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Joëlle Zask : “The collapse of the American farmer, by Dorothea Lange”

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While going through the exhibition at Jeu de Paume (2018), one can be struck by the specific representation of the farmer which emanates from Dorothea Lange’s photographic mission for the FSA. The farmer is pictured as a figure which, even if broken, persists in embodying the dignity, honesty, simplicity, greatness of soul, and various other traits which Northern Americans have traditionally conferred upon her. Contrary to the very negative image of the peasant in Europe, the one that dominates in the United States is more than positive; it is a fundamental element of the national culture, which the photographer appears to share.

When reflecting upon the relationship between democratic practices and farming, as I did in La Démocratie aux champs (2016), one inevitably comes across an old American agrarian philosophy according to which the condition of the independent farmer appears to be the most solid basis for democratic ways of life. In Thomas Jefferson’s terms: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds1.” Some other founders as critical as St John de Crèvecoeur (Letters from an American Farmer, 1782), Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, etc., shared this belief. Similar ideas were formulated later on by American philosophers such as Emerson (see his beautiful Farming, 1904) and Thoreau. It is worth noting that this deeply unifying belief in the American farmer was and still is totally absent in Western Europe, or in Eastern Europe during the Soviet period where farmers were usually disqualified and despited as “non political animals” (as in Aristotle’s expression) that stand in the way of rationality, progress, generosity and solidarity, sociality and beauty, and so on… This depreciative image prevailed even in “revolutionary” China, from the 1960s onwards, where millions of peasants were displaced, exploited in state industrial farms and starved to death.

However, as early as the second half of the 18th century, the basic American vision of the independent farmer, even if it persisted as a spiritual ideal, didn’t succeed, in practice, in imposing itself over time. Physiocratic conceptions and the quest for profit instead of independence won the battle. A Latifundist system based, on the one hand, upon slavery and exploited labour, and, on the other hand, upon the extensive monoculture of non-comestible products such as cotton and tobacco, became the rule.

But this failure of what would be called today, as in FAO language, familial and traditional agriculture, does not imply that the agrarian philosophy was a romantic twist of mind (it was not) and had no effect at all. For it embodied a kind of guideline for future social action and reformist visions, drawing a picture out of which general political alternatives would be derived. As shown by our contemporary climate crisis, those alternatives don’t belong to the past but to the future.
I think that Dorothea Lange, like many American artists and scholars, whether it was conscious and assumed or not, shared this vision of the independent farmer as a basis for social justice and political positive freedom. What she depicted while working for Stryker and the FSA was not only the sadness, suffering, hunger, forced migration, and human sacrifice which came to define the condition of farmers, but the collapse of a whole civilization.

With the destruction of the link between the conceded plot of land and the farmer, the whole social structure favourable to true free initiative, self-government, food independence, meaningful work, human and real economy, dissolves itself. The farmer as migrant, as day labourer, as proletarian, is a social contradiction that photographs make perceptible2. The shift from the American dream to a nightmare is not only embodied by slums, drugs, domestic and racial violence, poverty, mafia systems (as were depicted by both sociologists and photographs in urban settings), but mainly by the destruction of the very social basis of the political democratic balance, the independent farmer.

Equally striking in Dorothea Lange’s work are images of the “desolation” of the earth, where the countryside appears to be covered with dust or by endless rows of the same plants, burned by fertilizers, completely standardized as far as the eye can see, flat, dull, dried out, and colourless, as for instance in A Chat at the O’Halloran Farm.

In the Bible, desolation is distinguished from both divine punishment or natural disaster. It is conceived as the result of improper human conduct like mismanagement, war, destruction, overexploitation, and so on. Instead of tending the earth, once again as did the precious farmer envisioned by Emerson, the grower has destroyed its “capabilities”.

Even if this aspect is not the central subject of her photographs, it is very much present around the subject, to which it is formally intimately linked. The background which extends behind the main subjects (a truck, a group of people, a log cabin, or a tent) is a part of the picture that conditions the meaning of being a subject for photographic communication, not only to a far away and mostly urban public, but also to ourselves as individuals confronted to climate change and an ecological crisis of unprecedented scale. While fulfilling, by portraying impoverishment, the FSA’s mission of promoting New Deal reforms, Dorothea Lange nonetheless introduced, in the background and off-field of her portraits, a critical look at industrial agriculture and its both human and ecological consequences that the regime was setting up.

It is obvious that the point of view I just described is that of someone looking at the photographs in 2018. Does this mean that, if these photographs have the documentary function intended by the FSA, their value as a document would be considered as relative, questionable, or even subjective? Or do they show us something specific that is the result of some kind of visual manipulation? Or, on the contrary, should we consider them as faithful representations of reality?

I don’t think it’s either one or the other. This alternative is not the right one and, above all, it is not exclusive from any other perspective. The photographs’ value as a document on the plight of farmers does not exclude that they also convey other phenomena, whether or not they are clearly conscious and rationalized, whether they are compatible with each other or, on the contrary, in tension with each other.

Pragmatist philosophy, especially that of John Dewey, brings elements that make it possible to think of truth as something experimental and plural. Historically, this philosophy is contemporary with the FSA and Roosevelt, and was the source of inspiration for the most progressive members of his New Deal think tank, such as Henry A. Wallace. Indeed, some New Deal actors claimed that their reformist politics was the embodiment of Dewey’s philosophy. They shared not only a progressive vision but also the belief that social reform and social action performed by the government itself was needed. Contrary to liberalism, and its confidence in the spontaneous creation of social balance when people are left alone, freed from any state curtailment, progressive politics distinguished itself in enacting voluntary and organized social change.

