Multiplying Worlds: Romanticism, Modernity, and the Emergence of Virtual Reality by Peter Otto, Reviewed by William Galperin

Multiplying Worlds: Romanticism, Modernity, and the Emergence of Virtual Reality
By Peter Otto
(Oxford, 2011) xiv + 322 pp.
Reviewed by William Galperin on 2011-07-27.

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The new bottle of this book turns out to contain some very old wine. Although Peter Otto argues that "the problem of virtual reality has been eclipsed in romantic studies by the question of imagination" (10), his new study is very much concerned with imagination and with the world it apparently delivers. The book certainly looks very timely, beginning with its organizing rubric and extending to its web of citation and analogy, where theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Mark Poster, and Jean Baudrillard are recurrent guides. But make no mistake: the claim throughout regarding romanticism's "break from Enlightenment traditions of representation" (12) is at least as old as M. H. Abrams' famous dyad of the mirror and the lamp, wherein mimesis, with its necessary deference to a world out there, is displaced by what Otto calls "poiesis" (Abrams' lamp), where the world is primarily created by human perception and invention. Or to put it in terms specific to this study, the cultural productions of British romanticism in literature, the visual arts, and popular spectacle, foreshadow the "ability of digital virtual reality to recreate the appearances and sensations" of phenomenal or "first-order reality" in such a way that these "realities" not only take precedence over things in themselves, or "second-order" realities, but in a register that suggests "that first-order realities may themselves be second-order realities, albeit mediated by our senses rather than a computer" (12). "The realist/Enlightenment quest to represent reality," Otto writes, "is consequently displaced by the realization that reality is inaccessible, perhaps even an illusion," indicating an escape, however provisional, from "the illusion of the real to the supposed reality of the virtual" (12).

Reality on this model is a question not of what's out there in the world but of what's available from within and through the cerebral cortex. Thus, in addition to retrofitting virtuality to romantic discourses of imagination, this book spends a good deal of time embracing Enlightenment epistemologies by continuing to argue that it's all in the mind. For Locke and especially for Hume, the notion that first-order reality is all the reality there is or that can be truly known turns out to be a worrisome prospect to be mitigated only by experience and the probabilities that accrue over time. For the Romantics, by contrast, the suddenly "real" status of the phenomenal world represents a victory in what, by Otto's calculus, is still a zero-sum game. Downplayed in this analysis, then, which shuttles back and forth between the transport of romantic virtuality and the limits imposed by eighteenth-century mechanistic psychology, are the idealistic paradigms typically associated with romanticism. On these paradigms, "first-order reality" may very well be the reality that matters but not necessarily to the exclusion of another world--a world alternately here and there--that idealism concedes exists. When Wordsworth speaks of a mind that half perceives and half creates, he is not necessarily on a slippery slope toward virtuality (as Otto argues) but poised sufficiently midway between mind and world so that what the poet calls nature remains, like Freud's proverbial cigar, something that is often and simultaneously just nature. I'll have a little more to say about this "third way" in the course of this review. But what cannot be emphasized enough is the peculiar slippage in Otto's argument between the idea of romanticism as a moment of rupture (culled largely, like Harold Bloom's visionary romanticism, from the examples of Blake and Shelley) and the necessary continuity between romantic virtuality, where this rupture is apparently manifest, and the Enlightenment epistemologies that remain its theoretical ground.

Otto begins his analysis of romantic virtuality not with literature but with popular spectacle, specifically Robert Barker's large circular Panorama and the "hyper-realistic illusion it conjured," which "relied on and at the same time intensified the late eighteenth-century sense that first- and second-order realities had diverged" (24). Panoramic verisimilitude, then, is far from subscribing to eighteenth-century ideals of mimesis or representation, which presuppose the existence of a representable object. For in placing the spectator "at a point of fracture between the actual and the virtual," or between a "world... being swept away and another that is in the process of coming into being" (40-41), panoramic verisimilitude points also to a basic fissure separating eighteenth-century aesthetics and eighteenth-century philosophy, in which verisimilitude--far from paying mimetic tribute to the actual world--suddenly changes sides. In Otto's words, "Versimilitude [of the degree seen in the Panorama] paradoxically undermines--even as it mimes--reality.... And to the extent that the panorama's illusion is indistinguishable from the actual world, this experience of the reality of unreality helps foster a sense of the contingent nature of all perceptual worlds, the unreality of reality" (42). All of this is based on a rather partial (and tendentious) sense of what the panoramic experience was all about, conveniently ignoring the public that was not only viewing the circular images but was itself also on view. And while there is much to admire in Otto's well-researched re-creation, here and elsewhere, of what romantic-era spectacles might have involved for the beholder, his argument is strangely counterintuitive: by sleight of hand, realism or visible particularity is leagued now with vision, or what we typically regard as the work of imagination.

