Thursday, February 24, 2011

wax, hegel, and the intrinsic disparity of existence

To punctuate my nearly month long silence, I thought I'd offer some notes from my most recent research projects. To be honest, the next few months will likely be filled with notes related to "baby's first conference appearance." Who wants to read about wax models, Stamitz, Foucault, epistemology and scientific illustration? That's right. You do.

So where to begin? Last night I found myself pouring over Sawday's The Body Emblazoned. Naturally, I went into the anatomy section for Galen and came out with Galen plus six other texts, Sawday among them. Although not necessarily his main point, Sawday's recurring references to that oft referenced duality of mind/body (a post yet to be written, Sawday brings up some very interesting points about temporality/phenomenology, leading me to consider the relationships between tonality, desire, and expectation) led me to revisit Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and the disparity of being and actuality. When I first read the text weeks ago, I had the following to say about it:

The entire preface articulates a desire to reconcile disparate epistemologies. On the one hand we get some pretty intense critiques of eighteenth century categorization/compartmentalization/naming and the curiosity cabinet mentality (collect the extremes as a way of understanding the totality of the physical world - pg. 8 para 15). Also at one point, he eschews the "mundane" (5, para 8) and for me, this reference screamed "the body." Maybe that is oversimplifying it, but it just seemed like another dig at the eighteenth century. These critiques are then complemented by his advocacy of unified knowing, without superficial categories (and especially the act of naming) the infinite is implied in the ineffable. You also get this conflict of how to deal with process in the acquisition of knowledge, something that I read as another manifestation of this 18th/19th century conflict. Hegel espouses a kind of self-reflexivity necessary for successful scientific inquiry (and that this is a good thing), an assertion that to me, expresses this 18th/19th century conflict/synthesis. This awareness/refelction is a big deal for him (clearly), but I couldn't help but think of it in terms of the nineteenth century preoccupation with the mind (maybe an oversimplification).

Returning to it now in the context of the eighteenth century wax model, I have a few things to add to something previously dismissed as fin-de-siecle angst. [1]

In my mind, wax presents us with an ideal symbol of Hegel's thoughts on process, essence, and "being." Hegel returns again and again to an advocacy of the cyclical, the anti-teleological (this being the so oft referenced "dialectic"). To me wax would, ostensibly, represent a physical analogue to Hegelian philosophy. Its embodiment of process--its malleability, genesis, and connection to the natural world--in congress with its function and reception in eighteenth century Italy and beyond, articulates the crisis with which Hegel seems to be concerning himself. At once the medium evokes the warmth of human flesh while being bound to discourses surrounding death. Indeed, this is the paradox of anatomical study from Vesalius to Cowper to Hunter, Bidloo, etc etc.

To me, Hegel's negative--the disparity of being and actuality--offers a philosophical framework within which the anatomical wax model can be understood. Presented in a medium capable of evoking the nuances of human flesh while simultaneously trapped by its culturally constructed limitations, wax occupies--in its intrinsic duality--the space of that which simultaneously is and is not. The medium so accurately depicts its subject but it is this accuracy in and of itself that results in tropes of duplicity (and yes, femininity) that haunt practices of wax anatomists and sculptors.

Or something. Phenomenology is something I still have some troubles with, but my instincts tell me that in the case of wax artists in the eighteenth century, there is indeed a connection.

[1] Speaking of the fin-de-siecle, or rather that particular fin-de-siecle, there is a great article by one of my very favorite musicologists on the subject. If you have access, check it out here.

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