Article body

Material histories are at their most satisfying (and pedagogically useful) when they make us rethink the common objects that surround us in daily life. Why is a light bulb round? Who invented asphalt? When were gas meters first installed in private homes? Chris Otter’s spirited and thorough study of municipal infrastructures in Victorian England succeeds in illuminating the technological networks that we often fail to see for their ubiquity. Though his book certainly enters the space of modern visual studies opened up by scholars like Martin Jay, Jonathan Crary, and Hal Foster, it reflects a more direct descent from Alain Corbin and Bruno Latour. Like Corbin, Otter attends to the broader sensorium of nineteenth-century urban life; despite its vision-focused title, The Victorian Eye rightly ties scopic technologies to issues of noise pollution and stench control. And like Latour, Otter refuses to reduce technological change to the simplifying models of epistemological rupture; rather, he details the unevenly distributed, often overlapping and locally divergent techniques of sanitation and illumination in specific cities (Manchester, London, Leeds, Liverpool) at specific moments of time. The result is a nuanced, ambitious, surprisingly engaging, and ultimately important contribution to our understanding of modern urban life.

Otter’s subtitle promises a political history and, indeed, the book renders its insights on infrastructure relevant to current scholarly debates by embedding the facts of technological development within a meditation on liberalism, freedom, and governance. Rather than indulge in a knee-jerk critique of civil surveillance, Otter considers a positive notion of the liberal subject as both self-governing and rationally governed. This refreshing refusal of moralistic suspicion allows us to see the choices made by British politicians, engineers, and urban planners for what they surely were: sometimes arbitrary, sometimes underwritten by ideology; sometimes well-informed, sometimes not; sometimes successful, sometimes laughably limited. Take, for example, the material strategies of urban sanitation in nineteenth-century England. Otter nicely captures the gap between the total eradication of darkness, noise, and stench in Benjamin Ward Richardson’s utopian Hygeia and the far messier reality of city spaces regulated piecemeal through legislations like the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act of 1853; the Alkali Acts of 1863, 1874, and 1881; and -- my favorite -- the Noxious Vapours Abatement Association of 1876. Such acts are neither ridiculed nor presented as the nefarious over-reach of dehumanizing government arms. Rather, they reflect liberal governance as an imperfect but generally positive system, one that tries to fight infection and injury in public space. And really, would we have wanted shit in our streets? “The argument here is that freedom [from disease, waste, injury], whether conceived by J. S. Mill or by sanitarians and engineers, was routinely conceived to be at least partially securable through technology,” writes Otter (18). With this in mind, he chooses Latour’s term “oligoptic” – i.e. multiple and material, splintered and unpredictable – over the totalizing vision of the Foucauldian panopticon.

If we are to judge by the book’s back cover and Otter’s own introductory chapters, The Victorian Eye aims centrally to puncture the overblown theoretical balloons of panopticality and flânerie. Fine. Anyone who has recently directed dissertations on modern spatio-visuality will surely be pleased to find here a model of resistance to the over-used and over-generalized invocations of Michel Foucault and Jeremy Bentham, Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. But Otter’s polemical thrusts start swinging a bit wildly into the realm of “straw-mania” in his first chapter, which shares the book’s title. Jonathan Crary’s work in particular is somewhat unfairly disavowed. In order to position himself critically, Otter attacks Crary’s “adherence to a model of epistemological rupture” (25), despite the fact that Crary carefully and consistently distances himself from that reductive model in both Techniques of the Observer (1990) and Suspensions of Perception (1999). A footnoted concession (“To be fair, Crary acknowledges the ‘partial’ persistence of the classical ‘well into the nineteenth century,” 277) comes off as disingenuous, as it seriously understates Crary’s own attention to overlapping, contested, and dialectical epistemologies of vision. Certainly, Otter is right to remind us that Victorian visuality cannot be reduced to a “history of a monolithic objectifying gaze,” but his supporting evidence – a “new physiology” based on the imperfection, temporal nature, and binocularity of vision – directly echoes rather than refutes Crary’s important work in the field. What constitutes more clearly The Victorian Eye’s originality is the book’s emphasis on what Otter calls the “politicoperceptual” realm. A talented historian, Otter mobilizes new and capacious research – into the professional practices of the British Optical Association, the use of eye tests in schools and in the army, the lighting decisions made by municipal engineers – in order to reveal the ways in which technological infrastructures have been informed by seemingly-neutral theories of perception, with concrete life-changing results to the “liberal subject” as both human citizen and ideological construct.

The book’s central chapters provide sustained reinforcement of its thesis that technological change occurs through uneven sedimentation rather than smooth progress or instant break. Gas lighting and electricity, for example, co-existed uneasily in the nineteenth century; when making decisions about the illumination of private and public spaces, citizens and governors had to consider competing innovations in the design of gas mantles and electrical wiring while remaining aware of risks on both sides (gas leaks and fires; explosions and electrocution). In the realm of sanitation, overwork, underpay, corruption, and incompetence limited the scopic control of inspectors going house to house to identify disease, or entering factories and hospitals to enforce hygienic strictures. Similarly, the surveillance techniques of pipefitters, gas meter readers, and electrical inspectors were undermined by ill-defined and often contradictory standards of measurement. In a way, then, Otter’s book reveals a history of failure: it narrates the necessary gap between the societal desire for standardized order and the inadequacies and imperfections of techniques employed to enforce that order. The resulting picture, however, is anything but depressing, for a certain freedom (tenuous and limited, but real nonetheless) resides in the interplay between the earnest goals of civic improvement and the wide swaths of unsurveilled space that escape their reach.