Bureaucracy: Classifying


Classifying is a key principle of bureaucracy, one that is arguably present in any bureaucratic form. Modern classificatory paradigms have their own, particular history, which emerged out of natural history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And, even if it is no longer the dominant mode of knowledge production, classification is nonetheless an inescapable one. It occurs on grand scales as often as it does miniscule ones, in projects to catalog and identify all known plants and in the organization of documents in file folders.

Nova genera et species plantarum

Nova Genera et Species Plantarum (New Varieties and Species of Plants) contains an extensive collection of descriptions and illustrations of 4,500 plant species. Published in Paris by botanist Carl Sigismund Kunth, the book is one of seven volumes documenting the botanical collections that Alexander Humboldt and Amié Bonpland completed on their 1799-1804 travels through Spanish America (what is now Mexico and South America). The series, entitled Voyage aux Régions Equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent fait en 1799 – 1804, as published between 1815 and 1825; it is composed of massive volumes that identify, describe, and illustrate New World plants. The large size of the book is due to the scale of the drawings, which were drawn to show exact detail. Like many natural histories, Nova Genera was sold as loose broadside sheets; individuals were responsible for arranging for their own copies to be bound, an arrangement that sometimes resulted in mispagination. For example, the illustration shown here (Tab. 168) was bound after Tab. 169.

Humboldt was a German explorer who worked as a mining consultant before convincing the Spanish government to fund his expedition to Spanish America. His travels became part of an effort by Spain to modernize its colonial social and political structures, which for many years had been in revolt. State officials also hoped to locate new mineralogical resources (Pratt 112). Humboldt and Bonpland confirmed the existence of the Orinoco River, and they traveled to Havana and to Mexico, where they spent months researching in libraries, archives, and botanic gardens not previously open to non-Spanish men of science. Upon returning to Europe, Humboldt promoted the travels and the men’s findings by curating a botanical exhibition at the Jardin des Plantes, France’s primary botanical garden in Paris; he also began the work of publishing what would become thirty volumes about the expedition.

Humboldt and Bonpland employed the system of binomial classification advocated by Carl Linnaeus in his 1735 Systema Naturae to identify unfamiliar plants, and their extension of the Linnaean system to South America can be seen as an attempt to unify the globe under one botanical classificatory system (Pratt). Botanists still cite the work of Humboldt and Bonpland as a model for classificatory systems (Lack). However, in the nineteenth century, such global projects were often complicated by competing models. For example, around the time that Nova Genera was published, another set of publishers produced descriptions of many of the same plants but gave them different names, thus creating confusion as naturalists attempted to identify and classify plants (Stearn). These profusions of names indicate the instability of classificatory systems in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If classification worked to stabilize the identity of objects such as plants, the existence of multiple, competing classificatory systems undercut those aims.

Find Nova genera in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

The Botanic Garden: a Poem in Two Parts, with Philosophical Notes

Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, published this long, annotated poem in two parts: Part II, Loves of the Plants, originally appeared in 1789, and Part I, The Economy of Vegetation, followed in 1791. The copies on display here are the third and fourth editions, respectively, of this popular and widely read philosophical work. Loves of the Plants rendered Linnaeus’s binomial system of plant classification in ornate, allegorical poetry: the stamen and pistils of each plant appear as the blushing, bowing, kissing, cavorting maids and swains of a pastoral romance, while the voluminous notes explain the scientific concepts behind the behaviors represented in the verse. Economy of Vegetation took a much wider purview, detailing current scientific theories in fields as far reaching as chemistry, galvanism, atmospheric science, and classical mythology. Both volumes contain high quality full-page engravings designed by important artists and botanical illustrators of the day, including Emma Crew, Frederick Polydore Nodder, Henry Fuseli and William Blake.

