Schoolgirls Slowly Falling to the Ground

The Phenomenon of Collective Hypnosis

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AP Photo/NASA

In one of Geneva’s many cafes, a Swiss cultural coordinator once asked me about the upheavals occurring in our “countries” in relation to the published Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that appeared in various publications in Denmark and other European nations. She couldn’t comprehend, with her European cultural background (she apparently belongs to a country where intellectuals don’t necessarily politicize everything), the immense anger that welled up on the Arab streets — the scenes of flag burning, the attacks on embassies. She couldn’t understand how such actions were instigated by a few published drawings. I myself could hardly understand. I answered after a brief silence. “These are a people who are deeply wounded in their national pride.” She nodded her head slightly in acknowledgement of what I had said and was silent again for a few seconds before we changed the subject.

My answer didn’t satisfy either of us. How could a small incident in a faraway land be seen as a direct insult to over a billion Muslims spread out all over this world? How could it become the trigger for mass hysteria? I turned to other similar incidents, incidents that became exaggerated, allowed to smolder and then suddenly erupt and spread like a fire consuming fields of straw. Many such incidents were connected to religion, usually taking the form of an insult to a sacred sign, followed by a reaction from the faithful.

In the case of the cartoons, the Islamic right managed to hijack the Danish issue and utilize it politically on different levels, producing a sort of religious backlash by orchestrating a massive campaign involving millions of posters and cars roving the city with loudspeakers, calling upon believers to support, in undefined ways, their religion. A lot of money was procured to spread that ambiguous message. The campaign succeeded in increasing the base of support and sympathy for the religious right, as well as further complicating Islam’s relationship with the West and, furthmore, all forms of modernity. In a sense, the campaign was doubly successful in marginalizing all different forms of local secular thought, by utilizing the charged emotional atmosphere and banishing all other voices.

Campaigns like these wouldn’t succeed in mobilizing large segments of the population at such speed if the targeted masses didn’t already possess a latent proclivity for such messages delivered in that form. There are groups of people who seem willing and ready to partake in a state of collective hypnosis (receive the information, absorb it without question, and allow emotions free reign) through a mechanism that functions on the level of the individual and is repeated wholesale. Thus the phenomenon of mass reaction is born, a phenomenon that presupposes the neutralization of rational faculties. Right-wing movements have been successful throughout history in utilizing this hypnosis to achieve concrete political goals.

It is, however, important to note that this incident occurred at a time when the daily killing of Muslims generally, and Arabs in particular, in Iraq, Palestine, and other regions in the Middle East was taking place (it still is). The necessary historical conditions for such outrage were in place, what I earlier referred to as wounded national pride.

Prior to the extreme deterioration of affairs in the region, other similar incidents had taken place, incidents which, because they were more local and more specific, can help us analyze the mechanism of the operation itself. A few years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood orchestrated massive demonstrations against a novel they claimed is offensive to Islam, by Syrian writer Heydar Heydar. Thousands of students from Al Azhar University mobilized, demanding that the novel be banned and that the minister of culture, who had allowed it to be republished in Egypt with public funds, be dismissed. The minister wasn’t dismissed; the state keeps such decisions to itself, so there’s no opportunity for opposition, especially from Islamic fundamentalists. However, the state-owned publishing house was purged of all elements deemed un-Islamic. The Islamists managed to transform hysteria into concrete political results and made gains in the symbolic space of state institutions.

The signal for these mobilizations, the original event, appears as a unit of information that is received and reformulated by an ideological apparatus of meaning — the media and interested political parties — that decontextualizes it and adds the details needed for the proper functioning of collective hypnosis, then retransmits it. The operation is complete when the signal takes its place in the political sphere with new meaning. The original signal itself is almost never neutral and innocent of political signification, which of course opens it up to the possibility of being hijacked by various ideological regimes of meaning.

Is it possible to utilize signals that are more innocent? We can look to the past again for a more enigmatic and abstract example. A few years before the aforementioned incidents, in an all-girls school in a small village in the Nile Delta, a spell of mass fainting occurred. A whole class of teenage schoolgirls fainted together at the same exact moment. At first the incident was interpreted as food poisoning due to a bad school lunch. However, medical inspection proved that there was no actual physical poisoning involved. The girls who had lost consciousness were also quick to regain it after a few minutes, as if nothing had happened. Mysteriously, the condition moved from school to school, and from province to province, with no apparent explanation. During the span of a whole week, girls fainted together in different schools all over the delta. Newspapers began circulating stories of girls who fell like dominoes in their classrooms.

Through the still-unexplained phenomenon of the fainting spells we can observe the same operation of collective hypnosis. The signal, it’s true, is more abstract and enigmatic, as there seemed to be no outside event causing the fainting. The signal appeared outside language, maybe as a cipher decoded within the consciousness of the girls, a consciousness that responded by momentarily losing itself and becoming absent. It is as if this cipher or signal were so unbearably beyond reason that it short-circuited the rational faculties themselves.

With the original signal absent and the apparatus that retransmits this signal completely internalized, everything is more enigmatic and abstract. The body becomes a vessel for a metaphor made manifest; the operation becomes condensed and physical, located in the body of a schoolgirl slowly falling to the ground, among dozens of others doing exactly the same.