Curious Visions of Modernity

Curious Visions of Modernity

Enchantment, Magic, and the Sacred

By David L. Martin

Haunted by a secret knowledge and a repressed enchantment, Western rationality is not what it seems.





Haunted by a secret knowledge and a repressed enchantment, Western rationality is not what it seems.

Rembrandt's famous painting of an anatomy lesson, the shrunken head of an Australian indigenous leader, an aerial view of Paris from a balloon: all are windows to enchantment, curiosities that illuminate something shadowy and forgotten lurking behind the neat facade of a rational world. In Curious Visions of Modernity, David Martin unpacks a collection of artifacts from the visual and historical archives of modernity, finding in each a slippage of scientific rationality—a repressed heterogeneity within the homogenized structures of post-Enlightenment knowledge. In doing so, he exposes modernity and its visual culture as haunted by precisely those things that rationality sought to expunge from the “enlightened” world: enchantment, magic, and wonderment.

Martin traces the genealogies of what he considers three of the most distinct and historically immediate fields of modern visual culture: the collection, the body, and the mapping of spaces. In a narrative resembling the many-drawered curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance rather than the locked glass cases of the modern museum, he shows us a world renewed through the act of collecting the wondrous and aberrant objects of Creation; tortured and broken flesh rising from the dissecting tables of anatomy theaters to stalk the discourses of medical knowledge; and the spilling forth of a pictorializing geometry from the gilt frames of Renaissance panel paintings to venerate a panoptic god. Accounting for the visual disenchantment of modernity, Martin offers a curious vision of its reenchantment.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262016063 280 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 35 b&w illus.


$20.00 X ISBN: 9780262529464 280 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 35 b&w illus.


  • In discovering traces of…magic beneath our systems of knowledge, Martin does more than provide an alternative history of rational progress, but points to moments of curiosity remaining among us. Martin's joy in this modern magic… is winning. It's as if he'd seen a statue move.

    Evan McMurry



  • David L. Martin presents a fascinating and complicated history of attempted erasures and concealed embraces. Spanning the early modern through the postmodern periods, Martin focuses on collections, images, and taxonomies as he traces the persistent—and highly ambivalent—presence of heterogeneity within systems of scientific knowledge, and their corresponding impact on the formations of discourses and subjects. In so doing, he examines where and how beliefs become stored in key cultural and discursive locations that potentially show us where modernity still keeps its magic.

    Marcia Brennan

    Department of Art History, Rice University; author of Curating Consciousness: Mysticism and the Modern Museum

  • David Martin is the ultimate collector, and his Curious Visions of Modernity functions like a 21st-century Wunderkammer. The exhibits include Charlemagne's reliquary, Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp, Andrea Pozzo's trompe-l'œil ceilings, rare mappaemundi, and even a Christian labyrinth housed in Chartres Cathedral. This book—erudite and beautifully written—is an Arcades Project for our postmodern times.

    Ruben Gallo

    author of Freud's Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis and Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution

  • David Martin is a consummate scholar who has uncovered a treasure trove of captivating hidden associations that weave a compellingly eloquent and critical account of his topic. This is a very pleasurable read that makes us consider more deeply our understandings of the very structures that underpin Western modernity.

    Natalija Subotincic

    artist and Professor of Architecture, University of Manitoba

  • In his archaeology of the visual, Martin brings back to life the wonderment and enchantment that characterized those earlier forms of knowledge and representation that modern, 'rational' knowledge defined itself against, and sought to extirpate. This repression, he shows, never fully succeeded. Along the way the reader encounters curiosity cabinets, practices of vivisection, iconography and cartography, in a book that is learned, quirky, imaginative, original—and immensely readable.

    Sanjay Seth

    author of Subject Lessons