• Laurie Garrison and
  • Sibylle Erle

…more information

  • Laurie Garrison
    University of Lincoln

  • Sibylle Erle
    Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln

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 …