VISION, SCIENCE AND LITERATURE 1870-1920: OCULAR HORIZONS by Martin Willis, Reviewed by Garrett Peck
 

VISION, SCIENCE AND LITERATURE 1870-1920: OCULAR HORIZONS
By Martin Willis
(Pickering & Chatto, 2011) 295 pp.
Reviewed by Garrett Peck on 2012-07-20.

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In "Why Science Isn't Literature," a chapter in his Realism, Ethics, and Secularism (2008), George Levine alights upon the most vexing issue for scholars working at the boundary of literature and science. "The critical question for students of science and literature," he writes, "is how to mediate between the total obliteration of distinction between the two and the old positivist assertion of absolute difference" (174). Martin Willis has managed not only to avoid these extremes but also to shed new light on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century visual culture. Just as Chris Otter's The Victorian Eye (2008) urges us to reconsider the Foucauldian disciplinarity that has dominated critical appraisals of nineteenth-century theories of vision, Willis's book prompts us to reconsider the various ways in which vision was studied, conceptualized, and practiced at the turn of the century. This book productively examines the role of the imagination and wonder in fields as varied as microscopy, astronomy, archaeology and ophthalmology. In place of the "two cultures" paradigm that often polarizes literary and scientific discourses in the Victorian era, Willis reveals the extensive "crossings over" (229) made possible by the use of imagination and wonder.

Willis's primary interlocutor is Lorraine Daston, whose work has been foundational for many scholars working at the tangled edges of literature and science. In Victorian Britain, Daston contends, "individualistic, brashly subjective art" confronted "collective staunchly objective science" ("Fear and Loathing of the Imagination in Science" 127 [Daedalus 1998] 73-95). Respectfully but firmly challenging this view, Willis argues that "vision can only be understood historically and specifically" (174). Here he swerves sharply from Daston. Whereas Daston's most recent book (Objectivity [2007], co-authored with Peter Galison) tends toward large-scale periodization, Willis probes the scientific microculture. In each of the four sections of his book, he demonstrates how various "cultures of observation" (1) were formed through a complex interplay of social forces. What emerges from his "kaleidoscopic" (6) approach is a multi-directional, non-hierarchical model of knowledge production that recognizes the particularities of individual disciplines as well as the roles of individual actors. In scrutinizing the different cultures of vision that animated microscopy, astronomy, archaeology, and ophthalmology, Willis shows that imagination "neither disappeared nor was devalued, but continued throughout the nineteenth century to give impetus to the making of knowledge" (8).

Knowledge, Willis contends, was made in part by works of fiction, especially when they used scientific material. In Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines (2006), Willis argued that science fiction texts were actively "involved in the negotiation for power that was at the heart of the many scientific communities of the later nineteenth century" (4). His new book builds on this argument. Instead of treating novelists as passive receivers of an increasingly professionalized and monolithic scientific culture, Willis shows how figures such as H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Amelie Edwards, Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu actively shaped cultural theories of vision. Willis's book thus exemplifies what literary scholarship can bring to the history of science and the burgeoning field of Science, Technology, and Society Studies (STS). Following the lead of literary scholars such as George Levine (Darwin and the Novelists) and Gillian Beer (Darwin's Plots), it reads science as literature and shows how scientific documents frequently exhibit genre conventions shaped by literary practice (and vice versa).

In the first of his four parts, Willis thoroughly investigates the relationship between microscopy, disease theory, and Gothic fiction. His central claim is that "epistemological uncertainty was the defining feature of...'microscopic vision'" (12). Instead of producing stable, objective knowledge of disease, the microscope became the site of a complex range of discourses and debates. In thus highlighting controversy, Willis reveals his debt to STS-related methodologies. Since the publication of Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985) and Bruno Latour's Science in Action (1987), controversy has been recognized as the "way in" for critiques of scientific thought. It is when the internal norms and regulative functions of scientific communities break down and are actively interrogated that we can most clearly discern the influence of non-scientific discourses and perspectives on the resolution of controversies. Willis's analysis of microscopic vision demonstrates this process. Rather than stabilizing scientific practice and discourse by producing objective knowledge, microscopic vision is said to have "created the conditions from which a range of different understandings of infection were articulated, often by recourse to the interplay between fact and fiction" (14). Most crucially, in carefully reading the vampire fiction of Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker through the framework of disease theory, Willis shows how they "interrogate the fragile balance between the real and the imagined" and "offer an imaginative representation of the etiology of disease" (21). The microscope, then, turns out to be just as often the source of -- rather than the solution to -- debates about the verifiability of scientific knowledge.