While explicitly a taxonomic work based on Darwin’s own translation of Linnaeus’s system, Loves of the Plants garnered extreme reactions—both positive and negative—from contemporary readers for the sexual language and imagery it contained. For example, of the American Cowslip, the poem conveys: “Meadia’s soft chains five suppliant beaux confess, / And hand in hand the laughing belle address; / Alike to all, she bows with wanton air, / Rolls her dark eye, and waves her golden hair” (p. 6). In these lines, the italicized “five” indicates the number “male” stamen present in each flower relative to the number of “female” pistils, in this case one. All five “beaux” address the belle at the same time, indicating a difference from plants in which stamen arrive at maturity in stages. The personified plant’s responses indicates the pistil’s motion as it bends toward the stamen to effect pollination; her dark eyes and waving golden hair indicate the colors and shape of the flower, figuratively conveying Darwin’s speculation that “the petals are so beautifully turned back to prevent the rain of dew drops from sliding down [the stem] and washing off [the pollen] prematurely” (p. 6, note). Although the strictly “scientific” content is explained in the accompanying footnote, Darwin’s verse cannot help but move into the risqué—it represents a sexual relationship between five men and one woman—and the addition of a “wanton” bow and rolling eye only heightens the sexual charge of the passage. Whether, as critics have argued, the poem tends to reinforce conventional gendered stereotypes or radically transgresses the sexual mores of the time, it triggered an immediate barrage of responses (see Bewell, Browne, Fulford, and Teute). While conservative critics bemoaned its immorality and corrupting influence on female readers, women authors saw Darwin’s work as an invitation to pursue botanical knowledge and the potentially liberating implications of its sexual system of classification.

Find The Botanic garden: a Poem in Two Parts, with Philosophical Notes in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

The Elizabethan Zoo: a book of beasts both fabulous and authentic

Comprising a zoological selection from Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Foure-footed Beastes (1607) and The Historie of Serpents (1608), The Elizabethan Zoo was edited by twentieth-century historian and scholar of Tudor England, Muriel St. Clare Byrne. The book depicts zoological creatures, both real and mythical, ranging from Lions to Lamias. Combining natural history, folklore, and mythology, Byrne’s Zoo represents each creature with a reproduction of Topsell’s woodblock illustration hovering above a description transcribed verbatim from the original text. Fabulous creatures sit side-by-side with specimens from far-off locals relatively unknown in seventeenth-century England, provoking the modern reader to question the purpose of Byrne’s republication of this curious content. By reprinting Topsell’s catalogue in 1926, Byrne poses a question about twentieth-century systems of zoological classification: in the formation of modern disciplines, what is lost when we differentiate between the real and the mythical?

As Byrne indicates in her Introduction, Topsell’s books were compilations of zoological knowledge current in Renaissance England. They were, according to Topsell himself, serious reference books, meant to be consulted by “Divines and Students” and aimed at “Describing the true and lively figure of every Beast, with a discourse of their several Names, Conditions, Kindes, Vertues (both natural and medicinall), Countries of their breed, their love and hate to Mankind, and the wonderful worke of God in their Creation, Preservation, and Destruction” (Topsell, t.p.). Topsell’s early seventeenth-century catalogue of beasts drew much of its material from Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (1551-1558), one of the most important zoological treatises of the late sixteenth century. Topsell also includes extensive lists of authorities consulted, bolstering the legitimacy of his bestiary. As was often the case with large scale reference books, however, The Historie represents only a portion of Topsell’s projected publications, stemming from the “failure of his patron to lend him the financial support which he was obviously soliciting” (Heltzel 199-200). Patronage was crucial to the economic system of publishing in seventeenth-century England; it advanced works of art and literature by financially and socially supporting artists (Griffin 16). Some if not most artists were unable to produce work if patrons did not support them, as was the case for Topsell. Whatever his ambitions for these natural histories, Topsell was limited by the systems of publishing current in Renaissance England.

Although The Elizabethan Zoo derives from Topsell’s works, Byrne’s process of editorial selection adds a layer of complexity. The information, illustrations, and language of the descriptions remain the same, but the purpose of the catalogue shifts across it various iterations. Gesner catalogued creatures from classical source and travel narratives, Topsell gathered information from and translated Gesner to comprise his own catalogue of creatures, and Byrne selectively compiles materials from works by Topsell and Holland. The Elizabethan Zoo is thus a recompilation of a seventeenth-century compilation that translates a sixteenth-century compilation. If implicitly, Byrne’s editorial work replicates the processes and procedures of Renaissance knowledge making.

In her Introduction, Byrne claims that Topsell’s descriptions and illustrations contain the “residuum of medieval credulity, anecdote and legendary lore” which will “delight the twentieth-century [reader] with their quaintness and comicality” (v). It is the disjunction between Renaissance natural history and modern zoology that makes The Elizabethan Zoo a spring of curiosity and wonder to the modern reader. The most alluring aspect of both Topsell’s and Gesner’s catalogues are their woodblock illustrations (Westhrop). In both Topsell’s original and Byrne’s re-collection, the Mantichora bears an ear-to-ear smile of human teeth, a bearded chin, and rugged body resembling a lion; and the Lamia’s scaled body reveals human breasts and seductive, feminine face. The descriptions heighten this fascination with mixture: the Mantichora has “face and eares like unto a mans, his eies gray, and collour red, his taile like the taile of a Scorpion of the earth, armed with a sting, casting forth sharp pointed quils” (76). The illustrations and text invite readers to imagine the result of merging human and animal in ways that violate modern classificatory paradigms.

