The Sinister Science of the Human Betterment Foundation and a Rhetoric of Motives by Katherine Swift, San Diego State
This is a graduate student submission to the 7th Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society.
My research was conducted at the Institute Archives of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena where I examined the original documents of E. S. Gosney and the Human Betterment Foundation, and the Historical Files on Biology Division. Caltech is the holder of Gosney’s effects since, as founder of the Human Betterment Foundation, he had its real estate holdings transferred to the university’s biology department in 1942, making Caltech an endowment worth more than $470,000. This money was used to create the Gosney Research Fund, which provided scholarships to students in Caltech’s biology and biochemistry departments with a focus on behavioral biology. The Human Betterment Foundation Papers (or HBF) represent an original eugenic archive that offers a rare look into California’s sterilization program and the dialectics of the nature-versus-nurture debate in eugenic rhetoric. Burke’s idea of identification and the embodied symbolicity of the scapegoat form the basis for an exploration of a rhetoric of motives in eugenic technocracies premised on social improvement through social control.
Interestingly, the same root word “gene” used in the creation of the word “genocide” (Black, 402) was previously employed by Francis Galton to form the term for technologies of human breeding he dubbed “eugenics,” or the science of the well-born. Scientistis such as Galton, Huxley and Davenport spawned an international forum for improving human heredity known as the “eugenics movement” at the turn of the 19th century. Premised on the biologically determined nature of human beings, and the belief that, thus, race and mental hygiene could solve social problems, eugenic scientists set an inexorable course for the death camps of Nazi Germany.
American eugenicists were behind three major policy initiatives of the early 20th century. For example, they maintained that the “race suicide” of Anglo-Americans could be prevented through laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage. Likewise, eugenicists campaigned for immigration restriction quotas to stem the tide of foreign genes into the U.S. Perhaps their most controversial measure called for the compulsory sterilization of all those of unsound mind or body. Eugenicists believed that sterilization protected society from the “menace of the feebleminded” through the practice of mental hygiene. That the targets of mental hygiene tended to be the socially marginalized only served as further evidence of their “social inadequacy.” Sterilization was thought to relieve schizophrenia and depression, and prevent the spread of mental illness by curtailing the birth of “eugenically undesirable children.” To quell criticisms of California’s sterilization laws, the HBF undertook an ambitious study of the results of California’s experimental program in order to document the “physiological and mental effects of sexual sterilization” on mental patients (Harry H. Laughlin Papers, D-2-3:24). These technical reports concluded that sterilization was therapeutic for mental patients and prophylactic for society.
The technical papers of the Human Betterment Foundation (HBF) marks the intersection of science and public policy and the fostering of national identity through the terministic screens of science, medicine, and public health. The HBF’s collaboration with the Department of Mental Health resulted in the sexual sterilization of 20,000 Californians deemed insane and feebleminded. Less well-known is the HBF’s collaboration with Nazi race hygienists. When the Berlin Imperial Minister of Justice sent out copies of its updated sterilization law to German officials in January of 1934, it appended along with it a translated copy of one of the HBF’s pamphlets in order to proved additional background information (E.S. Gosney/HBF Papers, Box 1.6 and 21.7). That HBF eugenic programs were initially paralleled by Nazi eugenic programs is more understandable when considered in light of the fact that Hitler’s national hygiene legislation, whose preliminary targets were also mental patients and the physically disabled, began “after careful study of the California experiment under Mr. Gosney and Dr. Popenoe” (E. S. Gosney/HBF Papers, box 5.15).
As new discoveries in genetics dispelled older theories of biological inheritance, eugenicists found themselves at impasse in the nature vs. nuture debate. This ideological crisis was further compounded by the revelation of Nazi race hygiene atrocities at the conclusion of the war. Eugenicists viewed with rising alarm the erosion of their scientific ethos and Gosney and others realized that it was necessary to disassociate themselves from their former Nazi colleagues if they wished to regain their standing as technocratic experts for the public good. Therefore, eugenicists switched ideological emphasis from genetics to psychobiology, navigating out of the terrain of strict hereditarian ideology and into the terrain of sociobiology and behavioral biology. When Gosney passed away in 1942, he willed the proceeds of the HBF to Caltech’s developing behavioral biology program stipulating that the money be used to “research the biological basis of human qualities” (E.S. Gosney/HBF Papers box 4.2).
The HBF’s successor in Caltech’s behavioral biology department would continue to conduct research into the treatment of mental illness through psychosurgery. In 1934, Caltech hired two neurophysiologists from the Netherlands to investigate the treatment of mental illness by the novel technique of passing an electrical current through the human brain. Known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), this form of experimental psychosurgery could also result in spinal fractures, heart attacks, memory loss, and a vegetative state on a par with a lobotomy. To redress such problems, the Caltech team pioneered another form of ECT in which the injection of a paralyzing agent prior to electroshock produced milder bodily convulsions. At the right settings, this form of ECT was eventually refined to induce anesthesia or somnolence in the patient and was dubbed “electronarcosis.”
Like their cohorts at the HBF, Caltech scientists worked in conjunction with the Department of Mental Health to conduct experimental research on California’s mental patients (Kay 98). Such research would have political repercussions at another institution thousands of miles away when a group of Canadian patients sued the U.S. government for non-consensual human experimentation. Canada’s infamous “sleep room” experiments conducted at Quebec’s Allan Memorial Institute in the 50s and 60s, resulted in permanent brain damage to scores of patients (Collins 1). However, survivors were not to discover they were the victims of experimental electronarcosis until investigations into intelligence abuses during the fallout from Watergate revealed the existence of a top-secret CIA program called MKULTRA (Collins 25 – 27).
