Jules Law, “The Victorian Stereoscope”

Abstract

This entry considers a well-known instrument of popular Victorian culture—the stereoscope. I look at three aspects of the stereoscope in particular: its double status as both entertainment and instrument of scientific investigation; the significance of its rapid obsolescence; and its anticipation of modern aspirations to create a “virtual reality.” The latter is particularly important in light of recent attempts to sketch the pre-history of recent “born-digital” forms of immersive entertainment.

It was Jonathan Crary who first raised the vexed question of the relationship between virtual reality and the first wave of mass visual technologies in the early- and mid-nineteenth century. “What is the relation between the dematerialized digital imagery of the present and the so-called age of mechanical reproduction?” asks Crary in Techniques of the Observer. His now-familiar answer is that the first half of the nineteenth century “produced a new kind of observer” who became in turn the “precondition” for the “ongoing abstraction of vision” at the heart of modern digital culture (2-3).[1]

Like many other historians of the period, Crary refuses to credit photography with the new abstraction and mechanization of vision in the period, pointing out among other things that the stereoscope predated the daguerreotype.[2] Even before photography, writes Crary, one sees in the stereoscope and panorama a rationalized dissection and recomposition of the field of vision. Though accounts contemporary to the commercialization and domestication of the stereoscope in the 1850s describe it as extending and fulfilling the promise of photography by filling in the depths of recorded visual space, Crary is clearly right that such a teleological narrative is not tenable. At the same time, one needs to be cautious about drawing conclusions from the eventual—and fairly rapid—supersession of stereoscopy by photography in the chronological record of popular visual media. The stereoscope was both more and less than a projected photograph.[3] As I will argue here, the stereoscope and the idioms linked to it are part of a discontinuous history of our modern conception of virtual reality. The history is discontinuous, I argue, because the pole of virtual reality that the stereoscope begins to explore (immersive experience) is fairly quickly eclipsed, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, by a rush towards the other pole of virtual experience: interactivity, specifically in the form of a sequence of technologies that sought to provide real-time communication and/or representation (in order of historical sequence: telegraph, radio, cinema, television).4] The ideals embodied by these new, temporally-oriented forms of mediation made earlier immersive technologies and techniques seem strangely static and unnatural. Obsolescent almost from the start, the stereoscope echoes the strange fate of the Walter Benjamin’s “aura,” which similarly flashes into existence in the middle of the nineteenth century only to “wither” under the onslaught of technological scales of reproduction.[5]

This paper examines one of the distinctive Victorian prototypes of virtual reality technology: the stereoscope. Though I use the term “prototype” to indicate certain lines of (interrupted) continuity between the Victorian and post-modernist periods, it will become clear from the discussion below that the stereoscope was as significant in its anachronism (its character of being always-already obsolescent) as in any fully accomplished technical or theoretical development that it bequeathed to the century that followed. Benjamin writes that “One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later” (230). And it is certainly easy enough to interpret some of the signal forms of visual entertainment in the early Victorian years (panoramas, dioramas, stereoscopes) as creating an appetite and vocabulary for immersive experience that could only be satisfied by cinema and later by virtual reality. Nonetheless this would be to read Benjamin’s essay—and history of technology itself—far more teleologically than I think is warranted.[6] Stereoscopes, as we shall see, were not simply cruder or less successful solutions to technical problems that the later digitization of information (and its cybernetic incorporation in feedback loops) solved more definitively. Below, I will outline the way in which the stereoscope fad—as brief lived as it was commanding—helps illuminate some of the continuities and discontinuities between Victorian and virtual cultures.

It has become a cliché to identify the stereoscope as the quintessential form of Victorian popular cultural entertainment, a miniature version of the map iconCrystal Palace articulating a new and ostensibly modern apprehension of three-dimensional space. Like the Palace that hosted the device’s first major public appearance, the stereoscope presented the paradox of an almost boundless enclosed space, in which it was not certain whether objects were metonymically, synecdochally, or metaphorically related to the world outside.[7] Stereoscopic slides were quintessentially mid-Victorian in another sense as well: they were the 8-track cassettes of their day, anachronistic almost upon arrival, and receding into the realm of camp and nostalgia virtually before having their fifteen minutes of exemplary contemporaneity.

