The Democratic Surround: Gaps in Democracy

Turner aims to reclaim a history of media that was lost in the shadows of a more popular history of the evolution of media, agency, and politics. He uses McLuhan’s 1964 views on media’s relationship to man to situate his position that stresses the influencers of multimedia appeared over twenty years before those that inspired McLuhan, which traditional histories overlook. Through the perspectives of this influential group of intellectuals and artists (many of whom were refugees, some were part of other groups whose rights were infringed upon), he sculpts the origins of todays multimedia–media that was birthed from the efforts of this group in creating the democratic surround. Turner claims this surround as an entity that supports diversity in times of war and strife, that frees society through mass individualism and the ability to produce multiple images and sounds around the world.

The particular body of scholars and artists selected for this version of history embody more diversity (although not necessarily racial or gender based) than other groups that we’ve seen (I’m thinking of Rankin, for instance) that have been used to tell histories of impact and influence on media and technology. Turner seems to properly situate this group as a collection of movers and shakers who oppose the wrong doings of totalitarianism and control, who use their voices and [then] influence to create artifacts that are aimed at liberating society. On the surface this looks and sounds good, but some part of this troubled me. Aside from the origins of multimedia, I feel like the lack of racial diversity within this group of people leaves the history lacking. Statements like “for the intellectuals and artists of this book, the ability to embrace diversity was precisely what distinguished America from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan” paint their [the group’s] views on America as extremely utopian and much too simple. People of color in the 1930s on through to the American civil war and beyond would have disagreed with that line of thought. The lack of diversity and tolerance is foundational for the oppression of marginalized groups in this country. Using  less diverse groups leaves gaps.

Subversion and Fulfillment of American Liberalism in Turner

The Democratic Surround by Fred Turner defines its eponymous term as a “new, multisource, environmental kind of media” which “was not only a way of organizing images and sounds,” but “a way of thinking about organizing society” (9) around the ideals and aspirations of American democracy in response to the multifarious totalitarianisms its creators mobilized their art and media against. That is, the creative subjects of Turner’s history are those for whom “patterns of media reception aped and foreshadowed patterns of political interactions” in remarkably direct circuits (10). The precedent for this line of thinking was established early in the lifespan of mass media. As a result of rising tides of fascist support in Europe after World War I, the increasingly popularized notion of the “one-to-many communication pattern” became, in the eyes of some analysts, “a model of political dictatorship” itself (16). In other words, if a modernized, central body of social control—or worse, a singular, dictatorial demagogue—could leverage the collective power of a nation not through political charisma, but through unprecedented, mass-mediated access to what Gustave Le Bon called in 1895 the irrational and unified “psychological crowd” (26), then the unavoidable outgrowth of mass media and fascism was that “each promoted allegiance to the other” (28).

Nonetheless, or perhaps inevitably, the United States began to see the potential for augmenting its own national interests through mass media. Inspired by commercial radio, Hollywood, and the clear successes of mass media in the capitalist market (28), social scientists, media makers, and theorists began to examine the qualities of the  diverse, tolerant, and individualist “‘democratic personality’” they hoped to foster (39). This came alongside the political interest of boosting democratic as opposed to fascist morale for a war effort against Axis Powers (43). To this end, the United States co-opted not only the aesthetics, but the “refugee artists and designers” themselves of the German Bauhaus school, “spawning the mass-produced modernism that dominated the design of much American architecture, furniture, and advertising in the second half of the twentieth century” (77).  Vision, the human sense “that would go on to have the greatest impact on Americans in search of [democratic] morale” (81) was employed and manipulated by Bauhaus designers like Herbert Bayer and Friedrich Kiesler through radical reframings of “the traditional relationship between viewers, art, and the spaces in which they encountered one another” (108). These visual experiments, alongside their aural counterparts composed by the likes of John Cage, expressed “a universe finally freed of dictators, but not without order” (148).

