Sean Purcell

Sean Purcell is a PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Media School. His research focuses on dissection in all forms, material media, and death culture.

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Rendering in Analog Games: Dissected Puzzles and Georgian Death Culture

by Sean Purcell


This paper is a case study of the dissected puzzle (or jigsaw puzzle) at the moment of its commercial emergence in Georgian England (1714 to 1837). Investigating the materials used in the manufacture of playthings, this essay links British colonial trade to the development of pedagogical playthings in the period. This essay builds on material games scholarship by arguing for a focus on death cultures activated in games manufacture. To make these claims, the essay plays with the verb “to render” to emphasize colonial extraction and death-making as essential to the sale of luxury playthings. Focusing on the materials rendered (glue) or rent from the colonies (mahogany) this paper argues for a continued renegotiation with processes of manufacture associated with material playthings.

Keywords: Analog Games, Early Modern Play, Jigsaw Puzzles, New Materialism, Glue, Georgian England, Necropolitics



This essay interrogates the formation of the pedagogical plaything in England during the Georgian period (1714 to 1837). By examining eighteenth century Europe’s colonial deathways and connecting them to the broader history of the dissected puzzle (the jigsaw puzzle, as it would be called today), I argue that these learning-focused, luxury playthings depended on colonial death-making practices, and that games scholars should attend more carefully to resource acquisition practices and the implicit ideologies these practices support.

Academic discussions of the dissected puzzle, its history and its cultural significance are uncommon. While expanding their net to include non-digital games in recent years, Game Studies remains most interested in digital games (Aarseth, 2017). The Board Game Studies journal has offered a home for scholarship in these material games starting in 1998, but issues have been infrequent, with many year gaps between issues. An analog studies subfield journal emerged in the past decade; in releasing the inaugural issue, the journal’s editors noted the lack of scholarship in non-digital gaming, noting that these games and their discourses have, historically, been siloed off from the broader discussions in game studies (Trammel et al., 2014). Recently, Johnson (2018) asked for games researchers to inspect the paper puzzle game (the crossword, the sudoku) citing its history, its connection to digital adaptations, and for its relation to casual gaming. I share an interest in broadening games studies to include non-digital forms of play, with my interest in this essay dealing with a different kind of puzzle -- the dissected puzzle.

While the puzzle is a major component of video game design (from the puzzle game genre itself, to the inclusion of puzzles within the world of games of other genres), material, mechanical puzzles are rarely discussed by games scholars. Instead, puzzle scholars have found themselves speaking from and to other communities and academic points of view, from arguments made by literary historians (Norcia, 2009, 2010; Carroll, 2017), art historians (Rothstein, 2014; 2019), or by scholars intermeshed within puzzle subcultures (Williams, 2004; Slocum & Sonneveld, 2017). Game studies can benefit from the careful analysis of these material playthings, because they help game scholars ask questions about play, the material affordances of objects of play and the historical cultures of play outside the modern or postmodern periods.

I will use the dissected puzzle to show how questions of material acquisition, plaything creation and use intermingle and reinforce the ideologies in the British empire. I focus on two forms of material acquisition and creation: the use of colonially acquired hardwoods -- mahogany specifically -- and the rendering process surrounding the manufacture of glue. These two case studies will help me describe how ideologies of land acquisition, husbandry and control (all implicit to the technology of the colony) are interwoven in the discourses of British empire and the teaching of the upper-class British subject. The dissected puzzle as a luxury item, plaything and pedagogical tool indexes different modes of cultural production, all of which depend on the logics of empire.


Figure 1. Belief in Hieroglyphics by Richard Carpenter (1790). Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York, USA. Click image to enlarge.

To make this claim, I entwine discussions of production in game studies with new materialist and necropolitical theory, in what I am calling a necromaterialist heuristic -- a way of approaching a cultural artifact that takes care to ask what living material, actor, or subject died in the process of creating that object. I borrow and build from Ingold’s (2007) focus on the materials used to manufacture playthings. Answering Johnson’s (2018) concern about the seeming political ambivalence of the paper puzzle, I point to the networks of trade, capital and social power leveraged by the plaything manufacturers. Building on the calls by Taylor (2009), to make complex the relationship between communities and play, and by Malaby (2007), to integrate processual, contingent, cultural understandings of play, I argue that the plaything’s material past has an impact on the final somatic, concrete, ideological object.

The manufacture of luxury playthings in Georgian England depended on a relationship between the colonizer and colonized, extracting labor from the bodies of those colonized and the materials harvested from the land of the conquered. Building on environmentalist critiques of colonial land relations (Liboiron, 2021), I describe how the dissected puzzle, an early modern plaything, depended on a specific ideology of ownership espoused by John Locke. In doing so, I build upon the literature of postcolonial game studies, which seeks to understand how colonial logics, and power relations are reproduced in games and gaming cultures (Mukherjee and Hammar, 2018, pp. 3-4). The imperialist map, with its presumptions about how and whether land which may be divided, owned, conquered and maintained, remains a central gameplay mechanic in contemporary video games -- most notably real time strategy games like Age of Empires, or Civilization -- where the act of play can reinforce colonialist ideologies or facilitate resistance (Mukherjee, 2018; 2015).