But before turning to examine the validity of this view of the stereoscope—that is, the view of its historical exemplarity—I want to examine the structure of assumptions that have made the stereoscope—and the discourse surrounding it—such an easy target for cultural analysis. It’s difficult to think of a Victorian claim about the stereoscope that didn’t have an equal and opposing cliché: it improved public education; it corroded public morals; it was the perfection of mimesis; it was the usurpation of mimesis; it demystified; it enchanted and deceived; it delivered the world in all its solidity; it delivered the world with a ghostly spectrality.[8] In short, the stereoscope possessed that classic structural ambivalence sought by academic critics looking to epitomize and locate contradictory vectors within a particular culture: fluids, glass, and circulated objects being other examples of recent critical attention.[9] We might define this structural ambivalence as the tension between immediacy and mediation. Glass, fluids, and circulation: all propose to deliver the world to us as efficiently and neutrally as possible, while each retaining their own specific tangibilities and values. My proposed term “immediation” refers to the work done by particular objects, devices, or representational forms in order to render technologically plausible and reliable an illusion of immediate and thus of unmediated presence.[10]

The specific form of immediation offered by the stereoscope had enormous cultural sway. In some ways, that sway was short lived, and was succeeded by cravings for other ideals of verisimilitude; in other ways it provided an idiom—both verbal and visual—with profound lasting consequences. In her essay on the Victorian stage and Victorian visual culture, Katherine Newey cites John Ruskin’s famous reading of Holman Hunt’s painting, “The Awakening Conscience,” and comments that Ruskin’s discursive supplement to Hunt’s visual text provides “a description of movement through time, the two things painting cannot show” (1). A few pages later, however, Newey characterizes the will toward narrativity (incipient in Hunt’s painting; explicit in Ruskin’s commentary) as a powerful attempt to “defy the apparent limitations of the flat canvas” (8). This is a compelling analogy, but whatever inhibits the representation of movement and time in painting, it is certainly not the literal flatness of the medium, since such a limit pertains equally to one of the narrative genres par excellence, cinema. Newey’s remark nonetheless captures the essential spirit of Victorian discourses on visual media: the relative success or failure of two-dimensional media at producing a direct experience of depth-of-field became the paramount criterion of truth in visual representation. Visual depth-of-field became, in essence, a trope for verisimilitude, a signifier of the true. Furthermore, Newey registered the paradoxical fact that visual depth-of-field, as much as it was sought after as an effect, so quickly (from an historical point of view) proved dissatisfactory to nineteenth-century viewers, who found themselves craving for motion as a supplement to enhanced sensations of perspective.[11] The paradox is deepened (so to speak) by the fact that many of the technical strategies developed for imparting the illusion of motion/time to advanced visual media in the first half of the nineteenth century amounted to the skillful deployment of transparencies, lighting, and recessed planes of projection, further tightening the mutually-signifying relationship between depth and temporality. The paradox is deepened even further still by the fact that what I have referred to above as “advanced visual media” (e.g. dioramas and panoramas) tended to depend more on sophisticated manipulation of lighting and optical perspective than did the theater itself. Our habitual metaphors of staging and spectatorship to the contrary, optical traditions from the camera obscura through to the stereoscope did not derive their Manichean aesthetic of isolated viewership and illumined visual field from the theater, which throughout most of the nineteenth century tended to enforce little distinction between house lighting and stage lighting.[12]

So while the role of the stereoscope in any narrative of the relationship between nineteenth-century ideals of immediation and digital-age conceptions of virtuality must take into account the rhetoric of “deep” meaning and the visual grammar by which enhanced visual depth-of-field is correlated with key narrative moments, it must also take into account developments that cannot be reduced to a rhetorical vocabulary, but that belong, rather, to the very conditions for constructing spaces of spectatorship—spaces within which particular rhetorical vocabularies may operate. My specific argument in this section is that the stereoscope represented the consolidation of two ostensibly very different constructions of space, a consolidation whose Victorian roots have come to preoccupy cultural critics and historians of science over the past decade or so: that is, the convergence of the space of scientific demonstration and the space of magical or illusionistic spectacle. A small but growing body of recent work has started to examine the way in which the technical-institute demonstration, the surgical theater and other performance venues and conventions, became in the Victorian period the shared space of magic and science.[13] The stereoscope, I will argue, epitomized this double space, which was partly responsible for the almost contradictory discourses and claims it generated. We might offer as a counter-example the case of radiography forty years later. Röntgen rays were similarly described in self-contradictory ways and similarly described as ghostly (a characterization of stereoscopy that we’ll come back to). But in the case of Röntgen rays the denaturing function of the obtained image was actually quite legitimately apprehended as a kind of spectrality. Stereoscopy simply didn’t stage the stark incompatibility of two representational or phenomenal domains in the way that the radiographic image did. Nonetheless, I do want to argue that stereoscopic discourse did have an interest in arbitrating the respective claims of naturalistic and denatured experience, and that in the end it produced a kind of visual space that was ambivalent if not illusionistic. As such, the stereoscope has its own small part in the history of immediation.

