Thesis ID: CBB601718949

See, Think, Learn: Creativity and Limits in Early Cold War Art and Technology (2021)


This dissertation is about breaking points. The forms and practices examined in what follows point to the ways in which art and visual culture in the mid-twentieth century United States could put pressure on technology—could, indeed, point to technology’s breaking points where it ceases to account for the fullness of the physical, social, psychological, or physiological scaffolds of lived experience. Such forms and practices are of special significance in the contemporary moment, when seeing itself has come to signify both an embodied human act and an algorithmic code. Each of the projects analyzed help to locate limits: limits of technology’s capacity to record, to encode, or to model the world we live in. In the process, they shed light on the cracks and crevices where human sensibility and imagination was, and still is, needed. A dissertation about breaking points is also fundamentally about the kinds of creative problem solving and innovation common to artistic and scientific practices. The project brings together a compendium of American artists, designers, engineers, and scientists who devised new techniques and technologies for seeing, thinking, and learning in the years between the birth of television and the emergence of modern electronic computing. They did so in the wake of World War II and the early Cold War, a time of massive government, academic, and industrial investment in techniques and technologies for knowing and a sharp increase in specialization. The practitioners I engage include artists such as Berenice Abbott, Man Ray, and Charles and Ray Eames, the engineer Jan Rajchman, a host of historians and critics ranging from science historian I. Bernard Cohen to the novelist and former chemist Charles Percy (C. P.) Snow, and mathematicians, from the nineteenth-century geometer Felix Klein to Claude Shannon and Alan Turing, foundational figures of computer science. In their efforts to enhance the human sensorium through technologies, they sought to overturn disciplinary boundaries and enable a mass populace to access knowledge through perception retooled for the techno cultural future they imagined.

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Authors & Contributors
Schulman, Vanessa Meikle
Alexis L. Boylan
A. Joan Saab
Ross, Andrew B.
Leyssen, Sigrid
Rossi, Michael Paul
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Scientia Canadensis: Journal of the History of Canadian Science, Technology, and Medicine
Physics in Perspective
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
University of Nevada, Reno
George Washington University
University of Pennsylvania Press
University of Massachusetts Press
University of Chicago Press
University of California Press
Visual perception
Visual representation; visual communication
Senses and sensation; perception
Technology and art
Eyes; sight organs
Kirschmann, August
Rood‏, Ogden Nicholas
Scheiner, Christoph
Penrose, Roger
Peirce, Charles Sanders
Kepler, Johannes
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
18th century
17th century
United States
Toronto (Ontario)
IMAX Filmed Entertainment
University of Toronto
Jesuits (Society of Jesus)

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