Norman Bel Geddes and Freud Similarities


In Freud’s Civilzation and Its Discontents, he explains and elaborates on the key conflicts between individiauls and society, or civilization. Individuals desire freedom to act upon their instincts and go with their gut, primal cues; civilization promotes people to become cookie cutters of the ideal member, oftentimes suppressing their individuality.


As individuals comprise a group of people, and civilizations are groups of people, individuals are responsible for constructing society, or civilizations. Interestingly, there was a disconnect between the essential independence, needed by the individual, and the masking of individual differences within civilizations, in attempts for people to mesh and tolerate one another as to ensure societal continuity. The paradox of civilization is as follows: we have crated it to protect ourselves from unhappiness, but it inflicts what it was designed to prevent. Freud believes that advancements have been a double-edged sword for happiness. There is the struggle of compromising between individual fulfillment of happiness to achieve harmonious relationships and interactions with others; lending people to be under the rule of societal authority. Part of this societal authority strives for beauty, cleanliness, order, full utilization of the mind and its capacity to create.


Upon walking into the Harry Ransom Center to view the exhibit, “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,” I noticed a silver, blimp-looking air vehicle as part of the display, providing a 3D prop  for a teal-colored poster background. Thinking simply of the basic design, this silver blimp was very smooth, designed for low-resistance, air flight. With my Freud-hat on, I thought this was a great crosstalk prop between this exhibit I was about to see, and Freud’s book. The blimp was created by an individual with an idea, one that was certainly laughed at by doubters, and seemed only a dream… until it happened. In its creation and design, it was made to be aerodynamic, clean-looking, and able to last a long time. These characteristics parallel the individual that is trapped in civilization: avoidance of resistance (like an aerodynamic design avoids air resistance), clean and hygienic, and designed as to survive in the society. With these characteristics, it has a very simple path it can take, not one with free range ability. Even its dictated physical capabilities are dictated for it.


Inside the exhibit, I was very impressed by Mr. Bel Beddes’ identity as a Renaissance man. He designed nightclubs, costumes, futuristic exhibits, and produced aesthetically-pleasing works of art. Interestingly, as his career progressed (in the 1940s), he began to speak about new ideas for cleanliness (a civilization requirement). Interestingly, as beautiful as the exhibit was, I coud not help but feel a sad, lonely feeling while looking at his art. Maybe the civilization had won.

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Lecture Report: Bel Geddes and Freud

Norman Bel Geddes was a man of many talents and aspirations. He had little schooling in subjects he was interested in, but he still quickly mastered his interests that ranged from designing stage sets, costumes and lighting to theatres to office buildings and factories, as well as products in which to sell them in. He also designed houses and their furnishings, and he believed that communication is a key factor in building a successful civilization. Bel Geddes revolutionized ideas engineers of the time were only dreaming of in his book Horizons; he presented visions for projects he had already designed and as well as dreams of inventions of flying cars, hotels large enough to be hotels, and other revolutionary ideas that were a stark contrast to the dark times of the economic realities of a post-Depression nation. Then, through his design for the General Motors Pavilion, Futurama, he promoted the streamlining of cities and the dream of an egalitarian America.

Taking into account Freud in Civilizations and its Discontents, there is a similarity that should be noticed between Freud and Bel Geddes’ beliefs about the benefits of decentralization on society, and the give and take that comes with trying to make every person happy. Freud argues that decentralization of civilization results in happier people because of the greater control that they have over their lives. A closely structured civilization requires the suppression of the instinctual desires every man has: sex and violence. The repression of these desires results is a restrictive society that leads to some unhappiness, even if the people are not aware of the cause of their unhappiness. By stating that decentralizing society results in a happier civilization, Bel Geddes agrees with Freud and acknowledges that a decentralized society results in a happier society. However, Bel Geddes is known for his inventions that result in a streamlined and extremely productive society. Everything he designed had the ultimate purpose of making lives easier: trains, buses, cities, cars, rooms, buildings, and boats. He gets caught in the paradox Freud discusses in Civilizations and its Discontents; while a decentralized society allows humans to indulge in their instinctual desires, the desire for survival and comfort trumps this at the cost of choosing to live in a closely-knit civilization. Man must choose between giving up happiness through suppression of natural tendencies for violence and sex or a chance for survival and comfort for all by choosing to live in a civilization and become part of a larger society. Bel Geddes recognizes this paradox, and I believe that this influences his designs. He allows for the streamlining of society, comfort in everyday life, and a chance to suppress the bad in a more painless way than before. In the dark Depression-era America was in at the time, Bel Geddes found a way to create a positive outlook on society and a way for man to function better as a centralized civilization while also becoming happy. Bel Geddes and Freud both recognize that while give and take is necessary for a functioning and happy society, and Bel Geddes sees a way to maximize the happiness so desired by humanity through his inventions.

