Workshop 3: Lisa Blackman, ‘Experimenting with Suggestion: Performing ‘social influence’ processes’

Lisa Blackman (Dept of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London) began her presentation stating that in it she will outline some work on experimentation and subjectivity that is the subject of her forthcoming book, ‘Im/material Bodies: Affect, Relationality and the Problem of Personality’ (Sage). In the book Blackman takes the problem of ‘social influence’, as it has been stabilized and enacted as a particular kind of object within the psychological sciences, as her topic of problematisation. The genealogical investigation developed throughout the book takes a number of scenes (the laboratory, the séance, the clinical encounter, the therapeutic relationship, live performance and the theatre) as sites for the production of different forms of subjectivity articulated through differing conceptions of suggestion or suggestibility. Lisa Blackman considers all these sites as differing practices of experimentation which stage suggestion as a particular kind of ‘thing’ or entity.

Consequently, Blackman is more interested in practices which enact suggestion as a trans-subjective process of articulation which mobilize, connect up and distribute relations of entanglement amongst people, places, entities and objects that afford the potential for new attachments and configurations. This is in contrast to the way in which suggestion has historically been stabilized within the practices of experimental psychology as a problem of will.

Lisa Blackman began her talk by looking at genealogy of social psychology and social influence and what became discounted – the idea of suggestion in particular. Blackman claimed that she considers Isabelle Stengers’ (1997) arguments that ‘risky propositions’ in terms of practices of experimentation are those that allow science to be inventive. Further, she supported Stengers’ argument for revitalisation of suggestion : ‘But above all, what do we really know about this suggestion that we are supposed to avoid?’ (Stengers, 1997: 103) ‘, it is logical, in particular to ask oneself what hypnosis would be if it was rid of the illusion whereby the hypnotist is situated as an external observer of his patient; what is more, it is logical to again raise the question of knowing what suggestion can do in its many diverse modalities from the moment it is stripped of the illusion that the one who suggests knows what he is doing and can control the meaning and consequences of his suggestions with regard to the one he is addressing’ (Isabella Stengers (1997) ‘Power and Invention’, University of Minnesota Press, p. 105).

Blackman followed by drawing attention to how suggestion became constituted as a problem of will – its suspension or lack – in terms of its contrast between the will and compliance in the relationship to social influence.

Further, Lisa Blackman illustrated how suggestion is perceived as impure and evil phenomenon which leads to its elimination. She explained that within branch of sub-discipline mass psychology suggestion is taken very seriously, for example, in the military sector (with rich but marginal tradition).

Thereafter, Lisa Blackman referred to Bruno Latour (2004) who suggests following Stengers that uninteresting propositions are those that are repetitive and that eliminate alternative versions of the same phenomenon. Here, Blackman claimed that it is the repetition of what has become ‘black boxed’ in terms of understandings of suggestion that is effectively undone when we turn to practices of experimentation on the margins of the psychological sciences, such as those staged within ‘anomalous psychology’.

Concomitantly, Blackman presented some examples of such practices which are staging suggestion as differing processes of body-brain-world couplings which refuse the distinction between will and compliance. Here, she referred to the following: Hearing voices (Blackman, 2001), the bicameral mind (Jaynes, 1972), charisma (Freund, 2009), the body-without-an-image (Featherstone, 2010), the placebo effect (Harrington, 2006), emotional contagion (Brennan, 2004), the skin-ego (Anzieu, 1989; Segal, 2009), distraction (Crary, 1990), implicit memory (Mancia, 2007), post-memory (Hirsch and Spegel) and inter-generational haunting (Cho, 2008).

Blackman argued that the experimental effects and artifacts produced through these stagings turn our attention to a paradigm of co-enaction, co-constitution and co-evolution which reconfigures borders and boundaries between subject and object, inside and outside, material and immaterial, and nature and culture.  She stated that her paper aims at illustrating how this work upsets the traditional ways that practices of experimentation within the psychological sciences have dealt with suggestion, through concepts such as the ‘experimental effect’ and compliance, offering some different terms for analysis.

