other words, he found he had to increase available options and broaden the contingencies of reinforcement[5].

Freud thought psychoanalysis could systematically eliminate forces of psychic control. What a great idea! Otto Gross[6] took it a step further. Sheepherders call it "helping out a neighbor" or simply moving camp to where the sheep have already discovered "good feed". This relaxation of control is quite a different path than that taken by Freud's nephew who gave birth to the "public relations industry", instituting modern state propaganda. Advertisers and Psyops make great use of behavior modification – they've progressed from honey-coated poison to water-boarding experimental subjects.[7].

We make choices every day, and sometimes we just move. Again, "choice is needed only when there is no other measure of probability of responding." We are not necessarily mindful of this. It is in fact a big choice to make no choice at all. That takes real commitment. We cringe at the suggestion of refusing orders from "above" or even question the insinuations of authorities such as the men in labcoats announcing that "seven of nine dentists recommend Crest". "Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so" [ – Bertrand Russell]. For those who do think, the seemingly common and rational process of mechanically reducing the options available down to one calculated preference for each possible occasion often results in the reduction of the world itself (our ability to perceive it as well as its "physical" destruction) and the paradoxical elimination of choice altogether. Yet we must do something!

Sometimes the first sentence uttered by intuition really is preferable to all the revisions and paragraphs and pages which come thereafter. The sensed aesthetic speaks to passion, passion to motivation. Intuition drives. Ration navigates. The road makes its own curves. The occasion itself is a zen totality, without corpuscles. It is also called "movement". It might be better to say that the whole area around contingencies of reinforcement and modeling behavior describes the aesthetic experience, the attraction or "interest" which inspires all movement, not "forces of control". The very exercise of control-with-a-vengeance, the hindering behavior of bosses and jailers everywhere which we call tyrannical or despotic, is the secret confession of helplessness and inadequacy. The Freudian diagnosis of neurosis is almost inescapable. Fortunately, the more customary admission gives off the odor of victim – the defeated, acquiescent and subdued. It is a more human aura, it may accompany acts of kindness, but the odor is nevertheless one of impending death. It can never create situations, it maintains them. The victim provides all the justification needed to prove the self-fulfilling prophecy. Did someone say vicious cycle?

A constraining environment, our social environment, the very structure of society we produce and reproduce is what we do have. Freud's catharsis or Lainge's movement through madness only work in an unmanipulating or protective environment. So we are more attracted to words like extinction, annihilation, disposal, burying hatchets, negation, revolution, insurrection. When Skinner used the phrase, "under control of contingencies of reinforcement", he was talking about communication – in other words, feedback processes. He clearly acknowledged mutual influence; in fact his theory of operant conditioning depends on it. I once asked a herder, "What do you have to know to be a herder?" His answer: "You have to let 'em be natural. Just watch 'em; they'll tell you what you need to do. ...Ya can't learn sheepherding from a book!".


All relations could be said to have a linguistic "component". Contingencies of reinforcement are merely the world talking to us. When we refuse to listen, we get ourselves into trouble, it is not something done to us. Of course, parents, teachers and judges also use this logic, but for them it is pure sophistry for the express intention of stopping "deviating" movement – "Don't make waves!", "No Meandering!" When we are moved to action, when we move, we cannot help but create new contingencies. The linguistic perspective brings to mind that there is always a potential in any linguistic situation for our relations to take the form of argument or dialogue, to carry on the dialectic friction or engage in the erotic. As Mustapha Khayati suggested[8], the most important dialectic which should concern us is that between power and life. Motion is the remedy for catatonia just as physical therapy speeds the recovery of broken bones, more than any amount or combination of opiates, anti-inflammatories and strong drink. Those are better served with healthy bones.

When we arrive at a "decision-gate", there is but one choice made, but as Mr. Spock proclaimed, "there are yet, always alternatives". What else could we expect if the universe is presumed infinite and connected? It is true that once we have chosen a course, that choice is no longer available – we move right along – but a whole universe of possibilities is opened up before us, some of which we may even recognise. And that is called the future.

Only an insistence on one's own separation from one's own exterior leads to hurt feelings when issues of personal control over the environment (or by it) are called in for questioning. We are likely to hear "I am no slave to the environment!" and witness behavior which sets out to prove it – we crush a beer can against our forehead just to illustrate we can, and a barren strip mine demonstrates intellectual progress. In that world, the pushing and pulling are always at odds. Every time a science of aesthetics starts to emerge, a science which studies mutual influence, reciprocal relations, the complexity of reciprocal contingencies and therefore the multiplicity of options, the cavalry shows up under the protection of the Archbishop of Thing to bring on the death of nurture by the wrath (or is that wraith?) of nature – it gives us the deep structure of "Harsh Reality", the forward progress of manipulable genetic tyranny – and science itself is rendered helpless.

