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9781421413631
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v2.1 Reference

Optical Impersonality

Science, Images, and Literary Modernism

Western accounts of human vision before the nineteenth century tended to separate the bodily eye from the rational mind. This model gave way in the mid–nineteenth century to one in which the thinking subject, perceiving body, perceptual object, and material world could not be so easily separated. Christina Walter explores how this new physiology of vision provoked writers to reconceive the relations among image, text, sight, and subjectivity.

Walter focuses in particular on the ways in which modernist writers such as H.D., Mina Loy, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot adapted modern optics and visual culture to develop an alternative to the self or person as a model of the human subject. Critics have long seen modernists as being concerned with an "impersonal" form of writing that rejects the earlier Romantic notion that literature was a direct expression of its author’s personality. Walter argues that scholars have misunderstood aesthetic impersonality as an evacuation of the person when it is instead an interrogation of what exactly goes into a personality. She shows that modernist impersonality embraced the embodied and incoherent notion of the human subject that resulted from contemporary physiological science and traces the legacy of that impersonality in current affect theory.

Optical Impersonality will appeal to scholars and advanced students of modernist literature and visual culture and to those interested in the intersections of art, literature, science, and technology.

About the Author

Christina Walter is an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland.

Endorsements

Just when you thought you knew your way around the modernist poetics of impersonality, Christina Walter comes to burn the maps. In the modernism she gives us, impersonality shares its im- at once with impasse and immersion: it names not just the 'extinction of personality,' in T. S. Eliot’s words, but also a deep engagement with personality’s limits and contingencies. Modernist writers came to this engagement, says Walter, through a physiological optics that put seeing back in the body and returned the subject to the object world. Optical Impersonality shows us the literary results of this embodiment: new forms of intersubjectivity, a move away from identitarian notions of the self, and varieties of collective politics—both left and right—distinct from liberal humanism.

- Paul K. Saint-Amour, University of Pennsylvania

Optical Impersonality ambitiously and compellingly theorizes the mutual interplay between the visual culture and technoscience of mid-nineteenth- through mid-twentieth-century optics and modernist assaults on concepts of subjectivity. Walter provides nuanced new accounts of the work writers traditionally understood as espousing theories of aesthetic impersonality—Eliot, Pound, and H.D., for instance—but also reconsiders several who have not typically been seen as central to that project—such as Pater, Ford, and Loy. Walter’s refreshingly capacious interpretation of impersonality similarly enriches our understanding of the technoscience of the period. Optical Impersonality is a smart, philosophical, and historicized contribution to the field.

- Mark S. Morrisson, Pennsylvania State University

Reviews

Walter’s book certainly and productively opens up a rethinking of optical subjectivity, and offers engaging ways of critiquing the relationship between textual and imagistic form.

- British Society for Literature and Science

Christina Walter makes clear that hers is an account of impersonality whose critical stakes turn on their difference from previous scholarship on the topic.

- Isis

Walter displays her "individual talent," which lies in showing not just how writers like Eliot manipulate impersonality toward their own ends, but also how critics’ misinterpretations of these maneuvers have led to an impoverished model of impersonal existence.

- Journal of Modern Literature
Johns Hopkins University Press
Hopkins Studies in Modernism
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