Albanese reads the inaugurators of the scientific revolution against the canonical authors of early modern literature, discussing Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems and Bacon’s New Atlantis as well as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She examines how the newness or “novelty” of investigating nature is expressed through representations of the New World, including the native, the feminine, the body, and the heavens. “New” is therefore shown to be a double sign, referring both to the excitement associated with a knowledge oriented away from past practices, and to the oppression and domination typical of the colonialist enterprise. Exploring the connections between the New World and the New Science, and the simultaneously emerging patterns of thought and forms of writing characteristic of modernity, Albanese insists that science is at its inception a form of power-knowledge, and that the modern and postmodern division of “Two Cultures,” the literary and the scientific, has its antecedents in the early modern world.
New Science, New World makes an important contribution to feminist, new historicist, and cultural materialist debates about the extent to which the culture of seventeenth-century England is proto-modern. It will offer scholars and students from a wide range of fields a new critical model for historical practice.
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About the Author
Denise Albanese is Associate Professor of English and Cultural Studies at George Mason University.
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New Science, New World
By Denise Albanese
Duke University PressCopyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Making It New: History and Novelty in Early Modern Culture
A text and two sets of images provide an entry into the argument that follows. The first set is a series of photographs taken by the artist Cindy Sherman and generally referred as the "History Portraits." The second set is probably more familiar to readers of Renaissance culture, since it comes from Theodor de Bry's much-discussed engraved illustrations to Thomas Harriot's Discovery and Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590). And the text is John Donne's Ignatius His Conclave (1611), a moralized exploration of the place of novelty, and hence of modern cultural formations, at the end of the Renaissance in the seventeenth century. Each point of entry, whether text or image, makes a problem out of power and knowledge as they function in the telling of history; in so doing, each maps out the complex interrelationships between past and present, European and North American, and mind and body as constituents of modernity.
As these symptomatic readings will indicate, historical narratives are predicated equally on imagined relations and tactical silences; they demand an ideological adjudication between what may be comprehended as familiar and what must be suppressed, or investigated, as alien. This is true in all three instances, whether those narratives flag the emergence of the early modern subject of humanism, the "new" modernity betokened by colonialism and science in the seventeenth century, or, as in the case of Sherman, the postmodern representation of identity and estrangement on which the previous two meet.
In fact, the argument begins out of chronological order; it traces and so completes a backward trajectory, and in so doing it studies the problematic of historical retrospection. As meditations, belated ones, on the modern project, Sherman's images make visible categories of representation, technology, and the body produced by gender that are only teasingly, evanescently apprehensible in the early modern text and illustrations. In this regard, Sherman's photographs are also easy to read. To be sure, they are complex as images; but they emerge out of a recent critical terrain that has conditioned self-consciousness about apparatuses of social and aesthetic reproduction, and the range of subject positions that emerge from such reproduction. With the necessary correctives, this self-consciousness can usefully be cast backward. Nevertheless, because the "History Portraits" are something of a departure for Sherman, they have not much been read as I propose to do—as forays into historicity, as skeptical interventions into the presentation and production of historical consciousness.
Sherman's previous work—primarily the "Untitled Movie Stills" of the late 1970s—exploited and problematized the position of Woman as object of the Lacanian gaze in a series of portraits that evoked the style and narratives of the genre movies of the 1940s and 1950s. In each of the earlier photographs the disguised and costumed Sherman is caught by the camera she herself sets up to catch her, situated in some enigmatic yet hauntingly familiar narrative space. Whether reaching for a book, overtaken while walking on dark city streets, or surprised as she ducks out a sliding glass door in a full-length slip, Sherman inhabits the clothing, demeanor, and desirability of stereotypical femininity as produced by U.S. movie culture.
The twist is of course obvious, and it is this twist that has given this earlier work its totemic status as feminist critique. In her formal control over the circumstances of image production, Sherman both induces a voyeuristic response and challenges one's right to it. Since she can be located on both sides of the camera, her assumption of the pose of movie woman makes clear that femininity thus denned as object of the gaze is a performance. Further, the tantalizing incompleteness of the narrative space she set up makes something else clear as well—that a lot more is involved here than meets the eye, at least as framed by the classic fetishistic technology of the cinema.
But the neat dovetailing between Sherman's work and a feminist theory that owes much to Lacan and film practice comes to grief in the "History Portraits," photographs that play off of the burnish—both formal and ideological—of Old Master paintings. In these portraits Sherman is no longer posing as the seductive and alluring woman: not one of these is a Venus, or any other allegorical female in fetching dishabille. Frequently, in fact, her encounter with (art) history does not leave her a woman at all. She is as likely to be a burgher as a Madonna, and even quotes Caravaggio's Bacchus in one of the few portraits to set her up as a focus of erotic desire, however overdetermined (figure 1). Moreover, the "History Portraits" make full, even ludicrous use of the prostheses that have otherwise been the subject of her camera (as, for example, in the "Untitled" series of 1984). Fake body parts abound, from breasts (perhaps not surprisingly) to noses to artificially elongated foreheads (figures 2, 3). The resulting photographs seem at first merely to invite laughter. In fact, so incisive a critic as Laura Mulvey suggests that these images "lack the inexorability and complexity of her previous phase": she reads them primarily as efforts to draw attention "to the art-historical fetishization of great works and their value."
Of course, such a critique constitutes part of the photographs' agenda: how else to account for the attempt to stage—and to fall short of—the rich patina of oil in the glossy and superficial intransigence of the photograph? But the reason I begin with these photographs lies precisely in their break with the overtly "feminist," and all but decontextualized, career of the photographic image. If the "History Portraits" are not "inexorable" (a position that oddly privileges a linear clairvoyance), it is perhaps because they do not constitute a continued engagement with the problematics of the modern sex-gender system as defined solely within contemporary theories of gender and the gaze. Rather, these uncanny pictures offer a way to begin theorizing the historical beyond the limitations of canonical postmodern usage.
Fredric Jameson has provided an influential account of the period construct that has come to be called postmodernity. He places the subject of late capitalism in what is effectively a house of mirrors: "the postmodern" relates to the historical past primarily as a crucial absence, a loss which can be charted through, for example, architecture that knows and summons history only through a deracinated and eclectic citation of period style. If seen through this particular grid, Sherman's portraits are merely confirmations of that loss, reproductions of a pastness that cannot be inhabited and understood as the basis for meaningful political action, but only parodied.
I would not be the first to note that Jameson's model—or, for that matter, Jean Baudrillard's more anarchic version of the flight of significance—of postmodernity is totalizing, and so crucially blind to issues of power and representation attendant on nonhegemonic subjectivities. The evacuation of meaning from history that he laments is far from total, and far from disabling. On the contrary, when history's master narratives of dominance and opposition (as Jameson recognizes them) lose their cogency, heretofore marginalized subjects are afforded a space in which to produce an alternative critical understanding of past formations.
This space is where Sherman's photography operates. In contrast to Jamesonian despair and the loss of authenticity, or Baudrillardian glee and the play of surfaces, Sherman's forgeries of the past announce their false provenance and so offer a critique of dominant art-historical narratives of subjectivity, embodiment, and gender. What they fake is the nonmodern body and its habitus; in calling too much attention to the materiality of the signifier, her portraits, whose subject is "history," cannot but inflect the signified.
