From the late 80s through the middle 90s I spent most of my nights out at bars making photographs. When I got home at night, for a time, there was a book I picked up in a used bookstore that I’d read before I went to sleep. It’s odd to come across it in my office so many years later. I passed a lot of time with this skinny little volume.
Thinking about the “why” of the years I invested a great deal of my time, energy, and resources into making photographs, I find myself wondering about what I really wanted to get out of pictures. In the beginning, I think, I was trying to figure out what I thought about the landscape around me. It felt to me as if I was sleepwalking. It was simply there, and it seemed like it always had been there— and it was strange. Or, perhaps better— I was estranged from it.
My family moved to Bakersfield in March of 1963. I turned five years old that year, and we moved into a house on Melody Lane, next to the runway at the airport. By September, we moved to a new tract house on the west side of Highway 99, but my father spent most of his time in the oilfields up on Round Mountain Road.
Looking it up on Google Streetview, it looks different. On the driveway side, there was chain link fencing and tall climbing rosebushes, as well as a row of oleander bushes that went all the way back separating the houses. There was no fence and no palm trees on the other side. We were friends with the neighbors, the LaFoys— he worked in the oilfields with my dad.
It was hot in Bakersfield, so hot that it was painful to walk on the street in bare feet. My brother was walking home from Norris School and strayed off the street to walk in an irrigation ditch with a little water in it because it was cooler. He stepped on a broken coke bottle and collapsed. He severed an artery and was bleeding profusely. A local family saw him and put him in their pick-up and brought him to our driveway. My mother was understandably panicked, and called my dad in the oilfields to come home. They drove Stephen to the emergency room, and my dad took me with him when he left from there to go back to work in the oilfields on Round Mountain Road while they stitched my brother up. I remember having a good time playing in the shack he worked from, maintaining steam injection oil wells. I have a vague memory of him hosing down the driveway when we got home, washing the blood down the driveway into the gutter in front of the house.
I have a lot of memories set in the oilfields. When someone in Oildale decided they needed my cameras more than I did and broke into my apartment there in 1982, I was forced to move in with my brother Stephen in a Tenneco Oil lease house on the western end of these fields. Because of strike activity, I had to check in with a security guard before driving up the non public roads. Round Mountain Road is public, though, and gives expansive and otherworldly views of the ancient sea floor that is the basis of this corner of the valley.
My friend Slim often said that what made the valley special was the dirt. Near where these photos were taken, there’s an archeological dig at where the locals call Sharktooth Hill. Millions of sharks teeth have been dug out of these hillsides, once around 200 feet underwater in an inland sea. In a sense, when you stand there you are on a killing field where whales were being devoured by sharks. Even the megalodon swam here. Though I have so many memories of this place, it never seemed “right” to me. There is a coldness to my relationship with these fields, and I think that’s a big reason why I always wanted to drive back from time to time to test and see if my feelings had changed. I think from the moment I arrived here, I could think of very little beyond leaving.
There is a long tradition of connecting memory with the senses, with vision, with smell, and with taste. This has never been relevant to my experience. If pressed, I can smell the oil tar baking in the sun, or the chemical stench of the pesticides constantly sprayed on the fields and hills. But for me, I think it always comes down to touch— but a special sort of touch— the touch of the somnambulist.
When I wake up in the night, I generally try not to open my eyes when visiting the bathroom down the hall. It’s never a problem really, I can feel the space around me and negotiate it without walking into things. If I am uncertain, I reach out my hand or foot to touch something. Even when I’m on the road and in an unfamiliar room, it takes little time to become accustomed to the layout and be confident navigating it with minimal interaction. Bakersfield was always like that to me. I could just feel it, and move through it without touching it or it touching me very much. It’s as if I spent 32 years of my life sleepwalking there, and because of that it will always be a special place. The dirt never washes off, really— so you try not to touch too much.
I remember getting really irritated once when a well meaning viewer looked at one of my photographs of a musician and said “but I can’t really hear the music.” I never wanted anyone to smell the dirt, or hear the music, or much of anything else with a two dimensional photograph. I suppose all I ever wanted to do was give someone (myself mostly) the chance to revisit the feeling of what it felt like to be somewhere else or give them the chance to trace the contours of a hole that’s been left behind. Witnessing so many musical performances over the years, I think the thing that I usually remember the most is that feeling of almost lurching forward when the music ends because a majestic thing that has once filled the room is suddenly gone. You feel yourself lurching forward into the vacuum left by an absence.
Turning the page often feels like that to me.
He got a hot rod ford and a two dollar bill
looking for a spot right over the hill
where the engines roar with the smell of gasoline
[Gasoline by Slim the Drifter]
My father-in-law once asked me:”why do you love to photograph gas station asses so much?” To be honest, I didn’t really have a reply. Looking back over decades of making pictures, I can indeed verify that I have photographed many gas station asses over the years. My first exposure to the aesthetics of gasoline stations was a book by Ed Ruscha called Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Thanks to Harry Wilson, a photography instructor at Bakersfield Community College, the reserved reading section had it and several other books by Ruscha– including the infamous fold out, Every Building on the Sunset Strip.
