An Inventory of Loss
Item 1: The Cabinet of Curiosities or the Wunderkammer - even the names seem quaint. Their air of novelty and amateurism owes everything to the two hundred hundred years of scorn and condescension poured on them by classification-led curators in scientifically ordered museums.
In recent years, the wunderkammer has experienced a revival of fortunes (more in theory than in practice) as art historians and theorists absorb the influence of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. The book - a best seller on its initial publication in 1966 - was a key text in the widespread deconstruction of western power structures in the late sixties. Just as definitive fractures in the rational, ordered societies of America and Europe were beginning to appear, Foucault’s analysis of that social order exposed the foundations and forms that had held it together. The Order of Things was a tombstone for that culture.
In a key passage in the preface to this work, Foucault recalls the description of a fictional Chinese encyclopedia by Jorge Luis Borges. In it, animals are divided into categories such as ‘(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied,’ etc. For art historians this passage immediately recalled the incongruities and surreal juxtapositions of the wunderkammer. In this light, the cabinet of curiosity appeared to offer a creative model for arranging objects that evaded the rational classificatory nature of the enlightenment museum.
Item 2: Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels: A Scheme for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever... For it is plain, that every Word we speak is in some Degree a Diminution of our Lungs by Corrosion, and consequently contributes to the shortening of our Lives. An Expedient was therefore offered, that since Words are only Names for Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on. ...
invent or lose
Item 1: There is a darker side to the revival of the wunderkammer. While Foucault admitted to his enjoyment of the exotic Chinese encyclopedia he also confessed to ‘a certain uneasiness that [he] found hard to shake off’. The taxonomic process in Borge’s fictions had the power, he argued, ‘to secretly undermine language...make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy...not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things...to ‘hold together’.’
Item 2: Barbara M. Stafford: Artful Science: The magical display cabinet dominating the sanctuary of the back room was organized according to the principle that, while material phenomena might be made to correspond, they could not be translated into one another.
Item 3: There is a stubbornness in objects, a resistance to our need to classify and order. The wunderkammer highlights this quality of objects, playing off their differences rather than their similarities. Oddly, while this approach to the arrangement of objects often produces a greater energy in the display of a collection - a kinetic overload of the senses - it can also generate a sensation of loss. The very uniqueness of each object underscores its isolation and categorical distance from other things and from ourselves. The wunderkammer highlights a dazzling world of strange objects, each trapped in its’ own dimension, communicating imperfectly with the viewer of such curiosities.
Item 4: Imagine replacing the precious objects of the 17th-century wunderkammer with ornaments and souvenirs collected from charity shops. The substitution of curios for curiosities. Potentially these new objects could short-circuit the working of the wunderkammer, representing the essential nature of mass-produced commodities - emblems of similarity. The cheap second-hand ornaments could also remind us of the universal availability of industrially produced materials as opposed to the exotic, unique and ultimately expensive nature of the typical 17th-century curiosity.
Ironically, the nature of these souvenirs works against them. Each object - often a simplified copy of a more exotic artefact - already documents a series of losses. The simplification process loses much of the detail that gave the original its’ power. Equally, the transformation of the object removes it from its’ original context and the ornament enters the realm of kitsch, a phenomenon highlighting novelty at the expense of genuine emotion. Like the wunderkammer, kitsch implies the impossibility of sincere communication, embodying this loneliness in the object’s design.
Item 5: SeaJay - From Rocks to Avatars: The Phenomenology of Virtual Objects: The dictionary defines phenomenology as being the study of phenomena. Phenomena are things as they appear to our experience. Now, whether you are in a virtual or a material world, you are experiencing the objects around you - looking at them, picking them up, or otherwise interacting with them.
Interaction with objects, in any world, depends on the nature of the object. One factor that is significant in what we experience when interacting with an object, is the object's degree of autonomy.
Item 6: Spencer Brown - Laws Of Form: The world as we know it is constructed in order (and this in such a way as to be able) to see itself. But in order to do so, evidently, it must first cut itself into at least one state which sees, and at least one other state which is seen. In this severed and mutilated condition, whatever it sees is only partially itself. We may take it that the world undoubtedly is itself (i.e. is indistinct from itself), but, in any attempt to see itself as an object, it must, equally undoubtedly, act so as to make itself distinct from, and therefore false to, itself. In this condition it will always partially elude itself.
Item 7: Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels: ...many of the most Learned and Wise adhere to the New Scheme of expressing themselves by Things, which hath only this Inconvenience attending it, that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged in Proportion to carry a greater bundle of Things upon his Back, unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of their Packs, like Pedlars among us; who, when they met in the Streets, would lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume their Burthens, and take their Leave.
Item 1: If, as in Tony Kemplen’s Encyclopaedia Mundi, the charity shop ornaments are positioned in a new wunderkammer, surveyed by cctv cameras and the image passed through a series of aging software programmes, then it is possible to discern one of the shadier sides of the cabinet of curiosities.
