Peter Otto. Multiplying Worlds: Romanticism, Modernity, and the Emergence of Virtual Reality.
The Brocken spectre, a natural phenomenon in which the interplay of a sinking sun and a misty atmosphere create a "natural magic lantern" projecting a giant shadow onto the mist, was commonly viewed by Romantic writers as an analogy for the inextricability of perception and artistic creation, and of the self and the external world (223). AS the spectator of a Brocken spectre moves, she sees a giant simulation of herself in the air, tracking her movements. The uncanny and disorienting effect of the Brocken spectre became emblematic of the unrehability of the sensory apparatus and of the unstable boundary between actual and imagined worlds. Peter Otto argues that this awareness of both the limitations and creative potential of human perception takes on central importance in the Romantic period. Multiplying Worlds is structured in three parts, tracing the pivotal moves in the development of this awareness. The first section explores the construction of immersive public entertainments that offered hyper-realistic visual simulations of the real world. Section two turns towards "textual virtual realities" in Gothic literary productions, tracing an eighteenth-century turn from what Azade Seyhan has called a "poetic mimesis" centered on representation towards a "critical poiesis" grounded in the problematic of virtual reality. Finally, section three explores the treatment of this problematic in canonical Romanticism, arguing that the virtuality helped shape the Romantic subject's practice of narrating and constructing the external world.
First coined in 1986, the term "virtual reality" has been applied to a wide range of technologies and activities that increasingly structure contemporary life. While there may be broad agreement that, at least in some sense, our lives are more "virtual" than ever before, there is no consensus either about the causes of this increasingly virtual world or about its implications. The first uses of "virtual reality" referred to a handful of technologies, such as viewing goggles and reality gloves, designed to create immersive, three-dimensional electronic simulations of physical reality. The term later came to refer more broadly to the range of social, economic, and recreational activities carried out in digital spaces in an increasingly "posthuman" context, anticipating Jean Baudrillard's entirely virtual world. Foregrounding "virtual reality" as a category of phenomenological experience rather than as attendant on a particular technological apparatus, other theorists challenged the novelty of the late twentieth-century condition, arguing that all forms of human interaction with the world--reasoning, perceiving, feeling--are in a sense "virtual."
Otto rejects both these views, arguing that virtual reality is neither unique to the contemporary world nor a transhistorical property of human nature but instead emerged at a specific historical moment, around the turn of the nineteenth century, developing from the interplay of "the conflicting rhetorics of Enlightenment and Romanticism" (13). Multiplying Worlds provides intriguing and innovative readings of a wide range of literary texts, staged entertainments, visual displays, and public spaces, suggesting the evolution of a mode of self-conscious perception in which observers become aware of the fluidity of spatial and temporal boundaries and of their active role in shaping the external world through the process of seeing and interpreting.
Otto begins his account with readings of physical spaces, both actual (the vast, hyperrealistic panoramas of Robert Barker and James Graham's Temple of Health and Hymen) and unrealized (Bentham's Panopticon), that appeared in and around London in the latter two decades of the eighteenth century. In an intriguing revision of Foucault's reading of the Panopticon, Otto suggests that the prison's effect on its inmates mirrors the "virtual realities" of popular entertainments in London of the period, such as "shadow shows," in which plays were acted out in silhouette. Attempts to create an immersive, large-scale reproduction of the external world in this period, such as the panoramas of London and of scenes from classical history, accompanied and intensified what Otto calls a Kantian "crisis in representation characteristic of modernity" (42). This epistemic shift foregrounded the act of perception as subjective and creative rather than merely mimetic, and suggested the extent that the "actual" world might be in some sense "virtual," the "contingent product of a cultural or perceptual apparatus" (43).
For Otto, a recognition of the contingent relationship between perception and actuality links such disparate Romantic literary productions as The Prelude, Blake's Jerusalem, Frankenstein, and Gothic novels such as Beckford's Vathek and Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. The vivid "waking dreams" of Udolpho, for example, as well as the novel's rationalistic deflation of its own supernatural fancies, point towards the "virtuality" of the real world by drawing attention to the dreamer's role in creating and constituting an alternative reality in dream-space. Like the audiences at illusionistic public expeditions and visitors to Fonthill Abbey, the real-world analogue of Vathek's tower, Radcliffe's readers understood that they were being presented with a simulated version of reality, of "signs divided from their referents, objects distanced from their contexts, and spaces divided from the 'real' world" (159).
