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The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture
The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture. Karen Jacobs. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Pp. viii + 311. $45.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).
The Eye's Mind is a study of literary modernism that we have needed for a long while. Our post-structuralist obsession with visuality is everywhere apparent; but it has taken a scholar with Karen Jacobs's deep learning and range of knowledge to help us understand how our contemporary critique of ocular epistemology relates to the rise of a particular kind of visual culture in the first half of the twentieth century. She is able to do this, and to do this so well, because her study is genuinely interdisciplinary; its primary strength lies precisely in its synthetic and comparativist aims. Jacobs knows as much about photography as she does about literature; as much about French existentialism as American anthropology. Although almost every sentence of this study is theoretically inflected, she never lets theory do her thinking for her. On the contrary, her references to Baudrillard, Benjamin, Marx, Jameson, Eagleton, and Zizek provide the conceptual grid through which she performs her own specific analysis of modernist visual discourse. And her literary choices demonstrate the far-reaching explanatory power of her cultural investigation: this is a book where Henry James and Zora Neale Hurston can actually be located together [End Page 538] on a modernist map; where Lolita and Invisible Man inhabit the same American landscape; and where local village theatre in Virginia Woolf is only a step away from Nathaniel West's Hollywood.
The Eye's Mind demands that we understand modernist culture as a dynamic nexus, a welcome alternative to the oversimplifying subversion/containment model that has propelled so many Foucauldian literary studies of the last two decades. Jacobs's commitment to dialectical interpretation is further evidenced by her stance toward particular novelists: in stark contrast to the recent trend in identity studies, she casts no heroes and no villains. Her refined sense of the politics of visual discourse means that no author or cultural group escapes cultural entailment. As she persuasively shows, in this cultural context, critique or reform is incremental, both limited and propelled by the hegemonic social forces it seeks to overthrow. The express aim of her project is to demonstrate the widely felt sense of crisis that attended the undoing of both "disembodiment" and "observer" as valorized epistemological categories. As her particular chapters show, this crisis is cast in different terms depending upon an author's subject position, but no author--male, female; black, white; philosopher, novelist; psychoanalyst, sociologist--escapes or "solves" the crisis. Jacobs ultimately charts a spectrum of literary response, defined at one end by an author like James, whose discomfort about the possibilities and privileges of disembodied observation is expressed by his uneasy manipulation of narratorial transparency; and, at the other end, by an author like Hurston, whose social disenfranchisement allows her to imagine powerful new terms to critique disembodied observation (terms unavailable to James), but who still feels that the pursuit and attainment of transparency remain political imperatives for minority empowerment.
Since this book is explicitly designed to be capacious, there no doubt will be some disagreement about how to evaluate the relative interest of each chapter. In my estimation, the discussion of the Benjaminian concept of "constellation"--and its complex relation to Woolf's gendered sense of theatricality and linguisticality--is a tour de force. Here Jacobs is at her best, nimbly working her way through concepts that are made both more compelling and odder than we had previously known. This defamiliarization arises in part from the superb close readings she produces; her sensitive engagement with representational particularities--in whatever discourse--makes her analysis both wonderfully provocative and yet wholly persuasive. Her epilogue on Lolita is an example of an equal but opposite strength: the familiar is not estranged but transfigured. What we thought we knew about Nabokovian eroticism is reconceptualized through...