As a result, the history which Sherman is interested in staging is the imagined history of embodiment, which means that these representations are politicized, like her earlier work. But the "History Portraits" implicate the subject in ways other than the film simulacra had called forth. Sherman's earlier images, with all their suaveness, tended perhaps to duplicate the very ideal object they also critiqued, or at least to be too readily misread as mere duplicates. From the apparently truth-producing glamour of film, Sherman has moved to the recovery of mundane particularity, even ugliness, suppressed by the idealizing and aestheticizing work of Old Master painting. Thus Norman Bryson's discussion of the "abject" as the inevitable corollary of Sherman's project in these stills—the return of something very like the repressed, the unruly flesh that bulges all too abruptly in the photographs from the confines of the proper and painterly geometric swells we recollect in their debasement. For him, Sherman's "colonization" and subsequent jettisoning of Old Masterism demonstrates "the violence of the ego's insertion into social personae that clamp down over the flesh like a carapace or a prosthesis or an iron mask."
Bryson's reversion to the language of psychoanalysis, to an ego punished and policed by form, does much to connect the "History Portraits" to the film stills, and even to the later works that focus on objects of disgust. And yet by circumscribing the "self" within the portraits, it offers effect for explanation and renders the bounded ego a captive rather than a product of such representational practices. In contrast, Sherman's practice questions the priority of interior life. More overtly than ever before, her truck is with the embodied subject, perhaps even with the body "itself"—but not merely as observed or repressive (or repulsive), but resolutely as constructed, as material historical artifact. Hence the rhetorical efficacy of prostheses, which remind the viewer that different cultural formations produce the apparent truth of the flesh. Hence, too—and this is worth underscoring—the gender variability of her subjects. The freedom Sherman affects in inhabiting male as well as female subjects suggests that the photographs work to make a problem of the apparently immutable sex-gender system of modernity that gave her earlier work its point. Apparently immutable because apparently factual: and here the question of medium and technology, both as deployed and as foregrounded, comes into play.
Oil paint works as part of an apparatus of "artistic" representation, and it more obviously constructs its subject than the cold lens of the camera claims to do. Although the camera's claim to objectivity is readily deconstructed, the photographic lens is the latest development in a technology whose history is successive reproductions of "the real." It seems useful, therefore, to stress the function of the lens within the ideology of scientific objectivity, especially in the lens's medicalized form as an instrument for inquiry into the deep, and so presumably determining, structures of the human body. In a sense, the lens thus conceived competes with an older mode of aesthetic, epistemological, and social reproduction, the portrait in oils.
Although it seems perverse to juxtapose these two moments in the history of social reproduction on the one hand, and of the production of images on the other, that is in effect what Sherman has done. Her (self-)portraits, especially those imitating Renaissance models, dramatize moments of discursive coalescence. But they also put those moments into question. Here, they seem at once to assert and deny, is staged the "birth of the individual"; here, too, is staged the "art" that stresses the "exceptional subject," either canonized by religious discourse (all those Madonnas) or by bourgeois wealth (the brocaded profiles, for example).
But notice, too, that I suggested the "History Portraits" problematize these moments of formation; this also gets back to my suspensions of their status as self-portraits, a subject I will have more to say about. Here, again, the prostheses enter in: their arrant artificiality, preposterous breasts on Madonnas, bizarrely unlikely faces, remind us not just of the artifact that is the body in history, but of the symbolic violence that lies submerged just beneath the humanist call to identify our subjectivities with those depicted in "great art." In a sense, that act of interpellation effectively disembodies the subject who gazes—a tacit dematerialization that Shermans inhabitations correct through their insistence on the priority of the body as signifier. Only through the grotesque self-distortion her prostheses represent, she seems to say, can we locate ourselves then and there.
