Covert Culture

We may assume we are in the presence of covert culture when we note a recurrent pattern of inconsistent or seemingly illogical behavior. When most people in a given society or sub-society adhere to inconsistencies in their actions, when they resist with emotion any attempts to reconcile their actions with their expressed beliefs, and when they persist in this behavior over an extended period of time, then presumably we are dealing with covert culture.

Late in 1957, a rocket roared up from Kazakhstani soil and into the panicked unconscious of the Cold War West. For a civilian population reared on myths of supremacy, the payload was psychic as well as technical, a space-age Puck girdling the earth in just over ninety minutes. Sputnik. In Russian, the name meant fellow-traveller, as though the Kremlin had defrosted its sense of humour long enough to put a mocking orbital exclamation point on the life of Senator Joe McCarthy, dead of alcoholic hepatitis in May. In England, a New Statesman article by J. B. Priestley was about to become the foundational text of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Atomic weapons research was pushing on, first at Orford Ness in Suffolk, and later at Aldermaston. In total secrecy, scientists were developing biological weapons on Salisbury Plain at a place called Porton Down. Londoners, Glaswegians, Liverpudlians — in fact, the inhabitants of most big British cities — lived on an archipelago of atomic targets. Vast parts of the American southwest had been requisitioned as testing sites. Toxicity in the food chain. Downwinders already sipping contaminated groundwater. ICBMs and the spectre of that nuclear bloom at home.

Nobody was supposed to notice. Despite the evidence of Hiroshima, public information campaigns taught Americans to duck and cover, as though nuclear annihilation would come like ballistic hail, a flight of arrows through the canvas of circled wagons. The British message was somewhat more sober (‘If, however, you have had a body in the house for more than five days…’) but for the most part it suggested that people could muddle through nuclear fallout without much more difficulty than a wet bank-holiday weekend.

We may assume we are in the presence of covert culture…’ That paragraph comes from ‘Literature and Covert Culture’, an essay published two months after the Sputnik launch by three American scholars: Bernard Bowron, Leo Marx and Arnold Rose. Its gist was that by attending to the odd unstated contradictions within historical texts, a reader could uncover the equally odd contradictions between what societies said they thought, what they thought they thought, and what they really thought. It’s possible to get a sense of how this might work by turning the method back on the essay itself, which taps in to the muddy spring of cold war paranoia by way of a kind of macabre crypt-analysis: ‘Dead men answer no poll-takers,’ it goes on, ‘but they have left an extensive written record of their underground cultures. This record may be deciphered.’ And the game of decryption can be pushed a little further, since ‘Literature and Covert Culture’ speaks the language of the Cold War secret state, couching its cultural criticism in terms of ‘betrayal’, ‘deviousness’ and ‘deciphering’.

What makes the essay worth reading now is its reflexive relation to the time and place in which it was written. ‘Literature and Covert Culture’ was not the only work published in 1957 that took an interest in the problem of reconciling actions and expressed beliefs. Several months earlier, Leon Festinger, a professor of Psychology at Stanford, had published his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Festinger had begun by investigating the circulation of rumours. The question that A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance proposed to answer was simple: what happens when a human being is compelled to accept multiple conflicting ideas at the same time? Smoking kills; I want to remain alive; I want to smoke. How is it possible that a person can assent to all three of those propositions without much difficulty?

By way of an answer, Festinger posited the existence of a strange psychological drive towards non-contradiction between rational beliefs and irrational prejudices or habits – a drive which somehow manages the dissonance between thought and behaviour. The smoker who knows that smoking kills, for instance, finds ways to rationalise the habit. In order to put the theory to a real-world test, Festinger infiltrated a millenarian alien-cult to study the cognitive dissonance produced when the cataclysm predicted by the cult’s leaders failed to occur, apparently disconfirming the beliefs of those cult members who had staked everything on apocalypse. Instead of taking the continued existence of Earth as evidence of the non-existence of wrathful aliens, most of the cult members chose to believe that the aliens existed all right: but had clearly just decided to grant humanity a last-minute reprieve. More recently, we’ve seen the same deranged logic at work in Harold Camping’s Family Radio cult of the Rapture. In such cases, disconfirmation doesn’t disconfirm anything: it just means you need to revise your dates.

In some new sense, the Cold War required these theories of cognitive dissonance, being itself a producer of inconsistency and double-mindedness. If the bomb’s annihilatory potential seemed to offer only a counsel of despair, something had to keep that despair from the day-to-day life of societies. ‘Our aim,’ a Civil Defence broadcast told US citizens in 1953, ‘is to keep working, because we must give to our armed forces the things they need to win.’ Dissonance appeared at the right moment, providing both a containment device and a theory of containment for ideas that seemed too volatile to coexist in the same psychic space. It suggested that people could, in some obscure way, both know that nuclear annihilation could come at any moment, and yet continue their lives as though this was not something utterly new in the history of human life. These theories of dissonance, in other words, suggested how the separation of rational understanding from daily practice could be easily comprehended and naturalized.

As a cognitive theory, dissonance was a Cold War innovation, and, in retrospect, 1957 looks like its golden year. Aside from Sputnik and the CND, the year had begun in the shadow of the Suez crisis, Britain’s disastrous effort to resolve the conflict between a fading memory of Empire and the doldrums of post-war exhaustion. Dissonance was a way to rationalize an absurdity, to construct scale models of superpower psychosis. But it left unaffected the fear-drenched amygdalae of the Cold War unconscious. It didn’t get near the lizard-brain. The only piece of writing that did, to my mind, was a novel, also published in 1957. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach doesn’t go in for the spookily apocalyptic visions of John Wyndham’s mutants or for the kind of ecological decimation you find in John Christopher’s recently re-issued The Death of Grass. On the Beach isn’t much read now: perhaps because it comes across as a rather dated, sexist, unreconstructed novel without much to offer in the way of character or plot.

Yet it’s precisely the way the novel has dated that makes it unsettling now, amid our own global crisis. It begins, as it were, after the end: a prolonged nuclear exchange has already annihilated human life in the Northern Hemisphere, and the fallout clouds are circling through the earth’s wind systems, carrying radioactive particles further and further south. The action of the novel, what there is of it, takes place mostly in Melbourne, where the last remaining US submarine has attached itself to the Australian Navy. What’s terrifying about Shute’s apocalypse is the way life goes on without much change, without much acknowledgement, even, of its new conditions. People plan their gardens for next spring’s blooms; they keep working at their usual jobs, as though the radical change in their expectations of a future is just too much to process in any conscious way. It’s a vision of a posthumous society: a spectral life after death that simply keeps repeating itself like the random Morse broadcasts still beaming out of the depopulated United States. Like the irradiated survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Shute’s people are dead already, only waiting for the final stage of disappearance.

Reading the book, you’re struck by the terror in normality, the absence of panic as human time winds down. The force of it comes, of course, from the pain of recognising that we’re all in the same boat: the cloud is coming sure enough, slower or faster, circling down from some cold far north. But perhaps it speaks, too, in a more specific way, to our own moment of anxiety, ecological and otherwise. What are we ignoring, in the daily business of living, of buying, of using and wasting? What will our own covert culture say, if anybody looks?