Although “in popular memory, American culture in the late 1940s has long been a wintry lake, slowly freezing over with racism, anticommunism, and gender conformity,” Turner argues that “these years also saw the promotion of a multiracial, sexually tolerant, egalitarian society” (157). Nonetheless, the rising tensions of the Cold War and the establishment of a “democratic personality” in response to the publication of The Authoritarian Personality (179) led to a nationalistic desire, on the part of the United States Information Agency “to foster deeper ‘socio psychological’ transformations” (214) in the American citizenry. Art, design, and aesthetics became “tools of the American state” in the service of “reorienting the desires of foreign nationals away from the temptations of communism” (258). Counterculture responded, culminating—at least before the period outlined by Turner’s previous work From Counterculture to Cyberculture—with surrounds of “ubiquitous mediation,” which “likely prevented their audiences from reasoning altogether” (281). Thus, subverted and “fulfilled” (293) in equal measure were the democratic ideals with which American mass media culture was founded.

To that final point, however: which of our “parents’ expectations” do we still subvert and fulfill through mass media today?

The Democratic Authoritarian Cycle

In his book ‘The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties’, Fred Turner describes the origin of 1960’s counterculture in the social questioning and academic research preceding America’s entry into World War II.  According to Turner, the academic intellectuals in the United States were preoccupied with the question of how to battle the influence of mass media on the democratic personality without using the same techniques which enabled Fascism to take hold in Europe. The theory that culture shaped the individual psyche as proposed by anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson as well as psychologist Gordon Allport was a powerful counter narrative to theories like Freud’s individual psychology or  Gustave Le Bon’s crowd psychology which prescribed individuals as automatons which could not be molded outside of their early childhood experiences or some mob-mind which was easily controlled by the one-to-many method of mass communication. Illustrating the arguments against mass media Turner discusses Theodor Adorno’s essays railing against mass media in the form of music. Adorno viewed popular music as commodified indoctrination into the social collective [30]. The incident which drove the arguments home for most of America was Orson Welles’ broadcast of ‘War of the Worlds’ which drove many of its four to twelve million listeners to run out into the street with wet towels on their heads for fear of a chemical weapons attack by aliens.  In this tense period of mass communication, american intellectuals tackled the issue of how to combat the perceived influence of propaganda on the american psyche. Turner describes the development of what he calls ‘The democratic surround’ as a method for teaching and reinforcing the traits attributed to the ‘American National Character’ as a method for fighting propaganda as a tool which created the Fascist collective in Europe. The committee for National Morale was formed as study whether mass communication (propaganda) should or could be used as a method for convincing the American politi to join the war. Instead they came up with recommendations and research designed to educate and produce a type of national morale distinct from the Nazi morale, a drive for a particular type of personality; the personality of the ‘whole’ self versus the  mindless collective. The idea was to train Americans to make and review images and systems of images that would ‘reveal the cultural character of alien others’ [62]. The goal was to promote psychological flexibility and tolerance while reinforcing the traits which defined the democratic personality. Gregory Bateson suggested that leaders needed to teach people how to “learn to learn” which meant reshaping communication. In order to create more democratic thinking individuals the culture had to transform its approach to communication as well as the communicative setting. Rather than spoon feed individuals data bits like the Fascists dictator, a democratic society should create a space of communication where individuals review and reform their own opinions relative to culture and space.

How better to create individual thinkers than to recruit the individual thinkers which the Nazis had labeled degenerate and subversive?  The artists of the Bauhaus were persecuted or labeled “other” during the Nazis rise to power. Many left Europe and found refuge in the United States were they quickly integrated and networked with the very ‘thinkers’ working on the mass communication ‘problem’.  “The ultimate aim of the Bauhaus, Gropius later wrote, was to achieve ‘a new cultural equilibrium of our visual environment,’ and so to improve the health and happiness (morale) of its inhabitants “ [78]. The Bauhaus was the brush which the Committee for Morale was looking for.  One theory fit the other like a glove. László Moholy-Nagy creates the new Bauhaus in Chicago as a “school for creating a new type of person” and Herbert Bayer was working on developing an ‘extended field of vision’. Despite a poor reception with some of the initial exhibitions, the extended field and Bauhaus theory eventually took hold in combination with the Museum of Modern Arts war propaganda agenda and the Democratic Surround was born.

