Interview between host Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM and Ginger Nolan
January 18, 2022
An examination of how concepts of “the savage” facilitated technological approaches to modernist design
Attempting to derive aesthetic systems from natural structures of human cognition, designers looked toward the “savage mind”—a way of thinking they associated with a racialized subaltern. In Savage Mind to Savage Machine, Ginger Nolan uncovers an enduring relationship between “the savage” and the development of technology and its wide-ranging impact on society, including in the fields of architecture and urbanism, the industrial arts, and digital design.
Nolan focuses on the relationship between the applied arts and the structuralist social sciences, proposing that the late-nineteenth-century rise of Freudian psychology, ethnology, and structuralist linguistics offered innovations and new opportunities in studying human cognition. She looks at institutions ranging from the Public Industrial Arts School of Philadelphia and the Weimar Bauhaus to the MIT Media Lab and the Centre Mondial Informatique, revealing a persistent theme of twentieth-century design: to supplant language with more subliminal, aesthetic modes of communication, thereby inculcating a deep intimacy between human habit and new technologies of production, communication, and consumption.
This book’s ultimate critique is of the development of the ergonomics of the spirit—the design of the human cognitive apparatus in relation to new aesthetic technologies. Nolan sees these ergonomics as a means of depoliticizing societies through aesthetic technologies intended to seamlessly integrate humans into the programs of capitalist modernity. Revising key modernist design narratives, Savage Mind to Savage Machine provides a deep historical foundation for understanding our contemporary world.
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