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The Flatness of Latour’s Concept of Origin and Holbein’s The Ambassadors

[Bruno Latour offers this citation correction for the article discussed below: the paper and the theory is Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe and here is the exact reference to the soon to be published version: « The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original Through Its Facsimiles », a chapter prepared for Thomas Bartscherer (editor) Switching Codes, University of Chicago Press (2010).]

These are expanded thoughts on Bruno Latour’s excellent and inspiring article on the digital-aided reproduction of Veronese’s Nozze di Cana, “The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original through Its Facsimiles” (2008), here at his website. I reread the article more closely and I found that I had maybe been too generous on some counts in my first assessment. An aspect that I called “underdeveloped” was actually absent from the discussion. In particular, as Latour sought to define and bring to life the conditions that make up our sense of the “original” of something, though he did bring out very significant factors he was utterly silent on perhaps our most salient connection to the concept: the idea that the original of something that has been copied is that which retains the effects of its own history. It holds the imprint of what brought it into being. And while Latour does a fine job of making even more clear the point put forward in Walter Benjamin’s criticism of Art in a mechanical age, that it is the differential gap in processes that often guides our assessment of the difference between the copy and the original, he makes no connection at all to the substantive aspects of an original that bring about the very importance of this “gap” in process. It is specifically that gaps, or leaps in process, can change the recording surface (if we can be both somewhat analogous, somewhat literal) such that the history of causes and effects that make up the original, themselves become lost, or reconfigured.

The Copy as “Copious”

But to trace this aporia in Latour’s description we must start with his very helpful framing of the concept of the original. He tells us with some illumination that an original only becomes importantly so due to the very variety and numericity (and quality?) of the copies that it produces, for our word “copy” comes out of the very concept of “copious”. A true original carries within it the “aura” of a fecudity which produced its copies which flow from it like branches from a trunk and root, but in a retroactive sense the aura of the “original” is actually produced by the very weight of its copies, as these copies become the evidence of its originary profusion:

In other words, the intensity of the search for the original depends on the amount of passion and the number of interests triggered by its copies. No copies, no original. In order to stamp a piece with the mark of originality you need to apply to its surface the huge pressure that only a great number of reproductions can provide….

…let us remember that the word “copy” does not need to be so derogative, since it comes from the same etymology as “copious”, and thus designates a source of abundance. There is nothing inferior in the notion of a copy, simply a proof of fecundity….Actually, this connection between the idea of copies and that of the original should come as no surprise since for a work of art to be original means nothing but to be the origin of a long descendance. Something which has no progeny, no reproduction, no inheritors, is not called original but rather sterile or barren (8)

So we are given an account of originality which works in two ways, backwards from the plethora of copies which in a way retroactively create the original as a place of origin, and then forwards as we are able to trace out the flowing line of copious progeny.

Plastic Surgery on Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”

This conceptual bookend serves us well, but we run into some difficulty when applying it to the half-subject of his essay, the saddening failure of conservators to restore Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” well. Instead of a nice fatherly line wherein a profound original propels copies into the future, horrifically, the photographic copies of the original have turned upon their father and remade it in their more sterile image:

Something odd has happened to Holbein’s Ambassadors at the National Gallery in London. The visitor does not immediately know how to describe her malaise. The painting is completely flat, its colors bright but somewhat garish; the shape of every object is still there but slightly exaggerated; she wonders what has happened to this favorite painting of hers. “That’s it”, she mutters, “the painting has lost its depth, the fluid dynamics of the paint has gone. It is just a surface now.” But what does this surface look like? The visitor looks around, puzzled, and then the answer dawns on her: it resembles almost exactly the poster she has bought several years ago at the Gallery bookshop and that still hangs in her study at home. Only the dimension differs.

Could it be true? She wonders. Could they have replaced the Ambassadors by a fac simile? May be it’s on loan to some other museums and they did not want to disappoint the visitors, so they put up with this copy. Or may be they did not want to trick us and it is a projection, it is so flat and bright that it could almost be a slide projected on a screen… Fortunately, she composes herself enough not to ask the stern guard in the room whether this most famous painting is the original or not. What a shock it would have been. Unfortunately, she knows enough about the strange customs of restorers and curators to bow to the fact that this is indeed the original although only in name, that the real original has been irreversibly lost and that it has been substituted by what most people like in a copy: bright colors, shining surface, and above all a perfect resemblance with the slides sold at the bookshop that are shown in art classes all over the world by art teachers most often interested only in the shape and theme of a painting but not by any other marks registered in the thick surface of a work. She leaves the room suppressing a tear: the original has been turned into a copy of itself looking like a cheap copy, and no one seems to complain or even to notice the substitution. They seem happy to have visited in London the original poster of Holbein’s Ambassadors!…(8)

…If the Ambassadors have been irreversibly erased, it is not out of negligence, but, on the contrary, because of an excessive zeal in “reproducing” it. What the curators did was to confuse the obvious general feature of all works of art -to survive they have to be somehow reproduced- with the narrow notion of reproduction provided by photographic posters while ignoring many other ways for a painting to be reproduced….

…Actually, a terribly revealing documentary shows the culprits restoring the Holbein by using as their model photographs of the original and subjectively deciding what is original, what has decayed, what has been added and imagining the painting as a series of discrete layers that can be added or removed at will. A process that resembles plastic surgery more than an open forensic investigation (14-15).

Here is the apparent contradiction. If originality comes out of the pressure of numerous copies, and expresses itself in its very capacity to generate copies of every sort, there seems to be no reason at all why the “plastic surgery reconstruction of the painting does not make it all the more original. For while it may have put off this particular art critic who decries the photographization of the wonderful canvas, the flattening of its surface, the brightening of its colors, it seems quite unlikely that this change would drop it from its canonical position within the history of Western Art, and its rightful place in endless compendiums. Further though as Latour admits, its perfect resemblance to its copies in the bookstore creates a certain connection between it and they, most certainly a connection we can conceive of as furthering its very fecundity for copy generation. Far from becoming “sterile” the painting so reconstructed actually has become proliferate. So where does the crime lie?

The Weightless Weight of the Original

First we must briefly follow Bruno Latour’s reworking of Benjamin’s 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which sought to decode why the modern rapidity of mechanistic reproductive means had unseated the location of an “aura” of the original, freeing it from its ritualistic encampments in a singular object. Latour tells us that what Benjamin tried to reveal in his notion of “mechanistic reproduction” was actually “the differential of resistance among all segments of the trajectory”. When the differential is low, that is when processes and expense, perhaps the particularized intensity is very much the same in the making of the copy as with the proposed original, there is no real “aura” of the original to speak of. It becomes diffused. It is for this reason that a contemporary production of King Lear does not suffer too greatly the disparagement of being a mere “copy” when compared to the original production of the play so many centuries ago. There is very little “differential of resistance among” the segments. For this reason as well, all the lithographs in a first run series are equally original. Whereas in the case of paintings, reproductions are not only assumed to be easier, but also there is a potentially a great disparity in process (whether it be a human imitator with brush in hand, or a snap-shooting tourist). Latour sums it up this way:

In other words, it is not because of some inherent quality of painting that we tend to create such a yawning gap between originals and copies -it is not because they are more “materials” (an opera or a play are just as “material” as pigments on canvas)-, but because of the differences in the techniques used for each segment of the trajectory. While in performance art they are grossly homogeneous (each replay relying on the same gamut of techniques) the career of a painting or a sculpture relies on segments which are vastly heterogeneous and which vary greatly in the intensity of the efforts deployed along its path (12)

Yet problematically, just as Latour has spoken only of homogeneity and heterogeneity of techniques, he also will informs us that photography itself is not only heterogeneous, but also the most barren of reproductive forms (14), despite its capacity to spawn numerous  copies, the very power of reproduction that denies barrenness, (how many copies of Ansel Adams prints are there?). Photography has a bad reputation as being an index for reality, it transfers a stigma of a gap in technique between what is photograph and the photograph itself :

Hidden behind the commonsense distinction between original and mere copies, lies a totally different process that has to do with the technical equipment, the amount of care, the intensity of the search for the originality that goes from one version to the next. Before being able to defend itself for re-enacting the original well or badly, a facsimile is discredited beforehand because it is associated with a gap in techniques of reproduction. A gap based on a misunderstanding of photography as an index for reality (12)

I’m not sure what Latour means by “a misunderstanding of photography as an index for reality”. In some very strict senses, photography indeed is an index for reality as anyone who has been convicted of a crime due to surveillance tapes would attest, but photography also is understood to be quite malleable and capable of forgery. I do not want to focus to much upon the nature of Latour’s problem with photography, but rather want to keep track of just what it is about this “differential or resistance” that matters in question of the importance of an original. And I think Latour has the wrong, or least incomplete factor when he speaks of  “the amount of care, the intensity of the search for the originality that goes from one version to the next”  for the Holbein conservators no doubt worked sincerely, searching for the originality (no matter what you think of their results). One certainly could imagine that the Nozze di Cana  duplication, if accomplished by some future molecular duplicating machine with very little “intensity of the search,” would produce equally satisfying “aura” transfer results. Photographs of paintings are not respected as aura entrenched primarily because the change in recording surface and technique is understood to present a change in marked causal histories, the great train of the “original” object).

What really is at stake in the Holbein reconstruction is the very real way that originality has to do with something much more than the number of copies one produces, or even their quality. The reason why an original is sought, why one might want to hold the pen used to sign a historic treaty more than its reproduction, or look closely at canvas from which endless photographs have been taken, is that an original, having given birth to so many copies, is understood to retain within its internal differences the traces of so many causes that have exerted their pressure upon that moment, that little piece of space and time, which then in turn worked to produce so many copies. What the copies do, besides attesting to the historical power of the original, is efface or change something of that record, the enfolded of information that speaks to the conditions of the world that gave birth to that birthing center. There is ever the sense that whatever we thought was important and thus captured in our copies (perhaps in the case of Holbein the clarity of form, the uniqueness of that anamorphic skull), might turn out to be less important than we thought under different questions. The original is not only pregnant in a forwards sense, but also recordedly, in a backwards sense – it captures countless invisibles that helped bring it into being. And thus when there is, what Latour would like to emphasize as, a process gap between the techniques and efforts used to produce the original (and all their recording surfaces for its causes), and those used to copy it, is that the new techniques, the change in registry obscures that connection to the past, the capacity to read the forces that actually were the cause of all those copies (having come to the nexus point of the “original”).

“Existence Precedes Essence” No?

Even though the experience of originality, the aura of it even may have migrated to Italy in the digitally aided copy of the Nozze di Cana (see the discussion of this in the Latour article), which is to say that in its presented condition aspects of the history that lead to the production of the painting might come into better relief than with the original when it was hung opposite the Mona Lisa, the reason why we would chose the save the real original (historically) instead of the excellent facsimile, is obviously that despite the precision of “copying” there are innumerable differences within the first which simply are not present in the latter: an underpainting on the canvas, a chemical composition trace in the oil, the hand-weight on a brush stroke, perhaps a buried fingerprint, all of which are differences uncaptured and uncopied in the new original.

For distinct reasons positional Latour does not claim this backwards leaning importance of the original. He wants to emphasize that any fact or actor in the world gains its substantive weight from the threads of causes that all trace to its present condition. He wants to see each actor as flat, created and suspended in the lateral relations to its position, its network to other actors. He wants originality to be essentially a condition of the present, and a reactive effect of a future, I believe. He wants originality to be something of a constructed illusion. And I do think there are very good reasons to incorporate this constructed sense of the original into one’s view. But restricted to such Latour undercuts something of his own despair over the rather copious reconstruction of “The Ambassadors”. Why indeed should this photographic reconstruction be “bad” (with the implicit judgment that cosmetic plastic surgery of human faces is bad).

What I suggest is that what is disappointing in the Holbein reconstruction is that it effaces exactly what is considered important in the original, the way that it expresses the fullness of causes that brought themselves to bear upon a turning point in history, all of which work to further inform us of the nature of that which has flowed from that originality. To veer somewhat for an analogy, I recently began researching the possible form of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s lens-grinding lathe [ Spinoza’s Foci], a physical, mechanical process he applied himself to almost as often as he did to his philosophical writings. I recalled learning that the reproduction or representation of his said lathe at the Spinozahuis museum had very little to do with the device(s) he likely used. The lathe in the museum was just a rough stand in. This inaccuracy retarded any contemporary possible attempt to link the causal relationship between Spinoza’s experiences at the lathe, and his metaphysical concepts. And while I came much closer to the kind of device he likely used (below), the original device if ever found would possibly be a wealth of recorded and influential information (a sketch of it less so). The point being that it is the record of causal relationships that gives us our urge to get close to and preserve the original of something.

But there is an additional reason why the Holbein restoration is potentially dissatisfying, and that is due to its recursive, causal nature. Its structure having changed over time, its copies now reflected back upon the form of its recording surface, now no longer informs us so clearly about the causative effects that produced it. It no longer looks back into the depths of its own historical origin, but rather serves as something more like a mirror, showing back (forward?) what it produced. This recursivity in fact might work to enhance its very capacity to create a profusion of copies, as the similarity in form enhances our experience of the veracity of its copies. They capture to a great degree its apparent original form. Without the anchoring urge to point backwards in time, this recursive lateral generation simply flattens out and spreads, and not invaluably so. Much is still transferred on. But the sense of the original, its weight, is diminished.

This where I differ from Bruno Latour who says unequivocally the existence of something precedes its essence, in that a host of existential factors and networking actors have to all conspire to give the original its weight. If that were only the case the proliferate and enhanced Holbein would be very far from “barren” or “sterile”. It is rather that due to all those existential forces pressing down towards original, we also count the original as revelatory of other forces that were antecedent to it, and immanent to its own production. This is what gives weight to the original, the way that it reveals its prior world. It is this specific “essence” coherence of relations, which necessarily precedes its existence, residing in what was before it, that prevents the current Holbein profusion from being satisfying. Latour evokes this historic power of the original without being able to identity it within his preferred, horizontal/flat frame of reference, and so he is not able to fully expression the discontinuity between the two objects that generated his article: the more-original-than-the-original facsimile of the Nozze di Cana, and the no-longer-the-same original of The Ambassadors.

Now we can add some flesh to the bones of Latour’s implicit slight to cosmetic plastic surgery (if I read his meaning there). Mirrors or recursive generative structures are not bad things, and when celebrities find themselves reconstructing their faces not only to achieve (correct) them towards their supposed youth, but also so that they achieve the photographic sleek by which the have become known through their copies, and even move towards the impressional ideal they leave in the minds of fans, we have to ask, what has been accomplished in this Holbeinian remaking? What is satisfying, and what is dissatisfying in it? It is notable that under Latour’s “originality  spawns multiple copies” definition the transmigration of nose shapes and lip forms to patients, as well as endless photographic portrayals of great variety, the so-constructed celebrity’s face proves more original than ever. It is copious. But what is lost (and we must keep track of these costs, almost like an accountant), is of course the recorded surface history of forces that fell upon that face prior to reconstruction, the way that we want to come in touch with the record of expression (and their emotions), the genetic traces of family lines, the wealth of interpersonal and sub-personal effects that all resulted in this original person of fame. It might very well be that the fecundity of reproduction outweighs this lost aspect, that the rapidity of replications and imitations caught in and thrust through the mirroring effects propels the person beyond the weight of their own personal history, in the way that Michael Jackson has now become a literal child of an industry and an artform (and no longer so much the Jackson family), losing his personal originality for the originality of an entire recursive birthing that only employs him as a reproductive conduit. This can be so, as becomes the case for Pharaohs, one might say. But in the differential between the originality of Michael Jackson now, and Michael Jackson circa 1976, lies the difference between essence and existence. The power of the original, that which speaks as an origin, is two-fold, that of its progeny, but also and with great weight, to the causes that it directs our attention to. It is Janus-faced.

