"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naďve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.” Rousseau: Discourses on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (1755).
Rousseau famously used the metaphor of the fence to describe the origins of private property and the corruption of human nature it produced. Unlike many western thinkers, Rousseau posits that human nature is essentially good. Rousseau suggests that in some mystical time and place, man once existed in an Eden-like state freely sharing nature’s bounty without greed or avarice. But with the first fence post, a process of social organization was set in motion which had as its primary function the division of property and the maintenance of inequality. From this perspective, society trained each of us to think in terms of “yours” and “mine,” thus irreparably corrupting our moral nature. There is some debate about whether Rousseau “state of nature” was meant to describe a real historical condition or whether it was just a philosophical ideal used to understand the inequities of modern life, but either way, his claims invite reflection that has inspired thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson.
As I was thinking about the potential divisiveness of the fence I came across a fascinating online journal article that looks at the different roles fences have played throughout history in different cultural settings--some good, some bad. I haven’t yet learned how to insert HTML into a pbase post so if you are interested in reading it your will have to cut and paste this address: http://www.nyu.edu/pubs/counterblast/fence1.htm . But as with so many things these days, it made me think of fences from the perspective of the photographer. One the one hand, fences can sometimes interrupt an unspoiled natural scene, ruining a shot. And then there are the waterfalls and other natural wonders to which we are denied access by fences, gates, and other security apparatuses. But on the other hand, fences can themselves be of great aesthetic benefit. Just the other day I saw a PaD which transformed a chain link fence—the worst of all fences—into a beautiful thing. And as in this shot, the fence is an ideal instrument to direct the eye through an image. But whether we are recognizing fences as a source of ugliness and division or beauty and symmetry, it is civil society we have to thank. Judgments about the good and bad, beautiful and ugly are possible because we live in social communities that provide us with such categories of thought. As much as I love my dogs and the other furry creatures that I come across in the wild, they are unable to make or enjoy a photograph. Art is the exclusive province of the human social experience and its many fences and frames, and to the extent, I prefer Aristotle to Rousseau.