Free As We Need To Be

Harold Fromm

Sometime around the year 2006 I began to realize that the trajectory of my environmental thinking and writing for over forty years had come to form a pattern, generated as much by life experiences as by scholarship and world events. When it all clicked in my head to produce an aha! moment, I decided to collect some of my earlier as well as more recent writings, add newly composed pieces for the occasion, and engineer them all into a book with a teleology. This became The Nature of Being Human: From Environmentalism to Consciousness (Johns Hopkins UP, 2009). The earliest (and most generative) of the chapters, which had appeared in the Yale Review in 1976, was “On Being Polluted” and the final chapter, newly written for the book in 2007, became “My Life as a Robot.” How did I get from being polluted to being a robot? What could it possibly have to do with bioculture, human “freedom,” and the legal system? And why should anybody care?

“On Being Polluted” marked a major transitional node in my life, the start of a passage from a certain type of innocence (i.e., ignorance) to an unforeseen type of experience that changed everything. After a teaching career at universities in the Midwest, followed by two years in the English Department at Brooklyn College, I returned to the Midwest in 1970 with my wife Gloria to settle on a five acre farmette fifteen miles south of Gary, Indiana, in the greater Chicagoland area. In those days of environmental ignorance, although we were surrounded by bucolic farms on every side, how could I have known that we had moved from the frying pan of metro New York City’s soot and smog (domestic garbage and trash were still being burned in incinerators in every apartment house) into the very inferno of steel mill pollution that suffused all of Chicagoland? It produced psychological as well as physiological effects that were pretty dire, even as we were surrounded by people who had lived in the area all their lives but were capable of asking, “What pollution?” When I say dire I don’t mean the routine whinings of pampered bourgeois but measurable damage to the everyday life of the body and the psychological states that it generates, except that measuring devices for mind and body had not yet progressed very far in 1970. Because the locals were thriving on wages from the steel mills, the red skies of Gary were still viewed as a sign of some sort of “health,” although it became clear to us that it was a type of “health” apt to lead to disease and death. Think of smokers experiencing years of pleasure and well-being until they are hit by lung cancer, and steel mill workers living the good life until sulfur dioxide, toxic smoke, and heavy metals erupt from years of silent gestation as debilitating or terminal pathologies. Today, the latest stories of “delayed damage” report dementia from brain concussions in football players to kidney failure in bodybuilders on steroids. The diseases that really matter sometimes take many years to develop.

After four agonized years of physical and psychological debilities, we moved as far as we could across Chicagoland to the farthest northwest suburbs beyond O’Hare, a major improvement but by no means an escape, an early clue that no total escape was possible anywhere in contemporary industrialized societies. By then, we had become sensitized canaries in a vast coal mine extending from south of Gary to well north of Madison, Wisconsin, and, ultimately, to the North Pole and we were probably regarded as crazies by friends who claimed not to be “bothered” by air pollution. Today, however, there are almost weekly news reports about carcinogenetic tobacco smoke, hamburgers causing hemolytic uremic syndrome from tons of ground beef mixed together from all over the world and poisoned by a smidgen of E-coli, aquifers and large water supplies made toxic by herbicide, pesticide and petrochemical run-off, Chinese drywall outgassing a cocktail of hydrogen sulfide and formaldehyde.

The upshot of the Gary years was a newfound sense of being driven by forces seemingly unrelated to my imperial “self,” formerly known as “man’s unconquerable mind.” Already in 1983 I wrote, “After Darwin, Marx, and Freud, the arena of human freedom has come to seem painfully shrunken. And after contemporary environmental studies, even less remains. But recognition of environmental constraints upon our behavior can at least inform our options, as we come to see how many ‘choices’ are actually made for us by the nature of things” (“Air and Being: The Psychedelics of Pollution”). This, from my pre-evolutionary salad days, was not simply some second-hand scholarly smoke from books but a foreboding outcry of guts and brain-cells.

By the time I met Cheryll Glotfelty (then Burgess) around 1989, lots of toxic experience had passed through my sensorium, and our co-production of The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology in 1996 along with the establishment of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) set off a humanistic turn to environmentalism that gradually made its way into the academic mainstream after the obligatory professional resistance that greets most new paradigms. Now, in 2010, the Reader is still in print, has sold around ten thousand copies, and has achieved canonical status even while being supplemented and updated by vast numbers of collections and monographs related to literature and the environment. Yet even these, with their false distinction between homocentrism and biocentrism, too often cling to an anti-evolutionary Cartesian dualistic belief in man’s unconquerable mind, a mind somehow unattached to a body “selected” over millions of years for survival.

