Unreal Nature

September 28, 2010

A Kaleidoscope of Images

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:05 am

… Eighteenth-century savants tended to locate variability in the objects themselves — in the accidental, the singular, the monstrous. By the mid-nineteenth century, the chief source of variability had shifted inward, to the multiple subjective viewpoints that shattered a single object into a kaleidoscope of images.

This is from Objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007):

… To see like a [Enlightenment era] naturalist required more than just sharp senses: a capacious memory, the ability to analyze and synthesize impressions, as well as the patience and talent to extract the typical from the storehouse of natural particulars, were all key qualifications.

… [Linnaeus] would have dismissed as irresponsible the suggestion that scientific facts should be conveyed without the mediation of the scientist and ridiculed as absurd the notion that the kind of scientific knowledge most worth seeking was that which depended least on the personal traits of the seeker. These later tenets of objectivity, as they were formulated in the mid-nineteenth century, would have contradicted Linnaeus’s own sense of scientific mission. Only the keenest and most experienced observer — who had, like Linnaeus, inspected thousands of different specimens — was qualified to distinguish genuine species from mere varieties, to identify the true specific characters imprinted in the plant, and to separate accidental from essential features. Linnaeus was vehemently committed to the truth of his genera (and even to the truth of specific names), but not to objectivity, not even avant la lettre.

… In practice, the collaborations of Enlightenment naturalists and artists to produce working objects for the sciences of the eye were taut with tensions: social, intellectual, and perceptual. Battles of wills, eyes, and status were joined when the naturalist peered over the shoulder of the artist, correcting every pen stroke.

… these collaborations aimed at a fusion of the head of the naturalist with the hand of the artist, in which the artist surrendered himself (or, often, herself) entirely to the will and judgment of the naturalist. This relationship of subordination to the point of possession or thought transference frequently exploited other forms of social subordination in order to render the artist as pliant as possible: the subordination of servant to master, of child to adult, of woman to man.

… By the mid-nineteenth century, scientists themselves aspired to waxlike receptivity. They admonished one another to listen attentively to nature, and “never to answer for her nor hear her answers only in part,” as the French physiologist Claude Bernard advised fellow experimenters in 1865. The fantasy of the perfect scientific servant persisted among proponents of objectivity — but this servant was no longer imagined as the compliant draftsman who drew what the naturalist knew rather than what the artist saw. Instead, the ideal scientific domestic became an uneducated blank slate who could see without prejudice what his or her too-well-informed master might not.

… mechanical objectivity did not drive out truth-to-nature, but nor did it leave truth-to-nature unchanged. Epistemic virtues do not replace one another like succession of kings. Rather, they accumulate into a repertoire of possible forms of knowing. Within this slowly expanding repertoire, each element modifies the others: mechanical objectivity defined itself in contradistinction to truth-to-nature; truth-to-nature in the age of mechanical objectivity was articulated defensively, with reference to alternatives and to critics. Epistemic virtues emerge and evolve in specific historical contexts, but they do not necessarily become extinct under new conditions, as long as each continues to address some urgent challenge to acquiring and securing knowledge.

The problem of variability in right depiction stretches from the beginning to the end of the period we have treated here. It haunted scientific atlas makers who pursued truth-to-nature as much as it did their successors dedicated to objectivity. But different epistemic ways of life made for different diagnoses of the sources of variability. Eighteenth-century savants tended to locate variability in the objects themselves — in the accidental, the singular, the monstrous. By the mid-nineteenth century, the chief source of variability had shifted inward, to the multiple subjective viewpoints that shattered a single object into a kaleidoscope of images. The earlier naturalists had attempted actively to select and to shape both their objects and their illustrators, whereas later naturalist aspired to hands-off passivity. The meaning of the images changed accordingly. Instead of portraying the idea in the observation, atlas makers invited nature to paint its own self-portrait — the “objective view.”

-Julie

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