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WHAT IF HUMAN NATURE IS HISTORICAL?

by Robert M. Young

I want to subject the concept of human nature to the searching scrutiny of some naive questions. My starting point is that much of the literature of biological fatalism about human nature holds out the hope that once we learn the laws of human nature we can choose how to be — a voluntarism. This curious, illogical amalgam has a long and distinguished history in various attempts to reconcile acceptance of the order of nature as applied to humanity with a liberal voluntarism about what we might choose to do about our relationship with the relevant - and presumably invariant - scientific laws. Far from leading to easy dismissal of its advocates, this doctrine has been the basis of much hope and promise to those who - to put the proposition in its most starkly paradoxical form — ’find and obey’ the laws of nature.

In this essay I want to explore the varieties of exhortation combined with biological scientism by looking at aspects of the self-help literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries In a transitional section I shall then look at a dramatic recent development in voluntary self-control of bodily processes hitherto considered beyond the reach of conscious control and use those phenomena as a way into some reflection on a different approach to the whole question of human nature. I begin with a sketch of the pervasiveness of popular self-help writings and will lead on to a set of proposals for the project of creating a socialist human nature The general direction, therefore, is from the reconciling doctrines of biological fatalism to the praxis of treating human nature a long-term political project

Biologism doesn't simply leave us high and dry, passive and drained of energy. What it takes away in pointing out the limits of human nature it give back in reassuring us that if we obey nature’s laws, the pain of existence will have meaning, and we can achieve as much progress as is consistent with the natural order. The resignation and fatalism induced is not total; it only precludes certain 'utopian' possibilities We are convinced that it is folly, because acting 'against nature' to try to alter the fundamental socio-economic structures or to try to go against the grain of the laws of human nature is foredoomed But if one finds and adapts oneself to those laws — not passively but with a will — great benefits will surely follow. So within the framework of a fundamental fatalism, there open out apparently vast, though not limitless, horizons of self-improvement, self-fulfilment, success, riches.

This approach goes back at least as far as the origins of modern biologism at the turn of the nineteenth century; while expressions of the reconciliation of a cosmic order with doctrines of voluntarism and responsibility are the perennial elements of ethical systems. Without a doctrine of givens or constraints on the one hand and a doctrine of latitude and striving on the other, ethical doctrine have no purchase My grandfather's grandfather could have learned to combine science and self-improvement at a course on phrenology in a provincial Mechanics' Institute, attended by an upwardly socially mobile labour aristocracy. My grandmother taught my mother who taught me

 

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll,

I am the master of my fate;

I am the captain of my soul

My children watching children’s television on a Saturday morning are treated to a Walt Disney film in which the child hero overcome all bullies and all chores by puffing his cheeks and rehearsing, 'You can do it, Duffy Moon'. And he does.

So, what appears as a curious and deep contradiction turns out to be two aspects of a single message. The same social message which offers a genetic basis for the free market economy and repeats the truism that one must legislate along the grain of human nature directs our attention to a never-ending stream of fads which say the opposite: you can be your own master/mistress in body, mind and society. A narrowing tendency represented by sociobiology, ethology, psychology, adjustive psychotherapies is complemented by an enriching tendency which makes the activities in the remaining space seem as rich and promising as possible. We are assaulted with the rhetoric of 'life styles', choices of values. A Marcusean would insist that every repression has its repressive de-sublimation as a safety valve. We can complement sexual constraints with intensification of private satisfactions and implode into multiple orgasms as a haven from lack of fulfilment in other spheres, aided recently by a handy vlbrator.

That example is one of a whole range of real pleasures which one doesn't want to denigrate at the same time that one needs to see its ideological context in the history of hegemony, the organisation of consent. Our problem is how to place various practices and struggles along a long continuum extending from habits which we might change with relative ease, to conventions of increasing degrees of social embedding, to more or less deeply-entrenched institutions, e.g., dropping 'You see what I mean?' into conversation, nail-biting, wearing neckties, wearing clothes, competitiveness, collective work, the nuclear family. Beyond these examples — each of which is the subject of competing claims by those who would make psychological, social and/or biological explanations — lie matters which are more deeply-embedded in 'the natural' as explanation but which are also matters of debate between, relatively uncontroversially biological issues, e.g., sexual reproduction, and ones which are so deeply socialised that we experience them as natural but are arguably in the domain of the social and alterable, although they have become 'second nature'. Where — and whether — we can draw lines between that which is easily altered, that which can be changed by determined effort, that which will yield to long-term struggle, and that which will only be altered in the long course of natural selection: that continuum is the one I want to open out in this essay. But before I turn to the rudiments of treating human nature as a socialist project, I want to review the current range of offers in the hypermarket of self-help and self-improvement. I also want to look at some of the historical precedents for this movement, and to reflect upon some very impressive recent developments (with esoteric and ancient counterparts) which allow us to hope that the limits of human nature may not be as bounded by the borders of the marketplace version of self-help as we are being led to believe.

 

Becoming Whole by Getting Weird or by Getting Tough

There is such a range of fads and movements. None is utterly silly, and all are concerned with some aspect or other of getting control over one’s mind, body, life, social relations. The goals vary: success, fitness, altered consciousness, altered physiology. The only rough and ready distinctions I can make within a long list of these practices is that some are more concerned with self-mastery and others with mastering others, some are relatively weird while others are variations on traditional competitiveness. But even these distinctions break down as various techniques are used in different contexts: Arthur Ashe meditating between games to beat Connors at Wimbledon; Korchnoi doing yoga to nearly beat Karpov for the world chess championship; Transcendental Meditation for business executives and for the military; EST (Erhard Sensitivity Training) for weekend hippies; jogging for everyone. But even so there is a distinction between those practices which are alternatives to competitiveness and those which enhance it: whole foods, mysticism, joining an ashram (‘going orange’); joining one of the many new religions. All of these have the quality of offering a substitute for the competitive individualism of straight careers and call for a style of being and in many cases the same degree of commitment as conventional careers do. This road has appealed to many members of the generation of the 1960s. In London it’s called the ’Astral Left’, and there have been annual Festivals of Mind and Body. The appeal of this route is fairly obvious: since instant revolution didn't occur, one can seek to eliminate contradictions by a new mode of being — through self-control and dedication. In the domain of psychotherapies a new range of treatments has developed in recent years with the common feature (amid many other varying emphases and practices) of promising personal growth through greater expression of one's needs and frustrations. These expressive psychotherapies make up a loose alliance known as the ’Growth Movement’ and tend to emphasise the removal of hang-ups through some form of supervised acting out rather than the more traditional psychoanalytic stress on the verbal resolution of conflicts by working through insights gleaned from free associations. Similarly, they tend to place greater emphasis on expressiveness in the here-and-now than upon the long-term working through of intrafamilial relationships in the first few years of life.

Many people have gained considerable help and peace of mind from one or more of these approaches. There seem to be particular benefits in the area of reintegration with their bodies as a result of eating different foods, massage, concentrating on areas of tension in therapy and disciplined body work in meditation, judo, Ikedo and regular exercise. I’m not out to dismiss any of these practice out of hand, but I do want to point out certain tendencies. The first is that they tend to give the impression that pain, conflict and contradictions can be eliminated — that sufficient dedication to such practices can make one whole. The result is a relative turning away from attempting to alter the structures and institutions of society. They all divert attention from direct attack on hierarchical and authoritarian social relations in the political, social, economic and cultural spheres. Rather, energy is focused inwardly, in order to become better able to cope with those structures whether by withdrawal or by the control of anxiety for the sake of succeeding better in social roles.

I went to a party to celebrate the launching of a book on the decline of the New Left and found myself talking with the Managing Director of the publishing firm. They had published quite a lot of the influential books in the counter-culture of the 1960s, and I asked him how they were coping with the waning market for radical books. He said they weren't at all worried, since the slack was being taken up by publishing a lot more on esoteric religions. A few months later I happened to be travelling in the United States and saw a large number of such books. But I saw a lot more of the other sort of self-help book. I want to draw attention to how they reconcile us to working within a very well-defined set of boundaries. They thereby turn us away from attempts to alter existing social arrangements and lead us to concentrate on improving our own niche within those arrangements. And they share with the other sort mentioned above the tendency to imply that we can smooth out the contradictions of life by changing our attitudes and becoming more skilful or cunning or stoical or assertive. Living well becomes a branch of technoiogy: technique is all.

Here are some of the titles I came across in book shops and airport bookstalls: How to Take Charge of Your Life, Succeed and Grow Rich Through Persuasion, Winning through Intimidation, Looking Out for Number 1, You Can Become the Person You Want to Be, Think and Grow Rich Action Pack, Power! How to Get It How to Use It, Success: How Every Man and Woman Can Achieve It, Interpersonal Competence and Organizational Effectiveness, Managing Through People, How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling, Dress for Success, The Woman's Dress for Success Book, The New Assertive Woman, Managing Yourself Creatively, A Treasury of Success Unlimited, How to Make a Habit of Success, Power Influence and Control Over People, The One Minute Manager, Whole-Brain Thinking: Working from Both Sides of the Brain to Achieve Peak Job Performance, The Professional Image, Dr. Solomon's Proven Master Plan for Total Body Fitness and Maintenence, Woman's Body: An Owner's Manual (recommended), Man's Body: An Owner's Manual (ditto), Children's Body: A Parents' Manual, Save Your Stomach, The People's Pharmacy, How to Say No to a Rapist and Survive, Escaping the Hostility Trap, Freedom from Compulsion, Learning to Love Again, Passages: Predictable Crises in Adult Life, It Takes a Long time to Become Young, The Coming of Middle Age, The Seasons of Man's Life, Pulling Your Own Strings, Smart Cookies Don’t Crumble, Your Erroneous Zones, Positive Addiction, Cutting Loose: An Adult's Guide to Coming to Terms with Your Parents, Parent Effectiveness Training, PET in Action, Leader Effectiveness Training, Assertiveness Training, The People Shapers, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, The Natural Voice, Self-Directed Systematic Desentization, The Intimate Enemy: How to Fight Fair in Love and Marriage, The Art of Deception, Psychic Energy: How to Change Desires into Realities, (in case I left anything out) The Book of Lists, (nearly there) Sleep Positions: The Night Language of the Body, You Can Run Away from It, (and to complete the pilgrimage) Back to Eden: Healing Herbs, Home Remedies, Diet and Health.

