Summaries & Reviews

Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions & Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment, Daniela Bleichmar

            Author Daniela Bleichmar bases her study of Hispanic botanical expeditions around the images created during them in order to analyze the place of illustration in the Enlightenment natural philosophical era. Through these images, Bleichmar elucidates the motivations behind their production (to exploit natural colonial resources and make colonial flora “mobile”), their place in and exemplification of the international botanical network, and what they said (and did not say) about the places from whence they came. Bleichmar also takes the opportunity the images provide to discuss and analyze Hispanic colonial changes in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries and the economic motivations for botanizing expeditions. Underlying her entire analysis is an insistence and explanation of the importance of visual epistemologies in Enlightenment science, especially in the Spanish Empire. 

The Image of Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison

            In a survey of atlases of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, authors Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison trace changing ideas in the scientific community about visual representations of natural phenomena. The predominate methods of representation in the nineteenth-century concerned themselves with being “true to nature.” Experts who put together the atlases were supposed to, with their professional knowledge of a subject, use their judgment to create images that would be representative of natural things. A different view, a mechanical objectivity, began developing mid-century and stressed instead the importance of ridding scientific representations of their human components, or subjectivity. Judgment on the part of even professional scientists was viewed as immoral; professional scientists were expected to refrain from inserting themselves into their objective representations of natural phenomena. This mentality propelled imaging machines to the forefront of representational technology, especially the camera, and encouraged publication in atlases of multiple images of the same thing, so that the burden of representation was transferred to the audience.

The role of visual epistemologies was also addressed in Daniel Margoscy’s Commercial Visions. The standards for anatomical representations — the way that different anatomists vied for various methods of representation as superior — stands in stark contrast to the homogeneity in opinion about the hierarchy of botanical representations. At least as Bleichmar presents it, most naturalists were in agreement that visual representations were better than textual or physical renditions of plants. That being said, the goal of a representative, ideally easily reproducible representation was common to both anatomists and botanists. The goal of classification, such a powerful component of Enlightenment natural philosophy, deemed the standardization of nature necessary.

The role of the artist was addressed in both Visible Empire and The Image of Objectivity, and both works depicted the relationship between artist and scientist as a contentious one in some respects. The implied subjectivity of the artist was a source of tension, as was their propensity for creative license. Scientists felt the need to very literally look over their shoulders as they attempted to conform to the scientists’ particular definition of “objective.” What Galison and Daston and Bleichmar stress, however, is that standards of objectivity were quite subjective themselves. The leaving out of parts of plants, for example, was common practice in colonial Spanish scientific representations of colonial flora. These representations were also selective in that they portrayed only the plant, even simply parts of the plant, and left out their surroundings completely. Additionally, as Daston and Galison highlight, standards for objectivity in representation have changed over time, indicating further their transitory nature. It seems that the very subjectivity scientists were attempting to eliminate from their representations was present nonetheless, inherent in the selectivity scientists imposed upon the subjective artists they employed.

Commercial Visions

Summaries & Reviews

Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age, Dániel Margócsy

In Commercial Visions, author Dániel Margócsy discusses how the production and dissemination of tools of visualization (specimens, prints, atlases, etc.) aided in, and also were brought about by, the impregnation of the sciences — especially the more visual ones such as natural history and anatomy — with commercial interests, specifically in the early modern Netherlands. The author analyzes the scientific environment in the Netherlands, arguing that the Republic of Letters was far more complex and economically motivated than previously suggested. The capitalistic trading atmosphere engendered competition between scientists attempting to create knowledge-sharing tools (i.e., anatomical preparations, reference books, and printing technologies), and this manifested itself in often heated debates over “the epistemological status of visual facts.”[1] By treating knowledge as a commodity, the scientists Margócsy discusses secured their financial interests and employed complex advertising and legitimizing strategies that affected the fields in which they worked in a major way.

          Commercial Visions reminded me a lot of Collectors of Lost Souls; bodies were commodified in both as objects of scientific study or knowledge. In the Netherlands during the early modern period and in colonial Papua New Guinea in the twentieth century, scientists were taking the bodies of the dead and turning them into scientific goods. Like Anderson, Margóscy also discusses scientific commodities in terms of their being Latourian “immutable mobiles.” To make their scientific knowledge mobile, the scientists discussed in Commercial Visions went to all sorts of lengths — and the more mobile their knowledge was, the more successful they were, monetarily and professionally. Margóscy argues, however, that these objects were often not “immutable.” Atlases and reference books were taken on and changed by those who “edited” them, and even the names of the scientists who wrote the books were far from unchanging. As the case of Seba’s Thesaurus shows, even after a scientist’s death, his name could be garnering new meaning. Color printing, a technology discussed in chapter 6, was in a constant state of improvement and flux. The products the Dutch scientists discussed in Commercial Visions thus created an interesting variation on Latour’s cosmology, one in which the commodities were very mobile, but certainly not immutable.

Something I found missing from Margóscy’s book was attention to where the bodies that the anatomists used for preparations came from. This is not only something I am curious about; I think it would have elucidated something quite important about what these men considered representative of the human body. If most of these bodies were those of the patients these doctors and apothecaries treated, the specimens they would have been working with would have been diseased. Unless killed, a dead human body is usually a diseased one, and therefore not a normal one by most standards. In chapter 5, Margóscy discusses Bidloo’s attempted attack on Ruysch’s preparation techniques, and it centers on anatomical specimens’ inability to represent the movements and variability of the human body. What he did not criticize were the actual bodies Ruysch used. What sorts of bodies, then, were representative enough of the population to scientists, and which were not? Would diseased bodies have been considered “normal” enough for students and other buyers to trust their visual example as indicative of what an average human body looked like? I think this would have been a valuable and important issue for Margóscy to have discussed, because it seems to be a relevant and potentially contentious component of anatomical visual epistemologies.

[1] Dániel Margócsy, Commercial Visions, 17.