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Were They Having Fun Yet? Victorian Optical Gadgetry, Modernist Selves
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Were They Having Fun Yet?
Victorian Optical Gadgetry, Modernist Selves

Susan R. Horton

Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.
Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"

Solomon Gills repeatedly insists to his nephew Wall'r that he is old-fashioned, that the world has gone past him. But in one way he is one of Dickens's most modern characters. When we first catch sight of him, he has red eyes from looking through the lenses of all those optical gadgets in his shop, eyes "as red as if they had been small suns looking at you through a fog; and a newly-awakened manner, such as he might have acquired by having stared for three or four days successively through every optical instrument in his shop, and suddenly came back to the world again, to find it green."[1]

Those red eyes place him in distinguished company. Three of the most prominent students of vision in the 1830s and early 1840s either went blind or permanently damaged their sight by staring into the sun: David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope and improver of the stereoscope; Joseph Plateau, who studied the persistence of vision; and Gustav Fechner, one of the founders of quantitative psychology. Sol Gills does not go blind. But Dickens, in his portrait of him, produces a verbal version of the piercing confrontation of eye and sun that art historian Jonathan Crary identifies in the late paintings of Turner.[2] Placing the sun in Old Sol's eyes—his name itself a pun—Dickens then turns the reader into a spectator at this transposition.

In the Dickens world this kind of play with visuality is not unusual,[3]


and that is the point. Dickens's narration regularly turns readers into watchers of characters watching one another watching, often watching one another's reflections. On the final page of Bleak House, Esther Summerson's response to her husband's question whether she ever looks in the mirror is "You know I do; you see me do it" (880). The Lammales' marital partnership in Our Mutual Friend is based on an intricate system of scheming and sparring we often watch in the mirror in which they watch each other: "Her eyes . . . caught him smirking in it. She gave the reflected image a look of the deepest disdain, and the image received it in the glass" (260). At young Paul's christening breakfast, Dombey's image is caught in the chimney glass that "reflects Dombey and his portrait at one blow" (52), and readers' first view of Miss Tox's room in that same novel is through the glass over the portrait in her locket, where the "deceased owner of a fishy eye . . . balance[s] the kettle holder on opposite sides of the parlour fireplace" (84). It is not Sydney Carton we see standing before the revolutionary tribunal, but his reflection in a mirror, that "throws the light down upon him. Crowds of the wicked and the wretched had been reflected in it, and had passed from its surface and this earth's together," we are told, and the courtroom itself is represented precisely as if it were one of the dozens of rotundas in operation in mid-century London housing static or moving panoramic or dioramic shows (A Tale of Two Cities, 70–71).

Extended verbal versions of Velázquez's Las Meninas, Dickens's novels are also perspectival reflections on the problematics of empirical vision far more complicated than the woodcuts and engravings meant to illustrate them. This consistent interest in visuality makes a great deal of Victorian prose "modernist" well before the visual arts, and makes "nature, " as the art historian Rosalind Krauss suggests, "the second term of which the first is representation."[4]

Three large questions concern me here: (1) What inspired all this looking at looking? (2) How were Victorians coming to terms with their increasing interest in watching their own watching? (3) What consequences were brought about by the rationales Victorian viewers devised to justify a happy spectatorship and to come to terms with the unreliability of vision?

Walter Benjamin provides my inspiration. Benjamin believed difficult times require major acts of imagination and improvisation, particularly Imaginative acts in which the present moment is projected into the past and the past moment brought forward into the present so as to dissolve the deceptive distance criticism produces between the two. For Benjamin this dissolution is the crucial critical move, since the critical distance


we so carefully cultivate has effectively shut us off from the lessons the past most wants to teach and the present most needs to learn.

A look at scientific experiments carried out in the early nineteenth century is a good place to begin to understand the legacy of Victorian visuality. From 1820 to 1840 huge numbers of experiments were conducted on the physiology of the eye and on the processes of vision; the more that was learned about vision, the more unreliable it seemed to be. Between 1791 and 1798 Goethe wrote frequent letters to Schiller, reporting on the results of his work on the physiology of the eye. Two volumes of these letters were eventually published, entitled The Theory of Colors . They appeared in English translation in the 1830s and would, I surmise, have been brought to the attention of the average English reader through George Henry Lewes's Life and Works of Goethe, which appeared in Britain in 1855. The Theory of Colors proved so popular that it was often reprinted through the century. In it, Goethe insisted over and over that sense impressions depend solely on the sensory nerves excited, not on the external stimuli impinging on them. The Theory of Colors included explicit instructions enabling readers to experience what came to be called the persistence of vision: shift the eye back and forth from a blue circle to a yellow one, and it "sees" a green one that is not there. During the 1830s other experimenters were discovering that the retina could be made to "see" light when sufficient pressure was applied to the eyeball, that the eye would "see" light if exposed to electrical stimulation, and that a blow to the head would make a person "see" light.

