We've been doing some research trips in Leiden, Leiden being something of a historical centre of enlightenment-era anatomy, and speaking at length with historian Marieke Hendriksen, whose research projects into the collections at Leiden ("Collections of Perfection" and "Elegant Anatomy") were a big inspiration for the work Joana and I are doing.
We visited the Leiden Medical collection which has quite every pathology that has ever been witnessed in the human body. There are many compelling concepts from this era of anatomy that make us reflect on our own bodies and somehow relate those reflections to the bodies of artificial intelligence systems. Concepts such as monstrocity, aesthesis, certain notions of collection, separation and preparation and science-as-spectacle.
Part of the epistemological world of this early anatomy, Hendricksen argues, was rooted in the idea of aesthesis, the power of sensation. It's also helpful to think of this as the power that sensation exherts, what does it mean to create an anatomical preparation that exerts power over various bodies? Over bodies of knowledge, the body politic, over the flesh and bone of the living and the dead? Aesthesis was a really important thing in this scene of Dutch anatomists partly because these collections of specimens doubled as commodities. So in a way there was a drive to produce anatomical specimens that were both powerful in expressing some sort of fundamental knowledge, as well as present that knowledge in a way that to be in its presence incited awe, wonder, envy.
Also, because we're looking at this early-Enlightenment period where you have a tension between the realisation that rationality is important and can lead to a certain type of understanding of the world. But at the same time you have the weight of religion. Especially the early anatomists said they were doing God's work. And that's because, you know, the body of man is God's greatest creation. If they could understand the greatest of the maker's works, then they somehow become even closer to God. This is the game they were playing, I guess. Rather than thinking that the human body is off-limits because it's God's greatest creation, actually deconstructing and understanding it, becoming "hands-on", is the divine thing to do. Rather than thinking of the machinery of the body, that knowledge, as other. So there's this interesting shift in epistemology that's going on during this this time period and as it relates to the body. And this is a reference point for us when thinking about the shift in epistemology that machine learning and artificial intelligence brings to the current landscape.