From Bauhaus to Your Mouse: Fred Turner’s Brilliant New Book on the Origins and Politics of Interactive Media


Democracy is a funny word.  In the strictest sense, it means “government by the people,” with decisions made by direct choice of those governed (in the classic Athenian or New Englandian sense) or by elected representatives. “Democratic” can mean inclusive; it can mean egalitarian.  It can mean diverse, in the sense that a democracy includes multiple voices, even if some end up prevailing over others.  It can also be a cultural sensibility—blue jeans, sloppy joes, and general unostentatiousness. “I know you like to line-dance, with everything so democratic and cool,” David Berman sang sixteen years ago, “but baby there’s no guidance when random rules…”

The classic Silver Jews tune makes an apt introduction to Fred Turner’s new book, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties.  The book is about the efforts of Americans to imagine media as enabling and empowering democratic citizenship, in contrast to fascist mass media and later to stultifying Communist conformism.  Rotating through a fascinating cast of characters, from Walter Gropius to László Moholy-NagyJohn Cage to Margaret Mead, Charles and Ray Eames to Andy Warhol, Turner places the origins of interactive media in a considerably different time frame than one might expect—instead of using performance art, “happenings,” hyperfiction, or virtual reality as a starting point, Turner locates the roots of participatory media in democracy’s encounter with fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.

democratic surround cover

Americans during the Great Depression harbored deep concerns about the power of media.  In the heyday of Adolf Hitler abroad and Father Coughlin at home, it appeared that technologies such as radio and sound recording held the potential to stifle individual reason, imprinting on people an authoritarian message in a top-down manner.  Turner skillfully interweaves a complex array of historical narratives concerning the Bauhaus, the Frankfurt School, anthropology, psychology, and pioneering media research, forging connections between literatures and historiographies that might otherwise appear tenuously, if at all, connected.  In the process, he shows how German emigres such as Paul Lazarsfeld and Theodor Adorno characterized mass media as oppressive, conceiving a model of one-to-many communication that disabled the independent, critical reason of individuals—a resonant image in the context of fascism, as Hitler’s loudspeaker had appeared to reduce a civilized people into a malleable, unthinking mass.

Turner argues that Americans in the 1930s and 1940s sought to imagine a different kind of media, one that would not dictate to listeners or viewers what they should think, but invite them to decide their own course.  As Turner says of the Bauhaus (first in Germany, and later in an American incarnation), the group “did not tell their students what to do so much as they created the conditions under which they could choose what to do from a cafeteria of options” (p. 81).  Thus was born what Turner calls “the surround,” a term he uses to refer to a variety of multimedia environments that artists, designers, and musicians from the 1930s through the 1960s created to allow participants to navigate more or less freely, arraying images and sounds in a way that did not convey a strictly linear meaning but rather invited a variety of different ways of interpreting and engaging with the work.  In contrast to the overbearing, massifying, and didactic aesthetic of fascism, this more democratic format placed great emphasis on the value of choice, experience, and participation—an analogue to the citizen’s use of independent judgment within a democratic polity.

These visions of participation—which Turner terms “therapeutic,” as they attempted to create a well-rounded, better integrated citizen—reflect a set of concerns unique to the fascist era, as Americans sought to create their own self-image in opposition, as if in a photographic negative.  At times, Turner seems to give such self-conceptions, which were ultimately self-serving and often highly unreflective, too wide a berth. Of course, Americans thought of themselves in idealistic terms in the heat of the most destructive war in human history, as earnestly sincere pursuers of the greatest possible development of the individual spirit—this, in a context of offenses ranging from Japanese internment to Jim Crow to Dresden to the bomb.  Indeed, he is not entirely willing to chide the stars of his story for the darker current running through their humanistic aspirations, as Reason‘s Jesse Walker recently pointed out:

It’s hard not to regard them as a particularly sad sort of wishy-washy liberal, muttering platitudes about fostering free choice while looking for ways to steer those choices in the right direction. The scene seems even sadder when you recall that while they were deliberating, Washington went ahead and carried out a centralized propaganda effort anyway, with crude racist caricatures of the Japanese and with a crusade against right-wing subversives that helped set the stage for the anti-left campaigns of the Cold War.

Turner certainly does not dismiss or disregard the inequities of American society or the abuses committed by the United States government during WWII or the Cold War, but it is fair to say he is highly sympathetic to the participatory, democratic yearnings of wartime liberalism as a sort of usable past—a lost opportunity that stands in distinct contrast to the profit-driven multimedia environment of today.