These experiments were not centralized in one branch of science, and the resulting findings were frequently published in popular magazines like La Nature, a Victorian version of Popular Science, rather than in specialized journals. Once empirical science had demonstrated how easily the eye could be tricked, an explosion of optical gadgetry and optical toys was inevitable. Optical gadgetry was not invented during the nineteenth century, but until the later eighteenth century the technical means for tricking the eye had been fairly limited. One of the earliest and most popular forms of illusion-generating devices was the phantasmagoria. During medieval times shadows cast on walls with smoke and candlelight had given spectators the frisson of contact with the ghosts and phantoms of the spirit world. During the nineteenth century, these phantasmagorias experienced a resurgence in popularity, and the forms in which they existed grew more numerous. Using one of the increasingly popular magic lanterns, showmen turned a darkened room in which a transparent screen had been dropped between an audience and a lantern filled with one or another form of illuminant into a quite so-


phisticated version of a phantasmagoria. If the slides were of the "dissolving" or "sliding" type, ghosts would appear to open and close their mouths, eyes to shift, skeletons to advance and retreat.[5]

"Apparently one of the ghosts has lost its way, and dropped in to be directed. Look at this phantom!" says the narrator of Our Mutual Friend (148). Phantoms and apparitions materialize and dematerialize regularly throughout A Tale of Two Cities . The Monseigneur's thoughts are described as having been produced out of a process of "vapouring" (226–27), a formulation that would undoubtedly have invoked in Victorian readers the phantasmagoria's smoky gases. Descriptions replicating the phantasmagorical experience enhance Dickens's mysteries:

The fire of the sun is dying. . . . shadow slowly mounts the walls, bringing the Dedlocks down. . . . upon my lady's picture . . . a weird shade falls from some old tree, that turns it pale, and flutters it, and looks as if a great arm held a veil or hood, watching an opportunity to draw it over her. Higher and darker rises shadow on the wall—now a red gloom on the ceiling—now the fire is out. (Bleak House, 564)

Twentieth-century interpretive strategies have turned into complexity—prefigurations of revelations, representations of the Freudian dream space—what for Dickens may have been primarily verbal representations of the phantasmagorical experience. Some of the psychic charge generated by Dickens's novels originates in his maneuvering readers so that they oscillate between recognizing that the ghosts that appear are figments of a character's overwrought imagination and discovering that seeming ghosts or phantoms are simply characters seen imperfectly, from a distance.[6] Part of Victorian readers' pleasure in these novels would have been recognizing in the verbal text their own visual experiences with optical gadgets and toys.

But the responses these evocations of optical gadgetry generated were as complex and various as the gadgets themselves. The kaleidoscope had been invented by Sir David Brewster around 1815, and even this simple toy seems to have produced radically differing reactions. For Baudelaire, and later still for Proust, it suggested wonderful possibilities: "To become a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness [may be] the goal of the lover of universal life," Baudelaire muses. But for Marx and Engels, writing their German Ideology between 1845 and 1847, the kaleidoscope was a fit metaphor for the dangers of faulty perception, "a sham, a trick done with mirrors. Rather than producing anything new, it repeats a single image" and is "entirely reflections of itself."[7]

No short essay can explore all the optical gadgetry nineteenth-


century viewers experienced, let alone analyze the epistemological changes its existence brought about. "People seem to think the camera will do anything," confides one of the street entertainers Henry Mayhew interviews in London Labour and the London Poor . "After their portrait is taken, we ask them if they would like to be mesmerised by the camera, and the charge is only 2d."[8] All they had to do was sit perfectly still and stare into the lens until the mesmerism took effect. After two or three minutes most subjects found that they grew dizzy, their eyes watering, and they gave up. The showman kept the 2d. The scam succeeded in no small part because subjects assumed that their own bodily frailty, not the camera, had let them down. The eyes may fail; the camera never does—a point to which I will return.