After the war the concepts introduced by Bauhaus emigres for the education of democratic personality and the creation of the “whole man” would become a fertile ground for counterculture as the cold war developed and the idea of a democratic individual thinker became entwined with the rebuilding of postwar America.  The problem was that where propaganda and the authoritarian had created fascism, new science of the modern man was turning toward controlling the space of democratic ideals. The ideas of the democratic surround were taken by some (Charles Morris, Lyman Bryson and Norbert Wiener) to equate to social engineering and management (control).  Bryson coined the term “scientific humanism” defining it, “Our Humanism is scientific because we believe in control of social change by intelligence and experience, directly and freely applied… we shall use social engineering to solve the problem of setting up the conditions of freedom but not to determine what men shall do with freedom when they get it.  Indeed, we are arguing here that the chief uses of freedom are defeated by those who set up the conditions and try also to determine the content.” [158]. Choices dictated by intellectuals for the betterment of man. The utopian idea behind this naive theory was that given enough options and freedom, each individual would feel compelled to act within societal norms and accepted patterns. [160].  Thus unthinking human automatons become self managing collaborative and cooperative individuals working within the bounds of a society dictated by ‘benevolent’ experts monitoring democratic culture through computing machines. It would have been great! (if communism hadn’t come along.) The democratic propaganda machine was conscripted to fight the spread of communism in Asia. Models of democratic education and communication became ballistic projectiles lobbed into other cultures with the utopian belief that they would spread like a virus as long as they avoided a “propagandistic or strident tone” [215]. The ‘American Character’ carefully groomed during World War II became associated with ideas of ‘economic abundance’ and consumerism as a message designed to combat the communist counter narrative.  The story was that the ‘American character’ could not have evolved without the system in place which enabled economic abundance freeing a person to become the ‘democratic personality’. The Bauhaus theories were co opted by the government in several roadshow exhibitions designed to sell this ‘Abundance and American Character’ narrative throughout the 50s. This culminated in ‘The Family of Man’ at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. The Family of Man was a multimedia show without the propaganda and because it lacked propaganda the soviet visitors were pulled out of their normal nationalistic mindset and given a feeling of kinship with the human race, all the while realising that it was America providing this feeling. [257] This was the height of the conscription of democratic idealism in the American propaganda machine.  Most of the Utopian naivete of the late 40s and early 50s had been replaced with understanding that democratic culture in its rush to combat communism had become authoritarian in its own way. The education methods associated with developing the Democratic personality had become outright propaganda and were starting to infiltrate the American media mindspace as well as their intended targets in the Soviet Union. The art scene originally conscripted to fight fascism became the scene designed to fight fascist tendencies growing within the american government. Where Adorno railed against popular music’s commodified indoctrination, music was the playground for the counterculture’s organic approach to freedom and humanism in the form of ‘Happenings’[261] and ‘Total Environments’ in the form of intermedia, expanded cinema and other forms of mixed media productions like VanDerBeek’s ‘Movie-Drome’ [276] and Warhol’s psychedelic media environment ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ [284]. The ideas behind these media environments was to shock the senses and shutdown the reasoning of the viewer so that they would see themselves and their environment for what it was.  All this culminated finally in USCO ‘Human Be-In’. According to Turner, “As they lay in the grass of Golden Gate Park, feathers and banners and ribbons expressing pieces of their individuality, turning away from the events on stage and toward the pleasures of watching one another, those who attended the Human Be-In brought to life something very much like the democratic morale. True it would still take decades before the civil rights movement could bring Americans an African-American president or the gay rights movement could succeed in normalising the diversity of sexual preference in mainstream American society. But at the same time, the sorts of personality that were on display in the park that day owed a great deal to the World War II fight against fascism, to the Cold War push against communism, and to the vision of a free, expressive individual that underlay the work of influential communities in each movement.” [291]

Questions I’d like to cover:

It seems like Utopian ideals are doomed to be conscripted by authoritarian control systems if they are successful in attracting followers.  How does this cycle reflect what’s going on today and how can it be broken?

Propaganda and the Avant-Garde

How can media produce more democratic individuals instead of the authoritarian ones it has produced in the past? This is central to the questions that Turner explores in The Democratic Surround. Beginning during WWII, Turner explores the collaborative work of two social worlds who attempt to shift from the “authoritarian personality” of fascist Germany to a “democratic personality” in American. The two groups, intellectuals, that included anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists (through the Committee for National Morale), and refugee artists from the Bauhaus worked toward multi-image, multi-sound-source media environments – what Turner calls surrounds. The exhibitions they created served to encourage democracy (through anti-Communist propaganda) abroad and existed as avant-garde art in America. The idea of “democratic personality” was an individuated and empathetic mindset that was committed to racial and religious diversity. There is a negotiation between individuality and collaboration. New models of media and new theories of collaborations were emerging. New visions of an “open, tolerant, and democratic self” were also emerging in contrast to the authoritarian models associated with the fascist and communist movements.