The contemporary analog Eurogame has been investigated for its orientalist aesthetics (Robinson, 2014), and Norcia (2009) has investigated the dissected puzzle for its relationship to play as described through Victorian literary descriptions; however, further work in this vein should be done toward the historical analog game. Where the dissected puzzle emerges as a consumer object in England, it does exist solely in the British context. Moreover, to think educational playthings only existed in the Western world in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, would be to oversimplify the history of play. Play cultures, as well as the gaming industries within the global south are of vital importance to the broader history of play, but have historically been understudied by games scholars (see: Penix-Tadsen, 2019). This paper is a single step towards a postcolonial history of analog play. Rather than answering all of these issues, my goal for this case study is to focus on the many diffuse moments of labor, extraction, reconstitution and construction which go into even the simplest consumer object, and link these moments to the ideological articulation of the British empire.

Geographical primers for children, of which the dissected puzzle is one example, became more and more popular in England during the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Norcia (2010) argues, “[t]hough the primers do not explicitly urge readers to pick up a rifle or scout civil service positions in the outposts of empire, they do articulate a set of pervasive beliefs about empire, nation, and colonization” (p. 17). The dissected puzzle, at the time of its commercial emergence in England in the 1760’s, did more than represent geographic space; it represents empire, and facilitates the play of empire for young learners (Norcia, 2009, p. 5). Building on Norcia’s (2009, 2010) histories of geographical play, I argue that the dissected map is also dependent on the cultural practices and ambivalences of the very empire it sustains. This plaything depended on materials extracted from the colonies, from the bodies of animals farmed and hunted for their goods, and upon the implicit deaths made as a biproduct of colonial ideology. The dissected map at once reinforced colonial ideologies while also being made from the same systems it maintained.

The Necromaterial Heuristic: Posthumanism for Begrudging Humanists

Recent games scholarship has engaged with necropolitics, posthumanism and materialism, but largely on a human-centered level, using cases that focus on how video games facilitate an engagement with theory for the player (see Keogh, 2015; Felczak, 2020; Caracciolo, 2021). These essays promote a discussion of these contemporary theories, but their methodologies are dependent on how humans play and how humans understand a game. New materialism and posthumanism emphasize a diffusion of agency away from the human, so that other non-human influences and contingencies may be seen and understood. While an engagement with these theories is important, game studies scholars need to implement a material, posthuman engagement with games in their methodologies. In this section, I will describe the theory that underpins this case study, starting with the new materialist and posthuman turns as well as their adoption in game studies (see: Apperley & Jayemane, 2017). I will then engage this theory in conjunction with Mbembe’s (2003, 2019) term ‘necropolitics,’ and apply these scholarly trajectories to the project at hand.

New materialism’s emphasis on ‘materiality’ stresses the relationship between human bodies, cultural actors and nonhuman agents. Influential in this discourse is Bennett’s (2010) term “vital assemblage,” used to describe a network of interrelated, but non-determinant human and non-human actors which coalesce in a given moment, object, or event. Bennet’s (2010) concept does not evacuate the human entirely, so much as allow other agencies to emerge in analysis. This is a productive response to the problematic forwarded by Ingold (2007), where inspecting artifacts as either human or nonhuman ignores the slipperiness between natural actants and how they are leveraged by human cultures. Ingold’s (2007) definition for “materials” -- that is “the stuff that things are made of” -- helps conceptualize the plaything as an emergent object tied to various intersections of nonhuman actors and human ideology (p. 1). Seeing these actors as contingent for the production of the plaything, I build upon Malaby’s (2007) processual, emergent and culturally bounded conception of play. The plaything’s manufacturing prehistory reveals what actions are necessary for a game to emerge at a time and place. This is most prevalent in games that are strikingly material, like the mechanical puzzle (Rothstein, 2019). These playthings must first be made, and the decisions in their creation point to contingencies that are tied to material and cultural processes (Rothstein, 2013).

Materialism, with its emphasis on the agency of things and the ways these agencies interact with the world with or without us humans, is the result of a parallel train of thought articulated by posthuman scholars. The posthuman turn signals a reconception of agency in response to antihumanist work of the late twentieth century (Braidotti, 2013). Posthuman scholars have intervened against an image of classic humanist agency (where the human is a concrete, stable, whole actor), by noting the shared agency of cyborgs (Hayles, 1999; Haraway, 1985) and conceptualizing ways of meaning separate from human ontologies (Harman, 2016). While in vogue academically, these critiques are in conflict with scholars working against the othering of specific social groups, especially as the posthuman canon at the same time maintains a Eurocentric point of view (Islam, 2016, pp. 122-23; Adema & Hall, 2016). As Nooney (2013) convincingly argued,

[w]hile many of the most provocative and innovative materialist media theories attempt to productively short circuit the subject-object division by displaying how media are active agents in the world, these efforts often wind up simply rearranging actor-network deck chairs, envisioning histories and theories without corporeal or discursive bodies.