L.-J.-M. Daguerre invented the static panorama in the 1820s. The multimedia diorama appeared at the same time. In the first, viewers sat in one spot while pictures rotated around them; in the second, the pictures remained stable while the two concentric rotundas of the amphitheater housing them and the audience were moved easily in a circle "by a boy and a ram engine."[9] In both devices a combination of layered flat planes and movement produced the illusion of three-dimensionality. The zoetrope arrived in the 1830s, and in 1834, the stroboscope, the flicker of light and motion in each prefiguring moving pictures. The iconoscope, a vacuum-tube precursor of the television, appeared about the same time. Unless Victorian photographs lie, by 1850 every well-appointed Victorian parlor had a stereoscope or two, offering viewers an experience of what came to be called the reality effect. By century's end, enterprising manufacturers seem to have decided that three-dimensional nudes were the stereoscope's best subject matter, thus proving the essentially erotic, voyeuristic connection between optical gadgetry and spectatorship that I consider later in this essay and guaranteeing the banishment of the stereoscope from genteel drawing rooms.[10]

Contemporary art historians like Rosalind Krauss and Jonathan Crary argue that all these optical gadgets were more than playthings. They were embedded "in a much larger and denser organization of knowledge and of the observing subject," as Crary suggests.[11] He devotes a significant portion of his Techniques of the Observer to analyzing the epistemological implications of the camera obscura, a darkened box with a small aperture to let in light, which projected images from outside onto one of the inside walls. The image produced was an exact replica (albeit inverted) of what the eye would see if it looked directly at the object being reflected. The camera obscura, then, delineated a position for the observer (inside, enclosed, private, quite literally "in the


dark"), a position Crary argues became "a precondition for knowing the outer world." The dark isolated center where the viewer sat came to constitute the single definable point from which the world could be logically deduced and re-presented.[12]

In fact from its earliest appearance the camera obscura had existed in two quite different forms: as a darkened room, in which a spectator sat, and as a handheld version (see Figs. 1, 2). Still, the connections Crary makes between the vantage point the camera obscura requires and nineteenth-century urgings toward "right seeing," and between right seeing and right thinking, are visible everywhere in Victorian prose. "The right thing in the right place is beautiful; the right thing in the right place is Truth," proclaimed the nineteenth-century photographer P. H. Emerson.[13]

Clearly, the twin discoveries that the eye could be tricked and that anything could easily be distorted when presented through different lenses or by positioning the viewer in a different spot can be seen to be the simplest explanation for the urgent advocacy in so much Victorian writing of "right seeing" and "right perspective." These twin discoveries are also the simplest explanation for the frequent warnings against those illusory perspectives that might trick us into wrong thinking. Marx and Engels in The German Ideology:

The social structure and the state are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals . . . not as they may appear in their own or other people's imagination, but as they really are . . . . Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc.—real, active men. . . . If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-processes as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process. . . . The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises [emphasis added].[14]

Writing of events in 1852 in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx notes "the Constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties. . . . the thunderfrom the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press . . . all has vanished like a phantasmagoria before the spell of a man whom his enemies do not make out to be a sorcerer."[15] One of the most popular slipping slides for phantasmagorical spectacles throughout the nineteenth century was of ships foundering in a storm at sea, often accompanied by such "sheet lightning."[16]

Like the phantasmagorical spectacles to which Marx alludes here, experiences with the camera obscura were nothing new. The device had


been described as early as the tenth century by Alhazen (abu-'Ali al-Hasan ibn-al-Haytham).[17] But its popularity surged after 1815, and in whatever form people encountered it, it too changed the way they saw. There was the camera obscura with a handle inside that the spectator could turn, swiveling the mirror attached to it and thereby reflecting images from all quarters outside the box. "You could watch it all," notes Olive Cook, "without yourself being seen, and because the people and objects in the picture are so curiously diminished and so strangely lifted from their actual surroundings into the picture rectangle they take on a significance which they do not have when seen normally by the naked eye."[18] Traveling coaches were built with lenses in the top. With the blinds on the windows completely drawn they became camera obscuras on wheels,[19] allowing the passenger inside to enjoy what must have been a deliciously panoptical spectatorship, something Dickens may well have had in mind early in A Tale of Two Cities as the Monseigneur watches the spectacles of want and hunger outside in splendid detachment as his carriage rolls on to his country estate.

