The Body of the Artisan

Pamela H Smith’s The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution is a dense and interesting history of the influence of art and craft on the formation of science, or “new philosophy” in the early seventeenth century, that I can’t begin to unpack just yet. But I am interested in questions that are surfacing about natural knowledge, the focus of the scientific revolution, on the basis of observation and depiction. I’m not sure how (or if) questions of seeing help me get footing in the text, but I couldn’t get the work of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida and James Elkins in The Object Stares Back out of the back of my mind. I can make a loose connection their work to create a language/way to talk about images and art beyond aesthetic qualities to the work of theorizing from drawings/paintings – a way of communicating knowledge orally (or in alpha. text). But the connection I find more interesting what knowledge is and isn’t able to move from nature, or from embodied practice, as a representation (a re-presentation). I feel like in posing this thought it seems like I’m trying to get a some philosophical real world beyond, but it’s really a matter of curiosity in how this knowledge (embodied or tacit) traveled because of graphic depiction (and what couldn’t). And in terms of engaging with nature, sight (reasonably so) is the sense that is appealed to/through; while it highlighted to the eyes, I wonder what was left unseen.

“Well, what is it like?” (In the Laboratory with Agassiz): It reminds me of a short account I read in a tech comm class before, In the Laboratory with Agassiz on Learning to See. A student enters Agassiz’s lab wanting to learn zoology , to which Agassiz responds with leaving the student alone with a fish to analyze. He asks the student what he sees in the fish but is dissatisfied with the student’s observations of the fish’s appearance. After days of looking at the fish, the student describes it as “symmetrical sides with paired organs” which pleases Agassiz as a connection between facts and general law – not just observations in isolation as facts. While this is distributed throughout Smith, I thought these related:

“The pursuit of natural knowledge became active and began to involve the body; that is, one had to observe, record, and engage bodily with nature” (18).


“Images came to be known as witnesses to facts. Images that increasingly invoked claims of factuality reinforced the techniques of observation and eyewitness as modes of inquiring knowledge” (150).

as disciplined observation and engagement to construct knowledge in objects and physical, observable phenomena. This enaction is what made scientific inquiry and the construction of knowledge possible. Making allowed people to make themselves, or the material of their culture; “Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis, not mechanism” (James Elkins The Object Stares Back). These depictions seem of a small scale though, or perhaps singular – how did this knowledge circulate? (particularly when its origins were in craft and art that was embodied knowledge unto singular persons that moved through apprenticeship). What is the relationship between the body of the artisan and the body of scientific knowledge?


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