I find this relationship between propaganda and the avant-garde interesting. We’ve had earlier discussion about the challenge of the avant-garde artists to remain such as they gain exposure and support. Turner uses the American contribution at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 (the first held since World War II) as a propaganda opportunity across the landscape of the Cold War. There are still exhibitions held today with global audiences and exposures (think the Venice Biennale). How are these platforms for political propaganda today? The US entry at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale was titled: Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos and was a series of works exploring how architecture and design respond to citizenships. The designs responded to, “How might architecture, then, express today’s rhizomatic and paradoxical conditions of citizenship?” An overview of the projects is here: The US Pavilion brought together seven different transdisciplinary teams.


The Democratic Surround as a Method of Historical Survey

Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround introduction starts with revisiting the term media and its implications on the society. Drawing from scholar Marshall McLuhan’s thoughts on how technology was becoming an extension of individuals and considering how many individuals were implementing these concepts within their own lives it shows the importance of media in influencing and changing perspectives. Turner’s goal is to try and understand if the mass media production during the month’s leading into America’s entry into World War 2 changed audiences perception into an authoritarian direction. The methodological approach that Turner uses is the intertwining of American theorists in the field of social sciences like anthropology, sociology, and psychology. The second group he places in conversation with the social sciences is the work of Bauhaus artists during that period. This methodology helps form Turner’s argument which is the following, “the book demonstrates that World War 2- era visions of a socially diverse American polity and a semiotically diverse media environment helped give rise to that counterculture and the visions of media’s political potential that informed it” (10). My understanding from the statement is that Turner is drawing from the social movements at the time to show just a few examples in thinking about ways the technology was helping to inform a question these larger concepts and persuade changes in society. This claim is supported by analyzing the democratic surround as he refers to it in World War 2 and the Cold War. The chapter titled “The New Language of Vision” presents several case studies that conclusively show the overlap between the social sciences and Bauhaus. It demonstrates how the artists were incorporating technology in the projects to address these critical questions, like Moholy who uses photography to bring in the concepts of Russian Constructivism. Moholy believed that through this process he could transform the organization of society(pg 83). Turner provides many examples that show the effectiveness that this method had in understand how social movements were persuading and creating a new form of knowledge.

One question I wanted to engage with is, do you all believe that compared to other texts, books we’ve read that Turner does a good job of engaging with cultural and societal changes that were occurring in the period?

Turner on Media

In “The Democratic Surround Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties,” Turner described the integration process of the national identity into people’s living assisted by the use of multimedia. He illustrates the importance of the American counterculture, “immersive, multi-mediated” (2013, p6), originated from 1944 and still prevailed till today was the cornerstone for the diversity we enjoy now, socially and culturally. I enjoyed reading this book as it dived into the discussion of media and politics environment of that time and the author writes in a Machiavelli style of history.

The alternative nature of the democratic surrounds, from my perspective, could be better framed as a congregated national identity. The author may have theorized the counterculture nature of the democratic surrounds and framed it as something unique. However, re-engineering the semantic meaning and (2013, p17) giving it new identity was not something. Turner’s writing style was appealing, fascinates me like a novel book writer; however, the discussion of manipulating the crowd to follow some leaders was not something new. The mass media, as argued by Turner, has become the mechanism of industrial distribution. (2013, p23) The media has always been associated with a specific agenda.

I truly appreciate the diversity we have today, but many places I been to hope that they can enjoy what they have now, not the diversity defined by Turner or the happiness thrown by someone else. The knowledge base that the book stood on could be flawed. Maybe Hollywood would be interested in promoting the superhero to save the world, but most others were not appealed by the idea at all. They want everything, good or bad, keeps a distance from them and to let themselves settle it. I do not any faith in any political form, democratic or authoritarian because giving it a style or terminology is a way to create segregation. When one country gives itself a label, no matter good or bad, it is equivalent to building a one-person group. From the publishing of the Telecommunication Act to the presence of overseas military bases, this nation has gone too far from promoting the diversity it initially drafted to control a lot more things that should not.

The primary audiences of this book are readers who want to learn more about the media history from the 1940s to the Cold War, but the audience is so broad that Turner might have to frame it into pop-culture. I want to discuss his reference in-depth and why he used these examples in a certain way.