As I suggested above, I consider the stereoscope as exemplary of the Victorian attempt to reconcile or synthesize two contrasting spaces of spectacle, two contrasting epistemologies of subjectively abstracted seeing—to use the paradigm developed by Jonathan Crary and critiqued more recently by Helen Groth. These two spaces are what we might call technical space and the space of illusion. Stereoscopic discourse in the 1850s—the decade in which it went from an apparatus in a scientific debate to an object of mass-cultural fascination—is almost schizophrenic in its simultaneous appeal to the ideals of illusion and of empirical accuracy. When I first started to pursue research on Victorian stereoscopy back in the mid-1990s, I was struck by the way in which the stereoscope’s articulation or projection of two-dimensional planes into three-dimensional images was conceived of so emphatically as a form of democratic realism. Two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects, or so the argument went, are essentially abstractions, which require a high degree of education and specialized training to decipher. Sir David Brewster famously writes in his 1856 monograph on the stereoscope that “representations or drawings, on a plane, of solids or combinations of solids at different distances from the eye, are in many cases unintelligible even to persons well informed” and he praises “the advantages to be derived from binocular pictures and their stereoscopic relieve, not only in the instruction of youth, but in the diffusion of knowledge among all ranks of society” (196). Brewster is thinking primarily here of architectural, scientific, or engineering drawings, but elsewhere in his book he extends the point more generally to painting and to photography. “Nature flattened upon paper or metal, and Nature round and plump, as if fresh from the chisel of the Divine sculptor, must teach very different lessons to the aspiring artist,” he writes (180-1). Brewster reserves his greatest criticism for photography, which he says “is fitted only to copy surfaces; and therefore, when directed to solid bodies, such as living beings, statues, &c., it gives false and hideous representations of them” (174-75). This reprobation of surfaces is one of the more curious aspects of technical space in the period, and, coming at it from a literary perspective, my first instinct was to schematize it in terms of an opposing aesthetic or ideology of depth, in which visual depth-of-field becomes the signifier for entire regions of occulted facts or meaning. In such a scheme, the literary and painterly tradition of the prospect is lifted outside the realm of staged convention and becomes something more like the unmediated reproduction of truth itself. Earlier writers and painters, according to such an interpretation, intuited something that scientists would come to confirm: that truth was literally deep. There were minor ironies and paradoxes in this scheme, to be sure: for instance, the idea of technical diagrams and photographs as grotesqueries. But as it turns out, the renewed valorization of three-dimensional representation inaugurated by the stereoscope turned out not to be keyed to any powerful resurgence in the aesthetics of deep seeing.

As far back as the 1990s, Crary explains the perhaps unexpectedly confined range of visual effects that popular stereoscopic images were chosen to enhance. Stereoscopic effects, it turns out, were not most striking in those visual fields whose subject matter already gestured toward or contained a significant “perspectival recession” (124). According to Crary, the stereoscopic effect was instead most effective in evoking “objects or obtrusive forms in the near or middle ground” (124). Crary infers from this fact (which admittedly may be a fact either about the phenomenology of the stereoscope or about the selection of subject matter) the following observation: “[the] most intense experience of the stereoscopic image coincides with an object-filled space, with a material plenitude that bespeaks a nineteenth-century bourgeois horror of the void” (125). Leaving aside the fact that this obsession with plenitude is precisely the aesthetic ascribed by Roland Barthes to the much earlier tradition of seventeenth-century Dutch painting,[14] the observation helps us understand why the stereoscope craze of the 1850s did not correspond to any intensified interest in visual depth of field. Instead, “relief” and “solidity” were the buzz-words of the new stereoscopic regime: “nature, round and plump,” in Brewster’s words, a world of palpable commodities delivered to an eager consumer (180).

One has to make a certain distinction here between the theorists and advocates of the stereoscope, on the one hand, and the realm of practice represented by the vast archive of actual stereoscopic images produced in the period, on the other. Advanced theorists did display an almost mystical attachment to the idea of stereoscopy as plumbing the depths of the visual field to seek out visual data that would escape any mere two-dimensional representation. And yet the visual archive generated by the stereoscope—as well as those visual genres most frequently associated with it, such as pre-Raphaelitism, with its obsessive, almost hallucinatory detail—clearly eschewed visual depths for visual middle grounds and foregrounds. The verb most commonly used to describe stereoscopic effects in popular writing was not “transport,” “carry,” “sink,” “penetrate” or “recede,” but simply: “stand.”[15]  When viewing a stereoscopic image, the object was said to stand before you; or you stood before it. But there were few references to occult incorporation or to a vertiginous opening up of space. How then, do we account for the persistent rhetoric of pleasurable illusionism that runs cheek by jowl with all the assertions of technical and naturalistic veracity in the stereoscopic literature? (The famous Household Words essay “The Stereoscope,” for instance, describes it as a “box . . . containing any fairy-scene that . . . photography . . . may . . . conjure up”) (37).

The answer, I think, lies in an emerging sense of the display-character of Victorian science. The Victorian spectator of a scientific demonstration stood, in many ways, in much the same place as a spectator of a theatrical or other popular-cultural event. As Iwan Morus, Michael Wintroub, Fred Nadis, and Aileen Robinson have recently argued, the nineteenth-century performance of science—through lectures, experimental demonstrations and technical displays—increasingly took on the grammar, syntax, and actual physical locale of theatrical and quasi-theatrical practices, from drama and musicals to magic shows and medical quackery. One prominent instance of such convergence was the map iconRoyal Polytechnic Institute, which during the middle decades of the century produced a number of sensational magic-lantern performances of Dickens novels.

Being positioned in front of a staged spectacle inside a performance or display space was arguably as generic an experience as being positioned in front of a screen is today—and equally indeterminate in regard to content. Thus, we can speculate that the consumer of a stereoscopic image was being hailed simultaneously as the subject of illusion and as the subject of empirical demonstration. But how did this doubleness lodge itself within the very structure of the stereoscopic image? This is where Crary and Groth disagree. Crary argues for the progressive disembodiment, abstraction, and rationalization of the viewing subject over the course of the century.[16] Groth, on the contrary, argues for the increasingly precise, locatable embodiment of the viewing subject who must be viscerally hailed, like the hapless pod-people of the film The Matrix whose physical location in space has to be pin-pointed before the crew of the Nebucadnezzar can extract them from their virtual dreams.[17] But I think it is neither embodiment nor abstraction alone that accounts for the stereoscope’s ability to sustain the double focus—or double instantiation of the viewing subject—that the convergence of theatrical and scientific conventions encourages us to look for in the stereoscope’s paradoxical evocations of illusionistic and scientific pleasure. Rather, I would like to consider the stereoscope as the exemplar of what I call “double standing.” It is, in fact, precisely the stereoscope’s strategy of representing two subtly different visual perspectives, a standing in two places, that gives it this power. Now let me immediately acknowledge that this way of phrasing it verges on a naively credible and exceedingly banal claim. So, I want to emphasize that there is no denying the exceedingly minimal difference in actual visual perspective encoded into the two parallel images of a stereoscopic production. It is hardly enough difference to produce the vast and mysterious recesses of depth-of-field occasionally invoked by advocates of the device or the epic sense of spatial volume associated with Crystal-Palace aesthetics. But the slight difference in perspective does produce an effect significant enough to present a problem of description: is the stereoscopic image an illusion or is it a particular coding of information?

The illusionism that advocates of the stereoscope found easy enough to reconcile with their empiricism was the illusion of relief. But there was another illusion endemic to popular stereoscopy that presented far greater conflicts with the instrument’s theory of information. Brewster and others emphasize one over-riding limitation to the stereoscopic camera’s efforts: the size of the lens, which in principle ought not to exceed that of the human eye. The use of larger lenses was tempting—and, in fact, widespread—because a larger lens meant more light and thus a shorter exposure time, minimizing the distorting effect of any motion on the part of the target. But a lens wider than the human eye also takes in a wider field of vision than the human eye, and when two photographic images so obtained are coordinated in a stereoscopic viewer, the effect is to produce a ghostly halo of information around the object. Seeing a margin of visual data with each eye unavailable to the other eye, the viewer literally sees behind or through the object. Brewster writes: “Every stem and leaf smaller than the lens, though absolutely opaque, is transparent and leaves and stems beyond are seen like ghosts through the photographic image” (175).[18] Here was a more difficult contradiction of illusion and fact to reconcile, for one could not describe this ghostly information either as illusion or as fact. Technically, this paradox was produced by a literal double standing (the distance between the originating points of the two lines of sight), but metaphorically the paradox could fully be understood as the standing of the two very different kinds of spectator hailed by the stereoscope: the spectator of scientific demonstration and the spectator of magic—the subjects, respectively, of technical space and of the space of illusion. Nowhere were the two more fused or indistinguishable than in the space of the stereoscope.

It should not be surprising, then, that the 1853 Household Words essay on the stereoscope begins by emphasizing the intertwined histories of science and magic. The “social history of optical discoveries,” according to the authors, is “co-extensive with a history of the black arts” (37). This counter-intuitive synchrony, the essay goes on to claim, is itself confirmed by a simple transposition of orthography: “Any commentator is entitled to suppose that an old form of incantation [hocus-pocus] . . . has become slightly corrupted by the exchange of convertible letters in the lapse of time, and was, in the first instance, really hocus, focus” (37). This trope of substitution that appears at first a playful conceit, turns out to be an important one in the essay: the authors apologize for a prior “slip of the scribe” (in an earlier essay) that had led them to mis-state the fixing agent of photographic plates. And the evolution of the pseudoscope out of the stereoscope is attributed to a simple mutual substitution of the two plates comprising the stereoscopic image. In short, the radically contingent juxtapositional power of the signifier is understood as a significant fact—the law, even—of nature and of representation alike. As consumer at once of empirical demonstration and of mimetic illusionism, the viewer of the stereoscopic image is the subject of a double standing of extraordinarily minute differentiation, one whose effect relies not so much on the slight frisson of binocular vision as on the frisson of a double cultural hailing. And that frisson in turn is apprehended not so much cognitively (as the dissonance between scientific and illusionistic perception) as viscerally (in the palpable certainty that the slightest alteration of bodily posture will destroy the optical effect). Dispelling an illusion and dispelling a scientific demonstration became one and the same thing. Conscripted in the most rigorous and rigidly embodied way to the production of an empirical image always in peril of disappearing, the stereoscopic viewer’s experience of immediation consisted in standing at once in the theater of science and in the theater of spectrality.

The Victorians had high hopes for technologies that would enhance representation of visual depth of field. Such technologies might reasonably bank on conventions of both empiric advance and pleasurable illusionism. Caught simultaneously between two different interpellations, the subject of stereoscopic viewing experienced the frisson or double hailing John Plotz has elaborated so brilliantly in Semi-Detached, a double hailing crucial to the emerging Victorian sensibility we now think of as “virtual.” This makes the always-already obsolescent feel of the stereoscope even more noteworthy, for it suggests that the experience we think of as virtual (as opposed to merely illusionistic) is inextricably tied to our sense of technology as at once indispensable and belated. The creak of the machinery involved in revealing or producing visual depth-of-field is part of the pleasure of such sensations, rather than one of its costs. In this way, the stereoscope’s long after-life of obsolescence and nostalgia is in some ways a more enduring legacy than the inevitably exaggerated claims of its brief popular heyday.

published January 2020

Jules Law, Professor of English at Northwestern University, is a specialist in literary theory and Victorian literature. His various essays on Derrida, Joyce, Wittgenstein, and other theoretical topics have appeared in PMLACritical InquirySIGNSNew Literary History, ELH, Novel, and other journals. He is the author of The Rhetoric of Empiricism (Cornell 1993) and The Social Life of Fluids: Blood, Milk, and Water in the Victorian Novel (Cornell 2010).

HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)

Law, Jules. “The Victorian Stereoscope.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

WORKS CITED

Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880. Oxford UP, 2008.

Barthes, Roland. “The World as Object.” Critical Essays, edited by Richard Howard, Northwestern UP, 1972, pp. 3-12.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, translated by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, pp. 217–52.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT P, 2000.

Brady, Cheyne. “The Stereoscope.” The University Magazine, vol. 49, no. 293, 1857, pp. 594–607.

Brewster, Sir David. The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, And Construction, with Its Application to the Fine and Useful Arts and to Education. J. Murray, 1856.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. MIT P, 1990.

Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Gallison. Objectivity. Zone Books, 2007.

Emeljanow, Victor. “Erasing the Spectator: Observations on Nineteenth Century Lighting.” Theatre History Studies, vol. 18, 1998, pp. 107–16.