Climb aboard the plane and pick up the TWA Ambassador magazine; lead story: ’Can Self-Help Books Make You An Instant Success?', a very informative treatment of 'The Success Merchants' which reminds one that this genre is not new. In 1899 Elbert Hubbard's A Message for Garcia, about a determined and resourceful courier in the Spanish-American War, had inspired an earlier generations (I was given a copy on joining the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1953). Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) sold seven million copies. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) sold five million. Along the way we've had Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, PMA: A Positive Mental Attitude, and the loyal readers of The Readers’ Digest (backers of Alex Haley’s search for Roots). By the mid-1980s there was a special category in the New York Times best-seller List for self-help books.

The idea of self-help achieved by accommodating one’s self to the laws of nature goes a long way back in the history of popular manuals. In 1828, the Scottish secular Calvinist, George Combe, wrote The Constitution of Man, which was an important attempt to base a doctrine of human nature on biological findings about the structure of the brain. It became an immensely popular form of self-help study among aspiring artisans in British Mechanics' Institutes in the early decades of the nineteenth century. It was thought that character could be inferred from palpating bumps on the skull, which were thought to reflect the size of the underlying brain centres, each of which was thought to serve a separate mental faculty. Once one’s strengths and weaknesses were delimited by this method, called phrenology, one could set about making the best use of them. Combe claimed that 'The grand sources human suffering at present arise from bodily disease and mental anxiety’, and he traced the sources of these 'to infringement, through ignorance or otherwise, of physical, organic, moral, or intellectual laws, which, when expounded, appear in themselves calculated to promote the happiness of the race’ (Combe, Constitution, p.104). Until the discovery of phrenology it had not been possible to ground conduct and human institutions on a scientific knowledge of the nature of man. Combe's Constitution of Man sold 100,000 copies by 1867, and it was said that you could find it in homes which had no other books but The Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. Among those influenced by it was Combe's friend, Robert Chambers, who cites it as authority for the same recommendation: 'To secure the immediate means of happiness, it would seem to be necessary for men first to study with all care the constitution of nature; and, secondly, to accommodate themselves to that constitution, so as to obtain all the realisable advantages from acting conformably to it, and to avoid all evils from disregarding it' (p. 411). Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation (1844) was at the centre of the debate over applying the laws of life to man and his mind, and the controversy over it (fifteen years before Darwin's Origin of Species appeared) was the most heated of the period.

The same formulation — linking the need to discover the laws of nature with exhortations to 'obey' them — in many writings of the period, for example, William Lovett's Chartism and the writings of Robert Owen. Once again, the curious combination of natural laws on the one hand and the apparently absurd exhortation that one should 'obey' them as one would civil laws. Indeed, Combe placed moral laws in a series with physical and organic ones. There is a serious pun on the idea of law here, but it is a perennial one, implying that one has the option of disobeying such laws. Knowledge of the science of human nature — as presented by phrenology, evolutionism or whatever — became the key to self improvement. Interfering with nature's laws invited catastrophe, and it was on this basis that the massively popular evolutionary social theorist Herbert Spencer was later to oppose all sorts of public health measures: we must place ourselves in conformity with nature’s course and not try to alter lt.

As George Eliot, who had been profoundly influenced by Spencer's ideas, had one of her characters, Felix Holt, say, 'The way to get rid of folly is to get rid of all expectations, and of thoughts that don't agree with the nature of things’. Lest this seem merely a character’s point of view and not the author’s, she wrote an essay outside the context of the novel in which these sentiments are repeated and enlarged upon: ‘But now, for our own part, we have seriously to consider this outside wisdom which lies in the supreme unalterable nature of things, and watch to give it a home within us and obey it‘ (q in Needham, p. 378-79). George Eliot was making these comments in opposition to extension of the franchise and arguing that votes would do no good. Nor should class distinctions be opposed, she argued; rather, we should concentrate on class duties or functions (ibid.). The context of Combe's injunctions was likewise a warning against radicalism: ’each individual, according as he becomes acquainted with the natural laws, ought to obey them, and to communicate his experience of their operation to others; avoiding at the same time all attempts at subverting, by violence, established institutions, or outraging public sentiment by intemperate discussions’ (1st ed., p. 124) This combination of directing energies toward obedience to the laws of nature and away from political activism is characteristic of all of the perspectives I am considering.

These Victorian scientistic best-sellers fall within a wider genre of success literature, the central document of which gave its name to the tradition: Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help (1859). Success books were very popular throughout the Victorian period in Britain and America. Success in Life: A Book for Young Men (1852) anticipated Smiles and was itself inspired by an American book. Self-Help sold 20,000 copies in its first year and a quarter of a million by the end of the century and went through seventy-one reprints and at least a dozen translations in the first century after its publication. Smiles was the individualistic, optimistic apostle of hard work, moral exhortation and upward social mobility through self-culture, thrift and perseverance. Self-Help was published in 1859, the year in which the Darwinian foundation-stone of biologism was laid. Marx’s Critique of Political Economy appeared in the same year. Smiles’ heroes were self-taught, practical men, pioneering industrialist, inventors and producers: Stephenson, Watt, Arkwright, Wedgwood. He went on to write Lives of the Engineers (3 vols., 1861-2), and Industrial Biography Characters (1871),Thrift (1875) and Duty (1880).

This is a huge genre. A social history of England in the period 1783-1867 is entitled The Age of Improvement, while a social history of industrialising America is entitled The Age of Enterprise. The American counterpart to Samuel Smiles is Horatio Alger, who found fifty million readers for his stories of success in a literature which is summarised in Apostles of the Self-Made Man: Changing Concepts of Success in America and The Self-Made Man in America. Alger’s philosophy was succinctly put as ‘Work and Win’, and there was even a thriving magazine trade, for example, Success, which was at its apogee in 1907.

The hallmark of all this literature is its competitive individualism, a social philosophy which was perfectly complementary to the emergent scientism which developed in the wake of evolutionism: Social Darwinism. The struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest became commonplace justifications for the era of primitive accumulation of capital a in the decades around the turn of the century. Struggling Upward was one of Alger's titles, and Samuel Smiles philosophy of life fitted neatly into the new synthesis. He wrote, 'All life is a struggle. Amongst workmen, competition is a struggle to advance towards high wages. Amongst masters, to make the highest profits... Stop competition and you stop the struggle of individualism.... Under competition, the lazy man is put under the necessity of exerting himself; and if he will not exert himself, he must fall behind. If he do not work, neither shall he eat.... There is enough for all, but do your own share of work you must’ (Vict. People, p. 141). Such sentiments were immensely appealing to a Carnegie (steel) or a Rockefeller (oil), whose frugality and industry did indeed produce great rewards, rationalised by Social Darwinist principles (Collier & Horowitz pp. 72, 88) in writings such as those of William Graham Sumner and Charles Horton Cooley, author of an article on 'Personal Competition: Its Place in the Social Order and Effect upon Individuals: with Some Considerations on Success'.

The continuity between Social Darwinism and the foundations of the human sciences in Britain and America is a recurrent theme in my writings, and I will not reiterate the connections here. I need only point out that this is another strand in the web. Instead I wish to turn to a more recent interface between science and self-help — one which helps me to make a more positive case for a different approach to human nature. But just before turning to that to topic I want to notice that, while the optimistic note has been the main one, there have also been discordant voices. Success fiction has had its critics, portraying the other side of the story: An American Tragedy, USA, The Jungle, The Octopus, All the King’s Men, Ragtime. Similarly, the union of science with determination has also had its negative portrayals in works which emphasize the use of knowledge of human nature to control others for unacceptable purposes: Battle for the Mind, Brain Washing in Red China, The Manchurian Candidate, The Ipcress File; Lest this all appear to be all in the realm of fantasy, we have the records of Soviet techniques in On Trial and American ones in revelations about CIA use of psychoactive drugs in The Search for the Manchurian Candidate. In the sphere of academic research we find Stanley Milgram's chilling findings that psychological subjects will set about inflicting dangerously high electric shocks to others if told to do so by a scientist, even though they 'knew' that they would harm and perhaps kill the other subject. They followed orders from the expert.

Social Darwinism is the dream of winning out in the struggle for scarce resources: being the fittest competitor and surviving to pass on one's character (assuming, of course, that such things are inherited) to one’s progeny. It lies at one extreme of the union of acknowledging the laws of life with succeeding within them. Biologism brings you both the Rockefeller dynasty and the Rockefeller Foundation, which, in turn, shapes policy in government and in the human and biological sciences. At the other extreme from the hearty voluntarism of self-help we find astrology, according to which fortunes are shaped by the inexorable movements of distant planets and constellations of stars. A believer dare not make an effort without consulting the omens for that day for his or her particular sign of the zodiac The stars bring you the loser's consolation.

 

Biofeedback: Complete Self-Control

There has recently emerged a physiological analogue to the idea that human opportunities are controlled by astral forces. Instead of — or in addition to — a daily horoscope, there are daily 'biorhythms', the ebbs and flows of inner juices and forces And just as one can spend money on astrological apparatus and having one’s horoscope cast, one can also respond to the following advert in the newspaper: 'BIORHYTHMS Featured TV, Radio, etc. The BIOMATE universal biorhythms (body rhythms) calculator — accurately predict the emotional, physical and intellectual conditions of ANY person at ANY time and ANY place Only £6.95 complete with instructions, presentation wallet, etc. Money back g'tee Chq/PO/Access/B'card.’ In the United States there is a daily 'Check Your Biorhythms' column in the major metropolitan new-papers, while in Britain the craze was heralded by the appearance of a book which had already sold over a million copies abroad Bernard Gittelson's Biorhythm (Futura pb, 1978) 'In seconds you can know how you will feel any day, any month in the next three years, and how to act accordingly.' Biorhythms provide the most passive form of the basic dictum of this tradition, 'By following nature, we cannot fail' — Montaigne (quoted on the wrapper of an expensive bar of soap for luxuriating in the bath).

