On Behavioral Hermeneutics

Written in dialogue with Suspended Reason's posts: ACiM is a Natural Extension of Cybernetic TheoryConsensual and Non-Consensual Manipulation”, “All Communication is Behavioral Manipulation”, and “All Communication is Manipulation”.

See also, my earlier post “Is Communication 'Manipulation'?”, which takes a synthetic rather than analytic approach to its argument.


“All Communication is Manipulation” (ACiM) is a tool for explanation. Its intent as an idea is to answer questions of the form “why did this happen?” It does this by positing a frame which collapses the difference in each individual situation into a unityall communication is manipulation. This is not particularly special in itself, all explanations do this, including this one.


ACiM is a special form of explanation, which “reads” a “deeper” intent or meaning into a situation, beyond what participants say or think. This makes it what Paul Ricoeur called in Freud and Philosophy a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, which is a tool of interpretation that is suspicious of the truth of conscious knowledge. Ricoeur’s three main examples of this type were Marx’s “false consciousness”, Nietzsche’s “will to power”, and Freud’s “unconscious”. What all of these theories have in common is that they purport to “decode” meanings which were previously “disguised”.


In ACiM’s case, what is the “disguised” thing? That the point of communication is to manipulate the other’s behavior. As a hermeneutic of suspicion, we need a technique for “decoding” communications, which then allows us to view the disguised meaning.

ACiM’s technique is an ecological or cybernetic analysis, which views communication as a control system, in which each speech act transmits some difference that eventually results in a behavioral outcome. It proceeds from the fact that:

when we say a communicative act “has a point,” or when we find it “interesting” (and thus it updates our model of reality, to receive it), we are saying that our sensory inputs have been altered in a way which will alter behavioral outputs, if at least in some hypothetical and unforeseen situation down the line.

Here, ACiM seems to claim that each speech act always produces behavioral outcomes in other agents within the same system. I would expect that, to apply this technique as a critical tool, we would think to look at the behavioral results of a certain speech act, and then claim that the act was “intended” to produce those effects. But this seems impossible to do if the alteration in behavioral output occurs “in some hypothetical and unforeseen situation down the line.

We have reached a strange place, where ACiM requires a totally deterministic chain of logic where all effects lead back to specific intentions, and indeed Suspended recognizes this difficulty:

If communication is an act intended to achieve effects, then comprehension of the first order consists of any interpretation which achieves the general effect desired by the writer (by “writer,” I mean a generic term for the agent representing, expressing, speaking, etc). We can call this a first-order reading, which may or may not accurately comprehend the written message. (That is, we can imagine erroneous first-order readings, which do not result in the desired effects.)

Comprehension of the second order involves understanding the effect desired by the writer. We can call this a second-order reading, which may or may not accurately interpret the effects desired by the writer.

If I understand correctly, what the above is saying is that, in order to justify that “all communication is manipulation”, we need to involve a secondary level of interpretation. Not only are we interpreting some situation or action on the grounds of "all communication is manipulation", we're also responsible, as the observing interpreter, for understanding the recipient's own interpretation of the same text.

Let's try and untangle this. Reading carefully, we can see that “all communication literally is manipulation” really means “all communication is attempted manipulation”. The latter form is much easier to work with, because it asks a straightforward question: “what did you want the other to do when they got your message?” Certainly a valid tool in “decoding” communications.

But the two forms seem in tension: the literal definition of ACiM which says “all communication eventually cashes out in behavior, manipulating others within the same system, because that’s how cybernetics works”, and the “hermeneutic” definition, which says “all your communications are actually specific attempts at manipulating behavioral outcomes.”

There is little to say about the literal definition, which is a fact about physical cybernetic systems, except that it seems true, and doesn't amount to much on its own.

In what follows, I will be addressing the hermeneutic definition, as it seems like the more important of the two in terms of Suspended's writing, in terms of its potential uses and effects as an explanatory tool.


Arendt distinguishes “work” from “action” in that the former is based on an imagined outcome, like a craftsman making a table, while the latter is a “setting into motion”, an act of initiative, where one does not know what will come of their act, yet decides to do it anyway. ACiM as hermeneutic posits that "all communication is attempted behavioral manipulation", which supposes that the writer intends some concrete end state in terms of the others' behavior.

In this sense, ACiM as wielded by an agent is an attempt to convert action, a leap into the void, into work, something that can be broken down and rationally pursued. This means ACiM is a rationalizing frame, as Suspended himself notes, an attempt to control a domain of uncertainty through understanding. It is also a Utopian frame, because what is a Utopia if not an imagined outcome based on manipulating the behaviors of Men, like a craftsman would to build a table? Yet it retains the ironic flaw of all Utopian thought: that the fantasy never emerges as expected, and thus remains within the realm of action, despite all the thought put into considering it as “work”.

This boils down to the “consequentialism vs. virtue ethics” debate that Suspended Reason and I have been having since late 2019, where he believes that the crux of ethics is working to ensure the proper outcomes occur, whereas I believe it’s acting from the proper inner attitude. To use his language, it is inevitable that any social project oriented around outcomes becomes “surrogated”, taken on as mere image, losing its spirit. The only way to maintain the spirit of a project is to enact it through one’s own self.

However, this critique doesn't relate to ACiM's value as a critical tool, for interpretation rather than decision-making. I will address that next.


On a more individual scale, pulling from Sadly, Porn, hermeneutics of suspicion, including ACiM, often act as a defense. A defense against what? Taking responsibility for, or even understanding, one’s desire. To return to A, any explanation is an attempt to collapse difference into a single unity, which plays out psychologically as “this was actually not a mistake, not my fault, and here’s why.” It allows the actor to evade saying “I wanted this” (they might even believe they didn't want it!), and instead provide an alternative reason, which others tend to believe, because it’s far easier for others to believe that, e.g. “I did it because I am mentally ill” than “I did it because I wanted to.”

This is equally a flaw with psychoanalytic theory and with ACiM, but I fear that the use of ACiM as defense will, as I explained in my long-form blog post, act as an explanation that one can use to get around responsibility for the bad kinds of manipulative behavior. This is only a problem if one uses ACiM in their own decision-making. For an ethologist or anthropologist or other sort of observer, I see no reason not to use the frame alongside other tools that respect the stated intents of the actors, but when the triad is collapsed into a dyad, I start to worry.


That said, I think ACiM can be useful still, as a tool for reflection. If I use ACiM to decode” a communication act I previously performed, in terms of others' desired behavioral outcomes, I end up producing knowledge about my own motivation and desire, which may have been difficult to access through other means. In practice, this is a tool I use a lot: what did I want to happen? What did I do about it? What actually happened? It's extrospective, in the sense of aiding in self-understanding through taking the perspective of an external observer in relation to one's own behavior, and that's good.


In summary:

  • The concept of ACiM needs to be clarified as to whether it's a literal, factual claim, or an interpretive frame.
  • ACiM as interpretive frame is a hermeneutic of suspicion, a tool for “decoding” a “disguised” meaning in a text or message.
  • ACiM as hermeneutic is a rationalizing frame, which produces knowledge in an attempt to maintain control over the uncertainty of human society.
  • ACiM suffers from the same problem as all hermeneutics of suspicion, which is that it can be used as a defense against culpability or understanding.
  • ACiM has value as an extrospective tool for self-understanding in terms of one's own desire.

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