Following, Blackman referred to the work of Stanley Milgram on conformity and obedience. Here, she was particularly interested in the issues of intention and imagination. Blackman argued that Milgram’s experiment was highly deceptive in variety of ways i.e. ‘necessary deception’ to remove experimental bias (participants were told that the experiment is about memory) or apparent distress (of the participants heightened by physical partition). Consequently, Blackman followed Latour in claiming that because ‘students went along with Milgram’s torture, does not prove they harboured some built-in tendency to violence, but demonstrates only the capacity of scientists to produce artefacts no other authority can manage to obtain, because they are undetectable. The proof of this is that Milgram died not realizing that his experiment proved nothing about average American inner tendency to obey – except that they could give the appearance of obeying white coats!’ (Latour, B (2004) ‘How to Talk About the Body? The Normative Dimensions of Science Studies’. Body & Society, 10(2-3): 205-30).

Next, Lisa Blackman spoke about practices of experimentation as forms of experimental stage-craft. Here, she referred to the work of Jones and Gerard (‘Foundations of Social Psychology’, 1967) claiming that sites which were linked through the concept of ‘social influence’ – military (the Korean War), media, civil rights protests, prison camps, cults, bargaining relationships and groups – are problematized assemblage. Further, she elaborated in the kinds of experimental stage crafts in social psychology which link invention and creativity with ‘optimism, ingenuity and dash’ with the very possibility of positivist science (ibid: 4) – extending beyond the lab.

Finally, Blackman turned her attention to theatricality of suggestion and the work of Milton Erikson (1901-1980) in particular. Here, she asked a following question: what suggestion might disclose about practices of experimentation if we take the idea of staging and experimental stagecraft more seriously? Consequently, she pointed to the importance of training and discipline as developmental aspect to developing the capacity of attunement. In this context, Blackman was particularly interested in engaging with what became disqualified, with regards to the work of Erikson. She argued that Erikson spend years developing techniques to induce the hypnotic trans and saw hypnosis as a different way of engaging, knowing and feeling. Further, he was extremely successful as somebody who can read very subtle body communication – capacity for tuning that allow the experimenter to engage the subject through ways of knowing unconscious – changes in physiology, neurology etc.

Following, Blackman proposed that thinking about training and practice (developmental aspects) in terms of capacity of tuning is important here. She explained that Erikson was death and color blind and by looking at muscular movements, sensitivity to minimal body responses he uncovered not will but the capacity of the experimental apparatus to be sensitive enough to detect it. Hence, it was the setting allowing processes to be brought to activity by indirect responses.

In conclusion, Lisa Blackman claimed that paucity of ‘social influence’ should be used as a way of formulating and analysing subjectification and subjectivities. Here, she referred to the work of Karen Barad on trans-subjectivity in order to argue that social influences are a very limited way of looking at embodiment (what exists prior to enactment is suspended). Blackman finished her presentation with references to the work on potentialities (Hacking), affordances (Gibson, 1979), availability (Ratner, 2009) and competences (Despret, 2009).



Firstly, the ways in which stage craft is a site in which to investigate investments in making the difference between discovery and invention was debated. Here, a particular attention was given to the differences between demonstration of something that already existed and demonstration as presentation of something that is newly made (i.e. technology demonstrations). Hence, some questions were asked regarding the performance and stakes as well as, where the value is placed. Further, the capacity for the subject as trans-subjective was considered as a dynamic process – in order for the object to be suggestive there needs to be emotional affect of transformation.

Secondly, some references were made to the work of Jackie Orr and Nigel Thrift on performativity. The importance of enactment was discussed in terms of stage enactment as pulling the performances – vulnerable and not replicable, craft that decays. Further, the influences and the settings were debated in the context of management couching.

Thirdly, it was proposed that both of the papers (Lisa Blackman’s and Alan Collins’s) are ways of trying to examine the work of people who are Cartesians and to reinterpret it in a post-Cartesian way. Subsequently, a question was posed of whether they agree. Here, it was emphasized that subject was positioned as an autonomous being and then variables which influence the autonomous being were removed. Further, Blackman argued that work of Erikson is not Cartesian in this way – but maybe post-psychological.

Next, the developments of potentiality were discussed. Some questions were posed as to what it means to be available in this sense. Here, discussion was oriented on the issues of continuity, dynamic and thinking through the concept with references to Stangers, potentiality and idea of availability (whole body as experiential).

Finally, Rheinberger’s approach was constituted as qualitatively different to Milgram’s experiment. Rheinberger was understood to be talking about determination, being extremely specific about the history and speaking to a larger cybernetic audience. Further, some questions were posed as to whether we are talking about different epistemic milieus that exist here or relationality where experiment is not a procedure anymore. In conclusion, it was agreed that some of power and invention is about this – subject moving to different vision of science – and involves a certain contradiction in the ways in which modernity first came into being – caricature of the affect and connection with the public.