Optical Impersonality: Science, Images, and Literary Modernism.
Fashioning a foundational book within contemporary modernist studies is a rare occurrence, especially when the text relates to a well-known concept such as modernist impersonality--yet Christina Walter has fashioned just such a text. She issues a call for scholars to reevaluate the traditional understanding that impersonality is merely a negation of personality, a view that "align[s] modernism with an old notion of personality" (25). She then insists that modernist impersonality has more to do with exploring the essence of personality and directs scholars to consider the modernists' turn toward optical science and the visual-scientific vernacular as a means of creating what she describes as optical impersonality. Walter explicitly defines optical impersonality as the "combination of embodied subjectivity and its social consequences" (6). In other words, modernists used impersonality to "ask how the new physiology of vision" challenged their notions of material, bodily, human subjects and how this vision "applied across the gender, racial, and class distinctions that had long distinguished a supposedly disembodied male subject from everyone else" (27). Walter explains that modernists experimented with optical impersonality through "imagetextuality"--that is, the blurring of the line between the seeable and the sayable--a term that Walter borrows from W. J. T. Mitchell, who uses it to help explain postmodernity. Yet, Walter wishes to write "a different history of the imagetext's appearance" in modernist studies (13). Through an exploration that spans art history, literature, gender and queer studies, physics, and contemporary affect theory, Walter sets out to demonstrate that optical impersonality, which was produced by a new understanding of the physiology of vision, allowed modernist writers to examine "the making and unmaking of personality" (27). Indeed, Walter's book presents a scientific perspective that has been missing from much work in modernist studies, but such a perspective is necessary if future scholars are to engage productively in the multiplicity of discourses surrounding gender, race, and identity in modernism.
In her introduction, Walter sets up a conceptual framework that considers three cultural and historical realms that figure in her study of optical impersonality: the history of optical science, the history of image-text relations, and the history of personality (7). A brief history of optical science, from the Cartesian notion of sight as a faithful record for the autonomous mind to Helmholtz's suggestion of an embodied observer, helps readers to contextualize the rest of Walter's argument according to its relation to modernists' evaluation and rejection of the mind/body duality. Just as optics blurs the line between subject and object, Walter allows the concept of imagetextuality to blur the line between image and text. Finally, Walter previews the historical evolution of personality from a marker of individuality into a performance of constructed identity.
Imagetextuality moves to the forefront of Walter's agenda in chapter 1, in which she evaluates Walter Pater, a nineteenth-century philosopher and art historian. Walter explains that one of Pater's most famous art history texts, The Renaissance (1873), "play [s] on the inseparability of word and image"; for her, Pater's conception of imagetext is of an opaque and fragmented structure that leaves "the reader always desiring to know, and always faced with the limits of knowing" (35, 46). For Walter, this prophetic notion of imagetext also points to Pater's presentation of "embodied vision" (40); that is, by continually pointing to the limits of vision, Pater calls attention to bodily limitations in experiencing art. Though Pater's experimentation with the image/text binary challenges identity, he never attempted to resolve issues of identity and personality. Instead, Walter exhibits Pater's influence on modernist writers who would use his work to grapple with such issues. Walter highlights Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, two women poets who collaborated and published under the pen name "Michael Field." Bradley and Cooper overturned readers' gender expectations by displaying a singular, male name that signified two female voices. Walter remarks that Bradley and Cooper were "a kind of bridge between Pater and modernist impersonality" (56); she reads Bradley and Cooper's documented friendship with Pater as the foundation for Field's ekphrastic poetry collection, Sight and Song (1892), a collection exemplifying the genre of a museum guidebook all the while depicting ekphrasis as more than an extension of the male gaze. For example, Field's poem based on Bartolomeo Veneto's Idealized Portrait of a Courtesan as Flora establishes a male/female binary but only to critique the courtesan's desire to construct herself as an immaterial, eternal representation of virginity. Walter explains that Bradley and Cooper's use of Pater's imagetextuality allowed the two women writers to abandon the Cartesian mind/body duality for a psychophysiological notion of optics that created space to explore gender in nonessentialist ways.
In the next two chapters, Walter presents feminists Hilda "H.D." Doolittle and Mina Loy to show how modernists used optical impersonality to spur conversations about race and gender in modernist circles. Walter describes H.D.'s extension of optical science into the visual technologies surrounding cinema, which allowed her to develop the concept of "visual perception that creates the world rather than know[s] it immediately" (81). H.D.'s experimentation allowed her to adopt a notion of fluctuating identity that challenged not only essentialist but also social constructivist views of race and gender. Discussing Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo in her "Cinema and the Classics" essays, H.D. calls attention to Freud's link between "modern black 'savages'" and "older 'primitive man'" while simultaneously critiquing her own racial metaphors that presuppose Hollywood as a "civilized, commodified spectacle" (quoted in Walter, 113). Walter reveals that racial discourse permeates the vocabulary through which H.D. is able to discuss impersonality, a complexity that reveals H.D.'s desire to portray the limitations in "see[ing] beyond an identitarian self or person" (114). In a similar way, Walter situates Loy's feminist agenda within "modernism's impersonal project" and connects Loy's use of imagetext and embodiment to her exploration of impersonality's material aspects (128). Walter describes a photograph on the back of Loy's poetry collection Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables and relates how Loy ordered the photograph cropped so that only her eyes looked out to the viewer. For Walter, this image displaces a stable depiction of personality because viewers can only study the self-expression curtailed by the author. The image also highlights Loy's ability to draw out the "epistemological, ontological, and social implications" of impersonality through an indirect allusion to optics and visuality. Loy's poetry allows readers to bridge the gaps between impersonality and their own embodied natures, a feat that, Walter suggests, hints at the sociopolitical implications of optical impersonality in modernist literature.
