Human Programming

Human Programming

Brainwashing, Automatons, and American Unfreedom

Book - 2016
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Do our ways of talking about contemporary terrorism have a history in the science, technology, and culture of the Cold War? Human Programming explores this history in a groundbreaking work that draws connections across decades and throughout American culture, high and low. Scott Selisker argues that literary, cinematic, and scientific representations of the programmed mind have long shaped conversations in U.S. political culture about freedom and unfreedom, and about democracy and its enemies. 

Selisker demonstrates how American conceptions of freedom and of humanity have changed in tandem with developments in science and technology, including media technology, cybernetics, behaviorist psychology, and sociology. Since World War II, propagandists, scientists, and creative artists have adapted visions of human programmability as they sought to imagine the psychological manipulation and institutional controls that could produce the inscrutable subjects of totalitarian states, cults, and terrorist cells. At the same time, writers across the political spectrum reimagined ideals of American freedom, democracy, and diversity by way of contrast with these posthuman specters of mental unfreedom. Images of such “human automatons” circulated in popular films, trials, travelogues, and the news media, giving form to the nebulous enemies of the postwar and contemporary United States: totalitarianism, communism, total institutions, cult extremism, and fundamentalist terrorism. 

Ranging from discussions of The Manchurian Candidate and cyberpunk science fiction to the cases of Patty Hearst and the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, Human Programming opens new ways of understanding the intertwined roles of literature, film, science, and technology in American culture.

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The author traces the development of a cinematic, literary, and rhetorical figure he calls the “human automaton,” an individual without free will who is programmed or brainwashed into acting or speaking without conscious control. He considers the role of the human automaton in American descriptions of geopolitical difference and diversity since World War II in terms of political and cultural life and American conversations about the self and the other, the free and the unfree, and democracy and its enemies. He illustrates how the human automaton shows up in science fiction, news coverage, political speeches, and social science articles and books, in propaganda and totalitarian language, from George Orwell's 1984 to the development of the Cold War “brainwashing” scare and the satires of Shock Corridor and The Manchurian Candidate; in postwar literature and politics, such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and the work of Ken Kesey and Betty Friedan; in science fiction through technologies of computation, genetics, and cybernetics related by Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, Shulamith Firestone, and Neal Stephenson; and the human automaton since the 1970s in depictions of radicals, cult members, and fundamentalists like Parry Hearst's Symbionese Liberation Army, the Unification Church, the mass suicides of Jim Jones's People's Temple and Heaven's Gate, and discourses of Islamophobia since 9/11 in Battlestar Galactica, Homeland, and Don DeLillo's Falling Man. Annotation ©2016 Ringgold, Inc., Portland, OR (

Publisher: Minneapolis :, University of Minnesota Press,, [2016]
ISBN: 9780816699889
Characteristics: viii, 256 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm


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