The next major landmark en route to ”My Life as a Robot” was the meeting of ASLE in Flagstaff in 2001, where Joseph Carroll gave a talk distilling the insights of his 1995 magnum opus Evolution and Literary Theory (long since superseded by his later work). The impact was great, the merged insights of Darwinism and environmentalism opening doors that transformed my own mental ecology. Now the effects of the environment that had occupied my attention up until that time had to be traced back to a time millions of years before present day industrialism and, ultimately (though beyond my ken) to the Big Bang itself. Fourteen billion years ago it had determined the composition of the Earth formed ten billion years later, a composition that is the prime matter from which Homo sapiens derives its bodily and psychological nature. Inevitably, the focus on natural selection (which can “select” only from what is available) and on behavioral ecology (the study of how human survival is related to the environment of any given time) led me more and more into the provinces of social science, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary philosophy.

As the “environment” and “me” became less distinct, more interwoven, and eventually a unity, the sense of my own autonomy, already progressively weaker, began to evaporate altogether. Not only had “I” been badly affected by the toxicity of the post-industrial-revolution of modern life, but the very composition of “I” had been established millions of years ago: a certain type of evolved body and brain living on a certain type of evolved material planet was producing a certain type of 21st century evolved human behavior, in a certain congeries of materiality subsumed under the identity of my name! “My” likes and dislikes, my health, my thoughts, were attuned to a given matrix of which “I” was not the only true begetter. Moreover, as the influence of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and the philosophy of consciousness grew stronger and stronger in my mental life, the absurdity of the folk-psychological belief in a spook known as the “self” that somehow lived its life according to decisions aloof from the body seemed more bizarre and preposterous than ever. With billions of neuro-transmissions controlled by no master helmsman (Nobody’s home, Daniel Dennett told us), the self was little more than a virtual TV screen upon which played the projections of a seemingly stochastic stream of mental images conventionally known as consciousness. Did “I” choose what images and programs were appearing on the TV screen in my head? (And “choose” itself should be in scare quotes.) Did “I” have a clicker that could change the channels of my consciousness? That could switch me from the food and sex channels to the Jesus channel? (Not even Catholic priests, wired into the same evolutionary system as I, can pull off that sort of autonomy. ) When I had a bright idea or when I awaited inspiration for my writing, was it “I” who autonomously produced their content? What could it mean to have an “aha!” moment if it is one’s “self” that produces it?

So “consciousness” should be put in scare quotes too, since it is only a virtual effect, with no independent locus or existence. (Eric Kandel, in his wonderful autobiography, In Search of Memory, relates with irony how his futile physiological search for an id, ego, and superego led him out of psychiatry into neuroscience and ultimately to a Nobel prize for his work on memory storage.) The obvious mood-altering forces of daily life give away the show: everything we eat, inhale, feel is chemically based and we are shaped and driven at every microsecond by their workings. No matter how sublime our personalities, how cosmic our godlike Reason, our moods change every few minutes depending on what’s left of the fuel supply from breakfast and the pressures of urination and bowel movements, testosterone, estrogen, the anxiety of getting to our jobs late on a busy freeway, the fear that our spouse is making out with someone else. From the circadian rhythms that produce our wakefulness and sleepiness to the effects of caffeine, alcohol, nuts, tomatoes, sugar and fat, fava beans, red meat (not to mention E-coli, melamine, and pesticides in our foods), to the dramatic workings of sunlight on our moods, to facial expressions and words from other people that alter our mental program, to sexual drive and its transient effects on our psycho-physiology before and after satisfaction as well as on the larger organization of our lives, there is not a moment that has not already been bespoke for “us.” In sum, the deepest workings of our own bodies (from a fit of rage to alcohol-induced amorousness) are unbeknownst to us, until we are diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, or terminal cancer and discover what has really been taking place. (See Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves.)