A few notes on reinforcement and reward:

Reinforcement: Children understand the difference between reinforcement and reward. So many parents and educators don't (their childhood behavior patterns are extinguished). Children come into the world, (that is, in their growth, 'becoming' or actualization), enhancing and adorning (in the sense of both "titivate" and "titillate") expectations of nurture ('love' reciprocated [reflected, echoed], of appreciation, congratulation, treats, gifts). It is not an expression but an openness or receptivity. They are simultaneously mimicking, adorning, adoring, appreciating, inspired, giving. Predictably, the square block entering the round receptacle results in great acts of frustration we call "misbehavior" or its alternative, "closed off", "timid", and in domestic animals, "broke" (as in 'spirit').

The giving and receiving are two perspectives of what is a simultaneity, not an economy (tit-for-tat) – it is wrong, I think, to say "they have yet to learn to make the essential distinction". That just begs the question of "true essences". Modeling demands this singularity and, not paradoxically, this singular process (growth of the organism) demands modeling. Reinforcement either affirms this intuitive expectation, or it does not. Patterns match or they do not. This pattern-matching may be said to be the source, or rather, the "correlate" or even equivalent of the aesthetic experience. It is the point where the interior and exterior merge. Such is communication. Reinforcement negates hindrance or constraint. It allows continuity of behavior as well as "autonomous" behavioral change. It allows memory. It ecourages movement. To say "we are constrained by contingencies of reinforcement" is, I think, a warped viewpoint coming from life in an experimental lab where contingencies of reinforcement are themselves constrained and controlled, where we do not choose a direction, we are taken.

The aesthetic experience exists in mutual relations between the interior and exterior, so should not be expected to be encoded in genes or expression of the physiologically structured gray matter. Genes are just another contingency in a complex pattern of reinforcement and their expression is generally a matter only of probability. Nor should it be considered the effect of an external locus of control (environmental determinism) except in the closed environment of a highly controlled experimental cage, where there is no exterior but for the experimental administrator, warden and jailer. On the outside, that it is full of complexity is suggested by Skinner's concept, "contingencies of reinforcement ... more powerful than the expected utilities".[9]

Reward: Reification of viewpoint allows its cognitive separation, and then physical separation and isolation. We now have the economic notion of "reward". The pattern certainly matches our own social context and history. Expectation is now only directed toward what isn't.  We no longer see reflections. We become goal-seeking and ambitious, and quite more often hindered and disappointed.  This takes several years of early instruction and rigid parenting (or none whatsoever outside of institutional environments) incorporating what is equivalent to electric shock (punishment as a stimulus, that is, constraint and aversive contingencies) and rewards (cessation of shock or the less dastardly "token" of approval, pellet of food, protective box into which we learn to jump away from the electrified grid in the cage) for behavior to move in the desired direction – the pattern of subjection and subduction.

This describes the pattern of reward (and punishment) systems. They only concern control and are only effective when other contingencies are negated, hence, our obsession with "structured" environments. Subduction is the lesson learned that the exterior is a force of control and the interior is a predetermined path on which one must move right along with no option to step off – the desire to do so is seen as "counterintuitive". The object of the training regimen (regime) is to get the "subject" to step out of the interior and into the exterior and become him- or herself a controlling force. Hence, revolutionaries who liberate the people from tyranny inevitably become tyrants.

Learned hindrance at the center (ego-position) is required to maintain a state of learned helplessness (or "dependence") in the exterior (other-position). To say either is "learned" is to say we are connected and influenced by complex environmental contingencies which influence our behavior or (cognitive, emotional, even intuitive) response, or make this response more or less probable (predictable). These are contingencies of reinforcement, the total (gestalt) environmental matrix we are ensconced in. Hindrance attempts to reduce a muliplicity of attractors or possibilities to a singularity under control. The reward (or punishment) telescopically narrows the view of environmental contingencies. The locus of control expresses great utility only by focalizing the one toward the expectation of the other – all eyes thereafter are only adjusted to the equivalence of utility and politics to the point that the environment itself (the 'locus' of possibility) disappears right alongside aesthetics. We learn self control, self management, and graduate from the black box.


