Symposium on Propaganda, Progressivism, and Cinema

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Symposium on

Propaganda, Progressivism and Cinema

April 29-30, 2013

University of Szeged Faculty of Arts

Department of Visual Culture and Literary Theory

Guest lecturer:

Jonathan Auerbach,

Professor of English at the University of Maryland


Jonathan Auerbach is professor of English at the University of Maryland. In addition to publishing a variety of articles in the field of American studies, and editing a number of volumes, he is the author of four books: The Romance of Failure: First-Person Fictions of Poe, Hawthorne, and James (Oxford UP, 1989); Male Call: Becoming Jack London (Duke UP, 1996); Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations (U California, 2007), and Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship (Duke UP, 2011). He is currently working on a study of American propaganda and the shaping of public opinion from Teddy to Franklin D. Roosevelt. He has been a Fulbright scholar in Portugal, Cyprus, and Tunisia, and has lectured abroad in Ireland, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Egypt.



April 29, 16-18h

Jonathan Auerbach: The Weapons of Democracy:
Propaganda, Progressivism, and the American Public, 1884-1934

Venue: Conference Room (Faculty of Arts, main building)


My book project is based on an unlikely pairing. Progressivism refers to a crucial era of American politics covering the early years of the twentieth century. This period was marked by enormous reform efforts designed to revitalize the nation’s democratic potential, what one commentator in 1909 called “The Promise of American Life.” Muckraking journalists exposed corruption and fraud in big business, politics, municipal government, and labor unions, while the administrations of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson sought to regulate monopolies and trusts, restrict child labor, and safeguard food and drugs. Educators and social workers like Jane Addams established settlement houses in blighted urban areas to help immigrants, the poor, women, and minorities.  This was a moment of optimism, national pride, efficiency, and progress.

Propaganda, on the other hand, is a word that conjures up a far darker set of images – the nightmarish world of George Orwell’s 1984, the cynical manipulation and mind control of the masses, especially in the wake of two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism. Before the twentieth century, however, the term carried less pejorative connotations, signifying more neutrally a dissemination or propagation of the true faith. In this regard, any deliberate effort to sway large groups of people to a given point of view or course of action may be considered a form of propaganda.

Propaganda and progressivism specifically intersect in my study in two ways, one historical and the other more conceptual. It is a striking historical irony that the very progressives spearheading domestic reform were with few exceptions those most enthusiastic about the United States entering The Great War in 1917; in fact, to head the Committee on Public Information (CPI), set up to drum up support for the war, President Wilson appointed a well-known muckraking journalist conversant in various publicity techniques, including those he had formerly exposed as the deceitful work of corporations and trusts. Under George Creel’s energetic direction, the CPI became the largest propaganda apparatus in US history, saturating virtually all aspects of American society and culture. Deploying various forms of modern mass media (pamphlets, advertising, posters, speeches and film), the CPI relentlessly bombarded citizens and their allies abroad with patriotic messages, what Creel called the “paper bullets” needed to  promote American values and win the war.

At the conceptual level, the progressive agenda before the war, during the conduct of the war, and in the disillusioning aftermath of the war (the 1920s) all hinged on various understandings of public opinion – a core ideal for the proper functioning of a vibrant participatory democracy, but one increasingly difficult to pinpoint. Was there such a thing as a “common interest” that transcended “special interests”, as Wilson and others claimed, and if so, how was this common will to be guided or mobilized, if not by modes of mass persuasion, or, in other words, propaganda? These are the questions my project seeks to address, with implications for American democracy and the democratic public sphere today.


April 30, 10-12h

Roundtable on the documentary “A Film Unfinished” (2010)

Contributors: Jonathan Auerbach, Zsolt Győri (University of Debrecen), György Endre Szőnyi (University of Szeged), Zsombor Kapás (University of Szeged)

Moderator: Izabella Füzi (University of Szeged)

Venue: Conference Room (Faculty of Arts, main building)

In 2010 an Israeli documentary was released titled A FILM UNFINISHED  that explains and contextualizes DAS GHETTO,  an edited rough cut  around an hour long (not raw footage) shot in the Warsaw Ghetto but missing a sound track. Found by East German archivists after WW2, this 1942 film was apparently intended as anti-semitic propaganda, and so we would seem to have a clear case of a contemporary documentary invested in historical truth framing and bringing to light a prior cinematic representation relying on lies and deception. But is this distinction between two modes of representation–documentary and propaganda–so easy to maintain?


April 30, 14-16h

Jonathan Auerbach: State Power and Propaganda during WW1 –
“The Four Minute Men” (lecture followed by discussion)

Venue: Room IX (Faculty of Arts, main building)


The lecture focuses on WW1 and the Committee on Public Information, especially the chapter entitled “The Four Minute Men” from George Creel’s book How We Advertised America (1920).


Related materials:

1. Propositions: OUP Handbook of Propaganda Studies, Auerbach and Castronovo (eds.)

2. Jonathan Aurbach: Progressivism and Propaganda: Managing American Public Opinion, 1896-1934 (book project)