SEMI-DETACHED: THE AESTHETICS OF VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE SINCE DICKENS by John Plotz, Reviewed by Alison Byerly
 

SEMI-DETACHED: THE AESTHETICS OF VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE SINCE DICKENS
By John Plotz
(Princeton, 2018) xii + 329 pp.
Reviewed by Alison Byerly on 2018-09-28.

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Like explorers with maps in hand, critics have ranged widely over the years to define the expansive boundaries of the realist novel. While Victorian novels can immerse the reader in vividly realized worlds that constantly invite comparison to our own, they also relentlessly remind us of their own status as artifacts. We are never sure whether we are standing inside or outside the fictional universe. This oscillation between the two aspects of the Victorian novel has often been described using binary oppositions like subjectivity/objectivity, interiority/exteriority, or engagement/detachment. John Plotz, however, treats these oppositions not as polarities but as points on a continuum. He uses the idea of virtuality to situate the realistic novel in a place between fiction and the real world, a "state of dual awareness" (6) that he describes as "semi-detached."

In Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move (2008), Plotz explored the meaning of objects and their circulation in Victorian literature and culture. His earlier work, The Crowd: British Literature and Public Politics (2000), showed how the changing space of public life impacted the inner worlds depicted in a variety of nineteenth-century texts. Semi-Detached continues his effort to illuminate three shifting layers: the fictional space of the novel, specific spaces represented within the novel, and the public space of the world beyond. Like the magic lantern slides he discusses in Chapter 6, these layers combine to create a new perspective.

Plotz aims chiefly to show how nineteenth-century novels formally developed their layering of perspectives. Early novels of the period were often episodic, interpolating and absorbing short stories when they themselves were a rapidly evolving genre. "[I] f there were a joke about how Victorian novels got their bagginess," Plotz observes, "the punch line might be: from swallowing short stories" (45).

Other familiar techniques of literary representation are also examined as mechanisms for positioning the reader within the novel-reading experience. Recognizing that free indirect discourse situates the reader between subjectivity and objectivity, Plotz connects this kind of narration to other techniques for shifting or complicating perspectives, laying the groundwork for the extension of his argument to a range of authors as well as (later on) visual artists. Using examples from Austen and Eliot, Plotz stresses how the movement from one perspective to the next almost physically relocates the reader's point of view. An extended discussion of Henry James attempts to pinpoint various readerly perspectives with GPS-like accuracy, noting subtle differences between "mental dislocation," "the semi-dislocation that occurs when characters are inferring each other's thoughts and intentions" (138), and the way in which James's occasional effects of onomatopoeia serve to focus the reader's attention on the mimetic qualities of language itself.

Well-known works of Eliot, Austen, James, Dickens and other major British novelists thus substantiate the core of the argument. But H.G. Wells is also explored at length as a contradictory "realist of the fantastic" who revels in oscillating between the real world and the speculative, imaginative, or non-existent world he conjures. According to Plotz, the tension Wells depicts between these worlds, and the challenges of travelling between them, metaphorically signifies the gap between subjective and objective experience, or "the experiential discrepancy between people sharing a single world" (183).

Among fiction writers, Willa Cather is given a short but very effective chapter to herself, positioned as a bridge to modernism in her "fascination with the dichotomy between the world of aesthetic dreaming and the world of hard facts" (197). The frequent allusions to other art forms within her novels, particularly opera, exemplify how her fiction contraposes aesthetic experience and the impact of the "real" world. These contrasting kinds of experience are likened to the visions of Hardy's Jude. By also contrasting past and present, fiction and autobiography, and realism and naturalism, Plotz sharpens the focus on the duality of his overall argument.

Besides exploring nineteenth-century fiction, Plotz treats major prose writers of the period. A subtle discussion of John Stuart Mill shows how novels substitute for social interaction within Mill's own life and writings. Arguing that Mill's liberalism entails "mediated involvement" (70) in other people's social lives, Plotz links this kind of involvement with the shared experience offered though the novels of Eliot and James. The overall framework for Plotz's description of realism is drawn largely from the work of Catherine Gallagher and Franco Moretti, and particularly from Gallagher's description of novels as "believable stories that do not solicit belief" ("The Rise of Fictionality," The Novel, Vol. I, ed. Franco Moretti [2006]: 340). Plotz expands that near-oxymoron to state: "With believability their benchmark and inventedness their given, novels do two seemingly discordant things simultaneously" (12). Finding a vocabulary to describe this duality is in many ways the central project of the book.

