The Democratic Surround: A Conversation Between Fred Turner and Clay Shirky

Fred Turner and Clay Shirky

Last December, Public Culture senior editor Fred Turner sat down with Clay Shirky, the author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age and Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, to talk about Turner’s new book, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. A prequel to the influential From Counterculture to Cyberculture which traced digital liberationist ideas back to the 1960s Bay Area counterculture and DIY movements, The Democratic Surround plumbs media and thought experiments from the 1940s and ’50s to uncover the inspirations for 1960s. Fueled by fears of fascism both in the U.S. and abroad, intellectuals, artists, and designers from Margaret Mead to László Moholy-Nagy developed new visions of an open, tolerant, and democratic self enabled by new, interactive models of media and interpersonal and international collaboration. Turner argues that it was their insights and creations that brought us some of the most significant media events of the Cold War, including Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition, the multimedia performances of John Cage, and, ultimately, the psychedelic Be-Ins of the ’60s. American liberalism of the ’40s and ’50s offered a far more radical social vision than we now remember—a democratic vision that still underlies our hopes for digital media today. We present Turner and Shirky’s conversation here.


Fred Turner (FT): 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.


Clay Shirky (CS): There’s a wonderful sociological Rube Goldberg–machine quality to the book. There’s this explosion in the 1960s that needs some explaining. What the hell happened between ‘64 and ‘67?  Pulling on intellectual threads, you end up at the place where people fleeing both a Europe ravaged by the first World War and the rise of fascism, relocate West to within about a two-mile radius of where we’re sitting in Greenwich Village.

In the production of the “democratic surround,” you can see all of the dominoes falling over as you read the book when it comes to this anxiety about what is happening to European culture. Reading the book requires a bit of a head shift. In a democratic surround—an immersive environment which is polyphonic on the part of the creators and participatory on the part of the consumers—you get to choose where to focus. You can lean in and participate or even interact. But the examples you bring forward, like Gropius in the Bauhaus—by the time we get to the post–Second World War era, these environments are being designed explicitly as propaganda. “The Family of Man”—that incredible travelling exhibition of photographs produced by the Museum of Modern Art—is essentially an advertisement for a multi-racial, multicultural vision of the United States. Of course we didn’t actually live up to this vision at the time nor do we now. But this is what the ad promised. By the end of the book, we’re reading about Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Lou Reed creating environments with primitive audiovisual equipment.  But if Walter Gropius and Edward Steichen and Andy Warhol were on stage together—they would come to blows. Right? They did not agree about much. Warhol didn’t have an earnest bone in his body. He would have hated the smarminess of “The Family of Man.” The promise of industrialization as the source of freedom had already become the American past around the 1950s. You’re offering the idea of a democratic surround, but the work does not look the same over the four-decade period that you discuss. If you had to define a democratic surround as a kind of a media production, then what is the same about it, since these artists were thinking divergently and their output differed?


FT:  Well, I’d take a little bit of issue with that. We often tell stories of historical actors as though they were in fact making choices all on their own. From the perspective of how they understood themselves and their work, yes, Gropius and Warhol would be antagonists. Yet, what I describe in the book was a kind of shared conceptual framework, one that displayed a robust aesthetic dimension that animated what got built in lots of places by many different artists. This kind of conceptual framework can provide orienting points, and even artists and intellectuals who think of themselves as very different can steer toward them. The democratic-surround vision of a polyphonic, mediated space that could produce democratic, free, individuated people was very widely shared—even across groups that didn’t agree on other things.

I actually think that the aesthetics of the democratic surround are more consistent than they might appear to be, given the diversity of artists invoking them. Like you said, they center on visual and sonic polyphony. In “The Family of Man” exhibition, images were hung on the wall, on the ceiling, on the floor. “The Family of Man” is almost certainly the most widely seen photography exhibition of all time. The catalog has never been out of print and it has sold more than five million copies. A quarter of a million people saw the show in its first eight weeks. Traveling versions of the exhibition went around the world nonstop for 10 years. It is now permanently installed in a castle in Clervaux, Luxembourg. For the people who saw the exhibit in the late 1950s its polyphony signaled a kind of freedom, a kind of political and psychological liberation, that many craved. Of course, it also signaled that letting the United States dominate the globe might produce that kind of freedom.