Turner is not unaware of the ill purposes to which this democratic vision could be put, of course.  The end of World War II is really the fulcrum of his story; he cites leftist Dwight MacDonald reflecting ruefully on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, casting doubt of the homilies about democratic citizenship that seemed so plausible during the war. “There is something askew with a society,” MacDonald wrote in the journal Politics, “in which vast numbers of citizens can be organized to create a horror like The Bomb without even knowing they are doing it.” (152)  The folks in Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos may have had little to no idea what they were working on—though some obviously did—but here again we find government and technology enacting change on a scale that subsumed the individual, seeming to call into question the potential for the individual to exercise choice and agency in a meaningful sense.

glimpses of USA

The Democratic Surround then goes into an interesting postwar interlude; early on, the composer John Cage breaks ground with the idea of “indeterminacy,” creating works that depend on the participation of listeners and performers to create the works’ very substance.  This openness, Turner suggests, was part of Cage’s desire to avoid the domineering power of art and other forms of communication to impose a pattern on a viewer or listener.  Cage wanted to “enhance the agency of his listeners,” Turner says (127). As he grew increasingly influenced by forms of Indian and Chinese mysticism (e.g. the I Ching) in the late 1940s, Cage wanted his compositions to “imitate Nature in her manner of operation,” as he put it, mimicking nature’s distinct combination of indifference and spontaneity (128).  This method, the artist believed, would be most in keeping with an effort to foster democratic norms, in contrast to a highly rigid and hierarchical nineteenth century German culture that allegedly gave rise to Nazism.

What makes the book so fascinating as both an intellectual and cultural history is Turner’s ability to juggle multiple disciplines and schools of thought, all the while showing how a diverse lot of thinkers were grappling with the same questions about democracy, personality, and technology.  For instance, The Democratic Surround also links the art world of Cage to the nascent discipline of cybernetics in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  Norbert Wiener’s intellectual path intersected with social scientists—Mead, partner Gregory Bateson, psychologist Lawrence Frank—who were thinking through new models of human (and democratic) subjectivity at the same time that he began to map new relationships between humans and machines.  Like Cage’s indeterminate compositions or Bauhaus’s multimedia environments, cybernetic systems could enhance human agency rather than imposing the will of the machine on the individual:

Wiener’s studies of human-machine interaction led him to propose a model of human agency that contrasted sharply with the dominance/submission dynamics of fascism. Wiener’s human beings extended their senses outward, and as they did, they received feedback about their actions. They adjusted their movements accordingly, and sought new feedback. In Wiener’s model, the human being resembled the machine, but not the human automatons of fascism. (161)

However, as Turner shows, artists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists weren’t the only ones thinking about ways for people to engage with media democratically. The United States government took an interest in this participatory approach during the Cold War, as Americans in the 1950s and 1960s aimed to show that immersive media could be as open and liberating as the jazz and abstract expressionism that US officials also brandished as emblems of American freedom. They learned to entreat potential recruits to capitalism with interactive environments that offered freedom of choice instead of a straightforward, heavy-handed message.

buckminster fuller kabul fair jeshyn_dome_meridian_2

Turner provides a fascinating analysis of the Kabul International Trade Fair in 1956, when Americans constructed geodesic domes designed by Buckminster Fuller to compete with the Soviets and Chinese in the race to capture hearts and minds: (220-5)

Its roundness hinted at the roundness of the globe and the universality of American ideals. The openness of the space it enclosed suggested the wide-open vistas of the American landscape and the American technological future. Visitors’ freedom to pick their own direction through the show echoed the claims of Hollywood Westerns that Americans could wander the land in any direction they wished. (222)

American officials discovered that they could measure participants’ involvement in the exhibit through survey data, and use that information to construct better models.  “Afghan responses to the exhibition could shape the design of future exhibitions, and perhaps even that of American policy toward Afghanistan and other nations,” Turner says. “In this way, visitors became elements in an extended feedback loop”—rather like Facebook rapidly monitoring and adapting to users’ activity on the site, in an effort to tailor its performance to their needs and interests (225).  By the time the US designed its long-sought American National Exhibition at Moscow’s Sokolniki Park in 1959, “The stridently anticommunist propaganda of the early 1950s had disappeared. In its place, Americans deployed an all-encompassing system of information provision and information extraction.” (253)

In the end, The Democratic Surround traverses a huge territory, from aesthetic radicalism and cognitive science to high foreign policy and hippie communalism.  It takes us back to the political and cultural crisis of World War II and the subsequent age of anxiety in the Cold War, as Americans fought not just fascism and communism but a far greater dread about the disempowering and undemocratic effects of modern technology—of which mass media were perhaps the most dangerous manifestation, at least as far as democratic citizenship and individual liberty were concerned.