Dewey and the New Deal shared also the awareness that for enacting social change efficiently, one had to provide the data and facts upon which it has to be based, and which was still definitely missing: therefore the call for general, all encompassing, multidirectional social inquiry. In order to ascertain public needs and public interests, social workers, sociologists, journalists, photographs and so on, would be mandated in the purpose to perform the careful monitoring and registering of facts that were eagerly needed at that time. The FSA was a part of this initiative.
As for Dewey, he considered it his main task to identify the logical conditions of social inquiry, in which he saw the only way out of the nightmare of economic Liberalism, but also the practical path to radical democracy and the “new individualism” he pioneered. The same goes with social workers from the very beginning of the 20th century and with pragmatist sociologists who devoted themselves to the creation of investigative qualitative methods into social problems which would later be termed the “ethnographic method” (life story, participant observation, informal conversation, case study such as the here very noticeable The Polish Peasant in Europe and America Polish Farmer by William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, 1918-1920, and so on).

Surprisingly enough for his colleagues, Dewey was nonetheless discontent with the New Deal politics: for the latter put the whole process into the hands of the State and government, while Dewey thought that only when the “public”, that is to say people affected by the serious consequences of interdependence, took an active part in identifying the conditions that lead to its very existence, would the situation be bettered and social justice recovered. Accordingly, the truth of an inquiry is not “out there” to be duplicated or sized, but it is the qualifier which can be given to a reconstructed situation. When the public, at first chaotic and passive, succeeds in becoming related and active thought inquiry, and in giving itself a political organization (whether direct or representative), then the leading hypothesis that directed the whole process of inquiry are verified. Truth does not qualify the relation between a prior object and a proposition, but the relation between propositions and their subsequent practical consequences when one is acting under their lead.
As for Dorothea Lange’s pictures, they demonstrate a swaying between a positivist (or neutral) position and a more participatory one, close to the spirit of pragmatist inquiry. On the positivist side, there’s an obvious quality of “objective” and “neutral” inquiry in some of her work, especially when she’s acting as if she was, in her terms, “dressed in a cloak of invisibility” (film). In that case, the portrait and its surroundings have a peculiar, not interactional, quality, as if aloof and fixated on a timeless, ahistorical, figure, standing somewhere between a would-be indisputable document and an artefact for Christian inspiration.

But more often the portrayed farmer is relational through her or his form, gaze, attitude, interaction with the larger environment and so on. In many cases, the picture is that of an encounter. It denotes a meeting point favourable to exchange and to the creation of a common situation having a specific social interest and, therefore, a peculiar social policy.

In 1914, a bunch of philosophers decided to create The New Republic, not so much with the purpose of providing citizens with all the facts about the “invisible environment” (a phrase borrowed from Walter Lippmann) they were supposed to know in order to form their public opinions, but as an “opinion accelerator”. Photographs representing the great depression, poverty, social inequality, human distress, and of the links between all those evils and capitalistic industrial agriculture, can be considered as playing this role. For example, Lewis Hine, who took pictures of working children in mines or in spinning factories, had a great deal of influence on the acceleration of public opinion that lead rapidly to the prohibition of child labour. The same is true of Walker Evans and many other photographers who considered taking pictures as a social tool and a political action. In doing so, they evaded the alternative between the objective truth ideal and gross manipulation. Instead of a make-believe, they stood for a make-thinking and make-inquiring further.

Their function is cathartic: as in the case of music and drama in Aristotle Poetics, some pictures have indeed the power to bring about the experience, through the acting and the drama that is taking place, otherwise invasive passions, in order to “purge oneself of them”. Catharsis operates as a kind of emotional energy discharge, and also as school of living together. The more “iconic” is the photograph, the more effective it is. Let’s recall that in Aristotle’s work, catharsis concerns only two passions, pity and terror. While pity involves the feeling of injustice towards the character who is the victim, fear sprouts from the risks taken by her or him. It does not consist in identifying oneself with a character, but in sharing his pain and being indignant about the fate reserved to him. While doing so, the viewer accesses the virtuous feelings in the absence of which he would be unable to enjoy a normal social life.

Such a mode of action cannot be implemented by any kind of artefactual device. It requires art in the broadest sense of the word, that is to say the invention of a communicative form able to crystallize and to intensify a common experience. As in Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy, “art” does not have to be either separated in some remote sphere or instrumentalized as a tool for mass manipulation. The real meaning of art is social, as is the sharing of a unique experience that is endowed with specific quality and a value of its own. As an “art for the millions”, photography could complete the experience of the daily press “for the millions” and free inquiry that constitutes the basis of it. Here, we can give John Dewey’s writings about public opinion’s formation and education the last word: “The freeing of the artist in literary presentation, is as much a precondition of the desirable creation of adequate opinion on public matters as is the freeing of social inquiry… The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness… Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation3.”

Joëlle Zask
Joëlle Zask works in the department of philosophy at the University of Provence Aix-Marseille, France. She specialized in political and pragmatist philosophy and has developed a strong interest in the political implications of art experiences and theories of culture. Her most recent book are Participer; Essais sur les formes démocratiques de la participation, Paris, Editions Le Bord de l’eau, 2011, Outdoor Art. La sculpture et ses lieux, Paris, La Découverte, 2013 and La démocratie aux champs, Paris, La Découverte, 2016.

Le blog de Joëlle Zask
Dorothea Lange. Politiques du visible.
La sélection de la librairie.
Les camps de réinsertion pour migrants en zone rurale, Californie, 1935
La maison abandonnée de Dorothea Lange