Think Piece

From the Chains of Fear: The God of Algorithms, Cold War (Ir)Rationality, and Agency Panic

by guest contributor Anna Grutza

By Anna Grutza

Anyone studying emotions in the early Cold War years and working on East-Central or Eastern Europe cannot do so without taking into account Stalinist and Communist purges and the penetrating fear enhanced by totalitarian regimes. Katherine Verdery, for instance, argues in Secrets and Truths that the use of fear and the creation of a permanent state of suspicion and insecurity were part of totalitarian structures of feeling and suggests that “the cultivation of affect is an important part of state-making” (p. 24). However, the other side of the coin often goes unnoticed: the role of the United States, as a victorious actor of the newly achieved Pax Americana, the protector of human rights, justice, pluralism and liberalism, and the self-proclaimed  liberator of Cold War Captives from the chains of fear and totalitarian slavery.

In the years following the Second World War, the United States and its scientists asserted, in opposition to the closed-minded society of totalitarian regimes, to be a free and open-minded society, one that grants particular autonomy to the self and can spread this freedom among the peoples of a global world. At the same time, as Ron Theodore Robin has shown in The Making of the Cold War Enemy, some scholars, like Harold D. Lasswell, regarded this autonomy of the self in the political arena as an uncertain variable that was prone to the errors and dangers of the irrational which could cause sudden outbursts of human aggressive impulses. In order to tame human irrationality, it had to be explained and controlled through “the mathematization of human behavior” (p. 71). Over time, this framework led to a scientific regime of calculation which informed a variety of realities -from psychological and mathematical experiments to rational choice theories, algorithms, machines, and agencies like RAND– and was implemented by a steadily growing expert elite of social scientists. While turning a blind eye on emotions, these soldiers of reason and their theories nourished what they were meant to prevent: the outbreak of both new and old socio-epistemological anxieties, the fear of losing human autonomy and agency, and the rise of “social pathologies” and disturbances in the form of paranoia, schizophrenia, and  “conspirativism”. How can we address the fact that, in a time when fear features so strongly among the effects of political and scientific repertoires, this emotion ended up slipping through the registers of the scientific community? How could fear – after Freud – simultaneously constitute both the politically desired and the discursively repressed emotion of the Cold War?

One way to answer this question is to look at the way in which Western narratives framed the Enlightenment and “processes of civilization”: although they are not necessarily irrational, emotions were and are often understood as the opposite of rationality, thus being posited as something that is inconceivable by the rational thought. It was especially with the Age of Enlightenment and its newly found faith in the rational that reason-endowed human beings have allegedly been called to set the boundary between reasoning and affect, rationality and emotions. By critically theorizing the concept of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno claim that “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters” (p.1).

According to Norbert Elias’ grand narrative of the civilizing process, this new type of mastery achieved by humankind was above all a self-mastery. As a close reading of Elias’ work suggests, in this process, fear and shame became not what mankind was supposed to be liberated from, but rather the controllers of certain socially unacceptable emotions, and hence, at the same time, what should be controlled. Norbert Elias claims that this transformation was not solely a product of human reason, rationalization or calculated long-term planning (p. 365). In his view, the civilizing process constitutes a progressive “interweaving of human impulses and strivings” which allows for social constraints to be converted into self-restraints (p. 366). Under the watchful eye of these guardians of self-compulsion, spontaneous human instincts, passionate impulses, and animalistic activities have been scrutinized and restrained thus resulting in habits of calculated and socially accepted behaviors. As Lucien Febvre noted in Sensibility and History, “the tendency grew stronger to look upon the emotions as a disturbance, as something dangerous, troublesome and ugly, […] something that ought not to appear naked” (p. 16).

Opposing these grand narratives and the Weberian idea of the “disenchantment of the world”, Ute Frevert argues in her co-edited book Emotional Lexicons that in “no respect did ‘enlightenment’ mean the reduction of individuals to their capacity of rational thought” (p. 12). For Frevert the Age of Enlightenment has been accompanied by a “thorough appreciation of emotions” like benevolent affections and sensibility. This does not imply, however , that, as Philip Rieff notes in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, our Western culture did not develop certain character ideals as “personifications of a release of a multitude of desires” and mastery over the enemy-self (p. 49). More important here is, as Frevert shows, the criticism moved by historians and anthropologists to the view of civilization as a linear process, which has been proved effectively to go against empirical evidence. In particular, turning to the 20th century, there “was little evidence of individual self-regulation and affective control in the violent excesses of that ‘age of extremes’” (p. 4)

