Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fossils, Photography, Painting

In his contribution to Jim Elkins's volume Photography Theory, literary critic Walter Benn Michaels takes a claim from Hiroshi Sugimoto (whose Devonian Period, gelatin silver print of 1992 we see at left) whereby photography stands in some meaningful relation to fossils. Neither are, so this claim goes, only  representations. And perhaps, as Michaels suggests, neither are representations at all. Fossils and photographs are both made from objects such that those replicated targets become "causally indispensable" to the resulting petrification or chemical image in ways that are simply irreconcilable with pictorial techniques like painting. (Michaels, 432) While a broader aim of this course is to problematize the model of photography that Michaels has in mind, the preliminary question for today is: what does this assertion assume about fossils? More to the point, following on from what we saw last week with Boschini and his delight in the distance of Titian's stains and marks from intentionality, how plausible is the conception of painting to which Michaels is juxtaposing his conception of the fossil/photo?

As a way into those questions, we began with two early modern texts on those artifacts we know now as fossils. For Nehemiah Grew (from whose Musaeum Regalis Societatis [1681] the images at left are taken), Michaels's contention that fossils need some prior object to transform would have been highly tendentious. While he acknowledges that it is fashionable to claim that fossils are natural bodies petrified, Grew also asks: why might we not imagine that that Nature has redeployed the "plastic virtue" by which terrestrial bodies are normally formed, but done so in the colder, wetter bowels of the earth for fun? (Grew, 254) After all, if comparable techniques of embedding "pictures" into stones could be practiced by contemporary artisans (as the piece we read from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London shows) and if so-called fossils could be dissolved in acid (Grew, 267), then surely the higher artifice of Nature could produce these marvelous sports. Grew puts it this way: "There can be no convincing Argument given, why the Salts of Plants, or Animal Bodies, washed down with Rains, and lodged under ground; should not there be disposed into such like figures, as well as above it? Probably, in some cases, much better, as in a colder place; and where therefore the Work not being done in a hurry, but more slowly, may be so much the more regular." (Grew, 254) 
Contra Michaels, then, objects in the world only appear to be "causally indispensable" to fossil-production. In fact, Nature  is just playing games—an idea with an extensive early modern pedigree. Curiously enough, though, Grew also goes on to compare the manner by which these "pictures" of natural forms get embedded into rock with what he calls images "cast through a Glass (as Kepler shews the way sometimes of taking Landskips) upon a Tablet in a Dark Room." So as with Michaels, we might say, Grew ends up likening camera-(obscura)-based image-making to fossils anyway. 

Contemporary to Grew, Robert Hooke took a radically different position on fossilization. The sea shells found on the tops of mountains were, he contends, once lay at the bottom of oceans. (Hooke, 324) If incredibly hard rock like flint was once so fluid that it could envelop shells, then the earth must be massively susceptible to radical changes. Indeed, Hooke continues, a model of the created earth organized around the governing influence of gravity would be an onion-layer system with the densest metals at the core and lighter materials grouped like-to-like progressively outward toward the periphery. This, Hooke explains, is why gold is so often found in mountains, where the forceful violence of earthquakes has forced subterranean materials upwards. Unlike Grew, then, there is no space for nature to playfully represent her standard form in the cold, wet space of the earth; indeed, the earth is not cold and wet at all for Hooke. Instead, the reason that we find fossils like the ammonites at left is that they have been petrified and then thrust into the earth through Nature's convulsive violence.

Thomas Willis's conception of the means by which the material body and the incorporeal soul communicate are among the closest engagements with "liquid intelligence" to be found in the seventeenth century. Drawing from optics, alchemy, mechanics and extensive anatomical research, Willis explains how the blood is heated and rarefied into animal spirits, then blown upward like a fountain through the fleshy folds of the brain. Unlike chemical liquids, though, the animal spirits can carry with them representational information ("Images of their Objects") by which the faculties of the soul are informed of data perceived by the senses. And these swirling liquids interface with the soul in a truly remarkable piece of visual projection in "the inferior Chamber of the soul, glased with dioptric Looking-Glasses; in the Penetralia or inmost parts of which, the Images or Pictures of all sensible things, being sent or intromitted by the Passages of the Nerves, as it were by Pipes or strait holes, ... are represented upon the Callous Body [of the Brain], as it were upon a white Wall; and so induce a Perception, and a certain Imagination of the thing felt." (Willis, 24-5) So, the blood is filled with images which the soul can see once projected onto or through the hermetic glass casement that surrounds its seat in the watery depths of the brain. Because these images are then saved by the soul, they become the basis for rational thought and reflection. 

Photo-sensitivity is central to the accounts of William Petty and William Cole, who also links it to fossilization. Petty begins his account of dyeing (published in Thomas Sprat's 1667 History of the Royal-Society of London) by emphasizing how central to the study of light would be to any exhaustive understanding of liquid dyeing practices. (Sprat, 284-5) Petty then goes on to demonstrate how material supports need to be prepared to receive dye (see Sprat 290), and much work is required "to fix" the dye's coloration. (Sprat, 302-3) Cole, meanwhile, takes a delight as much in his capacity to fix color as to observe its temporal evolution. In his correspondence on shell-fish dye from the mid-1680s, Cole sets out a complex account of the times of year when the dye can be fashioned—the season in which the shell-fish can be harvested and how long their innards need to be exposed to the sun to make images. (Cole, 233) He takes great delight in juxtaposing fossils (a specimen of which he claims "will puzle Mr. Hooke and the rest of the ingenious Gentlemen who will have them to be petrified shells of fishes"), which seem to be painted by Nature (along similar lines as that of Grew), with his photosensitive dye, which is painted by hand but then transformed by the sun.

What can we conclude from all of this? Well, first off, Michaels certainly moves in a venerable tradition when he likens camera-made images to fossils. Whether or not objects "cause" their images to be made in either domain, a central theme in this collision holds that human agency or intentionality is somehow put into abeyance when these visual forms are generated. Nature is playing games. Or, if a human intervention is required to ready a chemical support or to provide an optical projection, it is the sun that then does the work in making an image appear in time. Now, if all this flies in the face of the ideology of artistic nobility promoted by Poussin—if this solar agency departs from the dark, sunless spaces commanded by the masterful maker of oil painting in van Mander's narration of Van Eyck—it seems to how close to the model of Titian's painting and period reception described by Philip Sohm. "Venetian painting," as Sohm puts it, describing Marco Boschini's views, "is a 'form without form, or rather form deformed'; it finds its 'true formation in fluid form.'" (Sohm, 124) How, then, do we explain this persist conception of painting (to which Michaels clearly subscribes; see 444) as a pure exercise of human will and intentionality whereas photography—like fossilization—is mired in a quasi-magical domain of objects that make their own images?

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