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The corrupted currents

As Jude Law brings a touch of Hollywood to the role of Hamlet, Jason Cowley draws parallels between

. . . If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
Hamlet

On the evening of Hazel Blears’s resignation from the government, I went to see Jude Law in the Michael Grandage-directed Hamlet, the conclusion to the Donmar’s West End season at Wyndham’s Theatre. During the interval much of the talk in the stalls bar was of how appropriate it was to be watching Hamlet on a day of such political drama and intrigue (we did not know what was to come). Certainly there was a sense in the
audience that Shakespeare’s tragedy of thwarted revenge had a startling contemporary resonance; there were inevitably chuckles and nods of recognition as we were told there was “something rotten in the state of Denmark” or Hamlet bemoaned the absence of honest men in the world.

With our political class never before more discredited and voters so alienated, it was satisfying to be reminded, in the heightened artificiality of a West End theatre, that the hugely ambitious and the power-seeking should never be fully trusted and that high ambition invariably drags in its wake profound difficulty and sorrow. Hamlet is, superficially at least, not deeply political in the way of Macbeth, where “nothing is/But what is not”, and Lady Macbeth, like the ambitious would-be politician she is, feels “the future in the instant”, as James Purnell must have done as he wrote the letter he surely believed would bring an end to the Brown premiership. Or of King Lear, where an aged and exhausted monarch looks on uncomprehendingly as those he believed were closest to him scheme to destroy him. Or more obviously of the histories, with their manipulation of the ambiguous space between truth and fiction.

The disintegration of the kingdom of Denmark following an act of regicide, the gathering forces of a distant army set on invasion and the interventions of an unquiet ghost provide the backdrop to what can be easily viewed less as an explicitly political text than as an intensely personal study in confusion, despair and self-reproach. Hamlet’s Elsinore is a place of restlessness and distrust but it does not have the murderous paranoia of Macbeth’s castle in Inverness, and there is no coherent or organised plot to topple the king, Claudius. Hamlet knows from the beginning that if the murder of his father is to be avenged, he must act alone.

Yet Hamlet is a play many great politicians have admired and turned to at moments of stress. Watching the Donmar’s production through the aspect of the contemporary, as recent events inevitably force one to do, I was for the first time more interested in the role of Claudius than in that of Hamlet, in spite of the allure and energy of Law’s interpretation. To watch Hamlet not quite without the prince, but with a keener eye than usual for the contributions of the supporting players, was to understand why a politician as great and complex as Abraham Lincoln was so fascinated by the play, and especially by the character of Claudius, the guilty king who murders without pleasure but for self-interest.

In the Donmar production, with its beautiful and stark monochrome sets and often subdued lighting, Claudius is played with control and grace by Kevin McNally: blithely confident and charming in public, but anguished and self-aware in private. When he delivers the soliloquy that Lincoln thought the finest in the play (“In the corrupted currents of this world . . .”), he falls to his knees, as if in pain or supplication, as
if he is pleading for a forgiveness that he knows can never be his.

By contrast, Law’s Hamlet has only two modes of expression: agitation and anger. He is fit and energetic, with a thick, muscular neck – he breathlessly sprints and struts, bounds and crouches. His diction and delivery are precise and clear, and though often humourless he succeeds, unintentionally perhaps, in conveying just how dislikeable Hamlet can be: narcissistic, self-pitying, cruel. But one never has a sense that this Hamlet, for all his grandeur of expression, is as existentially isolated and despairing as his elevated words would have it, longing for death. Nor does he capture, through nuance or tone, how much Hamlet changes during his long absence from Elsinore.

When Hamlet returns late in the play from England, he is supposed to be calmer, more settled, finally determined to act but also prepared to die (“readiness is all”), so that others might live free from the taint of Claudius’s corruption. But even in these late scenes Law remains as largely agitated as before.
In his time away, there is supposed to have been an important shift in Hamlet’s self-understanding and, for the first time, he openly expresses empathy for others, for Laertes especially and for Ophelia, whom he has bullied to her death:

But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For, by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his . . .

However, Law’s delivery of these important lines was too rushed and perfunctory; he spoke them with purpose but without feeling; nor did he convey the required subtle shifts in character.How old is Hamlet? It is easy to assume, because of his astounding self-absorption and because he returns from university to attend his father’s funeral, that Hamlet is younger than he is. But, according to the gravedigger, he could be as old as 30.One criticism of Law is that he is far too old to play the part; in fact, if you believe the gravedigger, he is rather well cast. At the age of 36, Law is losing the golden sheen of his youth, the gilded, wise-guy frivolity that made his performance in The Talented Mr Ripley so assured and compelling: his hair is receding, his skin is taut but sun-worn and there’s fatigue behind his eyes. Law-as-Hamlet looks less like a student than someone approaching the first crisis of early middle age: not old but no longer as young as he would wish to be, which is fine.