Corresponding to this physiological palliative, offered as compensation for lack of intestinal fortitude, is the dream of complete mastery over the inner environment: control of mind, attitude, physiology, the promise of a New Mind, New Body. This is the main title of a work subtitled Biofeedback: New Directions for the Mind, whose author, Barbara B. Brown, has also prepared A Biofeedback Primer. Then along came Beyond Biofeedback, just to show how difficult it is to keep up with the pace of self-improvement. Will we next have Biofeedback II, The Return of Biofeedback, The Revenge of Biofeedback, Abbott & Costello Meet Biofeedback? Anyone who has seen Alpha wave or blood pressure machines in public places will find it easy to lampoon biofeedback as the most recent fad in a never-ending stream of self-help literature But at this point my exposition turn the corner and replaces sarcasm with a critical advocacy. It seems to me that although it would be tempting to describe biofeedback as a current analogue of phrenology — a panacea with a germ of truth in a large hunk of rationalisation of the status quo — it would be more fruitful to see its potential example of approaching human nature in a new way. I am not suggesting that the advocates of biofeedback see (or would promote) its radical, subversive potential, but I shall argue that it is there. Although the phenomena of biofeedback are currently an integral part of the palliative alternative to political struggle, they seem to me to provide hope for a much more ambitious programme. Biofeedback research is challenging the received wisdom about the biological limits of willed change. Its findings undermine what we have hitherto taken to be biologically given and unalterable. Biofeedback researchers have sought the limits of human nature and have found them to be amenable to intentional change. The project of exploring the limits of human nature has tended to be bounded by utter defeatism at one extreme and by the eternalisation of bourgeois categories at the other. The approach I am taking here is to use scientific findings as a way of opening up a marxist approach to changing human nature.

The conventional wisdom in psychology, physiology and medicine is that there are some bodily processes which are normally under conscious control and others which are not. Walking and other coordinated movements of the skeletal muscle are for the most part in the first category, while sweating, heart rate or metabolic rate are in the other Some processes have dual control and are subject to voluntary override, e.g., postural balance, breathing, blinking, swallowing. Still others seem to be in a grey area in which our emotional states are converted into physiological alterations. 'Conversion' phenomena can include hysterical paralysis or blindness, impotence, frigidity, anorexia nervosa, or other psychosomatic symptoms, including aspects of asthma, ulcers, ulcerative colitis. All of these involve the involuntary or autonomic nervous system. The point about this last group is that it shows that ideas (conflicts, memories, worries) can alter involuntary nervous mechanisms but gives no hint of conscious control. Eliminating the undesirable symptoms can often be achieved by means of a long process of working through the underlying emotional conflicts in psychotherapy.

In addition to these unconsciously motivated psychosomatic phenomena cutting across a sharp divide between the mental and the physiological, there is a range of exotic practices which challenge the conventional scientific categories with well-attested lore — voodoo death, lying on beds of nails, walking on hot coals, suspension of breathing, alteration of heart rate But these matters have been confined to mystics, 'fakirs', 'pagan' rituals. They have fascinated modern researchers, but until recently there was no sustained effort to achieve such results under controlled scientific conditions. To be sure, there were sporadic attempts. In 1901, J. H. Bain used an ingenious mechanical device to train people to gain control over the muscles that wiggle the ears (Brown, 124-5; Green & Green, Beyond Biofeedback, p. 43) In the 1940s, Walter Cannon, the eminent physiologist of the body's self-regulating mechanisms and responses to stress, speculated about the mechanism of voodoo death. But it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that any systematic work was done to challenge the conventional physiological boundaries and relate the results to the strange phenomena of Eastern and 'pagan' rites.

Nobody knows how it works, but the general principle of biofeedback is that if you can give people information about the processes you want them to alter, i.e., give them feedback about how they are doing, a great many people can learn to do so. For example, if you want to change heart rate, blood pressure or blood flow in a limb (thereby altering the heat which goes to it and altering its temperature), you provide a meter showing the relevant indicator, encourage the subject to increase or decrease it, and many will soon learn. After a person become proficient at self-regulation of a given process, it is often possible to dispense with the artificial aid. There are plenty of manuals about the technique of biofeedback, but it is not my purpose here to enter into that. The general point is that 'enhancing a person's sensitivity to (or bringing into consciousness of) psychophysiological processes ordinarily too subtle to be sensed makes it possible to develop a measure of voluntary control over these processes. Another way of saying this is that, with the aid of biofeedback training, consciousness and control can be extended over normally unconscious and involuntary body processes. Biofeedback training is a tool for learning psychosomatic self-regulation' (G&G, p. 42).

Using various techniques, biofeedback has altered an impressive range of processes hitherto thought to be beyond the range of conscious control. I have mentioned blood pressure, heart rate, metabolic rate and blood flow (one hand can be made colder than normal, the other warmer). Biofeedback has also altered skin electrical conductivity, selective brain waves, concentration, meditation, various forms of consciousness. In the United States, the enhancement of so-called Alpha brain waves became a fad, since they are associated with a heightened sense of well-being.

These alterations may seem mere tricks, but the deliberate variation of nervous, blood-flow and secretory activities has opened up great possibilities for the alleviation of psychosomatic symptoms. As a consequence there have been some dramatic improvements in asthma, high blood pressure, ulcers, haemorrhoids, bursitis, migraine, all sorts of pains, anxiety, drug addiction, epilepsy, tremors, and cerebral palsy. Other results offer hope in diabetes, kidney dialysis, thyroid disease, allergies, immunological responses and even cancer. Lest these last claims seem utterly fantastic, it should be noticed that if one can learn selectively to control blood flow to a part of the body and even stop an open wound from bleeding (G&G? 229 sqq), then there is, in principle, no reason why blood flow to malignant tissues cannot be diminished. Most malignancies grow faster than normal tissues and therefore have increased metabolic activity and blood supply, a fact already exploited in various radiation and chemical treatments of cancer. An abnormal growth can be starved of oxygen by biofeedback. Indeed, Green and Green offer some impressive, though anecdotal, evidence of cancer remission by biofeedback and suggest that spontaneous remissions could be similarly explained (pp. 110-12, 169-70).

The dramatic findings in this field of research and practice (in varying degree with respect to different phenomena) have met the most exacting standards of scientific experimentation. When one begins to study the research reports, the following claim seems the height of hyperbole: 'Biofeedback is the newest, most exciting and potentially farthest-reaching discovery ever to emerge from the busy basements of biomedical research. It has been a virtual explosion of discovery, and it is currently causing a revolution in both scientific and public thinking (Brown, p. 4). But when one finds that what began with learning to wiggle one's ears has recently reached the ultimate level of control — the voluntary contraction of a single microscopic muscle fibre, a single cell — then the following speculations seem sensible: 'The demonstration by Basmajian and others that human beings can voluntarily control the electrical activity of a single motorneuron cell in the spinal cord would seem to be the ultimate in voluntary control over the body. Speculation suggests that the ultimate lies further beyond this. The microsystems that are necessary to conduct and not to conduct a nerve impulse are biochemical in nature. If an individual activates one cell at will, then he is also affecting the internal chemistry of the cell at the same time. More remarkably, he is simultaneously turning off the electrochemistry of tens or hundreds of other cells which must be suppressed in the process of isolating a single cell for activation. If the human mind can select one of a million unknown, unseen cells in the spinal cord and learn to control it so quickly, then one must admit that the possibility exists of selecting out any other cell, spinal cord or elsewhere. The new key is bio-feedback, i.e., the technique for supplying the human mind with information about the unfelt within. The fact that many and diverse cellular processes are involved in biofeedback hint another future for its ability to control complex patterns of body activities effectively, one that may one day be used to control one's own endocrine or metabolic life. Perhaps never to grow old or infirm' (Brown, p. 391).

 

Biofeedback Advocates’ Blinkers

I have dwelt on these remarkable findings and speculations for a number of reasons. The first is that I want to confront those who argue that 'you can't change human nature' with the subversive fact that at the most straightforward level the findings of scientific research change. In this area they have changed in ways which undermine well-attested, even fundamental, theories about the main contours of human nature. The boundary between the voluntary and the involuntary systems of the body has been altered so much that it remains to be seen if any firm line can be drawn. Those of us who want to minimise the extent to which biomedical facts and well-supported theories stand in the way of striving to change social relations can point to the range of biofeedback phenomena to boost our morale. A second reason for dwelling on these findings is to suggest an analogy: if so many aspects of an individual’s functioning can be changed so impressively, then there is hope for the larger-scale social changes that generations of libertarian activists have always secretly feared are, after all, foredoomed by the laws of human nature. It betokens a degree of plasticity which is hopeful. My path to this theme is to look at the claims the biofeedback researchers make. This will support a third point about just how blinkered about social dynamics and large-scale political and economic forces we can become when concentrating on the scientific level. Biological and medical models, explanations and panaceas become all-embracing, referring to other domains, explanations and remedies only vaguely.

