We at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, got an email on November 25, 2015, inviting us to town hall meetings in early December about a campus-wide Design Center that has been in the works for a couple of years. The Design Center website also solicits input, but does not indicate to whom this input should be directed. So I am taking a blanket blog approach….
Acknowledging that the last few years at this institution have been particularly fraught with unethical, intolerant and/or incompetent behavior, which has, among other results, decimated Indigenous Studies, caused morale among students, staff and faculty to plummet, and filled many positions on an interim basis, not to mention diverted attention from efforts like the Design Center planning, I would still like to stress that the timeline for input about the Center is ridiculously tight. How are adjustments to be made using that input, when the architects are to get the brief early in 2016 (as I understand it)? That said, I thank those who have clearly put substantial time into developing the proposal. Given the short amount of time, I have just sketched a few ideas, informed by science and technology studies as well as my presence on campus for 30 years.
I suggest a focus on a “Design Differently” Center.
First, consider and learn from past campus efforts, some of which are still ongoing. (A range of past experiential learning and interdisciplinary research efforts include: Urban Exchange, Civitas Community Design Center, East St. Louis Action Research Project, Center on Democracy in a Multi-Racial Society, Unit One/Allen Hall and other Living-Learning Centers, iCHASS, Illinois Informatics Institute…) Large sums of money were sometimes spent, often with little agreement on what success might look like. While “success” should be regularly considered and, possibly, redefined, the experimental nature of these research and pedagogical efforts must accommodate “failure,” and an institutional acceptance of some messy vitality.
Next, I am bothered by the staffing model proposed, with “technicians” placed in a hierarchy that, once again, is topped by a tenured faculty member. In “designing differently,” I suggest that the Design Center’s key challenges will be social, not technical: instead of staffing the Center “as usual,” I would encourage a redesign where students direct the programming and have a substantial say in budget allocations, technologists are integral to planning and implementation of programming, and where communication among users, non-users, and possible users is a key priority. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a faculty member couldn’t direct the Center, but the staffing should be as carefully designed as the physical plant. As a “hub,” the Center will be a socio-technical construction. The technical aspects, I believe, will be far easier to handle. If the social infrastructure consistently and continually challenges gender and racialized norms, contends with issues of ability and economics, and critiques the intended and unintended impacts of items that are “designed,” that will be an innovative design center!
Anne Balsamo in her 2011 book, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, stressed “how innovation could be even more innovative in its scope of vision for the future if it were to take culture as the precondition and horizon of creative effort” (p. 3.) She then proceeded to list lessons about technoculture innovation, which I quote here, though I have cut out her useful commentary to keep this short:
- Innovations are historically constituted.
- Innovations are not objects, but rather assemblages of practices, materialities and affordances.
- Innovation is an articulatory and performative process, in that efforts of many people must be integrated.
- Innovation manifests the dual logic of technological reproduction; it both replicates previous and makes new possibilities.
- Designing is an important process of cultural reproduction. Creativity is a cultural construct.
- Designing is as much about social negotiation as it is about creativity.
- Designing is a process where the matter of the world becomes meaningful.
- Technological innovation is inherently multidisciplinary.
- Technological innovation offers the possibility of doing things differently.
- Failure is productive.
Technology is material
Technology involves embodiment
Technology solicits affect
Technology requires labor
Technology is situated in particular contexts
Technology expresses political values
Technology depends on tacit knowledge practices
I hope the Design Center intentionally focuses on students, particularly underserved and marginalized students, who are already working to design better, more just social structures and who foster critical examinations of what is innovative and who is being served by innovations.
 Impact constituencies are those who lose due to the design and maintenance of new technological systems. See John Staudenmaier, “The Politics of Successful Technologies,” In In Context: History and the History of Technology: Essays in Honor of Melvin Kranzberg. Research in Technology Studies, v. 1, Stephen Cutcliffe and Robert Post, eds. (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1989), 150-171.
