Scott Selisker, Human Programming: Brainwashing, Automatons and American Unfreedom

Scott Selisker, Human Programming: Brainwashing, Automatons and American Unfreedom (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2016) 272 pp. $26.00 Pb, $91.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-8166-9987-2

Human Programming is a focused analysis of the history of the trope of the human automaton, starting with its early use as cold war American propaganda and rising to the contemporary treatment of fundamental terrorists, examining en route employment by anti-institutionalists, feminists, and anti-cult campaigners. This rich voyage explores a wealth of examples as diverse as The Manchurian Candidate; Dr Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; The 1984 Apple Superbowl Advert; different representations of Patty Hearst; and the TV series Homeland. Selisker uses these to show how the human automaton became an established trope, and how it interacts with political, sociological, and philosophical issues, guiding the reader through the evolving layers of meaning. He connects weighty topics such as feminism, free will, and qualia, exploring how the figure of the human automatons intersects with them all through this sixty-year history of a trope.

Selisker’s central argument is that the trope of the human automaton, in the various guises of robot; zombie; or brainwashed and mindless nullity, has not received the causal recognition that it deserves when considering sociological and political theories. The image of the brainwashed victim saw an immense surge in popularity after it was employed as an element of propaganda in the early Cold War. However, the images and the language employed to articulate this propaganda was greatly informed by Dystopian visions of a totalitarian future such as Orwell’s 1984. Literature and politics are shown to be two separate elements that jointly muddy the murky waters of culture, influencing and reinforcing each other in a cyclical, recursive sphere of influence revolving around the shifting figure of the human automaton, as it was used across time to articulate a plethora of different concerns about freedom, autonomy and what it means to be human.

Chapter One, 'Uniquely American Symptoms', defines the scope of this investigation, surveying early analysis of the human automaton from Freud and Bergson and exploring how the human automaton was juxtaposed with relative human freedom. The trope is then shown to rapidly develop in the aftermath of the Second World War, as the emergence of the American Civil Rights movement, and the rise of a multi-national enemy (communism), left a propaganda void. No longer could race be used to identify national enemies, and the human automaton was used instead. Selisker argues that this was informed by the increased use of machines in the workplace and ensuing economic concerns, and shows how this was used to define freedom negatively, by contrasting it with the ultimate unfreedom of the totalitarian state.

Chapter Two, Anti-Institutional Automatons', shows how these layers of understanding were developed in the Fifties and Sixties. Texts such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are shown to utilise the figure of the human automaton against the state, anticipating and influencing socio-political works such as Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment and enabling a progressive rhetoric of individualism. Selisker shows how this was employed by feminists such as Betty Friedan to portray institutions traditionally understood as ‘open’ (such as the family home or the nuclear family) as ‘closed’ totalitarian institutions, drawing parallels between housewives and Korean Prisoners Of War. Chapter Three,  'Human Programming', contextualises this alongside the corresponding technical advances, understanding posthumanism as a reaction against behaviourism and the presentation of the mind as equally programmable as the body. Cybernetics blurs the divide between humans and machines, and Selisker shows how the the human automaton moves from providing a negative definition of freedom to a negative definition of humanity. Emotion is shown to be the a problematic last refuge of humanity and Selisker shows how texts of this period engaging with human automatons articulate associated anxieties.  In Chapter Four, 'Cult Programming', Selisker shows how these were applied to cults in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, exploring the complicated distinction between cults and new religious movements (NMRs). Hearst and other examples are shown to be portrayed similarly to prisoners of war from the Korean War, and the topos and defining components of cults are inspected at length, before Selisker shows how this can be usefully applied to monogamous relationships.

In the final chapter, 'Fundamentalist Automatons', Selisker explores how human automatism has come to articulate fears surrounding fundamentalism. Selisker shows how American presentations of Islam have been infused with ideas of fanaticism, cults, brainwashing, and computer programming. He explores the combination of ‘liberal imagination’ and ‘sympathetic pathology’ that portrays terrorists as ordinary Americans with mental health issues, comparing presumed freedom with presumed unfreedom. He examines the centuries old association between Islam and fundamentalism, showing how this has retained a sense of exotic orientalist despotism, religious dogmatism, and is often contrasted with the ‘pragmatic and just’ Western society. Selisker takes care to show that Islam is rarely present in Islamaphobia, and how complex stories of terrorism and its motivations are often reduced to moral failings and diseased minds.

Selisker’s history of the human automaton is far reaching and firmly grounded in evidence. His work provides a meaningful contribution to the interactions between culture and political thought, and his research will be of interest to academics with a variety of different research interests. There is less exploration of the uncanny and the abject than we might expect; the drive is not to unpick the motivating forces behind the trope of the human automaton but to chart how this interacts differently with culture during the last sixty years. Selisker  excels in his connecting of Friedland to Hearst, in his explication of the term ‘brainwashing’ and in exploration of the different meanings and agendas that the trope of the human automaton has held. This book has expertly answered the ‘what’; ‘how’; ‘when’ and ‘where’ of human automaton, and has made strong  inroads into the ‘why.’ Human Programming has identified a crucial trope in American cultural history, and Selisker has provided a coherent overview, showing how this figure is intimately connected to our understanding of ourself.

Joe Holloway, University of Exeter