Picture Problems in the Gutenberg Galaxy (Part 1) . Why We Need Pictures. Without imaging technologies, we have to filter everything through language...we want other ways to present knowledge.
Picture Problems in the Gutenberg Galaxy (Part 1)
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Without imaging technologies, we have to filter everything through language...we want other ways to present knowledge.
Ivins argues that images are not just artistic: “The importance of being able exactly to repeat pictorial statements is undoubtedly greater for science, technology, and general information than it is for art” (2).
Via Gutenberg, the press is a machine that makes it possible to produce texts in “exactly repeatable” forms.
Jerome McGann argues that the book is “a machine of knowledge.”
“Until now the book or codex form has been one of our most powerful tools for developing, storing, and disseminating information. In literary studies, the book has evolved (over many centuries) a set of scientific engines -- specific kinds of books and discursive genres -- of great power and complexity” (McGann, “The Rationale of Hypertext”).
“Prints are among the most important and powerful tools of modern life and thought. Certainly we cannot hope to realize their actual role unless we…think of them as exactly repeatable pictorial statements or communications….we must think about the limitations which their techniques have imposed on them as conveyors of information and on us as receivers of that information” (3).
Pliny, on earlier botanists…“It was their plan to delineate the various plants in colours, and then to add in writing a description of the properties which they possessed. Pictures, however, are very apt to mislead, and more particularly where such a number of tints is required for the imitation of nature with any success; in addition to which, the diversity of copyists from the original paintings, and their comparative degrees of skill, add very considerably to the chances of losing the necessary degree of resemblance to the originals” (14).
The protagonist, Moll Hackabout, has arrived in London. Moll caries scissors and a pincushion hanging on her arm, suggesting that she sought employment as a seamstress. Instead, she is being inspected by the pox-ridden Elizabeth Needham, a notorious procuress and brothel-keeper, who wants to secure Moll for prostitution. The notorious rake Colonel Francis Charteris and his pimp, John Gourlay, look on, also interested in Moll. The two stand in front of a decaying building, symbolic of their moral bankruptcy. Charteris fondles himself in expectation.
Moll is now the mistress of a wealthy merchant. She has numerous affectations of dress and accompaniment, as she keeps a West Indian serving boy and a monkey. She has jars of cosmetics, a mask from masquerades, and her apartment is decorated with paintings illustrating her sexually promiscuous and morally precarious state. She pushes over a table to distract the merchant's attention as a second lover tiptoes out. Breaking crockery, as in Plate 1, signals further catastrophe.
Moll has gone from kept woman to common prostitute. Her maid is now old and syphilitic. Her bed is her only major piece of furniture, and the cat poses to suggest Moll's new posture. The witch hat and birch rods on the wall suggest either black magic, or, much more likely, that her profession requires her to perform role-playing and sadomasochism. Her heroes are on the wall: Macheath from The Beggar's Opera and William Sacheverell, and two cures for syphilis are above them. The wig box of highwayman James Dalton (hanged on 11 May 1730) is stored over her bed, suggesting a romantic dalliance with the criminal. The magistrate, Sir John Gonson, with three armed bailiffs, is coming through the door on the right side of the frame to arrest Moll for her activities. Moll is showing off a new watch (perhaps a present from Dalton, perhaps stolen from another lover) and exposing her left breast. Gonson, however, is fixed upon the witch's hat and 'broom' or the periwig hanging from the wall above Moll's bed.
Moll is in Bridewell Prison. She beats hemp for hangman's nooses, while the jailer threatens her and points to the task. The prisoners, almost all prostitutes, go from left to right in order of decreasing wealth. Moll is standing next to a card-sharp whose extra playing card has fallen out. The inmates are in no way being reformed, despite the ironic engraving on the left above the occupied stocks, reading "Better to Work/ than Stand thus." The person suffering in the stocks apparently refused to work.
Moll is now dying of syphilis. Dr. Rock on the left (black hair) and Dr. Misaubin on the right argue over their medical methods, which appear to be a choice of bleeding (Rock) and cupping (Misaubin). A woman, possibly Moll's bawd and possibly the landlady, rifles Moll's possessions for what she wishes to take away. Meanwhile, Moll's maid tries to stop the looting and arguing. Moll's son sits by the fire, possibly addled by his mother's venereal disease. He is picking lice or fleas out of his hair. Popular remedies for venereal disease litter the floor.
Moll is dead, and all of the scavengers are present at her wake. A note on the coffin lid shows that she died aged 23 on 2 September 1731. The parson spills his brandy as he has his hand up the skirt of the girl next to him, and she appears pleased. Moll's son plays ignorantly. Moll's madam drunkenly mourns on the right with a ghastly grinning jug of "Nants" (brandy). She is the only one who is upset at the treatment of the dead girl, whose coffin is being used as a tavern bar. A "mourning" girl (another prostitute) steals the undertaker's handkerchief. Another prostitute shows her injured finger to her fellow whore, while a woman adjusts her appearance in a mirror in the background, even though she shows a syphilitic sore on her forehead. The only emotions are provoked by brandy and a cut finger, not the death of Moll.