Round Mountain Road

On Round Mountain Road in 1986

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.

Pumping units on Round Mountain Road

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.

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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.

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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.

Gas Station Asses

In the back of a Hudson Gasoline station, Uninon Avenue, Bakersfield CA

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.

[Oral history interview with Lewis Baltz, 2009 November 15-17]

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.

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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.

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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.

[Washington Post]

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]

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.

In the auditorium

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.

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Natal Nature

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.

Print the Legend

Buffalo Bill’s Buffalo Pen, Scout Ranch, North Platte, NE © 2006 Jeff Ward

Legend has several meanings which have evolved over time. Initially legend simply meant story or collection of stories. It was also applied to collections of the lives of saints, so it makes sense that it became stories of a larger, more mythic significance in the 17th century. In the 19th century, it was stretched to mean popular (and probably untrue) stories. In the 20th, it was first applied to people, as in “a legend in his own time.” In the 16th century, it was associated with an explanatory caption associated with an image (such as engravings), and in the 19th, with the instructive and interpretive captions attached to photographs and maps.

Legend in the first sense blurs the distinction between myth and fact, and in the second has a more rhetorical or logical aim. One of my favorite works of scholarship on 19th century photography also serves as a primer for useful approaches to critical thinking about technology. Martha Sandweiss’s Print the Legend (2002) speaks directly to the social development of reproductive technologies:

New reproductive technologies did not immediately create new ways of understanding the world. There was, in the late nineteenth century, a gap between the technological capacity to convey certain sorts of visual information and the more conservative popular expectations for what images should look like. This is a gap that is visible at many moments of technological change, from the development of the daguerreotype to the development of digitized image banks on the World Wide Web. . . . We should probably not be too quick to scorn them for their lingering preference for traditional forms of communication, for images that fit into a comfortable frame of reference created through exposure to other pictures. (324)

The research question Sandweiss begins with is wondering why so many 19th century photographic images were held in low esteem and discarded in favor of reinterpretations of them produced through a variety of reproductive processes. The predominant form of reproduction at the time was relief printing, produced by typeset text and woodcut engravings that allowed the combination of words and images on the same printing press. Many common terms emerged from these technologies, though they have long since lost their metonymic connection. Stereotype and cliché were originally printing terms.

A stereotype was a casting of type or the combination of type and engraved woodblocks made by creating an impression in paper mâché and then pouring metal in it to facilitate consistent impressions. Cliché is the French term for the same thing, a way of avoiding shifts or uneven wear in the components of a printing plate. Exactness and repeatability are essential parts of modern communication. This characteristic was the crowning achievement of photography, according to William Ivins:

The seriousness of the role of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement in all the long development since about 1450 has escaped attention very largely because that statement has been so familiar that it has never been subjected to adequate analysis. Having been taken for granted it has been overlooked. The photograph, as of today, is the final form of that exactly repeatable pictorial statement or report. Although it has very great limitations, it has no linear syntax of its own and thus has enabled men to discover that many things of the greatest interest and importance have been distorted, obscured, and even hidden, by verbal and pictorial, i.e. symbolic, syntaxes that were too habitual to be recognized. It is unfortunate that most of the world is still unaware of this fact. (180)

There is a palpable sense of technological optimism in both Walter Benjamin and William Ivins that is commonplace. Here, Ivins speaks directly to the enlightenment claim of “demystification” common to the pursuit of science where a veil of myth and legend has obscured the truth from us. Walter Benjamin’s claims are different in that he emphasizes evolving social effects as a positive influence, enabling people to formulate their own tastes. Sandweiss quotes liberally from both, but does not make the positive evolutionary claim for the ascension of photography. Rather, she looks critically at the devaluation of photography in the nineteenth century in terms of its actual use. There is an important turn in Ivin’s vocabulary that directly impacts the evaluation: “pictorial statement or report.”

The printing terms stereotype and cliché, developed as a technology serving repeatability, have reversed in connotation to be negative terms for prejudgment by myth and mindless repetition. Photographic technology at first was prized for its uniqueness of representation: daguerreotype portraits were in a literal sense like looking in a mirror and confronting the face of the other. In the end, technological demands for reproduction transformed what might be considered “cult” objects, in Benjamin’s terms, into objects created primarily for exhibition and reproduction.

