Course Highlight: ART 562

Sept. 26, 2022

Art 562: “Science and Its Fictions in the Long Nineteenth Century” 

Intrigue, falsehood, and revelation hover where science and the humanities intersect - and art often bears witness.  Professor Rachael DeLue’s graduate seminar Art 562: “Science and Its Fictions in the Long Nineteenth Century” explores this intersection in the context of the 19th century, tracing efforts to utilize image-making as scientific method. Her course examines the racist fantasy of polygenesis or the hollow earth theory; fictionalized accounts of scientific practice, such as exploration narratives or the genre of science fiction; and fiction as an essential mode of knowledge within scientific inquiry and visualization. 

The seminar recently visited Firestone Library’s rare books collection to examine the works of John James Audubon, Conrad Gessner, and Charles Darwin, to name a few.  From Gessner’s encyclopedic representations, including the unicorn and bird of paradise contrived from a hodgepodge of testimony, to Audubon’s meticulously rendered observations, the aim in these scientific pursuits falls somewhere between plausibility and truth.  

Here’s how Professor DeLue describes the course:

“Scientists have long used images to illustrate their ideas and their discoveries.  By the 18th century in Europe and America, image-making was an essential part of scientific inquiry, and in the seminar we explore how picture-making—from botanical illustrations to diagrams of evolution—functioned as a laboratory for makers and viewers, as spaces for seeing, thinking, and knowing with visual form as the experimental apparatus.  But because so many scientific images take great license with the ‘real’ and with ‘truth,’ we are also exploring what the role of fiction might be in scientific visualization.  Images fictionalize not because their makers set out to lie, necessarily (although sometimes they do), but because, as we are finding, fiction often tells the story better and more comprehensively than fact, and it allows for forms of speculation that in the sciences can lead to major breakthroughs in knowledge.  Visual fictions can run the other way, of course, contributing to falsehoods with substantial social and political consequences; we are considering instances of this sort, such as the visual culture of scientific racism, in the seminar, too.  

One of our driving queries in the seminar is 'why images?' What about them—as opposed to writing or the enumeration of data—made them invaluable to scientific inquiry? The answer to this, in part, is the ability of images to fictionalize or fabulate in a way that is distinct from other media, a capacity that makes them distinctly able, if paradoxically, to conjure understanding.” - Professor Rachael DeLue