Sampler Making as Gestur(e)al

February 19, 2008

In Chapter 4 of Defining Visual Rhetorics, Maureen Daly Goggin uses a historical perspective on needlework samplers as a case in point for describing an instance in which print overtook visuals in what was initially an entirely visual and inventional medium. Daly traces the functionality of samplers through their beginnings as heuristic tools for invention (using dozens of stitch types and images with some letters or words incorporated) to their usage in the 17-19th centuries as primarily teaching tools and skill exercises.

Goggin writes, “During the 17th century and into the 18th, the purpose of sampler making was substantively transformed from that of an invention tool (as a means to another end) to that of demonstration of stitching skill (as an end in itself). These changes occurred as sampler making itself was displaced, moving out of domestic and paid-labor spaces and into the schoolroom” (101)

A simple Google search confirms that sampler making is to this day not inventional: those interested in sampler making can purchase “kits” that come with instructional books which walk users through the process of stitching samplers at varying degrees of difficulty. Users are to follow the designs and steps in the book in a sort of color-by-number fashion that results in pure replication rather than creation.

Goggin pushes her rhetoric of displacement quite hard: “In short, in becoming transformed and displaced, sampler making no longer served as invention; rather it served a far more limited function of demonstration of skill, with the knowledge and resources for creating needlework artifacts paradoxically placed further and further away from the rhetor-stitcher” (102).

Consider the following samplers:

Sara Lawrence – Biblical Sampler

A story of Elizabeth Parker

I would like to posit that, despite the undeniable historical shift of the sphere in which samplers were rendered (from, as Goggin notes, paid labor to the schoolroom), samplers like the ones linked above can be seen not only as inventional, but as gestural. (Those of in Victor’s 802 class will recall last night’s discussion, and will hopefully see where I’m coming and going with this.)

Consider (again), the picture “Lot and His Daughters.”

In The Theater and Its Double, Artaud says, “If the essential theater is like the plague, it is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is the revelation, the bringing, forth, the exteriorization of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people, are localized” (30).

Goggin argues for the displacement of visuals in favor of print as a consequence of historical occurrences including the rise in literacy due to the invention of the printing press and the dissemination of Protestantism. She then attributes a cause/effect relationship to the “hegemony of print” spreading into the realm of sampler making and the functional shift of the practice into educational rather than inventional status. Goggin does not use the word ‘constriction’ explicitly, but the word is evoked by this progression nonetheless.

Gesture, as Artaud and Agamben describe it, is a reaction against construction, repression, and other actions than can be attributed (although not limited to) Ramian thinking. In the cultural atmosphere Goggin describes, and in light of the precept that what is repressed returns, and that, as Artaud articulates, living cultures recognize the force inherent to themselves, I wonder about the force that becomes visible in the pictures linked above.

I wonder about the *complete* lack of images in Elizabeth Parker’s sampler. Given that Goggin demonstrates how samplers incorporated both word and text (in varying degrees depending on the historical era), could Parker’s work be considered the word in excess?

If samplers can be (re)cognized as gesture, are there more similarities between “Lot and His Daughters” and Sara Lawrence’s Biblical Sampler than we may want to acknowledge?


One Response to “Sampler Making as Gestur(e)al”

  1. Alicia, thanks for bringing up Artaud. His book was unsettling for me in a way that I couldn’t adequately express in class last Monday night.

    As you note, “Artaud articulated [that] living cultures recognize the force inherent to themselves.” This idea was set forth in 1938, the same time in history when German intellectuals were making the very same argument to justify National Socialism.

    My concern is that viewing culture as a force is a two-edged sword. It can be a liberating perspective. But can it also liberate forces that we find less admirable?

    Isn’t it hubris on our part to assume that de-construction (if I’m misusing the word then please forgive me) can only produce cultural progressivism? Isn’t the opposite outcome a coequal and necessary possibility, like the two sides of a coin?

    I’m not suggesting repression as the solution. But doesn’t our theory need to account for both possible outcomes? Sadly, history demonstrates that manifestos which claim “all true culture relies upon the barbaric and primitive means of totemism whose savage, i.e., entirely spontaneous, life I wish to worship” (Artaud, p. 10) can justify horror as well as liberation.

    -Mark Ward

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