The demand of the public for images, then and now, creates a market, or better, troc (in William Baxandall’s usage), that reinforces a particular type of image. Sandweiss frames this in a remarkably useful way:

In his classic western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) director John Ford includes one of the great lines of western filmmaking. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend.” The newspaper editor who utters the line understands that the interests of his readers are best served not by exposing a much-loved historical legend as a lie. Like Ford himself, he understood his audience well, understood their preference for the comfortable myth over the unsettling truth. (324)

Ultimately, legend functions in two ways simultaneously. It is both an aid to reading (as in a map’s legend, or an image caption) and a way of framing a statement or report in a way the public wants to hear. The two meanings reinforce each other and like stereotypes legends have both positive and negative connotations if we consider critically what is being repeated.

The Work of Art

Woodstock, ME © 2017 Jeff Ward

Taking an obscure route across Maine, when we turned the corner near Woodstock I wasn’t expecting to find an oversized sculpture of a hand cranked telephone. Just what use is that? But there is a value to it, I think. Art, according to most, is defined by its lack of utility, its uselessness. Economic theories generally don’t have much to say about Art, nonetheless people who make it are constantly in search of a way to find some sort of livelihood. The exchange value of art seems impossible to predict, caught up in arbitrary social fashions.

Tolstoy’s fourfold division of labor has a place for it, as “mental labor” alongside science. Reflecting on this grouping, it dawns on me that in their purest forms, both art and science aim at an increase in understanding. This piece fulfills that criteria, in that I was moved to pull of the road and read the placard which explains that the last magneto telephone system was operated here.

Not all art is this easy. Accepting that the purpose of art is to increase understanding and that it is necessary human work has deepened my understanding of Walter Benjamin’s canonical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” (1936-39). I’ve read it hundreds of times, researched its context, even delivered papers on it, but this time it’s different. It’s like turning a corner and finding a new perspective.

There are some useful concepts in the essay that I always come back to, i.e. the aura and learning through distraction, not to mention the shift between cult value and exhibition value, but concentrating on these is a bit like focusing on the steps of a ladder without understanding where the ladder is climbing to. Film is central to Benjamin’s dissection of reproducible art, as is photography, but the core structure is built around the struggle between capitalism, marxism, and fascism.

My obsession with photography and film wasn’t my first technological obsession. I was eleven when I watched the moon landing on T.V. and long before that I had read Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo at least 40 times; I didn’t even know there was a movie version. It was a firsthand account of a pivotal point in World War II, of the first bombing raid on Tokyo and his subsequent crash and escape in mainland China. I poured over that book as a kid. Of course it’s filled with patriotic enthusiasm, but it was also filled with human struggle and vivid detail. Remembering it has made the conclusion of Benjamin’s essay ring louder:

“Fiat ars—pereat mundus,” says fascism [Let art florish—and the world pass away] expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of a sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. ( 270)

The last two sentences, offered with emphasis in the original, have long seemed enigmatic to me. Aestheticized politics is easy enough, as every war narrative easily attests, but politicized art is not so simple; one can easily envision communist posters, but since they often depict armed revolutionary struggle, it’s hard to see much difference.

It suddenly dawned on me that politicizing does not necessarily entail sloganeering and jingoism. I think what Benjamin really meant here is that proletarianization, coupled with the shifting nature of reproducible art should lead to an increased consciousness of the body politic. Remember that the root of politics is polis (city) and by creating a mass of people, art with a mass appeal is political. The entire sweep of the essay marks the shifting valuation and potential for art as a mass phenomenon, i.e. the work of art.

Part of the confusion about this essay is reflected in the permutations of its translated titles. It was first published in english as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a variant that enables the reading of work as a verb— i.e. what does Art do— a reading supported by the concluding paragraph. However, recent scholars have translated it as “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” privileging the nominal form, a reading which emphasizes the idea of an original art object that is being reproduced. There is support in the text for this as well, particularly in its treatment of cult value, and the function of architecture as art. I hadn’t really considered the janus face of work in this context before now.

Throughout, what Benjamin offers is a social theory of value in art that works in concert with Marx’s social theory of value. Modern reproducible forms alter our perceptions and our social behavior in dramatic ways by creating new pathways and functions, not simply new forms for art.

As I turned to drive away from Gil Whitman’s telephone sculpture, a different scene unfolded.

Woodstock, ME © 2017 Jeff Ward


Fergus Falls, MN © 2007 Jeff Ward

I’m not sure I was aware that Fergus Falls was the childhood home of Mary MacLane when I passed through in 2007; I did know who she was, because I was teaching excerpts from The Story of Mary MacLane in classes in 2002. Her celebrity has faded these days.