Although resistance to such ideas is to be expected from a general population that barely believes in evolution, it’s not just among the uneducated. I recently had a series of email exchanges with a retired psychiatrist who was reading my book. At first, he sent me a letter of high praise, but this was gradually retracted by a series of remorseful emails in which his psychoanalytic roots began to crave sprinkles of some of the old holy waters as he desperately kept trying to trick me into restoring the ghost back into the machine. Without a ghostly “self,” what was a shrink supposed to work on? “Can’st thou minister to a mind diseased?” he apparently wanted to know, once you take away the phantom matrix of Freudian-type beliefs. Even psychoanalysis needs to posit a self with powers of autonomy amidst its etiology, or what’s the point?

Once it is acknowledged that the ”autonomous self” is a non-entity, a pure virtuality run by a machine whose springs are being outed more and more by the neurosciences (though philosophers from centuries ago—bravo David Hume!— already suspected as much) we are confronted more than ever by the old worries about law and human responsibility. Not guilty in virtue of insanity—but guilty in virtue of sanity?

Or to put it another way, can the “sane” law-abiding or “sane” criminal citizen be “responsible” for the “choices” made by their imaginary selves, thereby warranting praise or blame, whereas the exonerated “insane” criminal alone is seen as driven by forces beyond his knowledge or power to control? The fully acculturated “good” citizen, having unwittingly internalized society’s rules and preferences, acts accordingly. But he certainly has not “chosen” to learn and obey. The citizen who commits anti-social crimes has encountered society’s rules too, but his course of action ignores them just as the smoker who knows full well the consequences of smoking is unable to act on that knowledge without an involuntary “aha!” moment (in which the sense of mortality suddenly hits like a ton of bricks) that chooses for him. In the case of criminals who are judged sane, why should they be punished for crimes that “they” didn’t commit, any more than culture heroes should be praised for brilliant insights that “they” didn’t devise? Without a self, there is nobody home to make choices entitled to praise or blame.

Injustice pervades all of human life and its institutions. We dislike people with ugly, mean, or evil-looking faces they didn’t create and we love them for physical beauty for which they have no responsibility whatever. Driven by evolved preferences, we assume that “they” are the creators of their own faces, bodies, and charm. Body-building, cosmetics, and face-tucks can do wonders but they have their limits in recreating an already-born person, who cannot be changed from the inside out—except by involuntary epiphanies that alter the text on the internal teleprompter. Sexual reproduction is a crapshoot that is apt on occasion to produce a Rush Limbaugh or a Barack Obama, the result of a chance mixing of genes from two parents. But in neither case did these men design themselves while waiting in the womb to be born.

So what can we poor robots do about self-alteration without a self to alter? What can we do about a justice system that can never be just except for the insane?

It’s been a long time since I believed and felt in my guts that my decisions were made by a spook known as Me. At eighteen, I felt autonomous, like the punk kid I saw on TV hauled by the police out of his boomboxing car for disturbing the peace. With reversed baseball cap, ripped and faded jeans falling below his butt, tattoos on his arms and a piercing in his nose, he complains to the cops—as the boombox blares today’s hit gangsta rap— “I’ve gotta express myself.” But we are told by the neurosciences that the human brain does not reach its mature development until one’s twenties. The reckless, swaggering, aggressive male teen years are a preeminent example of the tricks of evolution, a case of the mating mind, to borrow from Geoffrey Miller, that’s been programmed long in the past. Not at all for “self expression” but for producing offspring. And the female mind has its susceptibilities as well, exploited by romance paperbacks and emulation of movie stars. (Since Darwin, the orthodox view is that women call the mating shots.) With half a brain, are teens “responsible”? Are they “sane”? “Autonomous”? And we grownups with a whole brain? How does it feel (before senile dementia sets in) when the “autonomous self” comes to seem a long-lost illusion of youth and we recognize how much we are driven by forces beyond our reach? Does one then fall into pathological despair at the loss of a “freedom” we never had?

But why despair? Things continue to feel more or less the way they always did. One may know that the earth goes ‘round the sun but it feels nonetheless that the sun goes ‘round the earth and one continues to await the sunrise each morning and lament its setting, just as one did as an unreconstructed ignoramus. With intimations of transcendence now down the drain, is one suddenly trapped in fixity, a robot unchangeable and robotlike? Hardly. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the past fifty years has seen radical metamorphoses in all of us as a result of stunning social changes. Racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, women, animals, films, novels, our obscenity-peppered speech, tattoos, Viagra, the sciences, TV, the Web, 9/11, the Soviet Union, Wall Street and financial collapse, Obama and Michelle—are more examples really needed? How can we robots have been so flexible, so amenable to new knowledge, so morally sensitized? The changes are so great that many of us look upon senescent old-guard congresspersons, pundits, and TV personalities as if they were straight out of hell in their savage obtuseness, victims of their own sadly inflexible neural networks (which “they” didn’t choose). And even on the most personal level, how can I say that I have been trapped in fixity when one serendipity after another has enriched and expanded my life? What more could I possibly want? What could “free” possibly mean?