In his closing chapter, Turner brings it all back home—in more ways than one.  The author proposes a new link between the liberalism of the New Deal era and the cultural insurgency of the 1960s—two moments in American life that historians have often viewed as in tension, if not outright opposition.  The New Left and counterculture embraced a communal ethos while remaining intensely individualistic and decentralized, and scholars have often seen this uprising as a reaction against the establishment liberalism that had dominated American political culture since the 1930s.  In contrast, Turner suggests that the “happenings” and “be-ins” of the 1960s were the culmination of a long quest among liberal artists and intellectuals to find new ways for people to relate both to each other and to technology on a democratic basis.  The author insists that the 1960s counterculture was not some precipitous eruption of resistance and nonconformity, but instead the protean child of intellectual impulses that shot through the artistic, political, and scientific vanguard of the Depression and World War II generations. “The children of the 1960s did not only overthrow their parents’ expectations,” he says in closing. “They also fulfilled them.” (293)

kaprow tires

In this way, The Democratic Surround does for the 1960s avant-garde and counterculture what Turner’s previous book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture did for the net culture of the 1990s and 2000s.  It locates a richer and more interesting antecedent for a moment in time that we thought we already undestood.  The counterculture was not just the beginning of something, but a culmination—or perhaps a mid-point in a much longer historical journey.

Throughout the book, Turner occasionally adds a barb of cynicism to the narrative, hinting at a more pernicious side of the philosophies that his historical actors otherwise view as democratic, inclusive, and participatory.  For instance, the sixth chapter concedes that interactive media could lead to “a softer but equally pervasive system of management” (184), and later adds that “citizens were to manage themselves in terms set by the systems within which they lived—and by the experts who develop those systems” (212).

Which brings us back to David Berman.  In the end, the interactive world of social media and participatory art looks more like line-dancing than we might think.  In some ways, the line-dance is rigid and coordinated, a cousin of the mass culture of the mid-twentieth century, and (if you want to really reach) a very faint echo of the Nazi goose-step and mass rally—at least to the extent that people are methodically following instructions as a group.  Yet, as Berman notes, the dance is also “democratic and cool”—it’s unpretentious and populist, and hardly as rigid as it might seem on first blush.  In a sense, it is not unlike the multimedia worlds of information technology—allowing involvement and participation, but according to certain predetermined lines; promising the mystique of democracy but within the matrix of a certain pattern or order.

Line-dance epistemologist

The question comes back, again, to democracy itself, and what it means not just for politics but for art and technology.  I remember a student of mine years ago who was writing a senior thesis about the democratic-ness (or not) of music blogs and file-sharing; the lingering question was always what exactly “democratic” meant.  For him, these media were democratic to the extent that they opened access to all comers on an equal basis.  Democracy was about inclusion, access, and openness—and less about what happened once access itself was achieved.  His approach reflected a tendency in many discussions about digital culture, in which the ability of any entrant to set up a blog or record a track on RockBand or ProTools and upload to SoundCloud signifies a democracy of sound.

If media are democratic so long as they are open and provide options, then questions of power are irrelevant.  But such a definition ignores the fact that media always enable some actions and constrain others—a “surround” may purport to be democratic but still impose its own strictures on a user or participant. This, I think, is what Turner wants us to see—that what seems open, free, and empowering can still be encoded with rules and structures that constrain (and even exploit) at the same time that they enable us to do things.  He does not quite make this case as robustly as he could, nor does he really explore the link between the multimedia environments of yore and today’s social media, which offer an “immersive architecture” of their own. (227)  However, the betrayal of art and technology’s democratic promise is always lurking in the background of this excellent and thought-provoking book.

Other coverage of The Democratic Surround:


Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. His work deals with media, law, and the political culture of the modern United States. He has previously received a Consortium for Faculty Diversity fellowship, an ACLS-Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s Torbet Prize. His work has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, Technology and Culture, and the edited volume Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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