I first saw the books in 1977, but long after I dropped out of college, I continued to go back and look at the reserved books in the library to refresh myself, and I continued to check in with Harry for years after taking his classes. Around the same time, my high school photography instructor Chris Burnett took a sabbatical to complete his MFA at California State College (soon to be California State University at Bakersfield). In the mid eighties, it hosted a wide variety of up and coming artists of a particularly conceptual variety, and Lewis Baltz’s New Industrial Parks Near Irvine was another book I viewed often, and repeatedly as well after seeing his work at Cal State. I think what drew me at the time wasn’t the intellectual side, but the visual elements that were so near to my daily experience of the world living in the Southern San Joaquin Valley; it seemed to me a way of making sense of the landscape in isolated rectangles.
It’s amazing how living long enough makes you aware (retrospectively) of details that feed your own conception of a life narrative. These pictures were “true” to me in a way that the dominant California school (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, et. al.) were not. I loved modernist photography as I got started, but it was like visiting a foreign country– attractive but strange. A transcript of an interview with Lewis Baltz sounds like something I would say, but I haven’t read it until today:
MR. WITKOVSKY: What changed when it became your work? I suppose everything changed, but do you feel that the subject matter changed more, or was it an approach to how you make a picture or how you make a print?
MR. BALTZ: It was about subject matter. Photography had a very rigid hierarchy of subject matter, very much like the 19th-century French salons. If you look at photography from the ’50s, even in the ’60s, and you begin to think about all the things in the world that were not photographed, were not even acknowledged, [it] was staggering. The list goes on forever.
It dawned on me when I was living in Monterrey that serious photographers – the Edward Westons, the Wynn Bullocks and the Ansel Adamses, would go to some special, privileged “natural” place to work. It was an article of faith – in this case the faith of American Transcendentalism – that to commune with nature was the sign of A Great Soul, no amount of the evidence to the contrary withstanding. The corollary of that attitude was that the rest of the time – when not in the privileged world of pure nature – one might as well be dead to the world.
Unfortunately, my life very rarely involved going to Yosemite [National Park, CA]. My life was about going to shopping centers, being in a town, an urban situation, which seemed to me was also a landscape but one that no one had any interest in looking at. But I was interested in looking at it.
Another aspect of the New Topographics photographers like Baltz and artists like Ed Ruscha that mattered to me was that they had a sense of humor completely lacking in “art” photography. It might be deadpan, but there is a humor to digging through the world’s rubbish. I disliked some often included in the group (like Robert Adams) because they seemed too judgmental. I just wanted to make sense of the things that were there, not pass judgment on them. They were beautiful to me.
I don’t usually remember to photograph anything that might actually identify the place, or the moment in time, but in the case of a group of pictures I recently unearthed it wasn’t too difficult to track down some interesting details. Sometime in 1982 or 1983, a new capacious gas station opened up on Union Avenue in Bakersfield, California.
From the sign, it’s clear that this is a Hudson gas station. The striking feature was an array of billboards that reminded me a lot of Soviet propaganda, proclaiming its mastery through its presence in 36 states, from coast to coast.
There is a story to be found about this particular chain. Most of the press from a few years later lists them as having stations in 34 states, but it seems that inflating numbers is nothing new for this company. From August 11, 1983:
One of the nation’s wealthiest women–and the only woman to head an American oil company–has been fined $500 and sentenced to 200 hours of public-service work for personally ordering the rigging of gasoline pumps to shortchange customers.The sentencing of Mary Hudson Vandegrift came Tuesday in an Olathe, Kan., circuit court after the 70-year-old chairman of the board of Hudson Oil Co. pleaded no contest to the felony-theft charge. She also was sentenced to two years’ probation. She could have been sentenced to up to five years in jail.
Vandegrift, of Mission Hills, Kan., was listed last year by Forbes Magazine as one of the nation’s 400 wealthiest individuals.Court records said Vandegrift ordered one of her Kansas-area marketing managers, Robert Monroe Neuffer, to break the state seals on pumps and then readjust the pumps so that customers received eight to nine cubic inches less than they deserved on a five-gallon purchase.
A Kansas City history web site lists the number as 35 states, and suggests that Mary Hudson, a “vinegar and velvet” woman was considered a role model by many. In fact, I found a reference to this short-change artist on a motivational speaker’s web site:
But don’t be overly influenced by negative thinkers. Just take their viewpoints into consideration. There’s a famous story of Mary Hudson, who started off with 200 dollars in the middle of the Depression and leased a gas station that two men had gone broke running at two different occasions. And from that she built a company called Hudson Oil, which is now the biggest independent distributor of gas and oil in the United States. From a 200 dollar investment, even though everybody told her she would fail. So remember, listen to negative thinkers, but don’t necessarily accept their advice.
