Thursday, January 9, 2014

Fred Turner's "The Democratic Surround"

Fred Turner is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University and Director of Stanford’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. He is the author of three books: The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (2014); From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006); and Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory (1996; 2001).

Turner applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Democratic Surround and reported the following:
In the mid-1960s, from Greenwich Village to San Francisco, young bohemians gathered in dance halls and art galleries. Under swirling lights and psychedelic slide shows, surrounded by walls of amplified sound, they opened themselves to what they imagined was a new way of being – personal, authentic, collective and egalitarian. By immersing themselves in media, they believed, they could become new kinds of people and with luck, make America a new kind of country too.

The Democratic Surround is the first book to explore the surprising roots of the counterculture’s faith in the power of multimedia – in, of all places, World War II propaganda. As page 99 shows, mid-century Americans feared that mass media such as movies and radio could literally turn people into fascists. One look at Germany proved the point, so many thought. How else could a martinet like Adolf Hitler have taken control of one of the most cultured nations in Europe if he hadn’t been able to manipulate the masses through the one-to-many technologies of film and radio? As World War II got under way, American intellectuals and government leaders faced a dilemma: How could they use media to rally Americans to face down fascism without turning them into authoritarians? Page 99 describes one answer to this question – the long-forgotten “Exhibition X” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1940. The show was designed to be a multi-sensory propaganda environment, one in which visitors could practice the skills of selecting and integrating a wide variety of media into their own individual psyches. According to the leading psychologists of the day, this sort of integration would grant them democratic psyches and the nation as a whole, a unified, democratic populace that could stand up to the Nazis.

Exhibition X would have required an entirely new building at the Museum, at a cost of $750,000, and so it wasn’t built. But other multimedia environments were. In this prequel to my last book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, I show how American social scientists and Bauhaus artists came together during the war to build such environments, which I call “democratic surrounds.” The book then follows the deployment of those surrounds from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the New Bauhaus in Chicago and Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It shows how some of the most well known artists and intellectuals of the 1940s sought to build media environments that might liberalize the psyches of those who entered them. It then shows how their work shaped some of the most significant media events of the Cold War, including Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition, the musical performances of John Cage, and ultimately, the psychedelic Be-Ins of the 1960s.

The Democratic Surround thus rewrites the history of post-war American culture. It shows that the artistic and social radicalism of the 1960s emerged not so much from a generational rebellion against cold war America as from an embrace of its liberal ideals. During and after World War II, American liberalism offered a far more radical social vision than we remember now. As The Democratic Surround suggests, that vision underlies both the multimedia utopianism of the 1960s and our hopes for digital media today.
Learn more about The Democratic Surround at the the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue