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  • Laurie Garrison and
  • Sibylle Erle

…more information

  • Laurie Garrison
    University of Lincoln

  • Sibylle Erle
    Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln

Article body

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British culture was preoccupied with the many ways in which perception was mediated by the senses, especially the sense of vision. Scientific studies codified responses to visual or other forms of stimulation and entrepreneurs exploited this knowledge to create optical toys and popular entertainments. Our research has revealed that scholars working in the fields of Romantic and Victorian studies are equally intensely interested in this topic but that each field of scholarship has a distinct approach to studying the interactions among science, technology and the senses. Romanticists have leant more toward exploring scientific approaches to sensation, and have produced much work examining the period’s scientific and literary ideas about perception and sensibility, ideas which were formulated through uneasy couplings of materialist theories with interests in spirituality, imagination and selfhood. Victorianists have leant more toward explorations of the period’s material culture, focusing on the ways in which the results of scientific studies have migrated into everyday consciousness via the means of optical toys, stimulating literatures and other popular commodities. This journal issue therefore deliberately seeks to bring Romanticists and Victorianists into dialogue with each other. Our intention is to encourage exchange between these fields and our hope is that it will lead to new and different forms of scholarship on this topic.

One of the inspirations for this journal issue is Jonathan Crary’s groundbreaking book, Techniques of the Observer, not least because its historical period of study encompasses decades traditionally claimed by Romanticists as well as Victorianists. Crary traces a revolutionary shift in thought, which, he argues, occurs sometime between 1810 and 1840. He posits that an eighteenth-century model of vision based on the camera obscura is replaced with a nineteenth-century model based on the stereoscope. Surveying the philosophy and optics of Leibniz, Descartes, Newton and Locke, Crary finds that in the camera obscura model “the senses are conceived more as adjuncts of a rational mind and less as physiological organs” (60). Like the camera obscura, the senses are merely an aid to collecting and organizing empirical data from the outside world, data that does not vary depending on who is collecting it. The nineteenth-century model of vision, for Crary, is much more complex and unstable. Surveying the work of physiologists such as Müller and Helmholz, Crary traces the way in which the human body’s responses to sensory stimuli became subject to an extensive taxonomic project in the early nineteenth century. The understanding of vision came to be based primarily on physiological knowledge of the human body. One of the most striking developments was the notion that since variation in human physiological function was common, visual sensations must be subjective, perhaps different for every beholding eye. The origin of visual sensation became located in the “empirical immediacy of the observer’s body” and vision was now “a field organized around exchange and flux” (62). Also extremely significant in Crary’s work is his notion of “the separation of the senses” (19). This facilitated the rise of optical technologies like the stereoscope, which only stimulated the visual sense in isolation. According to Crary, isolating the visual sense “enabled the new objects of vision (whether commodities, photographs, or the act of perception itself) to assume a mystified and abstract identity, sundered from any relation to the observer’s position within a cognitively unified field” (19). The result for the viewer is what Crary terms “visual nihilism,” which causes the rise of “the features of equivalence and indifference” that characterize nineteenth-century “networks of commodities and signs” (14). This is internalized disciplinary regulation at its best; the subject is unaware of the workings of power within his or her own body. This argument prioritizes a form of Foucauldian disciplinary regulation, and this probably partially accounts for Crary’s wider influence within Victorian studies, a field that has long been in determined dialogue with Foucault, even if his work is now regularly criticized.

Romanticists have focused more on debating the various influences of science in the writing of Romantic poetry. Work in this area tends to conceptualize sentiment and sensibility as imaginative experiences with a spiritual base, but other approaches, which are more interested in the period’s materialist tendencies, are currently emerging. Alan Richardson’s British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind, a milestone in this field, explores the ways in which the Romantics’ understanding of the nervous system and brain function influenced their representations of feeling. For Richardson, the scientific theories of “Darwin, Gall, and other radical brain scientists constitute a crucial segment of the Romantic discursive field; they give new dimensions to terms like ‘sensibility,’ ‘nervous,’ ‘organic,’ ‘natural,’ ‘universal,’ and ‘brain’ that reverberated through the fictional works and poetic theories of their literary contemporaries” (xiv). What emerges from within this European context of scientific thinking about the mind is an analogue between thinking and feeling. The interaction between literature and science is a fruitful area of study because Romantic-era brain science was not only a site of controversy, it also undermined and finally dissolved the boundaries between mental and physical experience. As Richardson acknowledges, he is not the first critic to recognize the impact of brain theory and the notion of an embodied mind on the established Cartesian dualism as well as the “idealizing tendencies of certain Romantic-era authors and texts” (“Romanticism and the Body” 4). Richardson is partly inspired by G.S. Rousseau’s seminal essay, “Nerves, Spirits and Fibres: Towards Defining the Origin of Sensibility,” originally published over thirty years ago and reissued in 2004. What gave rise to the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility and eventually Romanticism, according to Rousseau, was not only a scientific, that is physiological, understanding of brain function, but also an increasingly more secular approach to human nature. Rousseau examines what he terms a “revolution in anatomy and physiology” (166), which came with the publication in 1667 of An Essay on the Pathology of the Brain by Thomas Willis, a mentor of John Locke’s. Willis’s revolutionary argument, according to Rousseau, was that “nerves, and their subsidiaries—fibres and animal spirits—could not be accounted as the basis of knowledge, and consequently of human behavior, until the seat of the soul was limited (not moved) to the brain” (166). The goal for both of these critics has been to break down the divide between body and soul as well as the divide between materialist science and spiritual poetic experience. Analysis of the influence of new biological theories of this period leads to different types of conclusions about the Romantics’ conceptions of often-studied categories like sentiment, sensibility and feeling.

Although Rousseau’s essay was published quite some time ago, it remains an important influence in current work in this area. Many recent studies have examined the extent to which Romantic poets could have been aware of contemporary medical theory or pursued medical education.[1] The significance of medical knowledge in writing about intellectual development has been discussed by, for example, Neil Vickers in Coleridge and the Doctors. Vickers adds, as he puts it, another ‘Coleridge’ to the existing mix. Vickers stresses that Coleridge had a good grasp of medicine and explores how he “understood his descent into ill health from late 1800” as well as “how he used that understanding to develop his philosophical and aesthetic ideas” (3). Similarly, Sharon Ruston’s work on Shelley maps a new context for our understanding of Shelley’s poetry. In Shelley and Vitality she writes: “Placing Shelley’s work in the context of contemporary theories of the workings of the living body removes the ‘mist of familiarity’ from him and emphasizes the importance of his materialist thinking” (1). Another, important study of how advances in the sciences of the mind affected poetic practice is Noel Jackson’s Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry. Jackson is interested in the experience and relevance of aesthetic form. By historicising the correlations between art and science, he outlines how “the vocabulary of embodied aesthetic experience represented for the Romantic poets a powerfully charged site for defining and defending the political work of aesthetic culture” (1). New ways of thinking about the Romantics’ conception of the ‘creative mind’ have moved to the fore in many of the recent works. The role of the senses during the acquisition of knowledge has been discussed alongside the biological development of the mind, unconscious mental acts and the processing rather than imprinting of sensations.

Although this remains an area of study that could be expanded, Romanticists have published work on the influence of technology in human perception. Early attempts at contextualising the significance of optical tools, such as the microscope and the telescope, have stressed that writers, and especially poets, eagerly appropriated and glorified but often misunderstood scientific discoveries. Majorie Hope Nicolson in Newton Demands the Muse first established how many philosophers and poets used the camera obscura as a model for explaining the processes of human understanding. That is, long before Crary’s Techniques of the Observer, scholars interested in the interrelations between science and literature started to examine the optical tools used to illustrate the workings of the mind. The importance of such models is now no longer limited to the camera obscura. In an exploration of the connections made between imaginative vision and the physical experience of seeing, Terry Castle argues that the rationalisation of the spiritual, a process originating in the Enlightenment, created an inner dimension of the self. Castle describes how the term ‘phantasmagoria,’ originally denoting optical apparatus, was internalized and came to signify a mental condition, once termed ‘spectra’ and ghosts by Enlightenment rationalists who dismissed them as superstitions. From today’s point of view, the phantasmagoria, she writes, encapsulates a paradox: “In the very act of denying the spirit-world of our ancestors, we have been forced to relocate it in our theory of the imagination” (29-30). Castle’s work demonstrates how subjectivity can be studied beyond its immediate philosophical and poetic contexts. Not unlike Richardson, though not from a neurological point of view, Castle draws attention to the first steps of early psychology. The importance of visual technologies, and their impact on both the concepts and acts of seeing and imagining, moves centre stage again in Sophie Thomas’s Romanticism and Visuality. Thomas argues that during the Romantic period, both imaginative vision and physical vision become more self-conscious acts. “Looking itself becomes visible,” writes Thomas, and the Romantic era saw the rise of “a range of new practices and forms of representation” (2). Thomas argues strongly for the Romantic roots of the Victorian obsession with optical technologies and more work remains to be done in this area. It comes as no surprise that in her review of Edward Larrissy’s The Blind and Blindness in the Literature of the Romantic Period, Thomas observes that the book “makes no reference to the fascination with the limits of sight exploited by contemporary visual technologies” (“Rev. of The Blind and Blindness” 29). Given that there is so much recent interest in the histories of bodies, nerves and modes of perception, we would argue that Romantic studies will soon turn more determinedly to the investigation of the ways in which technologies enhance or interrupt the relationship between the mind and the senses.

In contrast, work by Victorianists in related areas has often focused directly on the ways in which technology influences perception and this is partly due to the interest generated by Techniques of the Observer. Some prominent critics, such as Isobel Armstrong, Kate Flint and Steven Connor, have deliberately sought to move beyond Crary.[2] Isobel Armstrong offers one of the most substantial critiques of Techniques of the Observer in her work on the Victorian microscope. She argues that Crary’s “model [of vision] produces a monolithic account of technologies of vision in the nineteenth century that ignores the degree of conflict and ideological challenge created by rival epistemologies of seeing” (“The Microscope” 35). In other words, Crary’s argument focuses too solidly on a dominant discourse—that of the urge to regulate subjective vision—to the neglect of many more disparate, less prominent voices. This focus, according to Armstrong, violates the “logic of genealogical readings,” which “argues for keeping in play the meanings that have been elided rather than organizing cultural meaning in terms of monologic discourse” (35). Instead, suggests Armstrong, the “mechanisation of sight became a crucial issue, calling out for ideological readings of knowledge,” and the Victorians responded to this in disparate ways (36). The majority of Armstrong’s article surveys alternative epistemologies of the microscope that do not always subscribe to a notion that subjective vision could or should be regulated. For Edmund Goss, the microscope was a technology that offered evidence of God’s work (Armstrong, “The Microscope” 36). For George Henry Lewes, the microscope was the inspiration and outlet for a passion for knowledge that was so intense it becomes sexualized in his writing (Armstrong, “The Microscope” 40). For John Ruskin, the microscope is a symbol of the horror of urban spectacle and false charitable endeavor (Armstrong, “The Microscope” 43-4). The mediation of the sense of vision for each of these individual writers offers a deeply intellectual and starkly contrasting account of scientific work, the technologies that aid this work and the effects of technology on their perception.