In chapter 4, Walter explores the politics of optical impersonality in the poems, essays, and fiction of D. H. Lawrence, who seems at times, paradoxically, to recover individuality: "In his essays on painting and psychoanalysis, Lawrence's desire to recuperate individuality was in clear tension with the destabilizing implications of the impersonality he outlined in his poetry" (212). Walter equates this tension with the disconnect in Lawrence's politics, which alternate between the conservative promotion of the individual and the liberal hypothesis that the human mindbody and the universe were a part of the same open system, a concept derived from Einstein's theory of relativity and manifested in Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Detailing his politically conflicting views, Walter utilizes Lawrence's oscillations between conservatism and liberalism to showcase "the spectrum of political possibilities" for modernism's optical impersonality (172).
In the final chapter, Walter attempts to understand T. S. Eliot, the modernist most frequently associated with impersonality, from the perspective of optical impersonality. In "Modern Tendencies in Poetry," Eliot proposes the idea of the conceptual inseparability of the psychological and the physiological systems of the body. For poetry to stimulate emotion, Eliot believes, it must also stimulate bodily change. For Walter, Eliot's theory proves that subjectivity is fluctuating and embodied. Further still, Walter explains that Eliot's brand of impersonality highlights "universal embodiment" all the while "preserving gender difference," as seen in his gendered narration of Tire Waste Land', the narrator, Tiresias, takes on both the female and male genders at different points in the poem, but rather than retaining both genders in "the same impersonal guide," Tiresias "later cho[oses] to become a man again" (239). The final modernist text that Walter consults, Eliot's play The Family Reunion, allows her to make a return to imagetextuality and its ability to "broadcast [impersonal] verse to a more popular culture" (245). According to Walter, theatrical performance could not only "represen[t] impersonal subjectivity" but also "directly enact it" (246-47).
In the afterword, Walter shows how this new optical theory, especially the idea of optical impersonality, can be useful for affect studies. Walter suggests that "impersonality is a persistent way of thinking about science, art, being, perceiving, and knowing" (271). Similarly, she parallels her theories of imagetextuality with Eve Sedgwick's "antidual[ist]" scholarship and "affective art" (266). Walter further suggests that this new optical theory could supplement some of Brian Massumi's and affect theory's more problematic arguments, such as "the vexed temporal issue of the prepersonal" (273). With the notion of the prepersonal, Massumi proposes that affect, having a typology and causal order of its own, is prior to an individual's form, and he bases this notion on the half-second neural lag between the time the brain registers an activity and consciously reacts to that activity. Walter suggests that her concept of the impersonal could help Massumi describe this prepersonal temporality. At every turn throughout the book, Walter attempts to integrate science with modernism as she offers a new theoretical lens for scholars of modernist studies.
I might mention one shortcoming in Walter's text, that is, her tendency to bypass philosophies and scientific studies that would help to concretize and fortify her argument. For example, while Maurice Merleau-Ponty is quoted in the epigraph to her introduction, Walter never delves further into Merleau-Ponty's philosophy regarding his concept of colors, visuality, or phenomenology. In fairness, Walter only promises to explore the intersections of "sight and reason, images and texts, and otherness and selfhood in Western thought" (2, emphasis added). Still, the notable absence of Continental philosophers and their theories illustrates the constant blurring of the line in modernist studies between what should or should not be included in an analysis of "Western thought."
Optical Impersonality succeeds in making a case for reframing modernist studies to include the scientific vernacular of vision. Walter explores the broad spectrum of sociopolitical implications that optical impersonality allowed modernists to traverse. Her book will appeal to a multiplicity of audiences, especially those focused on modernism, authorship, gender, and film studies. The breadth of her work does indeed highlight a need for the expansion of modernist impersonality to include scientific conversations. Optical Impersonality paves the way for further thinking about scientific studies, ophthalmological studies specifically, and their relation to modern art and literature.
Megan Poole is a doctoral student in English at Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on the influence of optical science on rhetorical theory, specifically the theories and vocabulary of Kenneth Burke.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2016|
|Previous Article:||The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics.|
|Next Article:||Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s.|