- Think Tank Aesthetics: Midcentury Modernism, the Cold War, and the Neoliberal Present by Pamela M. Lee
By Pamela M. Lee. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020. Pp. 360.
The geopolitical machinations of post-World War defense planning and the high-minded pursuits of the artistic avant-garde might seem categorically divorced. But, as Pamela M. Lee shows in this magisterial new book, their overlaps and exchanges run deep. She contends that Cold War think tanks internalized and exported modernist strains of thought more common to "creative" fields, drawing a host of luminaries into their orbit. The recruitment of these figures was not merely a public-relations gloss on think tank activity, but part and parcel of a "structural isomorphism" (or structural similarity) between artistic and military strategy. This approach extends the work of scholars such as Paul Edwards, Geoffrey Bowker, and Peter Galison, demonstrating how systems thinking and cybernetics (born out of wartime demands) engulfed a range of adjacent fields.
Lee uses the framework of interdisciplinarity to understand the think tank's expansive reach—a kind of intellectual solvent and favored discourse of the institutions under study. This epistemic tool initiated a convergence of expertise to render the world an intelligible and hence manipulable whole. Lee suggests we treat interdisciplinarity "less as a kind of radical border crossing than as something closer to a colonizing gesture." The intent is not to dismiss interdisciplinarity per se, but rather catalog unsavory allegiances and question its uncritical reception in the present. Indeed, one of the book's driving aims is to historicize any number of dogmas, from Silicon Valley's celebration of "disruption" and "creative thinking," to the near universal, missionary zeal for "problem solving."
The first three chapters chart what Lee considers banner years in Cold War history (1939, 1947, and 1973), while the final chapter considers the think tank's influence from the vantage point of the contemporary. First, we encounter the unlikely friendship between strategist Albert Wohlstetter of the infamous global think tank RAND Corporation and art historian Meyer Schapiro through the pair's mutual adventures in semiotics (chapter 1). [End Page 1267] The former wanted to eliminate the qualitative uncertainty of signs, while the latter insisted on their subjective indeterminacy. In the context of the Cold War, semiotics was an academic discipline refashioned in the name of American intervention abroad.
Wohlstetter's collegiate musings were welcomed at RAND, where collaborative analysts parsed information (i.e. enemy material) as a spectrum of signal and noise, echoed in pictorial conventions of figure and ground. Next, Lee continues to develop these themes, offering more examples of how visual analysis was key to post-war defense work (chapter 2). In anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict's behaviorist studies for RAND, the methodological emphasis on "pattern recognition" resonated with trends in modernist art. In particular, the paintings of Jackson Pol-lock, which the public and critics alike subjected to a rigamarole of likeness, were thought to communicate an unconscious message cloaked in the cryptic language of abstraction. Lee treats these less as individual projections upon the artist's inner state, and more indicative of a collective imperative to "read" unfathomable enemy activity.
In the longest and farthest reaching chapter of the book, Lee shifts course to the think tank's maneuver into global politics, examining socialist Chile's techno-utopian Project Cybersyn and its restaging in artistic forms (chapter 3). Building on the work of computing historian Eden Medina, Lee recounts the international community of experts who devised the real-time network for Chile's planned economy. As an archaeology of a design prototype, the chapter positions Cybersyn as a stymied future of the recent past, as well as a foundation to explain neoliberal economic restructuring implemented in its wake. It therefore reveals the multiple ideological agendas to which aesthetics are directed, while announcing a kind of temporal disjunction complicating the very status of history. The final chapter looks at the relation between secrecy and power through the think tank's complementary postures: scientific transparency and occult-like mystification. Tracing the inheritance and subversion of these...