Groth, Helen. “Reading Victorian Illusions: Dickens’s Haunted Man and Dr. Pepper’s ‘Ghost.’” Victorian Studies, vol. 50, no. 1, 2007, pp. 43–65.

Hayles, N.Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. U of Chicago P, 1999.

Law, Jules. The Social Life of Fluids: Blood, Milk, and Water in the Victorian Novel. Cornell UP, 2010.

Morus, Iwan Rhys. “Seeing and Believing Science.” Isis, vol. 97, no. 1, 2006, pp. 101–10.

———. “Worlds of Wonder: Sensation and the Victorian Scientific Performance.” Isis, vol. 101, no. 4, 2010, pp. 806–16.

Nadis, Fred. Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America. Rutgers UP, 2005.

Newey, Katherine. “Speaking Pictures: The Victorian Stage and Visual Culture.” Ruskin, the Theater, and Victorian Visual Culture, edited by Anselm Heinrich et al., Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 1–15.

Oettermann, Stephan. The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider, Zone Books, 1997.

Otter, Chris. The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain. U of Chicago P, 2008.

Plotz, John. Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move. Princeton UP, 2008.

———. Semi-Detached: The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience since Dickens. Princeton UP, 2018.

Robinson, Aileen. “‘All Transparent’: Pepper’s Ghost, Plate Glass, and Theatrical Experiment.” Performing Objects and Theatrical Things, edited by Marlis Schweitzer and Joanne Zerdy, 2014, pp. 135–48.

———. “Knocking for Air: The Diving Bell and Interactivity in Nineteenth-Century London.” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, vol. 14, no. 1, 2015, pp. 38–53.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtuality and Literary Theory.” Postmodern Culture, vol. 5, no. 1, 1994, pp. 110–37.

Schiavo, Laura Bird. “From Phantom Image to Perfect Vision: Physiological Optics, Commercial Photography, and the Popularization of the Stereoscope.” New Media 1740-1915, edited by Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree, MIT P, 2003, pp. 113–37.

“The Stereoscope.” Household Words, vol. 181, 1853, pp. 37–42.

Wintroub, Michael. “Taking a Bow in the Theater of Things.” Isis, vol. 101, no. 4, 2010, pp. 779–93.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, Macmillan, 1953.

ENDNOTES

[1] Crary has an explicitly polemical thesis to pursue regarding the “loss of touch as a conceptual component of vision” and the consequent “autonomization of sight,” but his local observations, particularly those regarding the function and effect of the stereoscope, are more nuanced and dialectical (19). Though at the level of representation the stereoscope “eradicate[d] point of view”—thus abstracting subjectivity from the body—it nonetheless bound the viewer to a rigid “physical engagement with the apparatus,” which heightened rather than attenuated the sense of stereoscopy as an embodied experience (19, 133). Crary’s ambivalent schematism of the relationship between sight and embodiment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is reproduced in varying ways and to varying degrees in other central critical and theoretical texts following upon his. N. Katherine Hayles’ provocative account of “how information lost its body” turns out to be a critique of the very fantasy it chronicles (1-7, 13-14, 26). Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison argue that the scopic regime emblematic of Western science’s mid-modern phase (“self-denial coupled with the drive toward disciplined automaticity”) nonetheless aimed only at the erasure of desire (“the desire to schematize, beautify, simplify”), not at the erasure of embodied subjectivity—observation remaining inevitably embodied and positioned (179, 120). Laura Bird Schiavo has tried to explain the tension in Crary’s view of the stereoscope by arguing that there were in essence two very different stereoscopes in the nineteenth century: the stereoscope employed by investigators and theoreticians of physiological optics and the stereoscope developed for popular entertainment. The former of these—in every aspect of its physical design as well as its attendant discourse—strove to make the experience of reconstructed binocular vision as deliberate and self-conscious as possible; while the latter sought to efface as much as possible its own instrumentality so as to provide an ostensibly naturalized, equipment-free experience for its viewer. According to Schiavo, the stereoscope cannot be assigned a unitary ideological function or effect (113-137).

[2] Daston and Gallison also caution against any determinist account of the relation between photography and the nineteenth-century will toward “objectivity.”

