Aleksandr Zhitomirsky

During the Second World War, when it still seemed like the Germans might capture Moscow, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote a list of Soviet propagandists who were to be killed upon capture. Number one was the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Number two was chief Radio Moscow announcer Iurii Levitan. Number three was Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, the designer and artist of one of the Red Army’s chief illustrated propaganda magazines.

That, at least, was the story, one which is mentioned – with appropriate skepticism – by Erika Wolf in the catalogue to a major exhibit of artist Aleksandr Zhitomirsky’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago. A talented designer and illustrator whose most striking works were the satirical, even grotesque, photomontages that he created in the early years of the Cold War, Zhitomirsky’s work pilloried capitalism and the United States, often with allusions to the Nazi threat against which Zhitomirsky had cut his teeth propagandizing. While his main employment from 1953 to 1991 was as chief artist for Soviet Union (Sovietskii Soiuz), a glossy magazine aimed at readers in Eastern Europe and Asia, his illustrations appeared in the Literary Newspaper (Literaturnaia gazeta), official organ of the Union of Soviet Writers; Red Fleet (Krasnyi flot); Rising Generation (Smena); the satirical magazine Krokodil (Crocodile), and even occasionally in more exalted venues such as Truth (Pravda), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and News (Izvestiia), official paper of the Soviet government. Those works attracted attention not just at home, where he was part of a major photomontage exhibit in East Berlin in 1961/2 and had his own retrospective in Moscow, but even in the US, where some of his photomontages from the Literary Gazette drew comment in the New York Times.

On balance it’s the postwar art, not just the illustrations mentioned above but also the book covers and occasional poster, that is the focus of Wolf’s Aleksandr Zhitomirsky: Photomontage as a Weapon of World War II and the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2016). For me, though, it’s Zhitomirsky’s wartime work on Front Illustrated (Frontovaia illiustratsiia) and its complementary German-language edition aimed at enemy soldiers (Front Illustrated for German Soldiers / Front-Illustrierte für den deutschen Soldaten) that’s more captivating. The postwar designs are hardly subtle. How often can one look at a monkey-like Goebbels ventriloquizing through some American symbol?

Aleksandr Zhitomirsky CoverFront Illustrated for German Soldiers, which existed to sow unease and dissension in the German ranks, had to be more indirect. For his cover designs and leaflets, Zhitomirsky mixed captured German photographs and new photography (often with himself as the model) with images borrowed for his vast trove of reference photos, often airbrushed together to the point that they became impossible to distinguish. With one leaflet, Choose! Like This or Like That!, Wolf shows how what appears to be a single photograph of dead Germans lying on the ground was actually a composite of seven different photographs, layered together, photographed, then retouched to create a seamless image. With others, she shows how Zhitomirsky mixed background photography with physical objects (like reproduced letters and snapshots) in trompe-l’œil arrangements. Taking advantage of Zhitomirsky’s personal archive, Wolf can demonstrates just how impressive his work was.

Hidden Figures

The release of two widely publicized books on female computers in the early Space Age in the same year (one of them with a forthcoming movie adaptation too) has to be unprecedented. The first was Rise of the Rocket Girls, about the women who worked as human computers (a redundant term before the 1950s) for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The second, Hidden Figures, is about the African-American women among those who did similar work for the Langley research center in Virginia. (There’s even a third book, by Dava Sobel, that covers an earlier generation of computers who worked at the Harvard Observatory).

Both Rise of the Rocket Girls and Hidden Figures are fascinating accounts of the essential roles that female computers played in aerospace research, capturing the challenging social milieu in which they worked. Hidden Figures also manages to address the impact of segregation and discrimination in the overlapping local, regional, and national contexts surrounding the work of the computers at Langley (itself a segregated workplace). It’s a story well worth reading, before or after the movie adaptation – focusing on Katherine Johnson’s contribution to the calculations for the first orbital Mercury flight – goes into wide release in January. The trailers I’ve seen look good, though Kevin Costner as a fictional NASA manager gets to strike a literal blow (with a fire axe!) against racism that goes way beyond anything NASA management actually did for their African-American staff.

In the last chapter of Hidden Figures, Shetterly discusses having to cut the section of the book about how several of its key figures moved into human resources and advocacy to try and overcome the less obvious discrimination against women and minorities in the workforce that was still going on in the 1970s and 80s. You never know from a trailer, but I suspect the movie’s not going to end with the uphill battle for recognition and equal treatment that persisted even after Johnson’s work.