 Anne Balsamo, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination as Work (Duke University Press, 2011), 8-13, 25.
Hans Haacke’s sculpture for the Fourth Plinth, Gift Horse, installed in Trafalgar Square in March 2015 has been much on my mind. The prominent public location in London, the ribbon of stock prices scrolling in a bow around the skeletal horse’s neck, and the conversation Haacke had with Jon Bird at the Institute for Contemporary Art in March…artist as interlocutor of capitalism, toxic culture, animal relations, monuments. That horse’s skull is the stuff of nightmares.
Recently the federal government distributed a Call for Proposals for Performance Partnership Pilot (P3) projects. A group of us locally has been considering how we might participate. Aside from the enormous amount of work involved in submitting a federal grant, and the long-shot nature of such an effort, another aspect has been giving me pause: the focus on what the grant labels “disconnected youth.” This labeling seems to be the wrong way ’round. It is our schools and many other institutions which are disconnected from youth; the youth themselves already have left the institutions behind that are not serving them. Trying to remain brief and positive, I wrote the following manifesto.
Champaign-Urbana Coalition for Youth Advocacy and Action (Y2A)
NOT another organization! | NOT another youth program!
We want all youth to thrive.
We want to put youth at the center of our community.
We are the leaders we have been waiting for.
This work is urgent because our youth cannot and should not wait.
We want to welcome youth into communities of learning.
We learn in relationships. We learn through connecting.
We want to create settings where less experienced learners work alongside others.
We learn when immersed deeply in specific problems.
Given opportunities and time to practice, we all gain mastery and motivation.
Mastery deepens connections—to each other, to life roles, to knowledge.
We aim to treat young people as capable and responsible.
Yet, we do not want to put youth into situations for which they are not prepared.
We want to do real work, which is really hard work.
This work requires that we take care of each other.
We want to challenge each other to tackle problems that are complex.
Individual experiences, influences, and ways of becoming are also complex:
Truth is not the same for everyone.
We require a wide variety of skills and approaches for our endeavors.
We aim to focus on concrete, collective tasks and not on egos.
A range of feelings is part of any effort, and we must attend to and manage emotions.
We must celebrate short-term goals and accomplishments, while thinking big.
Our work will be assessed together; reflection and feedback will inform next steps.
We are part of, but bigger than, our local communities.
We want to risk justice. This requires patience and endurance.
Youth are connected: to their passions, bodies, friends and loved ones.
Adults must connect to youth.
Background sources for this statement:
Boggs, G.E. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
FemTechNet Manifesto, 2014.
Halpern, R., Heckman, P., & Larson, R. “Realizing the Potential of Learning in Middle Adolescence.” The Sally and Dick Roberts Coyote Foundation, 2013.
Knowle West Media Centre (Bristol, UK).
Heath Schultz wrote last year about the sadness he felt living in these times. (See the full and excellent dialogue with Sarah Kanouse: Sarah Kanouse & Heath Schultz (2013) “Notes on Affective Practice: An Exchange,” Parallax 19:2, 7-20.) Heath reflected:
[S]adness is not a neurosis stemming from my ‘personal’ life. Instead I’d like to insist, as others have before, on recognizing it as a political condition, a by-product of our lives under capitalism. The personal is political, as it has always been. Our time, bodies and minds are inscribed with capitalist competitiveness (we hustle to live, if some more than others), rhythms (cybertime, or hyper-speed) and productivity (more & more & more). We know that the American, and increasingly global, way of life is a farce, a tale told to keep us moving. These are the rhythms of our everyday, the geography of our psyches and the landscape that produces our political depression in the form of sadness, fear, boredom, ambivalence, loneliness, depression, impotence and anxiety.
