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Brainwashing the cybernetic subject: The Ipcress File and fantasies of interrogation in the 1960s

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Ipcress File (1965), the film that introduced Harry Palmer, a spy who, like James Bond and George Smiley, is iconic of the Cold War era’s fascination with British espionage. Less recognized is how The Ipcress File heralded a new approach to depicting ‘brainwashing’ on screen. Unlike previous films that portrayed brainwashing as a brutal process of indoctrination, Harry Palmer is subjected to psychedelic abstractions of light and electronic music, pulsating to the ‘rhythm of brainwaves’. This new cinematic language of brainwashing brought into alignment late 1950s and early ‘60s innovations in media, art and science, shading them with anxieties about secret intelligence and mind control. As my paper will argue, in this emerging constellation of aesthetic and intellectual concerns, what Jonathan Crary has called the ‘problem of attention’ intersects with what Fred Turner has called the ‘politics of consciousness’, conceiving a vulnerable human subject that not only attends to media and other demands on her perception, but also scrutinizes, and perhaps resists, the effects this attention has on her psyche. Beginning in the early ‘70s this fantasy of the doubly-perceiving subject would be pointedly criticised by British neuropsychologists like Timothy Shallice, in their reactions to revelations that British agents used sensory deprivation techniques in interrogation.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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