restricted access The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 776-778



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Book Review

The Eye's Mind:
Literary Modernism and Visual Culture


Karen Jacobs. The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001. viii + 280 pp.

Situating literary modernism within the visual culture of the early twentieth century, Karen Jacobs's new study joins a growing body of scholarship that explores representations of visual relations in fiction. In the last few decades, as critical consensus about the importance of visuality for modernity has grown, the field of visual culture studies has remained productively—if sometimes confusingly—diverse, characterized by a range of methodological approaches and even definitions of the term "visual culture." Capitalizing on this proliferation of approaches—from the highly theoretical to the purely historical—The Eye's Mind offers a richly synthetic account of modernism's visual subjects. Indeed, Jacobs is among the first to situate literary modernism within a systematic analysis of visual culture, one that draws on the work of Martin Jay, Luce Irigaray, Susan Bordo, and Robyn Wiegman (among others). Reversing the usual literary critical formulation that equates the gaze with disembodied power, Jacobs makes the case for a general crisis in the belief in subjective transparency in the early twentieth century. As Jacobs puts it, modernist novels implicitly pose the question that Cartesian rationalism conceals: "is it the mind's eye that sees or the body's?"

In an admirably lucid and thorough introduction, Jacobs dissects three cultural currents that inform the modernist articulation of this question: a skeptical philosophical tradition—including psychoanalysis, Marxism, and existentialism—which represents subjectivity through [End Page 776] metaphors of visibility; the ascendance of visual technologies such as photography and film and their intersection both with consumer culture and theories of perception; and the emergence of anthropology and sociology as academic disciplines, with their attendant techniques of visual knowledge (especially Boas's model of the participant-observer). This discussion, which constitutes a comprehensive map of the terrain of visual culture in modernity, makes the book an invaluable resource while also providing the historical ground for Jacobs's argument. Jacobs proposes that the modernists inherited two contradictory visual traditions: the documentary and the visionary. They attempted to resolve this contradiction through the production of what Jacobs calls "the interior gaze," a narrative device that affirms the value of hidden optical truths, thus preserving the positivist fantasy of the ultimate availability of visual truth, while simultaneously acknowledging the subjective, embodied nature of vision. The modernist preoccupation with interiority must therefore be seen in conjunction with the emergence of discourses and technologies that bring the body into view.

As the structure of The Eye's Mind emphasizes, the modernist critique of Cartesian rationalism was neither unified nor monolithic. In insisting that visuality is mediated by the conditions of individual embodiment, Jacobs produces a model supple enough to account for a range of literary responses produced under the rubric of "modernism." The book is divided into three parts, each of which highlights a different problem in visuality for modernist authors and their distinct resolutions of that problem. Part one examines the link between the interior gaze and the modernist project of authorship in Henry James, Nabokov, Blanchot, and Freud; the second part looks at the influence of racial discourses in American anthropology and sociology on Hurston and Ellison and their turn to Emerson for a "visionary optics" with which to counter those discourses; and the third takes up the relation between spectacle and historical agency in Woolf and West via Benjamin and Debord. A postscript on Nabokov's Lolita continues the work begun in Jacobs's breathtaking analysis of Blanchot's "The Gaze of Orpheus," which investigates the emergence of a postmodern visual economy that abandons the "interior gaze" for an evacuated notion of the subject.

Jacobs's strength as a critic lies in her ability to offer fresh, complex readings of theoretical and literary texts and to juxtapose them in surprising [End Page 777] and productive ways. If there is a weakness to The Eye's Mind, it...


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