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Back in the 15th century an exiled German goldsmith radically altered society with his strange claptrap invention. Gutenberg’s movable-type screw-press vastly improved on all previous printing presses (to say nothing of hand-transcription of books) and began an information revolution which has continuously accelerated ever since then. The written word, once the domain of super wealthy elite (or of a monopolistic church with an exceedingly parochial interest in knowledge), became available to everyone. The printing press chased away the ghastly fog of religious obscurantism and paved the way for democracy, reform, intellectual collaboration, empiricism, exploration, emancipation, and liberalization. Humankind stepped forward towards the reformation, enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

Except…

When printing technology first became widely available, the impact which it had on society was chaotic. Ordinary people of the time were not necessarily gifted at critical reasoning, and Europe was a powderkeg of antagonistic factions greedily angling for any advantage (speaking of which, gunpowder and artillery first came into widespread use in the 15th century, and their adaptation and improvement were hastened by publishing breakthroughs).

“Well…if it’s in a book, I guess it must be true.”

Suddenly society was awash in new ideas, incentives, and imperatives–all delivered with the magisterial force of the written word, once the sole domain of a cloistered master class. In this new world, you could show up at night and tack up a poster that said witches were a real & widespread malady which could only be defeated with fire. Suddenly gormless rubes would be running around burning everyone they had a problem with. After all, the anti-witch message was written down, and written things were known known to have the infallible weight of divine authority!

Blue Lives Matter

Indeed this is a thing that actually happened! Historians estimate that between a quarter of a million and a half million non-sorcerous people were killed as part of the witch panics which swept Europe in the early modern era. Fraud, calumny, conspiracy theories, and wild dangerous political invective swept the European continent (and the increasingly wider world which was a part of European colonial enterprise).

I am bringing this up not because I am an anti-literate or anything, but because, obviously, global society is deep in the midst of a similar revolution–except today’s information revolution is compressed and amplified by the speed and scope of globalized tech culture.

When I was a child, if you saw something on a glowing screen, it had gone through a long and expensive process to get there (and had passed a lot of powerful gatekeepers). Nowadays, any self-proclaimed expert with access to Youtube (or, uh, WordPress) can instantly disseminate their ravings worldwide to a self-selecting audience.

There is no easy to answer to all of this..nor should there be. On balance, the new manifestations of super-abundant information are wonderful and liberating. However, after living through the malignant Trump era (and the Trump pandemic), it is obvious there is more of a red column to the ledger than we initially imagined. Wish-fulfilling mendacity flies through the ethernet even faster than it ever traveled by means of broadsheet. Whole new taxonomies of demagogues, conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, quacks, and frauds invent & broadcast “fake news” more swiftly than rational and conscientious folk can debunk such things. And who is an authority anyway, in a world where so many truly powerful authorities are authoritarian?

There are no answers to today’s plague of misinformation and filter bubbles other than classic enlightenment solutions of critical thinking, empiricism, and cross referencing (with maybe a dash of deconstructionism thrown in to burst the filter bubble of whiggish liberal WASPS like myself). Obviously we need to ensure that teaching such values is at the heart of universal free (mandatory) education for all young people.

P.S. Although, frankly, the young people I have met around the city have developed great sophistication at parsing new media and roll their eyes at Nigerian princes, Breitbarts, Qanons, and essential oils the way a philosophe would sneer at a witch poster.

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Self-Portrait of Theodor de Bry (1597) engraving

Uh, happy Columbus Day…maybe? Some holidays don’t age well, and the Italian-American festival of the European rediscovery (and colonial conquest) of the New World certainly seems to be under exceedingly stern re-evaluation.  While other people are working on that project, let’s run away and check out some amazing and also quite problematic exploration-era art of the New World.  The Flemish illustrator and engraver Theodor de Bry was born is Spanish controlled Netherlands in 1528.  Both his father and his grandfather were engraver/illustrator/jewelers and they taught him the family trade (which he in turn passed down to his own son).  Although born a Catholic, the religious controversies and reforms of his time moved de Bry to convert to Protestantism, which caused enormous trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (which was all-powerful in the Netherlands, since the low countries were then a part of Spain).  Thus, in 1570, at the tender age of 42, De Bry and his family were permanently exiled from Spanish-controlled Liege, and all of his possessions were confiscated by the state/church.

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A refugee, De Bry moved first to moved to Strasbourg. Then in 1577, he moved to Antwerp (which was then part of the Duchy of Brabant).  Between 1585 and 1588 he lived in London, and then in 1588, De Bry and his family moved permanently to Frankfurt.  To make ends meet, he illustrated books concerning the exploration and geography of the New World.  If you reread the history of De Bry’s desperate scramble around Northern Europe, you may note that American destinations are notably lacking.  His famous engravings of the New World, which influenced a generation of rulers, thinkers, explorers, and artists were made by someone who never set eyes upon the New World.

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The Coast of Virginia (Theodor de Bry, ca. 1585-1586) engraving

All of this sounds pretty unpromising from a photojournalism perspective, and, indeed, De Bry’s works were criticized even in his time for inaccuracies.  The indigenous people all look a bit like naked Walloon peasants (except perhaps for the most exotic tribes–who look perhaps slightly Mediterranean with some Native American bangles and props).  The new world forts and seedling colonies are portrayed as though they were erected in a Baroque nobleman’s parterre garden.  Also there are more frolicksome naiads, random Greek gods, and mysterious mythological beasts like sea serpents, dragons, and capricorns than was perhaps literally accurate.

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Engraving of Columbus, the discoverer of the New World (Theodor de Bry, 1594)

Yet, despite, this (or maybe because of this) De Bry’s illustrations strike me as exquisite works of art.  They pack enormous amounts of complicated yet comprehensible visual information into tiny narrative/didactic frames.  De Bry did carefully read the primary source accounts of adventurers, natural historians, and other New World-involved folk.  He collected artworks and studied curios and ethnological objects. Additionally, if you look closely at De Bry’s personal history, you may find reasons for him to dislike the Spanish masters of the Americas.  I suspect if you look at the seething anti-European anti-Western diatribes of the internet today, you would be hard-pressed to find descriptions more lurid and anti-Spanish then some of De Bry’s works. The Spanish may frequently be the protagonists, but the cruel lords clad in velvet and armor are not exactly heroes, even as they travel through exoticized realms of peculiar cruelty and mayhem designed…to sell books.

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For, as much as he was a pioneer of imagery of the Americas, De Bry was a pioneer of new media.  Just as the internet has unleashed a torrent of exciting new ideas, robust philosophies, incomprehensible imagery, lies, half-truths, and heartfelt personal convictions upon an unexpecting world, the first great blossoming of the printing press in the 16th century saw a similar boom (upon societies even less equipped to handle this information than we are equipped to make sense of the info overload of today).  I can’t tell you what to make of De Bry.  Much of his work is more disturbing and more problematic than what I have included here.  But I feel like it is all visual treasure which you should seek out (if you have a strong stomach).  Of all the artworks about the mad crash of civilizations when America and Europe came together, his work burns brightest in my mind’s eye.

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Their danses vvhich they vse att their hyghe feastes (De Bry, 1590) Engraving

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