Secondhand World

30 year watch
My father receives his thirty-year watch for the benefit of the cameras

Deliberately, on every historic occasion, we piously fake events for the benefit of photographers, while the actual event often occurs in a different fashion; we have the effrontery to call these artful dress rehearsals “authentic historic documents.”

So an endless succession of images passes before the eye, offered by people who wish to exercise power, either by making us buy something for their benefit or making us agree to something that would promote their economic or political interests: images of gadgets manufacturers want us to acquire; images of seductive young ladies who are supposed, by association, to make us seek other equally desirable goods, images of people and events in the news, big people and little people, important and unimportant events; images so constant, so unremitting, so insistent that for all purposes of our own we might as well be paralyzed, so unwelcome are our inner promptings or our own self-directed actions. As a result of this wholly mechanical process, we cease to live in the multidimensional world of reality, the world that brings into play every aspect of the human personality, from its bony structure to its tenderest emotions: we have substituted for this, largely through the mass production of graphic symbols—abetted indeed by a similar multiplication and distribution of sounds—a secondhand world, a ghost-world, in which everyone lives a secondhand and derivative life. The Greeks had a name for this pallid simulacrum of real existence: they called it Hades, and this kingdom of shadows seems to be the ultimate destination of our mechanistic and mammonistic culture.

Lewis Mumford, Art and Technics excerpted in Vicki Goldberg’s edited collection Photography in Print (381-382).

I continue to be fascinated by Mumford’s iconophobia, as he channels Plato’s mistrust of mimesis. To Mumford’s credit, as the passage continues he makes it clear that what he fears is not the iconography of art and artists but rather the symbols created for and by the masses. What I wonder is this: is the smiling obligatory snapshot the symbol, or is it the watch?

30 year watch    

The damn thing never kept time. It never had any utility as a watch; regardless of the claims of the commercials. It was a symbol, and not a happy one for my father. My father always smiled in pictures, even when he was irritated. The whole concept of a secondhand world, filled with technologies (either of accuracy or reproducibility) would have been incredibly foreign. You took the watch that the world offered for your service, and you moved on. He was bitter, because in the end everyone he knew was dying and the company that awarded the watch would not grant him what he really wanted: a transfer back to his home state of Oklahoma. He wore cheap Timex watches until he died, but he never threw the Accutron away. It was symbolic.

The conferring of the watch was also symbolic, but not in any particularly damaging way. I think Mumford really exaggerates that part. Dad had to get dressed up and go to a studio photographer in town to get his likeness taken for the company newsletter. Mom happily hung onto that picture as well. The significance, I think, is not in the symbols but in the way we act. Symbolic inducement, to use the old speech-com term for visual rhetoric, is real. But what we do matters much more than what our social rituals symbolize.

We have never lived in a non-multidimensional space. Such theories of simulation (as manifest in Baudrillard more recently) are to me, worse than useless. They distract us from the reality of our rituals and the physicality of our products—especially our recorded products. The symbolic has never been the center of action, but its periphery.

A symbol-worker never grew a tomato. My father did. He didn’t live in a secondhand world. Symbols remained in their place, reserved for special occasions or filed in a seldom revisited drawer.

June 26, 2000