Armstrong’s critique of Crary appears in a piece preliminary to her long-awaited book, Victorian Glassworlds. In this full-length study, Armstrong returns to familiar ground in the extended section on “Lens-Made Images.” Armstrong here provides a much more summarized version of her critique of Crary, and delves into one of the most crucial issues at the heart of understanding Victorian optics, offering a reading of Helmholtz that challenges Crary’s work on this important figure. For Armstrong, by producing a “reading of visual perception through optics, and particularly the optical toy,” Helmholtz “claimed for non-verbal, visual, and sensory perception the highest form of intellectual and philosophical enquiry” (256). What is revolutionary about Helmholtz’s work “is that the capacity for experiment, learning, and research is universal from birth” (256; author’s emphasis). Armstrong’s argument serves as the less obvious complement to Crary’s; she emphasizes the democratic possibilities of Helmholtz instead of his potential for contributing to successful surveillance. In Armstrong’s reading of Helmholtz, each individual is born with the same level of ability to perceive and to process perceptions. Kate Flint also takes on Crary by covering a much wider field of primary materials in The Victorians and the Visual Imagination. Flint looks instead at issues that lie at “the borderline between the visible and the invisible,” and she looks further beyond the usual selection of visual technologies by considering the ways in which perception was understood to be altered by new forms of travel, such as railways and balloons (2). To take another example of the dialogue with Crary, in his article “Voice, Technology and the Victorian Ear,” Steven Connor seeks to move entirely beyond the study of vision and optical technologies and to “enquire about the other side of seeing, or about what in the sensorium was subdued by seeing” (16). For Connor, it is the “separation of the senses” identified by Crary as well as a prioritization of the sense of sight that in the late nineteenth century comes to “produce new forms of technology, particularly communicative technology, which themselves promoted a reconfiguring of the sensorium in terms of the ear rather than the eye” (17). Even if critics have at this point—nearly twenty years after the publication of Techniques of the Observer—moved on to study different sciences, different technologies and other senses, Crary’s work is still a touchstone, a common reference point that often functions as a base from which we move on.

As in Romantic studies, Victorianists have also substantially, and recently, investigated nineteenth-century debates rooted in tensions between natural theology and materialism. Such discussions appear in work by some of the most prominent scholars in the field, such as Gillian Beer and Sally Shuttleworth, who have examined novelists’ engagements with the emerging fields of psychology, physiology and evolutionary theory. [3] The interactions among these fields are incredibly complicated, and have been superbly researched by Rick Rylance, who deliberately sets out to explore the “porous boundaries of the discipline” of mid-nineteenth century psychology (3). Rylance’s work continually returns to issues of mind-body dualism, the role of the senses in perception and the physiological construction of mind. The depth of this field suggests that much more work could be done in this area. Another fascinating recent work in this area, significant here especially because it combines the historical periods of Romantic and Victorian, is Janis McLarren Caldwell’s Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Caldwell argues that the debates about materialist science and medicine that began in the eighteenth century were still in full force up to the publication of Darwin’s important works. She finds that Romantic writers were particularly adept at balancing spiritual and materialist thought, a trend she christens “Romantic materialism.” After Darwin, however, everything changes: “both Darwin and later Darwinists. . . offered the possibility of strictly materialist readings of nature, shedding the ‘Romantic’ side of the dialectic and effectively putting an end to the primacy of natural theology” (2).

Caldwell’s argument highlights an interesting idiosyncrasy of the field of Victorian studies. Work that deals with this spiritual/material tension seems to comfortably exist next to work that de-emphasizes it or that bypasses it entirely, hence the possibility of the embedding of a discussion of Edmund Goss within the much more sensationalist and moralist readings of the microscope by Ruskin and Lewes in Isobel Armstrong’s work on the Victorian microscope. If Caldwell’s assessment is correct, then the advent of Darwinian materialism is largely responsible for creating a body of material that allows critics to combine these strange bedfellows. What is much more common for Victorianists is to deal entirely with nineteenth-century scientific and pragmatic approaches to the body, its wants, and the stimulating commodities that might be profitably circulated to satisfy them.[4] We would like to suggest, then, that another area for new and innovative work would be to find to what end Victorian thinkers could combine and explain these curious oppositions. Such intellectual feats probably seem counterintuitive in our insistently materialist post-Darwinian era, but Michael Davis has recently and impressively carried this out in his work on George Eliot. Davis explores Eliot’s interests in the physiological basis of second sight, the role of imagination in scientific experiment, as well as other curiously contradictory issues in order to document the ways in which Eliot “uses the scientific language of the mind to formulate a new spirituality” (9). As much as Romantic studies could profit from bringing Victorianists’ approaches to studies of optical devices and other material cultures back into the Romantic era, Victorianists could also profit from projecting forward the approaches of Romanticists to debates about materialist science, its many offshoots and the drastic impact they had on literature.

