Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds

Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). viii + 450pp. £32 hb. ISBN 978-0-19-920520-2.

In The Victorians and the Visual Imagination Kate Flint highlights Victorian fascination with the processes and technologies of seeing, with the functionalities of vision as well as with their parallels to the then prevalent modalities of interpretation. Optical developments and the growing culture of the spectacle opened new vistas for the Victorian viewer, as the poetics of visibility was dialogically engaged with issues of invisibility, anamorphosis and spectrality. It was a world filled with crepuscular (in)visibility, opaque transparency and daylight tenebrosity. The dialectics of this world, argues Flint, can easily be lost to contemporary critics due to their overeager attention to the visible and a too ready dismissal of what is beyond the easily perceived (92). Isobel Armstrong counteracts this tendency by spotlighting one of the contemporary blind spots: the Victorian glassworld and the visual culture that it enabled through the dynamic combination of the glass trinity, ‘the glass panel, the mirror, and the lens’ (3). Her lustrous analysis of glass as an ‘antithetic’ mediator – bedazzling in its transparency and nonetheless retaining its opacity – serves to map the concerns of what she calls ‘Victorian modernity’ (1830-1880) and the new forms of subjectivity that it made possible.

To approximate the Victorian glassworld, and to make legible the semantics of glass in which it was reflected, Armstrong formulates seven theses about its constituents, which make up the major threads of her book. The first two, ‘breath’ and ‘sand’, explore ‘the unconscious’ (5) of the Victorian glassworld, which underlines its transformative character, from the opacity of the material and the glassmaker’s breath to the crystalline translucency of the artefact. Theses three and four, ‘looking through’ and ‘looking at’, continue Armstrong’s preoccupation with the ambiguous status of glass by highlighting the double-sidedness of the glass pane, which is simultaneously transparent and opaque (11). Theses five and six, ‘glass spaces’ and ‘glass images’, point to the equivocal merging of material and immaterial spaces that the glass culture brought about. The final thesis, ‘pleasure and violence’, refers to the scopic pleasures of the new-created world which are coupled with the violent destruction of glass and the political significance of this act.

These concerns are taken up in the three parts of Armstrong’s book. The first of these, ‘Facets of glass culture’, is devoted to the creation and destruction of the Victorian glass manufacturing industry. Armstrong’s complex reading of the chosen texts – for their documentary and textual value – allows her to bring into relief not only the economic, social and political significance of glass culture but, first and foremost, to ‘disclose the dialectic of nineteenth-century modernism’ (90). She reads the texts as testimonies to the problematic of the modernist subject whose position and identification become modified by the intrinsic tensions and ambiguities of the glassworld. What is particularly appealing in this section, apart from the diversity of studied materials (from journalistic accounts to private diaries and trade union magazines), is that they make us, as contemporary readers, aware of our own position and point of view, which often preclude our recognition of the ambiguous status of transparency due to modern virtualization of experience.

The second part, ‘Perspectives of the glass panel’, explores the ways in which the lucidity of glass surfaces and their reflective propensities transformed the daily scopic regimes of the Victorian era. Armstrong’s poetic language powerfully recounts the experience of the nineteenth-century urban subject confronted with the new proximity of glass surfaces and the growing consciousness of his or her own position within this world: ‘In public glass, the externalized body repeatedly returns to the looker from the environment, often as a moving palimpsest in the cityscape, overwritten by other images’ (96). The reflexivity of glass impels Armstrong to reflect on the questions concerning the agency of looking, the nature of the image reflected and the transformation of the body in glass. Her introduction to the poetics of windows constitutes a background for the reconsideration of the new, glassed metropolitan spaces and artefacts whose political and aesthetic significance she explores.

Armstrong’s final part, ‘Lens-made Images’, shifts the focus from the material culture of glassworlds to the images generated by lens-based devices and the new level of perceptive awareness that they introduced. The new optic regimes of the kaleidoscope, the microscope and the camera allow her to deal with the nature and significance of novel imagery, the ontology of mediation and the question of ‘knowledge and perceptual certainty’ (245) – questions she links to the subject of Victorian modernity.

Amstrong’s book is a jewel among academic publications, which reflects and refracts not only the ‘trouble’ that the nineteenth century glass culture brought about, but also contemporary difficulties in recovering and rewriting this culture. It is a multifaceted book, the complexity of which – both theoretical and rhetorical – is impressive. This density may be challenging to the reader, but is without doubt greatly inspiring. The book breathes life into the nineteenth century. Rather than obscuring her argument, Armstrong’s poetic language and the accumulation of quotation-collages underline the work’s various dimensions. These are likewise supported by the paratextual parameters of her book. The combination of the visual material (and the water signs that precede every chapter) with various textual facets creates a vibrant space which emphasizes Armstrong’s line of reasoning. The innovative structuring of the material and rich literary and visual references turn it into a mine of information on the Victorian era and its visual culture. It is up to us, the readers, to find among its pages the most precious gem, or to pick up a piece of coal and turn it into a crystal.

Monika Pietrzak-Franger, Siegen University