Date of this Version
Renaissance Quarterly 53 (2000): 192-
This essay reassesses the role of reading in the context of seventeenth-century natural philosophy by analyzing Galileo Galilei’s Starry Messenger and Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World. The unreliability of telescopic vision becomes a dominant metaphor for the unreliability of reading printed texts. Where Galileo sought to put the reader in his own position as a scientific observer by making reading a form of observation, Cavendish used the telescopic image to show how readers become the makers of their own fictions. From the recognition that reading and observation finally reveal our relationship to the world rather than the world itself comes what will ultimately be the modern assumption that acts of observation are also acts of reading.
Recent studies in early modern criticism have enlarged our understandings of the categories of author and text. While analyses of considerable sophistication have helped us understand the historical context that surrounded the production and publication of early modern texts, it is perhaps surprising how little attention has been paid to the activity in which we ourselves are most engaged—reading. Although it is only one among a number of developments in optics and visual technology, the telescope exemplified the new visual culture of the seventeenth century. This visual culture was characterized by a new understanding of how we, as observers, are related to the world around us. What Galileo and Cavendish recognized was that all acts of seeing—whether through a telescope, in a pinhole camera, or simply with our own eyes—involve artifice, mediation, and a necessary distortion. In this philosophical context, what is true of ocular perception is by extension also true of cognitive apprehension. Changes in how reading is understood thus follow more general philosophical developments about perception as a whole. This new understanding of how we "see" has a lasting significance because it determines how scientific and literary culture defines who their readers are, what they do, and what kind of apprehension is possible in texts. After the early modern period, texts convey facts but cannot produce "knowledge." Reading and observation are not simply about the "real world"; rather, they are about our relationship to that world. Out of this recognition—shared by Galileo and Cavendish—comes what will ultimately be the modern assumption that all acts of observation are acts of reading. If the telescope was for the seventeenth century a metaphor for reading as an act of apprehension, reading has ultimately become for us a figure for perception.