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Salò, or the 120 days of Mouseton

A few weeks before his death, Walt Disney demonstrated to Florida state authorities that there was more to fantasy worlds than just drawing them. In fact, Sunshine State officials had received a short 24-minute film from Disney's offices featuring a visionary project called Experimental Prototype COmmunity of Tomorrow (EPCOT). It was about a private ideal city to be built in the heart of the state. The structure envisioned by Disney was to house 20,000 people in a huge circular area divided into concentric circles, with a thirty-meter tower at its center surrounded by offices and shopping areas. Public buildings, schools and sports facilities were to be built around this center. In the outermost circle, after a large green area, residential areas were to be built. Cars would have been banned from the surface and relegated to underground streets, while public transportation would consist of vehicles on monorails called "people movers." A giant dome would have covered the city to regulate the climate. So far, Disney's project seems to be only a foreshadowing of the "new urbanism" of the 1990s. In fact, in his eyes, EPCOT was to be a test case not only for urban design but also for social organization. Walt Disney stated, "It'll be a planned and controlled community, a showcase for American industry, for research and schools, an opportunity for culture and education." Walt Disney's plan called for none of the residents to own their homes, so no one could legally vote, leaving Disney's hands free to manage the community without unwanted citizen representatives. The fact that it was a private town also protected it from interference by Florida authorities. Disney had total control, set permits and prohibitions, and even held citizenship rights. Retired and unemployed people had no chance for citizenship. No ghettos, just cleanliness and social order. The "prototype of the experimental community of tomorrow" thus ceases to be a realized Mouseton and takes on the disturbing features of a totalitarian dystopia in pastel colors. Many have already noticed this, and the parallels between EPCOT and the Seahaven of "The Truman Show" suggested by the well-known 1998 film are self-evident.

What few have pointed out, however, is the similarity between Disney's project and Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. It begins with the same radiating topographical structure. In fact, the English philosopher had designed a circular prison that allowed a single warden to observe all prisoners at all times. The peculiarity, however, was that the prisoners couldn't tell whether they were being watched or not. As a result, they found it convenient to always behave under the assumption that they were being watched. The result was the internalized sense of the invisible guard's omniscience. According to Bentham, the prolonged persistence of this condition would cause the inmates to fully internalize their righteous behavior and thus indelibly change their character. The philosopher himself described panopticism as "a new way of acquiring power over the mind, in a way and to a degree never before seen."

The original sketch of Bentham's panopticon. The all-seeing eye in a triangle is surrounded by the inscriptions Mercy, Justice and Vigilance.

The idea that the lack of visible control leads to the self-suppression of the individual and thus to social order brings us to a third figure: the psychologist Burrhus Skinner. From his experiments on "operant conditioning" with cats, mice, and pigeons, Skinner derived the idea that with appropriate "reinforcers" or "positive consequences of behavior" - i.e., rewards - and "aversive stimuli" - i.e., punishments - it's possible to empirically condition all kinds of behavior. The Panopticon theorist, Jeremy Bentham, saw the instrumental use of pleasure and pain as man's "only two masters." Skinner didn't limit himself to this, but went further, writing a utopian novel that took ispiration from David Thoureau. The latter had lived his utopia in the Arcadian seclusion of Walden, a resort near Concord where he could escape the norms of community. Thoureau's utopia, then, was an escape from control (and, let's face it, taxes). Skinner's novel instead described a society of control, unabashedly calling it "Walden Two." In it, he hypothesized a "perfect society" in which all people are as "conditioned" as his pigeons. He was also convinced that "the control of the entire population must be delegated to specialists: Policemen, priests, businessmen, teachers, therapists, etc., who've special reinforcers and codified reinforcement contingencies." Skinner was unequivocal:

A state that turns all its citizens into spies, or a religion that promotes the concept of an omniscient God, eliminates any possibility of evading punishment, thus giving extreme effectiveness to the punitive system. People behave well even though there's no discernible surveillance.

The overlap with Bentham's idea of behavior modification through the perception of invisible control is total. What Skinner proposes, then, is a universalized panopticon. This condition would be ideal because, in Skinner's words, freedom "obviously" increases as visible control decreases. We don't know what the psychologist would have thought if he'd seen how differential reinforcement according to "ability to obey laws" and similar "protocols for behavioral reinforcement and extinction" characterize the current "social credit system" in China. In that country, millions of cameras, capable of recognizing anyone within seven minutes thanks to sophisticated facial recognition software, metaphorically form the all-seeing eye that Bentham put at the center of his famous sketch of the panopticon.

