The Democratic Surround II

This book was wonderful, very illuminating, and I scratched as much of it as I could to share but there is a lot of very interesting trivia. Here are my notes and quotes on the second half of The Democratic Surround. 

 

World War II and the Cold War

Post-War America is misremembered as a time of great unity. More than 14000 wildcat strikes broke out in factories and mines in the US, 1941-1945. Race riots erupted in Detroit (’42), Harlem (’43), Los Angeles (’43).

The psychological damage done to millions of soldiers was acutely felt in the United States intelligentsia and the public at large (both very popular books on dealing with “combat nerves” and damaged soldier psyches).

Essayist Mary McCarthy (1947): “The movies, the radio, the super-highway have softened us up for the atom bomb.”

President Eisenhower, 1954: “The world, once divided by oceans and mountain ranges, is now split by hostile concepts of man’s character and nature… two world camps… life farther apart in motivation and conduct than the poles in space.”

Charles Morris was a philosopher and semiotician who taught at the University of Chicago and also with John Cage at Moholy’s New Bauhaus. Like Bayer and Moholy, Morris believed that “individual psyches had been fractured by the pressures of industrial life and, now, by war”. In his 1948 book The Open Self he claims that “we need new selves. And new relationships between selves.” He posited a “flexible, highly interactive society, united in its heterogeneity”. “Science is a miniature example of the open society.” The book claims that he “favored a constant conversation among highly individuated, spontaneously acting citizens” over the idea of mass media.

Cybernetics father and human-machine interaction theorist Norbert Wiener was also involved in these intellectual circles. His frameworks clearly demonstrate an alternative to the dominance/submission dynamics of fascism: that of the feedback loop, the machine as an extension of the human’s will and senses, the conversation and learning between the biological, the mechanical, and the electronic. From his book The Human Use of Human Beings: “Our view of society differs from the ideal of society which is held by many Fascists, Strong Men in Business, and Government… such people prefer an organization in which the orders come down from above, and none return.”

An entire chapter is dedicated to the massively influential installation, The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art and later around the world. This installation will come up again, further down.

The Psychotherapy of Nations

The Surround and its related ideologies evolved to fit the Cold War frame. The whole, undistorted free democratic personality enjoyed freedom of choice and expression still, but their choices and expressions are now shaped by free economies- choice and expression through consumer goods and services. This altered model was not just for protecting America, but for global export.

“[The paper “Communications Research and USIS Operations” (1959)] argued that the [US Information Service] should think of each of its communication operations as an act of psychotherapeutic intervention.”

There were three steps:

Diagnostic Task: “Assess the target nation’s attitudes towards the United States, as reflected primarily in the press and in surveys of citizens”

Treatment: “Enlisting target audiences in modes of communication that could provide ‘prophylaxis to avoid an ‘unhealthful’ condition and therapy to bring about recovery from such a condition. [emphasis original]'”

Post-Treatment Assessment: Assess the target audience’s state of mind again.

The underlying logic was that “the USIA should not challenge their belief systems individually, but should instead aim to defuse the authoritarian psychology underlying both. As the report put it, they should not ‘work at the level of symptoms’ but ‘closer to the level of causes.'”

In fairness, a very wide variety of American propaganda efforts were tested in this era. The Family of Man had a world tour, American pavilions hosted creative art classrooms in Europe, American designers were exported all over, with their techniques for fostering the democratic mindset.

 

People’s Capitalism

By January 1955, it became evident that some of the classic American propaganda techniques (barrages of aggressive pamphlets, Voice of America broadcasts) were having little or no effect on Soviet satellite states. A National Security Council memo articulated a new objective: “Stress evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, […] avoiding a propagandistic or strident tone.”

Trade fairs and international expositions became part of America’s new “charm offensive” (my own anachronism here, to be clear). At these events, American goods and ideals were for sale, and American government and business appear to be totally earnest in their interest in each other.

“People’s Capitalism” was the phrase the Advertising Council came up with to counter the Soviet’s “People’s Democracy”.

