The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture

The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture

The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture

The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture

Synopsis

The Eye's Mind significantly alters our understanding of modernist literature by showing how changing visual discourses, techniques, and technologies affected the novels of that period. In readings that bring philosophies of vision into dialogue with photography and film as well as the methods of observation used by the social sciences, Karen Jacobs identifies distinctly modernist kinds of observers and visual relationships. This important reconception of modernism draws upon American, British, and French literary and extra-literary materials from the period 1900-1955. These texts share a sense of crisis about vision's capacity for violence and its inability to deliver reliable knowledge. Jacobs looks closely at the ways in which historical understandings of race and gender inflected visual relations in the modernist novel. She shows how modernist writers, increasingly aware of the body behind the neutral lens of the observer, used diverse strategies to displace embodiment onto those "others" historically perceived as cultural bodies in order to reimagine for themselves or their characters a "purified" gaze. The Eye's Mind addresses works by such high modernists as Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and (more distantly) Ralph Ellison and Maurice Blanchot, as well as those by Henry James, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nathanael West which have been tentatively placed in the modernist canon although they forgo the full-blown experimental techniques often seen as synonymous with literary modernism. Jacobs reframes fundamental debates about modernist aesthetic practices by demonstrating how much those practices are indebted to the changing visual cultures of the twentieth century.

Excerpt

“The act of writing begins with Orpheus's gaze”—so contends Maurice Blanchot at the close of his 1955 essay, “The Gaze of Orpheus,” about the backward glance which condemns Orpheus's bride, Eurydice, to the underworld for the second and final time (1981, 140). As a late-modernist portrait of a gendered and visual economy leading inevitably, it seems, to the production of literary texts, Blanchot's essay can be understood as a kind of retrospective metanarrative, encapsulating the ways in which the gaze and its objects collude to produce meaning in many modernist texts. On the one side resides the subject lens, whose cultural transparency and symbolic agency are conjoined in the union of look and word; on the other side lingers the silent object to which it is wedded, the precarious but necessary body destined to disappear. the gaze deployed in this relation may be characterized at once as a means of knowing and as a weapon of embodiment, suggesting an anxious recognition of the fundamental dependency and antipathy between the two. Within the long Western tradition of the disembodied observer dating from Descartes, seers, and the knowers into whom they seem effortlessly to evolve, have been defined by their transcendence of the body—a body which, however, it remains their chief object to discover beyond themselves in another. the observer's claim to a transparent body is predicated, in other words, on the disavowal of its own embodiment along with the production of a reviled cor-

I follow Homi Bhabha in equating “transparency” with the successful naturalization of a
discourse of power; see Bhabha 1994, 109–11.

Richard Rorty has supplied perhaps the most sustained analysis of this tradition in Philos
ophy and the Mirror of Nature
(Rorty 1979).

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