Media in the Democratic State

By Jathan SadowskiMarch 12, 2014

Media in the Democratic State

The Democratic Surround by Fred Turner

DEMOCRACY — like other political systems — often seems like a static state of being. Like it’s external to us: we possess it or we don’t; we’re in it or we’re not. But this isn’t quite correct. Democracy is less a state of being than one of becoming — always dynamic, rather than something you can permanently attain. In this view, democracy works like muscles in the human body, which have to be exercised, developed, bulked, and used to avoid the risk of atrophy and weakness. But how can democratic muscles effectively be developed?

For many early to mid-century American social scientists and artists, the idea of democratic practices wasting away, unexercised, was particularly frightening. The rising threat of fascism (and later, and differently, Communism) made strengthening democracy seem increasingly urgent. Fred Turner, a professor of communications at Stanford, charts the history of these thinkers in The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties. While not ultimately as rich a political history as one might want, The Democratic Surround offers meaningful insight into a crucial period of media transformation. This era, Turner convincingly shows, is not dissimilar from — and has repercussions for how we understand — our own multimedia culture.

The book details how the construction of “multi-image, multi-sound-source media environments,” which he calls “surrounds,” were developed in order to push back at the perceived dangers of World War II–era totalitarian media use. It’s worth quoting, at length, Turner’s summary of the book’s raison d'être:

In the months leading up to America’s entry into World War II, Hitler’s success [and use of multimedia like radio and video] haunted American intellectuals, artists, and government officials. Key figures in each of these communities hoped to help exhort their fellow citizens to come together and confront the growing fascist menace. But how could they do that, they wondered, if mass media tended to turn the psyches of their audiences in authoritarian directions? Was there a mode of communication that could produce more democratic individuals? A more democratic polity? And for that matter, what was a democratic person?

Turner begins his study in Nazi Germany, where the regime’s effective use of technologies like radio and film — to broadcast propaganda, influence opinion, and ignite fanaticism — spurred careful research (for both German and US scientists) about the nature and implications of multimedia. The study of political propaganda became an entire cottage industry during this time, with institutions, scholarly movements, and government initiatives working to figure out how media messages could manipulate entire groups of people. When they looked at the events unfolding across Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union at the time, “American journalists and social scientists saw their longstanding anxieties about the power of mass media harden into a specific fear that newspapers, radio, and film were engines of fascist socialization.” If this were the case, it meant mass media’s rapid spread, within America and around the world, poised a foreboding threat to liberal democracy.

In trying to do their part for American liberalism, psychologists became interested in figuring out the nature of morale and national character — two crucial factors, they believed, in resisting and fighting back against the psyche-fracturing, “nerve-tactics” of fascist propaganda. In 1942, the influential psychologist Gordon Allport argued, “In a democracy, every personality can be a citadel for resistance to tyranny.” It’s here where we start seeing the theoretical motivation for the surrounds as a way of helping people integrate their disparate psyche into a stalwart, democratic personality. Turner writes, “In place of instrumental, message-driven modes of communication” — like the kind used by the Nazis to influence and control people — “[the psychologists] developed a theory of what I will call surrounds — arrays of images and words built into environments that their audiences could enter freely, act spontaneously within, and leave at will.” Psychologists imagined that these surrounds would provide opportunities for practicing the types of rational, self-motivated choice necessary for developing a democratic personality.

And surrounds would have a decidedly visual aesthetic thanks to the refugee artists and designers of the Bauhaus school who were becoming part of the American intellectual and art scene, after fleeing the very Nazi powers US social scientists hoped to push against. The Bauhaus were an ideological complement to the Americans; as Turner explains, “Their fascination with the role of the individual in industrial society became a fascination with self-actualization in democratic society.” Using their expertise in constructing multimedia installations, the Bauhaus members filled a crucial role in bringing to life nascent ideas about developing the democratic personality. They gave material form to psychologists’ functional concepts by, Turner writes, encouraging “viewers to practice psychological self-sufficiency as they chose dishes from the visual banquet [the designer] had laid out.” Through the Bauhaus’ displays, museums — with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City acting like a flagship — soon became active places of what ultimately was pro-democratic propaganda.

Turner offers similar contexts for understanding how surrounds interacted with aural elements. The composer and experimental pianist John Cage — most well known now for his infamous “silent” composition, 4’33’’ — claimed until the 1960s that his work had nothing to do with politics. But Turner shows how Cage used his musical works to, like the Bauhaus, create “environments in which could practice the psychological skills that social scientists at the time believed to be the keys to democratic citizenship.” Cage is a fascinating character, and Turner devotes an entire, long chapter to profiling him and his role in the social, psychological, and aesthetic aspects of conceptualizing and creating the surrounds that began springing up in fairs, museums, and other places, both formally and informally.

