The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Premise of Fidelity: Science, Visuality, and Representing the Real in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Synopsis

The Premise of Fidelity puts forward a new history of Japanese visuality through an examination of the discourses and practices surrounding the nineteenth century transposition of "the real" in the decades before photography was introduced. This intellectual history is informed by a careful examination of a network of local scholars-from physicians to farmers to bureaucrats-known as Shohyaku-sha. In their archival materials, these scholars used the term shashin (which would, years later, come to signify "photography" in Japanese) in a wide variety of medical, botanical, and pictorial practices. These scholars pursued questions of the relationship between what they observed and what they believed they knew, in the process investigating scientific ideas and practices by obsessively naming and classifying, and then rendering through highly accurate illustration, the objects of their study.

This book is an exploration of the process by which the Shohyaku-sha shaped the concept of shashin. As such, it disrupts the dominant narratives of photography, art, and science in Japan, providing a prehistory of Japanese photography that requires the accepted history of the discipline to be rewritten.

Excerpt

An unpublished manuscript entitled “Honzō sjasin,” compiled in 1826 by the scholar Mizutani Hōbun, first revealed to me that a vital part of the history of nineteenth-century Japanese visual culture had yet to be written. the term shashin, I discovered later, would be the keyword to apprehend the interconnected fields of visual culture and scientific studies in Tokugawa Japan. the manuscript resides today at the Special Collection of Leiden University Library as part of the collection of books and maps amassed by Phillip Franz von Siebold, a German physician who worked in Japan at the Dutch factory from 1823 to 1829. I had initially traveled to Leiden in search of a Japanese zograscope, a viewing device for vue d’optique (uki-e) brought back to Europe by Siebold. the uki-e prints, which gained popularity around the end of the eighteenth century, employ one-point linear perspective, and when seen through a zograscope they create an optical illusion that gives the viewer a sense of receding and expanding space. This device is one of the few extant examples of its kind produced in Japan before the latter half of the nineteenth century. As transparent transmitters of light, lenses are often overlooked in studies of visuality, yet lenses for uki-e were often opaque and warped, unintentionally calling attention to the mediat-

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