Book Review

The Revolution That Wasn’t

Fred Turner. The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 376 pages.

Review by Matthew D. Linton

In the introduction to his The Democratic Surround Fred Turner paints a conventional picture of 1960s cultural radicalism’s relationship to the post-1945 period. “In popular memory”, he writes, “the 1960s rose up in a Technicolor wave and washed away decades of bland, black-and-white American life” (8). Though this picture of the revolutionary 1960s has proliferated, Turner argues that 1960s radicalism is best understood as the culmination of postwar American liberalism, not a reaction against it. Postwar intellectuals and their later critics “call[ed] for a society in which individual diversity might become the foundation for collective life” (9). They also shared a common mode for the realization of collective good in individual self-expression: democratic surrounds – multimedia installations in theaters and museums that promoted individual participation to actualize liberal values. For Turner, democratic surrounds showed the potential and perils of mid-century liberalism. While multimedia provided a useful critique of totalitarianism in its Nazi and Soviet variants, it also “represented a turn toward the managerial mode of control” that enveloped postwar liberalism, 1960s radicalism, and “haunts our culture today” (10).

The central argument of The Democratic Surround is for continuity. The specter of the totalitarian “mass man”, defined by blind obedience to authority, compelled American social scientists to create an opposing “New Man”. This New Man was imbued with American liberal values including tolerance, individual agency, and spontaneity and remained psychologically whole despite the social dislocation wrought by modernization (3). These same core values perpetuated after the war. The menace of the Nazi mass man was transferred to the Soviet Union. Under the aegis of totalitarianism, ideological differences between Nazism and Soviet communism were collapsed obviating the need to reconsider American values in the post war period. Liberal values as a bulwark to communism have positive and negative consequences for Turner. On the one hand, Cold War liberals believed their common values provided a path to equality for marginalized racial and ethnic groups. Museum exhibits like The Family of Man presented a diverse America united by a common devotion to liberal principles. On the other hand however, Turner recognizes that the liberal project was driven by elites and experts often to the exclusion of the same racial, ethnic, and gender voices they were supposed to be championing. As Turner concludes one of his chapters, liberals envisioned “the emergence of a society whose citizens were to manage themselves in terms set by the systems within which they lived – and by the experts who developed those systems” (212).

More surprisingly than the connection between World War II and Cold War liberalism, Turner finds the same values animating the 1960s counterculture. A common fear of conformity united Americans between 1945 and 1970. The wartime and Cold War liberals stressed individuality against the hive-mind of the totalitarian mass man. Similarly, the counterculture emphasized individual agency and spontaneity against the perceived conformism of the 1950s’ nuclear family and Cold War containment. Freedom of expression also manifest itself in similar ways across generations. Be-Ins stressed democratic surroundfreedom of movement in the same ways earlier museum exhibits like The Family of Man encouraged visitors to roam freely.

Beyond a shared value system, the characters in The Democratic Surround share a common medium: multimedia arrays. Mass men were created in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union by propaganda. Social scientists, some of whom like the Frankfurt School’s Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were living in the United States in exile, saw multimedia as an antidote to propaganda’s totalizing message. In accord with American social scientific prescriptions, artists like Bauhaus teachers Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer and the experimental musician John Cage, created multimedia arrays for museums, classrooms, and theaters. These arrays sought both to promote liberal values while avoiding the crude propaganda of the totalitarian enemy. Some of Turner’s characters were more straightforward about promoting American values than others. Herbert Bayer’s The Family of Man exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art explicitly promoted liberal American values like tolerance as vital for promoting peace in a world armed with nuclear weapons. Other democratic surrounds were more obscure in promoting liberalism. John Cage’s performances at Black Mountain College for example, sought to liberate “listeners from subjection to the emotional manipulation of classical and popular music” (116). Though less directly connected to national aims, Cage nonetheless shared with Bayer, Adorno, and others anxieties about authoritarianism and saw the cure in greater individual autonomy.

Turner’s cast of characters share flaws as well as values and anxieties. Foremost is hypocrisy surrounding inclusiveness. In their democratic surrounds, postwar and World War II era liberals presented the US as tolerant and diverse. The architects of these surrounds did not reflect this diversity however. With the exceptions of female social scientists like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, nearly all the characters in Turner’s book – from social scientists to counterculture artists – are white men. This is a reflection on the composition of America’s midcentury elite, which largely excluded women and ethnic minorities from positions of influence. Under this system Americans from all walks of life could enjoy the benefits of managerial largesse, but they were not expected to participate in the top-down ordering of society.

Turner is particularly scathing in his assessment of the 1960s counterculture’s turn “inward, away from campaigns for racial and sexual equality and toward a new psychological politics” (260). While World War II and postwar liberals sought political redress for racial and sexual inequality, counterculture purveyors of the democratic surround retreated from politics and instead looked for mystical solutions to social ills. The Happening – a multimedia performance that sought to blur the lines between performer and audience – is, for Turner, an example of the democratic surround’s mystical turn. Happenings challenged authority, but they did not seek to integrate the anomic individual “into a racially diverse society.” “Racial diversity was simply not an issue in their work”, Turner concludes (269).  More worrying were Happenings’ gender politics. In contrast to their postwar forefathers who often simply excluded women, Turner finds women were often sexually exploited at Happenings. Unlike men who were rarely nude, Female nudity was a cliché central to the Happening. This showed women as subjects to be gazed upon and controlled by men, not as equal participants in free expression (270). In contrast to other works that celebrate the 1960s as a period of increased diversity and sexual liberation, The Democratic Surround presents a depoliticized counterculture governed by racial and sexual discrimination.

