Christina Walter, Optical Impersonality: Science, Images and Literary Modernism

Christina Walter, Optical Impersonality: Science, Images and Literary Modernism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) 352pp. Hb, EPUB, MOBI , PDF $59.95. ISBN: 9781421413648

Walter’s book sets out to reframe modernist impersonality across three sites of cultural investigation: the history of optical science, the history of image-text relations, and the history of personality. Whilst the central aim of the book is sometimes confused, perhaps unsurprising given the conceptual and historical complexity of all three of these sites, it is mainly concerned with how they overlap as locations for debates concerning identity and subjectivity. That is, how ‘modernist impersonality formulated and answered the question of what a person is specifically through its intervention into the intertwined history of sight and reason, images and texts, and otherness and selfhood in Western thought’ (2). Walter also aims to configure a new constellation of modernist writers united by their probing of the ethics and possibilities of impersonality as it intersects with questions of race and gender. The book thus establishes a fruitful conversation between more obvious modernist commentators on the impersonal aesthetic, such as T. S. Eliot, and other more surprising figures in this arena, such as Walter Pater and Michael Field.

Key to Walter’s thesis is a shift in Western accounts of vision that took place around the middle of the nineteenth century, as physiological science disrupted the Cartesian model of vision (characterised by the notion of a stable and objective relationship between the observer and outside world, in which the eye was distinct from the rational mind). This was replaced by a model in which ‘the thinking subject, the perceiving body, the perceptual object and the material world couldn’t be so firmly separated’ (2). To put it another way, physiological investigations of sight from the early nineteenth century placed new emphasis on the organic structures and processes of the eye, sensory activity and cognition. Vision and thought were increasingly understood to take place in a material body that was subject to a range of contingent factors, from the imperfection of the eye to automatic nervous reflexes. Walter’s main reference points for the ‘new physiology of vision’ that is crucial to her study are ophthalmologic treatises produced between the 1850s and 1870s by Hermann von Helmholtz and others, which established the idiosyncrasies of the normal human eye (14), and which filtered into popular consciousness via high and middlebrow scientific magazines, optical gadgetry, and theatrical performance. In these discourses, the assumed agency of the observing subject was called into question (although one might caution against the presumed stability of the observer in the centuries between Descartes and Helmholtz, a point to which Walter gives at least cursory acknowledgment [11]). The anxiety this prompted in a wide range of cultural actors has been amply charted in its nineteenth-century context, by Jonathan Crary, John O’Jordan and Carol T. Christ, Isobel Armstrong, to name a handful of scholars who have examined the relationship between vision, technology, culture and identity in recent years.[1]  Walter, however, brings these debates about vision into a compelling dialogue with modernist writers, who were concerned in particular with the ethical and political implications of de-centring a stable, unified concept of selfhood from aesthetic form. In this objective, she importantly adds to critiques of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” divide, and she demonstrates fascinatingly (though not uncritically) the flourishing of a scientific ‘vernacular of vision’ in the wider modernist imagination.

Across five chapters she traces how this vernacular of vision influenced a range of imagetexts (a phrase borrowed from W. T. Mitchell) by Walter Pater and Michael Field, H. D., Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot. Each case study then introduces new sets of scientific ideas that test and extend her claim that impersonal subjectivity was underpinned by a visual-scientific vernacular, identified in a range of texts from scientific treatises to vision care manuals. For example, she details how D. H. Lawrence’s engagement with the seemingly separate disciplines of evolutionary theory, psychoanalysis and physics was in fact consistently linked by an interest in what each revealed about the embodied image and observer, and evident of a desire to maintain conservative notions of individuality and identity (172).  The conclusion discusses the potential that an ‘optical impersonality’ might bring to bear on contemporary affect theory. Walter observes how Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Brian Massumi, two diverging writers of affect – ‘or those psychophysiological changes that we experience as emotion’ (31) – share with modernists in their concern to theorise the self through both optical experiments and visual technologies.

Ultimately, using Walter’s formulation, and despite her insistence, it’s hard to see what’s particularly new about modernist optical impersonality – for example, one could identify a host of antecedents in nineteenth-century culture, in which artists and writers alike anxiously probed the coherency of self in response to shifting physiological and psychological models of perception. And similarly, the demarcation between visual and verbal media was frequently called into question as a result of such probing, as we see in a range of literary writers of the period more immediately connected to this ‘new physiology of vision’, such as Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. I make this point not to negate the value of Walter’s study, but to query the terms within which she frames it. Driven by a desire to articulate something new, and to intervene in the field of modernist impersonality, Walter sometimes fails to acknowledge the complexities of the historical lineage she invokes. Nineteenth-century optics feels somewhat uprooted from their own historical milieu in their service of modernist impersonality, with little consideration for other modes of literary transmission or exchange (the scientific vernacular seems to do all the work in the modernist texts Walter identifies). It makes for an at times frustrating read, compounded by a dense critical vocabulary that sometimes hinders rather than helps an interdisciplinary reader. Walter’s book certainly and productively opens up a rethinking of optical subjectivity, and offers engaging ways of critiquing the relationship between textual and imagistic form. There’s much that’s commendable and valuable here. But its achievements are somewhat obscured by an over-determination of its own arguments.

[1] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Mass: Institute of Technology, 1990); Carol T. Christ and John O’Jordan, Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination, 1830-1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Heather Tilley, Birkbeck College, University of London