The flyleaf of the most authoritative account of biofeedback says, 'In a world where people feel they are increasingly losing control over their environment, the possibility that they can learn to control their own bodies, minds and emotions is an exciting prospect to laymen as well as to psychologists and physicians' (Brown). There is a striking naiveté and voluntarism about the ideological and social forces which shape people's characters and opportunities: 'We are, as at no previous time, questioning the decisions of authorities, including those decisions affecting our own behavior. ’We are becoming individuals rather a than succumbing to the ancient tradition of permitting the cultural reality to shape our behaviors into a mass of almost identical behaviors. We are questioning and even acting upon the principles of behavior that have trapped us into someone else's categories' (Brown, p. 15). As seen from this perspective, the problems which biofeedback can alleviate are not merely in the sphere of life and death (where its claims are, I think, genuinely plausible) but include the strictly socio-economic: 'The core problems of the socially handicapped [among whom she includes 'the chronically unemployed'] are primarily a lack of self-awareness and identity, lack of confidence in the self which impedes activation of inherent survival activity that provides the ground substance of motivation. Feedback therapy is particularly appropriate to these groups of socially handicapped persons' (Brown, p. 386). There is no mention of social or economic causes of unemployment, no hint that it may be structural and due to large-scale movements of capital. Rather, the problem is strictly one of attitude: 'What these individuals lack are the attitudes necessary to gain and maintain employment.' She suggests visual feedback procedures as an index of attitude changes and concludes, 'When attitudes conducive to gaining and maintaining employment are recognized and become manifested as motivational drives, a major obstacle to unemployment [sic] would be removed' (ibid.).

This way of seeing social and economic forces strikes me as a reduction to absurdity of individualistic biologism. Of course people need to feel that they have some control over their lives, but it is sad that their field of vision can be so narrowed. Bodily and attitudinal processes become the only sphere open to them to attempt to achieve some degree of self-determination. It is a sad comment on the scientific and therapeutic perspectives of so-called advanced societies that the domain most open — for self-expression is asocial. Harmony with self — and not collective action. Biofeedback becomes a sort of internal path to the results others get from privileged backgrounds and finishing schools. Finally — and this is consistent with what we already know about the pretensions of biological models — it is claimed that biofeedback will literally lap up to the shores of state power itself. 'This is what biofeedback is all about: to learn to move our homeostatic balance points in a direction we choose, physically, emotionally, and mentally'. That's fine, but the thought drafts on vaguely, as though no other resources were required for socio-economic transformation: 'one can envision the spreading ripples eventually affecting our society, internal law and order spreading from the individual to the family and to sociality rather than being imposed from outsold by the state' (G&G, p. 177) The elision from physiological homeostasis to social harmony is, of course, familiar to anyone who has any knowledge of the history and hegemony of functionalist models in the human sciences. There is in the above quotations no hint of awareness that the mode of production is structured, that it is a contradictory unity of force and relations of production, with culture organised to reproduce the existing relations of ownership. Socio-economic and political structures are seen as extrinsic, alien, rather than as agencies which play a determinate role in constituting knowledge and its institutions, as well as social and individual norms and identities. It is the self which these writers see as real and true, and self-control is the key to progress. It is a blinkered, individualist and idealist view.

Once again, the enriching tendency of even the moot enlightened biologism is here coupled with a narrowing tendency. In this case It is silent about the real dynamic of how groups and individuals interact in an historically contingent set of forces and relations of production and reproduction. Tremendously exciting and promising findings make no real connection with the realities of communality, state, economy and mode of production. ‘Motivation', 'inherent survival' and those ripples will wash over and wear away social ills.

Instead of tracing actual connections with the issues which are the domain of social science, political economy and class struggle, the liaisons which are developed in these works are with more contemplative and ascetic traditions. Both of the leading accounts of biofeedback research are eloquent about affinities with meditation and mysticism, e.g., training, self-hypnosis transcendental meditation (G&G, p. 116) Under the heading of 'The Alpha Mantra', Barbara Brown writes, 'Alpha bio-feedback has had its greatest popular attraction as an aid to or even as a technologic technique to facilitate the goals of meditation. Early in the development of alpha feedback, the resemblance of certain subjective phenomena as well as of the accompanying brain wave patterns to those reported for certain Zen and Yoga states was recognised. The popularisation of alpha bio-feedback as a meditative technique has raised many questions. Its advocates, including some researchers, believe that alpha is instant Zen, instant satori; that the filling of the head with alpha waves with its accompanying sensation of divorcement from material reality is the exact equivalent of the Zen no mind state. They tend to believe that the no-mind is the absence of thoughts of material attachment to the self, a dissolution of the ego. The experience is described as the ecstatic, mystical state of unity with the universe' (Brown, p. 340).

Elmer and Alyce Green, two of the most active scientific researchers in the field, are frank advocates of a close union of western research with a mystical interpretation of reality. That is what is ‘Beyond Biofeedback’, which they dub 'They Yoga of the West’.

The techniques of biofeedback are reminiscent of the 'growth movement' therapies mentioned above, especially Reichian and Gestalt therapies (G&G, pp. 162 sqq.) of Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman In his Complete Guide to Therapy, Joel Kovel points out this affinity: 'The wisdom of the body, the unity of all experience — these are Gestalt tenets, and, combined with a basic view of the goodness of man, they lead to a positive, American form of Eastern religion' (p. 171). He goes on to point out that Gestalt therapy de-emphasize the social and political; 'social factors are scarcely included in any systematic way... The de-emphasis of verbal knowledge plays into the social myopia of Gestalt therapy... the therapy does not employ insight into the actual structure of society itself. This may have something to do with its appeal’ (p. 172). The latest fusion of therapy, mysticism and near-instant transcendence (full course fifty hours) is 'Insight'. A graduate writes, 'The practical, day-to-day effect is a deep acceptance of life as a spiral — ascending but with plenty of downturns to a greater ability to detach ourselves from life's melodrama and learn to hear the inner wisdom underneath our own and others’' (’In Search of Insight’, Observer 20 May 1979).

 

The Return of the Biologised and Medicalised

How can we re-socialise this mixture of mystically and biomedically blinkered accounts? Barbara Brown attains a state of sonambulism as she move unknowlngly among strictly political and economic issues. She described research in which people's blood pressure rose during unemployment: ’When they were advised of the impending plant shutdown, their blood pressures rose. In the life-stress situation this could be called anticipation of job loss. Then followed the period of unemployment. Blood pressures either remained higher or increased slightly, and the workers who were unemployed the longest showed the greatest increase in blood pressure. There were also increases when the men were re-employed on a probationary basis. Those who were fortunate to find permanent re-employment also had good physiologic fortune: their blood pressures began to decrease' (p. 280). A more unsurprising set of findings I can hardly imagine, but what is most striking is that this report appears under the heading, 'Talking It Over with the Boss may Save Your Blood Pressure'. Marching straight ahead with her apolitical blinkers, she continues, 'the blood pressure of is hyperactive to emotional and stress stimuli, and... the personality of some patients is generalised as being one of hostility in which anger cannot be expressed appropriately so that the may appear withdrawn and have less than satisfying social interactions’ (p. 282). What a soothing person that boss must be. Surely arrangements should be made for all malcontents — especially ones about to be or currently unemployed — to ’talk it over’ with him/her.

This narrow approach has received support and has been extended in more recent work, where it is reported that 'A link between heart attack and highly stressful laving is well-established, but it has recently been shown that people who are depressed and have grown to feel like giving up on life have a significantly greater chance than normal of having a myocardial infarct [’heart attack'] in the next ten months' (NS 14 Dec. 1978, p. 840).

Yet if we remove the blinkers and concentrate on the aspects of Brown's analysis about which she is so strikingly uncritical, we have the of a critical theory of illness as frustrated protest. In an uneven but powerfully suggestive book, Neurosis and Civilization: A Marxist/Freudian Synthesis, Michael Schneider has attempted to reintegrate psychoanalytic and marxist theories to provide a critique of key aspects of the miseries of human nature under late capitalism. He first defends psychoanalysis against crude economic reductionism (‘vulgar marxism’) and then argues for a richer marxism against adjustive versions of psychoanalysis. He then conducts a searching critique of central features of human nature in late capitalism in chapters on the pathology of capitalist commodity society, the capitalist organization of work and capitalist consumer society. In the conclusion, Schneider suggests a very different approach: ‘A materialistically enlightened psychoanalysis — or perhaps one should rather say, a materialistically based psychoanalytic theory of illness — acquires an important task in this respect, namely, to transform all forms of mental resistance against and refusal towards the conditions of capitalist work and socialization which express themselves as illness into a subjective instrument of politicization. A psychoanalytically enlightened materialistic theory of illness, understood in this fashion, must demonstrate them mental disease, whatever form it takes, contains a subversive and progressive element: that it represents an unconscious form of refusal to abide by the existing conditions of exploitation and oppression in the family, or of production and consumption’ (p. 258). This is refusal through illness. In his ‘Critical Theory of the Family’, Mark Poster makes a similar point in treating symptoms as a revolt of primitive needs against censorial authority (p. 26). In the course of his argument Schneider constantly stresses the interactions and mutual interpenetrations, i.e., the dialectic ‘between the structure of social production and reproduction and the corresponding structure of social instincts and needs’ as imputed by the human sciences’ (p. 121; cf. pp. 123, 143, 145). For example, the effort to shape the consciousness of the workers under scientific management and more recent and subtle efforts in job enrichment are seen as mechanization of the human psyche by means of altering production relations (p. 143). This approach encourages us to trace the link between reification and commodification on the one hand and the degree of repression and the development of ego mechanisms of defence on the other (p. 145). The deepest level of our emotions can be seen as a repository of denied human needs, cut off from fulfilment by the social and economic system. If we convert this critique into a positive programme, it calls for a new image of human nature which needs to be developed in tandem with new relations of production and reproduction (p. 261).