Learned helplessness is produced via non-contingent, unpredictable (random, from the organism’s perspective) PUNISHMENT. That’s why “any attempt at individual movement is a fruitless undertaking”.

Many of us know the effects of intermittent, unpredictable, non-contingent punishment. Yes, helplessness can be a cognitive (even if not consciously articulated) "assessment" or inductive generalization when the other's behavior shows no consistency, and is almost always aversively "loving", or ("both/and" is a better conjunction) hateful "for our own good"; when the generalization is based on a lack of perception of contingency, or a narrowed field of perception. But more than an assessment, isn't it a ritualized (patterned) response (or lack thereof)? Better yet, a pattern or schema for responding (or not), like using the same recipe for every meal – "Add no ingredients, do not stir, set to simmer, go to bed until sunrise". It may be that the assessment can only be made (actually, posited) by an other, by an observer. I can imagine, in fact, have experienced situations where acute helplessness is so severe, no assessment whatsoever is possible. The "helpless" response is more like an instinct, a lamarkean instinct only justified later (rationalised) when questioned.[10]

I should think a scientific attitude would be helpful to avoid this predicament. Unfortunately, scientific thinking is often the first casualty of modern childrearing and in fact, patterned responses are rarely even perceived by the person engaged in them. (This is why I rank OCD on a continuum with catatonia). Or it might be that the response patterns only mimic the nature of the stimulus. An inconsistent stimulus field or a consistently punishing one (generalized catch 22) encourages (draws out) a set of like responses (a mimicking of the conditions of our environment). A lack of reinforcement causes rapid extinction of each response until it appears there is no response at all. Of course, a non-response might conserve energy, allowing a more appropriate action at a more opportune moment, it is more probably a breakdown wherein vast amounts of energy are expended ("nervous energy") when one runs head long into a set of circumstances (environment) to which it has not been “prepared”, by previous exposure (the learning environment) or natural selection (inviting the "instinctual response").

An unmanipulative or non-punishing environment (the utopian project wherein desires can be realized or at least go unimpeded) could use an approach from aesthetics, since "reward" and "punishment" are no longer seen appropriate, as they suggest a "punishing" or "rewarding" agent. Attraction, indifference and disgust are possible replacements which bring to mind the study of sense perception as well as the fight-flight scenario we share with all organisms. Aestheticians point out that sometimes we are highly attracted to what is disgusting, sometimes obsessively so. BDSM and macabre tales by Poe seem to prove this, and I think Freud's approach is more fruitful than the cartography of stimulus-response chains and attribute analyses. In both cases, we are dealing with the generation of hypotheses, not the elucidation of reality – empiricism would look to "reality" to agree or disagree with our hypotheses. Very often it seems experimental behaviorism tries to rule out the intuitive contributions (forgetting it was probably intuition which formulated the question in the first place), whereas, just as often, the latter may present so persuasive an argument that we lose the inclination to put it to the test, to ask the world for confirmation (if only in "disproving" the null hypothesis).

Here is where I have the central argument (or disappointment) with the literature on learned helplessness:

"Advocates of learned helplessness theory...assert that self-perceptions of ability to control one's social and physical environment are crucial to the maintenance of physical and psychological well-being. Any individual, regardless of age, exposed to uncontrollable circumstances will eventually learn that efforts to manipulate the environment are ineffective. This realization of non-contingency between personal response and environmental outcome leads to a learned state of 'helplessness'"[11].

No doubt this is true enough, but I think only in the realm of task performance and goal-directed behavior. There is more to motivation than "manipulating the environment" for utilitarian ends. It's a statement from pure pragmatism. It's almost Marxian (there is no human behaviour but production!), or the economist's "all behavior is economically motivated pursuant to personal maximisation". Sure, there is manipulation in any creative act, but this language pretty much discredits art and play as "human" enterprises, and hides the fact that sometimes we just move along without any calculation or design. If we posit laws of behavior which are only applicable to the modern condition, then they are not laws, but elements of description – ethnographic data. Science needs to be able to see beyond its own cultural categories. This is not an impossible task: how often do we hear "the results of analysis were in a completely unexpected direction"?

