Propaganda: Power and Persuasion at the British Library: Reading between the lines

Although we might be confidently distant from the Orwellian imagination, systems of information control are still being perpetuated. How can we continue to read this age-old manipulation, as it appears in ever more insidious forms?

The essential tenor of the British Library’s provocative exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is that the age of propaganda persists in our age of globalisation. Although we might be confidently distant from the Orwellian imagination, the systems of information control are being perpetuated. How then, can we read this age-old manipulation, as it appears in ever more insidious forms?

Quietly hidden away behind more familiar exhibits such as Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and the infamous Iraq War playing cards issued by the US Military, the curators have found space for an Occupy Wall Street poster. Emblazoned with the bold Occupy aphorisms, “Fight Back Worldwide: capitalism is the crisis” and “the 99 per cent have no borders; decolonize globally”, the poster’s protagonists emerge from radiant sunlight. At first glance, the Occupy Wall Street poster phenomenon seems to be illustrative of the particular fusion of bold graphic design and protest rhetoric in the age of social media activism. The curators are not giving away much either, merely observing the ways in which Occupy imagery subverts the iconography traditionally associated with the state. In doing so, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion misses out on telling the critical narrative of propaganda as it exists in the 21st century. Of this, more anon.

In many ways the most compelling argument of the exhibition is how it searches for a more neutral portrait of propaganda, scraping away the extreme negativity surrounding it. The origins of the term in papal text are documented here, in the literature produced by the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), a committee founded in the 17th century by Pope Gregory XV to counter the Reformation. Within this singular argument lay the seeds of our wholly oppositional understanding of propaganda, and through both world wars the emotional charge of the word was reduced to pure deception. And yet the global history of propaganda has been far more complex. In China, ‘propaganda’ (xuanchuan) cannot be distinguished from the more innocuous ‘publicity’. Instead it is a legitimate mechanism for the Party’s construction of society. The question the exhibition poses is essentially: can you engage in rational dialogue with a mass audience? Is propaganda more than just persuasion dialogue, but rather a mechanism aiming to elicit action, in which the ‘truth’ is no longer the logical endpoint? In getting to grips with the very essence of propaganda, the Aldous Huxley quotation resonates through the exhibition chamber: “The propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water he digs in vain.”

The sources upon which the curators draw on, from Josef Goebbels’ ‘Volksempfänger’ radios designed for Nazi broadcasts through to the iconic imagery of Mao kindling the flames of revolution in Anyuan in the autumn of 1921, are breathtaking in scope. At the exhibition’s heart are the Norman Rockwell posters The Four Freedoms, aimed at Americans buying war bonds in World War II by appealing to core familial and religious values. Above all, this exhibition excels in showcasing state propaganda, whether in the form of Boer War board games, Cold War imagery or even public health campaigns. Exploring themes of ‘nation, enemy and war’, the wash of propaganda reaches for increasing sophistication.  But nuance is looked for in the explorations of a ‘national branding’ project that was implicit in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a side perhaps missed out when compared to the unambiguously aggressive glorification of the state that so thoroughly informed the previous 2008 Beijing Games, in which regulated spectacle celebrated ‘shengshi’, an age of prosperity.

While the exhibition may be aesthetically impressive, from the opening floor of projected viral imagery through to the close in which a wall forms a cascading screen of twitter streams reacting to the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and Obama’s re-inauguration, by the end we are no closer to really grappling with propaganda today. In the age of social media, “everyone is a potential propagandist”, we are told. But what is constantly alluded to but never properly addressed is perhaps the untold story: the elision of systems of state propaganda, modes of dissent and the framework of advertising. In the wake of the Tiananmen protests, the Chinese Communist Party looked to the West for new sources of inspiration, and found it in Coca-Cola. By 1996, a Party textbook proclaimed that the soft drink brand was the example par excellence to be followed: “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.”

The iconic Occupy Wall Street pamphleting, in its stylistic borrowings from the romantic well of Russian Revolutionary and Soviet propaganda, is the perfect evocation of how 21st century activism embodies all the trademark hallmarks of marketing. The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote of this process in his 1981 Simulacra and Simulation: “The whole script of advertising and propaganda comes from the October Revolution and the market crash of 1929”. Baudrillard went on to observe that “both languages of the masses, issuing from the mass production of ideas, or commodities, their registers, separate at first, progressively converge. Propaganda becomes the marketing and merchandising of idea-forces, of political men and parties with their ‘trademark image’.” The Occupy poster is the epitome of this convergence of the worlds of advertising and activism.

In one of the many video portraits scattered across the exhibition space, the journalist John Pilger recalls a Czech dissident telling him during the Cold War: “You believe everything you see on the TV or read on the papers, but we’ve learnt to read between the lines.” Deploying everything from money to stamps and charting the shift from print to social media, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion offers a powerful insight into state influence and the flows of information that fashioned the 20th century political landscape. With Nazi propaganda nestled next to Britain’s own war campaign imagery, the exhibition never shys away from foregrounding the monsterization techniques behind audience appeal. Its co-curator David Welch argues that the danger only lies in a monopoly of propaganda, as seen in totalitarian states. But the sorry truth is that we can no longer afford to make political and commercial distinctions in propaganda today, when faced with a real loss of meaning, reading between the lines becomes all too urgent.

The White-Haired Girl. A Chinese film poster from 1950. Image: British Library.

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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