Jonathan Potter, Discourses of Vision in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Seeing, Thinking, Writing

Jonathan Potter, Discourses of Vision in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Seeing, Thinking, Writing (Palgrave, 2018), Hardback, £72.79, ISBN 978-3-319-89737-0.

Jonathan Potter’s Discourses of Vision in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Seeing, Thinking, Writing (2018) opens with five substantial and timely questions about the relationship between perception and technology: ‘How is vision experienced? In what ways can visual experience be articulated? What points of reference might be used to communicate what it was like? How might someone who did not share the experience be made to understand it? What roles do technologies play in these questions?’ (1). Seemingly fond of a question or two, Potter reveals the two most important that inspired the writing of his book: ‘how was perceptual experience mediated by nineteenth-century British culture, and what effects did this mediation have on the ways experiences were conceptualised and articulated? (2). Introducing his response to these questions in a decidedly historicist study that traces changes in sight, thought, and text in Victorian Britain, Potter seeks to ‘deepen our understanding of the roles played by visual technologies in imaginative cognition and perceptual experience’ and ‘to move away from a paradigmatic historicising of monodynamic visual “experience” to a pluralistic understanding of polydynamic “experiences”’ (1). The book’s primary goal, Potter states, is therefore ‘to uncover the discursive formations that acted as tools for understanding and articulating this wealth of plurality, giving conceptual and linguistic expression to experiences that sometimes seem to defy both expression and comprehension’ (9).

Usefully, the book ‘begins at the conceptual end’ as Potter introduces the idea of the ‘technological imagination’ (consciously reminiscent of Leo Marx’s term ‘technological sublime’), which is central to his focus on the organisations of discourses around ‘visual-technological metaphors’ (3). In a study that works through nineteenth century technological advances chronologically, Potter is particularly alert to moments when the perceptual processes of a given technology are relocated from ‘the actual into the imaginary’, facilitating the ‘articulation of imaginative vision’ (10). The second chapter, for example, explores the ‘problematic relationship literature held with the panorama’, surveying a fittingly wide range of panoramic discourses (Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit and Sketches by Boz, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, and journal articles by Henry Morley) to focus on the tension between ‘external and internal visibilities’, the imagined and the physically visible (34). Clarifying his methodological approach, which favours a pluralistic understanding of changing experiences, Potter considers the ‘panoramic experience as a complex of nested meanings’ (28).

In the third chapter, Potter turns to the visual experiences of magic lantern shows and the responses in popular discourse. Glancing ahead to Freud and Proust (the magic lantern being an emblematic Proustian object), this perceptive section makes helpful connections between Victorian dream theories and twentieth-century psychology and literature. Expanding on the ways in which the metaphors generated by the magic lantern functioned in the historical imagination, the fourth chapter neatly brings together literary and visual culture by examining how J.M.W. Turner’s paintings ‘relate to the metaphorical dissolving view’ as employed by Dickens in Pictures from Italy (1846) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859) (84). In considering visual culture and its wider historical relations, he acknowledges the ‘wealth of valuable work’ produced by American theorists such as Jonathan Crary, Martin Jay, and W.J.T. Mitchell. There are additional, though fleeting, glances at George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (1859) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). Yet overall, unlike the ephemeral images described, Potter is consistently attentive to the transitions from the pictorial to the textual, the cognitive gaps between the titular triad: seeing, thinking, writing.

The fifth chapter delves into the historical and philosophical implications of optical technologies in the middle of the nineteenth century. This engaging section on scientific knowledge and rationalism is perhaps the most illuminating in the book, with Potter providing an accomplished overview of the scientific and epistemological debates that engaged leading thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, John Tyndall, and George Henry Lewes. In addition, there is a suggestive comparison between the nineteenth-century optical scientist David Brewster’s treatment of optical illusions and Immanuel Kant’s ‘dialectic of seeing’ (116). Indebted to Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s study of objective sight in mid-nineteenth century sciences in Objectivity (2007), Potter pays close attention to the ‘visual dichotomy of objective and subjective vision’ (122). Also familiar with Isobel Armstrong and Kate Flint’s significant work on Victorian visual culture, he sets up an intriguing contrast between the ‘objective and scientific visual mode’ and the ‘subjective vision of the individual reviewer’ (122). Potter’s historical and theoretical work comes to fruition with a compelling reading of Bulwer-Lytton’s popular philosophical novel, A Strange Story (1861-62). Though the work is ‘largely unfamiliar to modern readers’, Potter makes a good case for a renewed interest in Bulwer-Lytton’s fictional exploration of the ‘objective limits of empirical science’ (124). Following the analysis of Brewster’s accounts of ‘technologically rationalised imaginative vision’ alongside Bulwer-Lytton’s ghost story, the subsequent chapter offers further readings of popular short stories in an aim to suggest that the stereoscope offered Victorians ‘an instrument of the imagination’, an effective means of relocating the actual into the imaginary (173).

Through a detailed analysis of Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892), the seventh chapter begins to focus on the ‘fragmented sensorium’ that was exacerbated by ‘ever more specialised perceptual technologies’ in the final decades of the nineteenth century (185). Though ‘conventional wisdom’ often views ‘mediation and fragmentation through the lenses of modernism’, Potter’s next section explores the ‘fractal nature of experience’ at the turn of the century (184). Here he provides a comprehensive response to H.G. Wells’ short story, ‘A Slip Under the Microscope’ (1894), and an excellent close reading of detached perception in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim (1901). A slightly longer concluding chapter on the anxieties at the start of the twentieth century could have enabled Potter to draw out in greater detail some of the acute differences between the two centuries that his historicist study of nineteenth-century vision enables us to see; though perhaps that is for other works of criticism to bring into sharper focus. On the whole, Potter’s book offers valuable insights through its extensive exploration of the relations between mind, perception, and the technological imagination. 

Patrick Armstrong, University of Cambridge