In social psychology, our "ethnocentric" logic is translated into "all social relations represent some degree of variation of tit-for-tat exchange". There is more to social relations than presented by the exchange paradigm. That is merely our own set of contingencies (culture and history) poking through. In the same way, both anthropologists and other social and behavioral scientists have portrayed play as a child's way of learning to control the environment, "essential training to attain the necessary skills to grow into a productive member of society". This is probably a true statement (at least for lutherans), but it reflects more on the concept of "games", in fact, games designed by adults with this very function in mind. It does not consider the fact that without supervision, children predictably break or change the rules, and in fact, child-play is more a matter of exploration and experimentation and results in knowledge about the world more than methods to control it. Play fine-tunes responses, and a better metaphor than a course of instruction at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Institute might be the College of Applied Navigational Sciences. The art of sailing is the ability to transgress from prevailing winds.

Like exploration, anticipation of unlooked-for events or consequences can provide the joy (the aesthetic sense) of child-play, not the construction of a predictable and therefore useful uni­verse over which one now gains "control". (Control does not elicit giggles except from mania­cal fathers and Jesuit priests). That is the surest road to boredom and the end of the game, but child-play can indeed provide the iteration or rehearsal necessary so that the child can go on to explore something new. Aestheticists say it is the unusual, the unpredictable, the "inter­esting" which stimulates the aesthetic sense. It's also been said play is a self-reinforcing or "inherently rewarding" (this is "joy") part of the growing process that provides the young with procedural and semantic information that’s pivotal to living: "we evolve a 'taste' for things that contribute to our fitness", where "fitness" refers to that sense of "being at home". Only this gives one a sense of personal agency, where we are not at the whims of social/environmental forces, where the lesson learned is that there is consistency or "predictability" in the conditions of living. Such a system is likewise, self-motivating!

And we wonder why our lives are boring or seem to have lost meaning, that 'nothing interesting happens any more' once we stop playing and get down to serious business (we "settle down"). We as well wonder why rebellious or reactionary sentiments are so pervasive when learned helplessness has not set in. Obviously, the most of us vacillate between both patterns of response, and that is contingent on the particular context we find ourselves in. For the most part, helplessness delegates responsibility to others (conserving one's own energy or reinforcing one's lethargy), follows orders, mimics trends in the social environment, sails only with the prevailing winds, and duly submits to punishment at the first attraction to the unique or suggestion from the "imp of the perverse". Morality, democracy, tit-for-tat justice and exchange-economics supersede the aesthetic sense in the interest of conservation. In such a system, our children must be considered "naughty" or fail to "grow".

To sum up, the aesthetic relation brings personal choice back into the picture rather than "control". We have the option, seeing the lion up ahead on the path, of 1) doing nothing (and hope the lion didn't see us), 2) unobtrusively running away, 3) trying to make friends, or 4) grabbing a pointed stick and giving chase. Our life experiences or "knowledge" represents part of the contingencies which might influence our decision. The actual outcome of the situation is unpredictable, and contingencies surrounding the lion must also be weighed prior to the estimation of outcome (funny how estimation and esteem etymologically share the same root!). It may be that a friendly lion wandered off from a hollywood set, and option 3) would be appropriate. If the lion was threatening your child, very likely option 4) would be considered "correct". But most of our "decision-gates" are not matters of life and death. If we have a history of thwarted choices, then we are likely to feel helpless and pick 1) based purely on induction – we freeze[12]. The hopeless might actually encourage the lion to take a bite. A history of thwarted choices might also truly be random, as in a bad streak of luck, so I can't really impose a "real" environmental punishment, hindrance or agency of constraint in operation. These are all contingencies of a history, an environment where these effects are known to happen. Induction is simply the recognition of environmental consistency. It is probably only unavailable to the "hopeless" or catatonic. They say resilient (to the effects of abuse) children experienced some locus of consistent support in their environment. Is that not also to say that some recognition of consistency beyond the abusive situation was reinforced?

It may sound just as silly when I say that "living" (as opposed to "survival") is not a matter of manipulation but of linguistic relation, of communication with the environment (the set of contingencies). But then, I don't restrict language to the economic transaction of 'information' for the purpose of increased efficiency of control. Rather, it establishes and maintains connections. Could it be that our ideas of manipulation are only a fetish in place of what is lacking in our relations, that it is, in fact, a replacement for relations which are lacking? Perhaps the feeling of helplessness necessarily arises because our objective itself of "mastering" the physical and social environment is an absurdity?