Brian Tracy should do more research. The company went bankrupt in 1984, due to Arab nations flooding the world with cheap oil and no doubt some shady accounting practices. But I loved their optimism in 1982, and their brightly lit and huge station on Old Highway 99. It may have been crooked, but it was still “true.”
Writing about Ed Ruscha in 2009, Mary Iversen attempts to address the question of why photograph twenty-six gasoline stations?” In an interview with John Coplans for Artforum in 1965, he remarked that the work began as ‘a play on words’: he liked the word ‘gasoline’ and the specific quantity ‘twenty-six’. It seems to me that my friend Slim the Drifter’s song “Gasoline” exists for pretty much the same reason. The words just sound good together, and the story feels real. Iverson makes a good case that Ruscha’s book works can be thought of as “rule-based” art making, where you propose a theorem of a sort, and then fulfill it with visual or tactile evidence. It’s a form of proof that these things can actually be made into books, and that they might be interesting to look at.
According to Iverson, the roots of this practice can perhaps be traced to Marcel Duchamp’s readymade 3 Standard Stoppages. As the MOMA web site describes it:
To make 3 Standard Stoppages, Marcel Duchamp dropped three one-meter-long threads from the height of one meter onto three canvas strips. The threads were then adhered to the canvases, preserving the random curves they had assumed upon landing. Cut along the profiles of each fallen thread, the canvases served as templates for three draftsman’s straightedges—wood tools that retain the length of the meter but paradoxically “standardize” the accidental curve.
Duchamp’s deliberately useless toolkit subverts standardized units of measure, while simultaneously poking fun at the scientific method. Though he glibly referred to 3 Standard Stoppages as “a joke about the meter,” his description of its outcome reads like a mathematical theorem: “If a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane twisting as it pleases [it] creates a new image of the unit of length.”
I find myself thinking that one day gas stations, which have been a commonplace unit of urban architecture will take their place alongside shopping malls as rare curiosities, replaced by occasional charging stations without any of their unique, and often humorous character. Unlike Ruscha, rather than being drawn to the strong diagonals and graphic fronts of the Standard Station, I like the messy butts with their rubbish piles and awkward integration into preexisting landscapes. They don’t all look alike to me.
I took pictures of the first concert I attended: Steppenwolf at the Civic Auditorium in Bakersfield California sometime in 1975. I scanned some negatives recently, and was trying to isolate the date it happened and oddly enough the best source I’ve found is myself, nineteen years ago. The internet is a strange and wondrous place. It’s curious that I haven’t found the negative for the photograph I used then, but I found many others. Research has turned up things like another show from that tour filmed for Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert, but no precise dates. I have identified the bass player as George Biondo, and the lead guitarist as Bobby Cochran, a nephew of Eddie Cochran.
This was the moment that I discovered that photographing music was hard. I feel sorry for the oceans of people I see in videos that are watching concerts on their phones as they attempt to film them. I do not think, as many do, that photographing a scene removes you from the experience and makes you miss out. Instead, I think what happens is that your reflexive version of the experience concentrates on a different sort of rhythm– visual rhythm rather than musical rhythm. Both are interesting in their own way, but to photograph a scene “others” you from the crowd who have gathered to share an experience. Visual experience is a more solitary thing, I think. No one sees what you see, even if they feel what you feel. By trying to present your visual diary page, a lot is left off the edges. I forgot, for example, that Cochran used a a voice box like the one made famous by Peter Frampton.
Revisiting my old photographs for the first time in decades reminds me that I mostly took pictures for myself. Photographing bands, babes, or babies is an attempt to create a shared basis for conversation born from common desires. Photography was always, for me, first a method for making sense of the world. It’s a way of hanging on to things so that you can study them more closely, to deepen your appreciation and fascination with things that are traveling past us so fast that we barely have time to make sense of them, let alone find meaning. The change in the intervening twenty years since the last time I looked at some of these old images is the ability to research them more fully, and isolated details that I didn’t know at the time.
What I remember most about my photographic practice of the ensuing 1980s was that I put things up on my walls to look at them for a long time before I let them go. Somethings left the wall quickly, and others stuck around, becoming a theme for me. Bands, though I’ve photographed a lot of them, were never really the main reason I took photographs but instead a nicely distracted environment in which to work and think about what I could see instead of any sort of shared emotive experience. Instead, for the most part, I went to concerts to listen and feel the people around me rather than to look. It took me many years to figure out how to do both.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a good camera, must be asked to photograph babies.
My first was my niece, shortly after I purchased my first camera, a Canon FTb. I can always spot those negatives because there was a defect on the film plane in the form of a cropped corner that always shows up in full frame prints. I liked it. (you can see it in the upper left corner). I never had much interest in babies, but they were always around and relatives always like it when you have lots of pictures of small ones to show them. I can’t imagine what it was like for the nurses (in the days before in-hospital baby photography services) to continually be photographed with children they weren’t related to.
To be honest, I was probably more interested in the building (Kern General Hospital, now KMC) than the people at the time. For some reason, I’ve always been interested in the way that spaces can convey and amplify feelings. The feelings I get in hospitals are not necessarily good ones.