Every day there have been horrible and tragic events unfolding around the globe, but this semester seemed especially to foster despair: Even before the term began, the University of Illinois Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, reneged on the hiring of Professor Steven Salaita. (See my three previous posts.) On August 9, 18-year-old Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri; there were 43 students murdered in September in the Mexican state of Guerrero. On November 24 a grand jury refused to indict (former) Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Mike Brown; on December 3, a Staten Island, NY, grand jury refused to indict any of the police officers involved in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner. So much injustice, so many people and places I have not even mentioned. But once a week I gathered with nine graduate students at the University of Illinois in a Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC), “Collaborations in Feminism and Technology,” and for three hours we discussed feminist technoculture and benefited from FemTechNet resources. This was a respite for me, building some solidarity in a place of alienation.
Here are some highlights:
- We hosted the artist Bonnie Fortune (Denmark via Chicago) early in the term. She shared her research about feminist hacker spaces.
- We edited Wikipedia, after learning from the late Adrianne Wadewitz about the ins and outs of that huge endeavor. One student wrote and illustrated entries for women who are often categorized as “outsider” artists: Mollie Jenson, Annie Hooper, and Kea Tawana. He took advantage of materials at Intuit Center.
- Three of the students participated in HASTAC, writing introductory blog posts and, together with another student, submitting a proposal for the HASTAC conference in May.
- Another student created a LibGuide for teen librarians to learn about resources available related to teens with disabilities. She also compiled a bibliography on books related to suffragettes, artists and pilots (Oh My!), together with a display in the Center for Children’s Books. Did you know about the Amelia Bloomer Project? I didn’t, but now I do, thanks to this DOCC seminar!
- One participant took to the road and attended a number of workshops on youth and technology, in Champaign and in Chicago, and wrote three lesson plans to be used in the local FabLab or MakerSpace.
- A doctoral student attended the Digital Labor conference at The New School in New York City and reported back about the “long table” discussion about FemTechNet that took place there.
- A couple of students made videos that communicated their research, whether on early video technology and masculinity or on video games for youth. The youth focus materialized in a Minecraft workshop at the local public library.
- Another continued her research on the Coursera MOOC class on sustainable development taught by Jeffrey Sachs, analyzing the course material in relation to global gender equality.
- International online education and women’s varied engagements with it were the topics of another student project.
- A couple of us attended via Skype a panel discussion on Open Education: Condition Critical, held at Coventry University.
- A seasoned Wikipedian joined the Wikipedia Page Curation task force, reviewing over 250 pages in a month.
- We all learned about Li Shuang (b. 1957), included in a doctoral student presentation about contemporary Chinese female artists in the global context.
- We also learned about a local artist’s involvement with experimental music in New York and Illinois through an oral interview conducted by one student.
- Cricket Keating, a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Ohio State, met online with our class and discussed her articles on coalition building as well as her activity with La Escuela Popular Norteña. I met with Cricket’s class via Skype to discuss Place.
- We started a glossary of terms that helped us work through some of the readings and FemTechNet videos.
- We joined two Open Online Office Hours (OOOHs) with other FemTechNet-ers to discuss Archives and Bodies with, at various times, TL Cowan, Karl Surkan, Veronica Paredes, Rachel Kuo, and others.
- At the suggestion of Melissa Meade and Cricket Keating, we used Today’s Meet a couple of times, learning a rhythm of interacting with others at a distance when sync-watching a Video Dialogue on Race.
- The Situated Knowledges Map came up in our discussions several times and at least one student contributed to it.
- One student joined FemTechNet’s Student Committee; another joined the Communication Committee–thank you!
- In between all these activities, we had wide-ranging conversations in which I learned and learned and learned: about locker baby syndrome, “speaking pain,” Tumblr, challenges of gender-neutral language in Spanish, Patchwork Girl, Wu Tsang, the meanings of “motorcycle” in Taiwan, Anne Elizabeth Moore, multiple apps and on and on!
Of course, we talked about Steve Salaita, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and others, because in some form they were in our classroom too.
