One of my writing tasks this year is to draft a chapter on the iconography of the workers education movement. The basic questions are these: if everyone agreed with the aphorism that “Knowledge is Power,” what did powerful knowledge look like? How did students and educators describe this knowledge, and how were their visual practices related (if at all) to the organizational forms emerging in the first half of the 20th century?
In the age of industry it was relatively easy to imagine power as a dynamo, a locomotive, a factory, tank or gun. But these tools of human activity don’t in themselves obtain knowledge. Likewise in an era of machismo, power was frequently embodied as a muscular manly man. The stock image of a man with brains was that of the weakling, bespectacled intellectual. How then to depict intelligent, powerful working women? Or coal miners and loggers with extensive personal libraries and literary ambitions? Did craft knowledge and book knowledge look the same? Did knowledge–as depicted in cartoons, drawings and photographs–have race and gender? Could knowledge visually overpower the social prejudice that associated mental acuity with the middle and upper classes, and the daily performance of manual labor with lack of intelligence?
These questions matter because, as the philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “Ideas always come in history wrapped up in certain practices, even if these are only discursive practices.” Patterns of image-making, I think, help us place the meaning of learning outside of the texts and lectures that were, if we can believe many labor educators, insufficient modes of communication for their working class students. To be sure, I am privileging sight over other senses. One can hear liberation in the songs of the freedmen and freedwomen, for instance. But because seeing and visualizing is itself a technology of power, it makes sense to ponder visual production as a key practice of working class self-education.
I’ve collecting images as I’ve read through periodicals and ephemera over the last few years, and generally archive them on my Flickr account. I’m primarily focusing on popular education as it emerged in the pre-World War I socialist and labor movements, and as it developed in what was known as “workers education” between the two World Wars. As such, most of my images come from primarily from radical and labor union periodicals. I’m somewhat less interested in mainstream media images, except when they specifically comment on workers education, radicalism, and the perceived mental states of working people–for instance in the case of the “Robot.”
Look for posts in coming days about particular visual motifs, and let me know whether I’m making any sense.