But there is one episode of baby photographs that has haunted me since 1983 or so. A friend that I worked with asked me to photograph his child because it wasn’t going to be around for long. It was born with a rare condition with a possibility of survival of next to nothing. He and his wife made up their mind to be with their child for as long as they could, and to love it as much as possible in its short life. It was one of the hardest things I ever photographed. The child had very poor muscular development and could not support its own head. I know that it was in pain most of the time, and we all made the most of our short sitting. My friend and his wife were grateful, and I don’t think I”ve looked at these images since I printed copies for them. I don’t remember the child’s name or gender, but I still remember that feeling of utter helplessness in the face of all this. I never thought of photographing babies quite the same after that.
Parents often get on my nerves because of an underserved (in my opinion at least) pride in their biological creations. I can’t help but think about how my friends child was so unnaturally taken away, by a twist of fate that they neither wanted nor deserved. But they bore it with smiles, and with love.
Memory is a slippery thing. It flows around moments in life in a stream, conforming to the needs of the moment. One of my abiding interests is pictures and how they work, and it’s a cliché to refer to images as aide-mémoire. A better description, from John Willats, is that pictures are props in a game of make believe. Photographs present an interesting puzzle because they usually bear an indexical relation with reality, pointing at a set of relationships in a specific moment. It is in this sense, and this sense only, that photographs can be said to be “truth,” or better, “proof.” I took this picture of myself, shortly after I started making photographs as a part of my life. I can narrow down the date between February and June 1975 because it was taken with a camera borrowed from school. I have a journal that recorded that I purchased my first camera in June of 1975. This was not taken by that camera.
I was fascinated with the multiplicity of ways that photographs could be manipulated, and was trying to experiment with multiple exposures by winding the film back and exposing it. Of course, I screwed it up and didn’t recognize that you had to move the film an exact amount and keep the camera oriented in the same direction. The upside down lightbulb near my head is the result. Although this strip of photographs is manipulated, there are some interesting bits to me that reach back to some deeper memories about who this person is that I am looking at. It seems like it’s many lifetimes ago.
Most people probably won’t notice the two deodorant sticks in the headboard behind me. Bakersfield was a hot place, and it seemed like no amount of attention would stop me from stinking like a pig. That was a different me; it’s either a change in latitude or body chemistry, but BO has become a lesser concern. I am, however, still a book piler. I have lots of them, and they seem to grow even after I try to resolve and put things away. This photograph was the only one I printed at the time, as I recall. I liked the glowing flare spot by my head. I was a sucker for things that hinted at dreams and dreaming. Maybe it was just the dirty brown reality of the valley that made me so hungry for a way out. I’m a bit nostalgic for the row of books on the other side.
I was a proud member of the classics book club. I remember reading Plato’s Republic, lots of plays by Sophocles, and so on though I suspect I really didn’t understand as much of it as I thought I did. Zooming in on the spines of the books I see lots of works of environmental activism, Carlos Casteneda, plenty of almanacs and such. There were fewer screens, and they held a lot less information. Books and magazines were the main way to fuel a dream. That, and music.
It has been over a year since I last wrote anything here. It has been a long time since I last thought of dreams, and wondered what I wanted out of life. Too many rocks to wrap the memories around, too many lifetimes both real and imagined to dwell in any one place too long. I remember the advice that Marylyn Parins once gave me, regarding grasping literature and literary history. Sometimes you have to dive in the middle and swim both ways.
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt. As he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century—and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed—this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:
“ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL. (Jane Austen, Persuasion)
The first lines in most of Jane Austen’s books strike right at the core of what follows. Though Sir Walter is not the hero, or even the principal character in Persuasion, his attitude points to the general object of persuasion: to move someone or something away from the tradition which we have become accustomed to, which gives us a sense of “place” in the world. Tradition is a comfort to most people, and reaching back into personal history is the most common trope at a writer’s disposal to elicit some sort of identification or sympathy with an unknown audience. Attention to the past can be a diversion or salve against the pressures of the present, but it provides one means of gaining grounded authority against uncertainty.
The common center of any definition of rhetoric is that persuasion is the goal, and I was surprised to find a twenty-five year old article from the DGS at Minnesota during my time there, Art Walzer, about Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Art argues, and I think rightfully, that this novel has at least a minor spot in the rhetorical canon due to its interface with rhetorical theory. Art’s core thesis is that Austen pursues the idea that persuasion functions using reason as well as desire.
The tension in the persuasive process between desire and reality is an instance of this broader theme, a process in which the will, under the influence of the imagination, is moved to act. As such Austen’s depiction of the process follows in its basic mechanics the account provided by the theorists. But while for Austen reason is often an effective critical faculty disciplining judgment to attend to what Bacon calls the “nature of things,” reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process, a function of desire in the case of characters such as Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who are in the grip of their appetites, or of the moral passions in the case of Anne.