I created a game, Admin Lingo Bingo, to play at meetings where administrators are talking about diversity. I pulled the terms used in the bingo cards from the MASSMAILs from the University of Illinois administration this fall. First was the August 22, 2014, email from Chancellor Phyllis Wise, “The Principles on Which We Stand,” in which she addressed the “decision not to recommend further action by the Board of Trustees concerning [Professor Steven Salaita’s] potential appointment to the faculty.” A second message, “An Atmosphere for Learning,” followed that same day from President Easter and Board President Kennedy. Then, in this month of mandatory ethics testing for us, the staff of the University, when many of us are mega-annoyed at this seemingly sham exercise, Chancellor Wise sent another email on October 10 to “reaffirm our campus commitment to equal opportunity, affirmative action, and equal access.” These are words that seem especially empty of meaning this fall.
In Sara Ahmed’s compelling book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Duke, 2012), she warns against policies substituting for action. This strategy of substitution, or redirection of effort away from fundamental systemic change, has been refined over the years at most educational institutions. She asks: “What does it mean to be good at equality or diversity, or for equality or diversity to be a measure of good?…When diversity work becomes a matter of writing documents, it can participate in the separation of diversity work from institutional work. Diversity becomes a matter of rearranging things, so that an organization can appear in the best way.” Ahmed continues:
The arrival of audit systems into higher education involves adopting self-regulatory mechanisms from the private sector, in particular from finance, by the public sector. …Institutional performance involves an increasing self-consciousness about how to perform well in these systems, by generating the right kinds of procedures, methods, and materials, where rightness is determined as the fulfillment of the requirements of a system…. Doing well involves generating the right kinds of appearance. (pp. 84-87)
Ahmed’s book is full of stories of compliance, paper-shuffling, and angry and frustrated staff who feel that diversity and inclusion have been hollowed out in the regulatory, auditable methods of our institutions. I’d like to think that perhaps if we play Admin Lingo Bingo it is possible that we might begin hearing ourselves speak and then challenge ourselves to walk that talk.
I am reading Glen Sean Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks (2014). One strategy I use when I am confused and trying to figure out next steps in politico-cultural action is to pick a book like Coulthard’s and find passages in it that help me understand what might be going on. Not that Coulthard is or should be the last word, or that he speaks for all First Nations people, or that he speaks for all Dene or Weledeh Dene people, but nevertheless there is much I am learning from him about Indigenous studies and colonial relations. And, Indigenous studies is at the center of my anguish about the undermining and disrespect of American Indian Studies and the unconscionable treatment of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois.
The University of Illinois is a colonial enterprise. A land-grant institution, it sits on stolen land, exploits resources inequitably, and profits from and reinforces a long history of racism. That could be said of many institutions and agencies in the United States, of course, but I am trying to name and describe the situation at my “home” institution since I feel so angry and alienated here. Coulthard writes: “Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element….[C]olonialism [is] a form of structured dispossession” (p. 7).
We are not going to “get over” the Salaita debacle until we “get” some very fundamental problems with current university priorities. And these priorities are very slippery—Public Relations spins them in a mind-boggling number of ways. Coulthard again: “[A]ny strategy geared toward authentic decolonization must directly confront more than mere economic relations; it has to account for the multifarious ways in which capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the totalizing character of state power interact with one another to form the constellation of power relations that sustain colonial patterns of behavior, structures, and relationships” (p. 14). This convergence of relations seems like a brick wall, though assuredly there are cracks. One crack is that some have started to mis-behave: some are no longer acting like “colonized subjects.” This behavior appears rude and uncivil to those in power, and even to some of us watching from positions of less power.
Coulthard identifies time as a major axis along which Western views align; this aids in a linear assessment that declares many oppressions to be in the past. Viewed as a “legacy,” racism is far easier to discuss (even though we don’t even do that) than it is to face the attitudes and structures that support our institutions and lives in the present. Quoting Vine Deloria, Jr., Coulthard notes the gulf between these approaches: “‘When one group is concerned with the philosophical problem of space and the other with the philosophical problem of time, then the statements of either group do not make much sense when transferred from one context to the other without proper consideration of what is taking place.’” And yet the University seems to be uninterested in having Indigenous viewpoints ‘make sense’ within the institution, insisting that they be “reconcilable with one political formation—namely, colonial sovereignty—and one mode of production—namely, capitalism” (p. 66).
