A Repository of Ideas

By Jessica KeatingApril 10, 2014

A Repository of Ideas

Wicked Intelligence by Matthew C. Hunter

LOOK FIRST UPON this, a printed image of the Lasius niger, or Black Garden Ant, which adorns a page of the Robert Hooke’s world-changing Micrographia; or some physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying (London, 1665). In the image we survey a black insect body splayed diagonally across a neutral ground. The specimen has been arrested and posed in such a way that four of its spindly legs and one antenna are severed by the page’s terminus. If seen without the aid of compound microscope, this creature would scarcely be larger than an exclamation mark; here, it’s too titanic for the page to hold. The ant’s anatomy is articulated with precision: we are able to make out, quite clearly, its eyes, its mandible, its scape, its occiput, its mesothoracic spiracle, it petiole, and its post-petiole (I could go on). But this is more than just a description of the creature’s contours and joints. Discernible too is an outer layer of hair — denoted by white stippling — that coats the ant’s dark glossy body. It is this furry layer, imperceptible to the naked eye, that allows the ant to be carried by its fellow workers to its colony — a subterranean complex of tunnels and chambers that houses one queen and up to 15,000 worker ants, who toil day and night foraging above ground for nourishment to lug back to the monarch and her offspring.

Hooke’s image is a scientific illustration intended to deliver empirical information. The letters hovering around the ant’s head and abdomen on the page’s contextual void testify to this. Yet this image of a magnified ant also testifies to the weakness of the human sense of sight; it is an image that lays bare elements of the world that are lost on us. This image is also, to a certain extent, about the man who awakens us to that loss and recuperates it.

Robert Hooke, born in 1635 in the village of Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, is chiefly lionized as one of the England’s finest polymaths and rightly so. Hooke’s education was varied and vast. Mechanics, painting, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were among his subjects of study before he secured a position at Christ College, Oxford. At Oxford he came under the tutelage of Robert Boyle, and he assisted the famed natural philosopher in the development and demonstration of the “machina Boyleana” or air pump, a device manufactured to reveal the nature of the most invisible thing of all: air. Later in life, Hooke could boast of having developed the balance spring; spearheaded his own scientific journal, the Philosophical Collections; curated the newly minted Royal Society’s experiments; designed Bethlem Royal Hospital; and created an extensive plan to rebuild the city of London after the great fire of 1666. Hooke also enjoyed the company of some of Restoration England’s most powerful minds: John Evelyn, the author of Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber (London, 1664), one the earliest appeals for the reforestation of England; Henry Oldenburg, the secretary to the Royal Society; the satirist and preacher Thomas Sprat; and Christopher Wren, the architect of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, “Queen of England’s Churches.”

Matthew C. Hunter’s erudite and eloquent new book, Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London, looks to Hooke and his circle to reevaluate Restoration England’s Royal Society — an “invisible college” of dispersed natural philosophers devoted to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, an endeavor, in other words, that we might now refer to as “science.” Wicked Intelligence is particularly concerned with the Royal Society’s dependence on diverse artifacts, visual practices, and visualizing skills in their quest for knowledge. Hunter centers on Hooke despite recent characterizations of Hooke as a “gentleman of science” or a liminal proponent of the occult, whose work did not equal such Royal Society luminaries as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, or John Locke. For Hunter, the key to Hooke’s importance is the heterodox and innovative ways the philosopher and his circle worked and thought with two- and three-dimensional visual material. Hunter analyzes the vast visual and material archive of the Royal Society spanning the years between 1650 and 1720 —including such things as Hooke’s drawings of comets, crystals found in urine, snow flakes, and a vivisected snake; Christopher Wren’s “perspectograph”; an anonymously produced cut-and-pasted paper herring sent to the Royal Society; Richard Townley’s micrometer; William and Richard Clere’s model of Saint Paul’s Cathedral; and illustrative plates of Henry Oldenburg’s Philosophical Transaction. Organized roughly chronologically, the six chapters of Wicked Intelligence take up an array of visual materials used in the pursuits of the Royal Society, ranging in scale and breadth from microscopic investigations, to the publication of scientific journals, to the establishment of a museum, to the reorganization and reconstruction of London itself. Hunter’s readings of these images and objects are unfailingly arresting, inventive, and laudable, not only in their attention to detail, but also in their striking capacity to dig out curiously neglected aspects of the ingenuity behind the Royal Society’s visual production.

In art historical terms, Wicked Intelligence attempts to recast the relationship between experimental philosophy and the visual arts in Restoration England. Instead of rehearsing the influential and indispensable role that images, particularly painting, played in the 17th-century English experimental community, Wicked Intelligence reveals that the role of images over time became less important and that the London experimentalists became more interested in printed texts, museum artifacts, and architecture. This revelation is where Wicked Intelligence perhaps makes its most profound intervention, because it shows that representational images steadily begin to lose their cognitive importance and function in the circles of experimental philosophers in Restoration London. This is a provocative argument. Recent and outstanding work by art historians and historians of science — such as Brian Olgivie, Claudia Swan, and Daniela Bleichmar — has demonstrated that there existed a reciprocity between particular forms of descriptive science (natural history, anatomy, and medicine) and representational modes of visualization in the early modern period; that the distinction between subjective art and objective science was not one with a difference until the 19th century; and that representational images were indispensable for early modern thinkers’ theorization of cognition. Wicked Intelligence, then, inaugurates a new discussion on the shifting function and role of images, objects, and architecture in early modern experimental practices; early modern conceptions and theories of the mind; as well as curiously neglected aspects of early modern visual ingenuity — ingenuity not displayed by artists, but by experimental philosophers like Robert Hooke.

Take, for example, the case of the ant. When attempting to view the creature through the lens of his microscope and then record its image for publication, Hooke was confronted with many difficulties. The first had to do with heat. Let us not forget that Hooke required candlelight when viewing many of his specimens, and scorching heat has tendency to cause things to melt. The second difficulty had to do with capturing the creature’s image. Ants are in a state of constant motion, and they are impossible to collar. As such, it is frustrating for anyone attempting to observe the insect’s anatomy through a microscope and then record that observation in a descriptive and detailed image. In Micrographia Hooke admits: “I could not, for a good while,” he tells us, “think of a way to make it suffer its body to ly quiet in a natural posture.” Hooke’s solution to this conundrum, as Hunter astutely points out, is inventive:

Having insnar’d several of these into a small Box, I made choice of the tallest grown among them, and separating it from the rest, I gave it a Gill of Brandy, or Spirit of Wine, which after a while e’en knock’d him down dead drunk, so that he became moveless…and after I had taken it out [of the alcohol], and put its body and legs in a natural posture, remained moveless about an hour.

In imagining Hooke towering over and posing this tiny “dead drunk” specimen, one cannot help but smile. But how did he manage to arrange the ant’s body? Hooke, we might surmise, had nimble fingers: but nimble enough to spread the legs of an ant? Perhaps he used the tip of a needle. Perhaps it was the very same needle tip that appeared magnified, porous, and blemished on the first plate of Micrographia. In any case, Hunter admirably adduces Hooke’s ability to “cunningly immobilize targets” this way. He writes:

Picture-making is here staged as a battle of wits waged between the draftsman, who wants to render the pliant body of his target in as “natural” a condition as possible, and that subject of depiction, who wants to escape.

The ant was not the only object of Hooke’s investigations that would have, if it could have, absconded. In November 1664, the same year Hooke discovered Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, Henry Oldenburg described a vivisection Hooke performed on a dog in a letter to Robert Boyle. This passage, guaranteed to make its reader writhe, wherein the procedures performed on a living helpless creature are listed, merits quotation:

By means of a pair of bellows (when the thorax was laid quite open, and ye whole venter infirmus also) and a certain cane thrust into the wind pipe of ye Animal, ye heart continued beating for a long while, at the least an houre, even after the diaphragme had been cut away in great part, and ye pericardium removed from the heart.

The creation of this grotesque cyborg — the removal the animal’s rib cage; the clearing away of the tissue surrounding its heart; the severing of its windpipe; and the pumping up of the lungs with bellows — was all undertaken to observe the interplay of the dog’s cardio and pulmonary systems. Later in the month, after what must have been exceedingly dark nights for Hooke, he himself wrote to his mentor Robert Boyle:

The other experiment (which I shall hardly confess make again because it was cruel), was with a dog which by mean a pair of bellows where with I filled his lungs and suffered them to empty again […]. I shall hardly be induced to make any further tryalls of this kind, because of the torture of the creature.

Hooke’s commitment to Cartesianism was clearly tested here. The dog, it seems, didn’t behave much like a machine. Hunter argues that Hooke’s ethical conflict helps to explain one of the experimental philosopher’s most ingenious graphic creations — the design and publication of a paper micrometer in 1667 that was itself dissected as if it were an animal or human. A micrometer is a mechanical precision measuring device that is inserted inside a telescope. This instrument, originally designed by Richard Towneley, also a member of the Royal Society,  “allow[s] an observer to measure the apparent size of objects sighted through a telescope.” The engraved representation of Hooke’s micrometer, which was based on Towneley’s design, in the Royal Society’s publication, The Philosophical Transactions, included a paper flap that when lifted revealed the instrument’s mechanical interior — not unlike when an anatomist removes layers of flesh to display the internal organs of a specimen. Here Hooke, according to Hunter, represented machines as if they were organic bodies, inverting Descartes’ dictum that all animal bodies are material mechanisms, or automata, which are dictated solely by the laws of matter.

How, you might ask yourself, does this work? It is quite a cognitive leap not just for Hunter but for Hooke as well. Hooke, Hunter indicates, had witnessed a similar pictorial conceit in the anatomical engravings in Johannes Remellin’s Catoptrum Microscopium of 1639 — a richly illustrated text that had been donated to the Royal Society by the mathematician John Collins just a few weeks before Hooke’s micrometer went to press. The lavish engravings, executed by Remellin’s engraver Stephan Michelspacher, display, in a rather bucolic setting, grinning nude male and female bodies that could be opened up by raising several layers of paper flaps to expose muscles, bones, and organs. “Because Hooke [was] already conceptually equipped to think of beasts as machines,” Hunter claims, “the arrival of Remellin’s foldout depictions of human anatomy in late October 1667 suggests a way to turn those terms around, to represent machines after the manner of organic bodies.”

Hunter details a similar “conceptual flux” in Hooke while he was Keeper of the museum of the Royal Society, otherwise known as the Repository. Hookes’s activities in the Repository and the Repository itself provided him with a novel model for theorizing and describing cognitive operations —operations that were focused not on preserving knowledge but destroying and re-fabricating it. Hunter here focuses on four instances in which Hooke was directly involved in handling, dismantling, and reconstituting objects in the Royal Society’s collections in order to answer new questions the objects raised among the Society’s members. Hooke anatomized the head of the monstrous colt that Robert Boyle had preserved and given to the Royal Society to determine if the colt’s abnormalities developed in- or outside the womb; he removed the back plate of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s calculating machine — an “arithmetical instrument, contrived […] to perform mechanically all the operations of arithmetic with certainty and expedition”— to understand how it worked. Hooke also radically transformed a piece of a petrified substance sent to the Royal Society by the famed Italian naturalist Cassiano dal Pozzo. He set it on fire, chopped it up, and examined it under his microscope in order to prove that it had been vegetal in nature. He also disassembled and redesigned Denis Papin’s “Digester,” an “instrument, by which he could boil any thing in vacuo.” According to Hunter, “Handling, disassembling, and remaking museum artifacts were exactly the kinds of procedures London’s experimentalists would come to theorize as cognitive activities — indeed as intelligence itself.” The key word here is “activities.” Hooke was by no means the first polymathic thinker to liken the mind to a repository of objects or images. Giulio Camillo’s Theater of Memory and its immortalization by Frances A. Yates in The Art of Memory spring immediately to mind. But unlike Camillo’s system, in which the mind functions like a passive viewer taking in the spectacle of theater, in Hooke’s repository the mind is constantly “fixing and ordering the information.” In lectures given to the Royal Society and posthumously published by Richard Waller, Hooke did not refer to active intelligence, to the place where information was handled, fixed, and ordered as a theater, but a repository a “Repository of Ideas.”

If the space of the Royal Society’s Repository provided Hooke, at the very least a metaphor if not a model of the cognitive capabilities of the experimentalist mind, how did Hooke, Hunter asks, imagine the management of multiple minds? How do you run a community like the Royal Society? According to Hooke, you run it as if you are a master architect designing and overseeing the reconstruction of the “Queen of England’s Churches.” Hunter homes in on the ways in which late 17th-century experimental philosophy thought about, with, and through the built environment. In doing so, he emphasizes less the completed and towering façade and levitating dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral than the paper work that the architect Christopher Wren produced, organized, and maintained while he was the head of the Office of His Majesty’s Works. In focusing on the visual and material traces of this extensive bureaucracy, Hunter shows that experimental architecture was not, to quote an early 20th-century critic of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a “Tyranny of the Intellect,” but a fully realized collective enterprise that was centralized and controlled by what Robert Hooke referred to as a “Archietonical” mind — an intelligence that is “strongly centralized,” Hunter concludes, “and collectively distributed.” In other words, by the end of the 1680s experimental philosophers were self-fashioning themselves as architects, as individuals and a society that, to again use Hunter’s words, “promoted a conception of the managerial, administrative architect theorist that […] hierarchized the necessarily collaborative projects of experimental knowing and architectural making.”

In conclusion, I want to stress that this is a simply gorgeously written and inspiring book, one that will, undoubtedly, engender vibrant and new scholarship on the fraught entanglement between art and science.


Jessica Keating is the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Early Modern Visual Culture.

LARB Contributor

Jessica Keating is the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Early Modern Visual Culture. Recently she served as co-editor and contributor to a special issue of the Journal of the History of Collections entitled Captured Objects: Inventories of Early Modern Collections.


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