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Author: joe

Thursday, 16 February, 2006 - 00:53

Last Sunday morning I went to the British Museum's exhibition on the Enlightenment. I found it a quite profound experience, and only partly because I'd had only 3 hours' kip :)

Seeing Linneaus' sketches of different kinds of plants and the way he developed a taxonomy to describe them is just an awesome thing - a whole collection of people, who devoured swathes of their lives in the pursuit of finding ways to organise and explain the world.

Of course, in a fairly reflexive way, the museum draws attention to their part in some of the things we tend to criticise about the Enlightenment - the cultural imperialism, orientalism, the use of Classical Art as a yard-stick by which to measure the cultural achievement of other cultures, the plunder of riches, the subjugation of nations...

But nevertheless, man! what people they were. The orreries are something to see - and imagine trying to build your own astrolabe. I dare anyone to find the maker of an astrolabe and tell them they're misguided imperialists exercising arbitrary discursive power over oppressed peoples.

Pondering this, I came home and reread Foucault's essay, 'What is Enlightenment' (hey it's my job, okay!). Something struck me in a way it hadn't before - Foucault talks of the 'modern' perspective as being transformational, about the way in which the real becomes 'more than real', the beautiful 'more than beautiful', and the changing interplay between the constraints of reality, and the exercise of freedom.

Seeing those fossils, not just the literal fossils displayed there, but the fossilised remains of a era which totally transformed the real world and man's freedom within it, really made me admire them even more.

I recommend it :)

Categories: enlightenment, exhibition, museum, reason, classicism, Foucault, Linnaeus,
Comments: 4