Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Magic Motorways: Fotsch reads Futurama

Note: This summary of Paul M. Fotsch's article, "The building of a superhighway future," is designed primarily as a reading guide for my students. I do not claim to represent the entirety or sophistication of the insights offered by the author. This summary merely suggests some ways in which Fotsch's piece might contribute to our course conversations. I should add that I've chosen to start posting these sorts of summaries on my blog rather than on my department webpages in an experimental attempt to blur some of those seemingly stark boundaries between academic inquiry and public life. Observations? Criticisms? Recommendations? Don't be shy. Post a comment.

"O engineering, open door
To worlds unknown before"

- Song of the World's Fair
John Black (cited in Fotsch, 2001, p. 74)

Talking about world's fairs helps us understand the early-20th century shift in civic influence toward planners and "experts" in the United States. The topic is especially salient as we investigate how the nation employed various rhetorics of scientific expertise to confront its wrenching transformation from agricultural to urban life. Paul M. Fotsch's essay, "The building of a superhighway future at the New York World's Fair," contributes to this conversation by illustrating how the 1939-40 NYWF offered a bit of optimism for a nation working to slough off the Depression while still anticipating bloodshed overseas, even as the Fair worked to train its visitors to adopt a corporate vision of tomorrow [one Fair slogan that sounds suspiciously like a chamber of commerce line: "Building the World of Tomorrow with the Tools of Today"]. At this fair, public life would be transformed by transportation [See the Pennsylvania Turnpike for one real-life application of this vision].

How could innovations in motor transit bring about improvements in public life? Fotsch (2001) focuses much of his essay upon one corporate answer, a fascinating exhibit at the 1939-40 NYWF: Futurama, built by General Motors to demonstrate how central planning could help erase social instability (along with traffic jams) through a spectacle that blended "amusement, information, and promotion" (p. 84). [Check out an artifact of Futurama from my collection] Given his critical perspective, Fotsch attends closely to the implications of this kind of boosterism, proposing that Futurama helped popularize a technopolis that led to oppressive social conditions amid the well-manicured lawns of suburbia in the decades that followed.

The author begins with an overview of the 1939-40 NYWF as a showcase of modernity. Fotsch cites Lewis Mumford's description of the Fair as the story of "planned environment . . . planned industry, [and] planned civilization" (quote from Joseph P. Cusker, cited in Fotsch, 2001, p. 68). Along with Futurama, one highlight of that showcase was Democracity and its depiction of suburban life [here's an artifact; also, here's another image of the exhibit's making]. Located in the Fair's Perisphere, Democracity reflected a fear of urbanity, with its soot and violence and its jumble of peoples [one can imagine much behind earlier Victorian euphemisms that still influenced the modern mindset]. In contrast, Democracity was a planned community in which rational organization eliminated social tension, where careful segregation of land use - domestic, commercial, industrial - ensured regulation and control, a place where "homes turn their book doors to the streets" (Norman Bel Geddes describing Radburn NJ, cited in Fotsch, 2001, p. 70). The gospel of the Fair, after all, was order. It's no surprise that one of the nodes of Democracity was called "Pleasantville."

Building this world of tomorrow required city planning and regional cooperation on a vast scale. Thus Fotsch recalls New York city administrator Robert Moses who used the Fair - an illustration of planning by "progressive" objectivity rather than "machine" patronage - to help popularize the concord between corporate and political America necessary to endure the difficult times to come. This was no mere theme park; it was a blueprint for the next century, a vision that would not be promoted by ward heelers but by experts. Fotsch adds, "This strategy for highway planning presupposes that engineers will know better than local residents what will benefit them most" (p. 73). This was a future built upon scientific principles that would tolerate no petty disputes. Public life, as defined by the planners and their streamlined designs (p. 75), had no more time or patience for the discord of democracy. Speed rather than inertia, horizons rather than returns, led to the future.

Managing that speed called for organization beyond the limitations of human sense-making. The velocities of the future and the demands they would impose upon the fragile self would require that people become adapted to ever more ubiquitous technologies of control. Such transformation of the roadways would parallel, Fotsch notes, the desire of Fair planners to inspire unity among formerly dispersed communities. Inspired by Futurama and Democracity, the latter with its light and sound exhibit that literally portrayed disparate labor groups merging together as one, "the people could easily speak out in one voice" (Warren Susman, cited in Fotsch, 2001, p. 78). The results would be economic efficiency, improved communication, and growing consumer demand - with the added benefit of a reduction in social disorder wrought by unemployment and the creation of more opportunities to soak up excess production (p. 79). In this way, the Fair sold progress as a corporate invention and as a means for corporate growth. Managers rather than laborers would naturally lead the way.

Fotsch then shifts to Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno whose Frankfurt School critique of America's culture industry calls for readers to look beyond the glittering future produced by the Fair. Most notably, Fotsch employs Horkheimer and Adorno to describe how even the act of touring Futurama could be interpreted as a way to naturalize mechanized modes of production into the performance of everyday life and leisure, transforming people being "educated" by the exhibit into passive consumers. In this way, "Futurama exemplifies perfectly how entertainment could subtly promote particular corporate interests" (Fotsch, 2001, p. 83). While he recognizes recent critiques against the perceived totality of mass culture proposed by Horkheimer and Adorno - he even cites David Gelernter's response to critiques of the Fair's consumerism (what if Americans wanted a future of television sets and superhighways and streamlining?) - Fotsch holds to his larger point, that the Fair could be termed a machine for producing corporate citizens. Further along he suggests a more complex interpretation, that coordination between public and private efforts, as illustrated by the 1939-40 NYWF, affirm a last gasp of a capitalist system hurtling towards collapse. [When one considers the current plight of GM and its need for government intervention, one cannot help but wonder how correct that assessment may be, living now as we do in the "world of tomorrow."]

Fotsch then begins to wrap up his essay with a section on "Motorway Discipline," which should remind some readers of themes found in the Gernsback Continuum. Relating the highways of Futurama to the autobahns of Nazi Germany, Fotsch states that the tension between planning and the people, while palpable in that era, was overshadowed by more sophisticated means of ordering the nation to a war-footing, not one against an enemy beyond U.S. shores but one internally against labor agitators [and, presumably, feminists, given Fotsch's citation of Delores Hayden], particularly since "[d]ispersal and isolation [enabled by interstate highways and distant suburbs] make organizing for social protest more difficult" (p. 90). In this way, the automobile, rather than liberating people, served instead to ensure their more orderly control. Fotsch concludes his essay by noting that, ignoring some of the more fantastical promises that the Fair could not keep, we got much of the future that the 1939-40 NYWF envisioned. Now we must consider the consequences.
Read the entire essay: Fotsch, P.M. (2001). The building of a superhighway future at the New York World's Fair. Cultural Critique, 48, 65-97.

Difficulty accessing the essay? Let me know. It's worth reading and I'm happy to help you find it.

Want to read more? Professor Fotsch included an extended version of this essay in his award-winning book, Watching the Traffic Go By: Transportation and Isolation in Urban America (Buy it on Amazon). In that chapter, he addresses more the contradictions between the Fair's ideals of integration and equality and the practices found at that site.

(Postcards and other images from my personal collection)

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