I have jumped directly from the narrow conceptions of the social aspects of the biofeedback literature to an avowedly utopian Freudo-Marxist critique in order to provide a stark contrast. It helps me to make my central point: the boundaries between the physiological, the psychological and the socio-political and economic variables are amenable to historical analysis and, arguably, transformation through purposive collective struggle. The quotations I made from the biofeedback literature treated traditional physiological boundaries as amenable to change, but those of the social, political and economic spheres were taken as given or invoked so vaguely as to be embarrassingly naive. I am proposing that we treat the concepts of psychology and human nature as well as those of the existing civil order as historically alterable. The distance between Brown’s and Schneider’s approaches lies, in large part, in his treating the deepest assumptions about our most primitive emotional needs — the ‘id’ of psychoanalysis — as historical sediments which develop in interaction with the history of the capitalist mode of production. In effect, the history of psychology becomes the history of the division of labour. It is this way of seeing human nature — and the project of transforming it — that I wish to explore for the remainder of this essay. This is the place to stress that what I am doing is necessarily tentative, sketchy and suggestive, providing only some hints, places to dig, partial visions, a few pieces of a very large puzzle/project.

Conventional scholarship — at least those branches of it which have not fallen prey to sociobiology — has gone a long way toward granting that fundamental features of human nature are profoundly historically alterable. We have growing literatures on the social construction and the histories of childhood, sexuality, the family, education, the separation of work from home, past and present (I am thinking, for example, of the work of Aries, Foucault, Poster, Bowles and Gintis, Lasch). We also have vast bodies of data on different societies with profoundly differing cultural, symbolic, economic, agricultural, etc. systems in the social anthropology of various peoples, endlessly filed, classified and fashioned into theories. This is, of course, a mediated version of an increasingly self-conscious and self-critical literature on the impact of change an ‘advanced’ societies come to take territory, raw materials and labour power from ‘primitive’ peoples. All of these disciplines push us toward cultural and historical pluralism. They urgently invite us to look elsewhere than to the claims of the various manifestations of biological reductionism, even though the genetic and sociobiological forms have proponents with unlimited ambitions for conceptual imperialism. Recall C. D. Darlington, in a dropsical tome entitled The Evolution of Man and Society, in which he claims to encompass all cultures and all epochs within a version of biological evolutionism. In a sequel, The Little Universe of Man (sic), he extends his argument to humankind’s certain fate.

Marxism directs our attention and energies in a very different direction. Instead of seeing the history of societies as variations on a few biologically given instincts, we are asked to see the history of ideas of human nature as fully social as developments of the history of the structured social relations of human production and the reproduction of these social relations. Marx claimed that human nature is ’the ensemble of social relations’. But not any old social relations. The nature which comes to be in human history is our real nature (1844, p. 111) as it comes to be through productive labour. Purposive work constitutes the transition from ape to human (Engels), and its history is the history of human nature. Historically conditioned needs come progressively to shape and replace natural ones (Gründrisse, pp. 325, 408-10). ‘As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production’ (German Ideology, p. 32). The histories of productive forces and of the resulting division of labour are more promising places to investigate human nature than genes, ants, spiders, baboons and greylag geese.

The ideas a society produces — especially including its ideas about its own members — are products of the history of the forms of production and reproduction of social relations. Human needs change in the course of changing productive relations (see Friedman, pp. 14-15). This thesis — that human nature is fully historical — was described by one of his greatest twentieth-century followers, Antonio Gramsci, as Marx’s ‘fundamental innovation’ (Telos 33, p. 53; cf. p. 32 and Struhl, Rad. Philos. Newsletter Spring, 1978, p. 23). It is on this point that bourgeois thought always parts company with marxism. It cannot abide the rock bottom claim that conceptions of nature and of human nature are ineluctable social and historical. There isn’t some other touchstone behind the history of human society in which to root our values and meanings. As Poster points out, ‘For Marx human beings are social in essence; natural man is a fiction inasmuch as there is no way to distinguish the biological-natural from the social-cultural. Contradictions derive not from an alleged conflict between the natural and the cultural, but from the very forms of social organization themselves.’ Classes and social domination via control of the means of production are the sources of conflict (Telos 35, p. 227). Looking beyond human nature, nature itself is experienced and investigated only within categories generated by social forms. Nature ‘itself’, something preceding and independent of the history of human society, is not the nature in which we and our human scientists live. It’s there in a very general and abstract philosophical sense, but it doesn’t exist anywhere nowadays for us or them (Rad. Philos. 21, 1979, p. 41, after Marx on Feuerbach; 1844 MSS, pp. 167-70).

 

Taking Marx Seriously

The politics of the 1960s led to a serious critique of the established order in the medical and human sciences — especially in psychiatry and psychotherapy (along with sociology). But the critiques mounted by Laing and Cooper in psychiatry and by Marcuse with respect to psychoanalytic ego psychology, along with the revival of Reichian perspectives in psychotherapy, always struck me as suffering from the same problem that affected and eventually destroyed the wider political movement of which they were a part. Put simply, critique is not enough. The demystification of the psychiatric hospital, whether by Goffman, Laing or Ken Kesey, like the demystification of adjustive theory and practice, whether by Marcuse or David Ingleby, or a rediscovery of Reich’s writings from the 1930s, left one with a sense that once one saw through these institutions, theories and practices, they would be powerless, go away, cease to act. An analogous story can be told about the critique of the institutions and curricula of authoritarian educational systems. Situationism — an important inspiration for the events of 1968 — conveyed a sense (largely through its silences) that once the scales fall from your eyes, you are free. A vision which had a great liberating effect in the arts in various phases of surrealism came up against more refractory institutions and powers in the spheres of production, education, the state and the home (Guerin, Leaving the 20th Century, Pluto Surrealism, Vaneigem, Debord). Finally, the same current of millenarianism was at work in the personal sexual and political struggles of those people who set out to live in new ways. The nuclear family, sexual possessiveness, authoritarianism, competitiveness, careerism, sex role stereotyping — ultimately all constraints on full interpersonal expression — were seen as paper tigers, to be defeated at a stroke. Many of us have deep scars from the mauling that ensued when we sauntered into the tigers’ cage.

Demystification does not leave one free. It leaves one faced with the realities of power in the structures of the society and economy and in the structures in one’s head and the web of relationships built from the beginning of life — structures which provide the foundations for a sense of identity and security. Attempts to sweep away all repression and restraint do not produce Julie Andrews twirling through the flowers to the sound of music but very screwy, hurt and desperate people, many of whom are still nurturing their wounds. The lessons to be learned from this may seem banal on paper, but they have important implications. Don’t try to sweep anything away except to the extent that you have something at least as secure well along in construction to put in its place. Don’t mock or abandon relationships and settings unless you have socially and economically viable institutions to move to with havens for the setbacks which will result from new sorts of social relations. In our zeal to cast off our former selves, we have too often failed even to have a survival strategy, and this failure has forced many serious people to move off to the astral left in a desperate move to find a haven where there is some sense of not merely capitulating to their former lives.

One place where the attempt to create new forms of social relations can have a high cost is communal living. The number of potentially bad interactions in an enlarged household does not increase arithmetically but geometrically. Four or six adults can certainly take intolerable pressures off a nuclear couple and can transform child care into a pleasure rather than a draining full-time job, but they also bring the likelihood of new and much more complex problems at the same time. People who have tried to live communally and to work collectively have lived out these discoveries, conflict by conflict, contradiction by contradiction. Many of them were led by such experiences into the proliferating new forms of therapy. The history of the changing title of a single periodical provides an index of these pages, as the editorial collective (which was itself changing for the same reasons) was driven to see the congruence between their problems and the structures of social relations within the mode of production: Radical Therapy became Rough Times and then State and Mind.

The problems posed by this situation have been neatly summarized by Reimut Reiche, who says that though ‘it may be true that the qualitative differences between the existing and a free society can only be established through a "break in the historical continuum", it is equally true, firstly, that this break can only be theorised about in advance as categories, modes of thought and dreams bearing the hallmark of the existing society, and the oppression, exploitation and deprivation of liberty practised in it. Secondly, that it will have to be carried out by people who, though they suffer under this oppression, exploitation and deprivation of liberty, recognize them for what they are, and want to do away with them, are also marked, and maimed by them, in their most minute feelings and habits. And thirdly, that the free society can only be built up on the basis of the maimed and fettered capacities of unfree societies’ (Sexuality & Class Struggle, pp. 165-6).

That should be enough of an indication of the direct personal relevance of these issues to permit me to return to the positive programme of treating human nature as historical. Marx said that people make their own history but in conditions not chosen by them. If we are to take seriously the thesis that human nature is historical, we are faced with a completely new perspective on human nature and the so-called human sciences. As I implied above, the existing contours of human nature and of the human sciences don’t just go away in a land of Oz like the wicked old witches when Dorothy lands on one and splashes water on another. Rather, the preoccupations, theories and practices of those disciplines are mediations of real structures and contradictions which act as material forces in people’s lives. Indeed, it has been argued that L. Frank Baum’s original story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900 and the best-loved children’s story by an American author, was itself such a mediation, an allegory about contemporary struggles over populism and free coinage of silver. We all know that this occurs directly in psychiatric and psychotherapeutic practices, but we are less aware of its expressions in educational psychology, mental testing, teaching machines, industrial psychology, scientific management, motivational research, T-groups, the management sciences, as well as in the theory and practice of the other human sciences, e.g., sociology, anthropology, economics, political science.

Radicals have a tendency to dismiss any findings and theories which can be shown to be ideological, so they throw out clearly ‘biased’ investigations, reports and theories in the human sciences. I am arguing that this is silly. It is incontrovertibly true, for example, that the cradle of American social science was tended by a scientific reactionary, L. J Henderson. It is true that Konrad Lorentz was a fascist and remained a reactionary and that his ethological research, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and his social and political announcements emanated from a single philosophy of nature and society and form a seamless cloth. The same arguments apply in all cases; it’s just that they are more or less highly-mediated, and it is more or less easy to trace those mediations. It is easy in cases like Darlington, Krebs, Ardrey, J. B. Watson, Skinner. It is much more subtle and complicated in the case of Einstein or Darwin, though great scientific figures about whom we have sufficient historical perspective do yield to this sort of analysis, as has been shown for Renaissance and seventeenth-century science by, for example, Frances Yates, Piyo Rattansi, Charles Webster and David Dickson. These writers have shown that the sharp divisions which have been erected by subsequent generations between science and pseudo-science, science and society, science and theology, and especially science and metaphysics, had no place in contemporary thinking: human nature, God and society were aspects of a single set of problems for natural philosophers.

