Salman Rushdie. Photograph: Getty Images
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Salman Rushdie versus the mullocracy

Colin MacCabe reviews "Joseph Anton: a Memoir".

Joseph Anton: a Memoir
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape, 656pp, £25

The first policeman would arrive at our house up to an hour early to make an initial search. It was before the days of mobile phones but there would be a lot of traffic on sophisticated walkie-talkies and then a large black car would pull up outside. Our front door would be opened as the car stopped and a man wearing a baseball cap would emerge. Once he was inside, the cap would be removed, the door shut and, except for the policemen watching television upstairs in one of the children’s rooms, it would be just another dinner party in Islington.

Nobody thought it extraordinary at the time but this book reminds us that it was. Ours was one of many houses in which Salman Rushdie was always welcome as a guest after he had been condemned to death by the mullocracy in Tehran. What was extraordinary, as this book insists on several occasions, was not just that so many friends – and we were in the outer circle – were determined to offer him hospitality and refuge but that they kept it secret. In nearly ten years, no word of any kind leaked out. The chattering classes didn’t chatter.

The title page of Joseph Anton announces a memoir, the genre of our age, and from one perspective that is an accurate description. The book takes us through a childhood in Bombay and then boarding school at Rugby; our pro­tagonist studies at Cambridge before becoming an advertising copywriter in London. He is desperate to become a writer and desperate to understand his translated situation, to conjugate his Indian and his English selves. These twin desperations fuse and give rise to a great novel, Midnight’s Children, which is both Rushdie’s story and the story of modern India. He follows this with Shame, a much shorter novel but equally fine, which takes as its topic Pakistan.

If these two novels bear witness to Rushdie’s experience of being brought up as an Indian Muslim and to a partitioned subcontinent, they do not address his experience in England or his experience as a Londoner. London is the site of his comfortable, middle-class existence and the destination of the vast numbers of immigrants who have made the journey from the subcontinent in altogether more uncertain circumstances. He thus conceives of a book with ambition far outstripping that of his previous, very ambitious books; it is an attempt, as Milton put it, to achieve “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”.

If this memoir were a conventional addition to the form, then the part of the story that takes us through the first two-thirds of the writer’s life would have taken up about 400 pages of this book of more than 600 pages. Yet a little more than 70 pages are devoted to it. The reason for this is that the ambitious book Rushdie publishes, at the age of 42, is The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton is not, then, a memoir in the sense of a subjective account of a life; rather, that account is part of a history, of an objective account of what happened after the author was condemned to death by Ayatollah Khomeini.

The book opens with a bravura account of 14 February 1989, the day Rushdie was woken by a phone call from a BBC reporter asking him how it felt to be sentenced to death. This prologue is followed by the account of his life up to that day, a story that will be familiar to readers of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, for Rushdie shares many details of his life with Saleem Sinai and Saladin Chamcha, his fictional alter egos.

Rushdie further signals his distance from the memoir form with his decision to write not in the first but in the third person. This device, slightly odd in the discussion of his early life, pays off once Khomeini has pronounced his sentence. For at that moment Rushdie the writer, well known internationally in literary circles, becomes a world-historical figure – his name instantly recognisable around the globe. Rushdie is well aware of the almost accidental nature of this fame and the distancing device by which he turns himself into a figure in a wider history works brilliantly. It is the formal analogue of the extraordinary psychic adjustment that he had to make in order to cope with events that would have driven many insane. Indeed, he could have been forgiven for succumbing to paranoia or megalomania.

The extent of Rushdie’s fame was brought home to me in 1997 when, while he was still under full security protection, he came to give a reading at the University of Pittsburgh, where I teach. When he entered a hall packed with 800 members of the faculty and students, the audience erupted into a five-minute ovation quite unlike any reception I have ever witnessed in an academic setting.

Equally memorable was the occasion when I took him to an Italian restaurant high above Mount Washington so that he could enjoy a spectacular view of Pittsburgh and its three rivers. The restaurant had not been alerted to the visit but we were barely through the front door when the barman, who looked more like a character from The Sopranos than a habitué of libraries and bookshops, abandoned his post to greet us formally: “Mr Rushdie, it is a great honour to welcome you to our restaurant.”

Anybody who comes under the kind of protection that Rushdie was accorded after the fatwa must choose a pseudonym, a nom de guerre. He composed his, Joseph Anton, from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov and this name gives the book its title. Rushdie is a historian by training and the book is perhaps best described as a chronicle. It takes us step by step through the events following the fatwa: first, the battle of ideas, then the political struggle. In both strands, there are the good, who defend stalwartly a friend and a cause; the bad, who through fear, jealousy or stupidity abandon the most elementary defence of freedom; and the ugly, a succession of clerics and bigots who want the unbeliever killed as quickly as possible. In this unlovely gallery, Iqbal Sacranie, Tony Blair’s favourite Muslim, cuts a peculiarly disgusting figure.

The story Rushdie tells is never less than gripping. And there are moments, particularly in his description of his now regretted reconversion to Islam, when he writes as well as he has ever done. And there are also the personal details: an account of a much-married, uxorious man and most insistently, perhaps, the thoughts of a devoted father.

When Rushdie first told me in the mid-1980s of the new novel he was writing, which had as its centre Quranic verses accepting other gods that the Prophet then disowned, he was emphatic that what he wanted to do was to create a space in which one could pay one’s respects to Islamic culture without believing in God. This was his unforgiveable sin. If he had written a book that repeated the ludicrous slanders of medieval Christianity to the effect that a Christian necromancer had dictated the Quran to Muhammad or that he had died making love to a Jewess and then his body was eaten by pigs, no mullah would have felt threatened. For Muhammad, unlike Moses and Jesus, is a fully historical prophet. We know exactly how he lived and died.

Equally, a full-frontal attack from the perspective of modern atheism, à la Richard Daw­kins or Christopher Hitchens, in which the whole edifice of belief is reduced to nonsense would have troubled no one. What Rushdie dared to do was to attempt to appropriate the Islamic tradition for unbelievers, to take it out of the hands of the clerics. Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t have to read the book to recognise it for the threat it was and perhaps still is.

Sadly – but probably inevitably – reading this otherwise inspiring book jostles with the recognition that Rushdie has now given up this struggle. Islam is as the Islamophobes would have it. Early on in Joseph Anton, as he describes the moment at which Midnight’s Children took shape, he writes: “He was a historian by training and the great point of history, which was to understand how indi­vidual lives, communities, nations and social classes were shaped by great force yet retained at times, the ability to change the direction of those forces, must also be the point of his fiction.”

However, no attempt is made to offer a historical explanation of Islamic fundamentalism; instead, in the architecture of the book, it becomes as incomprehensible as the malignant birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great movie.

Islamic fundamentalism, like its Christian counterpart, is a recent phenomenon. “Born again” as an adjective does not occur in American English until 1959. The thinking of al-Qaeda springs from the writings of Sayyid Qutb in the same decade. To an old-fashioned Marxist, the explanation is obvious: these fundamental­isms indicate the failures of capitalism to offer even the hope of a system of global justice in which the staggering advances in knowledge and science over the past 400 years would contribute to the general well-being of the species.

The academic Darko Suvin once remarked that the desire to be born again amounted to an immanent critique of capitalism. Islamic fundamentalism is born in the failures of third-world socialism. If its intolerant ideas must be continuously contested – and Rushdie’s book shows him as eloquent as ever in this contest – they will only evaporate with social and political changes of which there is currently little sign.

Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge