This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.

Michel Foucault*1

The passage Foucault is referring to in the above text reads as follows:

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled 'Celestial Emporium of benevolent Knowledge'. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Jorge Luis Borges*2

Beneath this laughter that shatters there is an exhilarating liberation and solace for anyone who doesn’t quite fit (which happily is most, if not all of us). There are many situations in which you might feel as Goldilocks did, that the world is not a good fit. If your symptoms do not quite describe any diseases in the medical dictionary, your subjective experience has to be twisted to fit the doctor’s model and the resulting diagnostic is, “not quite right”. You might be a brilliant poet rejected out-of-hand because you can’t spell or because the envelope you sealed your submission in is too large or too colourful or has a doodle of a pirate boat on it, or more appropriately because your poem does not adhere to any known literary conventions adjudicators must use to assign value.

In a fascinating TED talk entitled Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor relates the experience of living through a stroke which shut down the left hemisphere of her brain. Bolte Taylor uses the word 'Nirvana' to describe the right brain’s consciousness. She proposes full direct experience of the world is not possible while the left brain is functioning in a dominant role. It is entirely possible that the world is just as Jill Bolte Taylor’s right brain experienced it; metamorphic, interconnected and intrinsically meaningful, but our left brain dominated perception prevents us from seeing this. I think this is what Goethe meant when he proposed that experiential factors cannot be removed from taxonomic classification. Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants is quite possibly the only ever right-brain incursion into scientific methodology.

I read Foucault's The Order of Things in 2002 and discovered the reference to the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge which excited me to research scientific objectivity, taxonomy and nomenclature as well as epistemological idealism. Though ideas about ordering experience and beholding the world have been the theoretical undercurrent of my imagery since, it wasn’t really until the death of my father Jack in October of 2014 that I was able to realize the full force of Goethe’s assertion. While searching through and organising the many artifacts that were the pieces of his life, it could not have been clearer that scientific objectivity (what Daston & Galison call “blind sight”*3) provides no useful information about things.

In contrast, by including subjective experience Goethe places the human viewer within the frame of observable nature, resulting in a model of the universe not unlike Bolte Taylors description of right-brain consciousness. Within such a model the history of photography could be seen as a collective morphology of experience.

  • *1 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London, New York: Routledge Classic, 2002).
  • *2 Jorge Luis Borges, "John Wilkins’ Analytical Language", in Selected Non-fictions (New York: Penguin, 1999).
  • *3 Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007)