Evidence toward the nature of Spinoza’s Lathe(s)

Writing an email today to an interested party I found myself running over the evidence that Spinoza used either a hand driven lens-grinding lathe, or one of the springpole variety, such as the Hevelius lathe (Selenographia, 1647). It seemed best to briefly summarize them hear, as though the evidence is scant, it is not non-existent. I have already written briefly on these two lathes here: Spinoza’s Grinding Lathe: An Extended Hypothesis ; Spinoza’s “Spring Pole” Lathe: Experience to Metaphysics and Back

1. The auction of Spinoza’s estate held nine months after his death (4 Nov 1677), accounts for more than one “mill” (mollens). If such mollens are taken to be grinding lathes, it shows that he had more than one, likely for more than one purpose (telescope/microscope; grinding/polishing). It is also very possible that the estate had already lost a number of its items by the time of the auction.

2. Spinoza is generally assumed to have been tubercular. While in remission the disease may not inhibit the stenuousness of activity, when manifest any grinding lathe that would greatly reduce exertion would seem almost necessary. A springpole lathe frees the hands, and allows the larger leg muscles to bear the burden.

3. There is some evidence that Spinoza did work on larger telescope objective lenses, ones that would require heavier iron grinding forms, less conducive to a hand-driven lathe. For instance, Huygens writes his brother in reference to calculations Spinoza had done for a 40 ft. lens (in collaboration with J. Hudde), and ten years after Spinoza’s death, Constantijn Huygens writes of using a 42 ft. Spinoza grinding/polishing form (I have not checked the primary source on this yet, OC IX p. 732) which worked so well that he did not have to lift the lens from the glass to check it for blemishes even after an hour straight of use (suggesting a fixed-glass, hands free devise).

4.Christiaan Huygens at several points in his letters to his brother refers to Spinoza’s championing of small spherical lenses for microscopes. If these are not unground spherical bead-drop lenses, then these would be the kind that required very precise grinding and polishing. One can certainly imagine that hand-driven grinding lathes would be more suitable for this kind of work.

This rough sketch seems to suggest a combination of grinding and polishing lathes were used. Spinoza in his criticism of Huygens’ semi-automated grinding lathes, and artisan concern for basic tried techniques, does strongly advise that whatever Spinoza’s lathe designs, they were of a simple, efficient design. He did not appreciate speculative mechanical experimentation, at least not for its own sake. One imagines that his springpole- and/or hand- lathe was of a tried and true fundamental design, though from Huygens’s comments on Spinoza’s polishing techniques, it does appear that he possessed distinctive techniques which were either discovered by himself as a inventive craftsman, or were from a source not commonly available to others.

A Method of Grinding Small, Spherical Lenses: Spinoza

Van Gutschoven’s Design for Grinding Small Lenses: Letter No. 1147

We have in a letter written to Christiaan Huygens by G. van Gutshoven, descriptions and diagrams of the essential processes for grinding small spherical lenses, as they were likely shared by most contemporaries of the age. The letter is surely a response to a request from Christiaan who may have been in need of smaller lens grinding techniques, either due to his future interest in compound eye-pieces for telescopes, or in regard to the question of the best lenses for microscopes which would later arise in discussions between himself and Johannes Hudde and Spinoza as well. In any case, van Guschoven an Antwerp mathematician, was Huygens’ initial teacher of the complete essentials of lens grinding in the first place, which he gave to him ten years before in a letter dated Feb. 10, 1653. It was by the aid of these instructions, among others,  that Huygens was able to grind one of the most powerful lenses in Europe, and discover the rings of Saturn in 1656.

This letter is dated only as 1663 by the editors of Huygens’s Oeuvres. 1663 was the year that Spinoza had moved to Voorburg, where the Huygens family kept their Hofwijck country estate. That spring Spinoza rented rooms in the home of master painter Daniel Tydeman, but a five minute walk from the Hofwijck. But Christiaanwas not yet there. He was living in Paris with his father who was attempting to curry the diplomatic favor of King Louis XIV, an effort which would result in Constantijn Sr.’s son becoming the secretary to Louis’ Royal Academy of the Sciences, in 1666.

None of this has occurred yet. Christiaan and Spinoza have not yet met (unless they crossed paths momentarily in the summer of 1663, when a traveling Christiaan took leave of Paris to go to London in the off-season). Huygens would not arrive in Holland and develop his relationship to Spinoza until after May of 1664.

What this letter reveals to us though is the basic mechanism and techniques used in the grinding of small lenses. We know that Spinoza made microscopes (and telescopes) at least since the year of 1661, and in his coming debates over techniques and optics with Christiaan he would champion much smaller, more highly curved lenses for microscopes, against Huygens’ designs of lesser magnification. One would think that from van Gutschoven’s descriptions we can receive a sense of the physical practices that preoccupied Spinoza for many of his daylight hours, specializing at times in these smaller lenses.

It should be noted that the Huygens brothers by this time are among the best lens-grinders in Europe, and Christiaan had already worked on several sophistocated semi-automated designs of grinding machines. These instructions must have been experienced as extremely rudimentary to Christiaan (or perhaps, it is from another date).