By emphasizing continuities in values and mediums across mid-century America, Turner’s The Democratic Surround is a valuable addition to a growing literature challenging a progressive narrative that the 1960s broke from the previous decades exclusive and stodgy politics into one of greater inclusiveness, sexual freedom, and activism. Instead, he argues that historians have understated attempts made by liberal social scientists and artists before 1960 to use managerial control as a tool to foster community while preserving individual autonomy. At the same time, these historians have overstated how drastically 1960s countercultural values and modes of expression differed from the liberal mainstream they were rebelling against. As The Democratic Surround shows the Technicolor 1960s did not wipe away the black-and-white palette of the early Cold War, but instead changed the resolution on an already existing spectrum of values.

Matthew D. Linton is a Doctoral Candidate in History at Brandeis University and an intellectual historian of the American university in the 20th century. His scholarly interests include the international history of the Cold War, Sino-American policy, American perceptions of Asia and Asian people, and how funding shapes intellectual production. His dissertation, Understanding the Mighty Empire: China Studies and Liberal Politics, traces the development of university China studies and its relationship to the New Deal-style liberal politics between 1930 and 1980.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I enjoyed your review. Perhaps paradoxical for a comment to a blog post, but I found the final passage of the introduction surprisingly wistful:
    As we log on to our computers and finger our cell phones, we each find our own way through a landscape of images and sounds…But we do so in terms that have been set for us by distant experts: programmers, media executives, government regulators…many continue to welcome such management, albeit on behalf of new freedoms: the freedom to stay in touch with distant friends and family, to take work on the road, or to catch up with a favorite television series. What has disappeared is the deeply democratic vision that animated the turn toward mediated environments in the first place, and that sustained it across the 1950s and 1960s. This book aims to recover that vision.[10-11]

    • It seems like part of Turner’s project is an attempt to showcase the possibilities of technology in building and sustaining a democratic society, while saying that the current technological landscape is not conducive to civic engagement. I think he may be overselling the ways democratic surrounds actually impacted politics. He does not draw a clear connection between democratic surrounds and specific policies. At the same time, his dismissal of contemporary technology seems reactionary. It seems to me that the relationship between technology and democracy today is less an indictment on technology as a reflection on the state of contemporary political discourse. Blaming tech seems like a cop out.

      • Turner contends that “we practice the modes of interaction on which the Committee for National Morale once suggested democracy depends. But we do so in terms that have been set for us by distant experts: programmers, media executives, government regulators.” As both teacher and student, I wish to learn more on changes and continuities in “multimodal” media proposals and the “managerial mode of control.” Thanks for your response. [10-11]

  2. Matthew–
    What a nice, clarifying review. I think you are correct to emphasize Fred Turner’s interest in continuity in his important scholarship. The same is the case with Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture, as the title suggests. Indeed, I believe Turner explicitly describes Democratic Surround as a kind of prequel to Counterculture to Cyberculture. In that prior book (Counterculture to Cyberculture), he argued that the libertarian-tinged “small technology” movement of Whole Earth Catalogue/Stewart Brand itself had roots in WWII and Cold War military research labs (Norbert Weiner’s cybernetic work, so crucial for certain counterculturists, came out of research on military machine gunners after all; moreover, those labs valued eccentric thinkers and were not entirely the man in the gray flannel suit/Dr. Strangelove settings we imagine); and then Turner contends that Whole Earth type “back to the land” small technology counterculture fed into contemporary neoliberal managerial tactics and perspectives of Silicon Valley. His critique is similar too, which is that that this counterculture lacked an agonistic (his word if I recall correctly) politics. It sidestepped direct political confrontation and pursued a prefigurative turn, attempting to create revolution simply by starting anew rather than engaging in conflict with power structures.

    I find Turner’s work very compelling. But I do think there are some issues.

    First, I think he simplifies the counterculture, reifies it, and ultimately distorts it historically. Which is to say he skips out on the ambiguous countercultural spaces and zones that were more heterogenous, mingling political and cultural forces, antagonistic politics and efforts to simply “live the revolution,” weirdo far out radical pluralism and totally commodified, Americanized elements, and so on (You can see why I would make this argument given my own work.) The counterculture remains interesting and important historically precisely because of its irresolvable slipperiness, maybe even because of its incoherency. It was a very strange intermingling of radical, liberal, and even conservative elements. And therein are the aspects of it that were not contiguous with larger scopes of historical development. This is not really to dispute Turner’s argument, but just to remind ourselves that we should be careful about too neatly fitting the range of countercultural activity into one characterization. It was a psychedelic movement, after all, and one that tended to spiral out in all sorts of shadings and dimensions and polyglot elements. The very same spaces, for instance, that objectified women (and they certainly did; these spaces were deeply problematic in terms of feminism and women’s liberation) also saw many women breaking out of conventional “feminine” roles (on the psychedelic dance floor for instance, where suddenly many women were dancing not with partners or for partners but simply for their own expressive pleasure).

