Gillen D'Arcy Wood. The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860. New York: Palgrave, 2001. ISBN 0-312-22654-3. Price: US$49.95. [Record]

  • William S. Davis

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  • William S. Davis
    Colorado College

Wood's The Shock of the Real is an important piece of cultural history—important for those interested in the history of visual culture, as well as for those interested in the material contexts of romantic poetry. The "shock of the real" refers to the brusquely alienating effect that a rising visual culture of verisimilitude had on many at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Some experienced this "shock" as pleasure and were willing to pay real money for ever bolder forms of visual stimulation. Others were disgusted by the cheap and vulgar sensationalism of the new forms of visual representation, which included visual effects on the stage, the exhibition of enormous paintings, engraved copies of masterpieces, gigantic panoramas, vast exhibitions of antiquities, book illustrations, and finally photography. Of prime importance in The Shock of the Real is the question of who stood on which side of the rising "struggle for dominance between the image and the word" (13). Not surprisingly, perhaps, we find the elites of the literary world—from Coleridge to Baudelaire—engaged in polemics against the rise of visual realism, a trend they view as destructive to the imaginative power of the written word. Wood's central argument is that we can best see romantic ideology, not "in opposition to the enlightenment rationalism of the eighteenth century, but as a reaction to the visual culture of modernity being born" (7). Wood's conception of "the Real," as it applies to the visual forms of representation he has in mind, is not Lacan's real as that which is outside of all signification, but Barthes's definition of the real as a sign that "is assumed not to need any independent justification" (2). The "real" here refers thus not to what falls beyond the reach of language, but rather to those representations that require no interpretation, and that, if they point to anything beyond themselves at all, point only toward their own object of imitation. What is real finds here its opposition in what is ideal, and thus runs counter to romantic conceptions of poetry—as we find them in canonical self-defining texts of romantic theorists like Schlegel, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Shelley—that would promote the poet as prophet of the ideal and absolute. The visual real does not want to lead us toward divinity, or toward an obscure "power" we might imaginatively associate with a natural image like the summit of Mont Blanc. The real wants to entertain, amaze, and shock us. And it wants to achieve these powerful effects, not in the service of an "aesthetic education" or an ameliorating human ideal, but because it wants our money. In this way Wood's engaging study investigates the boundaries between art and commerce, high culture and mass production, aesthetics and economics. He convincingly demonstrates that the rise of visual culture corresponds to an increasing public demand for a "new naturalism" (27). Popular media try to give the people what they want; and what they come to want at the close of the eighteenth century is something that would overwhelm them with its effect of the real. In analyzing supporting examples Woods also provides us with a fascinating history of the rise of the visual in Western Culture. Chief examples are Garrick's "multi-media" stage effects, the "printselling magnate" John Boydell, Benjamin Haydon's gigantic historical paintings, enormous panoramas of city and landscapes, Elgin's "marbles," Turner's illustrations of Walter Scott, and Félix Nadar's early photographic experiments. Reading this book is an education in an important chapter in the history of ...