As Sobel’s made clear in some of her pre-publication publicity, the stories of female computers are less undiscovered than regularly and distressingly forgotten. The women who worked in the Harvard Observatory were well known at the time; Katherine Johnson received substantial publicity at least within the African-American press for her work on Mercury. Academic writing, including a book with Princeton University Press, has covered the work of female computers in various fora. Perhaps a major Hollywood movie will help the story stick this time.

Revisiting the Third World War

The latest issue of the British Journal for Military History has an interesting article by Jeffrey H. Michaels on Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War (1979), a fictionalized narrative of a potential NATO-Soviet conflict in the 1980s. Though it sparked a lot of attention at the time and sold more than 3 million copies, I don’t think posterity has been very kind to the book. The Third World War was a didactic narrative written as a thinly-veiled plea for more NATO conventional armaments, and a lot of the narrative choices haven’t aged well. Much of the political prognostication was laughably wrong – already discredited by the time its semi-sequel The Third World War: The Untold Story came out in 1982. As fiction, it was quickly overshadowed by Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising (1986), whose wargame underpinnings and multi-media afterlife are stories in themselves.

The Third World War is mostly of interest, then, as an artifact of Cold War policy debates played out in popular culture and as the first of what became quite a lot of late Cold War future war fiction (not just Red Storm Rising but also the Team Yankee series, Ralph Peters’s novel Red Army, Shelford Bidwell’s World War 3 [which Michaels says had its prospects mostly ruined by coming out shortly after Hackett’s book], and Kenneth Macksey’s First Clash: Canadians in World War Three, not to mention various games, TV shows, and movies).

Michaels’s article doesn’t change my mind about the qualities of the book itself, but by digging into Hackett’s papers at King’s College London he does reveal some interesting facts about its origins. For one thing, I had not realized how much Hackett played around with the entire scenario of the book as he developed it. His first outline called not for the brief, eighteen-day conflict in the final book, but a multi-year war of attrition in which NATO. That was scuppered by early readers who judged it too dispiriting. The inclusion of limited nuclear strikes on Birmingham and Minsk, which bring the war to an end (and which seem to me one of the more contrived aspects of Hackett’s narrative) were a late addition and a reversal of Hackett’s earlier opinion that nuclear strikes, if any, were likely to happen at sea or in space, not against the cities of a nuclear power. Also interesting: the description of the nuclear attack on Birmingham may have been borrowed from a classified study of just that situation made by Solly Zuckerman in 1961.

How Not to Network a Nation

petersI’ve been looking to read How Not to Network a Nation by Benjamin Peters since MIT Press announced it last November, but a mixture of delays, library closings over summer, and general busyness meant that I didn’t lay hands on a copy until a few weeks ago. I’m really glad that I remembered, since it’s a wonderful book that sheds a lot of light on the development of computer networking and the internet.

Peters examines a series of failed attempts to create large-scale civilian computer networks in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, which he explains in the context of the Soviet economy and the development of cybernetics as a discipline. (Those wanting a overview of the argument can listen to his lovely interview with the New Books Network). By analyzing these Soviet proposals, Peters not only describes Soviet efforts at network-building but also sheds some light on the parallel processes going on in the United States.

Comparing the success of the Internet to the failure of the Soviet network proposals helps highlight the distinctive features of the network that ultimately developed out of the US ARPANET experiment. It also casts what Peters calls the “post-war American military-industrial-academic complex” in the unusual role of altruistic and disinterested benefactor. In contrast to the Soviet Union, where the military and its suppliers jealously guarded their power and priorities, the US government ended up funding a lot of research that – though loosely justified on the basis of military need – was more or less unrelated to specific military requirements and ended up being spread far and wide through civilian connections before it ever proved to have military significance.

How Not to Network a Nation is probably most rewarding for those with some knowledge of the Soviet economic and political system, including its perennial bureaucratic battles and black markets deals for influence and resources. (Anyone wanting to know more, for example, about the debates over how to mathematically optimize the planned economy, with or without computers, should read Francis Spufford’s well-footnoted novel Red Plenty.) Its biggest omission is any discussion of the technical features of the Soviet projects. Arguably, one of the reasons that the internet became the Internet is that it was built from architecture (particularly TCP/IP) flexible enough to span multiple thinly-connected networks with varying capabilities and purposes. That flexibility made it possible for networking to thrive even without the kind of deliberate and wide-ranging support that a large-scale, well-planned project would have required. Peters’s book, illuminating as it is, never addresses those aspects of network development.

A Return to Previously Scheduled Service

Work and life mean that this blog has been silent over the summer. I’m hoping to get back to it shortly, but in the meantime here’s some interesting reading – all available free online – to tide you over.

