Ideology and the Supernormal Stimuli
What does ideology and supernormal stimuli have in common? The answer turns out to be everything. Ideology is an important concept to have a handle on as we all grapple with polarized politics, the rise of fake news, a generation succumbing to dangerous organized nihilism, and increasing authoritarianism. The supernormal stimuli, a near forgotten Nobel prize winning discovery, is a topic I’ve covered quite a bit in relation to creative linkage in the culinary arts and its particular application to the cocktail. Supernormal stimuli are commonly thought to be only sensory in nature, but with ideology we experience a purely symbolic version of the concept and it is no less dangerous.
To quote wikipedia, “A supernormal stimulus or superstimulus is an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.” If you need more background, Stuart McMillen’s comic strip primer on the subject is absolutely brilliant. The seductive tug of breast implants comes to mind immediately or the Venus of Willendorf. In the classic studies, the robin sits on the bluer egg and lets it’s own go un-incubated while the Australian beetle tries to mate with the beer bottle because it is bigger, more orange, and more dimpled than its natural mate. Multiple male beetles have been known to stroke the dimples of the same beer bottle until they all ran out of energy and died right next to each other. This last example sounds very much like ideology, but lets try to build a stronger case.
From the Doubter’s Companion (A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense), John Ralston Saul defines ideology as:
Tendentious arguments which advance a world view as absolute truth in order to win and hold political power.
A God who intervenes in human affairs through spokesmen who generally call themselves priests; a king who implements instructions received from a God; a predestined class war which requires the representatives of a particular class to take power; a corporatist structure of experts who implement truth through fact-based conclusions; a racial unit which because of its blood-ties has a destiny as revealed by nationalist leaders; a world market which, whether anyone likes it or not, will determine the shape of every human life, as interpreted by corporate executives—all of these and many more are ideologies.
Followers are caught up in the naive obsessions of these movements. This combination ensures failure and is prone to violence. That’s why the decent intentions of the Communist Manifesto end up in gulags and murder. Or the market place’s promise of prosperity in the exploitation of cheap, often child, labour.
There are big ideologies and little ones. They come in international, national and local shapes. Some require skyscrapers, others circumcision. Like fiction they are dependent on the willing suspension of disbelief, because God only appears in private and before his official spokespeople, class leaders themselves decide the content and pecking order of classes, experts choose their facts judiciously, blood ties aren’t pure and the passive acceptance of a determinist market means denying 2,500 years of Western civilization from Athens and Rome through the Renaissance to the creation of middle-class democracies.
Which is ideology? Which not? You shall know them by their assertion of truth, their contempt for considered reflection and their fear of debate.
The first part of ideology we see from John Ralston Saul is that they are a manipulative tool, very much like breast implants. She knows they are fake, but presents them as the simple truth to hold power. And it works. Men are quick to suspend their disbelief. They are also often exaggerated to make up for deficiencies.
The nth degree is often invoked in ideology as with gods and kings. If law comes from a common man it is not as attentional as when it comes from a supreme figure. The modern day supreme figure in our corporatist world being the expert. The more supreme the figure invoked, the more likely the ideology is in violation of common sense. Pre-destiny or harnessing inevitability is a mode of simplification that ideology takes. We become more biased to accept.
Class and race are the intersection of the symbolic aspects of ideology as supernormal stimuli with sensation. Class categories often divide along sensory features. This starts with the color of skin and when that existing response tendency changes, the shape of our noses is always available to provoke an exaggerated response. I have done a lot of writing to explore the ordinary and extraordinary in sensation and have found that frequency of occurrence rules so much around us.
Obsession that consumes those introduced to ideology is very much the beetle stroking the beer bottle until it runs out of energy and dies, unsuccessfully mating. Failure is ensured because key details are missed and overshadowed by the blown out oversimplifications. In the movie, Her (2013), society quickly becomes obsessed with their seductive tongued personal assistants and messy human relationships get dropped. Matching with someone possessing the complete details to achieve a goal like reproduction also comes with confronting the grittier side of the human condition.
Detail is the enemy of ideology. That willing suspension of disbelief relates to lack of ability to categorize, parse, and build detachment. She is in the same room and you are allowed to touch them if you dare, you literally gravitate towards the breast implants. Those doomed beetles could not parse and categorize the beer bottle as not a useful mate.
Marshall McLuhan emphasized the difference between acting and reacting. Ideology is the guilty pleasure of reacting and being willfully illiterate so that a primal satisfaction does not go unindulged. Many very smart people succumb to ideology and various motivators perpetuate the ruse. The guilty pleasure of reacting (sometimes we say “overreacting”) without detachment transitions to the euphoria of obsession and that sometimes gives way to wielding ideology to win or hold political power.