Camera obscuras reflected actual objects back at the observer—though upside down. But the magic lantern substituted a reflected image for a direct one, and wherever one looks in Victorian writings, one sees writers struggling to resist not only the seductive appeal of reflections but also an increasing reliance on reflections for a sense of self identity. One major evidence of Teufelsdröckh's dark night of the soul in Carlyle's Sartor Resartus is his recognition that he has become a kind of reflection junkie: "How . . . could I believe in my strength, when there was as yet no mirror to see it in?"[20] Every child in the playground yelling, "Watch me! Watch me!" to her caregiver is Teufelsdröckh's inheritor. For us moderns, heirs to a century's worth of experiencing the self not just as viewer but as viewed, it seems that increasingly the fully experienced experience must be a mediated one. Late-twentieth-century intellectuals have legitimately made much of the Foucauldian surveillance practiced by the colonizer on the colonized; the gaze of males on females, of dominant on subaltern. But were there space here to bring forward all the instances in Victorian prose in which "private" identity seems to require a public audience for its production—Dombey's, Teufelsdröckh's, Sidney Carton's—another piece of our epistemological inheritance from the nineteenth century would become clear.

If some of the forms of camera obscuras and magic lanterns Crary discusses did not appear or change during the nineteenth century as dramatically as he suggests, one dramatic change did occur. In earlier centuries phantasmagoria and magic lantern show spectators had


been manipulated from "outside," by a showman. But spectators at nineteenth-century magic lantern shows could see the mechanical device, often being seated on the same side of the screen as the magic lantern, so that part of their enjoyment was the making of the spectacle itself. The Boston Globe wood engraving from circa 1885 (Fig. 3) shows people producing their own magic lantern show, for instance. One contemporary advertisement for a magic lantern designed for home use promised that "Everything necessary is provided and the whole apparatus can be set up without interfering with the furniture or fixtures."[21] In her memoirs Harriet Martineau recollects the magic lantern of her childhood: "I used to see it cleaned by daylight and to handle all its parts, understanding its whole structure; yet such was my terror of the white circle on the wall, and of the moving slides, that to speak the truth, the first apparition always brought on bowel-complaint."[22]

While "handl[ing] all its parts," one could have the extraordinary experience not only of seeing the world through the lenses of optical gadgets and toys but also of being a spectator occupying two places at once: the double experience of having an experience and of watching that experience from the outside, exactly what we moderns parody when we catch ourselves watching ourselves watching, experiencing ourselves experiencing, and ask, "Are we having fun yet?" Rosalind Krauss talks about the "beat" or "throb" of this inside/outside ("I'm in this experience; I'm watching this experience") as it is replicated by the slats of the zoetrope.[23]

Crary suggests that the Victorians were caught between two models of vision: that of the empirical sciences, which were proving the eye of the observer unreliable and subjective, and that of the various romanticisms and early modernisms, which posited the observer as an active, autonomous producer of his or her own visual experience.[24] Predictably, the share of contradictory models created some unease, and the insistence of people like Darwin that one trust the empirical precisely when it was proving itself unreliable led to some interesting interventions. John Ruskin argued against any mediation between the eye and the object it rests upon. But he argued for what he called "the innocence of the eye" even as his writings worked to persuade others to see, not with their own "innocent" eyes at all, but through those wonderfully elaborate rhetorical lenses he was perpetually fashioning for them. Matthew Arnold, by lodging our critical responsibility in our "see[ing] the object as in itself it really is," in his "Function of Criticism at the Present Time"—despite Victorians' increasing uncertainty of the visual as a grounding for truth—can be understood as advocating the Kantian sub-


lime: he insisted, that is, on an essence hidden behind appearances. If appearances lie, if the visual is not to be trusted, one needs a proper guide telling one what one ought to assume is "there" in what is seen. That proper guide of course is reason, and reason requires the surrender of both imagination and empirical vision. This trajectory can be followed unbroken to today's debates over the canon, and the appeal of the argument that one needs to be taught to rely on others to tell one where to look, and what to see, becomes altogether explicable.[25]

