Hancock Shaker Village © 2013 Jeff Ward

I make it a point to visit historical sites whenever possible. Being in a place, for me at least, often gives a feeling for others that have been there before me. Few places have felt as right to me as Hancock Shaker Village.

The place feels happy somehow, in contrast to other utopian sites like Oneida Community Mansion House. It’s not that Oneida feels bad, it simply feels strange in comparison. It’s hard to talk about without resorting to terms like “spirit” or “essence”. It’s as if the objects, commissioned or made by previous inhabitants, hold something of the character of their creators long after the possessor has turned to history.

It’s a common sentiment. Tool collectors are particularly prone to it; the concept of heirloom tools is based on the idea that these useful objects are more than simple artifacts, they somehow retain a connection with the users and objects that they have interacted with. The worst fate for an old handsaw is to get painted and hung on a wall as a mere decoration.

Reconstructions of old objects, though they don’t have the same aura, still provide a sort of genetic connection to previous modes of thought and being. The feeling of there being something else there, often hazy and receding into the distance even when you’re holding the object in your hand, persists at a guttural level even when to connection is only conceptual. Artifacts, at the root level, are concepts that have been made into facts.

The idea that Shaker objects feel right is hardly unique to me. When you’re working at a lathe or using a spokeshave to shape a curve on a Shaker reconstruction, you just know when the curve is right or wrong. There’s a correctness to the object when done right, as if there’s an essence you’re aiming at.

What deserves consideration is the origin of this feeling: does it strike a chord in the craftsperson or consumer, or is it the communication of some sort of deep historical feeling? I suspect it’s both. There is a paragraph in Marx’s notes on Mill that I quoted earlier that bears revisiting:

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.

As a craftsperson, making an object objectifies individuality in that there is a specific character to the choices and selections that I have made which reflect my tastes and appetites, not to mention my level of skill and attention to detail. There’s an imperfection to human work, but that isn’t the center, really. It’s a question of what imperfections are tolerated or embraced— a matter of taste. That a craft object reflects a “power beyond all doubt” takes on layers of meaning when it is considered that craft is always embedded in tradition, reflecting not only individuality but tacit social agreements about what is desirable in an object.

Traditional objects reflect power as a social phenomenon, as Arendt has proposed, rather than simply a reflection of personal expression. What is clear here is that it isn’t about individual strength through expression, but rather participation in a social exchange, a participation in “another man’s essential nature” which typifies true power.

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.

Craftwork, i.e. the production of objects, can affirm common needs making them visible in the form products we surround ourselves with. Recognition of these needs is central, and Marx places the craftsperson in the role of mediator between individual and species.

3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognized 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.

The basic thrust of this form of direct exchange (as opposed to exchanges mediated by money or the complexities of other intermediaries) is a solidly grounded polis. “Production as human beings” as contrasted with “production as productive instruments” has the character of a gift rather than a social transaction. Bondareff’s argument for the necessary character of individual bread labor was also married to a social commitment to provide bread for others who were unable to produce their own, as a gift commanded by Christian charity. Charity should also be factored into craft labor.

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 realized 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)

Certain objects seem to feel right, I think, because we see not only ourselves but rather a plausible way of life in them. It is a form of sociality that is tied to participants that are no longer present, except perhaps in spirit. But spirit is too weak a word for the sort of genetic connection that is possible within craft traditions.

These are objects I can use to feel a part of something larger than myself. These are artifacts that will shape me into the sort of person I want to be, simply by association. The material circumstances of my environment are not chance— they are a choice— driven by a desire to belong.

The acceptance of traditional artifacts is subject to the properties of memory. We hold the objects close, overcoming their uniqueness, using them as tokens where the face of the craftsman has long since worn away. We cannot know the true source, conflated from so many identities, lost with the distance of time.

Artifacts collect scars, they fade, they are repaired and repurposed. Only pedants insist on “authenticity” in artifacts. Most interpolate data as best they can, integrating the personal with artifacts as they become living material history.

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.

Medium of Exchange

Every time I drive out of Syracuse on the NYS Thruway, I nearly always stop at a particular rest stop that features a common automated gypsy fortune teller machine, Zoltar. Cross his mechanism with pieces of silver, and he’ll dispense some random prognostic wisdom for you.

