Art of Science

Finished reading The Body of the Artisan by Pamela H. Smith, subtitled “Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution”. It’s a beautiful art book, full of illustrations and plates to bring forth her argument that the artists and artisans of the late 1500s and 1600s were crucial participants in developing a new epistemology. The work by well-known artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci were important examples, but Smith presents several dozen other painters whose meticulous rendition of nature, from plants and landscapes, to skies and water, to human bodies and the daily lives of ordinary people made essential contributions to a shift in how knowledge was constructed.

“Whether or not these knowledge systems can be equated with modern science, such studies point to understanding early modern artisanal practices as the result of a vernacular epistemology and a vernacular “science.” They indicate how modern science emerged at least partially from the “bottom up” of artisans’ workshop practices. This understanding does not belittle or debunk science nor the usefulness of theoretical formulations of knowledge but rather seeks to understand the complex interaction in early modern Europe between, on the one hand, the active knowledge of artisans and other handworkers and, on the other hand, the textual knowledge of scholars.” (p. 148-49)

I think something parallel to this is going on today. I wrote about a new book, Pulse, a few entries ago, and its argument that a huge shift is underway from a mechanistic, linear world-view to one based on new understandings in the life sciences and biology. Curiously, if we go back to the work of scholars like Smith, Zilsel and Clifford Connor’s People’s History of Science, we can locate the time when that specific worldview became dominant at the expense of a more organic, wholistic, animate worldview. One of the lost threads of this early history that emerges in Smith’s book is the work of an independent German medical practitioner named Paracelsus.

“Paracelsus learned from those who worked with their hands; he queried and worked alongside peasants and artisans, questioned miners on their knowledge of diseases and remedies, and drank with peasants, gaining knowledge of their wine making and distilling practices. He returned repeatedly to the mines in the Tyrol, where he studied miners’ disease and spas, both of which “were to him nature’s laboratories revealing her hidden virtues and powers.” In all places, he said, he sought out the art of healing by research and by assiduously questioning “not only doctors, but also barbers, bath attendants, learned physicians, old wives, magicians (or schwarzkunstlern, as they call themselves), among the alchemists, in the cloisters, among the nobles, the common people, among the clever and the simple.” He placed “doing” higher than “knowing” and praised the process of learning by experience, such as that of an artisan’s apprentice. Paracelsus lectured in the vernacular, admitted barber-surgeons to his course, and in 1527 issue a broadside against traditional medical education, advocating instead a curriculum based on firsthand experience of nature.” (p. 85)”In the organization of knowledge that held from antiquity up through the seventeenth century, theory was certain knowledge based on syllogistic logic and geometrical demonstration. In contrast, experience was particular knowledge that could not be formed into a deductive system and thus could never possess the same certainty as theory. Paracelsus inverted this, finding certainty in nature and the unmediated experience of nature.” (p. 88)

“Alchemy also had much in common with medicine. Processes observable in the human body” generation, fermentation, digestion, and separation of the dross, for example” formed a common currency for alchemists and artisans. Paracelsus called digestion the inner alchemist. Like other early modern people, artisans were involved in their bodies in a different way than we are today, for they were aware of their bodies (and their effluvia) in a way that modern medicine does not encourage its patients to be.” p. 145

We can dismiss a lot of the religiosity of Paracelsus and his cohort of the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of their theories didn’t hold up as science came into being and developed in the years since then. Notions of humors, salts, alchemical transmutation, etc., all have been superceded by modern science. But I’m intrigued by the ecological sensibility implied by the focus on nature and its observation. The openness to bodies and bodily processes parallels an insurgent world of alternative medical practices that rejects an automatic application of high-technology to all questions of health. Similarly, permaculture has emerged outside of industry or academia as a whole body of knowledge and practice rooted in an approach to agriculture and nature that promotes working with natural processes instead of trying to overcome or suppress them.

The embrace of the mind-body split that we attribute to Descartes, with its notion that the world is largely inanimate, arose in the context of early capitalism. Smith’s book makes such an argument in terms of how practitioners of the “new philosophy” were influenced by the rising commercialism of the 16th and 17th century Dutch Republic, providing the class mobility that did not exist for barber’s apprentices such as Johann Rudolf Glauber.