“Under People’s Capitalism, individuals competed with one another and made money, and when they did, they bought shares in the companies in which they and their fellow citizens worked. They became owners of the means of production- not through the state but directly, through the stock market. The wealth they accumulated through their labor and their investments underwrote a flowering of material, political, and intellectual opportunities. As Collier’s put it, People’s Capitalism ‘means the washing machine, the tractor and the power mower that give us time to take part in civic affairs, to think and dissent… it means Social Security, Porgy and Bess, hospitalization benefits, Robert Montgomery Presents… and the Saturday Review. It means public education for thought, not some purpose of the state. […] It means security and challenge in the same breadth.'”

 

The New Surround

The Kabul International Trade Fair in Afghanistan (1956) had seven countries participate with installations. The US changed its mind about attending when it heard that the USSR and China would be building massive installations there. The American experience was a large surround, a translucent geodesic dome with a Family of Man -like 3-D experience.

The Afghans had very high expectations of this installation, and when it was merely “pretty good”, they were mildly disappointed and preferred the Soviet installation.

But this information is already revolutionary. “The fact that Americans sought this information at all marked an important transition in the nature of the surround form. At one level, [Team America] had commissioned the dome and designed its contents to represent America to the Afghans. […] This time, though, the environment also rendered visitors available to monitoring”. Oral surveys and images of universal-facial-expression were used to collect information, and to reinforce a sense of interest and common humanity. Psychological assessment became a standard element of subsequent fairs. Further interaction would also become standard, even in not-Europe, involving education through play and artmaking to plant the seeds of democratic thought.

In Greece, later that year (1956), the designers and social scientists focused more on live demonstrations and interactive displays. The “See Yourself on TV” exhibit was a hit. A feedback loop. People recognized themselves and, in theory, recognized their commonality with the humans in the exhibit, the live ones and the pictured ones. In 1957, the American pavilion in Poland was packed with [As Life put it:] “things the average American can buy to eat, wear, or use to make work easier and leisure more pleasant. [..] a U.S. wonderland… filled with hi-fisets, dishwashers, automatic ironers, air conditioners, jukeboxes, frogman flippers and power tools for the home handyman.” The deliberate narrative was for visitors to understand that this “consumer cornucopia depended on and helped to produce the creative, individualistic personality types associated with political democracy.” It also demonstrated how technology, economic progress, and increased productivity would free people to pursue their own personal fulfillment.

There were elaborate Children’s exhibits, meant to foster creativity, sociality, and productivity- the stage was set but the children would be left to “self-discover”- remember, “indoctrination was the tool of totalitarianism.” Self-reflection and global humanism was goal.

Designer Victor D’Amico: “Each child must work in a way natural to him. The real problem is to free the child of his cliche’s or imitated mannerisms and to help him discover his own way of seeing and expressing. The press in Italy and Spain (when the installments visited) loved it, especially the implication that children could be freed of (presumably!) their parent’s prejudices towards world-scarring totalitarian ideologies. One Italian reporter: “What better way is there to develop a feeling of brotherhood among nations that to stimulate the creativeness of their children?”

The techniques used in these trade fairs formed the groundwork for the American installation for the first World’s Fair after World War II, the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. The World War II era was not followed by a calm- racial tensions flared in America, showing the world its own regressive nature during the forced integration of Little Rock, Arkansas; Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising and launched Sputnik in 1957.

The Brussels commissioner’s prompt argued that humans have become isolate and dehumanized- participant nations should “show the methods it advocates for the ‘re-humanization’ of the modern world.” The commissioners argued that they should acknowledge that many different types of civilizations were formed by men, and that international understanding could only result “from each and every person knowing and understanding themselves better.”

The American installation was almost imperial, compared by its designer Edward Durrell Stone as being like a Roman Colosseum: circular and accessible from many directions, multi-floored, using all of the tricks of the fairs before. The Surround framework allowed for the loose relation between “American idealism, economic expansionism, and universal humanism.” The crowd was invited to feel their own way into the American ideological system. They could see, hear, feel, and taste (Coca Cola tastes near enough to freedom to me), the American experience.