Poetry, play and science share the same quest – to coax the world into revealing itself. "Indulge me", we might say. The process of connecting dots is always more enjoyable than the simple exposed pattern on completion. The double entendre living in a line of poetry shares more possibilities than the literal reading of distinct ideas. In all three cases, what is revealed by the world is a sense of connection, a sense of belonging, a sense of being at home, that it is a place of consistency. That this is useful is only a side benefit. More importantly, it is a reinforcement to continue the conversation.

A particular reward or punishment is only known as such until after a response is witnessed – whether the response rate increases or decreases toward the stimulus – and its variability is a matter of probability, as is its prediction. On the other hand, there are intuitively reasonable punishers like electro-shock. I do remember fondly the buzz and thrill I got as a kid sticking my finger into a light socket, and the excruciating testicular pain at climbing over an electric fence. The difference was in the pulse. I've not since sought out light sockets (once was enough) but am not afraid of them either. I do stay quite clear of electric fences.

Much the same can be said of aesthetics. Aesthetics introduces a degree of subjective relativity, certainly also a function of complex contingencies, but not always apparent and rarely predictable (it's rare that one would even delve into these contingencies, but that is precisely where iconoclasts need to focus). As far as I can see, the aesthetic (point of interest) and stimulus are identical concepts. Is that a "duh!"? One might operationally define art appreciation or even orgasm by rate and strength of response and therefore infer a strong reinforcer – the big attractor. Unfortunately, the men in white labcoats promoting Kent filtered cigarettes and Crest toothpaste have associated this sort of language with dehumanization. Add to this the confusion between science and manipulative and destructive technologies and we see what has alienated so many from interest in science in the first place. I want to bring it back into the realm of play and adventure where it belongs.


That science often comes up with weird answers, that data is often used for nefarious projects, doesn't mean it's not still a good place to ask questions, that there are not some kindred spirits long dead who might be worthwhile to excavate, that it is not impossible to radically change without going back to the zeroness of a blank slate. If we can come up with nothing new, old dead guys might be able to help. Everything which has been said has not necessarily been tried, nor even adequately understood. There are some old ideas or approaches which might do well living in a spare parts drawer, awaiting reassembly in totally new configurations. The problem with destroying everything is that you end up with nothing, and every fucked up line of thinking and behaving is given a new start in the process since critique itself is flushed down the toilet.

There is always a danger, but despair is not always necessary, and it is possible to look at contingencies of reinforcement ("the environment") as actually helpful to creative projects, powerful aesthetic regions to explore instead of overwhelming forces of control and constraint. It is possible to look at the home base as a place where we return and repose and report (share) our findings and interpret or consume them in great feasts rather than a caged repository in which to rest up between chores and other dance routines. It is a place where mutual influence is celebrated and alienation is an unwelcome guest, chased off or thumped to protect growing children. It is the locus of community rather than the locus of control within the larger region or "set" of contingencies of reinforcement.

The fact is, I'm all for experimental science, but I think it can get beyond controlling and manipulating and especially, eliminating environmental influences and calling that success. I want to know what happens when the little furry guy escapes or when the animal liberation folks open all the doors to the live-vivisection lab. Particularly, I'm interested in how existing behavior patterns are shed or modified when going native or when society falls apart all around us or is taken down by revolution. We know quite a bit about how old patterns go dormant and reappear when conditions are favourable. Shit always returns when the plumbing stops up. Skeletons come back to life from entombed closets. "It must be so" is a statement from the book of learned helplessness. Must it? An outhouse contains no plumbing. When it fills, you simply dig a new hole and move the structure over it. I know that, on occasion, psychotherapy is helpful. Why couldn't applied culture-change share in this occasional experience of success? This is the study of applied transgression. This is the kind of revolution I'm interested in.

The great musical aestheticist, Brian Wilson, once said, "You pick a wave, and then it takes you". Maybe that was a different surfer. Maybe it was Geronimo!

Dissecting Secret Sects & Sectarian Insects[13] – or – Rules Really Are Meant to be Broken!

Stupidity is a scar. It can stem from one of many activities – physical or mental – or from all. Every partial stupidity of a man denotes a spot where the play of stirring muscles was thwarted instead of encouraged. In the presence of the obstacle the futile repetition of disorganised, groping attempts is set in motion. A child’s ceaseless queries are always symptoms of a hidden pain, of a first question to which it found no answer and which it did not know how to frame appropriately. Its reiteration suggests the playful determination of a dog leaping repeatedly at the door it does not yet know how to open, and finally giving up if the catch is out of his reach.
– Adorno and Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment.
In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.
– Victor Turner

Today, every one on earth wants to change the world, and radically at that. I'm sure whales and ants would like to see us build better space-ships. Those of us who do not admit to defeat in learned helplessness, have great expectations that if enough institutionalised training is entertained, change can be implemented within traditional institutions. This is counter-intuitive because it is the very function of institutions to maintain traditions. The rest of us think repeating the same behavior, dancing the same thrusting dance at the same door enough times, will open it, and, like the dog, we must at some point give up, give out or go mad.