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Norman Bel Geddes and Sigmund Freud

Norman Bel Geddes was a man of many talents. Thorughout his life he was an artist, designer, inventor, builder, salesman, and dreamer. He started his professional career as a theater set designer and was a part of the New Stagecraft movement that wanted to free new playwrights from the constraints of old set design and allow them to create settings that explored the psychological and emotional aspects of their work. After ten years of this work he felt the need to impact America on a bigger scale, so he moved into architectural and interior design where he popularized industrial design and the process of “streamlining” which he wrote about in his book “Horizons”. Streamlining to Bel Geddes was designing the outside and inside of his creations to maximize efficiency. All of this work eventually led to Bel Geddes designing entire cities for the future in which decentralization, or the spread of decision-making closer to the people, was the key to improving the quality of life in cities. Now, taking Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents” into account when learning about Bel Geddes and his work, there is an interesting dynamic to be noticed. In one sense Bel Geddes agrees with Freud in that a decentralization of civilization will bring about a happier people due to the fact that they have more control over their own lives. This goes back to Freud talking about how man is inherently unhappy because of the restrictions civilization puts upon the sexual and violent instincts of human beings. By saying that the decentralization of civilization brings about a better city, Bel Geddes is acknowledging that fact that too much centralized power brings about unhappiness in the citizens of a city. At the same time though, Bel Geddes is a major proponent of civilization and what it can do to make our lives easier and more productive. He was continuously designing rooms, homes, buildings, cities, cars, trains, and ships that incorporated forward thinking and design. Here he was caught in the trap that Freud talked about a few years earlier when “Civilization and Its Discontents” was published. Because civilization is needed to make our lives and survivability odds better and through its existence, it also suppresses our natural sexual and violent tendencies, we must therefore choose to give up our instinctual happiness in exchange for our survival and comfort, or to be part of society.  Since Bel Geddes saw this paradox too, what he tried to do throughout his career was to bring out the best qualities of civilization, streamlining, design, emotion, ease of use, comfort, and beauty, while also suppressing the bad. In this way his designs and contributions to civilization have had a positive, self-aware affect on the people he was designing for, creating a landscape that not only supported and understood, but also asked questions for the future in regards to how people should live and function in their own society.

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Dr. Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Social Justice”

Summary of lecture by Harley Rubio

Dr. Scarry’s highly interdiscplinary lecture focused on how beauty presses us to a greater concern for justice, or a greater concern for the diminution of pain.  Though beauty is often personal, its usage and relevance to humanity has allowed it to be incorporated into different realms of subject matter. In English, both beauty and justice have a shared synonym and that is the word “fairness.” In the issue of beauty, one often associates fairness to fair faces, fair vistas, and fair skies, but in concerning justice, one would think of fair arrangements and fair playing fields. Etymologically, the word fairness as we use it today in concerning justice originated from its use in the aesthetic realm: “loveliness of countenance” or “perfection of fit.” It is also important to note that in both cases, the shared antonym is the word “injury.” (The word “jury” is intermixed, referencing once more to the idea of parallel in punishment, and decision-making in the political system.)  Though often one would associate the opposite of “fairness” to be ugliness, the word seems incomprehensible whereas injury, to Scarry, makes perfect sense.

Whether one is speaking of the beauty seen in paintings, Keat’s poems, the work of Emily Bronte, Scarry makes the point that one is always speaking of one of three sights:

1. Oftentimes, we described beauty in terms of its physical characteristics such as symmetry, unity, and clarity. Though we often describe beauty in flowers, children, paintings, there is an underlying relationship to justice. Attributes such as parallel and symmetry anticipate attributes in the realm of justice. Beauty in being just: symmetry seen in beauty anticipates a symmetry in human relationships. Oftentimes punishments are sought out so they their weight is in some way symmetrical to its crime. In the same likelihood, compensation should be symmetrical to the work carried out. As well as Hume’s regulation of fulfillment and its symmetry in concerning expectation.