For those that learn to wield them, ideologies start to get swapped like trading cards. When open racism is no longer a useful enough ideology to harness the votes of the ignorant masses, it is traded in for Islamophobia and/or transphobia. Most politicians personally do not care about about the ideology of the moment, they know the robin will jump to the bluer egg or that if they troll with a beer bottle, they will come up with a pile of beetles not afraid to die without successfully mating.
Polar politics is all about ideology and both camps are capable of generating them. The pessimistic right leans on prejudices and policies to undermine taxes while dismantling the public good whereas the left is capable of being overly optimistic and does not respect enough the importance of private industry and choice. One side needs to be there to check the other, but it becomes harder as a fear of nuance and debate sets in. It almost seems as if we are at a point where we cannot talk down the beetles, we simply have to wait for them to die to move on.
Fake news is a form of supernormal stimuli and a pizza shop where Hillary Clinton traffics children for many, believe it or not, is just a bluer egg. Response tendencies have changed due to the 24 hour news cycle, and to stand out, a story has to be more attentional. More attentional these days is often plain fake. You’d think the average person would dismiss so many of the stories, but then again how could the robin not know? We are back at John Ralston Saul’s willing suspension of disbelief (he likes to use that term a lot).
The rise of nihilist culture and its ideologies is greatly exacerbated by supernormal stimli. Much of it starts with sensory stimulation and it also straddles the line of supernormal stimuli as therapy versus a grave danger. To start framing things it must be realized that all art is an attempt to create a supernormal stimuli and art is not so completely innocent anymore now that it has been widely co-opted by propagandists and advertising agendas. Games, a big part of internet culture, are an extension of art and they create protected worlds where response tendencies can be abstracted and again manipulated. Gamification is a fairly new field of study worth following and is generating very interesting ideas.
Games are thought of as therapeutic in moderation, but when they take up enough time they can start to interfere with productive goals like mating or being an integrated member of society. Unemployment among the male internet addicted demographic is many multiples that of the national average. When you give up on inclusion or being included you join the nihilists and somehow they’ve decided to organize to increase the “lolz”.
Nihilist internet culture is pornography obsessed and dependent, creating a significant enough population for concepts like “invol cel” to become pop culture. Sex with a partner is important because it ends up teaching compromise. Many that remain involuntarily celibate develop dangerous misogynistic ideologies.
Taking gaming beyond a therapeutic distraction to an obsession creates isolation and stunts social skills. Due to its artificial protective shield, risk tolerance increases in a game and decreases out of it. When social skills are developed in many online games they have a way of collapsing outside so that the afflicted demographic becomes increasingly isolated from contribution to productive goals. The importance of inclusion in society is becoming increasingly relevant to this group that is part of the majority (white males) yet little of their own actions support inclusion. Society needs this demographic included to break the nihilist cycle, but their own actions lead to exclusionary viewpoints that are increasingly turning violent.
The internet seems like it would be a place for debate and nuance, but it becomes a breeding ground for ideology and communicating in all caps oversimplifications. This happens because it is saturated with supernormal stimuli. It is not called hyper-text for no reason. One has to dodge bluer eggs left and right to find nuance. The nature of reward makes us prefer short pieces with abstracted “click-bait” titles over detailed long form journalism. In McLuhan-esque ways, in what we could even start calling media disease, shortened attention spans gravitate towards ideology. In a strange twist, these ideologies are not championed by priests invoking gods, kings or experts, they are championed by a collective being called anonymous who ascends as they are shared.
The world some no longer want to be included in requires authoritarianism. Many want a figure who can single handedly solve their problems short cutting nuanced affairs while they stroke the dimpled bottle. For others, the chaos is just a hysterical vindictive prank. Those used to the game world become increasingly detached from real world consequences. Regret does not set in fast.
Precocious figures start to navigate among this vast demographic that has risen, it seems, out of nowhere and manipulate them as seen with the growth of alt-right commentators. This finicky group seems like it could turn on a dime, but doesn’t because the externalities generated from their pursuit of lolz is typically outside of their isolation. On the verge of violent radicalization, this large population of men is an unprecedented problem we do not at the moment have strategies to tackle. We need to transition from making fun of them to incentives and policy.
Ideology’s link to the supernormal stimuli phenomena could continue to be elaborated into a full fledged book, but hopefully enough of a picture has been painted to jump start critical thought. Supernormal stimuli is a near forgotten concept and it has been hard enough to draw interest to studying it in relationship to the culinary arts. Just like in culinary, there is possibility for supernormal stimuli as productive therapy, but a line can easily get crossed and they can become detrimental to health as seen in the classic animal examples.
McLuhan prophetically warned us about the consequences of introducing new media. The internet, catalyzed by economics, has created a population dangerously susceptible to destabilizing ideologies. Home grown extremism is growing rapidly in the U.S. and we are seeing a large population of white males fail to become productive members of society. Hopefully new ideas to help us frame these challenging problems will also help us generate solutions.