Yet the existing manifestations of the sciences — natural and human — do not go away once we subject them to historical and ideological analysis. Rather, we need to look at the present and the past much more carefully, with new eyes which do not avert their gaze when encountering the official boundaries between positive knowledge and its context of meanings and relations. An example with which I have had something to do is the relationship between early nineteenth-century phrenological faculty psychology, theories of cerebral localization and the development of the high tide of the division of labour in the era of manufacture and the creation of a skilled labour aristocracy. This sort of connection is commonplace with respect to Platonic and mediaeval theories of psychology and brain function. It is now time to apply the method to later periods, including especially our own.

Sometimes a practice demystifies itself as ‘bad science’ in a way that diverts our attention from the deeper task of discovering its resonances. This has occurred with the research of Sir Cyril Burt on IQ. Discovering that he cooked his data (Kamin, New Scientist) shouldn’t diminish our interest in the kind of theory it is: the ordinal ranking of abstract ability in the transitional phase of the high tide of machinofacture to a new, meritocratic, scientised period of continuous flow production, the generation of management strategies, with ever-increasing separation of mental and manual labour, which have brought us to automation and microprocessors. The gradations of IQ met the need for a new and more flexible abstract mental labour in industry and the service sector, entailing more gradations in the secondary and tertiary educational system (Bowles & Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America). Studies of congruence and mediations between theories of human nature and the structuring and restructuring of social relations in the sphere of production and reproduction need to be done for, e.g., social psychology, behaviourism, cognitive dissonance theory, cybernetics, symbolic interactionism, personal construct theory, deviance theory, and the swelling wave of structuralist studies threatening to soak many disciplines, leaving them wet and limp, too hydrated to get up for political action.

Seeing human nature as historical, then, doesn’t make the conventional human sciences go away. Nor does it make them false. It brings us to see with new eyes and sets new investigative and transformative tasks. If we reverse the arrow from the falsely-conscious claims of value-neutral science to applications in industry and then treat their dialectical relations seriously, rather different phenomena come into sharp focus. For example, one of the most — perhaps the most — publicly influential books in the new phase of eliciting deference from workers is Frederick Herzberg’s Work and the Nature of Man, which is based in psychological research (he was professor at Western Reserve University) and develops a ‘motivation-hygiene theory’ (n.b., biomedical ideology) from theories of ‘industry’s concept of man’, ‘the basic needs of man’. He acknowledges as a truism the belief that ‘fear of radicalism was the latent reason for the new humanitarian consideration of the worker’ (p. 35) and chronicles the development from the ‘human relations’ approach to ‘personal adjustment’ to catering for ‘emotional and social needs’ (p. 43) as a strategy for eliciting greater surplus value from workers without the overt use of force. The author has gone on from an academic career to a fine living advising personnel managers of big companies (New Soc. 7 Mar. 1968, p. 353).

The managers have their own training to undergo. The respected Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, sharing the same building with one of the main psychoanalytic and training centres in Britain has offered two-week training conferences since 1957 on ‘Authority and Power in Group and Institutional Relations’. The one in September 1977 was the twenty-eighth. The Institute has close ties with the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan (Rose, Industrial Behaviour, p, 164). I would like to quote the whole brochure, but the following will give a sense of ‘What the Conference is About’:

’The conference sets out to investigate the dynamics of human interaction in social systems, particularly where an individual or a group seeks to influence or change the action of others. Hence the emphasis on authority and power in the conference theme.

‘Failure to take into account human processes which underlie formal organisation will probably result in unforeseen circumstances affecting the system, raising obstacles which prevent the achievement of its objectives. There must therefore be strong reasons behind any underestimation of human dynamics.

One such reason may be because those responsible realise that if they set out to relate human dynamics to organisational goals, they will be exposed to considerable complexity and confusion which under normal working conditions they would wish to minimise.

The conference provides a setting in which this confusion and its origins can be examined under controlled conditions. It supplies a framework so that participants can cope with the uncertainties arising from this confusion. By doing so, they will have the opportunity to reflect upon and learn from their experience, since those who can sustain their uncertainty despite the chaos, may be said to be in the mainstream about group and organisational relations’ (p. 2).

Here are some of the concepts involved: ‘Through the conference the staff make use of certain basic concepts in their interpretations. These include task, role, leadership and boundary. There are opportunities to become aware of the discrepancies between the stated aim or task of a working group and what it actually appears to pursue; and between the individual’s role as formally designated, and that role which can be invoked by groups for quite other purposes than the stated aim. Members may also examine leadership (which may or may not always be invested in a designated leader) which is conceived in terms of managing a boundary between what is inside and what is outside any system — for example, boundaries between group and institution, or between institution and environment — and the analogous function in the individual which regulates the boundary between his inner and outer worlds. By examining their experience of the member-staff boundary in a variety of settings members may also study boundaries between person and role, individual and group, leader and follower.

‘The managing of transactions across boundaries involves authority and power. While authority may be vested in and accepted by persons carrying out a role, the actual functioning is dependent upon the way the role is constructed and allocated for the performance of a task and the purposes for which persons mobilise and deploy their power, or have it attributed to them. But these concepts are all open to examination’ (pp. 3-4).

Price £345. I won’t spell out how the whole framework of the conference is predicated in the eliciting of consent in the capitalist labour process, though it might be worth re-reading the quoted passages from the point of view of a militant trade union shop steward. I don’t suppose that many of them or other dissidents and subversives are included in the rolls of these intensive courses in the role and the use of unconscious motivation to manage, although I’m told that some radical priests have recently come to the Tavistock conferences.

If we thus reverse the arrow from pure to applied we see what knowledge practices are evoked in the human sciences and how conceptions of human need and motivation are, as it were, ‘put to work’. Of course, I’m using obvious cases, but only to help us begin to make such analyses. ore complicated studies of, e.g., Darwinism and of Quantum Theory, have also begun. These sketches help us to see what we are up against and the kind of critique which is called for.

If human nature is historical its features call for historical analysis, and if we want it to have different features our project of reconstruction must be closely interrelated with critical and actual deconstruction of existing forms of social relations. It is a very subversive claim to assert and try to show that the human sciences do not reveal eternal biological givens or limits. Ideology eternalises, and the human sciences at a given period pose themselves problems and set terms for acceptable answers which eternalise and attempt to ameliorate the existing state of the contradictions between the forces and relations of production and reproduction in that society. This process plays an important role in the organisation of consent — hegemony — by naturalising a given value system which in our own period is based on hierarchical, competitive, ‘meritocratic’ social relations in which production is social while appropriation of the surplus is private. The laws of human nature set these limits for bourgeois ideologues, especially scientific ones. For marxists, on the contrary, human nature is a project. If we are going to take Marx seriously, we have to move on from a primarily critical programme to an active, positive, transformative one.

 

Some Examples of What We Are Up Against

If we treat human nature as historical, examples of what we are up against are not candidates for the human limits of nature but part of a project of discovering levels and degrees of refractoriness. Feminists want to break down the sexual division of labour. This is turning out to be a lot harder than anyone thought a decade ago. One important area for doing this is child care. A lot is at stake here. As Dorothy Dinnerstein points out, existing sexual arrangements in infant and child care are part of the buried foundations of the stone walls that political activism runs into (p. 12). If things continue as at present our gender arrangements ‘will go on making it possible for us to act out our early feelings toward the first parent in terms almost wholly unmodified by what we are later to learn about this parent’s actual human capacities, needs, boundaries’ (p. 94). ‘What women want is to stop serving as scapegoats (their own as well as men’s and children’s scapegoats) for human resentment of the human condition’ (p. 232). Equal sharing of infant and child care is thus at the heart of both feminism and socialism, and men have as big a stake in it as women and children. The hoped-for result is very attractive: ‘That rounded complimentarity of the male and the female in the production of children toward which we have all along been grappling — a complimentarity resting on mutual awareness of feeling that only an imaginative, reflective, purposefully procreative species could want to achieve — will start coming into stable focus for us. Woman and man will come at last stably to share the credit, and stably share the blame, for spawning mortal flesh’ (p. 155).

Whether or not one wants to place as much weight as Dinnerstein does on gender arrangements, there are powerful reasons from within a feminist perspective for altering the balance of infant and child care arrangements. Once we get rid of the more obvious barriers to this project, such as man’s going out to full-time work (or the equally unbalanced situation of role reversal, or collective households), you come up against some very basic needs. When my younger son was born, both his mother and I wanted him to be breast-fed. But that could leave me with an unfulfilled sense that I could bath, cuddle, change, cherish and are for him but never really feel that I make a fundamental contribution to nurturing him in the very basic sense of sustenance. This feeling became very acute when my partner went out for an hour, and he wailed the whole time: I was without resource. So she got a breast pump and expressed some of her milk into a bottle to be kept in the refrigerator in case of such an emergency. Thinking beyond this expedient, I came to feel that I wanted to have a proper role in feeding, so I suggested that we do what some friends had done — let me give him a regular feed from a bottle of expressed milk. Shortly after I had mentioned this but before we’d had a chance to discuss it fully, she came into the room one day weeping from a deep unhappiness. She simply couldn’t contemplate sharing the feeding; it just felt completely wrong, and she was afraid that she might do violence to that strong feeling in the name of a political principle which we both hold. My reaction was immediate abandonment of the idea, disappointed but not angry, except at myself for occasioning such unhappiness.

