McGinn Fucks, Mindfucks, Fails

"Mindfucking" by Colin McGinn (Acumen)

While the technical discussion of psychology might not appeal to many, there is something universally attractive in learning about the unseen quirks of our minds. Just as Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” engaged readers by emphasizing how powerful our instantaneous decision-making skills are, a new pop-psychology book, “Mindfucking” by Colin McGinn, has emerged to expose worrying weaknesses of the human psyche. The author, a prolific figure in the analytical school of philosophy, was inspired partly by Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 treatise “On Bullshit,” which scrutinized our use of another pseudo-expletive. The eponymous phenomenon is one of mental manipulation, a “rhetorical abuse or sleight-of-hand” that involves “a fundamental restructuring of outlook, often with deep emotional resonance, and frequently coupled with resistance.” McGinn intends to draw attention “to a phenomenon on which it is advisable to have a clear grip”: in other words, he aims to prepare and protect us.

Coming at the end of the book, however, the author’s stated purpose reads more like a rationalization than a graceful bow and exit. The idea behind the book is intriguing, but McGinn does not offer a thorough treatment of it. He devotes far too much time and energy to defining the concept without impressing its significance on his readers. In a world where even one dictionary citation seems like a rhetorical faux pas, three separate appeals to Wikipedia, HarperCollins American Slang, and the Oxford English Dictionary in the first chapter serve as early signals of McGinn’s need for filler.

The way McGinn delves into the concept also seems a little imbalanced. For about 30 pages of the 80-page text, he concerns himself with the task of explaining just why the obscenity of the term is integral to its meaning—barely squeezing significance out of the parallels between the words “fucking” and “mindfucking.” A select few of these parallels provide insight into the phenomenon being discussed. McGinn remarks, for example, that among other things the two words share alternating connotations—an example of a “good mindfuck” being a thriller like “The Sixth Sense”—and that “just as we have to be careful who we have sex with...we have to be careful about the mindfucking that goes on around us.” Still, most of them come off as coy nudges in the side from an academic attempting to relate to the general public. By halfway through the book, when McGinn is still constructing sentences like “fucking has far greater emotional resonance than mere excreting” by way of comparison between mindfucking and bullshit, the reader’s ribs must be getting a little sore.

Even when McGinn does turn to more substantive commentary later in his book, it seems to lack depth and direction. There is not much to learn from his facile remark that “Fascism and Soviet Communism...appealed to latent prejudices, resentments and anxieties to manipulate people’s minds” and thus managed to “approximate the mindfuck.” Likewise, anyone vaguely familiar with “Othello” does not need to be told that Iago “creates alarm and confusion in Othello, as well as searing jealousy, and these are the distinguishing marks of the mindfuck.” He claims that “the concept of mindfucking...has taxonomic power: it unifies disparate phenomena under a common heading, bringing out implicit similarities.” Having introduced a new word, McGinn seems satisfied in simply instructing on its use.

It seems only natural that the topic of mindfucking, which involves “trust, deception, emotion, manipulation, false belief and vulnerability,” deserves some psychological analysis. McGinn could explain what motivates the act of mindfucking and what makes certain people particularly vulnerable to it. He could even look at instances of psychological trauma to explore the effects of such disturbing experiences. But he doesn’t. All informed discussion of just how one person can wreak such havoc on the psyche of another is noticeably absent from the book. The author speaks in psychological terms only as a layman; he notes that mindfucking involves “psychological domination” and that “all mindfucking is, at least in part, self-inflicted,” but such thoughts seem more descriptive than analytical.

On the way to proving no point, though, McGinn does touch on some fascinating topics. For instance, those unfamiliar with the military’s psychological operations might be interested to know that mindfucking techniques are used systematically “to undermine the morale of the enemy or to win the support of an alien population.” Likewise, the introduction of philosophical skepticism about the external world, which can successfully convince students that all physical objects may very well not exist, is an intelligent touch in the chapter entitled “Some illustrations.” Nevertheless, the union of such disparate topics within the book feels a lot like a labeling game, and McGinn does not provide much detail about the ideas he seems to find so intriguing.

We may have to reconsider McGinn’s last-minute assertion that the book itself is not a mindfuck. The author does try to instill fear in his readers, appeals to a wide variety of authorities and examples to establish trust, and may have an ulterior motive—as indicated by the $18.95 cover price—all of which are potential qualities of the classic mindfuck. He even admits at one point that “the mindfuck can never advertise itself as such, it must always disguise itself as well-meaning rational persuasion.” As a mindfuck in itself, “Mindfucking” would be quite a clever trick; however, there is not enough evidence to prove that the book is intended as one. It does not seem supportable to claim that the author aims to amuse and flatter his readers in this way, especially after patronizing them earlier with his lengthy discussion of obscenities. In any case, the quality of his argument isn’t strong enough to merit being called “mindfuck.”

Sincerity, however, could not salvage the book. Despite its interesting particularities, the greatest weaknesses of “Mindfucking” lie in its lack of depth: McGinn is certainly not the first to tell his readers about the “phenomenon” of mental manipulation, and he doesn’t treat the subject with enough intellectual gravity to give a new twist on the topic.