Speculative Emblematics: a philosophical approach to emblem studies

by Lucy Mercer


Embema 6 from

Emblema 6 from Sebastián de Covarrubias y Orozco’s Emblemas morales (1610), displaying a woodcut emblem, a Latin motto and a verse explanation in Spanish (St Andrews copy at r17 PQ6398.H78). St Andrews Special Collections in illustrations, Rare Book Collection.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

My research so far is attempting to pioneer ‘Speculative Emblematics’, a philosophical approach to emblem studies. This idea of Speculative Emblematics relies on the leverage of the ‘protean structural fluidity’ of the emblem form. It’s a take on ‘applied emblematics’ – whereby emblems are translated into coins, ornamental friezes and woodwork for example. Instead of transposing emblems onto objects, Speculative Emblematics overlays contemporary philosophy, theory and culture as an additional layer on the pre-existing mosaic of the emblem. Or as another way of explanation, just as in his Critique of Ideology Slavoj Zizek attempts to read the ‘discredited’ theories against one another, in Speculative Emblematics odd or questionable speculative philosophies (object oriented ontology, the work of Franz Brentano and Carl Jung, Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux) are read against the bizarre and somewhat discredited form of Renaissance emblems and emblem studies.

My theoretical approach has two purposes: 1. To delineate and define SE as a new way of testing proposed models of ontology on existing objects and 2. To suggest a mode of perception that can enhance our understanding of existing emblems, whilst also being the basis of an ecological ’emblematic practice’ that could be used in, for example art criticism or in making work.

Perceiving a shared tendency among the texts I am looking to emanate from psychological states of discontent and unease with the ‘Real’, my project is centred around ‘practising’ this emblematic thought. As a complement to the theory then, there is a creative component to my research: I’ve been creating a new emblem book made of new poems, essays and making new images on clay tiles. This dual approach is centred in the belief that the type of thinking I’m hoping to outline requires a concentration on the material stuff of objects, and unusual or ‘tricking’ approaches to the subject matter for insight. My practice is also a justification for my anachronistic methodology.

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