But a post-Kantian subjectivity was already around as Arnold was writing. Marx and Engels begin The German Ideology by attacking "Young-Hegelians" like Carlyle (and presumably Arnold) because "the phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands."[26] Marx and Engels do not so much deny the existence of an essence behind appearances, unavailable to empirical vision, as make identifying that "essence" our most urgent work. Personal interpretation of what the eye sees takes precedence over reason because it constitutes our best means to grasp the material conditions of our lives: "The 'essence' of fresh water fish is the river. But it ceases to be its essence when the river is made to serve industry, and dye from tanners flows into it."[27] The specters or phantoms of the phantasmagoria become Marx and Engels's subject as well: "It is self-evident that 'spectres' . . . are merely the idealistic expression of conceptions. . . . The image of very empirical fetters and limitations."[28] That the empirical might actually constitute "fetters" is echoed in The Gründrisse, in which Marx chides Mill for not seeing as clearly as he might precisely because he is looking too close and has "lost his way in eclectic, syncretic compendiums."[29]

Nine years after Arnold published his "Function of Criticism at the Present Time," Pater would insist in his preface to The Renaissance that "the first step towards seeing one's object as it really is, is to know one's own impression as it really is." Later still, Wilde would address this same Kantian struggle in his Dorian Gray . "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances," Lord Henry notes, adding that "the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."[30] Recognizing the violence implicated in all calls to the sublime, he confesses, "I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable."[31]

As mid- and late-Victorian prose writers struggled to come to terms with the fallibility of the visual as grounding for the true, the Victorian public were attending optical shows in droves, were regularly inviting street lanternists into their parlors and drawing rooms for party entertainments, or were renting or buying gadgetry of their own. Richard Altick's Shows of London is the best of the many surveys of the public


shows. And nearly any good study of the prehistory of photography and motion pictures considers optical gadgetry for home use. There were biscuit tins with slats in their sides that, when emptied, became a zoetropic wheel. Newspapers frequently contained a pattern readers could cut out, fasten into a circle, and turn into a zoetrope. Milton Bradley was producing zoetropes by 1870 (see Figs. 4, 5).[32]

Those of course were for home use. As for public spectacles, Olive Cook notes that as many theaters housing dioramas or panoramas existed

in London one hundred twenty years ago . . . as there are movie theatres today. In Leicester Square, the Strand, at Regent's Park; on Regent, Oxford, Saint James, and King Streets; at Hyde Park Corner, Waterloo Place, the Haymarket, Piccadilly, Adelaide Street. The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and Drury Lane all included dioramas in their repertoire. Play productions included entre-acte showings of such things as the "Moving Diorama of the Polar Expedition" just as newsreels used to be shown, or previews are, at movie theatres today.[33]

There was the Betaniorama, the Cyclorama, the Europerama, the Cosmorama, the Giorama, the Pleorama, the Kalorama, Kineorama, Poecilorama, Neorama, Nausorama, Octorama, Physiorama Typorama, Udorama, and Uranorama. These were popular not just in England. In Le Père Goriot a group of young artists speak a species of dialect Balzac calls rama that soon "infects" everyone around them: "La récente invention du Diorama, qui portait l'illusion de l'optique à un plus haut degré que dans les Panoramas, avait amené dans quelques ateliers de peinture la plaisanterie de parler en rama, espèce de charge qu'un jeune peintre, habitué de la pension Vauquer, y avait inoculée. 'Eh bien! monsieurre Poiret . . . comment va cette petite santérama ?'" Soon, Vautrin notes, "Il fait un fameux froitorama, " to which Bianchon responds, "Pourquoi dites-vous froitorama ? il y a une faute, c'est froidorama ." Their banter is interrupted only by the arrival of a fine "brotherama."[34]

Dickens's novels contain specific references to moving panoramas and dioramas and to peepshows, for instance, the Battle of Waterloo Peep Show in Our Mutual Friend, which could be transformed to show another battle if the showman simply altered the shape of the Duke of Wellington's nose—a bit of information Dickens may have lifted directly from one of the interviews with street performers in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor : But other references are less obvious. Young David Copperfield leaves the theater at Covent Garden after seeing a production of Julius Caesar, "revolving the glorious vision all the way." Modern readers may assume that "revolving" just describes