She was a bit like a Phoebe Waller-Bridge for her day, with distinct similarities to Fleabag. Her movie performance has been lost to history. Both broke the fourth wall, speaking frankly to their audience. I remember that in the first decade I taught, I’d always try to find something that might connect with students. Mary MacLane had tremendous social value in her own time, with her scandalous books selling in large numbers; using it wasn’t that successful in the classroom.

I liked teaching best of all the jobs I’ve had because it was the least soul-destroying. If you’re doing it right, it makes you glad to be alive and appreciative of your students. I started out teaching an older population, primarily focused on getting jobs, when I started out in Arkansas. Teaching in Minnesota was different, because so many of my students were from an agriculture background and intended to return to farms and continue in the family business. Curiously, the class I taught most was writing for the workplace: the class I hated most as an undergraduate.

The stress of confronting a shrinking labor market wasn’t as much of a factor in the times before the big crash and recession of 2008. I must confess that I really didn’t care for working life, and when the opportunity came to shift to a more domestic role, I took it. Work was unsatisfying for me, for most of my life. I don’t think I fully realized that until I stopped doing it for money. I didn’t necessarily feel alienated as much as I felt that I had little value to the world at large.

One of the most controversial parts of Marxist theory is the law of value, or labor theory of value. The primary problem is that Marx (and other classical economists) placed human work as the determinant for the value of products. To be productive, according to Marx, involved the subject of labor (people) and the instruments of labor (capital), and the object of labor (raw material). Marx’s emphasis was on the social value of labor, where ultimately everyone loses.

The capitalist production of objects entails devaluing humans as instruments and overvaluing capital, which alienates those who possess capital as well. In his commentary on James Mill, he offers a succinct elaboration. We work to produce products in order to exchange them for other products, transforming ourselves into instruments.

Although in your eyes your product is an instrument, a means, for taking possession of my product and thus for satisfying your need; yet in my eyes it is the purpose of our exchange. For me, you are rather the means and instrument for producing this object that is my aim, just as conversely you stand in the same relationship to my object. But 1) each of us actually behaves in the way he is regarded by the other. You have actually made yourself the means, the instrument, the producer of your own object in order to gain possession of mine; 2) your own object is for you only the sensuously perceptible covering, the hidden shape, of my object; for its production signifies and seeks to express the acquisition of my object. In fact, therefore, you have become for yourself a means, an instrument of your object, of which your desire is the servant, and you have performed menial services in order that the object shall never again do a favour to your desire. If then our mutual thraldom to the object at the beginning of the process is now seen to be in reality the relationship between master and slave, that is merely the crude and frank expression of our essential relationship.

Our mutual value is for us the value of our mutual objects. Hence for us man himself is mutually of no value. (Marx)

Wage slavery, however, is only one aspect of labor. In the case of Mary MacLane, she created her own social value as a rebel, and sold her words and image to create a different sort of relationship, that of celebrity. But as that, she created a persona to be objectified, an object of exchange. The attempt to typify humans as productive instruments often presents a bleak view of human exchange, but Marx offers an alternative.

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature. (Marx)

This, I think, describes the craft dream of labour. The labor theory of value is also central to Anarchism, so this makes sense, given the faction of contemporary workers interested in it. But,  it also describes the dream of celebrity, wherein we are loved for an essentially constructed nature. The problem with celebrity is one of scale; only so many people can be famous, even in this age of being famous for being famous. Exchange value, however, is only one way of assigning value to labor.

The Glad Game

Littleton, NH © 2017 Jeff Ward

It’s been hard to see a bright side to alienation / estrangement / detachment as I write my way through theoretical issues mired in them: a slough of despond, indeed. When I passed through Littleton, NH in 2017, it was by choice. It had a bit of the character of a pilgrimage, for multiple reasons. I had no idea, however, that it was the birthplace of Eleanor Porter, creator of Pollyanna

Pollyanna was the instigator of “the glad game,” a game in which the player is tasked with finding the bright side of any situation. In the novel, it’s origin was a particular Christmas where Pollyanna had wished for a doll, but instead received a pair of crutches.

“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—’EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly. “You see it’s just as easy—when you know how!” (5)

I went to Littleton, NH, largely because it was the home of Benjamin W. Kilburn, one of the largest stereograph manufacturers of the late 19th century. There’s not really a trace of him there, that I saw– they are much more proud of Pollyanna. It’s just as well, at this stage I really wasn’t looking for anything.