Here are several levels of refractoriness: the biological, the deeply socialised, and the political intention about infant care. The biological level seems simple to us. She lactates; I don’t (not an unbreachable barrier: some men lactate, and one could have hormone treatments, as some sexual offenders in prison perforce do). Breast milk is immunologically and emotionally best. She really looked forward to breast feeding and found it moving and satisfying. This obviously has biological aspects but is also clearly highly socially mediated. There are caste and class fashions about breast feeding, and our subculture values it highly. Asking around after this incident we discovered that the only people we know who managed to share it was a couple with a very colicky baby, and the mother was utterly exhausted and gratefully gave the middle of the night feed to her man to do.

I won’t go on except to say that this one issue takes a lot of working through. Our solution was for me to have bathing as my own. I seem to have a good touch, and for me to spend a quiet period with him on our own every day. That goes a long way toward meeting my need to nurture him, along with changing him and doing chores. Within a few months I could give him solid foods and take him swimming.

It would be easy to dismiss so mundane and personal an anecdote, but of such struggles are changes made. Washing dishes was no part of my self-defined tasks until I was in my mid-thirties. Others will have their own idiosyncratic accounts. The practices which stand in the way of living according to a feminist perspective have to be worked through, step by step.

Moving from the particular to the very general, it has already been mentioned that Freud was very sceptical indeed about the prospects for marxism in practice. Toward the end of his life he wrote, ‘although practical Marxism has mercilessly cleared away all idealistic systems and illusions, it has itself developed illusions which are no less questionable and unproveable than the earlier ones. It hopes in the course of a few generations so to alter human nature that people will live together almost without friction in the new order of society, and that they will undertake the duties of work without any compulsion. Meanwhile it shifts elsewhere the instinctual restrictions which are essential in society; it diverts the aggressive tendencies which threaten all human communities to the outside and finds support in the hostility of the poor against the rich and of the hitherto powerless against the former rulers. But a transformation of human nature such as this is highly improbable’ (SE 22, p. 180). Freud is also opposed to the use of psychoanalysis for revolutionary purposes: ‘Psychoanalytic education will be taking an uninvited responsibility on itself if it proposes to mould its pupils into rebels. It will have played its part if it sends them away as healthy and efficient as possible. It itself contains enough revolutionary factors to ensure that no one educated by it will later in life take the side of reaction and suppression. It is even my opinion that revolutionary children are not desirable from any point of view’ (SE 22, p. 151).

These explicitly pessimistic, anti-marxist and anti-subversive views do not invalidate Freud’s searching insights into the factors which make it so depressingly hard to change. The unconscious, authoritarian, punitive part of the psyche is a significant problem, especially for people who acquire their radical views in their mature years. Freud’s findings about how and where we acquire this aspect of our personalities poses fundamental problems for the attempt to change social relations: ‘Thus a child’s super-ego is in fact constructed on the model not of its parents but of its parents’ super-ego; the contents which fill it are the same and it becomes the vehicle of tradition and of all the time-resisting judgements of value which have propagated themselves in this manner from generation to generation’ (SE 22, p. 67). He goes on to drive home the anti-marxist consequences of this in-build conservatism: ‘It seems likely that what are known as materialist views of history sin in underestimating this factor. They brush it aside with the remark that human "ideologies" are nothing other than the product and superstructure of their contemporary economic conditions. That is true, but very probably not the whole truth. Mankind never lives entirely in the present. The past, the tradition of the race and of the people, lives on in the ideologies of the super-ego, and yields only slowly to the influences of the present and to new changes; and so long as it operates through the super-ego it plays a powerful part in human life, independently of economic conditions’ (ibid.). Thus, the family both provides security and ‘mediates the conservative forces in the larger society by dampening assertive and revolutionary impulses through the internalization of parental authority in the superego’ (Poster, Family, p. 26). These claims mean that to create people determined to transform the existing society, we have to work against very early and very deep impulses. Indeed, the Kleinian school of psychoanalysis argues that basic patterns of relating may be laid down at a very early age. Melanie Klein’s interpreters have attempted to recast her excessively biologically reductionist conceptions in experiential terms but have nevertheless respected he clinical experience with children which led her to claim that the basis possibilities of personal relations are established within the first six months of life, determining how the child reacts throughout the rest of childhood and of life.

Another example of this sort of refractoriness touches on the very bad results of radical attempts to make work and decision-making more social and democratic. The amenability of mass meetings to manipulation and of collective work to varieties of cruel, scapegoating behaviour and other forms of what is sometimes called ‘left group psychopathology’ provide many depressing examples of rejecting conventional forms without putting sufficiently stable and supportive new forms of social relations in their place. Once again Freud sheds light on what we are up against: ‘In order to make a correct judgement on the morals of groups, one must take into consideration the fact that when individuals come together in a group all their individual inhibitions fall away and all the cruel, brutal and destructive instincts, which lie dormant in individuals as relics of a primitive mob, are stirred up to find free gratification’ (SE 18, p. 79; cf. Socialist Rev. 33, p. 76).

In the women’s movement it was found that the removal of formal hierarchies and procedures did not produce the expected flowering of spontaneous co-operativeness. It produced some of that, but it was too often swamped by what has been called ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’, in which more primitive mechanisms prevail. W. R. Bion has thought carefully about these mechanisms and takes the argument further than Freud and applies Kleinian ideas to group behaviour, saying that ‘there is ample evidence for Freud’s idea that the family group provides the basic pattern for all groups’ (Experiences in Groups, p. 187). He adds, however, that ‘that view does not seem to me to go far enough. I doubt whether any attempt to establish a group therapeutic procedure can be successful if it is limited to an investigation of mechanisms deriving from this source. I would go further: I think that the central position in group dynamics is occupied by the more primitive mechanisms that Melanie Klein has described...’ (pp. 187-88). He goes on to say, ‘I do not believe that the phenomena I have witnessed are peculiar to a therapeutic group and that the understanding of group dynamics requires close attention to Freudian mechanisms, supplemented by the more primitive ones which are also at work in psychotic anxieties and which Kleinians discuss in terms of "the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions" and "part-object relationships". This is not the place to discuss these mechanisms in detail, My point in referring to the is to stress just how primitively rooted are the factors which we must take into account if we are to understand the dynamics of collective processes. Bion concludes by saying that he considers these primitive reactions ‘to contain the ultimate sources of all group behaviour’ (pp. 188-89).

These dimensions of what we are up against in treating human nature as historical lead us into whole new areas of investigation and struggle. The study of errors and slips of the tongue and apparently bizarre forgetting which Freud discussed in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life will have to be supplemented by a new work, The Psychopathology of Every Left Group. Instead of treating the sorts of findings I have quoted from Freud, Klein and Bion as fixed principles of human nature which psychoanalysts have seen as making socialist social relations unrealistic, we can de-eternalise them and begin to see just what our tasks are. The New Leftists of the 1960s saw the need for a ‘long march through the institutions’ in order to bring about lasting change. Several decades later the very source of that image — Mao’s Long March back from utter defeat to the overthrow of Chaing — looks a much less inspiring analogy in the light of subsequent developments in which Chinese efforts at transforming the mode of production and the social relations of production and reproduction regressed to the social relations and elitism of capitalist societies and, in some instances, much worse than that. Even so, an aphorism from that march does still apply to a more sober assessment of just how hard it will be to move on from historicising our view of human nature to changing it: ‘Even in a march of ten thousand miles, one must take the first step’.

 

Our Own Agenda for Transforming Second Nature.

That first step means that we need to move on from the critique of bourgeois human sciences to the development and pursuit of our own agenda. That agenda will lead us to re-assess the categories of conventional psychology and the other human sciences as we go along. For example, one of the central conceptions of psychological health in the American school of psychoanalytic ego psychology is 'ego strength'. Schneider ends his argument with the following comment on the vicissitudes of that 'strength' and the subversive potential in going beyond capitalism's effects on it. 'The increasing socialization and subsumption of formerly autonomous work under capital has once and for all liquidated the social conditions for "ego strength" and "autonomous", that is, "genitally" organized structures of instinct and character. That is why the attributes of the classic bourgeois character structure, such as "ego strength", "ego autonomy", "an ability to compete", as "subjective factors" can no longer be made the basis of political work. On the contrary, the socialist movement of today has the task of developing forms of political organization which are no longer bound to the need of the classic bourgeois competitive and individual ego to assert itself, but enable the "weak ego", the regressively "ill" individual the opportunity for self-development within a co-operative framework. K. M. Michel says: "The tradition of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the consciousness of the living' (Marx). Our nightmare bears the traits of Western individualism. Its weakness does not need to be a malady — but might even be of advantage if it makes room for new forms of thinking and acting in solidarity which are free from competition. These forms must still be developed." This very dissolution, that is, weakening, of the classic bourgeois ego contains the "revolutionary ferment" of a new collective ego structure, of a kind of group ego structure based on the co-operation of numerous individual egos within the division of labour. Such "free association" of many individuals with "weak egos" thus creates the prerequisites for a new collective "ego strength", for a co-operative instinctual structure which is the psychosexual pendent for the collective acquisition of production' (p. 270).

That is a sample of the sort of politicised list of attributes which a positive programme of transformative psychology would seek to combat, e.g., jealousy, competitiveness, seductiveness, machismo, intimidation, authoritarianism, loquaciousness, scapegoating, elitism, theoreticism, sexism, racism, ageism. That is, Schneider sets an example for a socialist set of aims in psychology. One of the attractions of the Kleinian development of psychoanalysis is not only that her ideas lead us to see just how deep and early resistances occur; she also works with concepts which are nearer to those which are encountered in group work: envy, spoiling, splitting, projection, scapegoating. In place of the negative attributes listed above, a positive programme would be attempting to construct forms of infant and child care and adult social relations which are more gentle, co-operative and mutually supportive. In order to achieve these, much needs to be deconstructed. A small example: in current educational practice, genuine co-operative altruism, comradeship and solidarity are severe infringements of the most basic rules of competitive, meritocratic individualism. It is known as ‘conferring’ or ‘cheating’ and in many institutions are ‘honour-bound’ to report in it. A recent cartoon shows history’s most influential collaborators, Marx and Engels, in the "Institute of IQ Testing’ below a sign in the blackboard which reads, ‘No Conferring’.