Subsequent chapters on Bentham's Panopticon and James Graham's Temple of Health and Hymen define "a modernity characterized by the 'shattering of belief,' the 'discovery of the "lack of reality" of reality,' and 'the invention of other realities'" (78). Regarding Bentham, whose Panopticon remained a theoretical concept rather than an actual space of incarceration and surveillance, Otto departs from Foucault in arguing that Bentham's hypothetical prison is not a paradigm for a distinctly modern form of disciplinarity but an example of the way he viewed "Law, Morality, Religion, even Common-sense," which he regarded rather pragmatically as "fictitious entities that are produced by--and in turn sustain--particular ensembles of people and things" (52). In what might seem to some an outlandish claim--given the prestige of Foucault's analysis--Otto argues that the prison becomes "a utopia." The very environment "that makes prisoners willing participants in their subjection by ensuring the coincidence if of self-interest and duty," Otto contends, "... draws them away from the normative world they once inhabited into a virtual world" that is not just a "social fiction" now but an "emergent world" with "no constant coordinates, and hence no ground or structure that explains or guarantees the existence of beings or individuals" (55). Similar claims are made for Graham's Temple, where customers were invited to perform as patients in a shrine of popular entertainment dedicated to health and sex. Here, writes Otto, health becomes an "ecstatic condition that can be fleetingly experienced in the present under the sign of fiction or drama" in anticipation of the "kingdom of God." In this "collocation of the discourses of health and religion," the "objective time of chronology" is "displac[ed]" and "the mythical time of the Bible" internalized, allowing Graham's customers to move imaginatively during their visit from 'what is' to 'what might one day be'" (73), when health (among the things) will no longer be fleeting.

If these analyses seem a bit contrived or programmatic (or in the case of Graham's Temple a rehash of a familiar romantic teleology), Otto's treatment of Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho takes a further step; when it comes to interpreting the gothic, he seems to assume, there are no rules or parameters apart from what the interpreter has dictated in advance. It is not that Otto is wrong or off base about Radcliffe, for one can plausibly argue that in The Mysteries, as in various spectacles of the period, the real is held hostage to perception and imagination so that delusion and verisimilitude are at times indissolubly fused. But the yield of all this seems more a matter of vocabulary than anything else. Since, as Otto himself concedes, we have long recognized that the gothic can "evoke in readers a powerful sense of the reality of unreal worlds" (82), what does he gain by recasting this well-worn truth in the language of virtuality ("the real has an alarming tendency to become virtual and the virtual real" [97])? On the other hand, Otto makes a notable point about the "everyday world" that the reader apparently "leaves when she begins reading... and returns to when she puts the novel down." Although he argues that this world is "as fanciful and anachronistic as the world invoked by the [novel]" (106) it is more often than not presented as the Other against which romantic virtuality, in its subscription to (un)reality, is always straining. Unlike the zero-sum world of virtuality, the everyday--a world alternately inside and outside-- is more properly an environment whose reality, if not immediately or always fathomable, is nevertheless immune to the mediation and displacement that this study revels in.

Otto has similar things to say about the implications of another popular spectacle, the Phantasmagoria, and of William Beckford's gothic extravaganza Fonthill Abbey. In Otto's account, both of them seem to exploit Locke's notion of double causality, which alternately assigns agency to 1) the world of things and the passive impressions that register them, and to 2) the mind's active construction of that world in acts ranging from relatively rational understanding to more aggressively imaginative forays. In the case of the Phantasmagoria, which staged what Otto describes as "the disjunction between illusion and reality"(119), double causality itself was foregrounded, as if to argue (as Blake does) that "life" itself "is a phantasmagoria whose ground we are unable to fathom" (126). In Fonthill, by contrast, the focus is on a world "beyond the everyday world" (129), whose sheer contrivance effectively concretizes or stages the mental transport to which the world viewed is potentially tantamount and from which, at Fonthill in particular, there is no immediate escape.