Headed up by a Caltech chemist named Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA’s Technical Service Staff (TSS) was responsible for behavioral modification through the covert administration of chemical, biological, and radiological substances on unwitting human subjects (Marks 60). A CIA cutout called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology (SIHE) funded electronarcosis experiments at the Allan which attempted to wipe clean the human psyche by “depatterning” patients in order to re-program them with alternative behaviors (Collins 130 – 135). Depatterning was followed up with pre-recorded taped messages played ceaselessly under the pillows of heavily narcotized patients for weeks (and sometimes even months) at a stretch in a technique called “psychic driving.” Ostensibly, the purpose of the tape-recorded messages was to “reprogram” patients sans mental disorders by implanting hypnotic suggestion (Collins 128 – 133). That such treatments left many of them incontinent, drooling human vegetables did not deter the doctors from performing what the CIA called “terminal experiments” (Marks 35).
During the Doctor’s Trial at Nuremberg, the revelation that Nazi scientists had practiced medical experiments responsible for the death and mutilation of concentration camp victims gave rise to the Nuremberg code. The Code decreed that involuntary human experimentation was a violation of human rights. Burke points out that the rise of a “sinister science” in political regimes is often predicated on subsuming universal principles of scientific clarity and fairness to the exigencies of national security. The rhetoric of science and technology can thus take on a divisive and conspiratorial nature which can function in the service of obscure political agendas (A Rhetoric 35).
Nationalist rhetoric makes “use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (A Rhetoric 43). The HBF’s call for a surgical solution to mental abnormality in the American populace focused the problem squarely on the indigent, the infirm, women, immigrants, and other racial minorities, and demonstrates how technical papers can be used to foster a purified national identity. Eugenicists employed a technocratic rhetoric designed to discern, divide, and delete the “socially unfit”, people who presented the necessary corollary in a genetic cosmology comprised of the eugenic “us” versus the dysgenic “them.”
However, one of the problems with a genetic social order is that, in negating the ethical and dialectical dimensions of social relations, science reduces the dialectic sphere of human actions to the empirical sphere of human motions (A Rhetoric 186, A Grammar 61). The human sciences too often succeed in denying the relevance of dialectical and metaphysical issues lying at the heart of social relations by blaming personal and sexual neuroses on the individual. This serves to mystify social relations by using psycho-sexual terms to suggest that neuroses are the fault of the individual rather than the social order which engenders them. Burke’s comparison of rhetoric and psychology ascribes the shortcomings of the latter to the fact that what it deems a sublimation of motives is, in fact, a dialectic of motives. Dialectical motives are “implicit in the nature of language” (A Rhetoric 279) since it is a symbol-system used to facilitate human interactions through mediation of “the parliamentary jangle” (189). The dialectical motive is predicated upon a meta-rhetorical reality drawing on universal standards of justice as well as personal principles of “self-interference” in persuasive appeal, which hold in check and guide human cooperation (280). The psychological sublimation of motives, on the other hand, is predicated upon a materialistic reality grounded in idiosyncratic self-interests in a quest for perpetual personal advantage (276).
Burke contends that the human sciences fail to distinguish,
[d]ialectical factors at the very center of realism. Here, implicit in our attitudes toward things, is a principle of classification. And classification in this linguistic, or formal sense is all-inclusive, “prior” to classification in the exclusively social sense. The “invidious” aspects of class arise from the nature of man not as a “class animal,” but as a “classifying animal.” (283)
Burke’s nuanced examination of the shortcomings of science as a human meaning system notes that it employs a reductive terminology that attempts to exclude the metonymic principle of poetic realism (A Grammar 507), a fact that distracts attention from science’s precondition in poetry. The absence of poetry in science is indicative not so much that poetry is a flawed meaning system so much as science must stand in relief to poetry in order to establish its very line of inquiry. While the behaviorist views a blush as a series of biochemical motions precipitated by an environmental stimulus, the poet views the blush as a dialectic act prefiguring the spectrum of human communicative interactions (A Grammar 507).
The possibilities for transcendence are negated in a socio-scientific perspective that perceives the meaning of human behavior in the reductive terms of stimulus/response. Burke contends that such scientific reductionism cannot account for the cognitive/linguistic function of human action, for, in trying to understand complex behavior through analysis to its constituent parts, behavioral science only ends up confronting “the paradox of substance in a terminology unsuited to the illumination of this paradox” (A Grammar 60). This error is compounded by the fact that science tends to confuse scenic terms (instinct, drives, urges, brain) for agent terms (meditation, purpose, desires, mind). Scenic terms may “seem more ‘real’” than their dialectical counterparts, but they ultimately “serve as a rhetorical deflection of social criticism” (A Grammar 49).
The rhetoric of motives in socio-scientific technocracies suggests that the deflection of social criticism lies at the heart of eugenic social control campaigns. It relegates the social function of class to the empirical sphere of the rigid and bureaucratic rather than the dialectical sphere of the hierarchic and transcendent, and calcifies human social interactions by substituting poetic realism for scientific realism (A Rhetoric 186, A Grammar 506). Thus it successfully disguises social control for social improvement and creates a dyslogistic rhetoric that must find recourse in a social scapegoat.