The true law of political economy is chance, from whose movement we, the scientific men, isolate certain factors arbitrarily in the form of laws. (Karl Marx)

Reflecting on the permutations of usage of the term instrument that I wrote myself through the other day, it occurred to me that I had neglected to think about financial instruments. The omission was a curious one, given the common thread I was attempting to pull was that instruments frequently are marked by their detached and arbitrary nature. Marx’s notes on John Stuart Mill are particularly helpful:

Mill very well expresses the essence of the matter in the form of a concept by characterising money as the medium of exchange. The essence of money is not, in the first place, that property is alienated in it, but that the mediating activity or movement, the human, social act by which man’s products mutually complement one another, is estranged from man and becomes the attribute of money, a material thing outside man. Since man alienates this mediating activity itself, he is active here only as a man who has lost himself and is dehumanised; the relation itself between things, man’s operation with them, becomes the operation of an entity outside man and above man. (Marx)

The concept of financial instruments illustrates this this in an interesting way. There are two primary types of financial instruments— those directly tied to capital (stocks, loan agreements, etc.) and instruments that are derived from them (index funds and things whose values are based on things related to actual cash value indirectly). It was real-estate derivative markets, a dense and impenetrable miasma of complex modes of financing, that were the dominant factor in the crash that brought the world to its knees in 2008, an entity outside and above man. Other crashes can also be tracked to financial instruments. Tulip Mania was linked to inflated values in purchase contracts, or the crash of 1929 tied to margin loan contracts. The latest disaster was even more disconnected, more alien from real events— this was an abstract dehumanized problem.

Owing to this alien mediator – instead of man himself being the mediator for man – man regards his will, his activity and his relation to other men as a power independent of him and them. His slavery, therefore, reaches its peak. It is clear that this mediator now becomes a real God, for the mediator is the real power over what it mediates to me. Its cult becomes an end in itself. (Marx)

The common characteristic of instruments as inherently detached from commodity values (and human beings), has taken some turns, mostly negative. Writing this as  “prosperity gospel” preacher has become a White House advisor, and on the 30th anniversary of Pretty Hate Machine is its own dark twist. Hollywood’s favorite goth was prescient.

God money I’ll do anything for you.
God money just tell me what you want me to

Marx’s materialist philosophy, derived from his studies of political economics take a curiously spiritual turn in his notes on John Stuart Mill. He suggests that money behaves in a way analogous to the holy trinity. The reasoning for this is that because objects only have value in relation to their mediator (money), the initial relationship (i.e. money is exchanged for objects) is inverted. Money is the estranged essence of property: “it is the alienated species activity of man, the externalized mediation between man’s production and man’s production.” Economics, in a sense I think, is the attempt to attach laws to the arbitrary and chance facts that one thing has a greater value than another because the actual workings of how things are valued is mysterious. Why are diamonds are more valuable than rubies, or glass more valuable than sand?

Marx’s theological explanation is striking:

Christ represents originally: 1) men before God; 2) God for men; 3) men to man.

Similarly, money represents originally, in accordance with the idea of money: 1) private property for private property; 2) society for private property; 3) private property for society.

But Christ is alienated God and alienated man. God has value only insofar as he represents Christ, and man has value only insofar as he represents Christ. It is the same with money.

It sent chills up my spine when I began to really understand this passage. What Marx is suggesting is the equivalence in character between the father (property), the son of property (money), and the holy ghost– the spirit essence of property that drives society, mediating value between commodities and working in mysterious ways. I think it’s important to note that this isn’t simply a matter of identifying money as a “false god” (mammon) but rather a necessary condition of estrangement, and estrangement that begins any time property is exchanged between men. Marx also identifies estrangement as a characteristic of barter. There is no society without exchange, and no exchange without estrangement.

Where do these first principles take us? There are levels of estrangement. At the base there is the exchange of property for property. In the middle, the median, property is exchanged for money; and finally, in the superstructure, money is circulated in exchange for money. This is the operative level of financial instruments, moving at a distance and detached from reality, spirits moving on the face of earth.


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.

Theory of Alienation

My father was a roughneck in the 1950s. He worked “graveyard shift” — known as morning tour (pronounced as “tower”) in the oilfields. He actually chose that shift so that he could use the daylight hours to build our house in Ventura. He had apprenticed as a carpenter in Oklahoma, before working in series of wartime factories and finally ending up in the oilfields. The real draw of the oilfields was the pension. He grew up in the great depression, so for him the main use of money was security.

As a kid growing up in the 60s/70s, it was always hard for me to understand that my father never seemed to want anything. Money was often synonymous with power, for everyone except my dad. We didn’t understand each other very well, although we both tried. He dropped out of the sixth grade to go to work, his father was a drunk and his stepfather, the carpenter, he just didn’t get along with at all. I suspect he simply hated being “bossed.” In his entire career in the oilfields, he always avoided any position where he had to tell other people what to do. He wouldn’t do it. That doesn’t mean he didn’t want responsibility– he was active in the union and believed in collective action to improve the lot of everyone. But he was also a staunch capitalist and individualist.

His work was dirty, and not particularly interesting. As he grew in seniority, he mainly settled into tending machines, in particular the complex steam injection systems (a precursor to fracking) currently being used to heat crude oil in the ground so that it could be pumped out. The field in Ventura started to play out, and he was forced to take a transfer to Bakersfield to monitor the first steam injection plant there. When he came home, he had a different sort of work in mind.