At present, with the crisis in Labour so deep, a week seldom passes without one political commentator or another seeking to draw comparisons between the struggles of Gordon Brown and one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, and the contemporariness of this particular Hamlet quickened the atmosphere at Wyndham’s. Turning to Shakespeare is one obvious way of trying to make sense of the melodrama of the Brown premiership, with its attendant feuds and media hysterics, even if the plays inevitably end up being misread or misappropriated. For Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian, Brown’s story combines the jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth and the equivocation of Hamlet. For Anne McElvoy, in the Sunday Telegraph, he is Lear, a raging autocrat who cannot accept that his time has passed, a victim of his own too-long imperious rule who, confronted by disloyalty, asks if this is the promised end. For others, Brown’s 10 Downing Street is variously Hamlet’s Elsinore or Macbeth’s castle: a place of refuge, sickness and paranoia.

Few would doubt that there is a tragic dimension to Brown’s plight. For so long the commanding presence of British politics, he is the victim both of desperate bad luck and of his own stubborn pride and delusions. Brown is the stealth taxer who, against Labour tradition, embraced the ideology of neoliberalism not as an end in itself, but as the means by which to redistribute wealth; the man who fatally believed he had mastered the free market, bending its forces to his very will (“I have abolished boom and bust”); the man who believed the job of Prime Minister was his as if by natural right but who, in office, has proved so spectacularly ill-suited to the role. In his own self-image, Brown remains more sinned against than sinning.

To watch Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions nowadays is a bit like watching a great heavyweight champion who has spent too long in the ring and who seems intent on defying even time’s arrow itself. Now, more than ever, he is on the ropes, refusing to go down, yet taking blows from the kind of lesser men he would once have swatted aside so casually.

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Other Shakespearean heroes of the G20

Barack Obama Henry V
In the wake of the Iraq War, Henry V made an easy comparison with Tony Blair’s foreign policy. Leaving overseas conflict aside, Barack Obama’s mastery of public oratory upholds the tradition of Shakespeare’s king. His inaugural speech recast the Founding Fathers in the rhetoric of Agincourt: “a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing.” Like King Henry, the president seems to have won his audience over to his cause.

Silvio Berlusconi Falstaff (Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor)
The Italian premier has become notorious for his jovial, irreverent behaviour. In April, after downplaying the entire G20 summit as “just a round table”, he displeased the Queen with an uncouth shout to “Mr Obama!” (who, sadly, did not return an “I know ye not”). The following day he skipped the official photograph at the Nato summit, and left Angela Merkel waiting on the red carpet as he chatted on his mobile. As Samuel Johnson wrote of Falstaff, “his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy escapes and sallies of levity, which make sport, but raise no envy”.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Jack Cade (Henry VI)
When protesters marched on the City of London on Financial Fool’s Day (1 April 2009), the Brazilian president, Lula de Silva, seemed to be the only G20 leader speaking with their voice. The crisis had been caused by the “blue-eyed bankers”, he said. Attacking many other leading G20 member states, he argued that the poor should no longer be the victims of globalisation. Lula may have conducted himself with more diplomacy than Shakespeare’s rebel leader, but he captured the spirit of popular uprising.

Michelle Obama Rosalind (As You Like It)
The true star of the G20 summit was not, for many commentators, even a world leader. First ladies have typically adopted a dated model of stay-at-home femininity, supporting uncontroversial good causes
and smiling for the press. Like Rosalind, Shakespeare’s most enduring heroine, Michelle Obama (Secret Service code name: Renaissance) has brought new individuality to a conventional role. Even the Queen forwent formality to enjoy a quick hug with the jewel of the show. l

John Ridpath

Brown is far too old to be Hamlet and much too young to be Lear – but as he addresses colleagues around the cabinet table he must know that, like Macbeth, “false face must hide what the false heart doth know”. What prevents Brown’s story from being truly Shakespearean – apart obviously from the absence of dead bodies lying scattered across the floor of the House as they were on the stage at Wyndham’s the other night, though before him Brown must daily see the metaphorical corpses of his various victims, Banquos one and all – is that he has not yet had his one true tragic reversal, the one moment of blinding self-revelation that exposes the depth of his suffering and of how much he has been changed by it. Perhaps the truth is that he has not been changed at all, or not quite enough.

Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth: all are wholly altered before they die. Lear, solipsistic and loft­ily contemptuous at the beginning, dies humbled and in self-forgetfulness, concerned, at the last, only for the fate of his loyal daughter, Cor­delia; it is not he but Kent who, after the death of Cordelia, asks: “Is this the promised end?”

There is no Brown-like defiance in Lear’s closing remarks, only resignation and belated expressions of self-understanding. This Lear, so unrecognisable from the man he once was, would understand the meaning of the words “Let be” as uttered by Hamlet shortly before he dies, as the Prime Minister perhaps would not – at least, in his present position of stubborn defiance, until he hears the final, fatal midnight knock at the door. (If Law’s Hamlet has an ultimate flaw, it is that he does not seem to understand the meaning of “Let be” either, even as he speaks the words, with “letting be” being an act of simultaneous acceptance and release, a letting go of what you most wish to hold on to – in Brown’s case the premiership, in Hamlet’s life itself.)

For now, though he must be hurting, Gordon Brown remains defiantly unaltered, still more sinned against than sinning, seemingly unaware of or refusing to accept how hated Labour is in the country at large. That’s hubris at its most Shakespearean.

“Hamlet” is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 22 August. Details: Wyndham's Theatre website

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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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?

***

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.

***

 

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?

***

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