[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein comments in Philosophical Investigations that photographs and stereoscopic images possess different “characters” of three-dimensional experience (202; pt. II). Independently of this phenomenological observation, it should be noted that the term “photography” actually embraces two distinct practices/technologies: one of capture and one of reproduction. The respective claims of these two practices, particularly as regards photography’s signifying relationship to depth of field, have had different implications for accounts of photography from its inception. Walter Benjamin, for instance, clearly confuses the two when he writes that “in photograph, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens” (220). Whether or not a photographic negative contains more data than is recorded on an eyeball may be a matter of legitimate phenomenological speculation, but it is certain that whatever greater depth of field or perspectival shading that a developed photo is capable of bringing out is not something experienced by the lens. See also Daston and Gallison on nineteenth-century acknowledgments of the multiple and variable stages of production involved in a photograph (15).

[4] See Ryan, and also my BRANCH entry “Victorian Virtual Reality.”

[5] Benjamin 219-221, and also my BRANCH entry “Victorian Virtual Reality.”

[6] See my BRANCH entry “Victorian Virtual Reality” for a more extended reading of Benjamin’s essay.

[7] In an irony noted by contemporary commentators, the stereoscope at once invoked and negated the sensation of ephemerality that it shared with the Crystal Palace, the site of its most public and sensational display. Once the Palace was dismantled, wrote Cheyne Brady in The University Magazine, stereoscopic slides were the only place in which the original still existed in three dimensions (606).

[8] For some of the contradictory claims made about the stereoscope, see Schiavo (113-137).

[9] See, e.g. Jules Law, The Social Life of Fluids; Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880; Plotz, Portable Property.

[10] “Immediation” is thus a more general phenomenon than Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s “remediation,” which refers specifically to the representation of one medium an another (45). It corresponds more closely to the strange in-between state that Plotz diagnoses so incisively in Semi-Detached.

[11] Stephan Oettermann discusses this in his account of the supersession of panoramas by dioramas in the first half of the nineteenth century (70-79).

[12] Victor Emeljanow discusses the relatively late historical emergence of a sense that stage illusion should be heightened by the contrast between a darkened auditorium and illuminated stage space.

[13] Chris Otter’s The Victorian Eye in some senses deconstructs this entire enterprise. While Otter’s argument is aimed specifically at the critical hegemony of Michel Foucault’s panoptical trope, its overall effect is to question the privileging and hypostatization of particular, site-specific practices of seeing and to emphasize the heterogeneity of both visual practices and optical technologies in the Victorian period.

[14] See Roland Barthes in “The World as Object”:

[I]n the great Dutch seascapes . . . the ships are crammed with people or cargo, the water is a ground you could walk on, the sea completely urbanized. . . . As if the destiny of the Dutch landscape is to swarm with men, to be transformed from an elemental infinity to the plenitude of the registry office. . . . Here, then, men inscribe themselves upon space, immediately covering it with familiar gestures, memories, customs, and intentions. (4)

[15] For example, see the 1857 Dublin University Magazine essay on “The Stereoscope,” passim.

[16] Schiavo sees Crary’s insistence on the de-subjectifying effect of the stereoscope as a consequence of his taking the commercial, “camera-based iteration” of the technology as his model, and not taking into account the status of the stereoscope in the nineteenth-century discourse of physiological optics (117-18, 121). In Schiavo’s reading, the original effect of the 1838 Wheatstone stereoscope was explicitly a de-orienting, de-familiarizing one, as the intent of the device was to demonstrate the dissonance between the actual characteristics of a visual field and the construction of them made by the mind (119). Schiavo emphasizes the way in which the apparatus of the original, reflective stereoscope lays bare and foregrounds the instrumental nature of the produced effect, while the eventually commercialized, elegant enclosed-cabinet form of Brewster’s lenticular stereoscope presented an ostensibly more “equipment-free” version of reality, to borrow Benjamin’s term (Benjamin 233).

[17] More recently, Otter has argued that the Victorian experience of sight was indeed always embodied, but none the more inevitably monolithic or coercive for that fact (18, 46-54, 123-24, 257-58). Daston and Gallison focus on the increasing pressure in late-nineteenth-century scientific culture to purge subjectivity from one’s observational practices, but rather than identifying either a technologically abstracted or a highly particularized and embodied point-of-view as the villain; they focus on efforts at ethical self-scrutiny: “Although mechanical objectivity was in the service of gaining a right depiction of nature, its primary allegiance was to a morality of self-restraint” (185).

[18] This complaint is echoed in a lengthy 1857 review of the stereoscope in the University Magazine.  See Brady.