Saturday, November 17, 2007

Seeing the Past

Review by Roy Porter in Past and Present, 118, 1988, pp 186-205.

In this review Porter asks how we can read visual evidence such as prints. He points to problems with using prints as saying something real about what they portray - at least as regards the topic of a particular print (the madman acting out stage madness 202). Possibly we can use the wallpaper or peripheral figures more easily since they were intended specifically AS background (204). I think he is on to something here - but I also believe it is important and useful to understand what the "stock images" were.

He argues that prints were for the same audience as verbal texts - and that that audience was a literate elite. Political prints were, he says, "aimed at a particular elite of the reading public" (90). As evidence he uses the small print runs and the coded nature of the prints (changing over time) - something which in turn he blames on a desire to avoid censorship (all on page 191). I disagree. Prints may have been intended for that elite audience, but what was intended as political was clearly used by others for different reasons - and if the messages were coded it becomes even easier to reinterpret (see Donald and McCreary).

Finally, Porter challenges scholars to explore "what the ... prints tell us about women in Georgian society?" (204) He says that what we DO know is "how utterly 'sexualized' is the woman of the prints" (205) and suggests that this should be read as saying that "because of their sexual nature, women can be fit only for private life; the public business of politics must be left to men only" (205). This I violently disagree with. First of all I am not sure that all women are sexualized. Second, I believe we must keep in mind the common parallell between the family and the state (the concentration narratives, etc) and perhaps read it the other way around - women, sexuality, courtship, etc are so commonly portrayed in political prints as to suggest a very porous relationship between private and public and a much less regimented separation between male and female spheres.

So there.