We had a basic tract house, rather than the elaborate stone and lumber house he built in Ventura. It broke my mother’s heart to leave it. Dad set to work tilling the back yard, putting in berries and fruit trees, and an expansive vegetable garden. Eventually, there was a used camper shell for the pickup that was parked behind this house; he loved to go fishing in the Sierra mountains nearby. It didn’t look this bleak by the time we sold the house moved to the other side of town around 1970.

He was trying to transfer back to Oklahoma to be near his mother, but that didn’t work out. Eventually, he gave up and bought a five acre farmstead to try to figure out how to be happy in California. He was miserable at work, continually bitching about the “college boys” and automated systems that were changing the oilfields. As time wore on, he hated his job so much he could hardly face it.

He drank, a lot, as I turned into a teenager. He was never cruel to me, he just suffered in quiet ways. He brushed me off telling me that I should read more books when I tried to talk to him; he suggested that I read those big thick books by the Russian authors, Shakespeare, as well as Steinbeck and Hemingway if I wanted to understand how the world was. He was the smartest man I knew, even though his education mostly came from the public library. I wanted to learn from him. He thought I should go to school, and look for answers there.

On the farmstead we moved into, dad followed his usual strategy of moving a trailer onto the property while we remodeled the turn of the century farm house to make it livable. It had knob and spool wiring, and a big hole in the living room floor where transients had once started a fire to keep warm. Dad handed me a copy of the Uniform Electrical Code so that I could figure out what we needed to bring the place up to code. I was a bit of a nut about electronics.

I had been studying algebra at the Junior High I attended while we were waiting for his transfer to Oklahoma that never came, but there I was enrolled into a school where students worked every day to add up large columns of figures and do long division by hand. There was a shop class, but rather than build a house (like I did when I got home) the main project was making shaped wall hangings with rasps and hand tools. I was bored out of my mind at that school. I got into fights. Thankfully, this only lasted one semester.

When I got to high school, one of the first classes was “social studies” which was a combination of government and world history. My primary memory from that class was the section of the textbook that dealt with Marx’s Theory of the Alienation of the Worker. Yes, they taught that sort of thing in a dumbed down form to 9th graders. The cold war textbook was targeted at selling the idea that the capitalist market system and democracy was the best of all possible worlds. Therefore, it sought to demonstrate how in a capitalist system, workers would never be unhappy because they were free to work to better themselves.

Even in its stripped down form, I saw that their refutation of Marx was completely ludicrous. I watched it play out every day in my father’s face. Workers, engaged in the earning of money, always operate at a distance– alienated from the thing they are producing. I got in a heated argument with the instructor over it, that resulted in me being ejected from the class.

Sometimes, I think my two main projects in life have been understanding my father, and understanding what it means to be an American. Confronting these things takes time and space; I hope I have a lot more to go. When my father retired, on a tiny pension, he moved back to Oklahoma and built one more house. It was a long way from the main road, which in turn was a long way from any town. He planted his long driveway with tiny seedlings he got for free from the US Forest Service. He lived long enough to see them grow.

Means of Production

In classical economics, “Means of production” are the necessary conditions for producing things that do not include financial capital or human beings– together, all three elements are termed “factors of production.” Interestingly, Marx apparently used factors of production interchangeably with productive force (paralleling List’s use of political force). Because Marx and Engels proposed that economics were primary, concern over production was central to their technological theories.

Marxist theory is substantially an instrumental theory in that factors of production include instruments of labor and subjects of labor (raw materials). Encountering this usage, I find myself wondering if it’s actually possible to sort instruments into these niche categories. Recall that Engels had argued that instruments of violence  were the source of all political power; a hammer can be used to produce a house, or to bash in someone’s skull. Given that, are such these terms useable in a coherent manner?

It bears noticing that List’s National System  fed directly into National Socialism as it nationalized industry in the name of the Fatherland, seizing not only the factories but also the raw materials to produce a war machine in the name of political force. Mao and Stalin used Marxist theory to justify deploying their workforce in camps and cooperative farms in the name of national economic force. These developments are part of the reason why by the time Hannah Arendt was approaching her terminology in “On Violence” she chose to avoid the term force to describe this type of means, because force had become synonymous with violence.

Arendt’s vocabulary is attractive because it makes it possible to argue from definitions, which does not seem possible with loose categories like instruments of production and instruments of violence. For example, if we define power as separate from strength then it isn’t possible to talk of the “strength” of a nation-state, because strength is defined as an individual characteristic. Power, on the other hand, could be attributed to the confluence of people working together in the nation-state. Her move to distance violence from either of these categories (by definition) contributes a lot to our understanding of it. However, making the claim that violence is instrumental in nature without clearly differentiating it from instrumental production is a dangerous oversight. I’m discovering that Marx has quite a bit to contribute in this area, if not through a clear frame of reference, through demonstrating just how fraught the terminology is.

Force vacillates between productive and destructive impulses that aren’t teased apart easily. Another aspect is deciding if it is singular (like strength) or plural (like power). Questions for another day.