In the mid-1650s, Johann Rudolf Glauber began promoting what he called sal mirabile, a combination of salt and sulfuric acid. His book on salt described it as

“the nutriment of all things, a symbol of eternity, the crucial ingredient in alchemical transmutation and in potable gold, the cause of spontaneous generation, and the principle of all life. All salts, including common cooking salt, partook in the wondrous qualities of the elemental salt, but the sal mirabile, as it name implies, was truly miraculous. It could be taken internally or applied externally on wounds, and it caused both poisons and medicines to work with more efficacy. It was, in fact, the universal spirit by which the generating power and heat of the sun were conveyed to earth.” (p. 169)”¦ “Glauber’s sal mirabile” simultaneously a product of manual work, a part of alchemy, an instrument of redemption, and a valuable commercial commodity” represents a moment in the development of the new philosophy, a moment brought about by the entry of a new sort of person into the production of knowledge about nature”¦ above all it was Paracelsus who gave practitioners such as Glauber the confidence to emphasize the necessity of artisanal experience in the laboratory as a source of knowledge.” (p. 171)

The possibility of gaining social stature through commercial sales of products such as salt really only begins in this period and in the mercantilist Dutch society that led the first wave of capitalist development until it was supplanted by the British in the late 1700s. But the 1600s is also the time of hysterical witchhunts” as Sylvia Federici has ably demonstrated, this corresponds to an attempt to gain control over the most fundamental of commodities, human labor power. And key to that is the diminishment and control of women, the degradation of traditional female knowledge (such as herbology, abortafacients, etc., all derived from millennia of observation and practice outside of scholarship or documentation), and the construction of strict codes of sexual behavior (for which the Lutheran and Calvinist reformers were notorious). Underlying these emerging social norms is a growing mistrust and discomfort with natural processes, the body, its effluvia, and the effort to rigorously control nature (which has never succeeded, but clearly was much more successful with the rise of industrialization in the latter 19th century).

To liberally loop these historic threads forward to our own time, I’d like to argue that these old struggles are re-emerging in new but analogous forms. The emergence of feminism, sexual freedom, back-to-the-land naturalists, and ecological awareness and activism, are echoing the early developments in bottom-up science described by Smith. Moreover, they are the seedbed from which a whole new wave of scientific growth is arising, as described by Frenay in Pulse. Taking these loose analogies one step further, the appearance of these new grassroots movements around ecology and science are becoming antagonistic to capitalism as a system of organizing life. This in turn is predicted by the theorizing of autonomist Marxists about “General Intellect,” where first it is described as the composite capacities of all humans, recognizing that that is largely controlled and directed by capital, but implying that it can generate its own autonomous purposes antagonistic to capital.

“The “˜general intellect’ includes formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical tendencies, mentalities and “˜language games’. Thoughts and discourses function in themselves as productive “˜machines’ in contemporary labor and do not need to take on a mechanical body or an electronic soul”¦. [A]ll the more generic attitudes of the mind gain primary status as productive resources; these are the faculty of language, the disposition to learn, memory, the power of abstraction and relation and the tendency towards self-reflexivity. General intellect needs to be understood literally as intellect in general: the faculty and power to think, rather than the works produce by thought” a book, an algebra formula, etc. (“General Intellect” by Paolo Virno

As we take a broad look at our moment in history, the facts on the ground are quite dismaying. But there is no mistaking that other possibilities also exist at the same time. In our greater knowledge about planetary ecology, sustainable systems, convivial group processes, networked intelligence, and the wider capacities that are embodied in that knowledge (but thwarted by the current organization of life) we can detect a growing conflict between common sense and capitalism. That’s where I’m going with this. Obviously this is super schematic and not properly argued, but that’s one thread of my forthcoming book’s theses. Finally the fight is over our activity, what we do in the world, which we currently refer to as “˜work’. Here’s one of the better autonomist Marxist thinkers, Harry Cleaver, taking a stab at thinking about the new ecological concepts too:

“Both the terms “˜cooperative’ and “˜reciprocal’ imply the existence of different beings who come together and act together in mutually beneficial ways. But in what sense can we say non-human nature acts? In Hegel and Marx humans are thought to be differentiated from other life forms by having a “will.””¦ Today many persons, including scientists as well as animal rights activists and ecologists, are willing to identify a greater or lesser “will” in other kinds of life. But what does “cooperation” mean in such an interspecial context? How do humans “cooperate” with great apes, with whales, with dogs and cats, with rats and mice? And beyond animals there is the issue of the whole ecosystem of animals, plants, rivers, winds, rocks and oceans”¦ Perhaps more of this might be brought to bear in our collective efforts to reconceptualize and to change the nature of work.” Cleaver, Harry. “Marxian Categories and the Crisis of Capital” in Revolutionary Writing: Common Sense Essays in Post-Political Politics, Werner Bonefield, ed., (Autonomedia, 2003: New York) p. 63

I’ll be writing a lot more about this in due course. Pamela Smith’s book is a fascinating contribution to the history of the scientific revolution, one rooted firmly in art history as much as the history of philosophy and technique.

2 comments to Art of Science

  • hibiscus

    i mean look at those people. with no more than a garage, a dream, and fake swiss precision they have mapped a bold new course for this discussion. canned meat… it’s always timely.

  • hibiscus

    internal combustion also has empirical, artisanal roots and certainly blew apart the existing social order. fordists would argue that new industries often start with just one friend in the world (following short steps from there to possible to practical to omnipresent to offshore).

    shifting from “cooperation” to something else – like maybe “cohabitation” with all its colors – leads to indigestion. if we aren’t what we do, then we have to think about worms as near equals. very disturbing.

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