The relevance to my project here is that “reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process” – Art always had a certain spare eloquence in scholarly writing. When humans desire new technologies, these desires are always rationalized using a number of strategies implying that new technologies are generally superior to old technologies. In this case, reason often fails us, blinded by better faster shiny new. Reason is simply one tool among many, urging us ever onward on our technological path, ignoring the inconvenient reality of planetary destruction.
Reason cannot, and will not, win over desire– particularly when there are as many reasons to gratify our desire as there are to deny ourselves. Resistance to technology (and change in general) often takes the form of a nostalgia for a time before the change, and like Sir Walter thumbing through the Baronetage to trace our place, we ignore the new at our peril. Witold Rybzynski’s second book, Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology (1983), recounts the long history of the failures of reasonable means of resistance to technology. Desire, whether for technology or people, is tricky and often tragic given that what we want and what is good for us are seldom the same thing.
In Persuasion, once Anne Elliot is persuaded by Lady Russell that Captain Wentworth was a poor match for her, she resists desiring him although his circumstances have changed. She applies reason to her passions in service of thwarting change. Reason, in an Austen heroine, often restrains and disciplines decision making. It’s a complex and interesting tale in which competing interests apply a wide range of persuasive techniques to a somewhat surprising conclusion. Everyone involved is pulled between what they feel is their duty and their desires.
A similar process occurs when we suddenly discover a new attractiveness in old technologies, “quixotic attachments” to old realities as Rybczynski labels them: “The picturesque medieval hamlet is appealingly portrayed in charming paintings, but the smell, the putrefaction and decay that were part of a sewerless society are forgotten” (225). Self-satisfied revisionary reasoning slows decisions, but it does not stop the progress of change (or desire). The troubling part, regarding technology, is that new technologies are generally portrayed as inhuman while older technologies get a makeover as somehow more human in their impact on our lives. This does little to thwart the “progress” of technology. Most people inevitably give in to their desire for better faster shiny new. Does this make us weak?
The answer, for Austen, lies in a sort of feminist rhetoric. As Art Walzer describes it:
That persuasion is under the sway of the passions does not, however, make persuadability a sign of weakness, for the novel complicates the simple dichotomy of the rhetorics between a non-rational, weak, feminine persuadability and a strong, rational, masculine conviction. The novel invites the reader to subject the ethical questions the theory raises to Elizabeth Bennet’s more complicated test-whether a persuadable temper might indicate an affectionate heart, rather than a weak will, and a mind characterized by a discriminating moral sensibility rather than by a timid suasibility.
Understanding that we persuade ourselves to accept technological progress is an important part of my current thinking. It’s not simply a matter of capitalism overshadowing all decisions through “bad rhetoric.” Wanting things, however, may not be a bad thing. A desire to improve the range of possibilities seems natural, and perhaps admirable. But there should be a limit to what we expect from the tools we use. That’s the hard part.
Langdon Winner’s seminal The Whale and the Reactor: The Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (1986) aims at understanding how technology might actually be tamed (limited) by political will. In the eponymous essay that ends it, Winner describes visiting the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant as a whale swam by, driving the realization that reason wasn’t always the best way to approach the presence of the technology that surrounds us: “The thing should have never been put there, regardless of what the most elegant cost/benefit, risk/benefit, calculations may have shown” (176). The implication, obviously, is that deference should be given to the natural world that provides for our “common humanity.” It’s an old trope, really: the book of nature cannot be understood through reason. Like Sir Walter Elliot, he opens the book for comfort.
The core of Winner’s book, however, is frequently cited for a reason. It presents a cogent argument that we have been “sleepwalking” our way to our own destruction, largely by taking refuge in the idea that it isn’t the technology that’s evil, it’s the men that deploy it. The view doesn’t hold— technologies are far from neutral instruments of our will. Arguments for limits, or to position technology as “savior” for the human condition are notoriously bad. It’s time to work on better, more workable policies towards it in the political sphere. I found myself wanting to substitute “rhetoric” for “politics” in many key arguments in his book, wondering how that might change a reading of it in the 21st century.
Rybczynski’s aim is different from Winner. He suggests that it’s fruitless to try to separate “human” from “inhuman” technologies, and that we would be better served by thinking of technology (and the desire for it) as being inseparable from being human. This would be a positive turn and it necessitates better definitions of just what we consider to be technologies. The limits then, are not simply on which technologies we condone or adopt, but rather on our own desires and expectations for technology.
Whether we control technology by directing its evolution, by choosing when and how to use it, or by deciding what significance it should have in our lives, we shall succeed only if we are able to accept what appears at first to be an impossible shift in point of view: different as people and machines are, they exist not in two different worlds, but at two ends of the same continuum. Just as we have discovered that we are a part of the natural environment, and not just surrounded by it, so also we will find that we are an intimate part of the environment of technology. The auxiliary “organs” that extend our sight, our hearing, and our thinking really are an extension of our physical bodies. When we are able to accept this, we shall discover that the struggle to control technology has all along been a struggle to control ourselves. (227)
We control things by political choices we make, as Winner frequently invokes, but we also control ourselves by self-persuasion. I think that the future of our relationship with technology lies as much within, as it does without. It isn’t about not being persuaded by technology and our desire for it (Luddism) but rather by exercising better judgment with more meaningful expectations. Both technophobes and technophiles will be better served by being persuadable.