The University administration would like Salaita’s de-hiring and their egregious treatment of American Indian Studies to be in the past, so that “we” can move on. “[R]econciliation becomes temporally framed as the process of individually and collectively overcoming the harmful ‘legacy’ left in the wake of this past abuse,” writes Coulthard, “while leaving the present structure…largely unscathed…. In the context of ongoing settler-colonial injustice, Indigenous peoples’ anger and resentment can indicate a sign of moral protest and political outrage that we ought to at least take seriously, if not embrace as a sign of our critical consciousness” (p. 22).
In response to the Salaita de-hiring and its many implications, there have been valuable panels about academic freedom; important forums about Israel and Palestine; perhaps-useful listening sessions with faculty about governance. I acknowledge the hard work of organizing these opportunities for discussion, these small steps that are significant nonetheless. These events are also not frequent enough–despite people’s exhaustion at organizing and attending forums, panels and meetings–because time-consuming interactions around these issues are crucial to witness each other’s responses. At these events, may we feel the tension, experience the hostility, and stay with the moments of embodied discomfort. That is compassion: being with each other, often in pain. The constant “background field” for these University events is “the reproduction of hierarchical social relations that facilitate the dispossession of…lands and self-determining capacities” (pp. 14-15).
I want to stand with those unwilling or unable to “move on.” I want to “take seriously” the anger and resentment. I believe I must embrace these emotional and intersectional analyses. They point not only to negative conditions now, but also offer “invaluable glimpses into the ethical practices and preconditions required for the construction of a more just and sustainable world order” (p. 12). I don’t have any ready answers to what my “stand” looks like…yet.
I write on a very muggy day in central Illinois. It’s a day made for thinking about bad air, toxic humors, fuzzy minds, and muddled actions. The concerns around the unhiring of Steven Salaita have preoccupied me for a month. I will not go over ground so ably covered elsewhere, but I need to sort out the tangle of issues that have accompanied the polarizing non-discussions occurring on this campus. If I could separate some of the tangle into various, named threads, maybe I could begin to find ways to talk to others. Here goes.
The fluctuating state of public, higher education:
How public is it? Who pays for it? What do different stakeholders mean by education?
The governance of the UI
How is a large research university governed? In reality? Aspirationally? Is there shared governance with faculty? What percentage of the faculty care about sharing governance? Does the governor have a say in the academic programs? Do and should the University trustees on the governor-appointed board have a say in the academic programs? There are statutes that govern these areas—are they being ignored, distorted, or followed?
The race for the next governor
Does the incumbent Quinn’s contested race have anything to do with the current crisis at the University of Illinois? Is Quinn trying to prove anything? And to whom?
The search for a new president of the University of Illinois
Who will the new president be, supposedly due to be announced in a month? Does Phyllis Wise want to be president? After the forced resignations of Joe White and Mike Hogan, do we know what this job is supposed to be?
The new engineering-based College of Medicine on the Champaign campus
So, Carle Foundation and the UIUC campus administrators are pushing hard for this. There’s money to be made by some folks, though not the schools, parks, and citizens of Urbana, who continue to get heavily taxed while Carle runs its “not-for-profit” healthcare empire. What does this have to do with the current administration’s behavior? Is the College of Medicine agenda—and its corporate funding—trumping other agendas?
Money talks and prompts action
Do the perceptions of major donors drive the upper-level administrative decisions?
There’s the apparently pro-chancellor Faculty Senate, the divided committees, the pro-union, mostly anti-chancellor Campus Faculty Association, the north/engineering campus, the liberal arts college, the well-funded ag college, and the departments that have voted “no confidence” in the chancellor and the Board of Trustees. The artists and humanists feel and mostly are trivialized and underfunded. How do we get out of this impasse? Would anyone but the artists and humanists notice if the arts and humanities disappeared?