The Democratic Surround spends its latter half venturing further into how these theories and multimedia practices spread during the early Cold War decades. Chapters focus, respectively, on increasing concerns about developing and creating democratic personalities in the Cold War era; the growing role of the MoMA and global traveling exhibits-cum-surrounds like The Family of Man (this later work was staged to combat Soviet, rather than fascist, influence); and how information and propaganda arms of the US government became interested in how surrounds could achieve nationalistic purposes. The book then ends by explaining how the counterculture, beginning in the 1960s, evolved out of the earlier contexts Turner describes — surrounds became “Happenings,” the prototypical mode of performance and protest. This ending is fitting since The Democratic Surround is an explicit prequel to Turner’s 2008 book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which spans the early 1960s to the late 1990s. The books are worth reading together as a valuable single study of 60 years of technological politics and discourse.

Both of Turner’s books are well researched and clear; even if their style can be middling — not quite dull nor exciting — and densely packed with details. And their overall structure is a relatively easy to follow chronology. Each of The Democratic Surround’s chapters focus on a coherent set of ideas, practices, and people — all of which have some role to play in the larger theme of multimedia surrounds and democratic ideals and practices — and over all they manage to pull together a breadth of topics. To Turner’s credit, many of the chapters can be quite easily extracted and treated as stand alone essays.

The Democratic Surround, however, despite its interest in tying technology to ideological culture, is surprisingly — and unfortunately — lightweight on politics. There are scarcely even musings, let alone explication and analysis, on the political concepts, practices, and events occupying Turner’s book. His treatment of these subjects is disappointingly thin; it lacks both critical commentary and essential explanations that might clarify concepts for the reader (like what does “American liberalism” really mean in this context and how does that change over time?). The endeavors and ideas of Turner’s subjects are presented through rose-colored lens, which it’s not clear they always deserve. The book would have done well with a bridging chapter that steps back and gives the reader a solid, meta-reflective perspective. There’s plenty of room — and much need — for a more critical stance towards the politics, discourse, ideologies, and influence of the theories and practices described within.

For instance, Turner writes, “from the distance of our own time, the surround clearly represented the rise of a managerial mode of a control: a mode in which people might be free to choose their experiences, but only from a menu written by experts.” This aspect of the surround is ripe for further inquiry, especially considering that the time period also saw the rise of technocratic movements. But Turner doesn’t address this connection. How did or did not the expert-driven characteristics of surrounds fit into the context of these ideologies? Are the surrounds a version of technocracy? We don’t get much of a sense of these, or other, political questions.

Certainly Turner is a communications professor interested in tracing the history of a specific set of democratic uses for multimedia, and it’s reasonable that he focus on his sphere of expertise rather than writing a more political history. Yet Turner has set himself up to do politics-of-technology; the book title at least is indicative of such a project. And it’s primarily here where the book falters. His ample and interesting historical research usefully grounds the book, but it also raises more complex conceptual questions he would do well to answer with more critical attention.

Further, Turner hints in the book’s beginning that understanding these past visions of multimedia contributes to a contemporary understanding of media technologies’ political roles. But he doesn’t actually extrapolate to the present. That’s apparently a job left up to the reader. There are obvious connections to be made with the all too common exhortations of digital diplomacy via apps and social media like Twitter and Facebook—modern surrounds are wired and mobile. However, unlike the fears of authoritarianism accompanying early multimedia technologies, contemporary “new media” are laden with ideals of mass democratization. (Perhaps this is evidence of the persistent success of the democratic surrounds’ concepts in technological culture?)

Finally, then, The Democratic Surround’s greatest frustrations come from its greatest strengths: unlike many historical studies, it offers a meaningful platform for building new and applicable ideas. But often, rather than providing these ideas itself, it strays into long presentations of unneeded detail leaving me feeling alternatively overfed and hungry for more. But if read primarily as an informational starting point, Turner’s book offers an important look at how our technologies might, or might not, resonate with the democratic politics many of us hope to better exercise.


Jathan Sadowski (@jathansadowski) is a freelance writer and PhD student in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University.

LARB Contributor

Jathan Sadowski is the author of Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World (2020). He co-hosts a weekly podcast on technology and political economy called This Machine Kills. He is senior research fellow at Monash University.


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