To this point, however, we remain close to the abused discourse of control and disciplinary society that made Michel Foucault and his epigones famous. These claimed that even democratic society is a diffuse institution based on the asymmetry of power (e.g., the "seeing-being-seen" asymmetry). Here, however, we want to propose a new consideration that starts from the same basis. That's, we ask whether it's possible to draw the line to abuse of power at the point where obedience and submission don't require visible coercion or force. Consequently, we ask whether the consent of the victim can be a valid indicator of the absence of such abuse. To try to answer these questions, we introduce another figure who's perhaps the furthest from Walt Disney that we've started from: Pier Paolo Pasolini. The latter was the most famous Italian intellectual when he set out to make the film "Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom" in 1975. The author's goal was to depict the "anarchy of power," that's, the ability of power to make its own laws. In the film, the fascist hierarchs announce to the boys the strict rules that apply in the villa where they've locked them up, arbitrarily set by the hierarchs themselves. They'll then lead them into hellish circles of aberration, vice, perversion and violence. It's interesting to note that for the filming of his spiritual testament, Pasolini confined the cast and crew to a villa in Tuscany for months. Here a state of group dissociation from the outside world emerged, and a peculiar state of mind, described thus by one of the people who worked on the film:

The particular atmosphere created tension, it seemed almost unreal to live in another reality, there was a lot of silence to focus on what we were experiencing and acting. Then, as the months went by, a form of enthusiasm grew in us that made us empathize with the characters in these situations. Just look at how the guys who played the collaborators were completely out of their minds by the end. I don't know if they'd been drinking or what, but something sinister was strong in them, they were really scary. We've to remember that it took four, five months to shoot, and by the end we were all over it. When we walked off the set, it felt like the world was a different reality, not the real one.

The immersion of the actors who played the fascists in their role as sadistic rapists made the actors who suffered their aggressions and humiliations real victims. This can only recall the famous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Phil Zimbardo in 1971. In the experiment, volunteers who agreed to participate were randomly assigned the roles of guards and prisoners in a replica prison at the University of California. After a few days, the "jailers" began to harass the "prisoners." The guards forced the prisoners to sing obscene songs, defecate in buckets they weren't allowed to empty, clean latrines with their bare hands, and so on. The same situation was humorously portrayed in the 1998 film "Train de vie," about a group of Jews who, in order to escape the Shoah, pretend to have been deported by the Nazis, who were also Jews in disguise, but who end up playing the roles of their tormentors too well.

The actors who were harassed on the set of "Salò" described the humiliations they suffered as real humiliations, and their identification was so great that quite a few threw up after the coprophagy scenes. However, no one shirked. The consent was confirmed by a contract and justified by the expected remuneration for the performance. Raffaele Ventura, in an article in Esquire, rightly stated, "It's his prestige as an intellectual, his special role at the heart of capitalist society, that's given Pasolini the power to humiliate people; or, if you like, to make them choose to be humiliated. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, can thus be considered an artistic counterpart to a famous social psychology experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1961." This reflection describes the two fundamental aspects of the matter. The first concerns what psychologists call "charisma." Prestige, power, culture, and age placed the revered teacher in a position of authority and gave him increased suggestive power. It's therefore particularly interesting to refer to Stanley Milgram. The latter proved with his famous experiment that people can go so far out of pure obedience as to administer high-voltage electric shocks to a subject, even when the subject is obviously in great pain. It's precisely Milgram's experience with the slow development of obedience to orders that move further and further away from what one would initially be willing to obey that the author of this text has placed at the center of a model of induced subordination in "coercive groups." Consider Scientology, various Orientalist cults that have made headlines for exploiting followers, radical religious or political groups, certain church groups, and also monasteries from which stories of abuse are increasingly emerging. This is of particular interest because various zealous defenders of such sodalities appeal exclusively to the self-determination of members and seem blind to the mechanisms of persuasion and control that undermine that self-determination at its root; mechanisms, incidentally, that are well known to social psychology. The separation from the outside world, the panoptic control over individual behavior, and the enforced submission found in these aggregates describe the anarchy of power that Pasolini, in denouncing it, unwittingly realized.

Defenders of "microfascisms" and their demiurges, grasp Mouseton and not Panopticon, Thoureau's Walden and not Skinner's. The moral question of degradation and exploitation cannot be resolved with the simple excuse of initial "consent" or the free choice to withdraw it. When McMurphy, the character played by Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," found out that most of the inmates of the mental hospital where they were victimized were voluntarily committed but didn't leave the institution, he understood the lesson of Etienne de La Boétie: people voluntarily submit to power. The Truman Burbank of "The Truman Show" was free to leave his little island, but the fear of the outside world instilled in his world by the Director-Demiurge kept him in what he considered a safe haven (Seahaven, indeed). Of course, a democratic and liberal society cannot hinder freedom of association and the free exercise of religion, but it must, even at the risk of losing the preconditions for democracy and freedom, prevent abuses of power by first reducing the opportunities for them. The stubborn efforts of some who're willing to rebuke China's Skinnerian totalitarianism but diligently defend non-territorial totalitarianism in the name of principles that sell themselves as "liberal" go in the opposite direction. They defend a "multiculturalism" made up of identities that don't want to abide by the liberal and democratic principles that apply outside their borders. Therein already lies the absurdity of the claim to defend these closed worlds - and to put up a shield for the abuse of power that takes place there - by invoking liberal-democratic principles that they themselves don't recognize within them.

The current clash of civilizations is presented as a struggle between the open society and despotism, but it's paradoxical that a free society doesn't also take care of the sovereignties that proliferate in its own body.


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