2. In the presence of beauty, it elicits a response in the viewer. It stimulates a cognitive event that relies on the perception that one makes towards beauty. For example, Socrates in coming in the presence of a beautiful boy becomes overwhelmed by emotions, breaks into a fever and begins to fall over. Oftentimes, we describe the effects beauty elicits because they are what make us feel marginal in our existence. In one instance, in the words of Iris Murdoch, it issues forth an “un-selfing” or in Simone Weil, the “radical de-centering.” Iris Murdoch makes the example that she often is concerned with personal affairs, such as her status, but at the sight of beauty, loses the preoccupation with herself. Scarry terms this experiences as “[opiated] adjacency” because there are many things in the world that put us in a state of acute pleasure, but there are also things that make us feel marginal to the world. Beauty is the only thing that can accomplish this simultaneously; it not only accomplishes a state of bliss, but it also helps the morality between people.

3. The third sight once more concerns the viewer but instead of the describing the immediate response, the third sight concerns the aftermath or the delayed response. Describing in which it gives rise to creation. This sight focuses on the link between the beautiful and the aftermath that evokes a desire to create. For example, Diatema tells Plato, who tells Socrates, in the “Symposium,” that being in the presence in the beloved incites a desire to bring beauty into the world. Oftentimes, we do not take notice, but it is innate human nature to focus on the idea of reproduction and in seeing the beautiful, it prompts the idea of the creation of children to carry on that beauty. In other cases, it inspires us to write poems, many different forms of literature, philosophy, treaties among a few things. “When the eye sees the beautiful, the hand wants to create.” Mathematicians and scientists rely on beauty in the forms of symmetry; Math must be “pregnant with possibility to endure for a millennia” as quoted by Robert Langlands from the Institute for Advanced Study. Or in other cases, many cubic and quintic equations often produce many possibilities and would therefore elicit responses to discover. In the real world, there is an emphasis on replication when in the presence of beauty. We seek to preserve the continuity of beauty in forms of photographs, phones, recordings, and communication among other forms.

Though beauty exists in a natural and artifactual state, justice is solely artifactual. There is an impulse towards plentitude, as seen in the words of distribution and infinity. There is a need to not only take care and protect beauty, but also to replicate it for others to witness.

In further discussing her argument, Scarry includes some visual examples:


As seen in Josiah McElheny’s artwork, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely, the ideas of replication and symmetry are richly apparent; the smoothness and uniformity provides for the viewer a tactile experience of symmetry. There is also the feature of “un-selfing” as the viewer is not present even in the reflections of the work.


Pinned Image

Similarly, Shiro Kuramata’s Miss Blanche, named after Miss Blanche from Tennessee William’s A Street Car Named Desire, makes the notion to break off from reality. It explores the relationship between male and female sexuality, and makes homage to the act of preservation of life. Blanche DuBois, in this salute, is relieved of the mental weight she has in her concerns with aging, as seen when one finds relief in a chair.  Likewise in Glass Chair and How High the Moon, beauty is not only elicited in its responses, in its in-depth meaning, but also in the intricate features of proliferation, of multiplying and subtracting at the same time.

Then there is the discussion of what makes us want to make good, to do good?

There is the theory that beauty is what drives the idea of morality.

Often poets speak of beauty such as William Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey:

These beauteous forms,
      Through a long absence, have not been to me
      As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
      But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
      Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
      In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
      Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
      And passing even into my purer mind,
      With tranquil restoration:--feelings too                        30
      Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
      As have no slight or trivial influence
      On that best portion of a good man's life,
      His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
      Of kindness and of love.


The unremembered acts of kindness and love coming from his experiences, of the beautiful, at Tintern Abbey.

Likewise, Thomas Hardy in “At the Lunar Eclipse” explores a proliferation of shadow unmatched by the earth; that we do not live up to the beauty of our own planet.

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon’s meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven’s high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

The discussion continues to explore the relationships of the beautiful and social justice, and how it relates to the relationships within humanity. Beauty and justice reside in the immortal realm, but at the same time, there is an issue brought about that those who do not injure are kept in jail while those who do are not. This relates to the obvious asymmetrical quality within the justice system. Though we oftentimes seek out a symmetry within crime and punishment, we do not bring it into fruition. Likewise, this asymmetry exist economically and also in the issue of weaponry.

Do we fear symmetry? Do we fear a sense of balance in the world?

A life pact exists between the beautiful and humanity. An account exists in Homer and the sense of awe Odysseus finds in Nausicaa as someone so beautiful, mirrored in Dante’s account of Beatrice, the “new life.” There is a sense of wanting to preserve the beautiful; it brings about a sense of renewal. It repairs ground and restores a trust in us for the world. At the same time, it elevates our acuity and perception of life and its beauty.

