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Optical Impersonality

Science, Images, and Literary Modernism

Christina Walter

Publication Year: 2014

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.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Hopkins Studies in Modernism

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

When I was a graduate student I developed the habit of always turning first to the acknowledgments of a scholarly book. I wanted to get a sense of the writer’s academic family tree and also, more voyeuristically, to see into his or her personal life. I came to realize that there is an art to writing acknowledgments...

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Introduction. Eye Don’t See: Embodied Vision, Ontology, and Modernist Impersonality

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pp. 1-32

On 26 June 2006 the New Yorker ran a cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan showing a nondescript, bespectacled office worker speaking on the telephone. The caption read: “I’ll take care of it impersonally.” The joke of course is that the caller, whether colleague or customer, is presumably looking for the personal...

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1. A Protomodern Picture Impersonality: Walter Pater and Michael Field’s Vision

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pp. 33-78

In a rare lecture delivered at the London Institution in November 1890, the philosophy scholar and art critic Walter Pater labeled the French dramatist Prosper Mérimée a too perfect impersonalist. Mérimée was so coldly selfeffacing, Pater argued, that his style emphasized “transparen[cy]” over the...

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2. Images of Incoherence: The Visual Body of H.D. Impersonaliste

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pp. 79-126

In April 1949, Norman Holmes Pearson sent his friend the writer-actress H.D. a manuscript of an essay entitled “The American Poet in Relation to Science,” in which he discusses her work along with that of other prominent modernists, including Pound, Eliot, and Rukeyser. In this essay, which soon...

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3. Getting Impersonal: Body Politics and Mina Loy’s “Anti-Thesis of Self-Expression”

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pp. 127-170

A 1917 New York Evening Sun profile crowned the writer, painter, and inventor Mina Loy the quintessential “modern woman” (“Do You Strive” 10). Her particular qualification for this title, so the profile went, was that her art endeavored “to express her personality” and did so by crystallizing into symbols...

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4. D. H. Lawrence’s Impersonal Imperative: Vision, Bodies, and the Recovery of Identity

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pp. 171-213

Perhaps no modernist is so thoroughly associated with a concern to perceive and know through the body and the material world as D. H. Lawrence. In addition, perhaps no modernist has been read in such multitudinous and polemical ways with regard to this concern. Kate Millett, for instance, famously...

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5. Managing the “Feeling into Which We Cannot Peer”: T. S. Eliot’s Impersonal Matters

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pp. 214-257

The writers featured in the preceding chapters are more often linked to other modernist movements than to impersonality—Pater and Field to impressionism and aestheticism, H.D. and Loy to a personalist feminism, and Lawrence to a retro-Romantic individualism. The same cannot be said for...

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Afterword. Modernist Futurity: The “Creative Contagion” of Impersonality and Affect

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pp. 258-276

This book has intentionally not offered an affect theory of modernist impersonality. The terms and structures I’ve attributed to impersonality instead arise strictly from modernism and its scientific vernacular. But optical impersonality does constitute a sort of prehistory for current affect theory...


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pp. 277-300


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pp. 301-326


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pp. 327-339

E-ISBN-13: 9781421413648
E-ISBN-10: 1421413647
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421413631
Print-ISBN-10: 1421413639

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 30 halftones, 8 line drawings
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Hopkins Studies in Modernism

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Modernism (Literature).
  • Optics in literature.
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