Form and Fact
- modern fact,
According to Mary Poovey’s A History of the Modern Fact, in the nineteenth century statistics came to encapsulate what is characteristic of the ‘modern fact.’ Expressed as arithmetical descriptions, as measurements, or in statistical form, numbers appeared to be a guarantee of impartiality and transparency in the production of knowledge in the modern world. This paper develops further Poovey’s own alignment of the modern fact with the construction of a stylistic convention, in which numerical representation has a privileged position. It is not only number that is at stake here, but the whole graphical arrangement of such numbers. Central to this concern is how these statistical figures are read and interpreted as a graphic configuration. In this sense, it is about the emergence of a new “figure-ground” relationship, that is to say, a “ground” that has the capacity to treat “facts”, the sources of knowledge, as “figures”. The paper will present the basic elements required for this “figure-ground” relationship to be read, from the nineteenth century onwards, in the space of the printed page: the printing press and its connection with graphic form, the emergence in the nineteenth century of the category of man and of the social body as objects of study; the role of statistics in the representation and administration of the social body; the rise of statistics as a science and finally, numbers and their relationship to style. The methodology consists in applying analytic elements of art criticism to the history of the “modern fact”.