from cosmos to earth II: seeing

To classify, therefore, will no longer mean to refer the visible back to itself, while allotting one of its elements the task of representing the others; it will mean, in a movement that makes analysis pivot on its axis, to relate the visible to the invisible, to its deeper cause, as it were, then to rise upwards once more from that hidden architecture towards the more obvious signs displayed on the surfaces of bodies.

Michel Foucault[1]

The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.

Alexander von Humboldt[2]

Humboldt is subject to the vital impulse, he is directed by the same internal forces that animate the phenomena he studies. He can only look at the signs in the surface, can only measure the exteriority of things: He takes notes, measures temperatures, types of plants, populations. He likes charts, he compares numbers. He keeps track of locations, has maps drawn, “from Observations made on the Spot By Alexandre de Humboldt.” Humboldt knows no frontiers: his maps show no boundaries, political divisions are irrelevant, nature is bigger than man’s petty politics (Fig. 2). The names of countries float over rivers like spidery veins and mountain chains like violent scars. His plans are detailed, and aspire to be exact: they include latitudes and longitudes, they show regions, geographical systems: the course of a river, the delicate joining of Panama to South America. Humboldt likes sections: they join the delicate detail of his drawings and the scientific precision of his charts. He makes comparative sections of mountain peaks, lines up the Chimborazo, the Popocatepetl and Mont Blanc, and measures them with a ruler (Fig. 1).[3] His maps pinpoint “cities, villages, farms, settlements abandoned, astronomical observations made by M. de Humboldt.” Hence Humboldt himself in inside his maps, just as he is subject to the vital force of nature, he also wants to be tabulated and mapped along with nature. In the same way we will also find him in his drawings.

Humboldt draws. He sketches mountains, valleys, the ruins of ancient civilizations, volcanoes, waterfalls. He returns to Paris to have them engraved, but retains his authorship: “d’aprés une esquisse de M. de Humboldt.” He publishes his views of the Andes in two volumes, one of engravings and one of explanations. The engravings often show himself, or his teammates, peeking into a crater, admiring a volcano, or in conversation with people from the region. Hence he often draws himself looking at himself while drawing. Sometimes llamas look back (Fig. 5). He is in the text, in the maps, in the images, in the credit lines, part of the nature he is trying to map the surface of.

For dispossessed minds such as these, space seems to constitute a will to devour. Space chases, entraps, and digests them in a huge process of phagocytosis. Then, it ultimately takes their place. The body and mind thereupon become dissociated; the subject crosses the boundary of its own skin and stands outside of his senses. He tries to see himself, from some point in space. He feels that he is turning into space himself –dark space into which things cannot be put. He is similar; not similar to anything in particular, but simply similar. And he dreams up spaces that “spasmodically possess” him.

Roger Caillois[4]

Reclus wants to be alone. He is not present in his text, he disappears in the environment, floating lightly above. If Humboldt is in the foreground, Reclus hides obstinatedly in the background, mixed in with the statistics on populations and growth, stepping forward every now and then, to point out a colleague’s mistake. He wants to think it is against his will, but the pattern betrays him. From the Swiss Alps, his schizophrenic gaze knows no boundaries. He can see everything: the frontier disputes between Perú and Ecuador, the heights of the Andes, the depths of the Pacific, the economic conditions and mineral wealth of countries.

Reclus reproduces (not himself, although he does have children). He reproduces maps, sections, and drawings in his volumes. He selects them personally from other publications and has illustrators copy them. Views are redrawn from photographs, maps traced from topographic surveys. His books are always “illustrated by numerous engravings and maps.” He seamlessly mixes the confluence of rivers, geological formations, rainfall amounts, underwater depths, with populations, political divisions, frontiers in dispute. Photographs are used increasingly as the 20th century approaches, first traced into drawings or paintings, later cropped and inserted carefully into the text, specimens laid out for examination. It is still best to understand through diagrams, objective quantities do not lie, subjective points of view might lead us to distraction. The redrawn images and drawings look once removed, more like the illustrations in a story book or unreliable images in a high school geography textbook: they remain vague, limits too broadly defined, nuances erased, everything is one or the other, the complexity of the cosmos has been filtered and quantified into graphic data that seems to both claim and avoid scientific accuracy.

Thus while Humboldt inserts himself within ‘nature,’ but keeps his distance as the the actor in front of a backdrop, Reclus looks at man as part of nature, but situates both in the realm of the finite and remains himself, an observer.

[1] (Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences 1994, 227)

[2] Author’s Preface (Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe 1860, vii)

[3] See “Lower Limit of Perpetual Snow in different Latitudes,” in (A. d. Humboldt 1818-21)

[4] (Caillois 2003, 100)

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