his turning an idea around in his head, but Davy immediately confesses, "I was so filled with the play, and with the past—for it was, in a manner, like a shining transparency, through which I saw my earlier life moving along" (286). Olive Cook notes that from 1826 to 1850 "many exquisitely painted transparencies" appeared.[35] Exactly which "shining transparency" Dickens has in mind here is impossible to tell. During his lifetime he would have had access to the "Opening of the Thames Tunnel" peepshow; "The Great Exhibition of 1851" peepshow; "The Coronation of Queen Victoria" peepshow; "The View of London" panorama of 1829, continuously shown until 1875, which simulated the view from the dome of St. Paul's while it was being repaired; the "Ruins in a Fog" topographical diorama in Regent's Park (1827); and the "Mount Etna" panorama in Regent's Park, which continued to be shown until 1885. This last was particularly affecting since it involved not only sophisticated lighting effects but also the simulated effect of spewing lava.[36] Dickens may have been remembering the gigantic transparent pictures by Daguerre first exhibited in the Eidophusikon: magical extravaganzas, combining effects of sound, music, and motion, that were exhibited under changing light in a cylindrical room with a single opening in the wall like a theater proscenium, the room itself slowly turning, moving the spectators from one part of the picture to another, giving the impression the images were animated.

In its earliest years, around 1830, the Eidophusikon had exhibited topographical or architectural scenes ("The Valley of the Sarnen in Canton Unterwalden, Switzerland," or "The Interior of Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral"); somewhat later, battle pieces ("The Fall of Sebastopol," "The Battle of Solferino," and "The Burning of Moscow") became popular; and as late as 1890 scenes such as "The Battle of Waterloo" and full-size panoramas and dioramas commemorating outstanding social or historical events, like the "Crowning of Queen Victoria," showing the queen marching stately up the aisle to her coronation, were still being shown. The popularity of such entertainments ended when the structures housing them disappeared, nearly always and inevitably because the lamp or gas jet illumination needed for the shows sent the buildings up in flames.[37]

So many of these buildings disappeared and so many of these "magic transparencies" disintegrated after 1860 that we can easily overlook how often and how literally Dickens describes the experience of panorama, diorama, and magic lantern show. Insofar as we do, we miss some of his comedy. If most transparencies represented edifying scenes, Davy's seeing his young life as an appropriate subject for one of them accentu-


ates his entirely illusory sense of his own self-importance—as it also suggests his seeing himself as a spectator at his own life, something to which I will return shortly. We might also miss the poignancy of Dickens's description of Mrs. Gradgrind in Hard Times, "look[ing] (as she always did) like an indifferently executed transparency of a small female figure, without enough light behind it" (16), and the especial poignancy of her death, when "the light that had always been feeble and dim behind the weak transparency, went out" (200).

In Our Mutual Friend, as Silas Wegg examines the human and animal miscellany in Mr. Venus's bottle and bone shop, the reader might recognize Dickens's replication of the experience of attending a static panoramic spectacle. Wegg, like the spectator at such a panorama, turns his head around and sees "humans warious. Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto . . . Cats. Articulated English baby . . . Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh dear me! That's the general panoramic view."

As early as the late eighteenth century the enterprising Belgian showman Étienne Gaspard Robertson had mounted his magic lantern on a trolley with rails. By placing it behind a translucent screen, he produced images that could be made larger or smaller and figures that appeared to "come forward" (as the magic lantern was moved forward on its trolley) and "retired" (as it was moved hack). Mayhew's interviews with traveling showmen in London Labour and the London Poor suggest mid-nineteenth-century street showmen took their shows indoors at night and during cold weather, and Dickens's description of Venus and Wegg holding "the candle as all these heterogeneous objects seemed to come forward obediently when they were named, and then retire again" (81–82) turns them into showmen of exactly this type.

But if human beings make culture—all those optical gadgets, the panoramic shows they made possible, and the nineteenth-century novels and essays that allude to them—culture also produces human beings. The optical gadgets Victorians produced made particular beings of them . Like movies in the twentieth century, optical gadgetry in the nineteenth was a commercial activity. No one forced Victorians to pay to experience the magic lantern slides of itinerant street lanternists or to buy magic lanterns; to visit the Rotunda of London to experience static or moving dioramas or panoramas; to hire psychics to frighten them with phantas-magorias projected on their parlor walls; or to buy zoetropes and phenakistoscopes, any more than anyone forces us today to line up for tickets to the latest Terminator . As Christian Metz notes in his Lacanian study The Imaginary Signifier, the optical gadget industry includes not just the


gadgetry itself and those who run or sell it, but also "the mental machinery . . . which spectators 'accustomed to' [it] have internalized historically and which has adapted them to the consumption" of the images produced by it.[38]