The brilliant Walt Disney (heard of him?) created a “tremendously popular” 19 minute movie travelogue called The USA in Circarama, using eleven projectors to display movies across the entire interior of a circular wall, creating senses of momentum and vastness, like a carnival ride. “…far from offering visitors an experience of individual agency, the Circarama controlled their senses with an iron grip.” As the book says ominously, “There was no choosing in Disney’s world; there was only going along for the ride.” An instrumental propaganda model.

Turner contrasts the American pavilion with the square building, gigantic statues, and persistent heavy-handedness of the Soviet pavilion. Ultimately, the American pavilion was also projecting an “essentially managerial mode of state power”, but it was done more subtly, through the techniques of interactivity.

 

The Family of Man (continued)

The Family of Man, built in the idealistic hopes to end all war, found itself to be a remarkably useful tool of the American state after the war. An edited version (with no photos of starving blacks, Japanese worship, or German soldiers chasing Jewish people out of the ghetto) was shown in Berlin to great acclaim. It was a huge hit in Berlin, and even the press used the “therapeutic” angle. It would later be a huge success in Moscow as well.

In fact the whole Surround installation also found its way to Moscow in 1959, at the American National Exhibition, as part of a cultural exchange. By this point there was plenty of experience built up in this kind of work. Another grand geodesic dome was built, another combination of open-area surrounds and didactic displays, and even more opportunities to collect information on the opinions of the viewers. People could also interact with machines: “A mechanized information center, with [IBM’s] RAMAC [computer] at the heart of it” could answer 4000 questions that visitors could ask its operator. (It also recorded the visitors’ questions. Top questions: “How much do cigarettes cost?”; “What is meant by the American Dream?”) There were seven large screens displaying snippets of unscripted American life- director: “The film won’t be in the sense of a movie film but a projection of data so that Russians can’t possibly be convinced that these were movie sets built for this purpose.” There were 75 Russian-speaking American guides (4 of them black). Visitors could see themselves on CCTV, and could “vote” on their favorite displays (Circarama was the winner) and leave notes about various displays. “Visitors were free- but within an environment whose boundaries had been carefully set and were now, like the borders of the United States, being monitored by information technologies.” And it was a massive, massive hit.

“By all accounts, what Russians of all social strata found most compelling was the chance to interact with Russian-speaking American guides. To their astonishment, the guides were allowed to think on their feet and acknowledge economic and racial problems in the US.”

 

Decoupling/Digital

Video: A Communications Primer (1952). “Computers, human brains, natural organisms, and society itself- all were held together by exchanges of information”. People were information processors with their own agency and also important parts of the larger, ordered society. A Communications Primer was the Second Machine Age-type message of its time, presenting technology as an amplifier of the individual’s productivity instead of as a terrifying new source of job destruction in American life.

A vision for a new kind of democratic personality was evolving, an information processor who experiences himself as both independent and collaborative, who is asked to look at disparate artifacts and data points and assemble them, a person “surrounded by choices-  commercial, political, artisitc- and their choices would be recorded and evaluated for further action by the American state. Like the individuals in Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics, though, they would advance by participating in feedback loops.”

The small group of multimedia-enabled designers who enabled the success of the surround-based architecture also began to work outside of the state. “Within a few short years, their efforts would provide the aesthetic foundations of the 1960’s American counterculture.”

 

New Thought

John Cage taught at the New School for Social Research in New York, transmitting his ideology to them and planting the seeds for “the quintessential mode of 1960’s performance and protest: the Happenings” [and later, the Be-Ins], with elements of “the person-centered collectivity called for by promoters of democratic morale twenty years before.” The idea was to become a more whole human being, by volunarily grouping and breaking social barriers. They became interested in a “psychological politics: the politics of consciousness”. Unlike their parents, who on the whole trusted their own authoritarian institutions (the state, the expert, apparently “reason”), the new generation distrusted them (they did make The Bomb.)