Though there is the argument that beautiful things rob attention from others, Scarry suggests to reflect when confronted with a beautiful person.

Was one paying attention to everyone to begin with, or was one paying the necessary attention to beauty, singling them out as a result of that beauty?

It spurs a sense of aliveness, and social contract.

On that note, there arises the issue of weaponry and how it can affect the preservation of beauty. The imbalance in unnecessary nuclear weaponry affects the world in numerous ways. The inclusion of clocks in magazines incites a feeling of replication but also universality in beauty, especially during a time where clocks provoke a feeling of “doomsday.” The idea of destruction becomes relatable to what the clock stands for, especially in its spherical qualities that mirror the Earth. It is as if destruction against nature affects not only that specific location, but also the idea of the beautiful, of humanity and social justice.

Because beauty appeals so much to us, there arises a life pact to preserve it as an innate responsibility. It elicits us to take care and protect what is alive, but at the same time, the reciprocal life-pact, the concern for surfaces as if it were live tissue, gives rise to its inclusion to many documents such as the Magna Carta’s 14 charter, the Epic of Gilgamesh, legal treaties, and in many works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. 

In its universal quality to experience beauty, in making us alive, there is also the same duty to preserve it, and its continuity. This, I think, is key to the underlying relationship between beauty and social justice.

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Lecture Report: Elaine Scarry’s “On Beauty and Social Justice”

Elaine Scarry’s lecture titled “ On Beauty and Social Justice” comes third in the Humanities Institute’s series titled “Public and Private”. She started the lecture stating how beauty is personal, and it is translated into a public event. She noted how justice and beauty share the same synonym: fair. For example, a woman can be fair in complexion and justice can be described as being fair.  She also stated that beauty and justice also share the same antonym: injury.

        She  continued to say that beauty can be described in three ways. The first one was that you can describe the object itself, for example  a greek vase. She states that you can beauty in terms of symmetry, unity, and vivacity. The second way that beauty can be defined as what happens to us when we come across something beautiful. It is a cognitive event. The third definition is what happens in the aftermath.  She then talked about how those definitions can be connected to justice. She states that the first definition of beauty anticipates that there needs to be symmetry when we communicate with others. The second view states how we go through a radical decentering when we come across beauty, it puts us in bliss while shifting the attention of off us, essentially putting us on the sidelines. And the third view states that the beauty of the person you love prompts the desire to have children or inspire you to make new laws. For examples when the eyes something beautiful the hand wants to draw it.

            After this she told the audience how most people have a harder time seeing how the first definition of beauty could be connected to justice and that she would spend most of her time remaining explaining this theory. She showed images of chairs by Shiro Kuramata titled “Miss Blanche” and “How High the moon”. She described the unilateral symmetry in these chairs. 

            She stated how there should be symmetry in how we treat others, but she said that this is usually not the case. She stated how over time the judicial system went from convicting rich defandants 1 in 3 times to 1 in 74 times in the history of the United States. She talks about how after the fall of the Berlin Wall the United States built Ohio class submarines. In these ships, there is enough nuclear power to equal thirty-four thousand Hiroshima size blasts and how there has been money award to begin building new ships in the coming years. Out of the 22500 nuclear weapons in the world, the United States and Russia contain 21500 of them. Most of the countries in the Southern Hemisphere have all signed treaties that does not allow them to create any nuclear weapons.

            Scarry  moved to talk about how beauty can be related to thing that are alive and how beauty is usually credited with a life creating capacity. It increases the perspective level and she said how this restores trust in the world. Also the perceptual activity raises the bar of beauty. Once you have seen something extremely beautiful, your expectations are higher and things must now compare to that level of beauty. She talked about how the Magna Carta originally contained a section that was called The Charter of the Forest and it stated how the people of England wanted the forest and the wood to in hands of all the people.

            She concluded her talk with showing covers from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist. She shows a particular cover page depicting the world as a doomsday clock. She talks about how the circle is completely symmetrical. An interesting fact that I learned from the lecture was the peace sign stand for nuclear disarmament.  

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Beauty Writeup

Elaine Scarry began her lecture on beauty with a discussion of the similarities between aesthetic beauty and notions of justice. She noted that the word fairness as it relates to the judicial system (i.e. the right for a fair trial) actually has its roots in the fairness of beautiful things. She extended this to say that the symbol of the justice system is the scale, which represents symmetry. Beauty is based, in part, upon bilateral symmetry – which she demonstrated via images of modern Japanese furniture by artist Shiro Kuramata. She said that the proposed goal of the justice system is to provide balance for the injustices perpetrated onto us, or in other words, to provide the beauty of resolution to counteract the ugliness of the injustices perpetrated in this world.