“Academic freedom” is a phrase that gets batted around on all sides. The American Association of University Professors has defined it, and the UI supposedly endorses this. Of course, abstractions are pretty easy to support; it is when we have to embody and speak the details that things get rough.
Anti-racist, inclusive campus
What would our campus be like if it truly centered the goals and ideas of the American Indian Studies program and other “ethnic” and gender studies programs? What does inclusion mean here? What reparations do we need to implement to address centuries of racism and violence on this land?
If something angry, polemical, or horrified is expressed in 140 characters, is that part of a scholarly record? Where are the lines now between a private citizen and a public intellectual? Who gets to decide these distinctions, can such decisions even be enforced, and enforced fairly?
I haven’t even discussed Steven Salaita; it’s hard to fathom where to start. I have left out so many other aspects too, but naming and questioning contributes to the necessarily ongoing process of facing and challenging the swamp that is Illinois.
What became known as a mouse was demonstrated in 1968 by Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). The idea occurred to Engelbart in 1964, when he attended a computer graphics conference and wanted to have a way to move the cursor on the screen. He then worked with engineers and drafters at Stanford to create a wooden case to hold the mechanics. The video on the Stanford site shows Engelbart using the mouse and keyboard in Clip 3; there are three buttons on that mouse. Many other aspects of the online system that SRI developed were also showcased on that December day in 1968.
Thirty years ago, according to Scientific American, Apple was the first company to sell a mouse as standard equipment with their 1984 Mackintosh model. Logitech claims to have built and sold over a billion mouses, sometimes referred to as “mice.” Now, “mouses” are an endangered species, with touch screens, touch pads and embedded accelerometers quickly becoming the main ways to communicate with computers.
Apparently the mouse got its name due to its tail, or wire, that connected it to the computer. Engelbart said he had no idea why it was called a mouse; he initially called it a bug. So that got me thinking about how many descriptive words stay the same despite changes in the forms of objects they describe. Many mouses no longer have “tails” because they are wireless.
In 2013, I asked artist Conrad Bakker to make a Kensington black wireless mouse sculpture for me, as part of his series, “Anything You Want.” Conrad teaches at the University of Illinois, and paints and sculpts ordinary objects in order to analyze their roles in our economies and daily lives. His examination of political economies was especially salient with “Anything You Want” because the project meant that we discussed the monetary value of the item I wanted, after my initial application to him. What is art worth anyway? The market so often confers a cost on an artistic product that seems incomprehensible in relation to many other items we purchase. For me, art is worth a lot, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, but I am hard-pressed to give it a dollar value. I cannot afford to buy most of the art that I love, if it were for sale in the first place. Anyway, I was fortunate that I could participate in Conrad’s project, and get a sculpture.
I sent him images of the Kensington mouse and he was willing to “construct the requested thing out of wood and paint, at an approximate 1:1 scale to the original.” We formally agreed on the amount that I would pay as well as other ways in which I would compensate him. Conrad asked that I keep mum about the “dollar amount [I] paid for the thing.” Not long after we signed our contract, Engelbart died at the age of 88.
That the Kensington K72352US has a red trackball was like a “cherry on top” for me. Conrad painted the base grey and matched the red of the sculpted trackball with its plastic counterpart. While I do not own an actual wireless mouse, I find my hand-crafted one very funny as well as historically apt, since the Engelbart’s mouse was constructed of pine.
