20th century history (1): György Kepes at MIT


On the Universal Grammar of visual communication:

Visual communication is universal and international; it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as by the literate…
— Gyorgy Kepes, 1944. 'The Language of Vision', p. 13

Noam Chomsky was certainly not the only left-wing intellectual to feel uneasy about the military research and development priorities of MIT during the early Cold War years. György Kepes taught there from 1946 until the 1970s, often finding himself in tense debates over the role of music and the arts in a university so heavily committed to military research priorities.

Writes historian John Blakinger:

The colleagues Kepes collaborated with on various book projects included a metallurgist who prepared fissionable material for the first atomic bomb, an engineer who created one of the earliest digital computers for the United States military, and a mathematician who invented novel ways to simulate thermonuclear war. Though Kepes was politically on the left, and vocally protested the war in Vietnam both on the ground and in numerous written statements, he was still trapped in a conflicted position within what we might call the military-industrial-aesthetic complex.

For the full text, click here.

In my book, Decoding Chomsky, I argue that core features of Chomsky's work in the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT reflected an underlying determination not to produce anything which the military could possibly use. Chomsky rejects my argument on the basis that

  • No military research was done on the MIT campus.
  • The issue of military funding was irrelevant, since the Pentagon in those days funded almost everything.
At the time, MIT was almost entirely funded by the military, including the music department, etc.
— Noam Chomsky 2016

Here is a Blakinger's perspective on this:

MIT’s administration colluded with the military-industrial complex as part of a grand bargain: by generously funding the arts, the Institute justified its even more generous funding of the sciences, especially scientific activities with dubious educational value, like the work than proceeding at the two Special Labs. One culture – art – justified the corrupt activities of the other.
— John R. Blakinger, 'The Aesthetics of Collaboration: Complicity and Conversion at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies', Tate Papers, no.25, Spring 2016, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/25/aesthetics-of-collaboration, accessed 6 November 2016.

To appreciate just how difficult it was for MIT intellectuals to avoid colluding in war crimes, see the full text of Blakinger's 2016 critique here. 


20th century history (2): Velimir Khlebnikov in Bolshevik Russia

Under construction: The Shukov radio tower, Moscow, 1920-1922.

Under construction: The Shukov radio tower, Moscow, 1920-1922.

The futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov had no direct influence on Noam Chomsky, but during Russia's revolutionary years he entranced and inspired Roman Jakobson, whose approach to linguistics made a deep impression on Chomsky when the two became friends in the United States decades later. For more in this story, see Decoding Chomsky, Chapters 10 and 11.


by Velimir Khlebnikov (1921)

The Radio of the Future—the central tree of our consciousness—will inaugurate new ways to cope with our endless undertakings and will unite all mankind.

The main Radio station, that stronghold of steel, where clouds of wires cluster like strands of hair, will surely be protected by a sign with a skull and crossbones and the familiar word “Danger,” since the least disruption of Radio operations would produce a mental blackout over the entire country, a temporary loss of consciousness.

Radio is becoming the spiritual sun of the country, a great wizard and sorcerer.

Let us try to imagine Radio’s main station: in the air a spider’s web of lines, a storm cloud of lightning bolts, some subsiding, some flaring up anew, crisscrossing the buildings from one end to the other.  A bright blue ball of spherical lightning hanging in midair, guy wires stretched out at a slant.

Naum Gabo, Project for a Radio Station, 1921

Naum Gabo, Project for a Radio Station, 1921

From this point in Planet Earth, every day, like the flight of birds in springtime, a flock of news departs, news from the life of the spirit. 

In this stream of lightning birds the spirit will prevail over force, good council over threats.

The activities of artists who work with the pen and brush, the discoveries of artists who work with ideas (Mechnikov, Einstein) will instantly transport mankind to unknown shores.

Vladimir Tatlin (with pipe) before a wooden model of his tower, St. Petersburg, 1920.

Vladimir Tatlin (with pipe) before a wooden model of his tower, St. Petersburg, 1920.

Advice on day-to-day matters will alternate with lectures by those who dwell upon the snowy heights of the human spirit.  The crests of waves in the sea of human knowledge will roll across the entire country into each local Radio station, to be projected that very day as letters onto the dark pages of enormous books, higher than houses, than stand in the center of each town, slowly turning their own pages. […]


But what now follows?  Where has this great stream of sound come from, this inundation of the whole country in supernatural singing, in the sound of beating wings, this broad silver stream full of whistlings and clangor and marvelous mad bells surging from somewhere we are not, mingling with children’s voices singing and the sound of wings?

Over the center of every town these voices pour down, a silver shower of sound.  Amazing silver bells mixed with whistlings surge down from above.  Are these perhaps the voices of heaven, spirits flying low over the farmhouse roof?  No….

The Mussorgsky of the future is giving a coast-to-coast concert of his work, using the Radio apparatus to create a vast concert hall stretching from the Vladivostok to the Baltic, beneath the blue dome of the heavens.

On this one evening he bewitches the people, sharing with them the communion of his soul, and on the following day he is only an ordinary mortal again.  The artist has cast a spell over his land; he has given his country the singing of the sea and the whistling of the wind. The poorest house in the smallest town is filled with divine whistlings and the sweet delights of sound.

Source: The King of Time: Selected Writings of the Russian Futurian, translated by Paul Schmidt (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), 155-159.