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

I owe special thanks to Betsy Wirth, slide librarian at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, for gracious and generous help with this project, and to Richard Balzer, whose privately printed catalogue of photographs of items from his private collection of optical gadgets and toys, Optical Amusements: Magic Lanterns and Other Transforming Images (Watertown, Massachusetts, 1987), first introduced me to some of the magical optical toys discussed in this essay.

1. Dombey and Son, p. 34. This and other references to Dickens's novels are to volumes in the Oxford Illustrated Edition. Subsequent citations are given parenthetically in the text. [BACK]

2. Jonathan Crary, "Modernizing Vision," in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster, Dia Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture, vol. 2. (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 34-35. [BACK]

3. A staple in the discourse of recent art history, the word visuality does not refer either just to the visual or to the physiological characteristics of vision. To use the word visuality rather than the word vision is to signal an attempt to problematize the act of seeing and to turn into a field of inquiry such issues as how human beings construct and then construe both their seeing and their being seen and, in particular, the ways in which artists take as their subject the nature of seeing itself. [BACK]

4. Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 163. [BACK]

5. Richard Altick, in The Shows of London (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), notes that phantasmagorias opened in London as early as late 1801 or early 1802 and remained popular there for the next two decades (217-18). In Movement in Two Dimensions: A Study of the Animated and Projected Pictures Which Preceded the Invention of Cinematography (London: Hutchinson, 1963), Olive Cook suggests that slides like those described here were extremely popular from 1820 to 1895 (20, 88ff.). [BACK]

6. In her "Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie," Critical Inquiry 15, no. 1 (1988): 26-65, Terry Castle suggests that the phantasmagoria had been invented at precisely the moment in Western history when actual belief in ghosts was giving way to scientific rationalism. By the early nineteenth century, ghosts and specters came to be seen, not as "out there," but as "in here,'' in the mind, Walter Cooper Denby's Philosophy of Mystery (1841) proclaiming "only a difference in degree'' between an idea and a phantom (57). In the "Natural Supernaturalism" section of Sartor Resartus Carlyle refers to the very Cock Lane ghost that Castle suggests had faded from popular belief by the 1760s, insisting nonetheless that "there are nigh a thousand-million walking the Earth openly at noontide" ( Sartor Resartus, ed. Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor [New York: Oxford University Press, 1987], 200). [BACK]

7. Baudelaire and Marx and Engels, as quoted in Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 114. [BACK]

8. Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, ed. Victor Neuburg (New York: Penguin, 1985), 343. [BACK]

9. See Altick, 165. [BACK]

10. See Helmet Gernsheim, The Origins of Photography (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982), for numerous beautiful daguerreotypes or color slides of such nudes or seminudes from the 1850s, designed for use in stereoscopic viewers. [BACK]

11. See Crary, "Modernizing Vision," 30-31. [BACK]

12. See Crary, Techniques of the Observer, 30-34. [BACK]

13. Quoted in Jennifer M. Green, "In Pursuit of Wild Models: P. J. Emerson Frames the Norfolk Broads," Dickens Project, Santa Cruz (August 1992). [BACK]

14. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, trans. S. Ryazanskaya (Moscow: Professional Publishers, 1964), 11-13. [BACK]

15. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 20. [BACK]

16. Cook, Movement in Two Dimensions, 88. [BACK]

17. Helmut Gernsheim and Alison Gernsheim, The History of Photography: From the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914 (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), 1. [BACK]

18. Cook, 24. [BACK]

19. Ibid., 28. [BACK]

20. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 126. [BACK]

21. Quoted in Cook, 77. [BACK]

22. Quoted in Cook, 19. [BACK]

23. Rosalind Krauss, "The Im/Pulse to See," in Vision and Visuality, ed. Foster, 58. [BACK]

24. Crary, Techniques of the Observer, 69. [BACK]

25. See Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990); Barbara Claire Freeman, "The Rise of the Sublime: Sacrifice and Misogyny in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics," Yale Journal of Criticism 5, no. 3 (1991): 81-99; and Vassilis Lambropoulos, "Violence and the Liberal Imagination: The Representation of Hellenism in Matthew Arnold," in The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (New York: Roudedge, 1989). Each of these critics considers how writers' invoking of the sublime sacrifices, subordinates, or, as Freeman suggests, "scapegoats'' the imagination. [BACK]

26. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 23. [BACK]

27. Ibid., 55. [BACK]

28. Ibid., 43. [BACK]

29. Karl Marx, The Gründrisse, ed. and trans. David McLellan (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 47. [BACK]

30. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, intro. Vyvyan Holland (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), 32. [BACK]

31. Ibid., 43. [BACK]

32. That Whoopi Goldberg would undoubtedly refer to the top slide of Figure 4 as an instance of "Negrobilia" should not pass unnoticed here, suggesting as it does another piece of the relation between Victorians and the visual that cries out for exploration: how representations of people of color in popular entertainments contributed to Europeans' construction of others. This topic is explored most notably by Sander Gilman in "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature," Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 204-42; reprinted in Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985). [BACK]

33. Cook, 31. [BACK]

34. Honoré de Balzac, Le Père Goriot (Paris: Éditions Gamier Frères, n.d.), 62-63. "As a consequence of the recent invention of the optical illusion called the Diorama, which had quite surpassed the earlier Panoramas, artists and their friends had taken to ending every word they thought fit with 'rama.' A young painter . . . had infected his fellow guests with the habit. 'Well, Monsieur-r-r Poiret, . . . how is your little healthorama?' A bit later, Vautrin observes, 'It's desperately chillyorama,' to which Bianchon retorts, 'Why do you call it coldorama? There's just a little nipporama in the air?'" [BACK]

35. Cook, Movement in Two Dimensions, 89. [BACK]

36. Ibid., 40. [BACK]

37. See Cook, 36-46. Only one of these buildings was still standing as of 1965, Daguerre's London Diorama at Park Square East, Regent's Park, which first opened in 1823. John Nash designed its facade and Augustus Pugin the Elder its rotunda. [BACK]

38. Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 7. [BACK]

39. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, ed. Julian Symons (London: Penguin, 1974), 512. See also The Moonstone, ed. J. I. M. Stewart (London: Penguin, 1966). [BACK]

40. See Cook, 14-15. [BACK]

41. Ibid., 81-83. Dissolving slides depicting the evils of drink designed for magic lanterns were popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Numerous collectors have a slide like the one reproduced here as Figure 6. [BACK]

42. Cook, 85. [BACK]

43. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 740. [BACK]

44. In his Musical Memoirs, published in 1830, W. D. Parke describes a collaboration between Philip Jacob de Loutherbourg and the painter Gainsborough to produce at the Eidophusikon a performance entitled "Satan Arraying His Troops." Its realistic fake storm, with thunder and lightning, made it especially popular. There was real thunder and lightning outside the theater during one performance. Olive Cook reports that "some of the spectators were terrified, believing this to be a warning sent by God against presumption. . . . But Loutherbourg was transported with pleasure. 'By God, Gainsborough,' he cried, seizing the painter by the arm, 'our thunder's best!'" (30). [BACK]

45. Craig Owens (quoting Heidegger), "The Discourse of Others: Feminism and Post-Modernism," in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), 66. [BACK]

46. T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 63. [BACK]

47. Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes toward an Investigation)," in Lenin and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 174. [BACK]


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