But there was another reason: it was around ten years after Victoria Mikelonis, one of my favorite teachers at the University of Minnesota had passed away. I only took one class from her on theories of metaphor, and it was the most intense and rewarding experience that I had in grad school. On of my last memories of her was stopping by her office and talking, excitedly, about Kilburn and stereographs. She told me she had recently visited a granddaughter who lived in Littleton, and raved about what a nice place it was. Vicki was one of the few people who was always cheerful, always looking on the bright side, and above all always engaged with the world and the ideas around her.

Dr. Mikelonis was primarily engaged with working with women in Poland and the Ukraine, training them to be technical communicators using a wide variety of pedagogical strategies– cross cultural communication would be another way of labeling it. That’s where her research interest in metaphor, schemas and ontologies came from. How do we know things? How do we learn things? These are the questions that animated her.

She was living with cancer, and like Ian Dury, the man who gave us reasons to be cheerful, she also died from it. The class is burned on my memory; it was dense and rewarding. We began with short papers by Max Black and others in philosophy of language, and worked our way through Paul Ricoeur’s Rule of Metaphor. The basic plan began with a word level examination of metaphor, through sentences into larger schema in Hesse & Arbib’s The Construction of Reality. The capstone essay was Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies, with its oft quoted maxim regarding truth:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

Pollyanna is a metonym for someone with irrepressible optimism, and as the 1913 novel and its Disney movie treatment fade, the word substitutes for an idea, a moment of illusion celebrated in a statue. In the mountains above Littleton, in Franconia another anthropomorphic image drew great excitement.

B.W. Kilburn and others did a brisk trade in stereographs of the old man of the mountain. The White Mountains are one of America’s oldest tourist destinations, and where there are tourists there is a market for souvenirs. A shared experience of a rock, a unique bit of sublime America, drew most of the great writers and statesmen to the the small towns scattered along the edge of wildness, to gather and be glad.

Postcard c.1955

Philosopher Patrick Maynard built a strong case that photographs are props in a game of make-believe, and like metaphors they allow for a form of transport to places we have or haven’t been. Thomas Southall’s essay “White Mountain Stereographs and the Development of a Collective Vision” further suggests that what was developing during Kilburn’s time was set of practices that contributed to a particular truth of shared experience. Photographers were encouraged to alter the landscape to reinforce the “glad game” of seeing awesome nature in a collective way. Southall cites Kentucky photographer James Mullen at the 1873 meeting of the National Photographic Association:

And let me advise you here to always have with you on your photographic trips a spade and a good axe, the latter particularly will often be found a ‘friend in need’ when it is desirable to cut a small tree or remove a branch that would otherwise obscure some important point of your view. (101-102)

Human intervention to stabilize an agreed upon truth operates in predictable ways. We chip away at the rough edges of truth, shaping it to fit what we need at the time. There’s a selective, arbitrary, and culturally driven need to reshape the world for our purposes. In the 1920s chains were brought in to hold the face of the old man of the mountain together, and later cement and other prosthetics.

The old man’s face collapsed in 2003: nature injects its own arbitrary elements. People still make the pilgrimage to the White Mountains above Littleton, NH, and the souvenir vendors still do a brisk business.

The truth is out there.


Bakersfield, 1983 © Jeff Ward

Instrument has a variety of usages reaching back to the middle ages. I’ve been encountering it in Hannah Arendt and Frederick Engels as the compound “instruments of violence” and in Karl Marx as “instruments of production.” Other uses include “musical instruments” and “legal instruments” –the term has been around seemingly forever. Another somewhat unique usage was by Chaucer in the Wife of Bath’s tale where he called the penis a “holy instrument” of generation. With a nod to John S. Hall, it seems to me that the overriding characteristic of most usages of instrument is that it is detachable from the human who employs it.

Musical instruments are of course one of the oldest types. The connotations are vast; these instruments are used to generate sounds, sounds that are within the grasp of human beings but always just outside of our control. There’s always the possibility of arbitrary accidents, slippages, wanted and unwanted resonances that simply can’t be completely predicted or controlled. When they work, whether in skilled or amateur hands, they produce sounds that can easily be identified as fundamentally productive, and yet through dissonance (intentional or unintentional) they provide a force that can disrupt and overthrow the status quo. The link between music and aggression is summoned at critical cultural moments, and besides its power to sooth and cajole, music also incites violence.

Frank Zappa once suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that in countries where beer consumption was high, nations were often warlike because they were susceptible to marching music.

