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Reviewed by:
  • Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature
  • David B. Paxman
David Philip Miller and Peter Hanns Reill, eds. Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Pp. 370. $59.95.

Visions of Empire contains sixteen essays and commentaries on eighteenth-century voyages, natural history, and botanical illustration. A contribution to the history of science, it stems from a 1991 seminar marking UCLA’s acquisition of 738 plates from Joseph Banks’s lifetime project, Florilegium. Like other recent studies such as Cultures of Natural History, ed. by Jardine, Secord, and Spary, this collection presents the scientific study of nature through other shaping forces, in this case British imperial ambitions, the culture of sex and gender, economic [End Page 120] ideology, and graphic conventions. Collectively, the essays reconceive the processes of discovery to include “active cultural solutions to the problems of representation rather than mere collection and passive depiction” (i).

Contributors include David Miller on Sir Joseph Banks’s success as an emperor of natural history; Alan Frost on the transfer of botanical capital to Australia as a strategy for consolidating Britain’s naval empire; David Mackay on Banksian collectors as agents of empire; Christopher Lawrence on methods of “disciplining” scurvy and their importance to British imperial objectives; Lisbet Koerner on the economic concepts behind Linnaeus’s botanical science; Janet Browne and Alan Bewell on the influence of the sexual system of classification on ideas of social order, gender, and sex; Martin Kemp on the conventions of graphic representation; Barbara Stafford on the response to the ambiguous life forms that microscopes made visible; Michael Dettelbach on Alexander von Humboldt’s scientific travels; and several other essays. Commentaries by John Gascoigne and Peter Hanns Reill helpfully restate and relate the often subtle arguments made by contributors.

In “Images of Ambiguity: Eighteenth-Century Microscopy and the Neither / Nor,” one of the best essays in this volume, Barbara Stafford states that microscopic organisms appeared to figures of the time as “liminal entities” and “literal pictures of ambiguity.” How were they classed and studied? Stafford continues: “The paradox posed by complex and contradictory ‘invisibles’ was that their intricate, and obviously compounded, look rendered them apparently unclassifiable. This condition of unclarity, visible but difficult to explain, meant that illuminating metaphors had to be drawn from supposedly demarcated epistemological areas” (230). Occasionally the extreme intricacy and individual differences upon which rigorous microscopists prided themselves necessitated the creation of ligne idéale, or ideal forms, that encapsulated the common structural features of an organism.

As did eighteenth-century microscopists, the editors and authors find that under close scrutiny, various aspects of natural history take on anomalous shapes. This fact should not surprise us. Natural history was undergoing shaping processes of definition, and it would be wrong to expect it to adhere to the disciplinary standards and identities of later times. Empire meant different things in the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, key terms like representation have multiple and shifting referents. This volume helps us appreciate these complicating factors as it explores the heterogeneous nature of, and interdependent connections among, natural history, economics, aesthetics, social order, and personal and national ambition.

The most successful individual essays bring their objects of study, however shifting or ambiguous, clearly into focus and in some cases propose a principle or ligne idéale in terms of which events can be understood. Stafford chronicles the increasing rigor with which students of microscopy met the challenge of inadequate classification and increasing complexity and individuation. That is science. Koerner shows that Linnaeus’s ambitions to benefit Sweden were informed by a seventeenth-century version of mercantilism called “camerilism.” Dettelbach asks how, in terms of imperial culture, one explains Alexander von Humboldt, one of the most ambitious and influential scientific travelers, whose native Germany had no empire, not even a nation in the usual sense. But Dettelbach shows that von Humboldt intended to transfer knowledge from the world at large to the home state: the world was to provide the aesthetic education and inspire the cultural mission that would mold and unite Germany.

With notable exceptions, the essays recognize such motives as the disinterested pursuit of...

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