“You see control can never be a means to any practical end. … Control can never be a means to anything but more control … like Junk.” – William S. Burroughs.
This year I discovered the work and life of William S. Burroughs. At the core of Burroughs work is a systematic examination of language and control. Ultimately, Burroughs is fascinated by the nature of control in both society and the individual. My own interest in control stems from Burroughs analysis of control as an addictive and destructive force.
Understanding control as a failed model for social and individual influence is something pretty essential for us as individuals and of paramount importance for artists, directors, writers, and thinkers.
Control comes from a deep seated desire in all of us – a basic insecurity about our capability to live in a world wrought with an uncertainty that emerges from the inherently chaotic state of nature and from the independent structure of the human will. We want to remake the acting beings who occupy our lives in our own vision.
We are tempted to try and create some assurance that people will behave in a way congruent with the ends we believe are necessary for our happiness and prosperity. The fallacy however comes from the fact that control can never be a means to true happiness. If we subscribe to the Aristotelian understanding of happiness we come to see that happiness comes from the pursuit of human virtue. It is my belief that “control” as it is being contextualized here, is incompatible with human virtue and thus destructive to the pursuit of it.
When we attempt to embark on controlling another being we are taking action in order to insure that they shall behave in step with our vision for how they behave. We are attempting to replace their own individual independent will with our own. We do this through in-numerous mechanisms.
In Burroughs dissection of control, Language is the ultimate means by which controllers attempt to structure society and thought toward the end of insuring their own dominance. Violence and force is ultimately the fundamental basis by which control depends. Whether communication is implicitly or subtly violent (See Marshall – Non-violent communication) or explicitly violent i.e. backed up with threat of legal recourse, ultimately all communication sculpted toward control depends on violence.
Revealing the violent nature of the control impulse should be our essential confirmation of the fact that control, as we have defined it here, cannot exist in a way congruent with the pursuit of virtue. (Note: This assumes that violence is inherently immoral, but this is a premise that I won’t attempt to justify here, take it or leave it.)
The other key element of control is intentionality. I believe that an essential structural difference between control and alternative models is the motives of the controller.
In communications whose intent are to control we may feign voluntary co-operation with the victim of the control but ultimately all control is predicated on the controller being unwilling to compromise on his aims. Some elements of compromise may exist – but in general the controller’s intent is to get what he wants and at any cost to the subject of control.
The fact that explicit violence might not be used in his attempt to achieve his control of his subject is irrelevant to the fact that he is willing to manipulate and create implicitly violent constructs toward the end of his control. The violence might exist in the form of threats to a person’s reputation, they may exist in the use of guilt, passive-aggressive strategies, or in the form of other manipulations.
I think that we attempt to control the people we love. We attempt to control our collaborators. We attempt to control our friends. We attempt to control our enemies. Sometimes our attempts to control seem to work. We get what we want. I think our own personal experiences with control should ultimately reveal to us that even when we think we achieved what we want through the control of others, with the passage of time our achievements are made hollow.
We are left with resentment for ourselves and with the resentment of our friends. Control is an unsustainable model. It builds animosity and discontent. Control is always destined to lead to more Control until the subjects refuse to accept their position any longer and reject the presence and strategies of the controller.
What is the alternative model?
For lack of a better term – I believe that we must move from “Controlling” to “Affecting.” It is my belief that if we reach inside ourselves, recognize our instinctual drive toward control and reject this behavior, reject this intentionality, than our other option comes from a peaceful collaborative desire to build voluntary agreements. We must recognize that other people’s wills exist. We need to embrace the independent nature of other people and reject violence as a means to influence others.
The world is wrought with uncertainty. This is a fact of existence. If we can realize control is both morally unacceptable and practically undesirable we can move toward a more passive means to influencing other people. We can build relationships which are based on the bedrock of mutually beneficial and desirable interactions and collaborations. We shift from domination to partnership.
My goal, and the lesson I walked away with from studying Burroughs is to erase the control impulse from my behavior. Instead, I am seeking to sincerely affect other people and leave myself open to being affected by them.
In my work this had practical consequences that I won’t dwell upon here. In short – the way I approach storytelling to an audience necessarily changed under this new pretense. I now approach the audience as a group of people I must try to affect rather than control.
Additionally, many of the strategies which were my most essential tools in directing actors have suddenly become less appealing and become secondary to less manipulative tools. I believe that in the relationship with the actor there is an implicit agreement that allows for the director to appropriate whatever strategy they think is best for achieving the goal of an ideal performance – but if ‘Control Theory’ is correct then it necessarily means the practical consequences of strategies based on Control mechanisms are poorly suited for the purposes of achieving the ideal performance.
Realization of what control is and how control works frees us as individuals to recognize it as the unconscious strategy sometimes adopted by the people we care about. Our proper response to control as the strategy of the people we love is to have compassion for this error. It comes from insecurity on the part of the controller and must be rejected with grace and an open heart. When the people we love try to control us, it is almost an impulse that rises out of the love they feel for us. It is a strategy that causes the people we love harm that they do not understand or yet realize. Quietly, through our own action and gentle words, we can attempt to realign our relationships toward a partnership model of voluntary mutual interaction rather than a domination model of control and manipulation.
I’ve found a great sense of peace in this new way of thinking. I feel released from the burden that control places on us. With control, you become responsible not only for your own life and actions but for the actions and lives of those you are attempting to control. That responsibility weighs on the heart and mind of the controller.
Accepting the independent nature of all your fellow human beings releases you from that imaginary burden. All we can do is keep our intentions clear of manipulation and focus on our own sincere pursuits of the truth and the good, through our lives and our work.