To subvert the control of the controlling systems (be it the government, or the reasoning mind) the individual would turn toward “media, and especially music, multiscreen images, and light shows, to shut down the analytical mind, awaken the unconscious, and allow individuals to come together in communities organized around a shared state of awareness.”

Cage encouraged the weirdness. Student Allan Kaprow learned two rules for organizing his new kind of work: “the use of chance operations in composition, and the promotion of noise as music”. He created his first Happening outside of Cage’s class in April 1958. He sat on the stage instead of giving a speech. Eventually a recording of him giving a speech began. Two more recordings of the same speech began, out of sync. Other performers began to bounce balls and perform elsewhere nearby. Kaprow would observe himself in a mirror, light candles, blow out candles. There was no apparent message.

Here, the author explains the influence of Jackson Pollock on Kaprow, through Kaprow’s own essay, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” where the term “Happening” was coined. “Critics at the time did note the Happening’s debt to earlier artistic movements and particularly to Dada, Futurism, surrealism, and the Total Theater of the Bauhaus. But in the wake of the formal precision of much abstract expressionism, the Happening still felt new.

Unlike their openly, didactically liberal forebears, these new practitioners were often deliberately apolitical, rejecting ‘conventional’ politics outright. Like, if I might say, the current libertarian cause, this ideological decision led to what you would expect- very white, very male producers and consumers, a penchant for (what may have been at the time subtle, but who can say) misogyny and the deliberate delegation of civil rights to a “local” issue in their mind. Their focus was the war front against the totalitarian reasoning mind, and the full apprehension of the total sensual world.

The New Left, on the other hand, fostered the opposite response to politics: they saw the racist-enabling, poverty-ignoring, bomb-creating State as an untrustworthy entity than can and should be changed.

Theodore Roznak: “Orthodox [American] culture… is fatally and contagiously diseased. The prime symptom of that disease is the shadow of thermonuclear annihilation… an evil which is not defined by the sheer fact of the bomb, but by the total ethos of the bomb… we are a civilization sunk in an unshakeable commitment to genocide… [a civilization that] insists, in the name of progress, in the name of reason, that the unthinkable become thinkable and the intolerable become tolerable.” American society had tended too fascistic, too mechanistic, and needs to be healed one person at a time. Roznak suggests LSD and Beat poetry. From where we sit, we can add two other major forces to the politics of culture: new media technologies (portable stereo, even cheaper printing, amplified keyboards and guitars, massive speakers) and Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan drew from Margeret Mead’s work, “as well as Siefried Gideon’s study of the social impact of technology, Mechanization Takes Command.” McLuhan’s belief was guided in the same direction as Moholy and Bayer before him, the “modernist orientation” of the effect certain media communication have on personality development. Soon he made a leap to the famous idea that “The ‘form of communication’- that is, its genre and medium- determined the boundaries of the situation and so was ‘more significant than the information or idea transmitted in shaping both individual and society”- the medium was the message. 

As McLuhan saw it, writing (and especially print) fragmented the individual psyche, disrupting the natural human communication, intimate, local, and oral, privileging analytics over the myth, and hyperrationalizing and distorting men’s minds. Electronic media such as television could reunite us. They extend our senses. Spreading them everywhere could reunite us as a “global village”, dependent on the kinds of communication that is natural to us, amplified by technology.

John Cage and McLuhan shared correspondence for twenty years after 1960. Bizarre social projects and art presentations flourished, mixing media and often abandoning the usual reasoning and apologetic and boundary-making of their respective arts. Movies without stories, ballets set to rock and roll. Media was used to make environments with the aim of changing individual psyches. It got weird. Warhol. The Human Be-In.

The total equality was not there, but their ideology, often felt by them (and by us, now) as a new turn, actually owed a heavy debt to people decades before them, people very unlike them. The Committee for National Morale did not anticipate them but there they were.

Margaret Mead, 1942: “Were the world we dream of attained, members of that new world would be so different from ourselves that they would no longer value it in the same terms in which we now desire it… we would no longer be at home in such a world… we who have dreamed it could not live in it.”

Next week I will pick up with From Counterculture to Cyberculture, by the same author.