Anyhow, the polyphonic aesthetic is consistent across the decades I discuss in the book and across multiple communities. At the same time that “The Family of Man” is travelling through Europe, John Cage is breaking apart the structure of music and performance, turning scripted events into happenings. What unites Cage and “The Family of Man” is ultimately the pushback against fascism. When the threat of fascism receded after World War II, Communism took its place as the enemy of liberalism. And after the Cold War, hierarchy itself became the enemy. That’s where I think we live now, in a fear of hierarchy. We hear constant calls for leveled organizations, freed individuals, more collaboration, more networks. That call was actually born in 1939, 1940.

To give you a sense of why, I want you to remember that, in February of 1939, 22,000 Americans filled Madison Square Garden to rally in support of fascism. Organizers hung giant banners on the wall that said, “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America.” That’s America, 1939. In October that year hundreds of people marched down 86th Street in New York City with swastikas and American flags. This was in Life magazine and now it is almost totally forgotten. We had fascist summer camps on Long Island. You could picnic with your family at Camp Siegfried. Fascism was a real option in the United States in ‘39, ‘40. The tremendous efforts that went into pushing back on that—the anti-racist campaigns, the pro–sexual diversity campaigns of the ‘40s—have all been forgotten. But they didn’t disappear. They got channeled into two projects we’ve always seen as opposites: the cold war liberal project represented by “The Family of Man” and the bohemian, aesthetic project of artists like John Cage. The anti-fascist energy of the 1940s actually came down to the counterculture of the 1960s—and through the 1960s, to us —by both routes.


CS: In The Democratic Surround the fear of fascism is the original motivation for the development of new media strategies. At first, this is underwritten by the US government. By the 1960s the source of fear is often the US government itself. How and when did that turn happen?


FT: The short answer is: when the draft was instituted and we went to war in Vietnam. The more complete answer is actually a story about the long 1950s. In the ‘50s we moved away from a robust, pro-liberal, anti-Communism that was grounded in an earlier anti-fascism toward a consumerist alternative. In 1959, we built the American National Exhibition in Khrushchev’s Moscow. We tried to surround Russians not only with “The Family of Man” and with multimedia displays but also with all kinds of shopping opportunities. We wanted them to experience choice in a commercial as well as a political vein. That turn toward mingling consumption and politics took place in the ‘50s and was available as a strategy to folks in the 1960s. While that was going on, some of the same people who had been working to promote the ideology of choice abroad—Walt Rostow, folks like this—were working at the Center for International Studies at MIT on the ideas that would become the foundation of America’s war inVietnam. Some of the same people who were fighting for a liberated, individuated society that would be diverse racially, diverse sexually, slowly but surely turned into the people who brought us Vietnam. You can watch it happen in the archives. And it’s terrifying.


CS: One of the striking things you document in the book is the development of what we now call a pro-gay rights stance, a pro-homosexual stance as part of the mosaic in the manner of “The Family of Man.” The more conventional story starts with the Stonewall Riots. How did we get from this explicitly pro-gay agenda on the part of people in power to a world in which the Stonewall Riot was a collective surprise to the nation?


FT: To answer that question, we have to go back to my favorite year in the 20th century, 1948. That was a year in which world federalism seemed like a real possibility. It was a year in which the philosopher and semiotician Charles Morris, who’s one of my heroes, published a book called The Open Self in which he described a world that included (in the language at the time) “ectomorphs” and “endomorphs,” straight people, gay people, everything in between.

