The Democratic Surround I

On the theories of the Committee of National Morale and the Bauhaus movement in the United States.

I apologize if I was too over-broad in my notes in part iv, my sense of art history is weak.




“How can we prevent Fascism from growing in the United States?”

This was a central question in many American intellectual circles in the 20’s and 30’s. Their concern is more complicated because they doubted their own toolset – mass media propaganda, they suspected, was inherently authoritarian, a one-to-many system requiring its victims to passively absorb a singular message en masse.

Are there alternative tools for spreading liberal democratic thought?

And, importantly, what is the nature Fascism, and what’s so seductive about it?

The Democratic Surround is full of interesting sketches of the concerns and theories of the early 20th century. For example, I liked the Less Wrong ancestor, General Semantics, which tried to hack language to make listeners aware of the emotive power of language to flout proper reasoning. But I’m most interested in Turner’s broad thesis, about the effects of early 20th century authoritarian modernism on our modern culture.


Scientists are not dispassionate. Their ideologies shape what questions concern them and what they can see. It’s not surprising, then, that even without obvious coercion, a nation’s sciences (and social sciences) may tend to echo something about the national mood or assumptions.

20th century social science proved to be especially susceptible to this problem. Most of the most famous studies in psychology are clearly demonstrations of the horrors of conformity and the ineffectualness of the authoritarian model. Some of these studies, after a time, were found to have repeatability/validity problems. These things happen.

In the early 20th century, the idea of a “national character” was popular, and it became a staple of fascist rhetoric, tied up with scientific racism and social Darwinism. The fascists had a compelling story of destiny tied in the blood of the nation. To be clear, this idea was not special to the fascists- it was just part of their popular program.

Some influential American circles vehemently disagreed, searching for alternative theories to describe a “democratic personality”. The two dour schools of psychological thought of the day regarding personality were Freudian psychoanalysis and Skinnerian behaviorism.

Theories began to propagate describing people as interactants with their environment in a feedback loop, attempting to reconcile the idea of people as creative beings and of culture as a people-created, person-shaping force.

“The cultural anthropologists of the 1930’s had inherited a discipline in which biology seemed to explain social differences. In the late nineteenth century, social scientists had argued that geography had largely shaped the nature of culture and that evolution had caused some races to be more advanced than others. In the early years of the twentieth century, anthropologists had set out to challenge that account. Franz Boas led the charge.”

Franz Boas was so influential that his books were burned in the streets by the Nazis when they came to power. He showed that “Eskimos, Northwest Indians, and even immigrant populations in American cities undermined theories of racial purity and cultural superiority based on genetics.” Boas’ work also served as the platform for two of his students to “build a vision of a tolerant, democratic society”: Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa) and Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture), both of whom would echo well into the ’60’s:

  • Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa presented a alternative lifestyle that produced happy, healthy people living idyllically without many of the conservative cultural staples of Western civilization. “Mead’s Samoans took pleasure from parts of life and from social structures that would have caused their American counterparts grief. What made the difference in their response, Mead argued, was culture itself.” [The book also notes: “Reading Coming of age in Samoa today, it is easy to dismiss her accounts of island life as the starry-eyed misperceptions of a neocolonial scientist.”] But her book was deeply provocative, and presented the challenge of understanding how personalities and cultures shape one another.
  • Ruth Benedict also found non-Western cultures that functioned successfully despite their embrace of “sexual deviance.” Benedict saw individual personalities as malleable, and usually molded partially in the image of the culture they swim in. Certain traits are rewarded by the larger culture, and are cultivated in the individual. Individuals “strike an accommodation between their psychological needs and the institutions of their society”.

Similar thoughts were presented by Cora DuBois, Edward Sapir, Ralph Linton, Abaraham Kardiner, John Dollard, and Gordon Bateson. They all read and responded to Erich Fromm and the sociologists of the Frankfurt school, Harry Stack Sullivan, Karen Horney, Kurt Lewin, and Gordon Allport (all of whom are elaborated on in the early pages of The Democratic Surround).