The letter has three figures, pictured below. The first of these shows a vertical grinding form that is likely of iron or copper. One can see the core movement of a lathe, as foot petal likely drove the strap that turns the shaft, spinning the form concentrically. For larger lenses the form would be hollow, holding the concavity of a curvature that one would want the glass to have. Here though, the small lens is to be ground in the “canal” near its lip:

“Now in this hollowed out canal C D you will grind glasses affixed to a handle and pressed into the canal, with the handle in the hand continuously; while grinding the glass you would turn it until all parts of the glass are equally ground.”

After this equanimity is roughly achieved, attention is turned to the “laminate” or layered strip A B, which turns so the top of it is horizontal to the turner’s bench. By van Gutschoven’sdirection, the laminate is of a soft wood, polar or willow. (Other techniques of the day call for paper.) The roughness of dimples are by hand ground away, and Tripoli, which is a chalky substance made of the remains of microscopic marine life, is added to the laminate to smooth the way.

After this, there is a third process recommended which can either be done in a concave wooden form G H, it too aided by Tripoli, pictured here:

Or, what seems to be a pillow (plombae), affixed to a lathe shaft EG:

There are several things of interest here. The date of the letter makes this description contemporaneous with Spinoza’s own practices, so one might assume a basic correspondence. The grooved canal method strikes one as similar to those a-centric grinding techniques discs used by diamond polishers which Spinoza may have come in contact with either briefly as a merchant of gems, or simply by growing up in a community where gem polishing. The process remained unchanged for several hundred years as late 19th century illustration below shows:

Like the diamond polisher, it is quite possible that Spinoza’s form was oriented horizontally, and not as van Gutschoven suggests, vertically. This was part of a gradual change in lens grinding techniques, much of it initiated by gem polishing influences. The horizontal mould simply made the glass easier to control, and the variable polishes to be administered more cleanly. For this reason, any polishing with Tripoli also occurred on a horizontal, turning wheel. The grinding forms designs that I have seen that the Huygens were using now all had a horizontally oriented lap. 

The second thing to note that in 1667 and 1668, after Christiaan had come to know Spinoza and become familiar with Spinoza’s techniques, he clearly did not still feel comfortable with the limits of van Gutschoven’s design, whenever he had received it, as he in repeated letters urged his brother about the fineness of Spinoza’s small lens polishing. Spinoza’s technique was not that of van Gutschoven. It is my feeling that he had developed, either though his associations in the community he grew up in, those influenced by the practices of gem polishing, means of polishing that were not common to the rest of Europe. Whether these be methods of grit application, the use of diamond dust, particular designs of a simple but effective lathe, one can only surmise. But it seems that Spinoza’s glasses were of a quality and luminosity that made them distinct.

Here is the Latin Text of van Gutschoven’s letter: The Text of van Gutschoven’s Letter to Huygens No. 1148


Aside from this I would want our investigative imagination to extend itself to the physical understanding of these practices, and the conceptual impression they would leave upon a thinking man who engaged in them repeatedly. This has been a theme of my thinking, that if Spinoza had been a potter we may do well to think about his metaphysics and arguments in terms of the potter’s wheel with which he was familiar. The grinding lathe is not so different from the potter’s wheel, and van Gutshoven’s diagrams give us a visual vocabulary for the kinds of effects and exertions that Spinoza produced in perfecting his craft. What in particular these diagrams allow, apart from the general understanding of the grinding lathe, is the picture of a grooved grinding practice, the canal, which varies from the greater method of placing a glass blank within a concave metal form. If indeed Spinoza used this method for his small objectives for microscopes, we can think along with him in the craft of it, and see him bent over the lip of the spinning canal.

As pictured here before, here is an example of a foot petaled lathe from the year 1647, that used by Hevelius. It may give us a dynamic sense of the physical engagement:

Here is a closer look at the Hevelius Lathe: Spinoza’s Grinding Lathe: An Extended Hypothesis

The Rijnsburg Lathe: Like the Sun, not 200 Feet Away

Mystery Solved: Rijnsburg Lathe, a 19th Century Woodturner’s Lathe

Stan Verdult over at the excellent Spinoza site has done excellent research and unearthed the origins of the Rijnsburg lathe, which for some reason the Spinozahuis seems to have been less than forward about. He has uncovered a 1984 Bulletin which tells us that H.G. van de Sande Bakhuyzen who was at that time [±1899] director of the Leiden observatory made an inquiry into the buying of the cutting lathe from a wood turning shop (houtdraaierij) at Leiden, the name (“Dusoswa”). The device had been used for a long time and was to some degree worn out. For a time it was held in the foyer of the observatory before it was taken to Rijnsburg. Without any doubt it is a product of the nineteenth century. It appears to be in mechanical form, less like any grinding lathe Spinoza may have used, and more like a woodturners lathe, used for carving [the above description is my wide paraphrase from Stan Verdult’s most generous rough translation of a portion of the article for me].

Here is an article portion, for those that read Dutch:

I post here my response to Stan Verdult’s call that the lathe should be removed. It makes such an interesting case for those that take Spinoza’s philosophy seriously. Spinoza’s central distinction between Rational and Imaginary knowledge comes into view. The useful impression that the lathe was authentic is part of a museum’s theatrical powers, the attempt to re-create many of the associations that one would have, that Spinoza must have had when walking into that room. In a sense, the “inauthentic” lathe (IS it inauthentic?) delivers many of the affects that an empty room could not. Is this a knowledge that Spinoza would favor?