The articles in this collection address the topic of “Science, Technology and the Senses” in disparate ways, but what they have in common is an interest in perception, whether it is conceptualized by scientists or mediated with optical technologies. Sibylle Erle examines the idea of delayed perception in the work of William Blake, a conception that was influenced by Hartley’s theories of physiology and vibration. Kelly Grovier looks at the ambiguous thought behind “Walking” Stewart’s invention of the panoscope as well as its influence in Keats’ poetry, which is similarly characterized by a fascination with the minute and the omniscient. Laurie Garrison examines the ways in which Barker’s popular panorama venue encouraged a haphazard, fleeting manner of viewing scenes of imperial endeavor as well as Mary Shelley’s critique of this form of viewing in the arctic frame narrative of the novel Frankenstein. Gavin Budge traces the ways in which Carlyle’s idea of the “Great Man” was constructed through ideas drawn from scientific debates as well as reference to the spectral and the supernatural, positioning the “Great Man” as a person of superior perceptive ability. Verity Hunt looks at the idea of wonder in the viewing of magic lantern shows, arguing for the importance of maintaining attention to this aspect of Victorian visual entertainments.

Many of the articles in this collection deal with optical technologies, and in this respect this journal issue responds directly to Crary and Armstrong’s work. Sibylle Erle problemetizes Crary by looking at Blake as an early and transitional or contradictory figure in light of Crary’s argument about the shift in models of vision from the camera obscura to the stereoscope. Verity Hunt looks at the ways in which the magic lantern show subjected the viewer’s perception to a disciplinary form of optical training, but she maintains the importance of the idea of wonder as a counter to this training as well as the materialist tendencies of those who wrote about the magic lantern. Kelly Grovier and Laurie Garrison each outline an epistemology of viewing that departs from and exists alongside the forms of viewing Crary identifies in Techniques of the Observer. The articles in this issue also engage with Romantic and Victorian debates about materialism. Hartley’s theory of vibration is well-known to have held influence well into the Victorian period and Sibylle Erle outlines an early reaction to his work through Blake’s response to it. Gavin Budge also deals with a major Victorian figure who intervened in this debate through the development of a theory of “Natural Supernaturalism.” Verity Hunt looks at the primarily scientific figure, David Brewster, who was famous for downplaying the supernatural (or spiritual) aspects of natural wonders. A number of other recurring areas of interest are also visible in some of the articles in this collection. Erle, Garrison and Hunt engage with issues relevant to the study of exhibition culture. Hunt and Budge deal with the early to mid-Victorian interest in reducing the supernatural to phenomena easily explained by popular science. Grovier and Garrison deal with important figures in the history of exploration and travel.

These articles complement or confront each other at the level of discipline and methodology as well. The study of the history of scientific investigations or technological manipulations of the senses almost necessitates an interdisciplinary approach. As this journal issue reveals, literature is an important component of this history, but our authors also engage with the history of science, visual culture and the history of popular entertainments. We find that scholarship in this area could be expanded not only in the areas of Romantic histories of technology and Victorian debates about materialist science, but also within the more focused field of the complex intersections of sciences, technologies and the senses. These preoccupations recur across both periods and continue to fascinate scholars working in a variety of disciplines.