The second section of the text analyzes the role of the telescope in the astronomical debates regarding the presence of canals on Mars. Once again, a visual instrument served to provoke controversy rather than producing objective knowledge. As Willis points out, the history of the Martian canal controversy shows how debates over vision shaped scientific knowledge in the late nineteenth century, when scientific practice -- as Willis presents it -- was anything but unimaginative and mechanically-mediated. Willis also shows how the theories of Percival Lowell influenced novels such as H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, Mark Wicks's To Mars Via the Moon and Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars. Against the conventional view of scientific romances as middlebrow entertainment, Willis argues that these three novels took active part in "discussions about visual authority and the role of the observer of . . . Mars's planetary structures" (58). In discussing these novels at length, Willis not only illuminates the Victorian visual imagination but also draws our attention to the value of non-canonical scientific romance literature. In arguing that Lowell worked outside the mainstream astronomical community, however, Willis seems to underplay the professionalism of his scientific credentials. In fact, as shown in David Strauss's Percival Lowell: The Culture and Science of a Boston Brahmin (2001), the Lowell family's wealth and prominence had facilitated a top-flight education and training for Percival. While some astronomers may have questioned his credentials, many did not.

Part III of this book turns to archaeology, travel writing, and Gothic adventure tales. Willis examines the work of Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie and the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) in order to show how deeply impacted it was by both travel writing and Gothic literature. Crossing the borders of genres traditionally used to distinguish scientific work from creative fiction or travel writing, Willis argues that scientists' ways of observing "are never wholly objective but rather bound...to alternate ocular horizons that emerge from the dominant cultural practices that surround them" (116). The Arabian Nights, he convincingly shows, powerfully affected what archaeologists thought and wrote about Egypt and its antiquities. Modifying Latour's concept of "centres of calculation" -- those European sites where scientific information was concentrated, analyzed, and circulated -- Willis argues instead that Egyptian artefacts were contextualized in situ. Long before objects such as mummies were subjected to a colonizing and objectivizing gaze in Europe, he suggests, they were construed within previously existing, and distinctively non-scientific, cultural frameworks. "[T]he mummy becomes Gothic," Willis pithily notes, "because the excavator already is" (157). Rather than diminishing the work of scientists, this two-way traffic between science and the broader culture merely re-situates scientific knowledge in the messy realm where it originated.

The final section of this book explains in detail the science of ophthalmology and its role in the practice of magic and spiritualism. From the end of the nineteenth century into the beginning of the twentieth, Willis argues, the eye was regarded in two contradictory ways. It was not only the preeminent sensory organ but also "a fragile organ prone to myriad forms of visual occlusion and failure" (16), and hence a source of acute anxiety. To buttress this argument, Willis draws heavily on the fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle and the illusions of Harry Houdini. "Houdini's illusion practice and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes fiction," he writes, "share a fascination with vision as mediated by ophthalmic and optical debate" (167). Invented by a writer trained in opthalmoology, Holmes is said to embody "the eye itself" (170). In powerfully linking Holmes and Houdini as two versions of "stage magicians, employing the techniques of misdirection and sleight of hand" (170), Willis opens up many new areas for further research and offers a particularly strong piece of analysis.

This final section also challenges a reigning assumption about Victorian science. Since we consider Victorian science as chiefly engaged in progress, Willis observes, "it is difficult to recover from history those moments where science impedes knowledge" (195). Victorian ophthalmology is a case in point. From the 1850s to the early part of the twentieth century, Willis reports, it was widely believed that "visual weakness increased in parallel with conventional hierarchies: the further one descended down through the different classes of Victorian Britain the worse the eyesight became" (197). But Houdini's performances are said to have levelled this scientific stratification of vision, making the act of seeing radically communal: "By speculating together," Willis writes, "observers also became social together. The staging of an optical illusion constructs an egalitarian observing community, positively disenfranchised from the inequalities outside the text or theatre" (199). However, since Willis imputes to Houdini's visual spectacles a political significance they might not have borne, he is less than fully convincing here. His account would also have benefitted from a consideration of Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912). This extended meditation on the public presentation of scientific forms of evidence stresses both the public nature of knowledge-construction and Professor Challenger's difficulties in convincing his peers to accept his pictures of dinosaurs.

In examining visual culture from multiple perspectives, Willis highlights the instability of visual authority at the turn of the century and usefully problematizes the polarizion of art and science as, respectively, subjective and objective. In explaining the role played by literary narratives in the history of science, and specifically in the visual culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Willis shows both scientists and novelists at their most human, both driven by wonder and rigor, method and imagination. At the heart of this book is a lesson for other historians of science and literature: "Understanding the complexity of things of science is, perversely, to understand what is not so scientific about them" (162).

Garrett Peck is a candidate for the PhD in literature at the University of British Columbia. His interests include Victorian realism, the history of astronomy, and the development of the scientific romance genre. His recent publications include "Realism and Victorian Astronomy: The Character and Limits of Critique in Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower" (Pacific Coast Philology 46 [2011]) and "Nature of the Gothic(s): The Urban Aesthetics of Ruskin and Engels" (The Eighth Lamp: Ruskin Studies Today [forthcoming]).


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