We like the whale for its great breadth and length, but shudder at collective beachings. We do not envy the ant, as "constrained" as he is by his collective instincts. Even so, it has been observed that an ant will on occasion, visit the neighbors, even those of a different species or sub-species, and after a ritualised greeting consisting of the dropping of a morsel and some mutual rubbings of antennae, will the ant not only be welcomed with gifts of food, but adopted right into the tribe. He may lavish the queen-mother with gifts of aphid-honey. He may even join in on frenzied raids against his former mates and siblings. It is not known whether this was a disgruntled ant who transgressed or merely one who was attracted to and pursued novelty and therefore, did no transgression – this is, after all, the same behaviour by which any ant obtains food. In either case, it is a matter of ant aesthetics.

Humans seem to require the construction of great bodies of tabu in order to transgress against their upbringing, especially when exploration of novelty is itself hindered. It is almost as if we require a book of tabus before we can entertain the notion of transgression. While mass beachings are rare, mass murder is not. Unconstrained by instinct, nothing comes easy. My question is, if someone went to the trouble of recording possible transgressive behavior, whether ceremoniously inserted into iterated dances and rites or inscribed onto papyrus leaves and preserved for future generations of readers, shouldn't we presume that the reason for this effort was to ensure we remembered the possibility of changing our conditions when those very conditions take the trouble to communicate to us their desires for change?

When we ask ourselves about the source of vitality for those festivals which continue to be transmitted in some form, we cannot ignore the existence of an explicit social inclination toward the phenomenon of sacred transgression, no matter how watered down it may be.
– Sinoda Minoru, Festival and Sacred Transgression

The sacred is the unknown land, the land of chaos and transgressions and new starts. Its ritual celebration, the frenzied feast or festival, is a surreal landscape whose great secret lies in the scattered intuitions that there are no secrets required to unlock sacred gates. One merely steps through. Most importantly, it is not a place of worship or other prostrations and flagellation. Better words than "worship" and "thanksgiving" would be "awe" and "relief". It is not thanks which are distributed in great feasts, and there is no asking or signing of petitions – a prayer is a reply to nothing and nothing is the appropriate reply to a demand. The experience of relief is felt when we realise transgressing the gate into and out of the liminal interregnum did not annihilate us, yet we are changed and renewed.

It is the same with all explorations – all dérives. Some old women still know to bring flowers when they pop in for a visit and some young men visited upon do not present a white flag, but offer tea and biscuits. It is not a counter-attack but a mutual rubbing of antennae. Rituals which interfere with rituals are anti-rituals – détournements. Such transgressions are the fuel for evolution, whereby the different becomes the normal and in the process more difference is created. The ritual dance of rioters and riot police is always merely the public acknowledgment of a rigid and perpetual struggle between opposites, perpetuating the logic of both sides, ensuring no change is forthcoming – the antinomy or paradoxical result of all dances wherein the antennae must never touch. Transgression or surrender are all that can be learnt from books of rules, codebooks and proselytizations from rigid systems of logic. Maps are of little use to authentic explorers (unless, of course, one is an explorer of maps), only a sharp nose and anxious antennae. Only transgression ends pussyfooting dances and explodes jammed doors.

It should be obvious, I'm not suggesting rubbing noses with riot cops (although that might be shockingly transgressive to all involved, it would be an extremely dangerous undertaking!) but viewing the aesthetic as total sensory attention, follow-through and not only pursuit but renewal of that which smells sweet. Only the aesthetic prevents total annihilation, transgression for transgression's sake (a meaningless iteration which soon loses all sense of transgression), the continuing war of all against all, the single-minded pursuit of total consumption and self-sacrificial destruction, in other words, the existing context of the state.