Victorians were paying to see the world differently and to experience the joys of spectatorship; and what they were paying for was undoubtedly changing them. They were experiencing, for one thing, as Jonathan Crary suggests, the driving of a wedge between the real and the optical; between seeing and believing . The mystery plots of nineteenth-century detective novels, Wilkie Collins's magnificent Moonstone (1868) and Woman in White (1859–60), for instance, rely on readers' accepting without question the fallibility of empirical vision. In The Moonstone, Rachel Verinder really "sees" Franklin Blake steal the moonstone from her sitting room; Gooseberry really "sees" Mr. Luker pass off the diamond in the bank to a swarthy sailor with a beard. They really do. But seeing produces no necessarily accurate representation of what is afoot in the world. Watching, being watched, comparing what one "thinks" one saw with what actually is, staying alert for disjunctures between the thought and the reality are activities that constitute the woof and warp of Woman in White .

I looked round, and saw an undersised [sic ] man in black on the door-step of a house, which, as well as I could judge, stood next to Mrs. Catherick's place of abode—next to it, on the side nearest to me. The man did not hesitate a moment about the direction he should take. . . . I waited where I was, to ascertain whether his object was to come to close quarters and speak. . . . To my surprise he passed on rapidly, . . . without even looking up in my face as he went by. This was such a complete inversion of the course of proceeding which I had every reason to expect on his part, that my curiosity . . . was aroused, and I determined on my side to keep him cautiously in view, . . . without caring whether he saw me or not, I walked after him. He never looked back.[39]

Despite all this minute attention to the empirical, neither Walter Hartright nor anyone else ever sees what is so obvious about Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie. Seeing is not necessarily believing; and the optical is not necessarily the real. Similarly, in some of our most interesting contemporary courtroom trials video footage that might seem irrefutable proof of guilt or innocence can be proved to be anything but. Any good defense lawyer, any good prosecuting attorney, knows that a jury can be convinced that what it sees is not what is.

No spectators are entirely comfortable knowing that the eye is fallible—or seeing themselves as spectators. Spectators need what Metz


calls a sanctioning construction, something that makes it "all right" to be just a spectator; a genealogy of such constructions can itself be easily constructed. People in the Middle Ages enjoyed their ghosts and specters conjured with mirrors, clouds of vapor, and noises of thunder produced by the rattling of tin—like those produced by wandering trege-tours like those in Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale"—and they too required a sanctioning construction. Medieval spectacles were presided over by priests and magicians. Many of the earliest optical devices were invented by clerics who were also scientists. Athanasius Kircher, who invented the magic lantern around 1640, was a Jesuit priest, and the earliest showmen were often priests or conjurers.[40] They depicted scenes like "the devil rising up to tempt Adam and Eve" or "Noah at the Flood." The spectacles were said to illustrate the work of the Devil, and watching them was supposed to make the viewer fear the Devil's sorcery. Many of the glass transparencies surviving from early-nineteenth-century phantasmagorias and magic lanterns depict biblical scenes or scenes designed to teach a moral lesson: the Prodigal Son, Death seizing a miser, Noah's Ark, and "the Evils of Drink," a dissolving slide showing a beautifully dressed woman being transformed into a horrible skeleton (Fig. 6).[41]

But between 1820 and 1840 less edifying scenes became subjects for popular viewing: a rampaging bull; Napoleon in retreat from Moscow.[42] As the subjects for spectacles changed, the sanctioning construction did as well. Science became the new "god," blessing spectatorship in the Victorian age. Nineteenth-century performances were almost always preceded by a brief lecture by the lanternist or projectionist on the wonders of the technology and science that made the performance possible. The hated "Mr. Barlow" of Dickens's essay of that name from The Uncommercial Traveller is the obsessive teacher, who can ruin even a beautiful night sky because he cannot resist turning it, and everything else, into "a cold shower-bath of explanations and experiments." Mr. Barlow is reported to have "invested largely in the moving panorama trade," and Dickens owns that "on various occasions" he had identified Barlow "in the dark with a long wand in his hand, holding forth in his old way." Barlow's obsession with turning everything into a science lesson is precisely why Dickens professes to "systematically shun pictorial entertainment on rollers" (341). E. P. Thompson's history of the rise of Methodism and other Evangelical religions among the Victorian working class suggests to me that optical spectacles might have become one of the few acceptable forms of entertainment. Even the strictest of Evangelicals allowed for—indeed required—"the earnest pursuit of useful


information."[43] You could watch those magic lantern shows with an easy conscience if what was "really" happening was that you were being educated in and edified by the wonders of modern technology.[44]