I have a theory about beer: Consumption of it leads to pseudo-military behavior. Think about it — winos don’t march. Whiskey guys don’t march, either (sometimes they write poetry, which is often more horrible, though). . . .

Maybe there’s a chemical in beer that stimulates the [male] brain to do violence while moving in the same direction as other guys who smell like them [marching]“We, as a group of MEN, will drink this refreshing liquid, after which we will get together and beat the snot out of that guy over there.”

(Real Frank Zappa Book)

Wine drinking countries are more associated with love songs. It’s not really a stretch to say that popular music is almost always tied to, as Chaucer might put it, “the holy instruments of generation.”

The detachable nature of instruments is perhaps best illustrated by the usage of legal instruments, which  are just as old as musical ones. A writ, or a warrant carries with it the force of authority granted by law, codes which have been separated from individual human judgement. It amounts to an order, and can be directed by nobody, as evident in a building code. Laws, of course, can be arbitrary and have unintended as well as intended consequences. They can promote productivity, of course, but they can also incite violence. It’s worth noting that the production of the instruments of violence (guns, bombs, etc) is referred to manufacturing ordinance. Ordinance, of course, shares its root with ordain, that is, to issue a ruling.

The point I’m getting at is that all instruments have the potential for generative or destructive usage, and all instruments have an arbitrary and uncontrollable quality which always seem just outside of human control. That may be because they are by definition detachable from humans, and as John S. Hall, referenced earlier, suggests– they can be lost.

But there is one usage of the term “instrument” which doesn’t fit the detachable thesis. Also in use since the Middle Ages: a person may be described as an instrument of destruction; initially, this appears when writing about a murder or killing, but in contemporary usage this usage is probably best labeled as metaphorical rather than actual. People, knowingly or unknowingly, enter into causal chains (generally involving other, detachable instruments) that bring about destruction.

In What Are People For Wendell Berry writes forcefully in an essay called “Damage” of his attempt to put a pond on his property. He sought advice, and hired a bulldozer to dig one in a plateau nestled in a hillside. Everything went well at first, but then after an extremely wet fall and winter a slice of the forest above his pond broke free and slid into it. He had destabilized the hillside, despite the best advice and intentions, and was now forced to live with the scar on the land he had created. He invokes the proverbs of hell from William Blake:

“You can never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” I used to think of Blake’s sentence as a justification of youthful excess. By now I know that it describes the peculiar condemnation of our species. When the road of excess has reached the palace of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.

Culture preserves the map and the records of past journeys so that no generation can permanently destroy the route.

The more local and settled the culture, the better it stays put, the less the damage. It is the foreigner whose road of excess leads to a desert.

Blake gives the just proportion in another proverb: “No man soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.

No thought or word called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect– and so to describe the limits of what can be done without damage.

The use only of our bodies for work or for love or pleasure or even for combat, sets us free again in the wilderness, and we exult.

But a man with a machine and inadequate culture— such as I was when I made my pond— is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.

Berry is in line with Engels in thinking that in order to do violence, man requires detachable instruments. There’s another discussion of pond construction that bears mentioning here, which involves instruments of a different category.

In a chapter of Cræft: an Inquiry into the Origins and Meanings of Traditional Crafts Alexander Langlands describes pond construction, both his own attempts and the archeological evidence regarding a particular pond the Oxna Mere. It is situated within a series neolithic clay ponds in Wessex, along well worn migratory routes. the consensus is that these ponds were human made, using livestock. It’s short sighted to think that all extensions of human strength are recent developments in the construction of mechanisms, or that instruments began in the industrial age.

Langlands attempted to work backward from the ethnography of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century pond practices to determine how these ponds were built and maintained. Clay is a porous material, and in order to make them hold water it was longstanding practice to drive herds of animals across the area to compact the clay to make it hold water. Obviously, there’s a lot of technique/craft involved. Why does this matter? As Langlands argues:

The implications of using puddled chalk were important to me in the context of the Oxna Mere. Ultimately, its significance lay in the simple revelation that if you had the knowledge and the skill to puddle chalk, you could create a watering hole using materials sourced entirely from the hilltop. In turn, this facility would make an important contribution to the methods of husbandry used by valley community in that it enabled them to exploit valuable resources of summer grazing in a more effective manner. This is the kind of thing I get excited about: resourcefulness on a level almost inconceivable to the post-industrial pond maker whose favored materials were concrete and asphalt. (250)

What seems to be at work here is the use of animals as instruments in a way inconceivable to us now; we think of them solely as raw material.  They fit the parameters I was looking at earlier. They are arbitrary and frequently outside human control, capable of both generative and destructive aspects. And yet they have been successfully operating in concert with human beings assuring our mutual survival; without herd animals we wouldn’t survive, and with our coordination in the construction of ponds in the neolithic period, they also thrived and multiplied.