I have come to call these exogenous consciousness-altering cultural forces—which change us willy-nilly— by the ancient word “Rhetoric.” For the Ancients themselves, rhetoric was the art of persuasive speech, but I want to expand its sense to include persuasive forces in general: a word, a facial expression, a tone of voice, books, TV, films, the arts, periodicals, conversations, emails, twitterings, social networks, advertisements (the root rhetoric of modern times), historical events. Has there been more powerful rhetoric than the emotions generated by 9/11? By Princess Diana’s death? By George Bush in military gear shouting “Bring ‘em on”? By the election of Obama? The neurosciences have not yet been able to zero into the reason why some rhetoric changes our neuro-economy and other rhetoric produces merely nugatory effects. But they’re working on it.

What about the so-called justice system that regards only insanity justly, while it unjustly punishes sane people who are unable to make choices other than the choices that are made for them by their still inscrutable physiological and neurological economies? There is no possible way that everyone could be treated justly—and maybe the whole concept of “justly” is deficient in relation to the givens of evolutionary reality. Does that mean the entire system of justice should be trashed?

By no means! Civilization, or as we call it today, “Culture,” has taken the savage raw materials of billions of years and turned them into the complex societies and accomplishments that sustain (and sometimes kill) us today. Though I am unable to “express” my “self,” society is able indeed to express—that is, incarnate into multiple customs and forms—the raw materials of our nature. As persons, we learn and change as a result of the experiences derived from social life and the world of the arts and the sciences, refining some of our worst atavisms into more beneficent forms. Even if we have not chosen to do so, most of us who are reading these words are able to naturalize the lessons derived from social life and various forms of knowledge. Those of us who can’t benefit, through no fault of their own, are necessarily the victims of the transient culture they were unlucky enough to be born into. For civilization to continue, somebody must be punished, unless you want warlords roaming through the streets and terrorists blowing up the monuments of cultures. Every few years, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is revised, so that last year’s diseased or insane are sometimes revised into this year’s healthy and sane. Yesterday’s pariah becomes today’s culture hero. Birth control, formerly evil, is now a virtue. Women, formerly delicate damsels, now can be as tough as men. Not to mention that last year you were likely to be put into the slammer for marijuana possession but this year you can go into a store in California and buy some with impunity. These changes mean that we are punishing the “innocent” all the time in the guise of punishing the “guilty.” We will never be able to avoid injustice. But at the same time we need to face the reality that justice systems are the preservation of civilized life. Punishment is a form of rhetoric that sometimes causes the “right” neurons to fire and at others is totally ineffective or even retrograde, worse than the offense that provoked it. The real crime, if there is one, is to believe that any system of justice could ever be based on a fixed moral system or on ultimate cosmic meaning, except through the moral blackmail and unscrupulous ventriloquism of religious impersonations of the “divine.”

Society’s deception in nurturing the belief that we are psychologically, not just legally, responsible for our actions, even without the agency of a self, may be largely successful as a rhetorical ploy, whether just or unjust. Sometimes this rhetoric advances civilization (e.g. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement) and sometimes it sets it back (Hitler and the Holocaust, Bush-Cheney and the Iraq War). Though we personally don’t have a clue as to how certain environments, both external and internal, alter our bodies and brains—why air, water, chemicals, foods, drugs, words, sounds, pictures foster the illusion of choices being decided by a “me”—we attribute all sorts of powers to ourselves as a result of society’s rhetoric as it acts upon our own neurochemistry. But can we doubt that illusions—despite their perpetuation by such evils as the guillotine, the gas chambers, the blowing up of airplanes and twin towers, and the religious and political fantasies generating terrorism—can sometimes work for the common good?  As long as personal neurostructures and public cultures write the motivating texts we unwittingly read from our internal teleprompters, it would be a mistake to underestimate the force of the myriad rhetorics of social and mental life.

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