While many of the objects in these collections were rare and strange, some went beyond the bounds of natural science and fully entered into the world of art. Given the raw amazement that could still be induced by the dried body of a crocodile, an ostrich egg or an image of a rhinoceros, it was not such an imaginative leap to the purchase of a griffin’s claw, a hydra, dragon or basilisk.
As the charity shop ornaments undergo their own series of metamorphic transformations it is possible to see the contemporary digital equivalent of this process. Mutations breed from their source images or objects and, in the virtual world, new objects take shape, twisting at last into language - the broken syntax predicted by Foucault.
Item 2: Ulisse Aldrovandi: ms, 1579: It is no wonder that in our age some have been deceived by the miraculous artifice with which these hydras are faked from other bodies and put together, as they have also done with the flying dragon - which however does exist in nature - trying to imitate it by using a species of marine ray, as one can see in my study.
Item 3: It is not enough to point to the sense of loss in this process of imitation and transformation. The tailoring of monsters or the breeding of digital mutants may be rooted in a desire to fashion the creatures in between, the forms that combine all the elements of nature and complete the collection. They are also, however, rooted in the sheer pleasure of making and fantasizing such things - the play on evolution and the play on nonsense language. Even in the 17th century, many of the wunderkammer owners recognised these creatures as fakes and continued to pay high prices to possess them. It wasn’t merely because of their novelty value. The creatures celebrate metamorphosis and that, in the end, is the underlying principle of the cabinet of curiosity and of nature itself.
Item 4: Paula Findlen: Inventing Nature: Pierre Belon described the passion of many people for dragons “made for pleasure such as those that we see counterfeited with rays disguised in the manner of a flying serpent.” Conrad Gestner’s complaint in 1558 about fraudulent apothecaries came in the midst of a lengthy discussion of dragon-making in his History of Animals. In a chapter on rays, he described in great detail how such monsters were made. “They bend the body, distort the head and mouth, and cut into and cut away other parts, they raise up the parts that remain and simulate wings, and invent other parts at will.”
Item 5: Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels: But for short Conversations a Man may carry Implements in his Pockets and under his Arms, enough to supply him, and in his House he cannot be at a loss: Therefore the Room where Company meet who practise this Art, is full of all Things ready at Hand, requisite to furnish Matter for this kind of artificial Converse.
Item 1: Neal Stephenson: Snowcrash: “Computers speak machine language,” Hiro says. “It’s written in ones and zeroes - binary code. At the lowest level, all computers are programmed with strings of ones and zeroes. When you program in machine language, you are controlling the computer at its brainstem, the root of its existence. It’s the tongue of Eden. But it’s very difficult to work in machine language because you go crazy after a while, working at such a minute level. So a whole Babel of computer languages has been created for programmers: FORTRAN, BASIC, COBOL, LISP, Pascal, C, PROLOG, FORTH. You talk to the computer in one of these languages, and a piece of software called a compiler converts it into machine language. But you never can tell exactly what the compiler is doing. It doesn’t always come out the way you want.
Item 3: Words promise to define things but their failure to do so is inevitable. It is also their saving grace. As objects (ambiguous things in themselves) evade the possibility of accurate description, misunderstandings and misapprehensions arise and open up new possibilities. Computers too promise accurate collection and transcription and fail with equal glory. The world wide web may be today’s greatest cabinet of curiosities, breeding and mutating objects, words and ideas on a monstrous scale. Many of its’ artefacts are not to be trusted but the final lesson of the wunderkammer may be that universal communication is a much desired impossibility.
Item 3: Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels: Another great Advantage proposed by this Invention, was that it would serve as a Universal Language to be understood in all civilized Nations, whose Goods and Utensils are generally of the same kind, or nearly resembling, so that their Uses might easily be comprehended. And thus Embassadors would be qualified to treat with foreign Princes or Ministers of State to whose Tongues they were utter Strangers.
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, London: Benjamin Motte, 1726.
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, London: Tavistock Publications, 1970.
Jorge Luis Borges, "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, La Nación, 8 February 1942.
Barbara M. Stafford, Artful Science: Enlightenment Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.
SeaJay, ‘From Rocks to Avatars: The Phenomenology of Virtual Objects’, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/charles_langley/771210.htm.
Spencer Brown - Laws Of Form, citd in http://psycho-ontology.net/phenomenology/.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, ms, 1579, Biblioteca Universitaria, Bologna.
Paula Findlen, ‘Inventing Nature: Commerce, Art, and Science in the Early Modern Cabinet of Curiosities’, in Merchants & Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, London: Routledge, 2002.
Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash, London: ROC, 1993.
Francis McKee is a writer and curator working in Glasgow. He is Head of Digital Art and New Media at CCA in Glasgow and is a research lecturer at Glasgow School of Art.