The Elizabethan Zoo is a slimmed down Renaissance reference book remade for the amusement of modern audiences. The allure of the collection resides in its combination of fabulous and real, a distinction only available to modern readers whose worldview has been structured by the bureaucratic forms of twentieth-century science.

Find The Elizabethan Zoo: a book of beasts both fabulous and authentic in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

Outlines of lessons in botany: for the use of teachers, or mothers studying with their children

Still used today by homeschooling families, Outlines of Lessons in Botany: For the use of Teachers, or Mothers Studying with their Children is a charming text published in two volumes. The first volume, From Seed to Leaf, includes information about different types of plants and their uses. The second volume, Flower and Fruit, provides information about flowers, fruits, and their different uses. Both volumes are arranged as natural histories: chapters are organized by various plant species and further into chapters and sections for each plant part—petal, stem, root, and so on. Newell states in the preface that she seeks a new method of teaching botany that moves beyond the “dry, technical classification” of plants. Indeed, the books teach the principles of classification by taking nature as a “textbook,” a move that suggests that these principles are inherent in nature and that students will learn to classify by observing, learning, and copying the classifications in nature.

Find Outlines of lessons in botany in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

La creación

La creación is a nine-volume set of natural histories based on the wide ranging travels of zoologist Alfred Edmund Brehm (1829-1884). This Spanish edition was published in 1880 in Barcelona, four years before the author’s death; it was translated from the latest German edition. Brehm, a German zoologist and illustrator, went on expeditions to Africa, Scandinavia, Siberia, and Egypt, among other places. On those travels he collected information about and, in some cases, live specimens of, the animals and people he encountered. The first volume, shown here, displays racial and anatomical classifications of humans and animals. While Brehm’s title promises to describe the animal kingdom, the book begins with descriptions and classifications of human bodies—skulls, vertebrae, and so on—before proceeding to zoology.

The lithographs of human skulls and brightly colored illustrations of five “razes,” or races, participated in nineteenth-century projects to determine differences among humans based on the skull’s size, volume, shape, and angles. The goal of such study was to classify humans in racial categories, a practice that came to be known as “scientific racism.” According to many naturalists, there were five races, the Caucasian, Mongolian, American, Malay, and Ethiopian, which could be correlated to the earth’s continents. By positing separate origins for each race, such theories departed from older views that all humans came from a common ancestor, Adam.

Brehm discusses several racial classification schemes, proposed by men of science such as Carl Linnaeus, Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon, and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. He then offers a discussion of five human races, white, red, yellow, brown, and black, each differentiated according to skull size and shape. In addition to colorful illustrations depicting each race, their clothing, and objects that provided cultural information, the book includes detailed lithographs, showing the range of human types, from illustrations of Celtic skulls to those of the head of a “Venus hotentote” (clv). For example, Brehm compares two skulls, the craneo del negro and the craneo del europeo, or the Negro skull and European skull, with the skulls of gorillas (5). The images and text suggest that the elongated African American skull more closely resembled the gorilla skull than it did the European skull. Such images supported a popular theory “that Caucasians had big brains” and “blacks had small ones” (40). The color illustrations of the five races likewise support such assumptions about white superiority. For example, an illustration of raza blanca, or the white race, shows griegos (Greeks) looking very refined, well-dressed and groomed. The image of raza negra, or the black race, pictures two “cafres” (kaffirs; a term for South African blacks, now considered offensive) who are only partially clothed. Another illustration portrays a group of Eskimos huddled around a fire, outside a tent, with fish lying on the ground. The depictions make the white race the basis for comparison, by drawing attention to how different the other races are from the white races in clothing, habitat, and even skull size. Brehm applied these same anatomical methodologies to classify animals, from gorillas to skunks, thus suggesting that anatomical—and thus racial—differences were inherent in nature. His written descriptions and images present an orderly, classified world in which both humans and animals fit securely into stable categories that supported a racially stratified social order.

Find La creacion in the UNT Libraries Catalog.

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