11. A Full Stop

Object type: Engraving

Materials: Ink on Paper.

Location: from Robert Hooke, Micrographia (1665).

© Photo by curator, with kind permission of University of Michigan Special Collections.


Robert Hooke was the curator of the first museum with modern ambitions, the first working museum of natural history in the first major institution dedicated to what we would call “science.”  This was the Repository of the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, and Hooke was its “Keeper,” responsible for maintaining its collections and for the regular production of experiments.  He lived where he worked, at the center of this collection.  In return, the Repository offered him what this museum calls a cognitive ecology-- not only his home and the network of things he used to think, but also the vocabulary for making sense of himself and the operations of his mind. 

“Ecology” means something like a "study of home,” and, in a number of ways, when Hooke peered into his mind, he ended up describing his place of work.  In his lectures on light, in which he is thinking about the rapidity of things, he takes time for a lengthy digression.  He supposes that the mind is a sort of workshop at the center of a vast repository, filled with little waxlike ideas.  He means this in a literal way; he pauses several times to remind us of the evidence for supposing that mind-work is linked to brainwork, that mentation is a property of physical arrangements of things.  And the fundamental structure of this arrangement, by this account, is the structure of a working museum, in which a curator, which he calls the “Soul,” presides over a collection of objects (see pp 18, 138-144).  This is a clear example of the mind as a collection.

Robert Hooke's microscope, and his powerful apparatus for illumination.  Photo by curator, from the University of Michigan website.

Hooke is today best-known for his Micrographia, a dazzling folio-sized study of various holdings of the Repository examined through a high-powered microscope [the design of which (right) is featured in the book itself].  Much has been written on Hooke’s microscopic researches, including Catherine Wilson’s magnificent Invisible World, so I will have little to add about the book as a whole.  My interest is largely in how Micrographia emerged as the effect of an ecology, of Hooke in his mind-space and brain-museum: Hooke in his home.  For it is as a property or element of an ecology that some of the first objects featured in the book (and some of its strangest) emerge into luminescence.  Among these is one of the very first: what Hooke calls a “full stop,” a typographical period, the sort of thing used to end any sentence, like this one, here.

Nothing could be more like a nutshell than a period.  A period is designed to be disregarded.  It has a job of work to do—but we are not meant to notice it.  In fact, the name of the mark is also the name of the thing that it precedes; the whole point of a "period" it to signal that the length of a thought (a rhetorical "period") has come to an end.  Under Hooke’s penetrating eye, however, the period blossoms into significance.  Indeed, in the period, which the microscope transforms into a “smutty daubing" (at the top of this page), Hooke begins to unpack a whole natural history of print.  Close examination reveals traces of the paper-layer’s trade, and the ink-maker's, signs of the founder’s work in the irregularities of the type and of the printer's labor in the wear of a font which had no doubt been used and reused numerous times.  There is no such thing as a period-- at least not when seen through the microscope.  There are only nodes in an unimaginably complex network of things.  This is what can be liberated from a close look at even the most insignificant of signs.

Hooke’s prose is seductive—which is another way of saying that it digresses, it leads us astray.  Hardly any better example of such a digression can be found than his description of the period.  Digression means to “turn aside”; this is how it is similar to seduction, which means to draw apart.  Like seduction, digression deploys the figure or metaphor of movement in space to islolate the habits or movement of the mind.  The value of the period, when deployed rhetorically, is that it closes things down.  When seen through a microscope, however, the period is the beginning of something else.  Its value is the digressive thought it sponsors, the way it organizes a network of persons and things in an ecology.  

Hooke's prose repeatedly leans on digressions, for digressions share a structure with an episode in experimental microscopy.  He turns from the straight path of argument to explore the resonances of interesting things.  He comes to a full stop; he allows himself to digress; and he returns to the point.  The language is Hooke’s, who deploys the puns deliberately.   This looping into the world, prompted by an object or an idea, is what I (and others) have elsewhere characterized as “thinkering”; it is in Hooke’s ecology simply the way that thinking happens: thoughts start in the mind, proceed out into the world, and return to the mind.  Or, they start in the world, proceed into the mind, and make their way back out again.  Digression is the formal name for this sort of dialectical, to-and-fro looping, and it captures, for Hooke, at least, the richest and truest way of thinking about the world.

