- Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis
Despite his career as a wide-ranging intellectual polymath and tireless public educator, until recently Otto Neurath’s work has largely been known only in connection with the logical positivist philosophy of the Vienna Circle and the related, later Encyclopedia of Unified Sciences. Neurath was a leading voice in the Vienna Circle and at the same time a singular figure for his disciplinary focus on the social sciences and for his rich involvement in practical application of social knowledge. More scholarly attention, however, is now also being paid to his activity as a socialist, involved with Kurt Eisner in the failed Bavarian Commune of 1919 and in the Red Vienna city administration of the 1920s; as an economic thinker who developed ideas about non-monetary economies from the wartime command economy and the barter modes that sprung up in the social chaos of Vienna following the founding of the Austrian republic; and as a theoretically sophisticated, left-wing urbanist helping to lend rational social foundations to Red Vienna housing projects.1 It is, however, Neurath’s invention of a system of iconic visual signs, ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education) and his use of this system for the goal of public enlightenment, especially through innovative museum practice, that has garnered the most recent scholarly and curatorial attention in several exhibitions.2 The ISOTYPE collection at the University of Reading, where Neurath’s wife Marie taught following the death of her husband, concentrates the scholarly resources related to this side of Neurath’s practice and, through its website, provides greater public access to hard-to-find ISOTYPE materials. 3 Vossoughian’s book derives from an exhibition entitled “After Neurath” presented in 2008 at the Stroom in The Hague, where Neurath had once transferred his Museum of Society and Economy from Vienna following the repressed Social Democratic uprising of 1934. Independent of the exhibition, however, Vossoughian’s densely illustrated book offers an engaging biographical and critical treatment of Neurath’s activities as a socialist urbanist, public educator, and museum practitioner. [End Page 961]
Vossoughian stresses the intimate connections between Neurath’s ideas about public enlightenment, his use of ISOTYPE as a communicative tool, and his democratic socialist politics. The book is divided into three main thematic sections—Community, Democracy, Globalism—roughly encompassing the successive phases of Neurath’s intellectual career as he responds to the social mobilization and growth of state intervention during World War I, the socialist experiments of the 1920s, and the spread of fascism in the 1930s that would keep him in exile up to his premature death in 1945. Along the way, Vossoughian touches upon a number of topics of interest for scholars of modernism, particularly those interested in urban and architectural modernism or in the relations of modernism to radical politics. The “Globalism” section, for instance, offers detailed information about Neurath’s association with CIAM (Congrès International de l’Architecture Moderne), the Bauhaus, and individuals connected with these modernist institutions such as Le Corbusier, Siegfried Giedion, László Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, Cornelis van Eesteren, and Margarete Lihotsky. Vossoughian also discusses Neurath’s little-known work of the early 1930s at the Isostat Institute in Moscow, where he spent sixty days a year on a rotating basis with a group of co-workers. Dedicated to carrying out Lenin’s directive to make statistics accessible and comprehensible to the Soviet masses, Neurath’s Isostat Institute can be seen in the context of analogous constructivist efforts to foster the “cultural revolution” in the U.S.S.R.: applying avant-garde visual and textual innovations instrumentally and politically to directly affect the Soviet public sphere and contribute to the construction of a socialist society.
One of the other focal points of considerable importance in Neurath’s work was his innovative conception of the museum as an instrument of communication and public enlightenment. This goal was most comprehensively realized in his Museum of Society and Economy in Vienna in the 1920s. Developing his ideas about graphic representation of...