The picturesque has the well-deserved reputation of being the most difficult aesthetic category to define. Its opacity is the result not only of its complex history and its many transformations since its discursive beginnings in eighteenth-century England but also of the aggregation and juxtaposition of the many different visual and linguistic forms that engage its history and transformations. As Sidney K. Robinson has written, though it is possible to theorize the component parts of the picturesque — such as mixture, artifice, and connection — or what types of responses it produces at the sensual and intellectual levels — such as uncertainty and irritability — it is still hard to say, with precision, exactly what the picturesque is.
Ron Broglio’s recent book, Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments, 1750-1830, offers readers a fresh opportunity to engage with all the confusion and complexity we associate with the picturesque. The cover of this provocative study immediately affords a sense of what readers will encounter within. There one sees fancifully preserved the conventional verticality of foreground, middle ground, and background associated with the baroque underpinnings of English picturesque aesthetics, those of Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Pouissan, and Gaspard Dughet. The eye is drawn most powerfully to the middle ground, which contains a reproduction of the artwork entitled “The Innocent Eye Test” by contemporary artist Mark Tansey (1981). In this work, the most conspicuous subject and objects of observation are not humans but cows: from its position as observer in a museum gallery, a cow gazes with casual interest at a canvas of depicted cows, also placid, but differently so within the framed bucolic landscape. Human viewers standing to the left and right of the canvas and seemingly also facilitating the cow-subject’s view are variously fixated on the canvas and on this cow-subject in the act of aesthetic contemplation.
As this cover art so strongly suggests, the study is less concerned to engage with the aesthetic category of the picturesque and its critical and theoretical tradition per se than with the issues of subject / object relations and the ways that the concomitant relation of nature / artifice determines or is determined by those relations. In this context, Broglio defines the picturesque exclusively as framed nature — nature under the grips of human control. His focus is to uncover how inscription technologies (writings, drawings, paintings, maps) “attempt to make sense of things in nature.” The following two questions guide the trajectory of this book: “How do art and technology function to shepherd nature within the picturesque? Additionally, where does nature resist such wrangling by human hands?” (15).
Technologies of the Picturesque is composed of seven chapters that are in turn broken into four parts, each of which focuses on a conceptual theme: “Water,” “Earth,” “Sky,” and “Animals.” Within this structure, Broglio distinguishes the various chapters of the study in yet another way that both complements and extends these conceptual themes. He distinguishes between chapters that critique the effects of tools as they “played out” in the Romantic era, most notably chapters 2, 3, and 6 on the prospect view, ordinance surveys, and vaccination practices respectively, and chapters that respond to those critiques and suggest solutions to “the displacement of the human body within technology and aesthetics” (18), notably chapters 4 and 7 on maps and smallpox/cowpox vaccination respectively. Chapter 5, which focuses on the 1820s cloud studies of John Constable, offers this dual work of critique and response within one chapter. These two types of critical work support Broglio’s twin goals of critiquing the Romantic period’s “use” of such things as inscription technology, tools, and science to assert the power of human knowledge of and thus dominance over nature, and of subsequently indicating how the Romantic period redresses, revises, or overcomes these subject/object dualities that put nature at the mercy of human reason and representation.
Broglio’s method of response is to synthesize the very different philosophical work of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Gilles Deleuze in order finally to theorize instances in the context of the Romantic period that abandon subject-object distinctions in favor of a form of dynamic interplay between humans and nature, an interplay that ultimately replaces the subject-object duality with the immersion of humans with non humans — animal, vegetable, and mineral alike. His goal is to foreground and then theorize how to heal what he takes to be deep wounds inflicted simultaneously on human beings and on nature by human artfulness. Human art, which Broglio understands as the efforts of technologies of art (such as painting and poetry) and technologies of science (such as cartography, meteorology, and medicine), is defined by its goal to “measure” and “represent” (16) nature. Such work both promotes and facilitates transformation of “the ‘stuff’ found in nature into simple, distinct objects with characteristics humans can understand” (15). Such instrumentality, Broglio argues, enforces the subject-object duality, in which nature is objectified in the human attempt to understand it, humanize it, and control it, and therefore undermines the potentiality of humans to live in dynamic relation with nature.