Fred Turner’s 2013 book, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia & American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (University of Chicago Press), is a readable prequel (as he called it) to his previous book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In researching the earlier book, Turner was intrigued with the ways in which the 1940s and 1950s in the US introduced ideas that gained prominence in the 1960s and, he claimed, this foreshadowing challenges the view that the 1960s was “top-to-bottom revolution” (p. 8). He observed that Bauhaus designers who joined with psychologists and cultural critics created a “new media genre” that he called “democratic surrounds” comprised of multi-source multiple images, which in turn fostered the “ecstatic multimedia utopianism” of the 1960s (p. 2). According to Turner, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson developed a theory of “surrounds” as “arrays of images and words built into environments that their audiences could enter freely, act spontaneously within and leave at will” (p. 63). Turner’s fascinating account of the interconnections of social scientists and museum professionals described the “symbolic environments in which Americans could make meanings for themselves…cafeteria style” (p. 74). Mead and Bateson, channeled by Turner, “envisioned the museum as the proper setting for a new kind of propaganda: one that would nurture both the individual democratic personality and the collective sense of national purpose” (p. 75).
The communication between the self and the social world that took place in these surrounds shaped individuals and their societies (p. 47). Turner summarized Erich Fromm’s papers about “the relationship between the personality and mass communication, [noting that s]ociety and psyche formed a feedback loop” (p. 51). Turner provided a genealogy for this psycho-cultural media relationship by analyzing some of the ideas of the Bauhaus, Herbert Bayer (“extended field of vision”) and László Moholy-Nagy’s “wildly vertiginous aesthetic” (the New Vision, p. 82). Turner worked with great material here and, perhaps, is presenting these theories in a new context to his disciplinary colleagues in Communication. In Turner’s intersection of the social and the personal, I stumbled, however. While I appreciate his not inconsiderable efforts to identify and describe the ideas of Korzybski, Hayakawa, Adorno, Lewin, Maslow, Bateson, Krakauer, Mead, Bayer, Moholy, and Steichen, it wasn’t clear to me how these movers and shakers would have defined democracy and what notions about “choice” the attendees at these exhibits actually came away with. Yes, the United States entered World War II, but did the propaganda (or “programming”) really have that much to do with it? Turner quotes Elizabeth McCausland’s response to the 1942 “Road to Victory” exhibit: “In the kinesthetic relation between the one who sees and what is seen lies the explanation of the moving psychological effect of the exhibition” (p. 107). Where is the evidence that the 80,000 attendees were in fact emotionally moved?
Am I too presentist and biased in my belief that profiteering and imperialist aims had more to do with US interests in that war? Turner rightly pointed out: “Moholy could simultaneously acknowledge problems in American society, obscure their social-structural roots, and shift the site of their solution from the governmental to the personal level” (p. 95). I then would have welcomed a critique of Moholy’s (and others’) position, pointing out that this “obscuring of structural roots” and shifting of responsibility was an oft-employed strategy by powers-that-be well before and well after Moholy and the Committee for National Morale, for example.
By contrasting Bayer’s exhibit design for “The Road to Victory” with Friedrich Kiesler’s arrangement of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection, Turner suggested an equivalence of the two exhibits that wasn’t convincing to me. A private gallery space (even Guggenheim’s) is not the same as the Museum of Modern Art’s attempt to make a single multi-sensory point about “American character.” Perhaps a broader discussion about the “political stakes of exhibition design in this period” would have made the point more effectively about the attempt to “reinvent the traditional relationship between viewers, art, and the spaces in which they encountered one another” (pp. 109, 108). An aside: Turner’s description of Bauhaus “surrounds” like Herbert Bayer’s walk-in globe in “Airways to Peace” (p. 112) reminded me of walking into Anish Kapoor’s Millenium Park sculpture in Chicago, “Cloudgate.”
The chapter, “The New Landscape of Sound,” introduced me to a wealth of new ideas and information. While I am fairly familiar with Black Mountain College history, and John Cage’s and Kenneth Patchen’s works, I was intrigued by “the bebop band” as a “a conversation, a community of sound” (p. 117). The work of Chicago-based semiotician Charles Morris was new to me. I found the psychological links to the political choices clearer here than in the previous chapter. Turner excerpted Morris: “‘Democracy…would involve the extension to social relations at large of the pattern of moral relations between smaller groups of individuals’” (pp. 123-24). Turner also effectively explained the way in which Cage’s “surround aesthetic” migrated “into the world of men and women and bodies” (p. 147) at Black Mountain and into the following decades.