            Scarry says that beauty creates within a person a state of cognitive change which simultaneously uplifts and marginalizes us, and that no other stimulus in the universe creates that simultaneous dichotomy in a way which allows us accept said marginalization. Essentially, when viewing something beautiful we enter a state of awe. We are awed both by its elegant significance and by how insignificant we seem by comparison. We accept this state with no reservations because we are ok with being pushed to the margin if it allows us to experience the art. Beauty demands a high level of perceptional acuity to appreciate it, it requires cognition to be rerouted away from whatever was on one’s mind into the beautiful thing. If you are walking down the street and see a particularly attractive person your focus switches towards them, before you saw the person you were not focused upon how unattractive the other people were on the street but once you see beauty it fills your mind and captures your attention.

            Half way through Scarry’s lecture she switched topics to nuclear war. She provided a lot of information that I never knew, growing up after the Cold War the threat of nuclear war never seemed all that real to me until Scarry’s lecture. There are 14 U.S. owned Ohio Class Nuclear Submarines operating in the world’s oceans; each submarine has an arsenal capable of wiping out an entire continent and together just the nuclear submarines are capable of annihilating the world twice. The U.S. has land and air based nuclear missiles as well, both arsenals more powerful than the sea based nuclear missiles. Nuclear war violates what Scarry’s defines as the three components of beauty: symmetry, creation, and lateralization. Some people are jealous that they world will outlive them so we inflict our mortality upon the world around us, we destroy forests and smash stones. Nuclear war is the ultimate form of this jealousy against the longevity of the earth.

            Beauty is a life path. In some Native American cultures the word beauty is synonymous with life. Mathematicians view their equations as so beautiful they will be pregnant with possibility and endure for centuries. Artists use mathematical equations to derive works of art through symmetry and lateralization: ancient cultures use prevalent symbols of sacred geometry which they hold as holy. The magna carta contained a charter protecting the natural beauty of England and the U.S. has huge land grants for parks so that all people can appreciate it freely. 

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Norman Bel Geddes and Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents

Norman Bel Geddes was a designer, artist, and architect who played a major role in influencing the modern image of America in the mid 1900s. He had a futurist mindset and was always forward thinking. His career started with set design, and designing theater spaces. He then took his passions of architectural design, interior design, and theater design and turned it into industrial design and was one of the first to do so. At this point, he dabbled in the design of cars and homes and various other products, all of which had a common look that was “streamlined.” This meant very sleek, smooth, and modern. He was asked to create an ad campaign for Shell Oil. This project came to be one of his most famous – the Shell Oil “City of Tomorrow.”

This futuristic campaign embodied Geddes’ idea of a utopian city and captured the mindset of the nation. This was a prosperous and happy time in America so everyone was looking to the future. This scenario can be compared to Freud’s idea in Civilization and its Discontents of how religion affects a society. Freud argues that religion limits one’s happiness instead of contributing to it, mainly because of the illusion that it provides of the future. This illusion is the illusion of an afterlife, something to strive for and according to Freud, allegedly give you a purpose in life. Many think of this afterlife as heaven and associate it with perfection. Geddes contributes to society’s positive outlook of the future by creating a sort of heaven with his “City of Tomorrow.” People were awestruck by this display and were convinced this was the way of the future.

Geddes became something of a god and had created a simple path for the public to follow, taking away the necessity for them to think of something on his or her own. Similar to how Freud said that the only way to achieve happiness if you follow a religion would be to fully devote oneself to that religion, the followers Geddes had obtained fully devoted their minds to his visionary ideas. Geddes campaign was able to grow much bigger because of this customer loyalty that had been created. The “Futurama” installation he had designed and created was put on display at the New York World’s Fair and drew quite a crowd.

Freud also talks of the super-ego and notes that there can be a collective super-ego that functions on a much larger scale. He says that this collective super-ego is often brought on or embodied by leaders in society or men who have significant accomplishments. Geddes is an example one such character. His ideas may have placed guilt on his audiences. They promoted something novel and innovative and gave you a way to achieve this utopian society he had created. However, if one did not have the means to follow suit, their consciences and the pressure to conform to society may have gotten to them and brought on feelings of guilt.

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