When I started writing here back in October, I had in mind writing my way through some basic issues of concern to me. The clumsy framing question, which I hope to refine, is “What makes some technologies good and others evil?”
I wrote a bit about my early obsession with technology and its roots in the “appropriate technology” moment of the late 1970s, as well as the emergence of “blogging” at the turn of the century. The method that started me thinking in the early summer of 2018 was encountering Hannah Arendt’s precise terminology in her essay “On Violence.” However, the method that makes it possible to attempt to fashion some sense from my thoughts is basic storytelling, including stories of encountering ideas for the first time. As a child of the 70s, it’s hard not to want to look back on thinkers that I completely missed along the way, like Martin Pawley.
Selecting a consistent and defensible descriptive terminology lead me from Arendt to Engels, pushing me back to storytelling. I’m not well versed in economics or economic theories so I started reading a lot of unfamiliar and familiar texts. It also pushed politics up to center stage. Karl Marx has been a conversational topic since my childhood. But I always end up circling back to technologies of making. I suppose I never read much in economics, simply because money was generally a foreign concept for me, rather than an animating spirit.
Two technologies have dominated my life, photography and musical recordings. I always found photography to have great explanatory power, akin to poetic language in the way it makes new worlds, so I wrote my way through aspects of that. In graduate school in Minnesota, for the first time I really started to think about it as a means of employment rather than an artistic pursuit; not for myself, mind you, but for practitioners at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s easier to think of language and life in the abstract than it is to actually identify what concepts of productive labor actually mean. Photography changed what “art” was for me, and it amazes me how most of the core topics of the “work” of art were addressed, at least in a surface manner, by Walter Benjamin. From aura to artifacts, Benjamin’s terms remain deeply significant for me.
I was surprised to find a chance reference to aura from George Berkeley which lead me to consider the shift in meaning of the term “artifact” when it’s applied to digital media. I didn’t realize that it was going to be the beginning of the end to this particular exercise in “writing to know.” For the first time, I started writing about sound, alternating it with parallel concepts in visual work. I’ve been following my wife’s work on sound for quite some time, but for the first time I started thinking for myself about the politics of sound. The politics of images is a familiar topic to me. Researching sound, though, was new.
I had a track figured out, where I would alternate researching and writing about sound and vision, but I had just barely gotten through writing about woodcut technologies when I came to a dead stop. The reason? Jonathan Sterne. I’m thankful that someone else has already been there/done that with sound before. It doesn’t mean that I won’t keep thinking about it, but I think the time has come to stop writing about it for a while and read some books. It seems that he had the same hunch about the politics of sound ten years ago and wrote two books on the topic, as well as many articles.
I was on a roll, though. I had a lot I wanted to know and thankfully that should be easier to find thanks to him. I think my time next year will be better spent working on the question concerning technology. I mean that in terms of framing a workable question, not a Heideggerian exposition about life, the universe, and everything. I hope to continue writing my way through things, finding a new path for a while before (probably) circling back to the parallel tracks of sound and vision.
What seems different, and productive, is the constellation of craft that crosses into both universes. What vocabulary and what stories might circulate around the fabrication of tools in general? I think that’s how I’ll start my new year. I think it’s time to get back to Arendt and homo faber vs. animal laborans. Of course, I suspect I’ll take a long detour through Langdon Winner and the politics of technology first.
Dab entered the English language around 1300, with no known origin, both as a verb and a noun. It started as a slap, a light blow, also used figuratively as in “poking fun” at someone. In the 18th century, it was associated with soft substances, though I suspect they weren’t talking about Brylcreem. It also meant to apply just a small amount. An obsolete sense used in typeseting meant inserting a wooden type ornament into soft metal to cast it in more durable form.
Incised printing, in some forms of engraving and photogravure, has some dynamic range in that deep channels in the plate can hold more ink and thus print darker, making them somewhat analog in that degrees of gradation are possible. Texture is given primarily through the use of patterns of stippled dots, like grains, or lines arranged in parallel a bit like grain in wood to increase the surface area which would hold ink in its recesses increasing density.
Relief printing, as in woodcut or typeset text has two states: ink or no ink. Relief printing is a digital process. A small amount of ink is dabbed or rolled on the surface of the plate; too much ink and the plate is unintelligible. Grain isn’t a factor in woodcuts, as the wood is oriented with its grain perpendicular to the impression for maximum strength and the ability to hold fine detail. Line and and stipple are also used for much the same fashion as in burin engraving on metal, but without the same sense of depth and range because of the increased saturation, rather than density, of ink.
