Propaganda has so broad a meaning that it is almost impossible to define on the basis of specific literary values that may be recognized in traditional literary forms like the sermon, treatise, or tract. Historical contexts are critical in understanding what propaganda is, what its uses are, and how it is perceived by its analysts and proponents.
Historians agree that the origin of the term dates from the Catholic Church’s Congregatio de propaganda fide in 1622, which sanctioned missionary projects throughout the world.
However, definitions of propaganda vary depending on the contexts in which opinion forms. Propaganda, then, may have a neutral or descriptive meaning, or it may be used, as it tends to be in modern times, with negative connotations. René Wellek’s classic Theory of Literature (1949) argues that “The term ‘propaganda’ is loose and needs scrutiny. In popular speech, it is applied to doctrines viewed as pernicious and spread by men whom we distrust. The word implies calculation, intention, and is usually applied to specific, rather than restrictive doctrines or programmes.” Wellek claims, as would many literary theorists, that literature as art is opposed to propaganda; yet if we argue that all writers sincerely attempt to influence, then all writing may be “propaganda.”
Wellek’s views are influenced by propaganda as a problem in the function of literature in the period after World War I, when the partisanship and political engagement of writers were linked to social movements, and questions of ethics and belief in literary interpretation were on the agenda. Instructive was T.S.Eliot’s turn to Christian culture as a solution to democratic individualism, collectivism, and fascism. Eliot’s essays like “Journalism and Literature” (1931) and “Christianity and Society” (1939) attempt to answer the question of belief and unbelief versus disinterested truth. Eliot even says that Dante and Lucretius are “good propagandists” (“Poetry and Propaganda,” 1930).
But if rhetorical persuasion cannot be equated with propaganda, can there be both “positive” propaganda and “negative” propaganda? Even an authority on propaganda like Harold Lasswell (1959) can define it ahistorically as a neutral technique: propaganda is “in the broadest sense…the technique of influencing human action by the manipulation of representations” in different media. How deliberate the manipulation may be is clearly a problem in defining what it is. We can see that propaganda in this sense touches other literary forms, since it cuts across genres, including didactic and educational essays which may contain many rhetorical or literary conventions. However, this still does not distinguish it from other vehicles or ideologically oriented cultural attitudes like myths or belief systems which also frame truths.
We may define “soft” propaganda minimally as an instrument of persuasion and manipulation of public opinion which coerces truth by claiming universality for its views.
Propaganda in this sense would be distinguished from education, which assumes that the listener is rational, can understand several points of view, and will make up his or her mind on the basis of the evidence. Yet a recent commentator on propaganda, Lucy Lippard (1980), argues the reverse, naniely that propaganda is a function of knowledge itself: feminists “…have to keep in the back of our minds that we wouldn’t have to use the denigrated word ‘propaganda’ for what is, in fact, education, if it weren’t consistently used against us.” She argues that quality, objectivity, and neutrality in art “belong to them,” and that “Feminism has potentially changed the terms of propaganda as art by being unashamed of its obsessions and political needs, and by confirming the bonds between individual and social experience.”
The difficulty of defining propaganda is such that it is often tempting to look for its origins in ancient and medieval cultures. For example, it might be claimed that Plato’s Republic is propaganda for or against the state or that the Homeric epics or Greek drama contain propagandistic elements that praise the laws or the rule of tyrants. We could say that the poems of Hesiod or the Iliad and Odyssey, and similarly Dante or Milton, use fixed conventions and styles that appropriate the responses and expectations of the listener. However, even though belief, ritual, religion, and the symbols may exist as separate spheres for the modern reader, the syncretic, artistic forms of ancient genres do not allow us to claim that they are used as propaganda, even though they may reinforce belief or faith in the gods. At the same time, it is fair to say that Aristophanes in Athens and Horace in Rome parodied the popularization of literature and the debasing of the word. This indicates that political demagoguery is a feature of the ancient world.
The humanist movements that dramatically separate politics from religion from the 14th to the 18th centuries constitute another phase in understanding the problematic political origin of propaganda. In the Middle Ages literary and rhetorical techniques in both high and low culture were dependent on the degree of literacy and education in the secular institutions of society. The rise of a reading public from the 14th to the 19th centuries in Europe led to an explosion of pamphlets, broadsides, and polemical tracts of a personal, heretical, and dissenting nature. These later became a feature of the revolutionary traditions in France, England, and Germany in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Already in the 16th century Rabelais, Montaigne, and Erasmus were writing in the humanist tradition that draws out the relationship of power to the increasing consciousness of absolutism. The English humanism of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) is a particularly striking example of schooling and education defended as higher goods that are tied to social issues. Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) constructs freedom of speech against intolerance, but at the same time propagandizes against popery.