It may well be true that everything produced or co-opted by the culture of capital is corrupted, and this in fact informs its cultural codes, 'capital' only perceives itself through these codes and is therefore blinded to a vast array of behavior which, although is situated within its context, nevertheless has its own history quite beyond any consciousness but the poetic. Archetypes (or symbols) residing within archaic rituals are memories waiting to be revealed as well as new starting points from which to wander: "nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough". The rituals preserve them, but the rite itself is all that's visible and always, therefore, considered by superficial analysis isolated, secondary and meaningless. The symbols (images, dance forms, incantations, offerings – you might notice, these are all behaviors) contained in rituals are less representations than reminders of environmental or physiological phenomena and processes which arouse desires and feelings (Turner). This arousal, the aesthetic sense, is not restricted to time or sequence. It applies equally to the past (memory) and the future (possibility). Rituals can change when their meaning is exposed (that is, when an "innocuous" behavior can be "re-cognized" and generalized to a larger context). They are co-opted when their meaning is lost, which is also to say when we cease attention, analysis and critique. The loss of aesthetics is the end of exploration. Transgression becomes impossible, as the senseless one is even less likely to read the tome of tabus as a book of secret recipes – that would be the aesthetic of crime.



[1]: Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale, Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation Journal of Abnormal Psychology: 1978, Vol. 87, No. 1, 49-74. Personally, I think the "identification", mapping and charting of interacting attributes this line of thinking too often represents is a good example of a set of contingencies reinforcing the persistence of an obsessive-compulsive behavior pattern which can incline the investigator to lose sight of the theoretical goals of the research – namely, the reduction (unlearning) of learned helplessness in the population. Like so much research in experimental behaviorism, we see experimentation for the sake of experimentation, ordering for the sake of ordering, just another means to earn the daily bread, just another dance for food. "Proper" science says "we should not be too hasty in jumping to conclusions about our data" and that is good advice, but unfortunately, the task of interpretation is usually relegated to some future scientist.

And as the anthropologists who followed Franz Boas, an early champion of this sentiment, found out, these "future scientists" became stripped of their rights to call themselves "scientist" when they drifted from the rigid interpretation of this dictum. (To this day, the argument as to with whom one might affiliate persists, and in many colleges and universities, Anthropology is subsumed under the division of arts and humanities, losing any "credibility" with the other so-called "social sciences" – how often do "real" scientists seek advice from artists, poets and philosophers?). That "pure science" is only found in the collection and ordering of data not only insures that science as a means of changing (or even informing changes in) the conditions of existence ("for the better") is an absurdity, the chance for cooptation by the unscrupulous is enhanced exponentially. There is no threat to the bureaucratic arrangement within academia, no threat that a bigger picture might be exposed, no threat to traditional or colloquial thinking, no threat of change to any social "reality". Communication itself disappears under the name of "multidisciplinary studies" with democratic notions of truth (truth by consensus), proposing projects to be funded by granting institutions who only see utilitarian value (potential growth of capital) operating in the universe. Alienation and separation, that is, estrangement, continue to fuel the factory's assembly line distributing helplessness to one and all in the name of "social progress".

[2]: The insult here refers to the perspective of a genetically derived and mathematically generated language/meaning system functioning as symbolic representation of pre-articulated objective nature, and simple relations of force, manipulation and constraint operating therein. Chomsky helped generate quite a disturbance over Skinner's behaviorism at the theoretical level. His own analysis of verbal behavior relies on the much more tolerated existence of a genetically controlled homunculus in the brain – "generative transformational grammar" whereby the mathematical description of verbal behavior becomes it's own author: Noam Chomsky, A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Skinner's re-iteration: B. F. Skinner, The Evolution of Verbal Behavior.

[3]: I'm coming from a perspective which sees dialectic effects as oppositional and contradictory, containing a conflict in need of resolution. I would say, instead of dialectical, the push and pull is a singularity exhibiting "polar" qualities when seen from different vantage points. An example would be in judo: when the attacker pushes, the defender pulls, and vice verse. With two equally trained/experienced "fighters", the struggle takes on the appearance of a dance. In other words, opposition (the "disconnected" dichotomy) produces friction where polarity insinuates flow or mutuality, where the stimulus and response are mutually contingent (a feedback loop) and posing a unilinear causative sequence is just another chicken and egg argument.

[4]: François Rabelais, Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and His Son Pantagruel. Rabelais is the namesake for such phrases as "rabble-rouser", and of course, coined the term, "Gargantuan". The entendre of the central theme of these volumes might imply a "dialectic" between the deity, Panurge (total work) and the hero, Pantagruel (total food, great appetite), as a Homeric epic, as the official prelude for such as James Joyce and Raul Vaneigam (but slightly more radical).