Although much scholarly attention has been paid recently to the popular culture of Romantic-era London, the wide range of virtual-reality simulations that Otto draws upon are likely unfamiliar to many readers. Aside from panoramas, shadow shows, and structures such as Fonthill Abbey and the Temple of Health and Hymen, Otto provides rich and detailed accounts of phantasmagorias (illusionistic ghost-shows) and moving-picture shows, which used lighting and sound effects to create simulations of three-dimensional movement that contemporary audiences found very convincing. The most famous of the moving picture shows, Phillippe de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon, included an immersive depiction of Satan's gathering his troops on the banks of hell, which, for Otto, is an early example of the Romantic reinvention of Satan as a metaphor for the ability of "radical artists and writers to represent themselves as creators of virtual realities that vie with the real" (163). In all of these different entertainments, Otto points out, spectators are completely conscious that they are immersed in a simulated and "false" environment, but the overpowering plausibility of that environment to the perceiver's sensory apparatus destabilizes the sense of a fixed, stable external reality.
In the book's concluding section, Otto traces the concept of virtuality from popular novels and public entertainments to canonical Romantic poetry. A chapter on Blake (the subject of Otto's previous two books) explores the poet's use of imagined virtual worlds to enable a "prophetic politics that takes as its primary locale the differential between
what is and what might be" (200). Otto provides intriguing readings of several works of Wordsworth--"Composed upon Westminster Bridge," and the boat-stealing and London episodes in The Prelude--in which actual and virtual worlds are blurred. Focusing on the 1799 two-book Prelude, Otto reads Wordsworth's "spots of time" as moments when the subject loses confidence in the connection between perceptual forms and the external world, disclosing the essentially fictive nature of "external reality" and positing an embodied experience constituted through virtuality, which Otto defines as "open-ended, unstructured potential" (231, 15). For Otto, the concept of virtuality as free-floating, creative force is pushed to its logical conclusion in Frankenstein, where the monster simultaneously perceives and creates both his own subjectivity and a convincing narrative of the external world, all the while self-reflexively aware of the limitations and potential of his own subject-position.
Wordsworth is often credited for challenging the emphasis on visual appreciation of nature associated with picturesque aesthetics in favor of a deeper and more intuitive connection with nature. Yet Multiplying Worlds suggests that, far from challenging a hegemonic discourse of the "tyranny of the eye," Wordsworth was participating in a broader intellectual shift in England at the turn of the nineteenth century, encompassing popular entertainment as well as literature and philosophy that rejected the epistemic authority of the senses and drew explicit attention to the ways in which the self creates the world that it perceives. By reading Wordsworth's spots of time through the lens of virtuality as an unstructured creative force, Otto presents a Wordsworth intellectually and spiritually more akin to second-generation Romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley than to the figure of the "egotistical sublime" against which they are often understood to have reacted.
Otto's concept of virtuality provides a fresh intervention into the well-traveled ground of the relationship between the self and mind in British Romanticism, and gives us new and intriguing readings of several key canonical works. Just as importantly, he provides a fuller sense of the ways in which those works manifest affinities with contemporary mass entertainments. While the phenomenon of "virtuality" that Otto describes encompassed popular entertainment, architecture, and the plastic arts, Romantic literature both intensified and helped to shape that sense of the virtual by foregrounding and problematizing the role of the perceiving subject in constructing the world around her. With keen attention to this dimension of Romantic writing, Otto provides a persuasive case that the late eighteenth and nineteenth century saw a decisive shift toward a self-critical modernity shaped fundamentally by how virtuality was understood, narrated, and practiced. Multiplying Worlds will be valuable not only to digital humanists and others interested in the genealogy of our increasingly virtual lives, but also to our understanding of the intellectual and cultural history of the Romantic period.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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