My posted comment at Stan’s site:

I loved what you have said about the lathe. This is wonderful research. And I do question why the Spinoza house has not been more forthcoming about the nature of its exhibit. But if you are recommending that the lathe be removed from the Spinozahuis in September I’m not sure that that is a good idea. First of all, the lathe gives a strong sense that Spinoza himself worked at lens-grinding. It creates an impact that is important. One should only take it out if there was another that would replace it (which may not be more authentic: perhaps if it was modeled on an image from Hevelius for instance this would be an improvement, but still it would only a guess). Secondly, the lathe there has become a bit iconic. It forms a large part of the visual memory of the house for those that have been there over the years. An empty room would not do. The big problem is that it is not properly labeled. One should simply know that this is a 19th century woodturner’s lathe, just meant to give a general idea, an impression. Lathes in the 19th century had not progressed much from the lathes of the 17th century, and it seems likely that Spinoza used a lathe that was fairly simple in design. (The semi-automatizing “improvements” of savants like Christiaan Huygens were not necessarily seen as improvements by Spinoza: see Letter 32). The odd thing is that the story you have uncovered is a fascinating one. It reveals the texture of the Spinozahuis itself, its living history, the way that history is made. A museum simply does not exist “sub specie aeternitatis”. Revealing how the lathe got there, and acknowledging its role in the living history of the museum would actually direct our attention to some of the more important features about a house trying to keep the memory of Spinoza alive, that history is an effort and a narrative. The important thing is for the exhibit to be clear, and when it is not clear, accurate, I would think.

With the 400 year anniversary of the telescope coming to Middelburg in September, this would be a natural time to emphasize the Spinozahuis lathe’s history, and to organize additional information around the piece letting others become more aware of Spinoza’s commitments to optics, not a small portion of his life.

Spinoza writes of the sun, “when we look at the sun, we imagine it as about 200 feet away from us, an error that does not consist simply in this imagining, but in fact that while we imagine it in this way, we are ignorant of its true distance and the cause of this imagining. For even if we come to know that it is more than 600 diameters of the earth away from us, we nevertheless imagine it is near. For we imagine the sun so near not because we do not know its true distance, but because an affection of the body involves the essence of the sun insofar as our body is affected by the sun” (E2p35s).

The Spinozahuis imaginary presentation of a lathe in a taken-to-be authentic environment provides an interesting case of the theater of the past. We want to affectively feel what the past was like, and part of feeling that is knowing the facts of the past. Though our affective affinities the Spinozahuis lathe communicates many of those facts in a most imaginary way, the wood in its size and geometery speaks to us, and this is important. But if we are to be freed, in a Spinoza sense, our affects must be coupled with knowledge, the tracing out of that tenuous line to the past, one that might mitigate from moment to moment our imaginary composition, but will not diminish it altogether. The sun will still appear to be 200 ft away, and the sun will still rise up out of the sea, even though we know that it does not. But we will be free to know why it does these things.

Descartes and Spinoza: Craft and Reason and The Hand of De Beaune

Some Reflections on Letter 32

Descartes in 1640 reports to Constantijn Huygens, “You might think that I am saddened by this, but in fact I am proud that the hands of the best craftsman do not extend as far as my reasoning” (trans. Gaukroger). And as Graham Burnett translates, “Do you think I am sad? I swear to you that on the contrary, I discern, in the very failure of the hands of the best workers, just how far my reasoning has reached” (Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest, 70).

The occasion is the wounding of the young, brilliant craftsman Florimond De Beaune on a sharp piece of glass, as he was working to accomplish the automated grinding of a lens in a hyperbolic shape on a machine approximating Descartes’ design from La Dioptrique. This at the behest of Descartes himself:

His wound to the hand was so severe that nearly a year later De Beaune could not continue with the project, a project he would not take up again. Descartes’ craftsmanless, all-turning machine could not be achieved. It is as if its “reason” had chewed up even the best of earth’s craftsman.

Compare this to Spinoza’s comment on Christiaan Huygen’s own semi-automated machine, in letter 32 to Oldenburg. (One wonders if he may even had had a now infamous injury to De Beaune in mind.) Descartes seems to write callously to Christiaan’s father in 1640 [following Gaukroger’s citation], 25 years later Spinoza writes soberly about the machine of the son:

…what tho’ thusly he will have accomplished I don’t know, nor, to admit a truth, strongly do I desire to know. For me, as is said, experience has taught that with spherical pans, being polished by a free hand is more sure [tutius] and better than any machine.

Issues of class play heavily into any attempt to synthesize the rationality of a mechanism with the physical hands [and technical expertise] of the required craftsman to build it. What comes to mind for me is the same Constantijn’s Huygens enthused reaction to the baseness of the youths Rembrandt and Lievens in 1629, when he discovered their genius. As Charles Mee relates and quotes:

Unable to have Rubens, Huygens evidently decided to make his own Rubens, and he saw the raw material in Leivens and Rembrandt. He loved the fact that this “noble pair of Leiden youths” came from such lowly parentage (a rich miller was still a miller after all): “no stronger argument can be given against nobility being a matter of blood” (Huygens himself had no noble blood). And the fact of their birth made the two young men all the more claylike, so much more likely to be shaped by a skilled hand. “When I look at the teachers these boys had, I discover that these men are barely above the good repute of common people. They were the sort that were available for a low fee; namely with the slender means of their parents” (Rembrandt’s Portrait ). 

