The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910

January 22, 2009

Just when it seems that vision in the 19th century has been examined in every possible light and pursued into the darkest, most shadowy corners, Chris Otter has come up with a new way of looking at the problem. Following in the tradition of such seminal historians of visual culture as Martin Jay and Jonathan Crary, Otter continues the investigation of the history of the rise of Western ocularcentrism without homogenising or generalising its manifestations.

Drawing together interlocking threads of politics, vision and technology, Otter challenges some of the dominant paradigms through which we have come to understand the operations of light, sight and power in 19th-century Britain while simultaneously mapping visual regimes and illumination technologies into new areas of experience, perception and knowledge.

Otter lays out his project as a political history of Victorian visual practices, but his focus is actually the specific and peculiar overlaps, tensions and mutual reinforcements between visuality and liberalism in the period. He argues that we need to look carefully at how, when and where light meets the eye if we are to grasp the idiosyncratic nature of the British political history of illumination and vision. Everyday Victorian experiences of seeing had a fundamental connection to material systems of illumination. Who could look and what could be seen, and how houses, streets, cities and institutions were lit: these were definitive questions of the quotidian operation and experience of power, power bound up with a protean and heterogeneous Victorian liberalism.

This particular political history highlights some crucial blindnesses encumbering the current critique of vision that remains largely tied to the analytical frameworks of the panopticon and the flaneur. Joining Lauren Goodlad and others in questioning the validity of the panopticon as a conceptual tool for analysing the complexity of 19th-century British history, Otter contests any reduction of the effects of power solely to surveillance and discipline. The flaneur poses a similar problem in limiting visuality in urban settings to the realm of spectacle. Both visual paradigms, according to Otter, underwrite a fantasy of omniscience.

Yet Otter does not reject the legacy of Michel Foucault in its entirety, as he benefits from Foucault's understanding of power as technology as well as his late insights on governmentality with its model of human subjectivity that suggests the possibility of individual choice. Conscious that a Foucauldian analysis of technology slides easily into abstraction, however, Otter's approach remains firmly grounded in the empirical. In his critique of the flaneur, Otter is similarly careful not to relinquish Walter Benjamin's shrewd connection between visuality and the sensorium. Invoking the materiality of vision, an approach conventionally associated with materialist history, Otter asserts that such bodily capacities were the physiological basis of a liberal subjectivity.

In telling the story of light and vision in the 19th century as the chronicle of the emergence and production of liberal subjectivity, Otter opens new understandings of power as freedom, with technology at least partly securing rather than opposing liberty. This story of liberal self-making might take fuller account of the unevenness of the operations of material systems and perception, which is to say that it is indeed rather more a history of politics than a political history.

While Otter perhaps identifies closely with the liberal perspective he describes and often analyses insightfully, his study lends new relevance and coherence to the endless array of obscure and fascinating visual technologies and gadgets Victorians invented for exploring the deep interiors of both their bodies and homes, for lighting the subterranean and marginal spaces of their cities, and for facilitating human mobility on an unprecedented scale.

Inevitably, Otter's analysis is complex as he moves from one technology or institution to another, but it is always lucid and well informed, based on extensive reading of a wide variety of sources, from official archives and municipal records to Victorian memoirs to contemporary publications on engineering, sanitation, transport, medicine and slaughterhouses. The study ranges across a wide and eclectic array of British urban spaces, technologies and institutions, and every page is consistently readable and stimulating. Quite an accomplishment for a first book.

The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910

By Chris Otter. University of Chicago Press. 392pp, £38.00 and £14.50. ISBN 9780226640761 and 0778. Published 8 December 2008

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