U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Introducing: S-USIH 2016 Conference Headliner Fred Turner

This is a missive from your 2016 S-USIH Conference Chair, Jennifer Burns. – TL
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You find intellectual historians in the darndest of places. Fred Turner, one of our 2016 conference headliners, embraces his identity as an intellectual historian even though he hasn’t spent any time in a history department. After nearly a decade as a journalist, Turner returned to academia, receiving a Ph.D. in communications from UC San Diego. He then took up a professorship in Stanford’s Department of Communication, where he’s demonstrated the importance of humanistic and historical approaches even in a discipline tending ever more quantitative. Widely recognized as an authority on the history of Silicon Valley, Turner’s scholarship spans a broad range of intellectual concerns, knit together by archival research and skillful cultural analysis. I’m thrilled the 2016 Conference provides a venue for S-USIH members to learn more about this prolific historian in hiding, so herewith a brief overview of his oeuvre.

Turner’s first book, Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War (Minnesota, 2001), authored when Turner was a professional journalist, traces the legacy of the Vietnam war through the prism of memory. Using veteran’s testimony, films, memoir, and literature, Turner argues that the war undermined American myths of manhood and justice, leading to a subsequent attempt to reconstruct a moral order in its wake. Ranging from the men’s movement to the “Vietnam syndrome,” Turner’s book is an important cultural history of Vietnam’s legacy for both the individual and political psyche.

Turner’s second book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago, 2006), is a celebrated and widely influential account of the connections between the 1960s counterculture and the emergent computer culture of the 1970s through the 1990s. Turner begins with the question: how did the computer transform from the quintessential establishment machine of the 1950s, linked with big business, big government, and hierarchical bureaucracy, to a technology widely imagined to liberate individuals and foster a more egalitarian, networked world?

He roots the story first in the collaborative wartime R&D models pioneered in Silicon Valley defense work during World War II, and then shifts his focus to the impresario Stewart Brand, a key node between seemingly disparate worlds. Following a period of deep immersion in the Bay Area countercultural movement, in 1968 Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog to sell “technologies for living,” such as geodesic domes, star charts, and leather jackets. Aimed first at the communes that flourished in the 1970s, the Whole Earth Catalog achieved cult status among early environmentalists and leaders of the appropriate technology movement. After shutting down the catalog, in the 1980s Brand threw the first Hacker Conference and then founded the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), one of the earliest electronic bulletin board systems.

Turner shows how Brand imbued this early computer community with a countercultural sensibility, making it a natural refuge for many disillusioned communards then returning to the Bay Area after their utopian hopes had faded. He traces the development of institutions like Wired magazine and Global Business Network out of this community, showing how the counterculture and computer worlds fused into a culture with a distinctive libertarian flavor that grew to encompass key policymakers like Newt Gingrich. In turn, this had important ramifications on state regulation of the Internet, particularly the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Essentially, Brand’s countercultural roots helped “legitimate calls for telecommunications deregulation and smaller government” and nurtured a discourse which framed “the interests of the marketplace and those of the public as if they were fundamentally synonymous.”

Turner’s book therefore connects a richly textured narrative of Bay Area cultural experimentation to a larger rightward shift in the nation’s politics. Further, Turner demonstrates that the supposedly egalitarian and non-hierarchical networks fostered by computer culture remained disproportionately white and male. Based upon close analysis of counterculture materials and deep archival work in Brand’s papers and related collections, From Counterculture to Cyberculture traces the financial, institutional, and cultural networks that undergirded the emergence of Silicon Valley.

In his third book, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (Chicago, 2013), Turner writes a prequel to the counterculture, relating the be-ins and acid tests of the 1960s to an earlier generation’s fears of fascism. [See Matthew Linton’s S-USIH review here.] He traces an influential group of intellectuals, including anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, who saw in the rise of fascism a dangerous portent of how media could shape human personality. Under the auspices of the Rockefeller-funded Committee for National Morale, these intellectuals mapped out distinctive “authoritarian” and “democratic” personalities. They then joined forces with avant garde artists like the modernist composer John Cage and the refugee designers of the German Bauhaus school. Together, these artists and intellectuals worked to craft media suitable to the “democratic personality” of the postwar era. What emerged were the first immersive multi-media environments, mixing together sound, image, and space.

Turner shows that multimedia was not just an artistic experiment, but an explicitly political project. By exposing viewers to a disorienting jumble of sights and sounds in an immersive media environment, Mead, Bateson, and their sponsors believed the subsequent process of integration modeled the practices of tolerance, flexibility, and openness that democracy required. During the Cold War era, these environments became even more overtly political when they were used by the United States Information Agency (USIA) as anti-Soviet propaganda at World Fairs.

Turner is particularly good at describing how state power encrusted around these ideas in the service of Cold War propaganda. USIA gathered information about Soviets in the guise of giving them information about the United States, an early version of the contemporary corporate exchange of information for surveillance. When the counterculture began experimenting with laser light shows and distorted feedback loops as part of a new quest for human liberation, they remained oblivious to this ironic history and thus blind to new forms of social power they might unwittingly underwrite.

But the payoff of the book is even larger, for Turner helpfully reinserts fascism into the history of Cold War liberalism. An oft-told narrative about American liberalism is the transition from class to culture, driven by McCarthyism. Turner’s work suggests that it is not simply a case of left/labor liberals suddenly constrained by the Cold War. Rather, the shift away from class was also driven by a different set of intellectuals who developed a novel theory of culture based on the ways in which cultures mediate, transform, and combine individual psychologies into a national psyche. This gives us a different account of the rise of psychology, a story in which psychology and the therapeutic are not depoliticized, but in fact are political responses.

More than a historian of technology, Turner is a gifted and influential historian of modern America who straddles the boundary between cultural, intellectual, and political history. If you haven’t read his work yet, I encourage you to dip into one of his illuminating books before next year’s conference.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks Jennifer! Fred Turner is going to make an excellent keynote, I’m sure. Do you know if Fred has written anything on intellectual history, either generally or about specific works? Just curious. It would be nice to triangulate him with other historians and in the historiography (or perhaps theoretically). – TL

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