In the 1940s, there was also a tremendous call for racial diversity. It was how we pushed back on the fascists. In 1938, a book called The Nazi Primer circulated in the United States. It was the handbook for Hitler Youth, like a Boy Scout manual for Nazis. The first sentence in the English translation was: “The foundation of the National Socialist outlook on life is the perception of the unlikeness of men,” meaning racial difference and also sexual difference. People like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead pushed very hard against that idea of racial difference. The ‘40s were, in important ways, a very open moment. That moment melted away between 1949 and 1952, right in there. The closet was fully constructed by the time we were in the middle of the Korean War.


CS: What drove that change, do you think?


FT: I think Hoover’s FBI and McCarthyism drove many gay people underground. There’s a lot of local stuff too. You know, anti-gay enforcement in the late 1940s and early 1950s was really peculiar. John Cage, for example, was very out in this period, I mean, virtually married to Merce Cunningham. They were traveling around together. But only a few years before they came to Black Mountain College together as a couple, the rector of Black Mountain College was arrested for apparently being caught in flagrante with a Marine. He was fired immediately and left campus without a murmur.


CS: I’m going to now ask about the book you didn’t write. There’s a passage in the beginning of the book where you say that the democratic surround introduces the participatory media environment, but also paves the way for media environments based on a managerial market culture that correlates with American capitalism and consumerism. Reading your description of the democratic surround, I recognize it in everything from Burning Man to Occupy Wall Street, as well as many kinds of purely virtual, what we have learned to call, “temporary autonomous zones,” such as the recently shut down Silk Road or 4chan. But most of the writing about and theorizing of those movements is, if not explicitly anticapitalist, at least anticonsumerist. How did the democratic surround come to accommodate consumerism? Was there a break there between what you outline here and what we are living in today or is this continuity with modification?


FT: I think there’s a lot of continuity and very little modification. Some of the movements that you’ve just described, Burning Man and Occupy in particular—and I know I’m going to make some Occupiers angry—are still operating within a framework that was defined in the late 1940s. The framework is one of democratic individualism set against hierarchy, bureaucracy, and ultimately behind that, fascism and totalitarianism. I think the theory is: if you just gather together and express your individual political or aesthetic vision using the tools that you have to hand, you will in fact build a new kind of polity. I think that’s a fiction in two ways. I think the first fiction is that the practice is countercultural. On the contrary, we are acting right down the middle of American liberalism as it was articulated in the ‘40s and after. The second fallacy is what I call the “expressivist fallacy,” and it’s an error that haunts the web. The fantasy goes like this: If I express myself, the world will change. That is not correct. I was so angry to see Occupy focus on expression while the Tea Party focused on elections. Who is driving our policy now? It’s not Occupy. Sure, we got that phrase, “the 99 percent.” That’s great. It helps frame the debate. But framing debates is totally insufficient.

One of the legacies from the emergence of a hyper-individualized style of media that I describe in the book, is the abdication of the management of institutions to experts. The business of the individual is to be a free, articulate participant among others. That’s not enough. Folks who buy into that vision have failed to do the institution-building that actually generates change. That’s a negative legacy on the Left, and it’s one that all sorts of New Media companies take advantage of. Google and Facebook are counting on it. They issue an invitation that is very profitable to them: Come connect with your friends. Hook up. Connect. Connect. Connect. Connect. But: Don’t build institutions. Don’t regulate us. We are the key institutions of free expression, free innovation—not the government. Never mind that it was government-sponsored research that brought us the Internet in the first place.

The threats are different today than they were in the 1940s and 1950s. Back then, American intellectuals and artists feared hierarchical institutions and centralized bureaucracies as tools of fascism. They tended to forget that those same structures helped bring America the New Deal. Today, many on the Left—and many in the corporate sphere—are still pushing the pursuit of individual satisfaction and the development of individual-centered networks as keys to democratic unity. The trouble is, what we face today is not the fascism of the 1930s. What we face is the dissolution of the middle class and the predatory accumulation of wealth by a tiny fraction of our population. What we face is the failure to band together to take action against climate change. These are the kinds of challenges that individuals gathered together in expression-centered networks are uniquely ill-equipped to meet. 

We need to do the institutional work that builds free societies over the long haul. And if we don’t, the Tea Party will.