Broglio offers numerous examples of Romantic-era figures whose work serves the dual goals of revealing human instrumentalization of nature and of modeling dynamism with nature. The most sustained case is that William Wordsworth, whose poetry and prose Broglio reads across numerous chapters. For Broglio, Wordsworth exemplifies the ways in which technologies of representation “both advance and undermine a ‘Romantic’ sense of self,” giving him opportunity to theorize how to “overturn a prevailing notion of the Romantic subject” (26). On the one hand, Wordsworth’s poetry defines and promulgates the version of the Romantic subject that Broglio wishes to overturn, which is characterized by the prioritization of interiority over exteriority, the use of the sense of sight as a means to possess that which is exterior to the subject of/in aesthetic contemplation, and a persistent enforcement of distance between subject and object that aesthetic contemplation produces. “Tintern Abbey” serves as an early reference in this regard. Broglio cites the poetic speaker’s movement from the realm of external nature to the interiority of the mind over the course of the poem, such that by the end all that is left of nature is a metaphor in and of the mind that prioritizes optical sight, “a mansion for all lovely forms” (27). He argues that this movement makes vivid how aesthetic contemplation produces the subject-object duality and the distance between the two that constitutes that relation.
On the other hand, Broglio champions the Penrith Beacon episode of The Prelude for offering what he calls “a thickness of space” (74) through the representation of synesthesia against the single sensory power of the eye. He argues that the poet “thwarts the tyranny of sight” (75) by using "the senses each / To counteract the other and themselves" (135-36): “In the disjoined conjunction of stumbling and seeing, Wordsworth’s body pushes against and works within ‘the flesh of the world.’ With boyhood wonder the boy finds himself deeply immersed in nature” (75). “The flesh of the world,” a concept put forth by Merleau-Ponty, is a term that Broglio encourages us to translate as “connective tissue” — a means through which we come more fully to know the world around us in a manner that supersedes the mediatory use of technology. The flesh of the world, according to Broglio, enables a more immediate and dynamic relationship with, and engagement in, nature.
Another strong example is Broglio’s reading of Constable’s cloud studies. Broglio puts these artworks in relation to the work of Romantic-era meteorologists Luke Howard and Thomas Forster, who aimed to classify the many different types of clouds and thus create a shared vocabulary for them. While past critics have read Constable’s painterly renderings of clouds as his showcasing of, and reliance on, the burgeoning scientific classification of his era, Broglio reads Constable as superseding that system in two important ways. First, Constable focuses on specificity rather than classification; and then, as a result, he is able to transfer attention from spatiality to temporality, given that the specificity of clouds is the direct result of their movement across time. Broglio champions this movement from space to time, arguing that Constable “uses the unfolding weather to create vectors of interrelation between objects in an environment” (129). The crux of Broglio’s critique is his sense that Constable represents nature directly rather than relying on mediating technologies, such as meteorology, to understand and thus frame nature in the act of representing it.
Broglio’s research and observations on cattle in the final chapter are especially impressive. In chapter 6, he traces the transformation of representations of cattle from the seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century, representations that emerge in the landscape tradition as depictions of bucolic harmony in the work of Lorrain and Poussin. While this Virgilian-idealizing aesthetic is implicated in, indeed at the inception point of, picturesque landscape aesthetics, Broglio argues that the move away from this picturesque idealism in the representation of cattle in the Romantic period is actually destructive, as bucolic harmony is increasingly substituted for a much more aggressive form of representation: the depiction of live cattle as meat. These representations, he suggests, provided visual copies of the animals that were used to celebrate and advertise particular breeds for the sale of beef. One particularly “unpicturesque” (179) aspect of such paintings, he points out, is the way that the animals are so often pictured to make visible their full right side, an optimal angle for showcasing anatomical structure and the various cuts of meat that are being pressed as the final “end” of the animals. Broglio’s offering of Thomas Weaver’s painting entitled A Shorthorned Heifer, Seven Years (1811) serves as a particularly striking example of how extreme such idealizations at times became. The subject of this painting, seemingly being fed an unending supply of turnips and cabbage, is a massive blot of white flesh in the foreground and middle ground of the painting, pictured with its entire right side visible, its bulging body dwarfing its legs and its head monstrously disproportionate to its body.
In keeping with the logic of his study as a whole, Broglio aspires in chapter 7 to redress what he sees as the brazen “human dominance over nature” (201) that his analysis of cattle portraiture revealed in chapter 6. Here his focus is the work of Edward Jenner in the period around 1800. Jenner pioneered a scientific means of immunizing humans against smallpox through the use of a vaccination produced with cowpox. While Broglio spends significant energy tracing cultural fears about mixing nonhuman fluids into human beings —he draws to attention several treatises and satiric images representing English cultural hysteria that the cowpox vaccination will turn humans into cows — the critical thrust of this chapter is his attempt to theorize the critical possibilities of Jenner’s work. For Broglio, the example of Jenner’s smallpox vaccination offers us an instance of contact between humans and animals that collapses the distance that we associate with the aesthetic dynamics of observation. For Broglio, vaccination enables a relation between humans and cattle that overcomes the aesthetic distance of framing and thereby threatens traditional notions and forms of subjectivity. By invoking human animality, Broglio sees the potential for us to understand ourselves as just “another object within the landscape environment,” which, in turn, will free us from the “distancing, optical supremacy, and privileged interiority” (208) that he associates with human science and art.
The scope of Broglio’s inquiry — the sheer number of different types of artefacts he draws to attention and different discourses he engages — is, in a significant way, analogous to the picturesque that forms the outermost frame of his study, provoking readers to shift from individual elements per se toward the relations between them. And yet, Broglio departs from picturesque form in the sense that he seems to be seeking what might be termed a natural balance between humans and animals, whereas the picturesque itself is committed to presenting a continuous sequence of contrasts between human art and nature that thwart balance. Even and perhaps especially with regard to this fascinating contrast, Broglio pushes my thought in an intellectually rewarding fashion, and I appreciate his work for it.
I come away from this study thinking about two interrelated concepts. The first concerns representation as a term that reaches across scientific, technological, and artistic discourses, practices, and artifacts. Broglio aligns representation with measurement, foregrounds its mimetic work, and assumes that meaning is either oppressive or liberatory. But the concept, and practice, of figuration, in so many ways the bulwark of Romantic experimentation, might offer a means of thinking about aesthetic contemplation that decouples it from knowledge per se, joining it rather to imaginative apprehension. Figuration makes possible points of instability, contradiction, and deep hesitation that would be of tremendous value and interest in this study.
The second concept is that of immersion. For Broglio, immersion seems ultimately to signify the human subject’s attainment of balance with nature, a balance that is made possible by overcoming undue amounts of mediation (scientific, technological, and aesthetic), and in that way gaining an increased level of immediacy in experience that enables the subject to be in dynamic relation to, rather than in control of, nature. Again, the operative image is that of balance — human subjectivity is re-made so that it does not overwhelm its objects of contemplation and continuously recreate its dominion over them, but rather finds synchronicity with them. Indeed, Broglio’s primary interest in the aesthetic category of the picturesque is to foreground the way that human framing, or artifice, produces and reproduces distance between subject and object that reinscribes the power imbalance of the Cartesian subject-object duality. Yet his concept of immersion seems just as likely to thwart balance as the duality that he is attempting to replace. In other words, how can the collapse between subject and object not be susceptible to a radical form of immersion that precludes critical thought altogether? I cannot imagine that Broglio’s sense of balance would be satisfied with the idea that the less thinking we do, the better; and yet, it is not yet clear how the immersion paradigm would not logically lead precisely to that end. How, I come away from this study asking, can we theorize a rigorous relationship between thinking and absorption? Does Romanticism figure an aesthetic mode that is simultaneously immersive and yet still permits, even presses one, to think and reflect?
These concepts of figuration and immersion lead to that primary opposition with which Broglio’s study is concerned, the subject-object dualism, which variously plays out in relation to artworks, the natural environment, and animals. While he has worked to engage with green Romanticism throughout his study, most clearly the work of Jonathan Bate, one sees a great opportunity for thought in relating Broglio’s work to discourses within the field of Romanticism that complement and/or proceed Bate, including the work of Karl Kroeber, Alan Liu, and James McKusick, and the discourse of deep ecology as well as its critics, Bruno Latour and, following him, Timothy Morton. Such engagement would enable Broglio to take up pressing questions to which his study points, in particular the question of what (or if) nature is in any critically rigorous sense.
Finally, in the spirit of meditating balance in the ways that I find Broglio has caused me to do, I find myself returning once again to his cover art. Set against his ideals of balance is one quite radical moment of Broglio’s work — that middle ground of his cover. There one encounters the image of a fully non-human subject, a cow-subject. It is true that this cow-subject is the subject of aesthetic contemplation of a seemingly picturesque sort. And yet, one senses that one does not know in advance what the outcome of this aesthetic contract will be. A cow-subject is an unknown that can only ever leave us, effectively, out of balance. In this spirit, I take away from my experience of Technologies of the Picturesque a sense of wonder at how the subject-object dualism might figure out of balance rather than in it.
J. Jennifer Jones is Assistant Professor of English specializing in British and European Romanticism at the University of Rhode Island. Her published essays focus on the intersections of aesthetics, ethics, and politics and in particular, though not exclusively, on Continental philosophy and the poetry of William Wordsworth. She is currently completing work as a guest editor of a special issue of Romantic Circles Praxis entitled The Sublime and Education and a book manuscript entitled Virtual Romanticism.