Industry and Memory

Historically the Newfoundland economy has been beholden to capricious commodities markets. This was especially evident during the Depression when world prices for minerals, timber, and fish plummeted, and the nation fell so deeply into debt that surrender of sovereignty to the United Kingdom in exchange for financial relief seemed the only option. Joey Smallwood witnessed this humiliation first-hand, leading him to develop a deep mistrust of a resource-based economy. When he became Newfoundland's first premier in 1949 he moved quickly to diversify the economy by investing the financial windfall of the war years in the construction of sixteen factories. Alfred Valdmanis, a Latvian expatriate whom Smallwood hired to oversee the industrialization efforts, used his European contacts to bring to Newfoundland tradesmen skilled in making consumer goods ranging from shoes and gloves to furniture and heavy machinery. Most of these industries quickly proved themselves unviable, however, victims of the high cost of importing raw materials, the high cost of exporting finished goods, and a general post-war shift away from small-volume production towards mass production. Corruption was also a factor, as several of the Europeans turned out to have little interest in remaining in the province and developing their industries, and Valdmanis himself was later convicted of accepting kickbacks and spent more than two years in prison.

The story of these "new industries," as they were called at the time, is a trove of material for those with interests in politics or history. My own interests are less political or historical than photographic and philosophical. As a photographer I wonder how this historically distant subject can be dealt with in a visually compelling way, and as someone with interests in the philosophy of representation I am intrigued by the expressive potentials of words and images.

New Industries consists of two four-by-four-panel grids installed in a corner of the exhibition space. The grid on the left is composed of large-format color images of the current sites of each of the sixteen industries, and the grid on the right of text panels that are transcriptions of spoken memories belonging to people who worked in them.

The image panels are arranged so as to give the grid an overall visual structure, and text panels are arranged so as to mirror the arrangement of image panels. I made no effort to be selective about who was invited to share their memories. Typically I simply arrived in the community where the industry had been situated, explained what I was doing, and asked to be put in touch with anyone who once worked in the factory. The first person who made himself or herself available is the person whose memories are represented in the work. Nor did I try to direct the conversations, beyond what was sometimes necessary to help shyer people open up. Instead I simply asked the participants to share with me whatever memories they felt were interesting or important. The meetings usually lasted between a half-hour and an hour, and the tape recordings were then transcribed and edited in a way that reflects the core of what was said.

My hope in each interview is that a personal, subjective point of view is presented, but that collectively these sixteen individual points of view add up to something approaching an objective characterization of what happened during those years. In this regard I think the project is especially successful. The picture that emerges is not one of complete fiasco or corruption, but rather one more typical of human affairs: a mixture of intelligence and foolishness, good will and bad, hard work and indifference. Some of the industries were good places to work, others clearly not. Some produced products that were of the highest quality, while others produced items that were laughably shoddy. Some of the Europeans genuinely wanted to put their troubled past behind them and start anew, taking part in a culture that has as its essence love and laughter, while others clearly regarded their time in Newfoundland as purgatorial, as an unfortunate but necessary middle-step towards restarting their lives on the mainland, in the United States, or back in Europe.

Plato famously argued that the kinds of meanings expressed by images are second-rate in comparison with those expressed by words. Images are at best copies of things that are themselves copies of an abstract reality that is the proper object of knowledge images are at best two degrees removed from what we need to represent to ourselves in order to have knowledge. Words, by way of contrast, have a central role in dialectic, a process he saw as leading to anamnesis, a form of remembering that for him is the proper route to accurate representation of reality. More recently Susan Sontag has argued in a similar vein that images cannot provide "ethical knowledge," her term for the kind of narrative information required to ethically evaluate a depicted scene. An image can depict a human interaction a shooting, say but we can't tell whether what is depicted is a killing in self-defense or a murder in cold blood without also knowing what is on the minds of the parties involved, and such knowledge comes through words, not images.

Plato and Sontag are no doubt correct that there are limits to the kinds of meanings images can convey. But such limitations don't necessarily make images inferior to texts, since it is likely that the kinds of meanings conveyed by images are simply different from those conveyed by texts, and that they can complement them, rather than compete in a semantic zero-sum game.

Such a complementary relationship is illustrated in the film Memento. Leonard, the protagonist, has lost the ability to form new memories. He can remember his life as it was before the trauma that led to his incapacitation, but his mental life after that point is a series of unconnected experiences of people and places that are always new to him, always unfamiliar. Like all of us, Leonard must navigate through the world, and to do so effectively he must represent the world to himself accurately. The usual way of doing so is thorough memory, but this option is, for him, unavailable. Instead he carries a Land camera, and uses it to make pictures of people and places that are significant to his ends. As the images emerge from the camera, he quickly before he forgets writes on the white borders whatever important pieces of information are associated with the things depicted. He then stores these word-and-image mementos in his pocket for future guidance.

Why does Leonard make mementos that consist of both words and images, and not just words? The answer lies, I think, in the fact that they function as surrogate memories, and memories themselves typically have both a core linguistic content and a penumbral phenomenology (to use the current philosophical jargon). We not only think about the world, we experience it, and so it's only natural that our enduring representations of that world possess two correspondingly different aspects. A mental life that allowed only word-based memories would enable us to understand how the world functions, perhaps, but it would be a very disembodied existence indeed. A mental life that allowed only image-based memories would be experientially and, hence, phenomenologically, rich, but would bar us from the kind of understanding that Plato and Sontag appreciate is so essential to what sets us apart from other living things. Either on its own is inadequate; both together to a large extent make us what we are.

New Industries is a memento a surrogate memory and as such should contain analogues to both components of our memories. The text panels thus stand proxy for the cognitive component, and the image panels for the phenomenological. And, more generally, as our memories are not the only kinds of thoughts that exhibit this core-penumbural structure our thoughts about the present and about the future typically do so as well New Industries is ultimately a reflection of the structure of our minds.

image panels       text panels

< < <