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The Illusion of Technique
William Barrett
Evolution of Consciousness
Published by Doubleday/NY in 1979

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2001


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Barrett wrote this book as a result of his reading side-by-side the books of two authors, one American, one Russian. Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

The issue which Barrett deals with is one that we all deal with when we encounter a cereal package that is hard to open. How did this package get all that extra glue on its top? The other packages were not so hard to open. Suddenly we encounter this one. Don't they have machines to do this work? Oh, but what about the people who run the machines, who need to notice that the glue container is dry and needs to be refilled or that the glue is running too thick and the machine needs an adjustment. Or the new person on the assembly line who is replacing an experienced hand who just retired? Who is supposed to notice that this person is not noticing the glue levels? How do we develop a technique so that the new person becomes an invisible part of the machine, so efficient that no customers can ever notice the new person's presence by encountering a hard-to-open package? In Russia, for Solzhenitsyn, the crime was not a hard-to-open package but the crime of dissent.

[page xii] Why not prevent the crime of dissent before it arises? The more polished techniques of the behavioral scientist might shape the mind beforehand so that it would never be tempted into any dissenting path. That would be a great step in efficiency. Why go to inordinate lengths to break a man's spirit if you can mold him so that he has no spirit to begin with? Simply as a matter of economy, too, the saving would be enormous: The elaborate "sewage system" for disposing of the rebellious, on which Solzhenitsyn reports, would become unnecessary. All just a matter of finding the right technique.

The right techniques of shaping behavior had become available from B. F. Skinner and it seemed to be a good idea to place these two men, Skinner and Solzhenitsyn in a dialogue with each other in his mind. That is the meat of this book, the dialogue. Will the "mind-forged manacles" of Skinner replace those more conventional manacles of forged steel? Will the prison of a state-controlled life of dictated expectations replace a life of freedom? Or will we suffer as Oedipus did?

[page 164] Oedipus is the tragedy of the struggle between light and darkness. The hero wished to see, he will have the truth at all costs; and when the light finally bursts upon him, he puts out his eyes so that he will never see again. As he had been blind in the bright days of his glory, now in the light of his wisdom he sinks into another darkness.

Barrett takes us over the philosophical paths of humankind through history, and in the end he takes with him along a path through the woods along the Hudson River in winter. He remembered what Wordsworth said, "One impulse from a vernal wood/ Can teach us more of moral evil and of good..." (page 373). He looked about him at the path he trod upon, at the woods, at the individual tree that greeted him from time to time, and closed his book this way:

[page 377] So each day I pass judgment and sentence myself to remain among the living. Condemned to live, I must then ceaselessly create reasons for living. The judgment is not so severe, nor the task so difficult, as we imagine. We have only to be open to the world and it will pour its riches at our feet. Before this winter I had not known that the bark of a tree, caught in yellow sunlight, could be enough to restore a life.


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