In my dissertation, “Feeling and Precision: Precisionism in the Long 1920s,” I consider a world of artists obsessed with the values of precision. What does it mean to call a work of art “precise” in the Machine Age? At the same time that the terms “precision-built” and “precision-made” first came into use, painters such as Charles Sheeler started to make pictures of factories, skyscrapers, and machine parts. It has long been argued that such artists — later called Precisionists — were trying to mimic factory production. Historians have typically considered their work in light of the changing conditions of industry and labor. I argue that this is only one possible understanding of the term “precision.” Precisionist painting is also related to definitions of precision developed by poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams and philosophers William James and C.S. Peirce. For Moore, precision was ineluctably related to “feeling,” to energy of “maximum force” and to imagination. For the Pragmatists, precision offered a model for empirical and logical efficiency. In my project, I use this expanded definition of precision to offer a richer, more complex understanding of Precisionist art.
“The whole problem in these small towns is the families that move in to be close to the inmates,” a corrections officer said to me in the prison’s parking lot. According to the muscly officer, the prison itself was not “the problem.” Instead, what followed the prison into town was “the problem.” Contrary to popular opinion, prisons are not stagnant structures, concrete and barbwire fences, that simply house transplanted offenders and employ local residents. Instead, prisons are things that leak from all sides — corrections officers that go back to their neighborhoods and families after work, “illicit economies” that attach to the prisons and create new pathways in these towns, and families that move from urban environments to these rural environments, to name a few. My ethnographic fieldwork is an exploration of these things that leak. My project is an attempt to expand on the research revolving around the prison industrial complex. Much of the current conversation explores the topic as if it is self-contained and stable, a phenomenon to be studied on its own. And though this research has been and continues to be invaluable for understanding the larger, historical picture, it leaves many lingering questions. What happens in the actual (often rural) towns where federal prisons are built? When a family with an imprisoned loved one moves to the “prison town,” how do they negotiate their new landscape? These are only two (of my many and always-expanding) questions, but they help to localize the conversation that can sometimes appear detached and immaterial. My work is an effort to continue exploring the “whole problem” at the local level.