Turner began Part II of his book, “The Democratic Surround in the Cold War,” with the observation: “[T]he bomb unleashed not only a new understanding of humankind’s ability to destroy the globe, but a vision of a relationship between [sic] psychology, communication, and politics that might save it” (p. 152). This idea seems to be the crux of Turner’s book and it clearly connects to the way in which Turner characterized the 1960s: “ecstatic utopianism.” He took a look at Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s post-war “hazy analysis” of how “benevolent interactions” in society “could ultimately save democracy.” Turner aligned Schlesinger with the ideas of Norbert Wiener and Lyman Bryson, who similarly called for “individual autonomy within a collaborative, empathetic society” (p. 177). He then compared Schlesinger’s optimism with the realization of David Riesman that industry was interested in “proper workers” in which the workers would be “knit…ever more tightly into the systems of production and consumption within which they worked” (p. 179).
The 1955 “Family of Man” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, which Turner noted has gotten plenty of critical attention, aimed to get Americans to see themselves and others around the globe as similar, despite their racialized and cultural differences. Turner argued that that “recognition” by visitors depended “on two aesthetic elements: the welding of the Bauhaus surround to the pattern of the individual life course, and the use of individual images as mirrors and windows into the psyches of visitors” (p. 203). Again, Turner explored the idea of the personal as political as he argued that many “American intellectuals and government officials understood international relations in essentially interpersonal terms” (p. 214). The “surround” became one tool “with which to bring together the citizens of the world” (p. 215). While Turner described the “new vision of the democratic personality” on the part of people like Buckminster Fuller, I think he should have used his authorial prerogative to stress that this “democratic person” was a fiction that continued and reinforced the strategies of not-naming and not-facing the responsibilities of an imperial state (p. 215). He hinted at the control and power inherent in these cultural efforts, but I would have preferred a less dispassionate discussion. He noted: “Cold War [geodesic] domes did not simply represent a modern American vision; they formed it into a three-dimensional, all-encompassing experience” (p. 221). Clarify, please, whose vision and whose experiences are being validated. I felt that Turner sometimes conflated the messy variety of people’s lived experiences with the unity and harmony that the exhibit designers hoped their work might catalyze. It is one thing to design a circular architectural form and quite another to have that form actually produce a “nonhierarchical social structure” (p. 236).
While many artists and designers may have aspired to flattened social structures, the Cold War strategists certainly did not share that goal. Police states do not operate on democratic principles. John Cage, Allan Kaprow and Happenings, and “young Americans” received too much credit in Turner’s book , in my opinion, for their contributions to media environments. “Young Americans” and “Happenings” are coded “white,” (p. 269) and Kaprow and Cage, while significant artistic figures of the avant-garde, were hardly dominant presences in popular culture. The acknowledgement that Turner made about the “fault lines of power and discrimination” (p. 270) in the 1960s could and should have been explicitly acknowledged about the “democratic surrounds” of the previous decades: they too were surveilled, gendered and racialized.
Turner reflected toward the end of the book that “[t]he Human Be-In also marked an ending, a culmination even, of a way of imagining the relationship between media, polity, and self that had its beginnings thirty years earlier” (p. 291). It is certainly likely that I missed a lot in this ambitious, sweeping book, but the storyline was just a little too neat for me. While I don’t doubt that media shape individuals and society, and obviously an author has to start and stop somewhere, I am not convinced that the intriguing “democratic surround” was a concept that promoted equality beyond those already inclined to take actions for justice outside of the displays, exhibits, and events.
I spent most of the spring in Bristol, UK, as a Colston Fellow, thanks to the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol. I worked with an amazing group of people involved with the Productive Margins research programme. Here’s a link to my blog post on the IAS site, about the work I did with women activists on the Knowle West housing estate. It includes the “Tips & Tricks” that emerged from the interviews I conducted with the activists.