The Getty Research Portal is now collating links to books in fine arts and art history from twenty-two libraries, including the Getty Foundation’s own libraries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alongside rare out-of-copyright titles, several of the contributors are also putting up their own recent books and catalogs. You could already access many Getty publications at the Getty Publications Virtual Library and Metropolitan Museum publications through MetPublications, but the Portal promises to bring access to more titles in one place.

Knowledge Unlatched has announced the extensive list of titles being included in their 2016 round. Almost all the books from the 2015-16 Round 2 are now available through their website. Books are made Open Access through KU by libraries paying the publishers (including my own employer), so many thanks are due to those institutions for stepping up and making this possible.

The University of Alberta Press has not only acquired the full backlist of the the Canadian Circumpolar Institute Press but has digitzed them and made them available online. CCI Press will now become UAP’s Polnya Press imprint. First books have been annouced and are coming out now.

Last, but certainly not least, University of Calgary Press continues to publish its books under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. I have their history of Alberta in the First World War, The Frontier of Patriotism, on my phone right now.

Beyond Timbuktu

One has to be a little nervous about any book whose description of its own first chapter says that “it might be of interest to specialists but can probably be skipped by the average educated reader who does not know Arabic.”

Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa is certainly a book that’s best suited for the specialist, though it does contain a lot of interesting information. Ousmane Oumar Kane ranges widely over the history of Muslim education in West Africa, focusing mostly on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but reaching forwards to contemporary Islamic colleges and universities in Africa and back into the Middle Ages.

The latter caught my attention for the usual spate of connections between distant regions. One I already knew was the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324/25 of the Malian emperor Mansa Musa, a king so rich he was immortalized (in European style) as an ornament on the famous Catalan Atlas. One I had never heard of was the existence of a school in Cairo for students from Borno, near Lake Chad, endowed in the mid-thirteenth century by merchants from the region.

Though most of the literature Kane discusses is Arabic, he also mentions the phenomenon of ajami, African languages transcribed in the Arabic alphabet. I was surprised to read that ajami may have appeared as early as the twelfth century, and that ajami literature exists in twenty-nine languages in West Africa and more than eighty throughout Africa.

It always interesting to get a little prod in one’s blind spot, since I really shouldn’t have been surprised at all. I already knew that appropriating one alphabet to write another language was a medieval commonplace. Christians in Muslim Spain wrote Latin and Spanish (or what would become the latter, over time) in Arabic script, usually called mozarabic. Muslims and moriscoes (converts from Islam) in Christian Spain did the same, called aljamia (sharing the same root as ajami). Judeo-Persian (which is more Persian than Hebrew) is written with Hebrew script, as are Judeo-Arabic and Ladino. Why shouldn’t the same be true in West Africa?

The Last of the Computers

One of the first hires at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, before JPL became a NASA facility and even before it had the name JPL, was Barbara Canright. Canright was employed as a “computer” who would do complicated and repetitive mathematics for JPL’s engineers, as were many women who followed in her footsteps at JPL.

From the nineteenth century until the 1960s, many large-scale scientific and engineering project relied on human computers – often female university graduates without the same employment opportunities as their male counterparts – to handle the computational load. As Nathalia Holt explains in her recent book Rise of the Rocket Girls, JPL was no different. Holt’s book describes the careers of computers at JPL from the 1940s to the present: one of the last computers to be hired, Susan Finley, still works at the laboratory.

The book does an excellent job narrating the personal trials and professional triumphs of these women, including the disappearance of computing by hand. By the time JPL acquired its name in 1943, multi-purpose electronic computers were only a matter of years away. In the 1950s, JPL’s computing department acquired the first of many IBM mainframes to do calculation work. “Cora” (for Core Storage) was given a woman’s name to fit into the all-female group. Many of the women who worked with it soon branched out into programming in FORTRAN and other languages, at a time when programming had little or none of the prestige which it would later acquire. That decision helped them carve out a niche which survived when hand calculation was eliminated as a trade by the electronic computers, leading to the computer department being renamed Mission Design and the women who had worked there eventually retitled as engineers. Rise of the Rocket Girls describes their ongoing contributions to a list of JPL space probes that includes Ranger, Mariner, Viking, and Voyager.

It’s an interesting story not least because the female calculators employed at JPL were among the last in the business. Their success in transitioning into the Computer Age, reflected both in their success as individuals and in the establishment of Mission Design, was loaded with assumptions about how the aerospace industry valued various kinds of work. Though Holt doesn’t linger on them, in a lot of ways the undercurrents in Rise of the Rocket Girls reminded me of Rebecca Slayton’s Arguments that Count, which examined the relative influence of physicists and computer scientists in planning for ballistic missile defense during the same era.