Historically, the wood used for woodcuts comes from boxwood, the same popular topiary shrub seen everywhere today. Needless to say, there are distinct limitations to materials used in reproductive technologies. Boxwood is slow growing, and almost never reaches beyond 3-4 inches in diameter. Pieces are cut into cross grain disks of the same height as the metal type to be used, and in order to make larger illustrations, multiple pieces are carved separately and clamped together in the press. In the 19th century, this was actually useful because labor could be divided between several journeymen to make plates quickly instead of the laborious, sometimes multi-year procedures associated with burin engraving.
Carving against the grain has some disadvantages. Wood grain behaves like a cluster of straws, soaking up liquid and swelling to weaken it. Thus, stereotyping for larger production runs was a necessity, not an option. At the turn of the 18th century, though, smaller publics and lower production made the production of elegant artistic works possible, like Thomas Bewick’s A General History of the Quadropeds from 1790.
Accuracy in reporting wasn’t really an issue for most early instances of visual communication. There was big money circulating in print, mostly for publishers, and a large pool of journeyman able to churn out words and images. Illustrated newspapers were a big success by the middle of the nineteenth century. But there were a variety of competitors in the race to pander to, as well as create, a public taste in visual representations. The invention of photography in 1839 did not revolutionize or overthrow existing print regimes. Photographs were often raw material for engravings, discarded after sketches or engravings from them had been created.
One of the major markets for publishers was reproductions of popular works of art. Henri Delaborde, writing in 1856, saw little future for photography as a useful tool for this:
In reproducing art, it is the inevitable inability to discriminate between what should be transcribed and what should be interpreted, that is the fatal disability which will eternally condemn photography to an industrial role that is beneath and outside the bounds of art. Photography can but parody the appearance of its subjects. Printmaking manages to seize its intimate appearance. Nowadays we are inclined to content ourselves with inanimate reproductions. Nothing more. Should this be sufficient for us? Have we lost our appreciation of art because of our sudden interest in a new discovery?
It seems odd that the lines, crosshatches, and stipples of early printing processes would be be preferred to smooth gradations of tone provided by silver or platinum grains clumped at the papers surface. There were limitations, to be sure— largely due to the lack of color processes— but interpretations of artworks were more prized than accurate reproductions. For a time, relief prints, intaglio prints, and photographs all competed for the same sector of the art market: reproductions of paintings. For news, there was simply no competition for woodcut printing. Photographs were used to provide an index to appearances, but the report was created by a committee of artisans. William Ivins identified this cultural phenomena, in his final remarks in 1953:
In a way, my whole argument about the role of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement and its syntaxes resolves itself into what, once stated, is the truism that at any given moment the accepted report of an event is of greater importance than the event, for what we think about and act upon is the symbolic report and not the concrete event itself. (180)
The market for images demanded, rather than depth and accuracy, a human interpretation of whatever event was being reported. This was slow to shift. Taste did not begin to shift until after one more revolution in print culture, lithography. It was lithography that put art in everyone’s home. The ascendency of photography was slow, and only really took off when it lost its subtle gradations as it was digitized into halftone dots.
The emphasis on the human touch in the 18th and 19th century, perhaps even into the 20th reflects real concerns about the nature of perception and the imperfections of technology. It seems entirely fitting that Bewick, the pioneering woodcut artist, used a carving of his thumbprint as a signature. Curiously, in the slang of 20th century noir, a fingerprint is a dab.
On the wall beside the drugstore, across from a Parisian style cafe, inside a dying enclosed mall in Shoreview (a northern suburb of the Twin Cities) this musical apparition caught my eye. It was a space I loved; murals covered every wall of this tiny mall and the air was filled with muzak instead of the rush of people. There was a soundscape to these suburbs that I was captivated with. I’ll never forget going to the Shoreview Target store in the dead of my first Minnesota winter. It was like entering into a scene from The Shining set in a store like the one in One Hour Photo: white, spare, oddly menacing and above all incredibly creepy. It was visceral— a three dimensional experience—not a movie.
The mall, located over a set of railroad tracks and across the community marker on a wall that was always vandalized to read “horeview” actually seemed warm and inviting to me. It was like walking into a make believe town where the empty shops had been replaced by paintings of shops, and the people with likenesses permanently enjoying the space looking outward from the walls. The scenes were intelligible, and fitted well to the space, complete with flâneurs peeking from behind the sculptural plastic trees.
In the beginning, Victor Gruen saw the architectural space of the modern shopping mall as a substitute for the plazas and promenades of old world cities. I suspect the muralist who created that odd environment inside that mall in Shoreview, MN, wasn’t thinking of that. It’s an interesting cultural and aesthetic confluence, but the soundscape simply didn’t match up.
Emily Thompson, in The Soundscape of Modernity, uses the term soundscape to be inclusive of the cultures that create them.