The standing of the rising Regent riche had to position itself between any essentialist noble quality of blood, and the now stirring lower merchant and artisan classes, whose currencied freedoms in trade and mobility were testing ideological Calvinist limits. Leveraging itself as best it could on rational and natural philosophy, a philosopher-scientist-statesman was pursuing a stake in freedom and power, one that rested on the accuracy of his products. In this way it seems that Descartes’ – feigned? – glee over De Beaune’s injury, insofar as it embodied a superhuman outstripping of remedial others, manifests this political distancing to a sure degree. De Beaune was no ignorant worker, for his high knowledge of mathematics made him much more “technician” than craftsman, (in fact de Beaune had proposed the mathematical problem of inverse tangents which Descartes would not be clear on how to solve (letter, Feb 20 1639), and it was his Notes brièves and algebraic essays which would make Latin editions of Descartes Géométrie much more understandable to readers). Reason and rationality could in the abstract certainly in some sense free even the most economically and culturally base kinds (at least those with a disposition to genius), but in fact savants likely imagined that their lone feats of Reason actually distanced themselves from the “hands and limbs” on which they often relied.

Seen in this way, Spinoza’s sober view of Christiaan Huygens machine perhaps embodies something more than a pessimism of design, but rather more is a reading of the very process of liberation which technological development represented for a class of thinkers such as Leibniz or the Huygenses. The liberation of accuracy and clarity was indeed a cherished path, but perhaps because Spinoza was a Jewish merchant’s son, excommunicated, because Spinoza understood personally the position of an elite [his father had standing], within a community itself ostracized though growing with wealth, a double bind which he relinquished purposively, any clarity was necessarily a clarity which connected and liberated all that it touched. It was inconceivable to have dreamed a rationality so clear that it would distance itself from the the hands that were to manifest it. Perhaps Spinoza keeps in his mind the hand of De Beaune.

Two more looks at the Rijnsburg Draaibank

[note: the nature of the Rijnsburg Lathe has been resolved: The Rijnsburg Lathe: Like the Sun, not 200 Feet Away]

Adding to the post below, here are two more looks at the Rijnsburg lathe, passed on to me by Mr. Verdult who runs the excellent Spinoza resource site

A detail from a photo from Theun de Vries’ book on Spinoza (1972) (page 101)

A photo found at

A Closer Look at the Rijnsburg Lathe

[note: the nature of the Rijnsburg Lathe has been resolved: The Rijnsburg Lathe: Like the Sun, not 200 Feet Away]

I am still attempting to assess the documentation and authority of the lens lathe at the Rijnsburg Spinozahuis. If anyone has notions of either the historical accuracy of this device, or even the working designs of its construction, your thoughts are appreciated. Posted are two perspectives, one taken from a Spinozahuis photograph, the second is of an illustration of something of the same as found in Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza (2006).

A detail of Goldstein’s illustration

A Short Note on the Notion of Spinoza as Craftsman

I was discussing with my wife this developing idea that Spinoza’s metaphysical work needs to be understood in light of the specific practices and techniques he engaged in as a lens-grinder. I was busy describing to her how physical the act of lathing is, the dynamics of its transformations, and how when one watches it, seeing it, simply thinking of it as an act of grinding, or in terms of the materials used, is insufficient.

She came up with one of those apt analogies, which are particular to her mind, saying something of the order, “Yes, it would be like knowing what clay is, and even understanding what a potter’s wheel might be, but having never seen it in action”. I think that she is very right. We think of Spinoza as a lens-grinder, perhaps see him hunched over a workbench, vaguely picturing his hands cusped, pressing something hard and small against something spinning. Maybe we hear in the background the requisite sound of grinding, something metal on metal. But none of this really is what the picture-of-the-world of lathework provides. There is something potters-wheel-like in the combination of changes faster than the eye can see, amid a stability, a stability that communicates itself both despite and because of change. It embodies, in a very real way, what conceptually can only read as paradox, natura naturata and natura naturans. In it conflict and pressures create forms that rise out of an unformed, and the physicality of “idea” is not so much a theoretical and abstract position, as a real and experienced fact. Perhaps this is what he meant by his “demonstration” of the “eyes of the mind”.

If a philosopher were a full-time potter, it would serve to look to the potter’s wheel and its effects as a source of conceptual inspiration. So with the lathe, the pan and the glass.

I think that if anything, Spinoza’s metaphysics, the equanimity with which he treats the material world, never letting it fall to the inferior position, insists upon a craftsman’s understanding of the world, and what practically must be done. We are mislead, I believe, due to the Idealism that followed after Spinoza, into thinking about Idea even in the case of Spinoza, in an etherial, and not so much an informational sense. Further, the technical, the engined, if guided by Spinoza’s hand, must be understood as craft. If one watches a lathe, and thinks in Spinoza’s terms, one sees the world spin and fix.



The Lathe Mind: What Spinoza Meant by “Individual”

What is a Lathe?

