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  • Human Programming: Brainwashing, Automatons, and American Unfreedom by Scott Selisker
  • Timothy Wientzen
Human Programming: Brainwashing, Automatons, and American Unfreedom. Scott Selisker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. Pp. 272. $91.00 (cloth); $26.00 (paper).

When the Czech playwright Karel Čapek coined the word "robot" to describe the mechanized workers of his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), he could not have foreseen the purchase of such a figure for the twentieth century. By 1922, his play would see its debut in London, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and by decade's end the word "robot" was in wide circulation among modernist writers and cultural critics. In Čapek's play, robots are the mechanical men and women of an industrialized labor force, but the word was readily adopted to describe many forms of automaticity, particularly in the political realm. By the late 1920s, Wyndham Lewis was using the word to diagnose a society composed of those conditioned to live by rote, the "speed-cranks, simpletons, [and] robots" of mass society (Time and Western Man, xvi). While transformations of technology and labor helped endow the word "robot" with some of its currency, its rapid spread reflected a more wholesale set of anxieties about how the forces of modernity helped produce automaticity within humans. Instead of fearing machines that might replace them, people feared being turned into machines—surreptitiously conditioned into what Erich Fromm, in Escape from Freedom (1941), termed the "human automaton."1

Scott Selisker's new book, Human Programming: Brainwashing, Automatons, and American Unfreedom, examines the circulation of this figure—the human automaton—within the American twentieth century. Against ideals of democratic agency and personal freedom, the human automaton offered an image of supposedly un-American life, one in which political behaviors seemed unwilled or the product of extensive cultural conditioning. As Selisker documents, the human automaton has had a long and robust cultural life, beginning with American attempts to understand fascism and totalitarianism after the Second World War. By the 1950s, Americans were primed to understand any number of illiberal political movements according to a paradigm of automatism in [End Page 603] which citizens were denuded of an essentially "human" capacity for self-awareness and purposive action, especially through recourse to the science of behavior. Drawing from a history of science that includes behaviorist psychology, industrial management, cybernetics, and computer science, Selisker suggests that "the prospect of total mental unfreedom loomed just over successive horizons of scientific possibility" (6), giving the human automaton an unusual and enduring rhetorical power. As Selisker explains, the human automaton "provided a visual and narrative grammar through which Americans have discussed pressing questions about mental unfreedom and its geopolitical consequences," a legacy that endures to this day (7).

Perhaps the quintessential example of unfreedom in Selisker's account is the brainwashing narrative. Popularized in early 1950s, the term "brainwashing" gained particular traction during the Cold War as a way of understanding totalitarianism, including the ascendant global appeal of communism. By the late 1950s, it would become a dominant cultural trope for those "non-American" forms of political life that involved coercion, whether through milieu control or the more exacting conditions of the laboratory. These images circulated in a host of media, including fiction, propaganda, and film. John Frankenheimer's 1962 film of Richard Condon's novel The Manchurian Candidate (1959), in which Korean War veterans are brainwashed by Chinese communists in a plot to elect a McCarthy-esque presidential candidate, is a key example. As Selisker shows, this film mediates many of the early Cold War's concerns with human programmability as manifested in the social theory of Hannah Arendt, Joost Meerloo, Fromm, and others. By imagining the communist ideology's dependence on forms of human programmability, the film defines "the psychology of American freedom over and against totalitarian unfreedom" (66). According to this line of thinking, American exceptionalism depended on a unique ability to transcend the susceptibility to cultural conditioning common elsewhere in the world. What the history of brainwashing shows, however, is just how susceptible Americans have traditionally been to media that foreground the automaticity of the other. While narratives of brainwashing attempt to define Americanness...


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