Like a landscape, a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving the environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world. The physical aspects of a soundscape consist not only of the sounds themselves, the waves of acoustical energy permeating the atmosphere in which people live, but also the material objects that create and sometimes destroy those sounds. A soundscapes cultural aspects incorporate scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what. (1-2)
The narrative Thompson arranges is the emergence of a “modern soundscape” from 1900-1933. The centerpiece is a transformation of sound into signal roughly analogous to William Ivin’s suggestion of a movement from image to report in print illustration. And like the term legend, it replicates both a sensory experience, and the means to make sense of it. Architectural acoustics seeks to replicate the conditions of “good sound” in a repeatable fashion; just what qualifies as good is socially negotiated.
Reasoning about the nature of sound requires models. There were two important perspectives that interfaced in dramatically in the nineteenth century that lead to the modern soundscape. Hermann von Hemholtz was a towering figure in acoustics. Seeking to promote psychophysics, founded on the model that there was a direct relationship between perception and reality, Hemholtz discovered that vowel sounds could be replicated using tuning forks or resonant chambers that matched their frequency. Heinrich Hertz, a student of Hemholtz succeeded in tying things together for a wave model of electromagnetic activity using James Clerk Maxwell’s equations. It’s easy to adopt the enlightenment/scientific method paradigm for progress, as typified by Galileo in 1623:
Philosophy [i.e. natural philosophy] is written in this grand book — I mean the Universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that acoustical science was based entirely on Newtonian materialism. The first textbook on acoustics from 1877, still in use today, was written by a staunch idealist who proclaimed “I have never thought the materialist view possible, and I look to a power beyond what we see, and to a life in which we may at least hope to take part. ” Lord Rayleigh, who also provided a material explanation as to why the sky is blue, follows a different philosophy of science than Hemholtz, and rather than pursuing psychophysics, maintained an interest in parapsychology as a member of the Society for Psychical Research.
Thompson’s survey of soundscapes begins in 1900, summoning an epigram from a plaque in the lobby of Symphony Hall in Boston dedicated to Wallace Sabine:
Symphony Hall, the first auditorium to be built in known conformity with acoustical laws, was designed in accordance with his specifications and mathematical formulae, the fruit of long and arduous research. Through self-effacing devotion to science, he nobly served the art of music. Here stands his monument. (13)
Sabine is still famous for the Sabine Reverberation Equation, used to measure the effects of the absorption of sound by material in the sound field. He found that the strict mathematical formulae of Hertz, when applied to sound, did not successfully predict the level of reverberation in actual environments. He used instruments developed by Lord Rayleigh for creating visual representations of sound waves to measure the absorption of sound waves by different materials, arriving at a mathematical relation that could be used to predict reliably how architectural environments would sound, at least as far as reverberation at different frequencies was concerned. Eventually, less reverberation was to be preferred for maximum intelligibility.
Part of the reason for this had little to do with music; it is speech that is most frequently rendered unintelligible by reverberation. Research into sound has been driven more by the mystery of voice than the requirements of environments, though with the increased demand for large public meeting spaces, emphasis on architectural acoustics becomes especially important.
The success of Symphony Hall in Boston was initially mixed— it was a “controlled” hall, compared to other venues. Some felt it sucked the life out of the music played there, but now it is revered as one of the finest sounding music halls available. In 1902, Sabine began to study “The Accuracy of Musical Taste in Regard to Architectural Acoustics,” declaring that the fundamental problem was a lack of understanding both of physical phenomena and musical effect. Judgement and taste necessitated the development of more refined authorities adjudicate disputes.
Thompson makes the argument that until the advent of electronic sound reinforcement (in 1933) architectural acoustics was a fertile field of negotiation regarding the definition of what constituted “good sound.” There was a tension between mathematical modeling and more human standards of perception that was fundamentally altered by the transformation from sound to signal.
Signal works here on two levels; on one hand, it is the waveform approach to sound versus material vibrations. On the other hand, signal also has an equivalence with message, or spoken word, which reaches its logical culmination much later in the Shannon-Weaver model for communication (1948). Lord Rayleigh’s desire for visual representation of speech was also taken up, in a non-mathematical way, by an elocution teacher, Alexander Melville Bell.
In 1867, Bell attempted to create a symbolic language for sound, Visible Speech, which was based on the shape the mouth made while making sounds. It was an attempt at a universal language that would reproduce not only the symbolic content, but also the sound of dialects and variations between speakers. The modern equivalent exists in the form of the IPA, first discussed in 1886.
In a profound sense, the “report” of speech by standard symbolic alphabets strips away the richness of the experience of speech in material environments. There are two tracks here worth highlighting. Sound as electromagnetic signal appeals to mathematic rationalization of material properties. Sound as a uniquely situated event appeals to the philosophical idealist mode of rationalizing it within a human context. Bell’s Visible Speech is a legend for the material realities of the body that produces speech.
It’s worth noting that these factors do not operate in isolation. They interact in curious ways. Alexander Graham Bell’s development of the telephone was grounded in his father’s work on Visible Speech, but also in a fortuitous misreading of Hemholtz’s scientific paper on the reproduction of vowel sounds. How sound gets rationalized is cultural, aesthetic, and not entirely scientific.