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The Secret of the Spectacle: Epistemology and Commodity Display in The Ambassadors Richard Salmon, Birkbeck College, University of London The Ambassadors is a novel that challenges our understanding of surfaces. Lambert Strether's sensory impressions of objects and social manners construe "Paris" as the phenomenal site of a fraught epistemological venture. But this phenomenal vision, which registers the world as a spectacle, a self-conscious mise en scène, reproduces, at the same time, forms of commodity display that allow us to grasp the historical contingency of perception. The very insubstantiality of the visual aspect of Paris, which undermines Strether's interpretive project, inscribes techniques of spectacular commodity representation. As Ian F. A. Bell has recently argued, the normative epistemological model of a "surface" and its interior "depth" is challenged within a sophisticated commodity culture, which eludes, even while it may postulate, the operation of interpretive "penetration" (1-9). The aim of this essay is to explore the ways in which the cultural forms of commodity display and advertising shape Jamesian epistemology in The Ambassadors . My inquiry will proceed from the thematization of advertising in the novel to the unstated but pervasive strategies of commodity representation that mark Strether's initiation into European culture. In particular, I aim to show how the material ' 'frame' ' of display informs Strether's visual consumption of the Parisian spectacle. I will focus primarily on the display of the book as a paradigm of Strether's hermeneutic desire. For in this regard, The Ambassadors is a text that self-reflexively refers us to the question of its own status within the world of publicity. Thus, I will argue not only that the representational practices of commodity culture are integral to ways of perceiving and constructing the visible world, but also that such forms shape the possibilities of James's own authorial practice. The Ambassadors acknowledges the presence of the spectacular repreThe Henry James Review 14 (1993): 43-54 © 1993 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 44 The Henry James Review sentation of commodities through the marginalized theme of "advertisement," which emerges toward the end of the novel. When Chad Newsome abruptly informs Strether of a recent "revelation" that has taught him the fascination of the "art of advertisement" (AM 504), Strether experiences a shock at the possibility that Chad might desert Madame de Vionnet in order to take up the advertising department of the Newsome's family business. Jennifer Wicke aptly describes the violence of this scene as one that "reshapes the contours of the novel" by releasing advertising as an "erased or suppressed term" (109-10). For Chad's revelation simultaneously opens up an earlier textual lacuna that had concealed Strether's own knowledge of the subject. As Chad reminds Strether, the question of advertising refers back to ' 'part of our original discussion' ' (AM505) and in fact ' 'doesn't amount to much more than what you originally, so awfully vividly—and all, very nearly, that first night—put before me" (AM 504). The abrupt naming of advertisement is a repetition that renders visible a liminal presence that has been written out of Strether's narrative consciousness. Similarly, Strether consciously refuses to name the product of the WooUett manufactory that Chad is to advertise. But unlike the question of advertising itself, this "small, trivial, rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use" (AM 97) remains unspecified in the text. While Strether's precious circumlocution around the name of the commodity is clearly ironized, Maria Gostrey recognizes the positive effect of Strether's reluctance. Tacitly acknowledging Strether's motives , she agrees not to question him further on the matter: "In ignorance she could humour her fancy, and that proved a useful freedom. She could treat the little nameless object as indeed unnameable—she could make their abstention enormously definite" (AM 98). Nameless and unnameable, the commodity that signifies the determining presence of American economic power is not permitted to obtrude into the purified realm of Parisian culture. Strether's desire is imaginatively cut free from the imprisoning source of economic dependence that underpins his consumption of the Parisian spectacle. Yet, at the same time, this silence is itself "enormously definite ." The negative term of Strether's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 43-54
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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