Exactly this question why the “wall of deep-rooted fears” (p. 368) has failed in preventing the eruption of violence and aggression characterizing WWII has urged a totally new scientific and political regime of Cold War rationality into existence:

Cold War rationality in all its variants was summoned into being in order to tame the terrors of decisions too consequential to be left to human reason alone, traditionally understood as mindful deliberation. […] It frequently took the form of algorithms – rigid rules that determine unique solutions – which were moreover supposed to provide optimal solutions to given problems […]. And finally, at least ideally, advocates hoped that the rules could be applied mechanically: computers might reason better than human minds. (pp. 2ff.)

Hence, this type of ideal rationality emerged during the Cold War period in association with a new sense of anxiety, insecurity, and threat. Its advocates did not only try to educate human subjects to guard themselves from the affective side of their existence, but also looked for safeguards that could surpass the rationality of the human mind. Such more-than-human rational entities were expected to tame the “human factor” itself and thus, in the face of the nuclear threat, prevent irrational and disastrous decisions that could lead to the annihilation of humanity. This permanent Cold War anxiety did not just contribute to further nourish the old trust in former social guardians and in self-constraint through fear and shame. It called forth a regime of systematic and finally computerized surveillance which is based on the creation of both an external enemy and of fear, whose manipulation characterized US domestic politics since the McCarthy era.

 Passions do not constitute the only problematic point in debates over Cold War rationality.  Inconsistency, incommutability, and indeterminacy were also the source of contention as the new threshold between rationality and irrationality. According to the authors of How Reason Almost Lost its Mind, the core of these debates over Cold War rationality crystallized as a matter of mechanic principles: “whatever rationality was, it could be stated in algorithmic rules” (p. 30). Experts from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds -whether proponents of rational choice or game theory, behavioral studies or psychological experiments, – all confessed their new faith and paid homage to the God of numbers. Rationality became “rule-bound” to such an extent that well-defined sets of rules were expected to make any human reasoning finally obsolete (p. 39).

Although Erickson et al. do not speak in favour of a linear genealogy leading from the Enlightenment to Cold War rationality, Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s critique of the concept of Enlightenment in Dialectic of Enlightenment could not be more adequate in explaining the effects and consequences of an overall positivistic and algorithmic understanding of human rational actions and human behaviors. Echoing the new obsessions of Cold War rationality, Horkheimer and Adorno equally attack the Enlightenment’s “mathematical totalitarianism”:

The concept is replaced by formula, the cause by rules and probability. […] For the Enlightenment, anything which cannot be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, is illusion […]. Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. […] Nature, stripped of qualities, becomes the chaotic stuff of mere classification and the all-powerful self becomes a mere having, an abstract identity. […] For Enlightenment is totalitarian as only a system can be. […] Nature, before and after quantum theory, is what can be registered mathematically; even what cannot be assimilated, the insoluble and irrational, is fenced by mathematical theorems. (pp. 3 – 18).

Finally, in Horkheimer and Adorno’s view, this totalitarian regime of numbers risks replacing the transcendental subject as the last reminder of subjectivity “by the operations of automatic mechanisms of order, which therefore run all the more smoothly” (p. 23).

            Whether their criticism matches empirical and historical evidence is an open question. However, Horkheimer and Adorno bring into the discussion a crucial element and a fundamental actor: subjectivity, as defined through enlightenment discourses, and Sigmund Freud, the father of the subconscious. Like Norbert Elias, they focus on the Freudian understanding of drives, and, in contrast to Elias, they thereby differentiate between the pleasure-seeking and uncontrolled id-drive and the controlling ego-drive of self-preservation. Yvonne Sherratt has paid particular attention to the highly neglected, yet central influence of Freud’s ideas on Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s critique of the Enlightenment. In her article Adorno and Horkheimer’s Concept of Enlightenment, she argues that the enlightenment subject is “constituted by the pursuit of a strong ego” (p. 533f.) due to the enlightenment pursuit of  knowledge, social peace, security, and hence self-perseveration.