I have begun my study of the lens-grinding practices of Spinoza, and how they may have helped structure his non-Cartesian conception of Representation, and metaphysics. I will not be reporting the preponderance of my discoveries here, saving them for an article in process, but already efforts are paying off. Very little has been written on Spinoza’s lens-grinding, and almost no scholarly study has been conducted as to these connections, so this is, as far as I can tell, conceptually virgin ground in Spinoza studies.

For those who do not have a vivid conception of what lathe work is, and the basic dynamics involved, posted above is a youtube video which shows a foot-powered lathe that is not in principle distinct from the lathe that Spinoza must have used (as of yet, I cannot ascertain if it was likely to be hand or foot powered). As one can see, the rotational power of the lathe provides a concentric force for shaping material evenly, and spherically. Most broadly, it is assumed that Spinoza as a lens-grinder would by hand hold the lens blank against a rotating metal “pan” patina, which previously had been shaped into a mould form. A variable grit recipe of abrasives is placed in the pan during grinding, to aid in the shaping, and then polishing, of the lens.

Here is the eariliest illustration of lens-lathing, from a 17th century work of optics (woodcut from Manzini):

Pictured is a torino in aria, a “turner in air” device, so named because the lens had to be held high, above the eyes (there is of course a rhetoric of ascension). If it is unclear, the right hand turns a crank, which sets a vertical belt in motion, which itself turns a horizontal axis above, at whose end is a hemispherical pan, into which the left hand inserts a glass blank, itself cemented to a handle for easy grasping. This early Italian model was most likely modified by the time of Spinoza’s practice, so that the lens was held lower down, at a table or a bench. Its basic mechanics were the same.

A Reconsideration of Spinoza’s Definition of an Individual

But, for a moment, let us consider how just this motion of grinding a hand-held object against a rotating and grinding circular surface imparts to us additional information for how Spinoza conceived his various propositions, and intended them to be understood. (For it is often that a picture of the world and its relations, is that which guides our claims and descriptions).

What I have in mind, is Spinoza’s very interesting definition of what a “body” is. It is a definition I have often thought that I have understood, and even have used in my own arguments. But somehow here, with the dynamics of this technical process shedding their light upon Spinoza’s metaphysics, this Defintion comes to life in a new way:

Definition: When some bodies of the same or a differing magnitude apart from what remains [ a reliquis ] are so controled that reciprically [ invicem ] they may press against [each other], or if they with the same or diverse speeds by degrees are moved so that their motions through some fixed rule [ certa quadam ratione] reciprically they communicate; those bodies, reciprically, are united we say, and they all at once [simul ] one body or Individual compose, which through this bodily union is distinguished apart from what remains [ a reliquis ].

-Ethics II, Lemma 3, Axiom 2″, Defintion

I include Curley’s, largely taken to be precise, translation of the same passage, for interpretive comparison, most notable is his inconsistent translation of the phrase “a reliquis“; in the first half of the definition is left under-translated as an agent “other bodies”, and then in the latter half, as an ablative of separation. The notions of “remainder” [ reliquis ] and “alternate turns” or recipricality [ invictem ] when seen in view of a mechanical process can have greater meaning:

Definition: When a number of bodies, whether of the same or different size, are so constrained by other bodies that they lie upon one another, or if they so move, whether with the same degree or different degrees of speed, that they communicate their motions to each other in a certain fixed manner, we shall say that those bodies are united with one another and that they all together compose one body or Individual, which is distinguished from the others by the union of bodies.

-Ethics II, Lemma 3, Axiom 2″, Defintion

DEFINITIO. Cum corpora aliquot eiusdem aut diversae magnitudinis a reliquis ita coercentur, ut invicem incumbant, vel si eodem aut diversis celeritatis gradibus moventur, ut motus suos invicem certa quadam ratione communicent, illa corpora invicem unita dicemus, et omnia simul unum corpus, sive individuum componere, quod a reliquis per hanc corporum unionem distinguitur.

Aside from the particularities of translation, this has always been a spectacular definition of what an Individual is, for it freed up our concept of what it means to combine and act as a whole. Thereby, any ratio of speeds and communicated motions, such that it preserves itself, suddenly becomes a “body”. The entire world opens up to such transitions, of concrete things coming into a fixity of ratios and passing out, such that the boundaries of bodies, and their definitions, becomes fluid and I think cybernetic. For instance, my car and myself, as I drive it, fall under this notion of an “Individual” making Spinoza applicable to the post-industrial times.

But when we picture this definition of communicated motions and fixed manners in the specificity of a lens-grind lathe, something more comes about. To the human eye, as it turns the finishing pan strikes one as quite distinct from the lens on which it acts. It is spinning and the lens is relatively fixed. But the two in their communication of their motional states in a fixed manner – the idea of the mathematical calculation, the rule which determined the shape of the pan – come together. Two objects have been brought into a particular relation, under a rule. Here the differential of the degree of speed, under a constraint, allows the ratio of their fixity – a certain stillness, an eternity – to be partaken of, which makes of the two, one thing, a composite. We can leave aside for the purposes of a simplicity of illustration the sensate figure of the human craftsman who is fixing the lens, yet turning the lathe, a figure which necessarily must be worked into the cybernetic model of a communication of speeds and parts. But between the two parts of the patina andvitrum a combinational process creates a single Individual, one which perhaps lies key to how Spinoza imagined his Ethics to be read and used. The rest of this passage on bodies and ratios and fluids also benefits from just this technical reading as well.