By the early ‘40’s, the consensus emerged: “a democratic personality was psychologically whole and able to make rational, independent choices.”

Maslow, the positive psychologist famous for his Hierarchy of Needs: “The democratic person …  tends (in the pure case) to respect other human beings in a very basic fashion as different from each other, rather than better or worse. He is more willing to allow for their own tastes, goals, and personal autonomy so long as no one else is hurt thereby. Furthermore, he tend to like them rather than dislike them and to assume that probably they are, if given the chance, essentially good rather than bad individuals. […] We shall give the name ‘perception and appreciation of difference’ to the democratic way of viewing individual differences (in contrast with the authoritarian tendency to hierarchy. Here the stress is first of all on the fact that people are human beings and therefore unique and respectworthy [sic].”


“The authoritarian personalities of wartime Germany reflected the authoritarian structure of fascist society and, behind that, the authoritarian socialization practices in German culture. The American state would need to create structural conditions that could simultaneously sustain the individuality of its citizens and their power to act collectively toward the common good.” Actively participant citizens ought to be a part of government planning, and governments should prioritize the self-actualization of their citizens.

As I have already mentioned, during World War II there were serious misgivings in American intelligentsia about countering fascist propaganda with identical American propaganda through what might be inherently fascist media.

Rockefeller Foundation officer John Marshall assembled an influential group of communications researchers, to identify and combat fascist propaganda.

Marshall: “When millions of people, through the press, the radio, or the motion pictures, are all told the same, or approximately the same thing, at the same time, something relatively new in the history of communication happens… [Individual audience members experienced] some response, en masse.”

Margaret Mead: “We must fight and win the war as Americans, not as hastily streamlined, utterly inadequate, imitation Germans or Japs. It’s a safe bet that an attempt to make an American adult into an imitation of a Nazi soldier will produce something inferior to a Nazi soldier. We believe that the strength of those who are reared to freedom is greater than the strength of those reared in an authoritarian state.”

IV. Bauhaus and The Surround

Mead and her husband Gregory Bateson proposed an alternative: “they sought to teach Americans to make and review images and systems of images that would reveal the cultural character of alien others. In place of instrumental, message-driven modes of communication, they developed a theory of what I call surrounds- arrays of images and words built into environments that their audiences could enter freely, act spontaneously within, and leave at will.”

The visitor would choose their own pace, what to look at without a dictatorial narrator, they can “express their opinions of exhibits and their meaning, (eg. Voting for “best” picture at World’s Fair)”. A complete surround may involve pictures, sculpture, words, music, “engaging the whole personality” both in intellect and in emotion, without attempting to instrumentalize the visitor by pressing a view or an expected reaction from them.

While the Committee for National Morale had developed all of these theories, they ultimately needed to depend on another group who had direct experience with media technologies: the “refugee artists and designers of the Bauhaus.”

Bauhaus is now well known for its fusion of art and technology, and “for spawning the mass-produced modernism that dominated the design of much of American architecture, furniture, and advertising in the second half of the twentieth century.” At the time, though, they wanted to not just create a new kind of design, but also to create a new type of person, by cultivating communities of interdisciplinary designers in an increasingly industrialized/hyper-specialized world. They were coerced into shutting down in Germany after they were accused of spreading “communist intellectualism”.

This charge was not totally outlandish. Lasclo Moholy-Nagy, a prominent Bauhaus artist, was steeped in Russian Constructivist thought- “and with it, the notion that marking art meant making social revolution.” His artistic thought also drove his familiarity with machines. Moholy in 1922: “To be a user of machines is to be of the Spirit of the Century. Before the machine, everyone is equal …  this is the root of socialism, the final liquidation of feudalism.” When he taught at the Bauhaus from 1923-1928, he dabbled in new art tech: typographic montage, photography, and the sculptural powers of light. He believed that photography made it possible for a person to see objectively for the first time. Media technologies could extend the sense organs and facilitate reasoning and self-consciousness.