But More’s Utopia, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and the political essays of Wyndham Lewis like The Art of Being Ruled (1926), or even Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85; Thus Spoke Zarathustra), are more than mere ideas. They insist that ideas change the world and that using a personal language in essayistic form can change the reader’s convictions about reality. Propagandists seem to be intoxicated by ideas and language. Humanistic propaganda is typically concerned about social justice, the welfare of the poor, the injustices of man, and the inequalities associated with religion and monarchy. The techniques used are not just emotional expressions. Humanist essays contain elements like name-calling, ridicule, and degrading invective, judgments about the motivations of enemies, blasphemy, and caustic sarcasm formed in the crucible of the dissenting traditions. The audience would be familiar with satirical, polemical, hortatory, and parodic styles of speech. Indeed, oaths, curses, and rhetorical inversions are used by “good” and “bad” propagandists to travesty enemies, and the false “truths” of opponents. To subvert the mind of the reader and build up one’s own case is considered fair. Learning and preaching are not easily separated, but to the polemicist the pedantry of official speech is open game.
If propaganda comes from those who control the means of persuasion, like the intelligentsia, it can also be used by those who do not fit into the dominant world view.
Indeed, it can be argued that with the rise of printing in the mid-15th century, combined with the spread of the Reformation with its emphasis on literacy and schooling, a new audience was created which would be open to both religious and secular demagoguery.
By appealing to the base motives of the powerful, the propagandist attempts to psychologize about motives and builds up the status and esteem of those who are outside of the cultured and educated classes in order to make them feel like insiders. Both Calvin’s and Luther’s treatises use sacred texts in order to open a new audience to the criticism of doctrinal and theological values; since many of the new readers were members of the commercial classes, both leaders and addressees were familiar with vernacular speech.
As the bearers of social transformation, the new classes were particularly prone to the crises that accompanied economic and political change. Clerical forces not only “propagated the faith,” they also attempted to combat change and the spread of knowledge. Galileo, Copernicus, and Bruno are vivid examples of the effects of “positive” clerical propaganda used against secular thought. Censorship in France and most of Europe was official policy from the i^th century to the French Revolution. If propaganda is placed in the context of the humanist tradition it can be seen as a subset of institutional discourses, a medium in which ideas are used to change the beliefs of others and above all to promote action or conversion in ways that not only represent the truth, but demand action on behalf of truth.
Propaganda only began to assume negative attributes in the 19th century, well beyond the time when the “propagation of the faith” was a neutral activity of a benign church. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, workers’ movements, educational and abolitionist movements, along with the missionizing zeal of Catholic and Protestant churches, created conditions for mobilizing opinion for ideological causes. It was clear that traditional cultural or normative ethics could be attacked in the name of coercing audiences on behalf of religious or political truths.
The pamphlets, screeds, and manifestos written in the revolutionary times of the 18th and 19th centuries show us that sedition and censorship are two sides of the propaganda coin. However, seen from the perspective of the manipulation of public opinion during times when the fragmentation of communal values occurs, it is clear that propaganda and censorship are the children of the marriage of rising literacy and democratic movements.
The propagandist assumes an attitude that people in masses cannot reason for themselves and are basically irrational. This permits writers to degrade an enemy and use indirect suggestion rather than argue with reasonable auditors. The formation of social movements and publics within modern nation-states gives rise to special interests which attempt to mobilize opinion and solidarity for their causes. The rise of new classes and groups—the masses are open to movements for reform, reeducation, and politicizing— leads to the development of literary and rhetorical tools for the manipulation of the mind and emotions in ways that go beyond mere rational persuasion.
Propaganda became both a public issue and a writer’s issue in England and America during World War I. Following the religious and colonial wars of the 19th century, when nationalism appeared to be an answer to the upheavals and transformations of social movements, new ideological conditions prevailed. World War I was fought on the basis of loyalty to national identity, and propaganda became an official arm of governments for maintaining national unity against the dark European “Central Powers.” Appropriating writers for warmaking causes marked a shift from the previous centuries when writers decried nationalism and xenophobia. England’s propaganda machine in World War I affected writers as diverse as Henry James, H.G.Wells, Ford Madox Ford, and John Galsworthy, who enlisted themselves on the side of England’s cause. Other writers, however, like D.H.Lawrence (“Education of the People,” 1920) and E.M.Forster (“Two Cheers for Democracy,” 1951), opposed the use of propaganda to bring the masses in line with war-making.
