Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

Policing cyberspace, policing the psyche

I was recently referred by a client to a year-old New York Times article about images and the Internet. The article, “Policing the Web’s Lurid Precincts” by Brad Stone, specifically deals with how “depraved” images affect the people that sites like Facebook hire to constantly review their content.

Patricia Laperal, a psychologist, interviewed members of the little known occupation. The Times reports the result of her research:

Ms. Laperal… reached some unsettling conclusions in her interviews with content moderators. She said they were likely to become depressed or angry, have trouble forming relationships and suffer from decreased sexual appetites. Small percentages said they had reacted to unpleasant images by vomiting or crying.


“The images interfere with their thinking processes. It messes up the way you react to your partner,” Ms. Laperal said. “If you work with garbage, you will get dirty.”

I find it intriguing that we virtually take for granted that graphic, taboo images can negatively affect a person.  We do this to the sometimes absurd extent that the simplest erotic imagery is regarded as dangerous or immoral by many in our culture.

But, if we assert that images can have negative impact, why are so many of us disinclined to acknowledge that images can also have very positive, even therapeutic, effects? Even those most personal images, our dreams, have been dismissed by many scientists as meaningless. (Happily, though, neuroscience is  overruling that “modern” view. Yes, Freud was right.)

Meanwhile, financially crippled public schools eliminate their arts and music classes before all others. And, of course, Republicans have repeatedly tried, with considerable success, to discontinue funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Failing that, they at least censor what the NEA can fund.

This isn’t accidental. The effort to control imagery is a hallmark of the totalitarian-minded. Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all built huge buildings that recalled the classical style of imperial Rome and Greece. The effective impact of such buildings was to render the individual’s status secondary to the state’s.  All three dictators turned art into propaganda. Perhaps most infamous is the exquisite but terrifying propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will” that Hitler commissioned Leni Riefenstahl to make.

One of the very positive aspects of the Internet in my view is that it is comprised of images above all. As such, it echoes Jung’s view that image and psyche are one. There’s little doubt that some of the images drifting in cyberspace produce the effect of nightmares and trauma. These belong to the negative shadow. I frankly doubt they can be eliminated to any great extent. (Those who try, apparently, are overwhelmed.)

But cyberspace is also a remarkable expression of the entire personal and cultural psyche. When my clients interact with it — by creating images, collecting others’ images, writing about them — often startling information emerges.

This happens in a much broader way, too. As we have repeatedly seen recently, cultures are bridged via the Internet, as they are with conventional art. The face of misery is revealed, revolution is stoked. Think Goya online.

Thus authoritarian governments attempt to control access to the Web as insistently as they have long tried to regulate conventionally produced art. But the very nature of cyberspace — continually expanding like an exploding star — will overcome every effort to contain it.

Maybe eventually our own culture will come to see — as “primitive” ones long have — that the nurture and production of images is essential to human existence. The effort to suppress those images guarantees that they will assert themselves in ever more disturbing form.


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