[5]: B. F. Skinner, Some Thoughts About The Future, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 1986, 45, 229-235 Number 2 (March)

[6]: Gottfried Heuer, The Devil Underneath the Couch: The Secret Story of Jung’s Twin Brother.

[7]: I was going to title this, B.F. Skinner: Poet or Satan? Two theorists useful to MIT (the Military Industrial Technocracy) but the piece I started to write sort of got away from me, and I went with it. The nephew I was thinking of was Freud's sister, Anna's, son, Edward L. Bernays, hired to "mould" public opinion to be more favourable to entry into WWI. He is said to be responsible for the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation as a source of "philanthropic" medical research to overcome the terrible national press John D. got after manipulating a contingent (pun not intended) of marines to open fire (including cannon fire) on the encampment (wives and children) of striking miners in Montana. I've heard it said he coined the term, "Public Relations Industry". There is some compression of Bernays and Ivy L. Lee for these honors. I think Lee and Bernays were sort of like Darwin and Wallace.

Wikipedia says of Bernays:
Combining the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, Bernays was one of the first to attempt to manipulate public opinion using the subconscious.

He felt this manipulation was necessary in society, which he regarded as irrational and dangerous as a result of the 'herd instinct' that Trotter had described.

Skinner's own predecessor, John B. Watson, the so-called "Father of American Behaviorism", also delved into advertising, applying Pavlovian techniques of classical ("simple" might be a better term) stimulus-response conditioning and "associationist" learning theory.

[8]: Mustapha Khayati, Captive Words: Preface to a Situationist Dictionary

[9]: With a perspective from the biology of "growth", Maslow gave us the possibility to refute Marx and Morgan and Freud's idea that the essential difference between the civilised and uncivilised is that "savages" are "child-like" (arrested in development): in fact, they are the adult who, as a child, was allowed to self-actualise. Margarette Mead pretty much confirmed/reinforced this in her ethnographic studies of "primitive" child-rearing. We must infer that other contingencies than "human nature" or "nature" itself – the "progressive laws" of evolution – are responsible for the development of centralised states and economies bent on control, exploitation, destruction and alienation of both the "environment" and the "civilian".  Evolution is not progressive, and "progressives" would not deem exploitation and alienation as indexes of progress.  They call it "barbarity"!

[10]: Perhaps the most dire response-pattern is not the hopeless catatonic (diagnosed as a "major depressive episode"), who cannot even summon the wherewithal to self-annihilate, but the development of self-isolating schema when early attempts at authentic social relations have been reinforced to such a low (or punished to such a high) extent that all forthcoming social behavior only exacerbates one's own alienation or alienation of others, and encourages one's self-assessment itself a total set of contradictions. Reich's "characterological ar­mour" becomes indispensable. It is always the best mask which wins the beauty contest. Alternately, masochism is relabeled "self-empowerment". (see Deleuze, The Dogon Egg and the Distribution of Intensities).

If there are also "genetic" contingencies involved in the various diagnosed "disorders", it still takes an alienating environment, an external order of "non-contingent punishment", to actualize them. While in no way trying to mini­mize the effects of childhood or adult "trauma", it is the consistence of inconsistency and unpredictability in the social matrix which produces the inhibition of the ontogenetic process, the growth of the organism, self-actualisa­tion; a fecundity of the entire spectrum of pathology which reproduces the complex but barbarous relation we mislabel "social".

[11]: Tietleman & Priddy, Helplessness, Pseudohelplessness and Psychotherapy. Paper presented at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America (38th, New Orleans, LA, November 22-26, 1985) – my emphasis.

[12]: Of course, there are situations where this is an entirely appropriate response, as it gives us time to observe and assess the situation. It is the origin of "informed consent". For example, on passing through the high forest and looking down upon the glade, my "guide" stopped me and said, "See that stump that looks like a bear? Let's wait for ten minutes and see if it moves. If it doesn't move in that time, it's probably not a bear that looks like a stump and it will be safe to go down".

[13]: di- [< Gk dia "double", "half", "across"] dis-[< Latin "apart", "undue"]
in- [< Latin "not" < "in, into, toward, within"]
sect [14th century. Via French < Latin secta "school of thought" < sequi "follow"]
secret [14th century. Via French < Latin secretus "separate, hidden" < secernere "separate apart" < cernere "to separate"]
-sect [< Latin sectus , past participle of secare "cut"]