Curiously Drawn report

– by Jill H. Casid, Professor of Visual Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, jhcasid@wisc.edu

I would like to follow up my comments at the event itself to put in writing what I found most productive and provocative about the phrasing of the title (“Curiously Drawn: Early Modern Science as a Visual Pursuit”) for the conference. While the final discussion focused on “images” as the seeming end-products of processes of knowledge production (that is, as somehow hardened and temporally belated re-presentations of conclusions worked out elsewhere), the title’s frame for the conversation seemed to prompt us, instead, to think about “drawing” as an activity (analogous perhaps to the activities of drawing out or extracting principles, effects, meanings, significances) for the production of knowledge and not just its registration. Further, to understand early modern science as a visual pursuit is importantly not simply or exclusively to take seriously and attend to images but rather to understand the work of science (and knowledge production more generally) as a set of actions and methods that are, in various ways, “visual” in the sense not just of visualized (e.g., rendered in drawing or print, collected, dissected, or sampled and put on display, made to appear via an experiment or through the interventions of an instrument) but also pursued through reliance in one form or another on techniques that involve vision (whether we call this sight, observation, witness or super-vision).

I was pleased and delighted to hear the research, publications, and Ph.D. dissertation by Meghan Doherty (which I supervised at the UW-Madison) invoked several times. But the great import of her work on this point regarding drawing and engraving (or, in her formulation, the careful action of carving with the burin into a prepared plate) risks being obscured by its translation as merely work on the images produced and circulated for the Royal Society. To quote the conclusion of Meghan’s dissertation: “All three of the case studies in this dissertation explored how the actions of artisans and Fellows produced images that had the visual traces of accuracy and the first two chapters established how methods were developed to control those actions. This shared attention to accuracy leads me to suggest in closing that the engraver’s burin, or graver, should be considered among the pantheon of instruments that fundamentally changed how nature was studied and subsequently understood in the seventeenth century. I am arguing that the burin should be considered alongside the microscope and the air-pump as key instruments for the advancement of learning.” To understand the printer’s burin as a scientific instrument is to begin the exciting work of reckoning with image production (or what one might instead call “imaging”) as essential and agential in the practice of “science” and pursuit of knowledge in the early modern period.

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