Melissa Fisher

December 17, 2013

Accessibility of Knowledge in Plates from Diderot's l'Encyclopédie

The Enlightenment began in Europe in the 17
century, marking an
intellectual era in which occurred a transition from a cultural reliance on tradition,
religion, and authority to an independence marked by an emphasis on rationality,
the scientific method, and intellectual discourse. Enlightenment thinkers delved into
philosophy, science, and politics, and situated much of their work in opposition to
the Catholic Church. In the Humanities 220 syllabus, students understand the works
of the Enlightenment through the works of Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, and Diderot.
Each of these works approach the Enlightenment differently, gesturing towards one
of the Enlightenment’s central concerns: how can one teach a society to think in an
entirely new way? Voltaire’s Candide is a satirical work about a man, Candide, and
his journeys across the lands. In Candide, many philosophies are embodied as
characters that Candide meets in his travels, and the narrative and satire techniques
becomes a means to express the flaws of these philosophies. The story ends with,
“we must cultivate our garden,”–a significant phrase in relation to the
Enlightenment. Rousseau’s various Political Writings philosophize man’s state of
nature, outlining the development of man and Rousseau’s “civil society.” Rousseau
uses an accessible, philosophical rhetoric with guidelines and thoughts as to how to
develop Rousseau’s ideal society and social relationships. Kant philosophizes as
well, but delves into the more intangible. Kant considers Enlightenment itself,
aesthetics, globalization, and the relationship between knowledge and experience.
Kant’s rhetoric tends to be more complex and dense, spending less time attempting
to materialize examples, but uniquely considers human subjectivity in relation to
the Enlightenment. Lastly, Diderot’s l’Encyclopédie, first published in 1751, is an
encyclopedia uniquely addressing the aims and concerns of the Enlightenment. The
encyclopedia features contributions from a variety of people with expertise in a
given field, attempting to accumulate as much knowledge of quality and utility as
possible. Diderot’s l’Encyclopédie includes hundreds, even thousands, of plates
displaying meticulously detailed illustrations that correspond to the encyclopedia
entries. In a society still largely divided by literacy and illiteracy, the use of
illustrations in Diderot’s l’Encyclopédie addresses the limitations of text by making
knowledge accessible in different forms. Diderot’s l’Encyclopédie utilizes a gradient
of complexity in illustrations, keeping consistent labeling techniques and methods of
marking throughout. This allows l’Encyclopédie to guide the reader from a basic to
advanced level of understanding of specialized areas of knowledge. To support this
claim, I will examine the plates from the manual weaving silks, Art de la Soie, for
their use of consistency, repetition and temporality, and contextualization.
In Diderot’s own writings about l’Encyclopédie, he contemplates the best
methods of assembling knowledge. He begins with a discussion of the dictionary,
comparing his encyclopedic project to the process of creating a dictionary. He
delineates two ways to cultivate the sciences,
…one is to increase the general fund of knowledge by making
discoveries, and it is by this method that one comes to deserve the
name of inventor; the other is to bring past discoveries together and
reduce them to an ordered scheme to that more men may be
enlightened and that each may contribute within the limits of his
capacity to the intellectual progress of his age; we use the term writers
of texts to apply to those who succeed in this second kind of
enterprise, which is by no means an easy one. I am convinced that if
the learned societies that exist throughout Europe would bestir
themselves to collect all modern knowledge with a view to linking it
all together by publishing complete and systematic treatises on all
subjects, it would be an excellent thing… (282)

Diderot’s encyclopedic project characterizes him as a writer of text, as the
encyclopedia serves as a perfect example of an effort to “bring past discoveries
together and reduce them to an ordered scheme…” Diderot recognizes that there are
limits to knowledge, but claims that “revolutions are necessary; there have always
been revolutions, and there will always be; the maximum interval between one
revolution and another is a fixed quantity, and this is the only limit to what we can
attain by our labors.” (289). Notably, Diderot sees a comparable value between the
literary knowledge held by writers and the knowledge of the practical man.
There are many things that are in daily use among the common
people, things from which they draw their livelihood, and they are
incessantly busy gaining a practical knowledge of these things. As
many treatises as you like may be written about these matters and
still there will always come a time when the practical man will know
more about them than the writer of the book. (290)

