Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, History

The Democratic Surround


The jacket copy for Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround summarizes the book:

In this prequel to his celebrated book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Turner rewrites the history of postwar America, showing how in the 1940s and ’50s American liberalism offered a far more radical social vision than we now remember.

One of the tricks of writing jacket copy, of course, is condensing the voluminous particularities of scholarship into an affable soundbite that neither undermines the intelligence of its reader nor offends the sensibilities of its author, who is most often the expert on her particular topic. The copy for Turner’s book is a classic example of this—and the excerpt below, from a recent post at Public Books, demonstrates just how much depth informs that single, sparse sentence. This is nothing new: the marketing of scholarly works has been around at least as long as the 1771 edition of  Encyclopedia Brittanica and parallels roughly the development of industrial capitalism. Maybe it is because I’m a fan of Turner’s work that I find the pantomime between what’s printed on the jacket and what informs that encapsulation so fascinating—or perhaps it is a much more unwillingly narcissistic positioning of myself as a consumer—either way, you can read Turner in Turner’s own words below.

From a conversation between Turner and Clay Shirky at Public Books:

The Democratic Surround might be an ending—even though it is a prequel—to my last book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In that earlier book I traced countercultural idealism and its impact on how we think about digital media from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. I was surprised to discover that in the 1960s, the countercultural folks I was writing about were reading books from the 1940s by people like Erich Fromm and Margaret Mead. I began to wonder what was going on, especially since I’d always been told that the counterculture had rebelled against the culture of the 1940s, not embraced it. I especially began thinking back to Marshall McLuhan and all the wild, psychedelic multimedia environments that were built in the ’60s. In that period people had tremendous faith that entering into these environments and participating in them would make you a different kind of person. You would experience a new kind of consciousness. I began to wonder, “Where the heck did that come from?”

I started tugging on different historical threads and I ended up at a really odd moment: 1939. In 1939 American intellectuals of all stripes feared that mass media could somehow trigger our unconscious and literally make us fascists. Now, remember that, in 1939, the idea of the Freudian unconscious was only about 30 years old in America. The idea of the unconscious supported a terrible fear: mass media could reach down, turn off our reason, and cause us to become authoritarians. Germany was the living proof. For the last century or so, Germany had been the emblem of high culture for many Americans. And suddenly the country that had brought us Beethoven and Goethe was being led by a wacky, mustachioed former clerk. American intellectuals and journalists tried to explain how that happened and one answer they came up with was mass media. They feared that media like radio and the movies did two things. First, they put the audience in the position of a mass being spoken to all at the same time by a single leader and from a single source. Second, they transmitted what many believed was the clinical insanity of fascist leaders directly into the minds of their audiences. In this view, Hitler had taken his personal craziness, sent it out over the radio airwaves, and infected his countrymen with it.

After World War II started, this German story presented Americans with their own media problem. The American state and many intellectuals wanted to rally Americans to go to war. But how could they use propaganda on their own people without turning them into fascists? If mass media made fascists, what kinds of media could American leaders make that would help create democratic persons and a democratic kind of unity?

Enter the Committee for National Morale. The Committee was led by Arthur Upham Pope, a Persian art historian, and it included 60 of America’s most interesting thinkers—people like anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, Mead’s husband, Gregory Bateson, the psychologists Gordon Allport and Kurt Lewin, a refugee from Germany. Together they theorized a new kind of media, a multi-media that could surround individuals and allow them to practice the perceptual skills on which democracy depended: the skills of selection, of integration, of knitting together diverse perspectives into a uniquely individual identity that Committee members called the “democratic personality.” This kind of personality was open to difference: open to racial difference, open to sexual difference. It was the opposite of the fascist personality. And it was the basis of a democratic mode of unity, a way of being together and at the same time remaining individual.

For the Committee for National Morale, making multimedia wasn’t really an option. They were writers. But in New York at that same time, there were half a dozen unemployed Bauhaus artists who had come to the US in the mid-1930s with a very highly developed multimedia, multi-screen aesthetic. Herbert Bayer, in particular—the man who developed the all lowercase typeface that we associate with the Bauhaus now—had developed a theory of display that he called 360-degree vision. He imagined art exhibitions in which images would hang from the ceiling and the walls and look up from the floor. They would surround the viewer. And you would be like an eye encircled by images, knitting them together into a pattern that was meaningful for you.

In Weimar-era Germany, Bayer and other Bauhaus artists imagined that synthesizing visual and aural experiences from many sources would allow people to resist what they thought of as the atomizing pressures of industrial life. Bauhaus artists called the person who could do this the “New Man.” When Bayer came to the US, he needed a job, and he offered to build 360-degree exhibition environments to help make a new “New Man”—the democratic person. At the start of World War II, he began working with Edward Steichen, making propaganda environments at the Museum of Modern Art. His ideas became the basis of later shows like “The Family of Man,” and ultimately filtered right up into psychedelic media environments of the 1960s.

The Democratic Surround moves forward from that moment along two tracks. One track follows multimedia environments as they are developed by the United States Information Agency for propaganda purposes abroad. The other track follows the development of those same environments for the liberation of individual selves and the making of democratic community in places like Black Mountain College right up into the happenings of the 1960s. It ends in 1967 at the first Human Be-In, where people danced in Golden Gate Park and saw themselves as free, liberal individuals, diverse, racially mixed, sexually mixed, and open in every way. The Human Be-In helped bring us San Francisco’s Summer of Love and the high counterculture of the late 1960s. But the book shows that it was also the endpoint of the movement against fascism that Margaret Mead and the Bauhaus artists spawned.

To read more about The Democratic Surround, click here.

To watch a video interview between Turner and media theorist Howard Rheingold, click here; more information about Turner’s scholarship, here.