 

Second Nature

In addition to our own agenda and practices for pursuing it, we need to pay due respect to just how refractory are some features of human nature under capitalism. Pay due respect but avoid eternalising them by falling into biologising them and lapsing into fatalism. Marxist writers have a concept for historical, human conventions which have become so habitual, so entrenched and confront us so like nature as such that we experience them as natural. Human practices become sedimented into structures; they become ‘second nature’ (Poster, Existential Marxism, pp. 177-78; Schneider, pp. 52, 59-60). Socialist practices of comradeliness, co-operation and mutual aid are much more frail and have not been established as second nature (Gramsci, p. 298). Christopher Caudwell made the same point: ‘In all distinctive bourgeois relations it is characteristic that tenderness is completely expelled, because tenderness can only exist between people, and in capitalism all relations appear to be between a person and a commodity (Thompson, Caudwell, Socialist Register, 1977, p. 268). One sort of social relationship is entrenched, while another is hardly established. But, then, the prohibition against eating people had not become established in cannibalistic societies. ‘Eating people is wrong’ would have struck a normal person as a very odd sentiment in that context, while gnawing a vanquished enemy would be perfectly ‘natural’.

The distinction between nature and second nature is unfamiliar to most social thought and has no place in the bourgeois human sciences. Second nature is ‘history that has hardened into nature... What is second nature to the individual is accumulated and sedimented history. It is a history so long unliberated — a history so long monotonously oppressive — that is congeals. Second nature is not simply nature as history, but frozen history that surfaces as nature’. That definition surfaces in Russell Jacoby’s searching critique of the history of conformist psychology from Adler to Laing (Social Amnesia, p. 31). The concept of second nature can act as a bulwark against fatalism, clearly marking the boundary between the social and the historical on the one side and the biological on the other. As we saw in the case of biofeedback, it is a permiable boundary, amenable to more or less long-term alteration by drugs, hormones, surgery, and even genetic engineering. Formulating the issue in terms of boundaries, even permiable ones, is also misleading, since it neglects the ways in which different conceptions of nature and levels of concepts are also social products, as I have indicated in a number of my writings. The conventions we analytically identify as second nature are experienced as human nature because they are prevalent and ‘normal’ in a given society and epoch, even though, in a deeper sense, they are a social sedimentation (Schneider, p. 247). In our own period, ‘What in reality is only the socially mediated sediment of his "second nature" therefore appears to the reified subject as its "innermost" nature, as "instinctual nature" (p. 156). Orthodox psychoanalysis then becomes the science which displays the second nature of persons under late capitalism (pp. 52, 59).

An analogy can help to illuminate the point. Inhuman work conditions in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century must have confronted the immigrant worker as overwhelmingly as the Arctic environment confronted Alaskans or as the moving assembly line confronts auto workers today. The conditions are experienced as ’given’; they constitute the experienced world, the labour process, survival. They seem inevitable and, in their way, natural. The same can be said of the most basic features of other existing arrangements, since attempts to alter them fare so badly. If we now glance back at the list of books on how to fare well listed earlier in this essay, we can treat them as an auto-critique (albeit a sanguine and facile one) of life and work under late capitalism.

 

One Science: The Science of History

We begin to see the power of Marx’s aphorism: ‘We know only a single science, the science of history’ (German Ideology, p. 28). It invites us to make a very new approach to knowledge: first, to historicism its categories — even the most abstract categories, despite their validity, re nevertheless a product of historical relations and possess their full validity only for and within those relations (Gründrisse, p. 105). Second — and in the same process — to make history. In the reconstitution of the human sciences we need to study fields of self-reflexivity in relation to the history of society and our struggles to change it. In the same way that we should see human nature as an historical project, we should see the practice of what we now call ‘the human sciences’ as a new kind of fusion of theory and practice. That is, instead of searching for the timeless principles of human nature, we should be constructing practices which move toward reconstituting the ensemble of social relations which is, for a marxist, the analogy to the bourgeois concept of human nature.

This goes against the whole grain of recent trends in the human sciences and philosophy. The reigning traditions are concerned with the careful analysis of simple cases. In philosophy, for example, great efforts were made to find trivial examples so that the analysis of their logical features will not be obscured by emotive, personal and political biases (Bernard Williams, BBC TV). The same approach has been taken in behaviourist and Skinnerian learning theory and in research in perception in both philosophy and psychology. I am advocating exactly the opposite approach: remove the blinkers and consider the issues in the totality of their relations, for that totality constitutes the knowledge. The alternative is desiccated and does not help us to live. I am reminded of Harry Lime’s contrast in ‘The Third Man’ between warring Italy which had produced the Renaissance, Leonardo, et cetera, and peaceful Switzerland, which gave civilization the cuckoo clock. Well, three hundred years of the tradition of Locke in epistemology and psychology of perception have given us ‘The cat is on the mat’, ‘A vixen is a female fox’ and the colour ‘grue’.

What would it be like to do better? I was once at a conference on ‘Science Under Capitalism’ where a presentation on the role of sexism in biological theories of women’s abilities was followed by a question: Was there any practice available to feminists in psychology except the critique of existing theories? What would a feminist psychology be like? No one had thought much about it. Well, in the concluding paragraphs of this exploratory essay I want to sketch some aspects of a marxist psychology. Its theoretical basis is the removal of the distinction between the substance of knowledge and its context and then the removal of the key academic separation of theory from practice. Just as marxists have begun to do with respect to past epochs we must treat the recent histories of psychology and social relations in relation to the histories of their institutionalisations and the wider forces and relations of production and reproduction in which they occur. Not human nature, i.e., ‘personality’ or even ‘perception’, much less ‘learning’ per se. Rather, the histories of childhood, the family and sexuality in relation to the histories of work, division of labour, education, urbanisation, the factory system, changing modes of power and transport, automation, publishing, play, entertainment, science as a practice. Not knowledge, not attributes treated apart from their histories and their contexts. The traditional topics in the human sciences should be treated as part of the ensemble of social relations which make up human nature in any epoch.

Similarly, the boundaries between disciplines need to be transcended — or at least made more flexible and interactive, e.g., between personality theory, social psychology and sociology. Those between sociology, anthropology, economics and political science should, I think, be pretty well obliterated, since their function is to sequester the political from the economic from the social. Moving on, of course, it becomes apparent that education itself needs to be contextualised in two senses. The narrower one is that in the construction of curricula and research the relations between a topic, its origins, its history and its setting need to be made as self-conscious and self-critical as can be managed. We need to grasp, n the same moment, the history of the problem and the problem in history. At a more fundamental level the boundary between education and educational institutions and the community and the contemporary forces and relations of production need to be addressed directly, not, as at present, largely implicitly and with mystifying mediations via grant-getting and sponsorship of teaching and research by various interested bodies. Critical studies of this kind are only beginning to emerge, for example, in research on the role of the Rockefeller Foundation in the creation of modern studies in human relations, primatology, medical research and education, molecular biology and agricultural research. Capital also controls through its generosity.

A very important arena for reconstitution is medicine and medical education. Knowledge and context, ‘public health’, ‘community medicine’ and the history of medicine (internalist and social) are currently frills for the most part, except in a few schools which have attempted a degree of integration. Anatomy still commands a far greater slice of the curriculum. A restructured sense of medicine would begin in practice in the community, apprenticed in industrial, social, nursing and medical work. The traditional high technology, physiology, biochemistry, pathology, pharmacology, etc. medicine would be learned in the context of health and diseases of living in a society whose structure is given as much attention as now gets devoted to the anatomy of the great toe. Put another way, the socio-economic system should loom as large as the neuro-endocrine one. As things now stand, the model — from which all else is down the pecking order — is hospital-based academic medicine (Real Medicine), an incredible hot house. Disease is rarely seen or treated in the context of a person’s life situation (Tate). In America, seeing a patient at home occurs very rarely, indeed, and in Britain the doctor who might se a person at home hands him or her over to a hospital or other specialist whenever advanced knowledge or facilities are needed. There are, of course, some heartening counter-tendencies: GP delivery units, community health centres, upgrading of general practice. But the basic separations and their blinkers remain, and in America they are steadily worsening in a nightmare of high technology, hospital-based centres (Houston).

I have sketched some beginnings in the human science of medicine just to give a taste of the changes which could be agitated for.

I am unrepentant about the fact that this section has been increasingly sketchy. One can only see so far beyond current practice. That is the strength of the dialectical relationship between theory and practice. This essay began with a crucial ambivalence about biologism — its stressing the limits of human nature at the same time that it extols the rewards of striving to do well within the given constraints. My argument has moved from the history of the narrowing and enriching aspects of the position via the boundary-transgressing phenomena of biofeedback which were treated by their advocates in an asocial way. Remove those blinkers and treat the putatively biological and medical levels as social. Then take seriously the historicity of human nature, and we begin to see what we’re up against if we want to change it. The drawing up of our own agenda for the transformation of human nature and the reconstitution of the human sciences and their institutional settings as theory and practice is one — albeit an important and neglected — moment in political struggle.

Just how little we can see over the horizon is an index of just how daunting the project is, just how entrenched and well institutionalised the existing reality is. But changing second nature — no matter how refractory it is — is possible, while changing a thoroughly biologised human nature is by definition impossible. I’d rather fail in the former project than give up in advance in the face of the latter one. ‘Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from King to Policeman, from flathead parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weakness of human nature. Yet, how can anyone speak of it today, with every soul in prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?’ (Emma Goldman, Anarchism, pp. 61-62).

I don’t know a soul that’s not been battered

I don’t have a friend who feels at ease

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

Or driven to its knees.

-Paul Simon, ‘American Tune’

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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