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It's been a while since I posted. I did go to Washington, and managed to get to the Folger a bit and do some homework. I was quite ill with something or other (not terminal. What's the opposite of terminal?) so didn't get as much done as I would have liked. (This is normal. Never have got as much done as I would have liked, whatever the circumstances). What I'm trying to get done are the revisions to a paper on natural history illustration. The revisions are minor, but I'm having one of those psycho-babbicular blockages about them. The solution to that particular illness (which is chronic, though not terminal) is to read more. So I'm re-reading the chapter in Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (a redaction of her classic The Printing Press as an Agent of Change) that is about science and the effects that printing had on it. Her argument is that science was revolutionized by the printing press, which is quite obvious, I suppose; still, I find her analysis refreshing, as the reasons she gives are not the ones you might think.

For example, one thing that print enabled was the comparison of data collected in diverse places and times, so Tycho Brahe (who did not own a telescope, but had lots of books), for instance, could compare thousands of years of observations of the stars to come to new conclusions; collaborative work, in the broadest sense (through time and over space) was not possible until the printing press. In the history of science, we usually think that "empiricism" was the big methodological shift of the seventeenth-century, but print enabled empiricism's happy twin, which is "the literature search." Even today much scientific discovery is based on the re-arrangement and re-evalution of existing data.

One of the other principal changes to science was the increase in the number of images that print allowed, and the accuracy and importance of those images as forms of evidence and sites of reference. This much we know -- and the zoological texts with which I'm concerned (principally those by Conrad Gesner) were sources of visual knowledge of the animal world for 200 years after their first publications in the middle of the sixteenth century. But part of my interest lies in the fact that these books were also sources for the reproduction of images of animals within decorative arts (plasterwork, embroidery, ceiling painting, etc.), and in decorative or non-empirical portions of scientific texts. The main point of the article that is the subject of my procrastination at the moment is that images were not as important as evidence in zoological records as we have previously thought -- the fact of the repetition of the images had more to do with making the books look credible, than of circulating information, evidence, and knowledge. Images become symbolic or iconic much more readily than words do, which is part of what was going on.

But I think the drift and dispersal of the image of the animal throughout popular culture also has something to do with the difficulty we have in actually concentrating on the lives of animals and in grasping their existence in empirical terms: animals are to us always something other than themselves, always-already commodities or useful tools, or stand-ins for humans, or examples of larger processes. There are reasons for this and they are not remote to our understanding: even pets, we know, are only rarely perceived as just animals, whatever the hamster-whisperer says. But the implications of our position vis-a-vis animals are not always obvious. The mouse, for instance, is very important to modern science -- there is no more important animal, except perhaps the fruit fly. But the mouse does not function in science as a mouse -- that is, science is not especially interested in improving the health of mice, or in learning more about the mouse's cognitive apparatus or physical/moral/ontological capacities. It's only interested in mice in the same way it's interested in amoebas or rabbits or even dogs: as partial simulacra of human beings.

Which is rather a long way from ceiling paintings. But I'll get there.