Beginning with the title, the book relies heavily on metaphors of physical location to characterize the dual perspective from which the reader is asked to view realistic fiction. Plotz refers to states of detachment, "semi-detachment" (7), dislocation, "imaginative escape" (12), "halfway-thereness" (18), "half-removal" (154), and a state of both "presence and absence" (54) that is "simultaneously peripheral and central" (16). Readers are "at once in and out" (155), "inside and outside" (176), "in two places at once" (178), "dwell[ing] on the threshold" (178), "within and without" (197), "occupying more than one world simultaneously" (230), or "half adrift" (234).

This mediated state is at other times described in mental rather than physical terms. It is called a "state of dual awareness" (6), a "doubling of experience, the two-in-one sensation" (9), "split consciousness" (18), "double-mindedness" (151), a "split inner life" (151), "partial absorption" (177), and finally, a state "imaginative, vicarious, disembodied" (188). At times, even this division between the mental and the physical is elided through the use of terms like "experiential dislocation" (205) or "aesthetic semi-detachment" (219) that combine the physical or locational with the conceptual. Plotz's own oscillation between language of space and language of consciousness thus seems to replicate the duality that he describes.

Key to his geographic argument is the notion of the "provincial," a powerful metaphor for the reader's state of in-between-ness. To be provincial, Plotz argues, is to be part of a generic landscape that is both "Nowheresville" and "everywhere" (102). In a way that Plotz likens to the concept of "magnum ex parvo, great arising from little" (103), such a place gestures toward cosmopolitanism. In this account, novels like The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, or Jude the Obscure portray the struggle of small, unknown lives to become large and knowable, making the reader feel aesthetically displaced: by turns immersed in and detached from the story of their social displacement.

The sense of displacement generated by these works is not, in Plotz's view, a mere byproduct or effect. Their primary function, he contends, is to create this dual awareness. It can also be created by painting, which thus becomes "a machine for thinking about the coexistence of the actual and the virtual" (76). Likewise, he writes, Henry James "build[s] novels that, like machines, could operate to deliver the idea of other people to readers without those other people having to exist" (73). This mechanistic formulation attributes to paintings and novels a kind of structural impact that transcends authorial intent or cultural context, explaining instead how they operate as works of art.

Like the early nineteenth-century novels that it describes, the book contains its own interpolations and divergences. In "Visual Interludes," three sections dealing with visual arts, Plotz explores "problems of distraction, absorption, and critical distance playing out in various media that . . . share with fiction certain narrative aspects and storytelling impulses" (75). Not surprisingly, the first of these interludes highlights the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, wherein the tension between the natural and the aesthetic, the ephemeral and the permanent, expands our understanding of the cultural context for the literary gaps discussed elsewhere. Though the book includes several color plates, it seems a shame that some of these costly reproductions feature important but frequently-reproduced paintings like John Everett Millais' Ophelia (1851-2), Mariana (1851), and Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50). It might have been better to see color versions of one or two of the medieval manuscript pages reprinted later in the chapter as examples of the kind of typography that inspired William Morris's work at the Kelmscott Press.

Besides juxtaposing realist fiction with Pre-Raphaelite painting, Plotz draws on Victorian media studies and the substantial work that has been done on technologies of seeing. Citing scholarship by Jennifer Roberts, Isobel Armstrong, Paul Fyfe, and Leah Price, Plotz notes that in using terminology drawn from panoramas and magic lantern shows, novelists furnish important clues to their interest in mapping types and degrees of aesthetic distance. For instance, Plotz demonstrates that a slide show given by printer and bookmaker Emery Walker influenced Morris's decision to found the Kelmscott Press. In thus examining the materiality of aesthetic production, Plotz adds another layer to the book's argument about the different strands of aesthetic experience that are invoked by these representations and artifacts.

When Plotz turns from Pre-Raphaelite painting and Victorian slide shows to film, I must admit to wondering about the relevance of the chapter on Buster Keaton that forms the book's final Visual Interlude. In Keaton's characteristic posture of obliviousness or distraction, wherein he seems to "cycle in and out of awareness of his surroundings" (216), Plotz finds a useful parallel to the kinds of aesthetic distance he discerns in fiction. Yet absent a broader filmic context, it is hard to know how singular Keaton's detachment is, or whether Plotz's point about it might equally apply to other early films that also break the fourth wall and evoke a complicated relationship between the interior world of the film and the world of the viewer.

In conclusion, Plotz acknowledges the tension between a "straightforwardly historical" (238) account and the somewhat idiosyncratic journey taken by this book. While rejecting a false dichotomy between historicist approaches and an ahistorical "hunt for timeless truths" (239), Plotz strongly argues that we should recognize a certain commonality of aesthetic experience between the present and the past. Given such commonality, this wide-ranging and informative book offers a valuable guide to the nature of aesthetic experience that is rooted in, yet extends beyond, the literature and art of the nineteenth century. A book preoccupied with distance, it manages to cover a great deal of territory.

Alison Byerly is President and Professor of English at Lafayette College in Easton, PA.


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