A last look at Victorian visuality turns the lens on us. The Victorian woman who "saw" both a dissolving slide of the evils of drink and her own arm holding the magic lantern "showing" the scene could feel both morally edified and detached, "exonerated" for her guilty spectatorship—she might also feel, perhaps, an erotic tingle—while watching the clothes dissolve before her eyes on the victim of drink and the skeleton appear. She also "really " "saw" her own distance from the scene she "saw." Craig Owens suggests that the modern world did not result from the replacement of a medieval world "picture" with a modern world "picture," but was a consequence of "the world bec[oming] a picture at all ."[45] And in The Painting of Modern Life T. J. Clark discusses the nineteenth century's obsession with making both money and the extreme lack of it visible : "The city and social life in general was presented as . . . a separate something made to be looked at—an image, a pantomime, a panorama."[46] Dickens wanted to make poverty, the confusing city, and its masses of homeless wanderers visible to Victorian readers. But his pictures were being read by an audience identifying themselves increasingly—in part because of their experience with optical gadgetry—as spectators, even more comfortably experiencing themselves as simultaneously "inside" and "outside" their own and others' experiences: that is, "inside" and "outside" sympathy. Readers interpolate or read themselves into the signs they are shown, Althusser tells us.[47] But we do like to watch. Whether we are watching starving Somalians on TV or dissolving magic lantern slides illustrating the evils of drink, our spectatorship and voyeurism always have to vie with, and struggle toward, sympathy.

This is not to say we have become indifferent to suffering. But we have had a century's practice inuring ourselves to others' sufferings and a century's worth of sanctioning constructions that make it difficult for us to resist seeing them as spectacle. A year ago my colleague Linda Dittmar brought to campus the Cuban director Sergio Giral's powerful film The Other Francisco . The film begins with a Cuban playwright reading aloud from the script of a play he has written. This play-within-the-film is a highly idealized history of a slave's suicide, a suicide prompted by the slave's despair over the rape of his lover by the plantation owner's son. But this narrative is broken off, and a new voice enters the film. This new voice confronts the viewer with a more accurate representation of the slave's history, This history is far more horrific, punctuated


by horrendous abuse: beatings, torture, the chopping off of various appendages with a cutlass.

It was clear after the showing of this film that all of us spectators had been powerfully affected by the brutality in the film. Our hesitant attempts at discussion after a long and awkward silence were revealing; what they revealed, I believe, was our late twentieth century's sanctioning construction. Some of us began by wondering whether the machete in the film might not be "a phallic symbol."

If the medieval viewer's sanctioning construction, making comfortable spectatorship possible, was the edification and moral instruction provided by the phantasmagorical spectacle of God or the Devil, and a Victorian viewer's was the edification of science and technology, the unwary modern viewer can now be comforted by the late-twentieth-century sanctioning construction: the allegorizing tendency (and all interpretation, as Northrop Frye told us many years ago in his Anatomy of Criticism, is an act of allegory) that enables us as spectators to avoid, as far as possible, both discomfort and guilt: to "see" in the slaveowner's cutlass a phallic symbol and in police beating a black man, a man resisting arrest.


Fig. 1.
Johann Zahn, camera obscura portabilis (reflex box camera obscura), 
1685. Courtesy of the Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities 
Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.


Fig. 2.
Sketch of Athanasius Kircher's portable camera obscura from the second
 edition of  Ars Magna Lucis Umbrae , 1671. Courtesy of the Gernsheim Collection, 
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.


Fig. 3.
Wood engraving of a home magic lantern show, c. 1885. From the 
collection of Richard Balzer. Photograph by David M. Seifer.


Fig. 4.
Biscuit tin designed to be used as a zoetrope, with slides, England, c. 1920.
 From the collection of Richard Balzer. Photograph by David M. Seifer.


Fig. 5.
Cutout zoetrope from the Sunday Supplement to the  Boston Herald,  
1896. From the collection of Richard Balzer. Photograph by David M. Seifer.


Fig. 6.
"The Evils of Drink," dissolving slides for use in a biunial magic
 lantern, c. 1880. From the collection of Richard Balzer. Photograph by David M. Seifer.


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