Commercial Visions

Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age, Dániel Margócsy

In Commercial Visions, author Dániel Margócsy discusses how the production and dissemination of tools of visualization (specimens, prints, atlases, etc.) aided in, and also were brought about by, the impregnation of the sciences — especially the more visual ones such as natural history and anatomy — with commercial interests, specifically in the early modern Netherlands. The author analyzes the scientific environment in the Netherlands, arguing that the Republic of Letters was far more complex and economically motivated than previously suggested. The capitalistic trading atmosphere engendered competition between scientists attempting to create knowledge-sharing tools (i.e., anatomical preparations, reference books, and printing technologies), and this manifested itself in often heated debates over “the epistemological status of visual facts.”[1] By treating knowledge as a commodity, the scientists Margócsy discusses secured their financial interests and employed complex advertising and legitimizing strategies that affected the fields in which they worked in a major way.

          Commercial Visions reminded me a lot of Collectors of Lost Souls; bodies were commodified in both as objects of scientific study or knowledge. In the Netherlands during the early modern period and in colonial Papua New Guinea in the twentieth century, scientists were taking the bodies of the dead and turning them into scientific goods. Like Anderson, Margóscy also discusses scientific commodities in terms of their being Latourian “immutable mobiles.” To make their scientific knowledge mobile, the scientists discussed in Commercial Visions went to all sorts of lengths — and the more mobile their knowledge was, the more successful they were, monetarily and professionally. Margóscy argues, however, that these objects were often not “immutable.” Atlases and reference books were taken on and changed by those who “edited” them, and even the names of the scientists who wrote the books were far from unchanging. As the case of Seba’s Thesaurus shows, even after a scientist’s death, his name could be garnering new meaning. Color printing, a technology discussed in chapter 6, was in a constant state of improvement and flux. The products the Dutch scientists discussed in Commercial Visions thus created an interesting variation on Latour’s cosmology, one in which the commodities were very mobile, but certainly not immutable.

Something I found missing from Margóscy’s book was attention to where the bodies that the anatomists used for preparations came from. This is not only something I am curious about; I think it would have elucidated something quite important about what these men considered representative of the human body. If most of these bodies were those of the patients these doctors and apothecaries treated, the specimens they would have been working with would have been diseased. Unless killed, a dead human body is usually a diseased one, and therefore not a normal one by most standards. In chapter 5, Margóscy discusses Bidloo’s attempted attack on Ruysch’s preparation techniques, and it centers on anatomical specimens’ inability to represent the movements and variability of the human body. What he did not criticize were the actual bodies Ruysch used. What sorts of bodies, then, were representative enough of the population to scientists, and which were not? Would diseased bodies have been considered “normal” enough for students and other buyers to trust their visual example as indicative of what an average human body looked like? I think this would have been a valuable and important issue for Margóscy to have discussed, because it seems to be a relevant and potentially contentious component of anatomical visual epistemologies.

[1] Dániel Margócsy, Commercial Visions, 17.

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