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Title:Seeing systems: A rhetorical history of visual media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1939-1969
Author(s):Bruner, Katie Patricia
Director of Research:O'Gorman, Thomas
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):O'Gorman, Thomas
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Finnegan, Cara; Hamilton, Kevin; Canales, Jimena
Department / Program:Communication
Discipline:Communication
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree:Ph.D.
Genre:Dissertation
Subject(s):Rhetorical history
history of technology
MIT
media history
higher education
cold war
cold war science
history of science
Abstract:The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was an epicenter of visual media research and experimentation during the middle of the twentieth century. In the 1930s and 40s, electrical engineer Harold Edgerton developed a high-speed photography system that would be taken up in machine research, art photography, and nuclear weapons testing. In the 1950s, scientists in the Physical Science Study Committee partnered with filmmakers to create educational films that showed physics and physicists to Cold War America. And in the 1960s, architecture professor Gyorgy Kepes formalized collaborations between artists and scientists in order to create visual art “on a civic scale.” These innovations resist neat classification as strictly “media,” “machine,” “visual art,” or “experimental tool.” They were technological configurations and modes of practice that could be any, or all, of these, and they were all part of a larger institutional project at MIT that was deeply invested in the possibilities of visual media as a component of science and technology. This dissertation offers a rhetorical history of media research at MIT from World War II into the Cold War—a time during which MIT became one of the preeminent techno-scientific institutions in the world. I argue that as MIT shifted from functioning as an industrial ancillary to a prominent center of the military-industrial complex, visual media research became crucial to the construction and promotion of its anti-instrumental and networked approach to science and engineering. This approach heavily relied upon a rhetoric of basic and integrated science—framing and promoting scientific and technical research for its potential utility and broad relevance. Rhetorics of vision co-constituted this approach, as visual media had diverse instrumentality and facilitated the collaboration between disparate communities of research and application. This rhetoric allowed MIT to traverse previously rigid boundaries between humanities/sciences, public/private, and theoretical/applied knowledge. In doing so, MIT broadened the purview of academic science and technology, playing a key role in embedding media and technology, as well as media technologies, across ever-wider areas of American life. This project speaks to rhetorical scholars invested in the formation of techno-scientific cultures in the United States, as it illuminates the internal discourses of a crucial site of American science and technology. It also contextualizes scientific and technical rhetorics within a shared organizational context, demonstrating how organizational exigencies and the proximity of researchers can circumscribe scientific and technical discourses and practices. Finally, it adds dimension to histories of Cold War science and technology, giving a local perspective on mid-century conflicts such as the Red Scare, the “Two Cultures” debates, and the postwar politization of America’s scientists and engineers.
Issue Date:2021-07-13
Type:Thesis
URI:http://hdl.handle.net/2142/113307
Rights Information:Copyright 2021 Katie Patricia Bruner
Date Available in IDEALS:2022-01-12
Date Deposited:2021-08


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