In modern times propaganda is almost always associated with the political coercion of opinion, war-making, and the militarization of society. This explains why avant-garde writers and artists are often associated with propaganda or are attracted by the techniques that encourage art to achieve a direct relationship to society. “Agitprop”—the most conscious of propagandistic movements in art and literature in the 1930s in the Soviet Union and Germany—is a term coined expressly to sanction the connection between publicity, agitation, and propaganda.
It is easy to see how in modern times propaganda is associated with advertising and brainwashing, because propaganda is now assumed to be deliberate manipulation. The “hidden persuaders” of the advertising and consumer industries successfully create conditions for obedience to official values and organizational behavior. Jacques Ellul (1965) argues that language and imagery condition and absorb individuals into the
mechanical reproduction of reality. However, advertising as well as the written text, images, and the daringly graphic designs of agitprop can entertain as well as lure willing spectators into hostile attitudes toward an enemy. Yet folk songs and popular songs, proverbs, and political songs are themselves vehicles for propaganda. Propaganda uses slogans that scapegoat members of a class, race, or ethnic community as the enemy who is outside the boundaries of the human community. Both sophisticated and simplistic,
psychologically loaded techniques like caricature, distortion, displacement, and sexual stereotyping demonize foreigners and outsiders. At the same time, techniques of propaganda can be used to control how information is disseminated. Noam Chomsky (1988), following in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Harold Lasswell, and Jacques Ellul, coined the phrase “manufacturing consent” to describe how Western governments, newspapers, and the media propagate the official line by developing sophisticated verbal and documentary techniques that deceive a public unable to distinguish political policy from expedience. The democratic obligations to educate and enlighten about controversial political and cultural issues are evaded.
The historical and political forces that create the genre “propaganda” are clear. But the relationship to the essay as a form of thought may be elusive. While propaganda is often associated with social transformation and revolution or counter-revolution, it is useful to remember that propaganda is not only a genre of writing, but a framework which helps us understand and become aware of the relationship between language, reason, and coercion. Historically, intellectuals and writers have been attracted to the issues raised by propaganda. Intellectuals interpret reality and criticize reason; thus they often find themselves searching for ways to identify forces in society which criticize absolutist political domination. Writers often seek approval and power and join the forces that control ideas or promote hostility.
Propaganda can be described as a tool for establishing the consensual basis for new alliances in society. This is not a new tactic. Addison’s and Steele’s journals or Jean-Paul Marat’s agitational pamphlets can promote a rationalist view of the world in order to secure new modes of consent among those who are out of power, just as the enemies of power, like William Godwin or Percy Bysshe Shelley, plead for a higher rationality. Critics of official thought, like Jonathan Swift in “An Essay upon the Art of Political
Lying” (1710) and A Modest Proposal (1729) or George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” (1946), object to the use of language that cajoles, threatens, frightens, or obsequiously praises authority or mass-mindedness. Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), the essays of Bertolt Brecht on partisanship and commitment in the 19305, H.L.Mencken’s tirades against mediocrity and conformism in language, while anchored to different political alignments, are sophisticated analyses of the culture of official speech, because they are aware of the illiberal influence the manipulation of language can have among both the educated and the uneducated. For them publicists are “legislators” who must be responsible to the people, and their essays do not shy away from passionate criticism of the standardization of thought that swallows up and digests reason.
Agitprop under communism—often called the propaganda of the deed—or lurid Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, or war propaganda in England and America, shared the common end of coercing ideological realignment by projecting a powerful enemy in the name of maintaining power. Propaganda appeals to the purity and superiority of those groups who are struggling against forces which are deemed capable of annihilating the self-identified good or just cause. Propaganda should be understood as a cross-generic
phenomenon embedded within a variety of forms and genres that may be equally popular, plebeian, or official. In attempting to bring the reader to a point where acting, performing, or changing consciousness and identity can be effected in the name of powerful forces of social and cultural transformation, propaganda is framed by the platitudes and clichés of prejudice and conventional wisdom, but its essence lies in its function as a discourse between preconstructed audiences and images of audiences. The social consequences of propaganda reveal the objectives of propaganda, namely that by subjecting truth to coercive forms, a crisis of legitimation in the nature of citizenship (and particularly, belonging) is precipitated. Essays which harbor propagandistic elements, or can be clearly identified as propaganda, should make the reader consider whether it is possible to entrust the enlighteners with our minds and souls.
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