According to Moholy’s 1928 book The New Vision, primitive man had to use all of his senses constantly, but now that we are all specialized we cannot see reality as a whole. Moholy disliked the concept of mass media, and how it sought to constantly stimulate (and thus numb) its audience further. Bauhaus meant to challenge and change that, to give people a whole sense of themselves. The book is more of a collage, pictures looking down from high places or up from low ones, montages and text in different levels of boldness.

“Drawing on tactics first developed to challenge the visual and social chaos of industrial Europe, the Bauhaus artists built environments- in books, in museum exhibitions, in classrooms, and in their own photographs, paintings, and designs- that modeled the principles of democratic persuasion that were being articulated by American social scientists at the same moment. These environments became prototypes for the propaganda pavilions that the United States government would construct overseas throughout the Cold War. Ultimately, they helped set the visual terms on which the generation of 1968 would seek its own psychological liberation.”

Museum displays would hang images above or below the viewer’s line of sight, instead of at eye-level, giving them the choice to glance. Many Bauhaus techniques were interested in this “vertiginous aesthetic”, presenting displays that afforded self-directed viewing experiences. “If fascist communication worked instrumentally and molded individuals into a single, unthinking mass, these Bauhaus modes of seeing were designed to do the reverse: […] they demanded that individuals reach out into an array of images and knit them back together in their own minds.

The New Vision and the Bauhaus techniques followed Moholy to America in 1937 and took American photography and design by storm.


“Diagram of Field of Vision” by Herbert Bayer, a Bauhaus student and later instructor. He created large three-dimensional panoramas of artifacts to visit.


Herbert Bayer was influenced by “Moholy’s visual tactics and the Constructivist ideals they embodied”. He had also read “Wassily Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in which Kandinsky called for a new kind of art, one that would turn away from materialist concerns and toward the cultivation of spirituality in its makers and its audiences.” (Kandinsky would soon join the faculty at the Bauhaus). Bayer would head the typography workshop, creating the easily readable/printable “universal alphabet” that would become the Bauhaus font.

There were competing aesthetics in the fascist and soviet worlds, of course, often also incorporating large and surrounding images. El Lissitzky’s “The Task of the Press Is the Education of the Masses” was a much more chaotic sort of surround that Bayer was familiar with; on the other side of Bayer, Giuseppe Terragni’s gigantic mural for the 10th anniversary of the fascists march on the capital did all of the integration and symbolic interpretation for the viewer (ex. Painted crowds of individuals slowly morph, right to left along the wall, into turbines and then into disembodied hands in fascist salutes). To contrast himself from these techniques, Bayer compared himself to an author, who directs the reader’s attention but allows for textual interpretation from the reader. His images were slightly separate and also involve perceptual leaps to their neighbors.

Bayer, alongside Moholy and other Bauhaus faculty, left Germany in the late ‘30’s for America. [As the book characterizes it] a particularly economically depressed, “rampantly demagogic”, war-fearing, racist America. Bayer went to New York, Moholy to Chicago. Their new environment demanded new apologetic, new terms. “In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, aesthetic strategies rooted in socialist utopianism became tools with which to make a more democratic America.” Some of their work was seen, at first, as totally alien. Within a decade that was no longer the case.

I won’t talk much about sound but: the book argues that John Cage (of the infamous 4’33”) used a similar model for sound. “Cage worked to free his listeners from subjection to the emotional manipulation of classical and popular music.” He “freed sounds, performers, and audiences alike from the tyrannical wills of musical dictators. All tensions- between composer, performer, and audience; between sound and music; between the West and the East- had dissolved.” Cage himself did not relinquish all control- like Bayer, he relegated himself to a soft, managerial position.

My next set of notes on this book will be on the second half of the book, on The Democratic Surround and the Cold War: here.