If we admit the possibility of a living instrument, there’s another aspect consider. Marx offers another paradigm for instruments. His class theory (and theory of alienation) presumes that man himself can be transformed into an instrument.

On Violence

Hats on parade
I’ve driven from Minnesota on I-35 across Iowa to Kansas City and then down the length of Missouri to Arkansas so many times in my life it’s hard not to be sick of it. In June 2018, attempting to make things at least a little different, we were going to cut across to central Iowa and down through the heart of Missouri. We pulled off at a truck stop a little north of Ames and a bit past the crash site of Buddy Holly’s airplane (the day the music died). Anticipating arriving in Arkansas through Harrison (perhaps the white supremacist capitol of the midwest), I snapped a photo of a hat display. Krista bought ice cream and pulled out a book to read.

She was working on an essay dealing with digital aggression, and felt that she needed to read “On Violence” by Hannah Arendt. She asked me if I’d like to be entertained, volunteering to read it aloud. I realize that this isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but for us, it qualifies.

Written in 1969 in reaction to the movement toward violent methods in student protests, the essay was amazingly relevant to thinking about technology and a fine gateway into a number of oft recited truisms that I was considering. Assistive technologies are often born during wartime. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the heart of the civil war, found inspiration in the new forms of mechanical limbs being created in his essay The Human Wheel, its Spokes and Felloes, for example, and Krista’s focus on hearing aids has meant facing how involved Bell Laboratories wartime listening technologies are in these peaceable devices. However, I never considered the possibility that technologies themselves are inherently bound to violence, an idea presented as fact at the outset of this essay.

Since violence– as distinct from power, force or strength– always needs implements (as Engels pointed out long ago), the revolution of technology, a revolution in toolmaking, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the means-end category, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of of being overwhelmed by the means which it justifies and which is needed to reach it. (106)

“He who lives by the sword, dies by sword,” as the cliché goes. Arendt goes on to also connect violence with arbitrariness; the action of instruments of violence are almost always bound to an unpredictability of outcome. Something can always go wrong. Arendt connects this with violence itself; others have laid the blame for this characteristic on technology. The introduction of technology always has unintended consequences, and frequently technologies simply fail.

Since the end of human action, as distinct from the end products of fabrication, can never be reliably be predicted, the means to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals. (106)

We left the highway and headed across Iowa towards the center, pausing for another stop near Pella– one of the largest window manufacturers in the country. Big trucks and bleak landscapes. Iowa is flat, and the signposts are artificial landmarks in an indistinct, unnatural terrain.


At the onset of the anthropocene, this was tallgrass prairie. There are no interstate highways, only two lane state roads. As we crossed the border into Missouri, it dawned on me that I’d never been here before. The major highways run along the Mississippi, through St Louis to the east and through Kansas City on the western border. The landscape there is different. Just north of Kansas City there’s a tourist trap dedicated to the outlaw Jesse James, the James Farm– just off of the route I usually took. But closer to the center, it’s greener with a bit more agriculture. Krista noted that they were beginning to mow hay in early June.

Jesse James Ranch

In the nineteenth century, farmers were frustrated by their ability to penetrate the dense sod with wooden plows. John Deere of Illinois developed the steel plow, which allowed the destruction fo the tallgrass prairie to turn it into more “productive” land, which in turn lead to the muddying of the Mississippi river and more intense flood cycles downstream. In the early twentieth century, the boom and bust of flooding had altered the landscape of the entire center of the country, ultimately turning it into a place that people simply pass through on the way somewhere else. Jesse James and John Deere are symbols of two different sorts of violence. Swords and plowshares are violent implements.


Arendt rightly points out that framing history as the progression of one state of being to another created by antagonistic forces rests on a metaphor (rather than a fact) of continuity:

Of course, there are a few melancholy side effects in the reassuring idea that we need only march into the future which we cannot help doing anyhow, in order to find a better world. There is first the simple fact that the general future of mankind has nothing to offer the individual life, whose only certain future is death. (128-9)

Krista continued reading across Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, etc., all the way into Virginia where we visited James Madison’s slave-built mansion. The hay harvest proceeded, apace.