Turning next to the spectacle of Pandemonium in Philipe de Loutherberg's Eidophusikon and to the illuminated pages of William Blake's Jerusalem, Otto pegs both to a Blakean calculus that students of romanticism will immediately recognize, for regardless of how this study construes the "visionary company," it wholly subscribes to a version of romanticism theoretically grounded in Blake. For Otto, in short, the Eidophusikon is a Blakean spectacle. In effectively partnering its creator (Loutherberg) with the figure of Satan as rebels against the status quo, it does more than pit the virtual or created world against the actual world. It makes these different orders wrestle like Blakean "contraries" whose endless tension, far from ever reaching closure, leads to the "emergence of new worlds" that "reality"--or what may be reckoned reality in this dualistic formation--essentially midwifes. And in the chapter on Jerusalem the tension of contraries reaches something like closure or consolidation, albeit of a Blakean kind. In both Jerusalem and Blake's cognate prophecies, actuality and virtuality are so completely enmeshed that the sensible and supersensible worlds ultimately vie for the same space, allowing London in the present to be Jerusalem as otherwise prophesied (and vice versa).

In two brief chapters on Wordsworth, Otto examines the "unreality of reality" in The Prelude's "spots of time," in its representations of London, and in the Westminster Bridge sonnet. According to Otto, sublime scenes such as the Simplon Pass episode in Prelude 6 reveal the power of imagination not in what is perhaps the usual sense, where Wordsworth effectively colonizes the world or discovers himself doing so, but rather in the disjunction, as Wordsworth reenacts it, between the passive and active powers of the mind, or between "what the mind can imagine" and what it merely registers in and through the seemingly autonomous, if now virtual, entities of "nature, history, and God" (244), which are figures of perception as opposed to mere objects. Here, as elsewhere in this study, Otto tries to refine and enlarge what many readers are likely to regard as Wordsworthian in a sense formulated by Geoffrey Hartman and others. But the nuances get lost, at least to me, because they are not nuances so much as efforts to redescribe in the vocabulary of virtuality what previous critics of Wordsworth have already proposed. This vocabulary is not only thesis-driven; at its worst, it exemplifies a kind of critical virtuality in which the aesthetic object itself is somehow secondary.

In his final chapter, Otto returns to the panorama--in this case to Thomas Hornor's massive birds-eye view of London taken from the top of St. Paul's cathedral. Here, Otto suggests, spectators were active (as opposed to both active and passive on the model of double causality), "using selection, combination, and association to create a more manageable world from the archive of virtual objects that surround[ed] them" (291). In doing so they did not precisely abandon double causality or forsake its basic logic, derived primarily from Locke. But according to Otto, the sheer size of Hornor's display and the "hyper-realism" it produced "accentuated the experience of passive perception" to the point that it became active, allowing spectators or "immersants" to "build a second life as an extension and complement of the first" (295).

In conclusion, Otto argues that such life building, the sine qua non of virtuality, was something distinctively characteristic of the romantic period. He contrasts this life building to the general practices of nineteenth-century aesthetics, which were driven--beginning with such romantic-period inventions as the diorama or photography--by a more realistic imagination and by the presumption that first-order and second-order realities were separate. On the face of it, this last looks like a fairly standard maneuver: to explore the Panorama and Fonthill Abbey in all their theoretical sophistication, Otto squeezes a plethora of aesthetic objects and practices into one grand initiative. What gets marginalized in this maneuver, however, are not just the productions of the later nineteenth century but contemporaneous productions, like Keats's Odes or Jane Austen's novels: productions that have as much bearing on the romantic period and its protocols of perception and representation as the rupture supposedly designated by the "problem of virtuality." Over and over, Otto invokes "this world" or the "everyday world" as a center of gravity against which romantic virtuality and its attendant transport are continually striving. Otto doesn't describe the everyday in gravitational terms, which would give it a power he prefers not to grant. But one of the ironies of this book is that everyday life, which comes already "built" (in effect), often operates like gravity and quite rightly. For regardless of its apparent congeniality to empirical thinking and the idea of double causality, the romantic mind that half perceives and half creates is not always or necessarily a gateway to what we may now wish to call virtuality; it is a mind concerned equally with effects, or in the case of human objects affects, rather than with ultimate causes. Many of these effects add up to what Stanley Cavell, in discussing romanticism, has termed the "ordinary"--as revealed in among other places Wordsworthian nature. In the end, they have less to do with flight or transport than with what Cavell describes as a "quest" from flight and from the omnipotence of perception and thought for which virtuality is arguably just another name.

William Galperin is Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick (NJ).

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