Note that I used the word "seems": the question is whether there is any other way to get there, to read the past, to narrate relation without the collapse into identity. Sherman suggests the gap from here to there is not smoothly negotiated, that we bring along ourselves and our interpretive agendas, much as her camera intrudes on bodies meant only for oil. But I disagree with Mulvey in thinking these representations are avowals only of a body fetishism consequent upon loss, a position to which Mulvey's theoretical engagement with Freud and Lacan enjoins her. After all, the technology of the lens, in providing—constructing—the clinical "truth" of the body, enables the body to be gendered by an all-determining relationship to the phallus, its presence or absence. Only under these historical circumstances does it make sense to think in terms of the female as fetish, at least as constructed within an accomplished theoretical position. The "History Portraits," with their plays at gender mutation, seem to assert that to read past acts of gendering one must also read against the grain of the present that they inevitably—inexorably?—also must represent. In so doing, the portraits suggest that Sherman temporarily summons up a time-before: before the castrated woman, before the consolidated discourses of subjectivity and interiority, before the technologies of truth that she burlesques in her corporeal motility. A time, it may be said, before the dematerialized but self-knowing Cartesian subject, or the post-Freudian subject of lack, held full sway.
In fact, the dazzling and grotesque play of surface foregrounded by the prostheses accompanies some evacuated faces—or faces, to put the case more usefully, whose task does not wholly seem to be to create the illusions of a rich interiority for public consumption or viewer interpellation. But this refusal to model a depth model of representation does not converge on another discourse of loss, a loss of the past, to which images devoid of presence constitute a desperate and fetishistic link: they are not, as I have already suggested, Jamesonian. After all, Sherman is in some important sense "there": owing to her prior work of self-representation, one might say her presence is recognizable because it is transformed, because, that is, her image foregrounds both the necessity of self-alienation and the inescapability of her present construction as a subject. Given that these photographs are nothing so simple as "self-portraits"—given, in fact, that their avowed sitter is "History"—they may not simply dramatize a ludicrous failure to intersect with the past. Instead, they are invitations (witty ones) to consider a way out of the canonical reconstruction of all species of history, which demands a seamless interpellation, an identity between past and present. As I have suggested, it is just this structure of identification—which could also be termed exemplarity—that is the legacy of humanism institutionalized, which has determined how literary practitioners construct history. Shermans visual puns on anachronism, her overt forgeries of the subject of Renaissance painting, provoke the reader of Renaissance texts to consider the material freight of the past.
What the "History Portraits" offer in place of humanist identification is something akin to the Foucauldian project of genealogy. The past must be read as radically different from the present moment of reading; but equally, that reading must always and overtly be compounded with all the categorical interests and investments that cannot but be brought to a retrospective hermeneutics. In this light, it may be of interest that, with few exceptions, the styles Sherman imitates are not the most famous masterpieces of Italian Renaissance painters; only the homoerotic Bacchus by Caravaggio insists on identifying itself as an exact citation. In denying herself the right (which is really a constraint) to inhabit the Mona Lisa, for example, Sherman broadens the horizon, extends what must be taken into account when we consider the hallowed and canonical representations of the past, the burnished exemplars of which hang on institutional walls, or gain familiarity through endless reproduction. And what must be taken into account here is corporeal difference, the intransigence of the material body that has since the early modern period been idealized and effectively shunted away from the multiple sites of engagement that determine the modern world.
Sherman provides a critical model for examining the legacy both of a humanist inscription of the past and of an alternative model of past relation that can, for lack of a better term, be called protoethnographic—imaged, respectively, by her investment in art history and by her gleeful rendering of even the Europeanized social body as Other. The models of pastness that her "History Portraits" play on share one important trait: whether exemplary or estranged, each constructs a past apprehensible because of a suppressed act of symbolic violence, one that, if nothing else, has demanded an increasing disembodiment for the accomplishment of its primary subject-position. How that disembodiment is effected both within the exemplary philology of Renaissance humanism and the materialized objectification of colonialism and science remains to be seen.
Excerpted from New Science, New World by Denise Albanese. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
1. Making It New: History and Novelty in Early Modern Culture 13
2. Admiring Miranda and Enslaving Nature 59
3. The New Atlantis and the Uses of Utopia 92
4. The Prosthetic Milton; Or, the Telescope and the Humanist Corpus 121
5. Galileo, "Literature," and the Generation of Scientific Universals 148
Conclusion: De Certeau and Early Modern Cultural Studies 186
Works Cited 225