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Spring 2024


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A Review of Into the White

This month in, Amy Knight Powell, Zone author of Depositions, reviews Christopher Heuer’s Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image. Click here to learn more about the book. Click here to read the full review. An excerpt appears below:

“This book brings to light—and brings to bear on contemporary environmental art—an early modern archive that has never before been studied as a meaningful whole. That is already a major contribution. It also reflects bracingly on the discipline of art history and humanist scholarship in general, which, Heuer asks us not to forget, is ‘as complicit in polar melting as any other capital-based forces today’ (190). It is not just Eliasson; everything we do leaves a carbon footprint. To understand early modern Arctic exploration, we need to revise familiar ways of thinking: ‘early modern aesthetic responses to, and constructions of, the Arctic upend and complicate some categories that are blithely applied to histories of Renaissance exoticism in art and science: categories such as wonder, identity, and curiosity’ (19). The Arctic did not yield enough collectibles to satisfy anyone’s desire for the exotic, wonderful, or strange. It did not even yield those stable points of comparison and contrast that early modern Europeans used to shore up their sense of themselves: ‘Being like nothing else, the Arctic was particularly vexing’ (56); ‘on certain Arctic voyages … the very idea of analogy collapsed’ (50). This may seem like a relatively minor loss: who needed analogy, when what they were looking for was gold? But this loss, Heuer shows, cut right to the heart of European identity, representation, and the image debate unleashed by the Protestant Reformation, unmasking Reformers, among others, as ‘entranced by [unreliable] rhetorics of comparison’ (49). The incomparable Arctic stripped early moderns of falsely comforting habits of organizing the world according to likeness and difference; this, Heuer argues, was what was so unsettling to them about the planet’s largest icescape.”