The posthuman turn and the emphasis on the agency of materials cannot evacuate the human world as a means to sidestep issues of identity and histories of violence. Islam (2016) argues that it is not the issue of decentering the human; instead, because this decentering is “done at the cost of the ‘human other’/’the man-animal,’ it becomes problematic, and this is a neo-colonial move in posthumanism that aims to remove the human subaltern groups from the discursive space” (p. 122).

For the begrudging humanist, these arguments can be leveraged to critique human systems, as those systems still depend on networks of objects that constitute the nonhuman universe. A shift in focus must also lead to a shift in method. I draw on the postcolonial tradition, especially the work of Achille Mbembe (2003; 2019) to reframe this critique, precisely because the posthuman and new materialist turns can inform and transform human-centered research projects.

While the postcolonial discourse is far too broad to summarize in full, I am drawing specifically on a strand of thought that considers the implicit, profitable and coercive death ways implicit in the colonial and imperial projects of western Europe. The production and maintenance of death is essential to the political and economic operations of the west. Mbembe (2003; 2019) links Agamben’s (1993) concept of homo sacer -- or a subject who has no rights within the juridical or religious order of a culture and is, thus, separate from, and may be killed by, the ruling groups -- to technologies of exclusion and apartheid. More than “bio-power” -- or Michel Foucault’s (1978) framework that saw the regulation and control over the birth and life of the subject -- necropower depends on a refusal to see specific dying subjects as underneath the juridical bailiwick of the sovereign or state (see: Banerjee, 2008, pp. 1544-45). From this framework, the implicit, “nocturnal body” of western democracy depends on a sublimation of violence on a population and locality deemed killable through a state of exception (Mbembe, 2019, p. 22).

Necropolitics and necropower have been helpful for scholars to consider the implicit deathways which reinforce colonial and imperial power. Over the twentieth century, as empires and their colonies dissolved, the coercive means of making die developed through the imperial project were adopted and transformed by the multi-national, neoliberal, capitalist corporation. Montag (2005), coining the term “necro-economics,” argues that in addition to the subject who may be killed with impunity, another victim of capitalist economics may die implicitly within the seemingly neutral logics of the market (p. 15). Building on both Montag (2005) and Mbembe (2003), Banerjee (2008) expands the concept to coin necrocapitalism, as multi-national, capitalist actors drive “accumulation by dispossession and creation of death worlds in colonial contexts” (p. 1548, emphasis in the original). Both of these theoretical interventions continue the original necropolitical critique, by linking systems of deathmaking back to the juridical and sovereign systems that would refuse and exclude the subject’s very presence in that system.

What is absent from these arguments is a broader negotiation with non-human deathways and how they maintain the colonialist project. Casid (2019) links capitalism and the will to make die through the sublimated processes of “undoing” -- a double-practice enacted through white-supremacist capital that makes and profits off of the death of juridically excluded actors (humans and otherwise). For Casid (2019), undoing is, first, the will to make die as a precondition for emergence and maintenance of capitalism; and second, that the processes of death form the compost upon which subsequent generations of deathmaking and capitalization depend and emerge. Undoing, however, is not just a tool of capital, but a formation within which resistance may be seeded (Casid, 2019, p. 47).

The necromaterial heuristic from which I develop the method for this case study emphasizes and problematizes the death implicitly activated in the construction of an object. It sees cultural artifacts as being interlocked with a society’s death culture [1]. I use “heuristic” precisely because this is not a development in the realm of theory, but an application of theory which helps reveal the axiomatic ideology which undergirds imperialist material culture. Where death was made through human endeavors before the advent of the colony, the empire, or capitalism, these systems assume particular kinds of deathmaking, through the juridical and social refusal of particular human and nonhuman actors.

For the rest of this essay, I will apply this framework to the case study at hand, looking into how living things are transformed into consumer goods, and thinking about the implicit deaths upon which those transformations depend. To do this I will first consider the verb “to render” to organize my argument, and articulate past histories of educational playthings in England during the Georgian period, with special interest into the writing of John Locke. Following this, I will apply the necromaterial heuristic two materials -- the mahogany boards and the use of glue -- which were integral into the manufacture of the dissected plaything in Georgian England [2].

Rendering in Analog Games

An emphasis on material culture and death culture gives rise to this essay’s eponymous interest in the verb “to render.” Rendering, as it is used in contemporary digital video practices, refers to the creation of a digital bitmap (“render” entry 21, n.d.). This use of the term emerged in the mid-1980s; however, the verb “to render” has many different meanings in English. The verb was used to refer to the processing of animal fat in the 1600s, and it gained a broader definition pertaining to the animal’s whole carcass starting in the 1800s (“render” entry 22, n.d.; see also: Gillespie, 2021).

I use the term “rendering” to play between terminologies of the digital and analog, and to stress the connection to the dissected puzzle’s material, pre-living state. This birth metaphor signals to the discourse of life histories (Kopytoff, 1984), which sees objects as living through materially and culturally bounded processes of use, decay and death. Guins (2014) has expanded this model to include the afterlives of video games, and this essay compliments this work to consider the rich lives of materials before they are formed into a cultural artifact.

The materials that construct the plaything are variously rendered or rent from their original bodies and locations. Rendering centralizes the processes of extraction and transformation used to make the dissected puzzle. It emphasizes how these playthings were made and what death making processes were explicitly or implicitly leveraged to afford their construction. While these materials may no longer exist in their original form, their presence can still be marked, through waste’s phenomenological remnants (Reno, 2014). An attention to these non-extant materials enables the emergence of figures and practices that would be otherwise occluded from master histories (Hartman, 2007, p. 115).

Rendering, by this conception, is a key step in an object’s life history. The necromaterial heuristic I apply in this case study stresses this continuity. Death signifies a moment of transformation when living actors are killed for their material components, and when a living subject is split from their body (at least, in Western conceptions of death). I use rendering to complicate this split: there is a materiality that is maintained between living and death, which helps me expose and centralize a culture’s death-making apparatuses. I examine mahogany and glue because they require a kind of deathmaking, which was supported by the colonial ideologies foregrounded by the same scholars who are linked to pedagogical reform in the 1700’s.

The Dissected Puzzle: Spislbury and Locke

The dissected puzzle has remained, since its commercial invention in the 1760’s, a relatively simple plaything. An edge-matching, put together puzzle, these playthings are constructed by using glue to adhere a graphic image (printed or engraved on paper) to a rigid board, before cutting or dissecting the puzzle with a saw.

Figure 2. Europe Divided Into Its Kingdoms (1766) by John Spilsbury. Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York, USA. Click image to enlarge.

Plaything historians have argued that John Spilsbury (an English engraver from the 1760’s) was the first puzzlemaker to commercially produce the dissected map (Hannas, 1972; Sheffrin, 1999b; Williams, 2004) [3]. A result of a changing educational paradigm during the Enlightenment, spurred by a John Locke’s (1693/1996, 1695/1793) reconceptualization of knowledge as learned rather than innate, the dissected puzzle was one of many pedagogic playthings (board games, children’s books and spelling dice) developed and sold during this period (Shefrin, 1999a; Dove, 2016). Locke’s intervention brought with it a slow transformation of rhetoric surrounding children’s education, where during the first half of the eighteenth century a focus on pleasure and playfulness was connected to improving educational outcomes (Hilton, 1997, p. 4).

Taking a saw to one of his engraved maps (fig. 2), Spilsbury leveraged the interest in novel, play-focused teaching tools and a growing luxury market in England (Berg, 2005). Spilsbury worked in a period of increased interest in pedagogical playthings. Only a few years before the engraver’s first dissected maps, John Jeffereys and Carrington Bowles assembled A Journey Through Europe, or the Play of Geography in 1759 (Norcia, 2009, p. 5). A Journey through Europe and other geographical playthings followed the model of The Game of Goose -- a simple race game which would be played across a map with landmarks of note (Goodfellow, 1998). Spilsbury’s dissected maps took advantage of this environment, teaching geography through a different kind of play.

Mapmaking had become a key technology in forwarding the global, colonial scope of the British economy, and had by the late 1700’s become integrated in the everyday life of British subjects (Sponberg-Pedley, 2005; Alexander & Martinez, 2020). The interest in geography would remain important for nineteenth century British pedagogy, as the empire’s global footprint maintained its economic standing (Carroll, 2017). The dissected puzzle would not only be used to teach geography, however. In the years following the engraver’s death in 1769, the dissected puzzle would be used to teach a myriad of other subjects -- from lineage of kings, to religious lessons, to zoology, literature and math (fig. 3) (Hannas, 1972; Shefrin, 1999b) [4].

Figure 3. The Homes of England by James Barfoot (n.d.). Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York, USA. Click image to enlarge.

There are two aspects of the above history which bear closer inspection. First, was the fact that the dissected puzzle in the eighteenth century was expensive, and thus was only available to the upper class (Hannas, 1972). Following this, Norica (2009) argued that

the [dissected] puzzle was born in the same workshops as its more formal sibling, the imperial map. Yet both were serious documents reflecting the process of consolidating a national imaginary; the imperial map presented the world in its mapped state, and the puzzle allowed users to continually rehearse the project of mapping the world by piecing together its parts. (p. 5)

Clutching an entire nation in its palm, the child played as an imperial conqueror -- viewing entire swathes of land as abstract and ownable (Ibid., p. 10). Building on Norcia’s (2009) claims, I argue that the dissected puzzle is not just the representation or play of empire, but a result of the very flows of resources that made the empire flourish.

