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.