Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Textual Realism and Reenactment

I recently contributed a chapter entitled 'Textual Realism and Reenactment' to a collection of essays on Historical Reenactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn (Re-enactment History), edited by Paul Pickering and Iain McCalman, which has just been published. In part, this chapter is an explanation for the presence of the illustrations in Pistols! Treason! Murder! In it, I discuss pastiche as an activity related to reenactment, under the broader theme of realism (although in retrospect it would have been better to structure the argument around the idea of mimesis). There follows an extract from this essay, which is also a commentary on the illustration reproduced below.

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Above: The Arrest of Antonio Foscarini (click to enlarge)

This illustration is the centre piece of a strip that summarises Gerolamo Vano's fall from grace, which was connected to the arrest of a noble named Antonio Foscarini. The charges against Foscarini were not proclaimed publicly, which provoked a great deal of ill-informed gossip, a state of affairs that is dramatised in the illustration. The background is the Great Council Hall in the ducal palace, where the entire noble class met for debates and elections.

An argument that is never explored directly in the text of the book is dramatised visually in this illustration. At the same time that the Venetian state was beginning to mount systematic surveillance operations targeted at individuals, Galileo was busy up the road in Padua, observing the surface of the moon and the satellites of Jupiter, and drawing some startling conclusions. By 1622, the year of Vano’s execution, the first microscopes were circulating among curious cardinals in Rome. Moreover, the first question raised by Galileo’s critics was the same one asked by Vano’s readers: How can you be sure of what you have seen? So there is an obvious connection to be made between the spy and the scientist. As Foucault would argue, power—in the form of surveillance—and knowledge —in the form of scientific observation—were intimately connected. This argument is alluded to directly by the ‘signature’ on the telescope at upper left.

The motif of the flies serves more than one function. Flies are not just examples of a preferred subject for early microscopic observations. They also refer to a linguistic metaphor introduced in a much earlier chapter. In the relevant passage I am addressing the reader directly in the portentous voice of ‘The Historian’.

The living body does not exist for us, cannot speak to us, even if the corpse still hosts a different kind of life that has nothing to do with the consciousness that once inhabited it. Rather, this life is parasitical—a swarming mass of signs, continually multiplying, crawling across the page. Their buzzing is loudest around the body’s wounds, where the text is most ‘corrupt’, as the philologists put it. The ligaments and cartilage that once articulated it have rotted away.

This passage foreshadows a later throwaway comment about Foscarini’s trial, in which ‘No one ever originated rumours; no one confirmed or denied them. They were generated spontaneously, like flies in rotten meat’. The illustration echoes all these previous allusions to flies. Finally, I suspect that these overdetermined insects are also direct descendents of Mosca, the buzzing parasite from Ben Jonson’s play, Volpone.

No doubt I’m already testing your credulity, but there is yet another argument implied by the contents of the other two telescope bubbles, in which the ‘thing’ being observed is actually a written text. This apparent paradox raises a point about the relationship between eyewitness testimony and hearsay and their respective evidential value in law—an issue that was crucial in the trial, condemnation and execution of Antonio Foscarini. The same point is also hinted at by the frieze of alternating eyes and ears, which have temporarily migrated to the panel border from Vano’s cloak, where they normally reside (because Vano is not in control of the flow of information in this panel). Theoretically, evidence based on sight (the most noble of the senses) was of greater value that evidence based on hearing, which was frequently dismissed as mere gossip. However, in practice that distinction was virtually impossible to maintain, as the outcome of Foscarini’s case demonstrates eloquently. Again, this issue is not discussed explicitly in the text.

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