Doctrines of Use

Doctrines of Use

Who knew I could use Emanuel Swedenborg and Karl Marx in the same essay? I wrote this bit yesterday as a part of a proposal, and thought it would be a fun little piece to throw on the blog-pile. I’ve been knee-deep in Roland Barthes for a while, and though he isn’t referenced in this section, I’m getting there.

There are profound differences between photographic theorist John Tagg and Roland Barthes. Tagg’s writing on New Deal photography represents the sort of collapse of difference that has long troubled me about Marxist analysis. There are people involved any time a photograph is made—not institutions, not ideologies, but people. Barthes is unique among most photographic theorists because his response is so individual. Though I don’t agree with Barthes about everything, I am closer to his side than Tagg’s.

However, it was interesting to write this and discover, through writing, that I think there is an odd point of convergence between the fans of transcendental aesthetics and Marxists—the idea that real meaning is hidden.

Even thinking of this in the light of the media barrage that I still can’t turn off (though I did avoid turning on the news for at least one full day), I begin to realize that evaluating the war for either side—the humanists or the pragmatic materialists who insist that it is about oil— share the same thing. They share a common ground in the assertion— It can’t be what it is, it just can’t.

I promised myself I’d quit writing about war crap. So here it is.


From its origin in the eleventh century, use has had multiple meanings. Applied to the present, use implies the employment of something to achieve a desired end or purpose. However, when cast in past tense, used implies a practice—the common usage of a tool. Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg formulated a doctrine of use in the eighteenth century that emphasized the relationship of use to love and wisdom:

Love is the end, wisdom the instrumental cause, and use is the effect; and use is the complex, containant, and base of wisdom and love; and use is such a complex and such a containant, that all things of love and all things of wisdom are actually in it; it is where they are all simultaneously present. (DLW 213)

Karl Marx’s view of use in the nineteenth century was significantly different. Divorced from love and wisdom use becomes meaning itself. Meaning has no container: “Use-values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth” (Capital I). Marx’s view has dominated the critical practice of sociologists, economists, and literary critics in the later twentieth century. Inquiry into use-value has become largely material, directed away from any transcendental concerns.

The use-value of photographs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is inextricably linked to their instrumental use-value as evidence. After the early euphoria and celebration of the central personalities who used the new genre of photo-textual combinations that emerged across the 1930s to elicit social, economic, and literary change, a second wave of criticism emerged. The altruism of outsiders acting to document social conditions became an object of intense scrutiny in the 1960s due to expanded ideas of use.

The core of both Swedenborg’s “doctrine of use” and Marx’s “use-value” is an assumption that meaning created through use is the gateway to a hidden agenda. For Swedenborg, each action contained the essence of all things that preceded it. Works and deeds were the culmination of intention, an intention that was largely invisible to the human who performed the act. In Swedenborg’s vision, that intention was divine. In the view of Marxists, it is purely material. Contemporary Marxist critic John Tagg assigns a similar “use-value” to the emergence of documentary practice. For Tagg, the use of documentary representation is tied not to a theological imperative, but to a hidden mechanism of power:

Documentary transformed the flat rhetoric of evidence into an emotionalized drama of experience that worked to effect an imaginary identification of viewer and image, reader and representation, which would suppress difference and seal them into paternalistic relations of domination and subordination on which documentary’s truth effects depended. (12)

This analytic/critical approach to documentary practice came as a huge surprise to the practitioners of the form. According to F. Jack Hurley, when many of the surviving photographic practitioners who forged the documentary genre met in a conference in Amarillo, Texas, in 1979 they were not pleased to be asked “why they were the tools of something as ‘unclean’ as the federal government” (244). The use-value the practitioners ascribed to their work was not the same as the value assigned by Marxist analysis.

In its primary, illocutionary sense, use implies motive—a desire to attain an end. Clearly, those who worked to create the documentary tradition did not see themselves as pursuing an “imaginary identification” but rather a real one. In linguistic terms, the perlocutionary sequel of their efforts does not provide a close match with their attempts to represent the human condition. There are separate concepts of use in play.

Not surprisingly, the only photographer in the documentary tradition “safe” from assertions of complicity in the emergence of documentary propaganda is Walker Evans, because he worked “within the demarcated institutional spaces of aestheticised photography” (Tagg 12). Documentary, in Evan’s conception, was a style and not a motive. In a sense, the reliance on aesthetic qualities represents an evasion of documentary use-value in favor of aesthetic use-value, a transcendental conception inherited from the pictorialists. However, the “stratified and hierarchical culture” of high art was reviled by Evans, and he was quick to proclaim that the documents of art had no use. Though the motivations appear coincident, they are clearly different conceptions of use.

1 thought on “Doctrines of Use”

  1. Yeah, well I never thought I’d be able to use L. Frank Baum and Michel Foucault in the same paper, either. But it has come to pass.

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