Getting the facts straight

[Reading Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity, Zone Books, 2007.]


We might think that knowers have striven always for objectivity, for a vision of the world unblemished by the viewer’s own biases and prejudices. But Daston and Galison argue that it is a concept that was constructed in the recent past – mainly in the 19th century. Before that, scientists worked with artists to try to display nature not as it is actually found, but as it ought to look. They present this argument by examining a range of representative atlases and scientific picture books, and observing how what these books were trying to do came to center eventually on what we have come to think of as objectivity: a presentation of the facts, with no judgments attached.

Through most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the etchings, engravings, and woodcuts in books of natural history presented nature in its ideal form: this is what a seagull or a walrus or an Eskimo should look like, even if each one you meet in the wild will depart from the exemplar in some small way or other. The naturalist and the artists had to work together – “seeing with four eyes,” as the authors call it – to come to some agreed presentation that harbored both factual and aesthetic ideals. The naturalist employed his great experience and insight to coach the artist into the right direction, and the artist divined what the naturalist had in mind and cast it into a form that would exhibit the “truth in nature.” Basically, this meant depictions of nature festooned with Platonic artsy-fartsiness:


The helmet jellyfish, as depicted in Ernst Haekel’s Artforms of Nature (1904)


“[O]nly lax naturalists permitted their artists to draw exactly what they saw. Seeing was an act as much of integrative memory and discernment as of immediate perception; an image was as much an emblem of a whole class of objects as a portrait of any one of them. Seeing – and, above all, drawing – was simultaneously an act of aesthetic appreciation, selection, and accentuation. These images were made to serve the ideal of truth – and often beauty along with truth – and not that of objectivity, which did not yet exist” (104)

Over the course of the 19th century, naturalists found ways to gradually edit themselves out of the act of observation, culminating eventually in photography, which (allegedly) depicted nature as it really is, unfiltered by any human mind:

“Depicting individual objects “objectively” required a specific, procedural use of image technologies – some as old as the lithograph or camera lucida, others as freshly late-nineteenth century as photomicrography. These protocols aimed to let the specimen appear without that distortion characteristic of the observer’s personal tastes, commitments, or ambitions.” (121)

The focus on procedures and machines tells us something about the late 19th-century ideal of a scientist: a person harboring no personal ambition, no distortions of will or passion, but content to be a lens through which the light of nature will shine. One might go so far as to see modern objectivity as what happens when industrialization hits the laboratories: “The true savant was a ‘genius of observation’ whose directed and critical exercise of attention could extract truth-to-nature from numerous impressions, as the smelter extracts pure metal from ore” (203). The construction of objectivity was the effort to replace the idiosyncracies of insight with reliable and impersonal bureaucracy (or, roughly, the distance between Rousseau and Kant): “If the makers of the objective image had had a slogan, it might have been: Where genius and art once were, there self-restraint and procedure will be” (314).

Objectivity is a long work, and seemingly less objective than one would expect. As Martin Kusch points out in a review (Isis, 2009), Daston and Galison base their story on a comparatively small number of the picture books and atlases that were produced over the time – representative ones (?), perhaps, but this means they’re back to the seeing-with-four-eyes model they described. (Suitable, for a co-authored work, I suppose.) Many of their pages are devoted to reflections on what all this has to do with the modern self, and philosophical accounts of objectivity – all of which sort of plays the role of the ornamental embellishments in pre-objective works of natural history. But what sets the work apart, and makes it particularly valuable, is its dedication to seeing “objectivity in shirtsleeves” – the actual practice and working relationships of the scientists and artists trying to find the best way to convey what they see in nature. This is where ideals meet the constraints of practice – how an ideal we cherish gets brought into the working world, through laboratories and printing presses and scientists and artists.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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