Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Epistemology of the Gaze in Popular Discourse: A Re-Vision

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Epistemology of the Gaze in Popular Discourse: A Re-Vision

Article excerpt

The Epistemology of the Gaze in Popular Discourse: A Re-Vision

In The Language of the Eyes: Science, Sexuality, and Female Vision in English Literature and Culture, 1 690-1 927 (SUNY, 2005), Daryl Ogden sets out to recover a gaze that has been, to date, largely ahistoricized by psychological and evolutionary theories of surveillance and desire. Ogden's argument rests on two premises: that feminist theorists have not fully acknowledged the extent to which Freud and Freudian theory gendered the epistemology of vision and, more importantly, that this gendering of vision was actually shaped by eighteenth-century discourse. Ogden contends that we can only resist the gendered bifurcation of vision, and thereby recover a female spectator, by examining its historicity. While his discussion of the representation of the domestic female gaze of eighteenth-century novels and the passive - or, its antithesis, the monstrous - gaze of nineteenth-century classical-subject painting is familiar, most scholars will find compelling the connections Ogden draws between these representations and that of evolutionary and psychological discourse. Indeed, by examining the dialogic relationship between these fields of knowledge, Ogden provides keen insight into how these narratives were responding to and shaped by each other. In so doing, Ogden exposes the many complicated layers on which our modern visual epistemology rests and through which it was discursively constructed. He also calls attention to narrative cracks that, upon closer inspection, we find riddle its surface and evidence other ways of seeing, other kinds of gazes than those ideology has taught us to expect.

Claiming that the eighteenth century is the decisive moment in which our modern epistemology of visuality is first articulated, Ogden's first chapter examines the works of eighteenth-century playwright, literary critic, and philosopher Catherine Trotter, drawing parallels between her criticism of Restoration theater and her defense of Lockean empiricism. Ogden examines Trotter's apology for Locke, arguing that most readers today fail to acknowledge the domestic metaphors implied in Locke's model of human understanding; rather than describing the mind as a "blank slate/' says Ogden, Locke's analogy for the mind is actually that of an empty room which the observer furnishes according to a complex combination of sensation and reflection. Trotter, as Ogden notes, uses Lockean theory to defend her own playwriting, suggesting female viewers could both experience the stage and then use self-regulating eyes to reflect on what they had seen. In this way, they might furnish their mind with the "right" kinds of knowledge and exclude from it that which they judge unfit.

In her depiction of the female theater-goer's morally discriminating eyes, Trotter marks an important shift in literature and its depiction of the female gaze. While the lusty heroines of her contemporaries Delarivier Manley and Aphra Behn reflect the liberal attitudes of the Restoration tradition, Trotter's heroines' modest gazes resemble more the increasing trend toward a domestic ideology anchored in feminine virtue and circulated through conduct book literature. However, the late seventeenth century ushered in the conduct book tradition, which works to authorize a particular version of morality and, in particular, a class-based domestic ideology centered on feminine virtue. In these texts, female virtue is identified by a woman's ability to both prevent herself from being gazed upon with desire and simultaneously to use her own gaze to regulate the behavior of those around her. What is significant about Ogden's description of this shift is his claim that these writers were authorizing the female gaze through a Lockean empiricism that recodes the "penetrating" eye as feminine.

While Trotter marks this representational shift, Ogden argues that it is really with Samuel Richardson, oft heralded as the father of the novel, that the gendered bifurcation of vision is fully and most clearly articulated. …

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