Book Review: “The Democratic Surround” — Exploring the Makings of Mass Experience

Fred Turner’s counterintuitive and subtle argument in The Democratic Surround draws a direct line between the design of museum exhibitions and the Be-Ins of the Summer of Love.

The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties by Fred Turner, University of Chicago Press, 376 pages, $32.50.


By Debra Cash

The history of ideas is intellectual archeology, and Stanford professor Fred Turner is a man with a well-whetted pickaxe and an arsenal of delicate brushes. His 2008 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture challenged the then-ascendant assertion that the internet’s style of open information sharing was sui generis, and that the economic relations the boom of the 1990s was generating were not only “disrupting” existing markets (which was evident) but discontinuous with everything that had come before. (Systematic deregulation happening in global financial markets at the same time stayed under the enthusiasts’ radar.) Discontinuity meant that nothing anyone knew had any predictive utility. We were all flying by the seats of our pants. That was supposed to be a good thing.

But looking back a few decades, Turner located a striking precursor to the internet: the design and outlook of The Whole Earth Catalog Stewart Brand’s hippie classic, with its cut and paste graphics and analog printing (subsidized with a portion of Brand’s hefty, non-countercultural inheritance) may seem quaint now. Yet in 1968, Brand’s compendium of pointers and open access to DIY instructions modeled hyperlink access to information before the digital era. The catalog’s communitarian ethic provided a conceptual and intellectual foundation that has been absorbed and expanded by both the proponents of Open Source computing and today’s warriors for net neutrality.

Any archeologist worth his or her salt keeps digging down through the strata. The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties looks at how the mass media of the 1960s had unseen roots in the ideas of emigre artists and cultural theorists displaced by European totalitarianism. Turner is interested in the determinants of mass experience. Unlike Marshall McLuhan, he is less interested in how mid-20th-century broadcast and advertising technologies came to be than how Americans experienced events designed for mass edification. Turner’s counterintuitive and subtle argument draws a direct line between the design of museum exhibitions and the Be-Ins of the Summer of Love.

The first part of The Democratic Surround describes the stunned puzzlement of American intellectuals during the 1940s and early post-war years as they tried to come to terms with the attractions and success of fascism. Understanding the conditions for winning on the battlefield was one thing, but how had so many people fallen under the spell of totalitarian beliefs in the first place? And could it happen here again? (After all, in 1939, American fascists filled Madison Square Garden for an anti-Semitic rally.)

They found at least one discernible enemy in the form of mass media. Mass media, it seemed, was totalizing media. The overwhelming Gesamtwerk of Nazi propaganda — think Hitler standing at the microphone in a stadium stage-managed by Goebbels to reinforce images of the Reich’s power and prestige — somehow turned people into heiling automatons, convinced that to melt into a crowd of volk was glorious. Hitler had written in Mein Kampf that the masses would more readily fall victims to the Big Lie than to the small lie. (Turner doesn’t spend any time unpacking the alternative explanation that instead of being unthinking, the German populace was in agreement with the vision Hitler was putting forth, although he must be aware that other intellectuals and historians have spent their entire careers sifting through the determinants of that possibility.)

Author Fred Turner

Author Fred Turner — a man with a well-whetted pickaxe and an arsenal of delicate brushes.

What was needed was a form of expression — a medium, if you will — that would create the conditions for individuation. Democracy depended on the ability “to listen to the radio, watch a movie, or wander among a roomful of sounds and pictures [and to] rehearse the perceptual skills on which political life — fascist or democratic — depended.”

Frankfurt School philosophers, in particular Theodor Adorno, and the design practitioners of the Bauhaus, especially László Moholy-Nagy and graphic designer Herbert Bayer, along with a few American psychologists and social scientists including Harvard’s Gordon Allport and anthropologist Margaret Mead came up with an alternative. Using practices pioneered by the Bauhaus in Germany, designers could create immersive experiences in which “individuals reach out into an array of images and knit them back together in their own minds.” They might be guided but they would not be controlled. If done effectively, open-ended perceptual activity would bend the individual and ultimately society in democratic directions. It was this “multi-media” experience (or perhaps, more accurately, multivocal media experience) that Turner calls “the democratic surround.”

While these ideas may seem rarified, Turner’s writing isn’t. If anything, he tends towards repetition that recasts points he has already made just in case his reader didn’t catch them the first time. Turner’s explanation of how these different streams of thinking came together in post-war America will be debated by specialists. His examples, however, will fascinate even the casual reader.

Social scientists and designers came together in government-funded projects such as Road to Victory at the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibit of wartime morale-building attracted 80,000 people during the summer of 1942. They went on to create the blockbuster Family of Man exhibition of more than 500 photographs. That show was seen by 7.5 million people between 1955 and 1965, and immortalized in a book that was a coffee table staple in liberal homes for literally decades. (My Midwestern Jewish family owned a copy.)

Some of the artistic and ideological decisions shaping these exhibits were overt: the artists, curators and sponsors discussed them among themselves. Others are easy to recognize only in hindsight. Turner is smart enough to explain how, for instance, Road to Victory conveyed one overt message — the necessary victory over fascism — while it conveyed another, more problematic latent one — that America stood at the center of the world and that world peace depended on that centrality. Turner is particularly good at explicating the way museum goers were led on a “journey” through each exhibition space, an embodied perspective that is usually absent in intellectual histories.

Family of Man

Family of Man Exhibition, 1955. Photo: Edward Steichen.

I found new details in Turners’ explanation of how radical composer John Cage’s work fit into this urgent debate about the requirements for democratic citizenship. I’ve read a lot about John Cage over the years (and was lucky enough to hear him give his Norton lectures at Harvard). It’s a commonplace now that Cage proposed that all forms of sound could be experienced as music. But Turner goes further, explaining that Cage was building on a then-current idea that “individuals need not enjoy unlimited choices. Rather, they needed to enjoy unimpeded access to the process of choosing [italics Turner’s] from the possibilities arrayed before them.” Understanding Cage (and ultimately Merce Cunningham’s) commitment to chance and indeterminacy takes on a deeper coloration when seen as a liberal response to the dangers of control. Turner is also good, if less original, on how Cage’s own biography — his life as a closeted gay man, his response to the Japanese and Chinese traditions that had so recently been classified as enemy culture — informed his idiosyncratic achievement.

In his book’s introduction, Turner admits that his story doesn’t include many women or minorities. He misses a step, though, when his narrative takes it for granted that intellectuals based in academic citadels didn’t see anything to admire in “protofascist” personality types. Turner surely knows that 1943 gave us The Fountainhead and 1957 Atlas Shrugged. In The Democratic Surround, the rise of HUAC and McCarthyism gets a tangental mention, primarily as a threat to the high-minded aspirations of Turner’s main characters. Nonetheless, just because some highly-placed intellectuals were promoting what they saw as a renewed universalism doesn’t mean the authoritarian mind didn’t command its own simultaneous stage. We’re still playing out the tensions of those two irreconcilable worldviews. For the historian of ideas, William Faulkner’s epigram couldn’t be more apt: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts and cultural venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she is a two-time winner of the Creative Arts Award for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and will return to the 2014 Bates Dance Festival as Scholar in Residence.

c 2014 Debra Cash


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