Under the Lens

The Stanhope lens—a portable, powerful, and cheap “help to the knowledge of common things”— circa 1830.

Rational recreation was visual education. Enlightened entertainment allowed for the legitimate indulging of the eyes in nondelusory patterns and mind-building shapes. International in appeal, this popular form of instruction relied on novel and sensuous technology. Here, however, was the rub. Optically communicated information comprised the stock-in trade of quackish hosts of prestidigitators, operators, schemers, empirics, entrepreneurs, and instrument makers. Rational recreation therefore was also the deliberate counterpoint to fantastic or irrational recreation. On one hand, the competitive leisure industry pressured the informing philosophical illusionist to distinguish himself from the deluding conjuror. On the other hand, popular educators relied on the same battery of stunning newfangled devices to attract the consumer’s gaze.

The hazardous and contested boundary between serious and spurious forms of culture mirrored the larger ambiguities of what it means to be a professional or a “mechanic” during the eighteenth century. Charging money for services, deploying ostentatious equipment, but above all playing on visual appeal raised the old problem of the role of the eye in cognition. At issue was the ancient question of what constitutes bad teaching. Plato’s ethical argument against the Sophists had accused them of using the corrupting spell of rhetoric to please and entertain the idle rich rather than the noble virtue of philosophy to train ethical citizens for the healthy polis. The gratification of the base “common” senses was not to be confounded with high intellectual enjoyment.

For eighteenth-century thinkers, the role of pleasure in the formation of an “educated sensibility” remained troublingly equivocal. This ancient problem was compounded for the moderns by the proliferation of useful and delightful instruments. Both the instructor and the mountebank manipulated gadgetry to visiblize an invisible realm. Matters were further muddied because this host of attractive devices was uncontrollably accumulated by the young, their parents, and an ever-widening middle class public. The challenge for enlighteners, then, was to fill leisure hours pleasantly and productively while paradoxically relying on sophisticated fairground apparatus.

Barbara Stafford, Artful Science: Enlightenment Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education, p. 73