Diderot’s section on weaving is best thought of in light of this excerpt–though the
Enlightenment era weavers were not the writers of l’Encyclopédie, the 135 plates
featured on weaving demonstrate Diderot’s point. The practical knowledge of
weaving has become, by the mid 18
century, an incredibly complex, cultural
knowledge. The devotion of so much labor into the documentation of a practical
knowledge demonstrates the Enlightenment’s characteristic transition to the value
of all knowledge and its commitment to making that knowledge accessible.
The plates in Art de la Soie can each be categorized as serving one of three
purposes: contextualizing, informing the assemblage and utility of relevant tools
and equipment, or informing the techniques of making. These types of plates are
interspersed amongst themselves, but often appear in sequences of five or more of
the same type of illustration. The interspersing of different types of illustrations
allows the knowledge conveyed by each to build on itself, working towards a more
holistic, temporal understanding rather than a fragmented, sequential
understanding. To begin, I will examine the plates that inform the techniques of
making, or the instructional weaving plates.
The first instructional weaving plate occurs after nearly forty preceding
plates that generally display the basic variety of equipment needed to weave silks.
This plate features four line diagrams, illustrating how to set up a loom for a plain
textile using a repetition of four threads. Each line diagram sequentially builds
towards how to set up the threads when one begins to weave. The first diagram
begins with the placement of two threads, and highlights their points of contact with
the threads of the remetage, or the front of the loom where the weaving occurs, as
small squares that create a specific pattern. The taut threads from the remetage run
vertically, while the threads being woven, labeled as the remisse de (number) lisses,
run horizontally. The horizontal threads also make contact with the armure, which
seems to be the moveable part of the loom, in places marked with small circles in a
new, not quite reversed pattern. Threads from the armure also extend vertically.
These labels, as circles and squares, consistently mark points of contact with the
armure and remetage, respectively. The next three diagrams add threads to the
horizontal weave, the remetage, and the armure, until the diagrams display four
numerically labeled threads making contact with a total of sixteen numerically
labeled threads from the armure and remetage going in the opposite direction. Each
thread is labeled numerically within the set of threads it belongs to, ensuring no
confusion about the intended number of threads.
Opposite this plate, another plate shows two more dimensional illustrations
of the weave, displaying each individual thread and using shading to indicate
whether it lies under or above another thread. The threads are labeled in sections of
four, corresponding to the thread labels on the previous plate, and allowing one to
set-up the loom using the simpler diagram from the first plate and verify its usage
through the more detailed illustration on the second plate. These illustrations
display the weave a few steps after the assumed beginning of the weaving process,
displaying the interweaving of the previously horizontal and vertical sets of threads.
Where horizontal threads here have turned the corner at each side of the weave, the
“U” shapes created by the threads wrapping around are labeled alphabetically in
order from what would be the first “U” created to the most recent.
The next plate displays three more line diagrams, this time varying the
number of threads displayed horizontally and vertically. The first diagram displays
four threads for each of the three loom components, the horizontal weave, the
armure and the remetage, the next displays five threads each, and the last displays
six. In the last of these diagrams, a dotted line marks the position to which the
remetage and threads should be moved in that step. Opposite this plate, a large line
diagram displays a complex weaving pattern in which the basic pattern displayed in
the third diagram of the previous plate here becomes repeated. As in the preceding
diagram it repeats, dotted lines indicate the intended placement of the threads and
the remetage after completion of the step. From here, the instructional weaving
plates largely become different versions of previous ones, sometimes creating
different weaves, using different numbers of threads, or using different techniques
as demarcated by various symbols that replace the circles, squares, and hashes used
in the first several plates.
As the diagrams become larger and more complicated, these methods of
marking remain consistent. In the instructional weaving plates, symbols are
introduced in simple, six-thread line diagrams and are repeated as the illustrations
become more complex. The repetition of symbols becomes helpful for gaining an
understanding of the introduction of the dotted line, which indicates temporality.
The parts of diagrams that are demarcated by dotted lines use the same symbols,
and as such, symbols become signifiers for thread placement and weaving technique
and the dotted versus solid lines become signifiers of temporality and sequence. By
using sequences of these diagrams and more detailed illustrations while keeping
consistent methods of marking, the plates begin to depict processes. The gradual
building of processes via techniques of repetition and sequence allow the plates to
later introduce new symbols or new tools to use with the loom without causing
great confusion for a viewer. The combination of the line diagrams and the detailed,
shaded illustrations further contributes to this understanding of processes, offering
a layout and then a representation of the given weave. Moreover, the illustrations
appeal to more than a single type of viewer, as the line diagrams are more
mathematical and the shaded illustrations are more tactile. The sum of these
varying methods of marking creates a more accessible form of knowledge that does
not require literacy or familiarity with the processes involved in weaving. Diderot
demonstrates that "practical knowledge" has indeed become a form of craft, and
manages to communicate the steps involved despite the seeming intangibility of
performing craft or making.
The other two categories of plates inform the assemblage and usage of
various tools and pieces of equipment, featuring the necessary tools for each
component of the textile-making process, and contextualizing them within an
illustration depicting a version of its real-world application or environment. For
instance, the first plate displays two related illustrations depicting a spindle with
which silk can be drawn. The top illustration displays two women under an awning
against a building, spinning the silk. The spindle stands against the building's wall,
and one woman turns a knob while the other sits on a stool near a washbasin at the
foot of the spindle. Each item featured in the illustration includes an alphabetical
label, and figure numbers accompany different larger sections of the illustration.
This illustration features twelve alphabetical labels and three figure labels. An
illustration of the large spindle takes up the bottom half of the page. The illustration
is labeled as "Fig. 2" and each part of the spindle features another alphabetical label.
These alphabetical labels correspond to the labels in the above illustration–for
instance, the turning knob in both pictures is labeled as "G." While the contextual
illustration on the top of the plate depicts the spindle roughly at eye-height from a
slight distance, the bottom illustration depicts the spindle as if one were standing
directly above it. The bottom illustration has also reversed the direction of the
spindle, but the labels clarify possible confusion about direction. The bottom
illustration includes a measurement scale below the image of the spindle, marking
the actual size of the object.
The following plate has been divided vertically into three sections. The top
two sections depict three different views of the spindle: the side, the back, and the
front. Again, each of these illustrations includes labels for each part of the spindle
that match up with the labels assigned in the first contextual illustration. The
bottom panel depicts a gear, a basket with balls of thread, individual balls of threat
(not in the basket) and a straw contraption. Both the gear and basket with balls of
thread have figure labels, but the straw contraption and the individual balls of
thread are labeled with lowercase letters. Their close placement to the basket, and
the existing depiction of balls of thread in the basket, indicate that these items
belong inside of the basket. The bottom of this plate again includes a measurement
scale with the same markings.
These two plates establish a specific relationship between contextual
illustrations and illustrations that depict tools of the trade. The first illustration
made its real-world application clear, but detailed, contextualized illustrations often
obscure from view certain components of the objects featured in the image. To solve
the problem of obscuring one or more sides of a tool, like the spindle, the plates
provide the viewer with four more illustrations of the spindle by itself from four
different perspectives. Other objects from the contextual image appear on their own,
such as the gear and basket. The objects depicted in a contextual illustration keep
the same labels when depicted individually, creating a consistency throughout the
varying depictions of the same object. In this sense, much like the instructional
weaving plates, the contextualizing and individually depicted images build on each
other to create a more tactile representation of involved processes. In individual
depictions, the illustrations are clear, easy to read, and provide views of each side of
more complex tools. The simple labels applied in these individual illustrations
appear again in contextualizing illustrations, with each part corresponding to a
certain object or component of an object. Thus, the viewer can combine these types
of illustrations and utilize the repetition of labels to develop a complex
understanding of the types of tools featured in workspaces and their settings. Like
the weaving plates, these plates become more complex throughout the manual, but
the sequential ordering of the contextualizing illustrations relates the seemingly
disparate processes to each other.
Diderot's l'Encyclopédie intersperses types of plates amongst each other so as
to create a somewhat tacit knowledge. While the reading of text imposes sequential
limits, as well as limits in representation, illustrations not only meet the gap created
by textual instructions, but perhaps suffice without textual instructions at all.
Together, these illustrations build on each other through consistent and repetitious
methods of marking and labeling, working from simple depictions to complex
processes. L'Encyclopédie does not fail to cover all areas of knowledge required to
learn a skill, ensuring that the settings, tools, and processes of making are clear.
Diderot's l'Encyclopédie meets the demands of the Enlightenment in a new way,
going beyond the limits of text to make knowledge visually accessible and reducing
the requirement of literacy for the spread of knowledge.