Swift Viewing

The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence

Swift Viewing

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 58 illustrations, 1 table Published: January 2012

Media Studies > Media Technologies, Science and Technology Studies > History of Technology

Since the late 1950s, the idea that hidden, imperceptible messages could influence mass behavior has been debated, feared, and ridiculed. In Swift Viewing, Charles R. Acland reveals the secret story of subliminal influence, showing how an obscure concept from experimental psychology became a mainstream belief about our vulnerability to manipulation in an age of media clutter. He chronicles the enduring popularity of the dubious claims about subliminal influence, tracking their migration from nineteenth-century hypnotism to twentieth-century front-page news. His expansive history of popular concern about subliminal messages shows how the notion of “hidden persuaders” became a vernacular media critique, one reflecting anxiety about a rapidly expanding media environment. Through a deep archive of eclectic examples, including educational technology in the American classroom, mind-control tropes in science fiction, Marshall McLuhan’s media theories, and sensational claims in the late 1950s about subliminal advertising, Acland establishes the subliminal as both a product of and a balm for information overload.


“[An] excellent history of the idea of subliminal influence. Those events have been described by several previous writers, but one of the many virtues of Acland’s book is that he gives us the most carefully documented account to date." — Paul Messaris, International Journal of Communication

“Acland . . . offers an exquisitely detailed and subtle accounting of the scientific, cultural and political context for Vicary’s famous announcement and its consequences, focusing most tightly on the 1950s and ’60s." — Julie Sedivy, Literary Review of Canada

“The scale of Swift Viewing is evident in the book’s broad historical sweep which unfolds with the fluidity and accessibility of a popular history, but without sacrificing theoretical and critical rigour. . . . Swift Viewing refuses the theoretician’s claim to a monopoly on ‘the everyday lived nature of cultural life, which cannot be reduced to brute economic explanations nor textualist acrobatics’ (33), insisting instead on a need to respect the critical value of the nuances, dead-ends, insights and assumptions of the people’s own media critique.” — Nicholas Holm, Reviews in Cultural Theory

“A comprehensive and compelling archaeology of the dream of invisible influence through media, this is a much-needed and frighteningly contemporary history.” — Fred Turner, author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture

“Making an important intervention in media and cultural history, Charles R. Acland examines how a seemingly ‘fringe’ technological practice became a lightning rod for public anxiety about the power of the media. As he argues, the idea of subliminal influence is still very much with us. It may have been scientifically refuted, but it is clearly of continuing relevance in popular suspicions about the relationship between media, information, and consciousness.” — Jeffrey Sconce, author of Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Charles R. Acland is Professor and Communication Studies Research Chair at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture and co-editor of Useful Cinema, both also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments xi

List of Illustrations xiii

Prologue: Black Magic on Mars 1

1. Subliminal Communication as Vernacular Media Critique 13

2. Mind, Media, and Remote Control 43

3. The Swift View 65

4. Mind-Probing Ad-Men 91

5. Crossing the Popular Threshold 111

6. The Hidden and the Overload 133

7. From Mass Brainwashing to Rapid Mass Learning 165

8. Textual Strategies for Media Saturation 193

9. Critical Reasoning in a Cluttered Age 227

Notes 239

Bibliography 267

Index 291
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4919-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4924-2
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