    Second, I think there are some really intriguing intellectual history issues that Turner’s work raises. For instance, how we characterize mid-twentieth century intellectuals as elite or not. This seems clunky to me in terms of class dynamics. Intellectuals were elites, but uneasily so. They were middle class but, of course, as part of the structures of American bourgeois society, also positioned outside and against the middle class as bohemian, eggheaded, or just plain weird. They gained access to power (through universities or philanthropic efforts or the expanded federal government of the WWII and Cold War eras), but I would hesitate to include them uncritically in the ruling classes. We all know this, yes? I’m sure Fred does too. I just wonder if these fraught complexities ask us to continue to ponder with nuance the role and meaning and nature of democratic surrounds—and of media in general—in relation to class fractions and dynamics that are quite intricate.

    These are two of a number of ways that Turner’s work is incredibly productive. Even as I’m quibbling with them, I think about how rich his ideas and arguments are for thinking about the counterculture—and more importantly about the larger story of democratic civil society and politics in American life, from the mid-twentieth century to the present, as new forms of intensified technological mediation began to suffuse it in unprecedented ways.

    Thanks for the review!


    • Michael,

      Thanks for the terrific comment. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. It’s a testament to the organization and thoughtfulness of “The Democratic Surround” that I struggled to include everything valuable about the book in the review. I would particularly like to highlight that I agree with you that Turner seems to know the weaknesses of his own mid-20th century vision. I got the impression that he was willing to overstate similarities between decades and movements to underline continuity. He seemed to be writing against a literature that depicted the 1960s as representing a total break with the “black and white” 1950s. This is an straw man in the arena of academic history – I have not encountered anyone willing to argue such a straight forward narrative – but one that has currency in the popular imagination.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  3. Thanks for this review. I feel like I read a different book, one that is far more positive in its revisionary assessment of mid-century intellectual history and its associations of media with democracy. Instead of the story being one of exposing the secret managerial liberal heart of the sixties counterculture and its exclusions, I read Turner as trying to show that the democratic vision of sixties multimedia was rooted in a genuinely democratic vision that synthesized the critique of the authoritarian nature of mass media and mass culture present in American social science, Bauhaus and Black Mountain aesthetics, and liberal antifascism. His critique of the previous scholarship on Steichen’s “Family of Man,” exhibit, for instance–scholarship which, in his view, stresses the racial exclusion and othering, American imperial and colonial ideologies, middlebrow aesthetics of photojournalism, etc.– is an attempt to recover what he sees as a more critical democratic spirit rooted in the exhibiting strategy of the “surround” and its ideology of viewer choice, as well as the liberal universalism and nuclear arms control aims of its creators. The tenor of his interpretation seemed to me much more positive and recuperative (as well as stressing continuity, which he clearly does), where your reading emphasizes the ambivalence, not just the democratic faith, but the underlying fear of alienation, exclusion, and powerlessness present in these multimedia surrounds. I’m not sure that I agree with Turner’s interpretation (or my reading of it, rather!), but I do see it as a turn not just toward emphasizing cultural continuity, but also away from the spirit of aggressive critique and Foucauldian analysis in which putatively “democratic” forms are exposed as the workings out of power in more insidious ways. But I’m glad to see you reviewing this book, and it getting the attention I think it deserves.

    • Dan,

      I think our difference in opinions has its origins in what part of Turner’s project we emphasize. I agree that his view of post war and even early Cold War art and politics is a sunny one (perhaps even too much so). In my reading Turner’s most optimistic phase is the immediate post war moment when the US was flush with victory, but before the onset of the Cold War compelled liberals to be more concerned with national self-defense. Turner argues that despite liberal attempts to promote freedom and spontaneity these attempts are always fettered by managerialism of some sort. The museum installations, for example, may give patrons the opportunity to browse freely, but that freedom is constrained by the options offered by installation designers. In combating this encroaching managerialism, 1960s radicals attempted to achieve radical spontaneity through Be-Ins and other artistic endeavors only to throw a meaningful, unified set of liberal values out along with the managerialism. This is why I read the end of “The Democratic Surround” as tragic. Be-In participants were rebelling against the right problems – indeed the same forces of control that had galvanized their parents – but did so in a way that led to political and intellectual fragmentation.

      I think Corey’s description of the book as “wistful” is correct. Turner’s account is often upbeat, but there is a sadness in his longing for a recent past rendered distant by rapid changes in values and politics.

  4. I find Turner’s work to have a great ambivalence to it: he appreciates the efforts of intellectuals to try to harness technology for democratic ends, but wants to guard against Wired magazine-style google-eyed techno-utopianism. I would love to hear him spell out this ambivalence a bit more!

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