The problem posed by the constitution of an enlightenment subjectivity is then that this constitution is unstable as the predominance of the ego-drive can only exist “at the expense of the id” (p. 536) and the experience of pleasure. This constitutes an impoverishment in subjectivity; the subject’s drive remains without an object and hence “satisfaction is obtained from illusion” as an alternative object. At this moment, the subject ceases to discriminate between internal and external, between myth and reality, falling back into the stage of infantile narcissism. What follows as a result is the state of actual delusion, when illusion “becomes the substantive meaning” (p. 537). Illusions therefore “come to replace reality not merely as a source of pleasure but as a source of this kind of meaning” (p. 537).

In his book Empire of Conspiracy, Timothy Melley has thoroughly elaborated on the various kinds of US-American nervousness, delusions, sinister conspiracies, and cultures of paranoia. In the early Cold War years, through the scientific laboratories at RAND, Harvard, or Princeton University ideas emanated not only about open-mindedness but also about the subtle machineries of mental influence. Thus, they produced and circulated “half-hidden thought-control nets” embedded in what Melley defines as systems of communication (p. 2), in contrast to particular human agents, which were believed to disable rational self-control. Stirred up by newly gained scientific knowledge and the alleged powers of algorithmic supremacy, these fantasies and nightmares resulted in a crisis of human autonomy and a paradoxical agency panic – the fear of a constantly diminishing individual agency in the face of delusions, through which “a supposedly individualistic culture converse[d] its individualism by continually imagining it to be in immanent peril” (p. 6).

Regarding these manifestations of the unconscious, one could suppose that psychology and psychoanalysis could have functioned as a counter-force opposing discourses on control and threat as they emerged in the social sciences in post-war America. However, according to William Reddy and his account on the history of emotions in The Navigation of Feeling, in psychology “emotions drew little attention” since “behaviourists and later cognitive psychologists working in the lab did not, until after 1970, see any way to approach them” (p. 316). Similarly Jamie Cohen-Cole notes in his article on The reflexivity of cognitive science that psychology has been strongly influenced in its initial phases by the premises of behaviorism, operationalism, and positivism. Although the field was strongly divided, the belief “that human behavior was determined by the environment and could be described completely by stimulus-response chains” prevailed (p. 113). The American psychologist Silvan Tomkins, for example, displays in his affect theory a fascination with information theory and cybernetics, as described by Adam Frank and Elizabeth Wilson,: “In Tomkins’s model, the human being becomes a loose, complex assemblage, structured and motivated by information flows and feedback between numerous mechanisms” (pp. 141f.). Coming back to the initial question: How could this decisive emotion called fear slip almost unnoticeably through the registers of early Cold War scientific inquiry? One might try to conclude with the title of an article written by Ruth Leys asking “How did fear become a scientific object and what kind of object is it?”  Leys suggests that, as part of nonintentional explanation schemes, fear did not totally disappear but remained reduced to a mere function within multiple feedback loops. Following Tomkins, the functioning of human emotions like fear resembled the fantasy of a machine with “hard-wired, reflex-like ‘affect programs’ located in the subcortical parts of the brain” (p. 68). Leys explains the success of this nonintentional paradigm of emotions because of its “objective approach to affects; its solidarity with evolutionary theories of the mind [and] the promise it holds for surveillance experts” (p. 88). For any intentionalist approach to emotions a thick description of single life experiences is indispensable but “widely held to be inimical to science” (p. 89).

The reasons for the success of the nonintentional paradigm of emotions also reveals an important aspect: whether in totalitarian regimes or in democratic states, state-making was and will continue to be concerned with the cultivation, regulation and rationalization of emotions and affect. “Seeing like a state” means, as James Scott argues, to build a rational order upon visual schemes favoring their rapid legibility and simplification. Positivism and a fierce trust in numbers can produce thereby a regime on the verge of becoming totalitarian – a totalitarianism, in which science serves political rationales and which reduces human spontaneity by atomizing human affective reactions into algorithms and stimulus-response chains. This framework, in fact, produces as its corollary, a loss in terms of human subjectivity and thus a reverse effect of unintended agency panic. The fruit of these chains of fear is then not liberty and autonomy of the self but rather the terror of delusion and the relapse of the human psyche into myth.

Anna Grutza is a PhD Candidate in Comparative History at the Central European University in Budapest / Vienna. In her dissertation she focuses on Cold War truth regimes and questions of epistemology. She works on the intersection between history of Cold War social sciences, political history and the history of emotions. Her most recent article is entitled “Cold War (Post-)Truth Regimes: Radio Free Europe between ‘States of Affairs’ and the Epistemology of Hope and Fear”.

Featured Image: Auguste Rodin. Psyche. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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