Constructivism & Mass-Observation in Britain

A review of Scientific Moderns, by Boris Jardine.

Boris Jardine’s dissertation, Scientific Moderns, is a rich and detailed analysis of two intellectual movements in interwar Britain: Constructivism and Mass-Observation. Both movements put forward visions for the unification of art and science, but where Constructivism drew heavily on leftist (particularly Soviet) conceptions of visual arts and on physics, Mass-Observation (which Jardine abbreviates as M-O) drew on Surrealism and recent developments in anthropology. Both movements had their origins in late-1920s Cambridge; both produced major works in 1937; and both have since been largely forgotten or, when remembered, discarded as “failed” intellectual projects.

Jardine’s project is not merely an attempt to resurrect two interesting movements from obscurity. He argues that the analysis of Constructivism and M-O challenges previous portraits of the 1930s as an uninteresting or absurdly idealistic period in Britain’s intellectual history. Furthermore, the two movements provide Jardine with the opportunity for a cogent and provocative critique of the category of “modernism.” As Jardine puts it,

Neither Constructivism nor M-O are well served by the category, “modernism”, that they have typically been seen to exemplify; my thesis recovers what it meant to be “modern” and scientific in Britain in the 1930s without recourse to modernism’s overarching chronological and philosophical distortions. (p.2)

After an Introduction that gives a useful overview of various definitions of modernism, intellectual history of the British left, and debates over the relationship between art and science, Jardine moves his focus to Cambridge University in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Jardine argues that it was Cambridge where the major players in both Constructivism and M-O first began to develop their ideas about modern art and science. He explores four sites where these ideas began to be articulated:  the magazine Experiment; C.K. Ogden’s wide-ranging publishing activities (in particular his “To-day and To-morrow” series, which counted among its contributors such luminaries of the scientific left as J.D. Bernal and J.B.S. Haldane); Peter Kapitza’s work designing the Mond Laboratory; and Geoffrey Pyke’s Malting House School, an ambitious experiment in Freudian pedagogy.

The dissertation then devotes three chapters apiece to Constructivism and M-O. Jardine investigates the tremendously complex intellectual heritage of Constructivism in Chapter 3, in particular their debts to and differences from the logical positivists and from the Aufbau and Bauhaus movement. Here Jardine engages extensively with Peter Galison’s 1990 essay on Aufbau/Bauhaus, seeking to both deepen and challenge Galison’s analysis of developments in interwar logical positivism through his examination of the English context (“Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism”, Critical Inquiry 16 (1990), pp.709-752). The chapter concludes in a fascinating analysis of how two architectural projects — the Lawn Road Flats and the Penguin Pool at the London Zoo — reflected developing ideas about modern architecture and social planning.

Chapter 4 deals with the Constructivists’ 1937 project, Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, an ambitious book containing both reproductions and original essays. The collection was intended to be the first in a series but ended up as a single volume. The sculptor Naum Gabo wrote a “manifesto” for Circle about the Constructive method, which, as Jardine puts it, posited Constructivism “not as a tool or even a specific method, but rather as a perfect union of the coming state and the movement’s ‘spiritual’ aims”  (p.116). The final chapter on Constructivism considers the movement’s implications for our understanding of leftist science in the 1930s, paying particular attention to J.D. Bernal (who penned an essay for Circle).

The section of the dissertation on Mass-Observation opens with two significant events: the burning of the Crystal Palace in November 1936 and the abdication crisis prompted by Edward VIII’s infatuation with the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. A number of intellectuals, including the poet Charles Madge, the documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, the anthropologist Tom Harrisson, and Malting House School founder Geoffrey Pyke, began wondering if there might be a way to observe, en masse, the nation’s reaction to such moments of crisis. Pyke’s letter in the New Statesman and Nation, which suggested that the nation’s response to the abdication provided a rich anthropological opportunity, drew the attention of both Jennings and Madge and a responding letter from Madge; this in turn caught the attention of Tom Harrisson. A collaboration between Harrisson, Madge, and Jennings followed, beginning with a co-signed letter in the New Statesman and Nation outlining a plan to make mankind the subject of investigation using tools from Surrealism, literary and film theory, and anthropology.

The culmination of this collaboration was 1937’s May the Twelfth, a book that drew on extensive surveys and anthropological observation to encapsulate the national reaction to the coronation of King George VI. May the Twelfth is the focus of Jardine’s analysis in Chapter 6. Jardine argues that Jennings managed the vast amount of material by combining the seemingly disparate genres of montage and literary collage. Despite its literary influences, May the Twelfth sought to be considered a work of social anthropology, but contemporaries generally regarded it as a confusing failure. Tom Harrisson would later distance himself from the project and was known to make dismissive comments about Madge and Jennings’s “poetic” leanings. Jardine’s final chapter offers a reinterpretation of Tom Harrisson’s career, suggesting that his participation in the May the Twelfth project was not an aberration but is best viewed in light of Harrisson’s overall intellectual commitment to a grand vision of science that disregarded traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Jardine’s dissertation is a fascinating exploration of the intellectual heritage and impact of two intriguing interwar groups. The project should also be noted for its provocative challenge to scholars’ understanding of “modernism.”  This ambitious project will be of interest not only to scholars in science studies, but to historians of interwar Britain, historians of architecture, and philosophers interested in science and aesthetic theory.

Melinda Baldwin
Postdoctoral Fellow
York University, Toronto
Department Website

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2012. 220 pp. Primary Advisor: John Forrester.