Micrographia starts with the simplest of objects in order to demonstrate their complexity-- on the logic that if the simplest objects were complex, then so too would everything be.  He begins with axiomatic shapes-- a point, a line, a cone; he finds the things in the world that present examples of teach to the eye-- a dot, the edge of a razor, the point of a needle.  And he uses the microscope to reveal the complexities lurking in each: the dot is in fact a dark sun, haloed with solar flares; the razor's edge is a jagged sawblade crossed with nicks and scratches; the needle's point is a blunt knob.  The Micrographia is in this way an early treatise on complexity; it is part of a project, explored by Hooke and others, about the strange self-similarities that emerge at scale.  

Hooke's project was in the end shot through with a certain mechanistic optimism, a kind of hunch that the same sorts of machines that worked at a large scale would also be found at a smaller scale.  This hunch fueled more than one set of early science fictions; Jonathan Swift of course leveraged questions of scale into a sustained satire.  What resulted was Gulliver's Travels, one of the gems of Augustan prose.  And Margaret Cavendish variously hypothesized about the possibility of finding an entire world, at a vanishingly small scale, in the compass of an ear-ring.

Of Many Worlds in This World
JUST like unto a Nest of Boxes round,
Degrees of sizes within each Boxe are found.
So in this World, may many Worlds more be,
Thinner, and lesse, and lesse still by degree;
Although they are not subject to our Sense,
A World may be no bigger then two-pence.
Nature is curious, and such works may make,
That our dull Sense can never finde, but seape.
For Creatures, small as Atomes, may be there,
If every Atome a Creatures Figure beare.
If foure Atomes a World can make,* then see,
What severall Worlds might in an Eare-ring bee.
For Millions of these Atomes may bee in
The Head of one small, little, single Pin.
And if thus small, then Ladies well may weare
A World of Worlds, as Pendents in each Eare.

Hooke himself in fact indulges in exactly this fantasy, supposing that there might be a world swimming in a drop of water, just as our world might be a mere point in a much larger system.  

It was finally Hooke's set of hunches about self-similarity that made possible his intuitions about the mind.  For Hooke in the end imagined that the soul, in its workshop, surrounded by the ideas of its repository, was formally like Hooke, in his laboratory, surrounded by the objects of his repository.  This hunch about mechanical self-similarity was therefore an important part of the early ushering-in of information theory, of thinking of thinking as the storage and manipulation of materials.  Once mentation is tied to brainwork, rather than being located as the special property of a soul, it has seemed necessary to many that some sort of inscription, tracing, or engraving operation would be occurring at a microscopic level; this is one of the ways of accounting for the brain’s ability to "store" memories.  The mind at birth, John Locke famously opined, is like blank paper; Locke's mentor, anatomist Thomas Willis, was among those who habitually slipped from the transcription metaphor into remarks on the substance of the brain (Exhibit 4a).  So too did Sir Kenelm Digby (see Exhibit 11a).  

Laine Stranahan, "The Rosetta Disk."  Photo from The Long Now.  I can't help noticing the formal similarities between Stranahan's image and the title page of Scheiner's essay on the Pantograph.

Hooke's discussion of the period, the "full stop," ends up thinkering how the mind could store information at such a small scale.  He winds into considerations about compact transcription methods, about "micrographia" in the word's other sense: that is, "tiny writing."  He thinks about the Lord's Prayer written so small that it could be inscribed in the breadth of a two-pence.  He considers other techniques for the compact storage of information-- even happening upon a proposal for the secret transmission of information via what would come (three centuries later) to be called micro-dots (see William White's excellent history), and, in a different way, the Rosetta Project of the Long Now.  He was, in other words, developing the habits of hand and the micrographic transcription techniques that provided a vocabulary for thinking about mentation-- just at the same time that he was developing the space of thought that would make these theorizations possible.