Second, as the dissected puzzle is an imperialist plaything, there is a need to reconsider the relationship of John Locke in discussions of pedagogy and play. John Locke argued for the use of playthings in teaching skills. Describing the use of “dibstones” -- a set dice which children threw and spelled words from the resulting roll -- the English philosopher stressed how fun can facilitate learning (1693/1996, p. 115). His advocacy for playthings emerged as a result of his interest in pedagogical reformation (Tuckness, 2010), but it also was central to his critique of the British monarchy. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1695/1793), Locke rejected Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680/2016) and the divine right of kings, through a developmental conception of childhood. Describing a child as “white paper” (more contemporarily understood to as tabula rasa, or a blank slate) Locke argued that the human mind is marked with knowledge after birth, and thus has no potential to be impressed with knowledge (divine or otherwise) prior to that event (Skidmore-Hess & Skidmore-Hess, 2016). But Locke has a troubling intellectual heritage which colonial states leveraged to make their conquests ethical. For luxury playthings like the dissected puzzle, the creation of these artifacts required not just a developmental model of childhood, but the extractive practices made possible by Lockean providence.

Contemporary ecological critics (Critical Art Ensemble, 2018; Liboiron, 2021) have linked Locke’s concept of providence to a colonialist conception of human stewardship. Presuming that nature, when untended, would grow unchecked and turn fetid, Locke (1690/2010) argued that humans should endeavor to tame and harness the fecund, overgrown frontier:

God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him. (section 32)

By this logic, if one landowner (an Indigenous group) was not caring for their property and letting it grow wild, it gave the colonist the moral right to claim it for their own, so long as that subject could maximally exploit and harvest that land to their own gain. Building on Goldstein (2013), Liboiron (2021), argues that, “the logic of maximum extraction of value was at work not just in Britain, but also its colonies. There, the moral imperative to improve land, to rearrange Land into Nature and Nature into Resource, was a primary (though not only) refrain for dispossessing Indigenous peoples from their land” (p. 71). Lockean providence became the Western colonialist’s modus operandi, giving an ethical and aesthetic framework to plunder the “new world” for its resources, while ignoring the claim to land and the ecologies of care developed by Indigenous peoples. Stewardship implied a particular natural aesthetics, which privileged an ordering of the wild landscape by human hands. Lockean providence makes death through the transformation of a pristine environment into a human tamed landscape, while also sublimating natural fecundity within its systems of maintenance and husbandry. It produces a death culture that sublimates its will to kill as an ethical imperative, and which purposefully displaces conceived excess into the coffers, museums and living rooms of the imperial state. As will become obvious in the next sections, the colonial project of extracting resources from the supposed “new world” is justified by Locke’s ideas, and the resulting death culture depends on the aesthetics of stewardship, maintenance and extraction.

Mahogany and the Necropolitics of Colonial Trade

For John Spilsbury’s maps, the puzzlemaker engraved and pressed a map onto a piece of fine paper (presumably rag paper made from pulping and washing cloth in paper factories). This map was then glued to a thin mahogany board and pressed to avoid warping. Other dissected puzzles of this period pressed the engraved image onto either mahogany or cedar (Whitehouse, 1951, p. 84). When the glue dried, the engraver and puzzle maker took a saw to the fused board, dissecting it and placing the pieces into a wood box for sale [5]. This container was usually a different material than the board, and Spilsbury’s maps were stored in an oak box (McNeal, 2015), while others were stored in a cedar or polished sycamore box (Whitehouse, 1951, p. 84).

Bowett (1994) argues that Caribbean mahogany (swietenia mahogoni) became a major import in Britain after the passage of the Naval Stores Act of 1721. This legislation was penned to assist in procuring the materials required for the upkeep of the Royal Navy. The increased demand for wood made lumber harvested from the Americas more profitable for slave ships, who would offload human cargo in the Americas and onload these wood supplies onto their ship before heading back to England. The influx of hardwoods made them available for furniture makers. Spurred by a growing economy, these hardwood-made luxury objects became popular for the Georgian subjects (Berg, 2005). In Belize, the process of collecting mahogany involved a years-long practice of finding trees, building encampments and roads leading to mahogany dense regions, harvesting trees in the region and sending the logs down the river during the rainy season where they would be collected at the delta (Naylor, 1967). The mahogany logs would then be sawed by hand at a mill before they were loaded into a ship to be sent back to Europe (Edwards, 1996).

Britain’s mahogany was harvested from Jamaica. The Caribbean colony specialized in the sale of farmed goods like sugar, pimento, indigo, coffee, ginger and refined goods like rum. In addition to these agricultural staples was the extraction of non-domesticated materials
-- mahogany, game hides and tortoise shells (Whitworth, 1777). While this material could be sourced from land under British control, this was not necessarily the only source, as trade between England and its European neighbors was also frequent.

Ambivalent of the centuries-long gestation time for the growth of mahogany trees, and ignorant of how to domestically cultivate the plant, Georgian colonists were unwilling to attempt to grow the hardwood themselves, relying on the natural abundance that seemed endless (Anderson, 2004). These colonists presumed that the “new world” had limitless resources, which could be harvested as they please.

Mahogany’s presence in the dissected puzzle is not only because of its material ability to stay rigid and upwarped over centuries but also because of various sublimated processes which coalesce into the final object. Bennet’s (2010) conception of the Chinese term “shi” helps better conceptualize this relationship: “Shi is the style, energy, propensity, trajectory, or elan inherent to a specific arrangement of things... emanating from a spatio-temporal configuration rather than any particular element within it,” it stresses a confluence of disparately related systems, ideas and actors (p. 35). The climate of Caribbean, the demand for luxury objects, the flow of trade through the Golden Triangle, the technology of the plantation and Locke’s rhetoric on education coalesce into a discrete object that is the dissected map. Complexity compounds and interweaves in this regard, making all of these otherwise singular actors activate toward the fulfilment of colonial trade. Key here is that human actants are always informed and complicated by natural processes, objects and things.

Building on this idea, mahogany, trading ships and colonists are not flowing through ahistorical nodes, so much as networks of trade, exploitation and death, all established and maintained through the colonial project’s necropolitics. The most direct example of this will to kill can be seen in how the mahogany tree was chopped down: its corpse was refined and remade into luxury objects. Mahogany was not alone in this. Other hardwoods -- like Teak, harvested from India and Burma -- were collected from colonies, through the power of the East India Company. Teak would be used to create English ships as early as the 1780’s (Kumar, 2010, p. 229), and in the mid-nineteenth century the hardwood become the most important material to maintain the British fleet (Albion, 1926, pp. 365-369; Bryant, 2013).

For mahogany, as it was harvested from the Caribbean, specific technologies of death intercede and entangle themselves into the manufacture of the dissected map. Spilsbury’s maps cannot exist without the slave trade and the plantation system. These practices are the result of the reality of the golden triangle -- a flow of trade that abducted Africans and enslaved them as part of the plantation system. Enabled by the Atlantic current, slavers needed to bring something back to Europe: mahogany, rum, cotton and other objects able to survive the trip were valued insomuch as they could be shipped, and that they shared some material quality desired by the imperial cultures.

As I finish this section, I want to stress that all cultures have death cultures: death is a necessary condition for the maintenance of the living. What is key here is who and what dies, for whom and for what purpose do they die and who and what survives. Black Africans were shunted from their homes in the necropolitics of the slave trade, to be forced to work on British plantations, leaving the slaver’s ships empty for the return trip. Mahogany trees were killed and harvested for the sake of filling these ships. Unlike, say, sugar cane which could be maintained through farming, mahogany was made to die but could not be replaced, leaving it to be culled to near extinction.

There are two implicit functions of the British colonial death culture. The first function, made possible by Lockean providence and on the presumption of limitless natural excess, was to kill, cull, manage and extract without worry (Critical Art Ensemble, 2018). The second function was to make the necropolitical project of the plantation and colony more efficient. While Spilsbury and the puzzle makers who followed after his death in 1769 were not direct actors in these entangled death processes, the playthings were dependent on these practices. Lockean ideology impacts both sides, supported by cultural decisions, natural actors and the power of British empire to secure and collect wealth from their conquered lands.

I should impress that this is not a mutually exclusive conclusion, and that further research should be done to confirm the relationship between colonial death cultures and cultures of play and pedagogy. After all, Spilsbury’s maps are early examples of a popular pedagogical tool that would be adopted by learners in the centuries following its commercial emergence in England in the 1760’s. England was not alone in its viscous exploitation of entire continents through the colonial system, nor was it the only culture to use dissected maps to reinforce colonial ideologies (see: Logrot’s 1850 Atlas of the World).

Gelatin Matters: Animal Death and Reconstitution

We can track the lineage of colonial mahogany extraction in museums, antique stores and in the homes of the wealthy. There is a material continuity that is maintained from the plant, to when it is cut into planks, to when it is refashioned into a luxury good. At each step, the wood’s materiality remains, for the most part, materially, chemically and structurally extant. Glue, on the other hand, as result of processing animal carcasses, reveals a different kind of death making logic inherent to the material construction of the dissected map. This logic relies upon a muddiness at the point of transformation from animal byproduct to consumer good: the carcass prior to rendering is destroyed to become useful for human manufacture.

Glue in the Georgian period was produced by boiling animal byproducts down to concentrate gelatin. There were multiple ways to produce adhesives, which were all dependent on rendering animal remains: from the bones and leather of cattle, the hide from game animals, or from fish. Region mattered as to the process and materials required for glue makers in England. In Newcastle, glue-makers used cattle bones. John Ballie (1801) described Newcastle glue as

so offensive to the smell, and so soon losing its adhesiveness, is, that it is made principally of the gelatinous substance of bones. On this account, the manufactories here exhibit the appearance almost of charnel-houses, being equally offensive to the sight and the smell. (pp. 520-21)

Isinglass glues made from gelatins found in fish like sturgeon were uncommon, but recipes floated around the discourse of literate crafts people (Jackson, 1765). In London, glues were more commonly made from the hides of game, either locally sourced (hunted) or bought from furriers (Ballie, 1801). Glue-makers were commonly centered in the lower class, industrializing neighborhoods of Bermondsey and Horsleydown on the south bank of the Thames. Bermondsey was described by Thomas Pennant (1790) as

the Wool Staple of our kingdom. Here reside numbers of merchants, who supply... [the] weaving countries in this kingdom, with that commodity. As Southwark may be considered as a great suburb to London, numbers of other trades are carried on there to a vast extent: the Tanners, Curriers, Hatters, Dyers, Iron-founders, Robe Makers, Sail-makers, and Block-makers, occupy a considerable part of the borough. (p. 54)

The Southwark neighborhoods, as a center of a variety of crafts, seems like a likely place for glue to be produced (especially from the hide scraps not suited for leatherworkers, hatters and other tradespeople).

Baillie (1801) described the practice of glue manufacture in London. The glue makers cleaned the hides by dissolving them with alum or lime (pickling chemicals commonly used in many crafts of the period), before being put into brass cauldrons to boil. During the long process of concentrating the gelatin, the glue maker skimmed the surface of the solution, and after it gained a light brown color, the glue was tested. Once properly sticky the gluemakers formed the solution bars, cut them and left them inside small huts to dry.

Bone glue in Newcastle and hide glue in London present two ways of caring for and working with animals (both living and dead). The Newcastle glue regime depended on the process of farming and cattle rearing which nurture and foster one another. The cattle on the farm provide nutrients for over-farmed ground. Cattle put to pasture passively add manure over a period of years while other land is used to farm crops to both sustain the household and to sell at market. John Beale (1799), an American writer who toured England and Europe to teach American farmers the continent’s knowledge, assigned value based on a given animal’s potential for labor, the value of how it treats the land and for the value of its meat. Displaced in this regard is the rest of the carcass, its use and how a landowner may profit from it. On one end there is the function of husbandry to assist in processes of the farm, but then there is also the net profit provided by the executed animal’s remains, so long as it is sold.

The animal’s carcass presents a rich collection of materials beyond the sustenance afforded by butchering its meat. The hide of the animal is worthwhile to leatherworkers, the tallow is valuable to candlemakers and the bone can be used by a variety of craftspeople including gluemakers. The literature in the period centers on the care for the animal with less attention toward the butchering and use of its corpse. This might be due to the fact that a majority of these publications were focused toward the wealthy, literate landowners who seek to make a profit off of the land, and less with those who might be farming for their own sustenance. This all said, there is quite a large amount of time and energy displaced into the bodies of the cattle, much of which is dependent on natural processes, but also in the intervention by the farmer to extract maximum value out of both the living and the dead commodity [6].

In addition to the domestically sourced cattle carcass, there was an influx of animal remains imported through colonial trade. Where the Newcastle glue makers depended on bones, London’s glue was made using hides. The different source materials reveal an entirely different network of extraction and death making for Spilsbury and the other Georgian puzzle makers. The tanners, furriers, hat makers, fellmongers and wool staplers who worked in Bermondsey show the region as a center of animal-based textile and fabric trades. This means the region had an influx of lambskin and other cattle leathers coming from rural England and Scotland, but this also means that there was access to the hides of game animals. Game animals were not available for commoners to hunt in mainland England, and as such, any game hides that would be used were most likely sourced from the British colonies. Hides skinned from animals in the colonies were a common export. Whether these were collected by game hunters, or from the carcasses of cattle is unclear. Either way, they were deemed valuable enough to bother shipping across the Atlantic to be used for luxury crafting. Any hide scraps, untreated skins, or less valuable cuts of leather presumably were collected by the glue makers to boil down.

This inspection of glue making presents a parallel logic of consumption to that of mahogany. The non-domestic animal body becomes a source from which value can be mined and shipped back to Europe. In the death culture described, there are two macro-scale processes at work which intersect with the manufacture of the plaything, and various other luxury objects. The first death culture regards a domesticated transformation of once-living matter into useful objects. In this process, the English farm cultivates gelatin as one of many distinct and useful byproducts of animal husbandry. The animals interlock as facilitators of agricultural sustenance, but also as a body that makes variously useful materials. Manure, hide, meat, bone, tallow and so on produce value for many actors in the lifespan of the animal. While the gelatin is not the main product made through cattle rearing, it is still deemed useful and valuable enough for glue to be made from the slaughtered animal’s carcass.

The second death culture regards the implicit, extractive practice of colonial plunder. This death culture -- propelled by Lockean providence, made possible through the slave trade and activated by game hunters and lumber harvesters in the western hemisphere -- depends on forms of transformation and deference. Many forms of labor are displaced either upon the naturally occurring objects in the colonies -- mahogany or the hides of game -- or upon the bodies of the laborers captured and enslaved to make value -- the bodies embedded in the slave trade. These deaths are ignored by the colonial regime but produce the value which is similarly displaced into the European continent and its empires.

Rendering Conclusions

Throughout this essay, I have avoided discussing the content of the Georgian dissected puzzle. In focusing on materiality, I have sidestepped representation and avoided more ludological aspects of gameplay. Part of this is due to Norica’s (2009, 2010) already excellent work in this regard, but in addition, I have turned away from representation specifically, because I worry that representational analysis forecloses certain ways of understanding an object’s ideological history. Concluding this essay, I want to return to the possibilities afforded by close reading, to better link materiality, ideology and the systems of empire.

In his monograph on the mechanical puzzle, Rothstein (2019) describes the logic and concept behind Sam Loyd’s disappearing-figure puzzle Get Off the Earth (1896). A craze in America when it first appeared, puzzle solvers were tasked with explaining the mechanics behind the puzzle’s two configurations -- one with thirteen stereotypical Asian figures, and the other with twelve. Rothstein (2019) writes,

Ever attentive to the market, Loyd sought a popular topic, and burgeoning American xenophobia fit the bill. This is not to excuse him, but rather to note something important about Get Off the Earth: its loathsomeness is casual, the product of privilege so blind to itself that it produced insults that barely struck its primary audience as insults in the first place. The offhandedness of the racism in Loyd’s design reinforced that privilege, allowing the puzzle’s primary audience to rehearse its whiteness by being in a position to choose to pick on someone else. (p. 155)

In a covert jab at puzzle enthusiasts whose interest in how a puzzle works rather than what it represents, Rothstein (2019) reminds us that the material qualities of a puzzle can be interwoven into their representation. Loyd’s racist 1896 puzzle requires both an understanding of its conceit, but also the implicit xenophobic rhetoric sold alongside it. While materiality is significant in the plaything’s manufacture and affordances for play, it is key to remember that the wealthy children who were taught by the dissected puzzle were being trained in the ideology of empire.

To conclude this essay, I want to turn away from Spilsbury’s dissected maps and inspect, instead, The British Sovereigns by William Darton & Son (1830) (fig. 4). The British Sovereigns (1830) is emblematic of a common genre of dissected puzzles -- the succession narrative. Rather than just matching edges, students would use their knowledge of British monarchs to assemble the image; all the while, they would reinforce this knowledge in a concrete way. This interlocks the dissected puzzle into a project of cultural memory (Begy, 2017), supporting the monarchical system in Georgian and Victorian England.

Figure 4. The British Sovereigns by William Darton & Son (1830). Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York, USA. Click image to enlarge.

There is a secondary residue on The British Sovereigns: the puzzle maintains the same ideological networks that the visual referent teaches. The dissected puzzle, as a luxury plaything that emerges within the British imperial network, is both visually emblematic of its ideologies and made by those same systems. They cannot be separated. The necromaterial heuristic affords a means to connect certain violent projects -- the necropolitics of the slave trade, the ecocide of colonial extraction and the paternalistic ideology of stewardship -- to the cultural index of artifacts.

Material playthings depend on the cultures from which they are created. In the same way the dissected puzzle needs glue and hardwood, so do game controllers need metals and plastics. The video game is maintained by a death culture -- not that which makes die in the game, but the culture that harvests the ancient dead for petrochemical transformation and which maintains trade through the exploitation of particular subaltern subjects (see: Meyers et al., 2014). What I ask for scholars who continue to work in games, is to consider these lineages more carefully as being necessary to the manufacture of the objects we study and the cultures which we seek to critique.



[1] The term “death culture” is borrowed from the death studies discipline. A transdisciplinary interest in human death, the field is interested in different cultures and practices regarding human death. For more information about this discourse, consult the Mortality journal, or The Collective for Radical Death Studies.

[2] For brevity, and to focus on occluded processes in aesthetic manufacture, I have chosen to omit a discussion of papermaking and engraving.

[3] This claim might not be entirely true. The same directory that Linda Hannas (1972) uses to show Spilsbury’s puzzle making credentials includes another engraver’s claim to being the inventor of the dissected map (Ibid., p. 17). Le Prince, the engraver with no discernible first name in the record, worked on Marybone-Street. He is credited as follows: “Invention of the Dissection of Maps on Wood, by which he teaches Geography; and History, after the approved method of Madame de Beaumont, his sister” (“Alphabetical List of the Masters”, 1763, p. 23).

[4] In the nineteenth century, improvements in saw technology made the dissected puzzle into the jig-saw puzzle as we know it today. With these changes, the plaything became more challenging. This increase in difficulty allowed it to become a commodity for adult audiences. These changes would lead to an explosion of popularity in the first half of the twentieth century, especially during the Great Depression (Williams, 1996; Williams, 2004).

[5] One source that aided my understanding of dissected puzzle’s manufacture is Crawford’s (1873) novel, Harry Crawford: The Art of Cutting Puzzles. This text would benefit from further scholarship as it explicitly links ideologies of colony and religious indoctrination to the use and dissemination of dissected puzzles, with special care as to underline the ability to supposedly convert Jewish subjects in England and the holy land.

[6] The existence of bone glue makers implies that someone saw value in the bones and was interested in purchasing and processing them into a commodity. As of now there are series of trades and transformations of a given carcass, but I am unsure how this is done. As will become apparent, this same problem arises for the rendering of hide glue: who were the glue makers, and how were they trained?

My suspicion is that the working craftspeople were not literate, or did not actively participate in the kinds of discourse which online repositories have maintained, and that the knowledge of butchery and glue rendering was learned through apprenticeship and first-hand experience.



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