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Chapter 2 "Tomber dans Ie phenomene": Mterimages in La Maison Nucingen and Le Bal de Sceaux It often happens that we look at a dress, a tapestry, or a blank sheet of paper so absentmindedly that we do not immediately perceive a shape or glittering spot thereupon that later strikes our eye all ofa sudden, as ifit had appeared there at the very moment llJe noticed it. -Le Bal de Sceaux Many ofus, as Balzac suggests in the above passage, have turned our attention away from a particular object and encountered the delayed visual impression of a blurred shape or a spot ofbright light. The effect is even more dramatic when one has purposely focused on an especially contrasting and luminous image, such as the pattern of dark window frames against a light window. The resulting effect (with the light/dark pattern reversed) is called a "retinal afterimage," an optical phenomenon with a telling history. Before the eighteenth century, the "afterimage effect" had been dismissed as illusory and therefore inconsequential for serious studies of vision, concerned as they were with the objective nature of the physical world. Mter Peiresc described afterimages ofwindows in 1634, the phenomenon became a sort of parlor trick.! And although the "illusion" attracted the scientific attention of thinkers like Mariotte, Newton, and de la Hire, it was not until the eighteenth century that the retinal afterimage became an object of study as one ofseveral subjective phenomena of vision. No longer was the science of optics concerned only with the physics of objective reality and the rational laws governing a normative concept of vision; Locke's empiricism had turned attention to the subjective experience of seeing. Illusory appearances like blur circles (the "haloes" formed around distant lights), floaters (mouches volantes, or "flying gnats"), and retinal afterimages became part of a larger inquiry into the ways in which our bodily eyes affect how we see the world. In 1743, Buffon (the naturalist whose work interested a young Balzac) published 34 Chapter 2 his "Dissertation sur les couleurs accidentelles," a term he coined to describe the afterimages of colors as distinguished from the objective colors we first perceive. "Les couleurs accidentelles" are effects of the eye, depending on our organ of sight rather than on the properties of light; they are verified through the observation of subjective experience. Buffon 's observation of retinal afterimages paved the way for a growing interest among nineteenth-eentury scholars, such as Goethe, whose definition of the phenomenon locates it in the observer's body: "Let the observer look steadfastly on a small coloured object and let it be taken away after a time while his eyes remain unmoved; the spectrum of another colour will then be visible on the white plane ... it arises from an image which now belongs to the eye."2 And it was, indeed, to the physiology of the eye itself that nineteenth-century scientists like Purkinje, Aubert, and Helmholtz turned for explanations, as they performed numerous experiments designed to test the neurological effects ofretinal stimulation by light and electrical sparks. Despite the many advances in the field, however, even as late as 1867 Helmholtz decried the incompleteness and inexactitude of scientific knowledge on afterimages. The problem, explains Helmholtz, lies in the limitations of the observer's body: "generally these experiments soon prove to be so trying to the eyes that severe and dangerous ocular and nervous trouble may ensue if they are pursued too long."3 Thus the very thing that made afterimages a new object of study-their corporeality -also limited the means of acquiring knowledge about them. As scientific inquiry about vision moved gradually from Cartesian abstraction to an experience-based empiricism, the body became both object and tool for the study ofvision. Cartesian models had swept away anomalies, pulses, and bodily eccentricities in order to create a rationalized, idealized model ofvision, but empiricist theories ofvision brought them back, attempting to explain the eye's functions through observation of how and what a living subject's eye actually sees under changing conditions. And in fact, it was their groundedness-in the body, in time-that made afterimages such a suggestive phenomenon for empiricist theorists ofvision. Mterimages carried important theoretical implications for the study of perception and cognition: as phenomena produced through an interaction of light and the bodily eye, afterimages are subjective; as delayed responses to an initial luminous impression, afterimages exist within a sequential temporality.4 Both characteristics imply a new way of understanding how we...


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