Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Retinal Fictions: Villiers, Leroux, and Optics at the Fin-De-Siecle

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Retinal Fictions: Villiers, Leroux, and Optics at the Fin-De-Siecle

Article excerpt

In 1995, W.J.T. Mitchell proclaimed the advent of the "pictorial turn," a post-linguistic, post-semiotic critical swivel from text to picture as the paradigmatic object of cultural interpretation (16). Mitchell's prediction may have been overstated--certainly "textuality" has not been displaced in the academy--but it did set the stage for the thriving interdisciplinary field of Visual Studies exemplified by works such as Vision and Visuality (Foster 1988), Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision (Levin 1993), Vision and Textuality (Melville 1995), and Vision in Context: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Sight (Brennan 1996). Of course, even within Visual Studies, scholars have been at pains to relativize the dominance of vision. Richard Rorty exposed as early as 1979 the Western reliance on ocular metaphor, while Martin Jay's Downcast Eyes (1993) famously traced a modern "anti-ocularcentrism" or, in less tongue-twisting form, the "denigration of vision" in twentieth-century French thought. More recently, even Jonathan Crary, whose Techniques of the Observer remains a touchstone for studies of nineteenth-century visuality, cautioned his readers against reducing the rich notion of "embodiment" to mere opticality (Suspensions 3). Moreover, historians such as Alain Corbin in France have reminded us that the non-visual senses--touch, smell, taste--have never been absent from the experiential or discursive ambits ofWestern European thought.

But such counter-eddies in the tide of visual studies serve paradoxically to reinforce the undeniable and continuing centrality of the visual mode for studies of human representation--whether pictorial, literary, or scientific. Indeed, if Visual Studies are still thriving today (as evidenced by new courses, anthologies, and journals), (1) it is not because we have left behind the linguistic to enter the age of the pictorial, but because we have been given new tools to explore the philosophical and optical premises behind all discourse, whether visual or verbal, tactile or textual. For by historicizing sight and visuality, recent studies have brought to the fore two important aspects of Western thought? The first is an abiding connection between how the eye works and how the mind knows--i.e. the fact that, from the Ancients on, optics have directly informed epistemology. The second point is that such visual epistemology is both plural and shifting, with the modern age (defined by some as post-Cartesian, by others as post-Keplerian) caught in a continuous struggle between subjectivity and objectivity, between the corporeal and the abstract, the carnal and the conceptual. (3) One might re-state this dichotomy in a number of ways, but simply put, it opposes mental vision to physical sight in order to explain how human subjects attain knowledge of the visible world.

Where does the nineteenth century stand in all this? Through works such as Crary's Techniques of the Observer, the nineteenth century in Western European thought has come to be seen as a transitional period between the idealist abstraction of a Cartesian age and the embodied contingency of early twentieth-century phenomenology. This makes a certain sense; after all, in the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, scientists in the field of optics began to pay less attention to the laws of physics and more attention to the physiology of vision, in what Crary identifies as the rise of empiricist visual studies. It is in fact quite tempting to subscribe to the narrative of an epistemic shift from abstraction to corporeality--or to use Merleau-Ponty's terms, from Esprit to CEil, mind to eye. But this teleological story, while heuristically useful, holds up only in retrospect--for one thing, the opposition of idealist versus empiricist vision was put into play by the optical scientist Hermann von Helmholtz in 1867, before which time, Newtonian physics and Lockean empiricism were taken as fully compatible by thinkers like Reid, Buffon, and Hassenfrantz. …

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