"Container Culture: Film, Packaging, and the Design of Corporate Humanism at the Container Corporation of America," in Post45, 2021, Issue 6: "Midcentury Design Cultures," eds. J.D. Connor and Justus Nieland.

This essay appears in the “Midcentury Design Cultures” special issue of Post45 that I co-edited with J.D. Connor. The essay offers a case study of the intersection of industrial film and design in the famous corporate identity program of the Container Corporation of America, a Chicago-based paperboard manufacturer. Discussing the CCA work of legendary modernist designers like Herbert Bayer and Gyorgy Kepes, as well as overlooked designer-filmmakers like Rhodes Patterson, I explain how film, design, and packaging at the CCA were interwoven into the firm’s philosophy of communication at midcentury and the liberal internationalism that sustained it. The case of the CCA allows me to begin to write a media history of the humble cardboard box that situates it at the heart of an integrated design program that united packaging and corporate humanism as primarily logistical enterprises. In this context, the CCA films of Rhodes Pattern constitute a record of what I call “midcentury container culture.” By this I mean both the firms administration of culture across various domains and the versions of corporate humanism and corporate personality cultivated in the distribution network of the cardboard box. 

"Toward Alphaville: Noir, Communication, and the Management of Affect," in Noir Affect, eds. Christopher Breu and Elizabeth Hatmaker (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020).

This essay considers the affects of film noir in a long history of informatic cool. In the immediate postwar period, noir affect—as a problem for management—was often inseparable from the information agendas of various organizations, and embedded in period-specific understandings of communication and its media technologies. I argue that noir affect’s relationship to the managerial imperatives of midcentury communications theories and practices began alongside wartime studies of propaganda (a term long synonymous with “information”), and then accrued heightened scrutiny as a therapeutic idiom of communication flourished following the war. In the process, noir affect became bound to what Mark Greif has dubbed the midcentury’s “crisis of man” discourse, a pervasive and anxious humanism that arose in the historical shadow of fascism and totalitarianism and viewed the human being as beset by various forms of technics, from the machine to various strategies of “what we might call ‘social technique,’ organization, or simply government.” Moving towards Alphaville as a late, French entry in the “crisis of man” discourse, this essay turns to the chronically maladjusted and negative terrain of noir affect to offer a history of the genre’s relationship with the organizational and managerial operations of the administered society that, for Godard, conceptual artist Mel Bochner, and others, seemed to force humanism to a terminal crisis by the late 1960s.

"Postindustrial Studio Lifestyle: The Eameses in the Environment of 901," in In the Studio: Visual Creation and its Material Environments, ed. Brian R. Jacobson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020).

This essay appeared in collection In the Studio, winner of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies award for Best Edited Collection in 2020. offers a case study of Charles and Ray Eames’s design studio at 901 Washington Blvd., in Venice, California. 901–as the studio became known–wasn’t just a studio, but rather embodied a more expansive studio “lifestyle”: the kind of tech-savvy, interdisciplinary working and thriving across media that, for the Eames, constituted happy, creative postwar living. 

The essay discusses the multiple determinations of 901’s studio environment, beginning in the artistic and political ferment of wartime Los Angeles. 901’s models included new kinds of things and people, from molded plywood and compact sofas, to computers and Billy Wilder, an Eames intimate and, for them, an exemplary studio pro. As the material infrastructure for the more intangible shape of postindustrial lifestyle itself, 901’s environment modeled the normative conditions of work and play, knowledge production and creativity, as feedback-driven processes of problem-solving within conditions of constant change. Listen below for Light Industry‘s podcast on In the Studio, featuring the book’s editor Brian R. Jacobson, and some of my fellow contributors: J.D. Connor, Rielle Nivitski, and Sarah Street.  

This essay discusses the production, funding, and circulation of Design Workshops (1940-44), a group of 16mm Kodachrome films produced at László Moholy-Nagy’s Chicago-based School of Design (formerly the New Bauhaus), to explore the role of colour theory and practice in the communicative agendas of Moholy and his corporate sponsor, Walter Paepcke, chairman of the Container Corporation of America. As a symptomatic foray into the midcentury category of ‘communication,’ the films collected as Design Workshops–at once documents of pedagogical theory and quasi-corporate messages–involved moving images both in zones of pedagogical experimentation and the more instrumental domains of public relations, packaging, and brand management.

In the case of Moholy-Nagy’s School of Design, colour experimentation and creative making in the synthetic materials of the post-war — Saran or plywood — were wedded to the inculcation of forms of democratic subjectivity (perceptual skills, epistemologies, creative capacities) that the artist saw as essential to post-war citizenship at mid-century. The essay demonstrates Moholy-Nagy and Paepcke’s overlapping investments in colour’s functional, communicative dimensions at the School, and argues that colour film production in Design Workshops fueled a vanguard humanities vision at mid-century. The essay reads Design Workshops as an allegory of that vision and its limits, performing the work and pedagogical theory of the School for potential donors and funding agencies like the Rockefeller Foundation.

"Conference Technique: The Goldsholls and the Aspen Idea," in Up is Down: Midcentury Experiments in Advertising and Film at the Goldsholl Studio, eds. Amy Beste and Corrine Granof (Evanston: Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 2018), 182-207.

This essay was commissioned for the exhibition catalogue for Up Is Down, a groundbreaking exhibition at the Block Museum of Art on the Chicago-based designers and filmmakers Morton and Millie Goldsholl. The exhibition was presented in conjunction with Art Design Chicago, an initiative exploring Chicago’s role as an incubator for innovations in art and design. 

The essay discusses the Goldsholls’ film program for the 1959 International Design Conference in Aspen, whose theme was “Communication: The Image Speaks.” Exploring the range of expertise on moving-image media assembled at the conference, and the Goldsholl’s programming choices, I explain designers’ interest in film as both a managerial technology and a pedagogical tool.  

"Red Harvest: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Fate of Left Populisms," in The Cambridge History of Crime Fiction, ed. Chris Raczkowski (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017): 179-191.

Ever since Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), those despairing crime melodramas of the film noir have struggled to name a shape-shifting, but pervasive “bigness.” The hard-boiled genre in particular has historically gravitated toward “bigness” as the perceived threat to masculine agency. This essay argues that the genre’s preoccupation with a threatening “bigness”–whether of a corporate elite, so-called experts, the spread of mass culture, gangster capitalism, or a newly interventionist state–is a sign of its abiding populist politics. Approaching hard-boiled writers through the shifting rhetorics of Left populism from the 1920s through the 1950s, the essay discusses, among other things:  the populist “smallness” of the pulps; the unstable New-Deal era appeal to the “common” man in the work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain; the connection between between hard-boiled anti-fascism, anti-racism, and the Popular Front in the work of Chester Himes; and the fate of Left populism amid the rise of McCarthyite red baiting and the Hollywood blacklist. It ends with the bigness of midcentury corporate media empire in Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock.