Images of Knowledge

The Epistemic Lives of Pictures and Visualisations

by Nora S. Vaage (Volume editor) Rasmus T. Slaattelid (Volume editor) Trine Krigsvoll Haagensen (Volume editor) Samantha L. Smith (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 238 Pages


The authors consider the relationship between knowledge and image, though multi-faceted, to be one of reciprocal dependence. But how do images carry and convey knowledge? The ambiguities of images means that interpretations do not necessarily follow the intention of the image producers. Through an array of different cases, the chapters critically reflect upon how images are mobilised and used in different knowledge practices, within certain knowledge traditions, in different historical periods. They question what we take for granted, what seems evident, what goes without saying. This approach spans across established categories such as «scientific imaging», «religious images» and «artworks», and considers how images may contribute meaning across such categories.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of contents
  • Images of Knowledge
  • The Optics of Understanding: Sight, sensing and discourses of knowledge in early modern Europe
  • On Hands That Make Us See: Tobias Healing His Father’s Blindness
  • Beyond Representation? Making sense of nano images
  • Framing the Hysterical Body – A comparative analysis of a historical and a contemporary approach to imaging functional leg paralysis
  • Grow Your Own Views on Knowledge: Visions and framings of synthetic biology
  • Et In Arcadia Ego: Poussin and early modern visual historía
  • Framing Quetzalcoatl, Picturing Culture – Iconology and the image of the other in early modern mythography
  • Epilogue
  • Author Biographies
  • Index

← 8 | 9 →

Nora S. Vaage, Rasmus T. Slaattelid, Trine Krigsvoll Haagensen, Samantha L. Smith

Images of Knowledge

What do we mean by “images of knowledge”? In the context of this book the term denotes a flexible concept that can accommodate a variety of objects, approaches and processes, but that has a gravitational pull sufficient to secure its integrity. The following chapters analyse images that originate in a variety of artistic, scientific and religious practices, some of which are centuries apart. A core premise of Images of Knowledge is the shared idea that thinking about, through and with images across ages can broaden our understanding of how images produce, convey, and frame diverse kinds of knowledge in different ways.

Similar to W.J.T. Mitchell, we understand “images” in a broad sense, including both physical, digital and mental figures: pictures, visualisations, and even visions of technologies.1 According to Mitchell “you can hang a picture, but you cannot hang an image”.2 An image can, but needn’t, also be an object.3 The juxtaposition of different images across epochs opens up for exploring how knowledge and images are interconnected and in continuous (ex)change. Furthermore, these investigations might enable us to catch sight of similarities and differences within this broad family of images, and might thus bring us closer to an understanding of how they make sense within their own specificities, as well as in light of other images.

Our claim that images can convey and produce knowledge is obviously grounded in a broader concept of knowledge than the propositional one.4 We do not claim ← 9 | 10 → that “images of knowledge” should only be applied to images that can somehow be translated directly to verbal language and be accorded a truth-value. While this might be part of the epistemic value of some images, we build on the assumption that many images express knowledge that cannot be adequately “translated” into propositional language; that they contribute to the knowledge pool in and of themselves.5 How, then, do images express and produce knowledge? This question is addressed on two levels. First, through the individual chapters that analyse a selection of pictures and visualisations from different epistemic cultures and historical epochs. Second, on a more general level, in the critical overview presented by Matthias Bruhn in the Epilogue.

As Caroline A. Jones and Peter Galison pointed out in the introduction to Picturing Science, Producing Art, the literature on the relationships between art and science has often presumed a “binary economy” between the fields, where art and science are seen as distinct categories that can mutually exchange, sometimes profit from each other, but that are always seen as separate and established fields.6 We agree with Jones and Galison when they state that this view is too simplistic. We seek to carry this approach further and explore an ecology of images7 that, far from being binary, is messy, entangled and complex. This ecological perspective is unimpressed by periodisation, cultural barriers, and categorisations. The contributors analyse images and image-making technologies, tools and media through concrete examples. The focus is not only on visual products, but also on the practices and situations through which they were produced. We consider our book to be in the tradition of such books as Jones and Galison’s, books that include chapters dealing with very different kinds of images and thereby juxtapose them to each other, both to see how they are the same and what makes them different. ← 10 | 11 → We situate our approach in critical relation to recent volumes discussing images and image theory across categories and historical periods, from scholars in art history, philosophy of science, science and technology studies and visual culture.8 Some of the chapters also stand in the tradition of critical appraisal of scientific visualisations.9 Only rarely do such appraisals, however, connect directly up towards studies of images from other categories and periods, as in this volume.

We propose that image competent research can contribute to thinking about a range of technologies, and about different states of knowledge. This is seen in discussions of scientific images and their interpretation (Muhr, Slaattelid), the use of art and design to explore the potentials of an emerging technology (Vaage), the way images were accorded different knowledge attributes in early modern times (Bakke, Laugerud, Smith), and how images and vision have been underprivileged in early modern concerns with, and explorations of, cultural “others” (Ødemark).

We consider “images of knowledge” to be boundary objects, as they are “both adaptable to different viewpoints and robust enough to maintain identity across them”.10 They are a means of translation, unifying for our disciplinary differences, enabling us to start a discussion. Seven researchers from the Universities of Bergen, Oslo, and Humboldt, Berlin have contributed chapters to the book. In addition, Matthias Bruhn from Humboldt provides a bird’s eye view in his epilogue. ← 11 | 12 → These scholars are from the fields of art history, media studies, cultural studies, and theory of science, and contribute with different approaches and perspectives. We all share, however, a strong competency in image studies, and the book aims to contribute to a richer understanding of “images of knowledge”, through bringing together texts that consider what an image can be and do, and how it is perceived in specific contexts.

Knowledge About Images

Because of their inherent multivalency, images are always subject to interpretation as they are being viewed. Different images require different amounts and types of knowledge to be understood according to their purpose or in a certain situation. In some contexts, attempts have intentionally been made to limit the number of possible interpretations – this is typical for scientific visualisations – whereas in others, especially modern artworks, ambiguity and pluripotency are embraced as strengths.11

Some of the chapters in this volume are concerned with processes of image making,12 others, with the reception of the “finished” image.13 Thus, the question arises: where in the process does interpretation start? What we discuss in the context of scientific images is largely the interpretation of the researcher, early on in the process, whereas in art and devotional images we tend to focus on later stages, on the viewer’s process of interpretation of the “finished” artwork. However, in both cases interpretation does take part in several stages, involving different actors. There is a dialectics between the production of an image in a certain context, and its place in the historical ecology of images.

Images never exist in isolation. Rather, they are always referential to something outside the image, and are always produced and interacted with in a specific context. When images are moved out of that context, whether through time or space or seen in the light of a new perspective or theory, they take on new meanings, and some of the original ones may be faded or lost. Several of the chapters deal with traces of the context of origin, and what they may tell us.14 ← 12 | 13 →

The topic for Henning Laugerud’s contribution The Optics of Understanding: Sight, sensing and discourses of knowledge in early modern Europe is what he terms “the optics of understanding”. His point of departure is in the importance of sight as a common feature in the discourses of knowledge and understanding in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Laugerud questions certain understandings and ideas about historical development. He aims to shine light on some aspects of the period’s visual culture, the understanding of visual perception/sensing and its wider epistemological and cultural consequences. Laugerud points to how discourses pertaining to the visual within “natural history”, the “arts” and “religion” were all concerned with knowledge and understanding of both this world and the next, the physical as well as the metaphysical. They were interconnected and had some important basic understandings in common, relating sight to the central cognitive faculties of man. The chapter closes with a discussion of the possible genealogy of these ways of thinking about knowledge and understanding.

One of the properties images have in common across categories and periods is their capacity for making the invisible visible. In various ways, our authors deal with this issue, some focusing on it as a core theme: Samantha Smith’s chapter On Hands That Make Us See: Tobias Healing His Father’s Blindness focuses, among other topics, on blindness and spiritual vision, through a discussion of a painting from the school of Rembrandt, Tobias Healing his Father’s Blindness (1636). Smith argues that the painting prompts its spectator to draw parallels between ideas that today we may consider to be contrary: artist and scientist, miracles and medicine, the spiritual and the physical. In doing so, Smith’s chapter examines the importance and interdependency of touch and sight in these areas, and takes into consideration philosophical debates from antiquity to today about the importance of the eye and the ability of the hands.

The chapter in which the idea of making the invisible visible is most prominent, though, is Rasmus T. Slaattelid’s Beyond Representation? Making sense of nano images. It deals with an age-old question in the scholarly discussions of scientific visualisations: are scientific images representations of an independently existing reality, or are we being misled into thinking that they are, while in fact they serve different purposes? The recent efforts to move “beyond” the idea of representation in studies of scientific images suggests that the question of representation is regarded as a problem in need of a solution, and that in order to solve it we must move beyond it. Slaattelid’s contribution examines how the problem of representation is presented in the recent literature on nano images, and how these discussions, in different ways, articulate the idea of moving beyond representation. ← 13 | 14 →

Other cases of making visible are touched on by Laugerud, who notes how microscopes and telescopes granted humanity access to new scales: what was too great or too small to be perceived with the naked eye, and by Nora S. Vaage, who in discussing an exhibition on synthetic biology, an emerging technoscience operating mostly at the nano- and microscale, describes how the exhibited art and design pieces show synthetic biology scaled up, not in the direct transference of blowing up representations of bacteria or genomes, but to show its societal dimensions and potential future applications.

Images are products of labour; they have been produced through processes. This aspect of images is discussed in some of the chapters, which treat how the technology that goes into creating the image is seen to affect the outcome and interpretation of the image in significant ways.15 In particular, Paula Muhr, in Framing the Hysterical Body – A comparative analysis of a historical and a contemporary approach to imaging functional leg paralysis, discusses two different periods of hysteria research, during which images were extensively used in experiments, although for different purposes and created through very different technologies. Hysteria was a popular diagnosis in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, and the School of Salpêtrière in Paris deployed photography and other visualisation techniques to study and diagnose their hysterical patients. Muhr focuses on a paper by the prolific hysteria researcher Gilles de la Tourette, which presented the results of study of unilateral hysterical paralysis or hemiplegia of two male patients using the “graphical method” by having the patients’ footprints registered on a long roll of paper. She performs a comparative analysis between this approach and a neuroimaging study performed by Jon Stone and colleagues in 2007, the first such study to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in research on conversion paralysis. Muhr points to ways in which the technologies used shaped the research questions, points to the advantages and limitations of these two very different technologies, and stresses the challenges of interpreting the experimental data in the case of both Tourette and Stone et al.

While the individual chapters form their own theoretical frameworks, some recur in many of the chapters. The concept of framing was introduced into our discussions by Muhr in the context of “framing the body” in diagnostics of hysteria, and was seized upon by other contributors as a flexible term that is interesting for multiple reasons. Generally, it is taken to mean something that structures ← 14 | 15 → and delimits.16 In our different cases, the structuring and delimitation is either of contexts (for instance a culture, as in Ødemark, an exhibition, as in Vaage, or a scene, as in Bakke), of technologies (Vaage) or of the body (Muhr). The term can be used to stress the limits of something, such as the formal limitations for the translatability of the image: images tend to have a certain, but not inexhaustible potentiality for different meanings, which may emerge in specific contexts.

Nora S. Vaage’s contribution, Grow Your Own Views on Knowledge: Visions and framings of synthetic biology, discusses the Grow Your Own… Life After Nature exhibition (2013–14) at Science Gallery Dublin, which was presented as a “synthetic biology exhibition”. She poses the question of how synthetic biology was framed through the contributions to the exhibition. And how does this conform to, or diverge from, descriptions of synthetic biology by experts and actual current research? Vaage analyses how the objects and images in the Grow Your Own exhibition, created by designers, artists, hobbyists, and students of synthetic biology, used a wide range of cultural and scientific expressions to disseminate projects, problems, and possibilities in synthetic biology – but not necessarily showing what synthetic biology is, today. She discusses the aesthetic and material means used, and how they relate to institutional and corporate visions and practices of synthetic biology. Vaage posits that the framing of the exhibition may significantly influence the reception not just of the artworks but of synthetic biology, and concludes that the range of approaches and the open-ended nature of many of the pieces included in the exhibition imply that different visitors will interpret the exhibition, as well as the potentialities of synthetic biology, in very different ways.

In different ways, all of the authors are seeking to make sense of their chosen images. The idea of “making sense” is an interesting one, because it both entails ← 15 | 16 → the rational process of understanding something, and a (at least etymological) connection to sensory dimensions. Several of the chapters discuss images in relation to other senses than the visual, sometimes stressing how the senses are, and have been, perceived to be connected.17 Images, in these chapters, are inherently interlinked with touch, smell, or a synesthetic idea, in the medieval sense, that the senses act together. Smith’s treatment of Rembrandt is concerned with the connection between hands and eyes. One of the artworks discussed in Vaage’s chapter, smelly cheeses created with bacteria taken from human bodies, is described by the artists as “microbial sketches”. This stretches the idea of the sketch past what we normally consider an image, as the bacteria carry some aspects of the human individual donating them into the cheese’s complex expressions of scent, taste, texture, and appearance.

All four of the early modern scholars point to how autopsía, direct and personal observation, was an antiquarian means to accessing the past through objects and images. There was a belief in physical artefacts as more trustworthy sources than text on paper, in being more difficult to forge. This ties into the modern use of autopsy as forensics. Autopsía was connected to parousía, living presence or manifestation, or symbolically, the second coming of Christ. Autopsía was the act of the eyewitness, dealing with the evidence of the past.18 There seems to be an inherent tension in the residue’s faded state and the immediacy that can be sensed in such an encounter with the past.

In observing this, we offer a critique of bad memory: so much might be learnt from the past and its similarities with our current situation, but this is often overlooked in current scholarship. Although our current time has a number of specificities, what is framed as radically new is not necessarily new in every sense. In Jørgen Bakke’s chapter, Et In Arcadia Ego: Poussin and early modern visual historía, the two paintings entitled Et in Arcadia Ego by the French painter Nicolas Poussin are taken as the starting point for a review of the role of classical historía (“investigations”) in seventeenth-century epistemology of knowledge. Instead of regarding Poussin in a retrospective view as a paradigm for the eighteenth-century French Academy of the fine arts, Poussin is here rather situated in the context of a traditionalist seventeenth-century epistemology of visual historía. Poussin’s Et In Arcadia Ego paintings show shepherds pointing to an inscription reading those words. Bakke argues that Poussin functioned, among other things, as an antiquarian – a preserver of knowledge. This, of course, is still the case for a lot of current ← 16 | 17 → technologies, such as imaging technology, which shares the ability to register or measure and to preserve these registers and measurements as frozen time and space; as static and significant information for viewers to come.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
Image theory Representation Art
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 238 pp., 50 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Nora S. Vaage (Volume editor) Rasmus T. Slaattelid (Volume editor) Trine Krigsvoll Haagensen (Volume editor) Samantha L. Smith (Volume editor)

Nora S. Vaage is an art historian, art critic and interdisciplinary scholar at the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), University of Bergen. Rasmus T. Slaattelid is Associate Professor in philosophy of science at the SVT. Trine Krigsvoll Haagensen is a media scholar and art historian at the University of Bergen. Samantha L. Smith is an art historian at the University of Bergen.


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