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 ...
Andrea Goulet is Associate Professor of French and Undergraduate Chair in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Optiques: The Science of the Eye and the Birth of Modern French Fiction (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) and has co-edited special journal issues on crime fiction and visual studies. Her current book project explores scientific discourses of space (cartography, geology, geography) in modern French crime fiction from Emile Gaboriau to Fred Vargas.