restricted access Epilogue. The Afterimage of Reference: Optics and the nouveau roman

From: Optiques

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Epilogue The Afterimage of Reference: Optics and the nouveau roman Through this book's readings of nineteenth-century novels and short stories in the context of optics, the retinal afterimage has emerged as a key topos whose fictional deployment crystallizes both shifting notions of visual perception and evolving forms of narrative in the modern age. In Balzac's La Comedie humaine, afterimage effects signal an embodied temporality that exists in tension with the camera obscura model of visionary purity. Objective and subjective vision vie for precedence in a narrative quest for knowledge-knowledge of the ineffable beyond of the "absolute" as well as of the ins and outs of glittering society and its shadowy underworld, its "tenebrous affairs." On the one hand, Balzac's text remains residually rooted in an idealist conception ofvision as transparent window onto an objective, external realm. But on the other hand, La Comedie humaine incorporates the subjective thrust of empiricist vision into its realist project through an accumulative, temporal, narrative logic. The afterimage in Balzac thus propels his fiction beyond nostalgia for visionary "second sight" and toward the "second" sight of bodies in the world. The roman policier, a popular genre that grew, partly, out of Balzac's serialization of scientific themes, extends realism's empiricist logic into the realm of detection. But as privileged figure for the acquisition of knowledge through sight, the fictional detective has generally been coded as a figure for pure, abstract rationality in ways that ignore the genre's "afterimage effects" of hermeneutic delay, temporal red herrings, and subjective vision. By resituating the early roman policier in the context of empiricist visuality, this book has revealed its structural, epistemological double bind of a priori deduction and a posteriori reconstitution offacts. And finally, if the detective genre represents the empiricist outgrowth of the Balzacian "tree," fin-de-siecle fantastic fiction would seem to constitute its other branch, its escape from realist observation into an occult and extrasensory universe. But as we have seen in Part III of this book, the fantastic genre remains materially anchored to worldly vision. From the explicit optogram fiction ofVilliers, Verne, and Claretie to the uncanny The Mterimage of Reference 223 iterations of the "afterimage" in psychopathological, scientific, and fictional discourse of the fin de siecle, the late nineteenth century inhabits a liminal space, where blurred boundaries are captured in the anatomical figure of retinal violet. By continually registering external forms in the inner chamber of the eye, through the photochemical alteration ofbodily tissue, retinal violet literalizes the interaction between objective world and subjective perception. It absorbs into one locus both objective light and blood-pulsed perception-and thus complicates the binaries (objectivity / subjectivity, idealism/materialism, abstraction/physicality) that have marked discourses of and about science and fiction in nineteenth-eentury France. But ofcourse the history ofmodern narrative and visuality does not end here. In the final pages of this Epilogue, I want very briefly to sketch out some possible directions for exploring the statement that ends Chapter 12: namely, the argument that the gap between real and unreal in the "optogrammatic" fiction of the fin de siecle prepares the terrain for an eventual twentieth-century move toward textual self-referentiality and phenomenologies ofvision-features of the nouveau roman of the 1950s through 1970s. First of all, one might trace the scientific and philosophical shifts entailed by the crucial notion of "subjective vision," a term that emerged in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as referring to literal and bodily perception (in contradistinction to the "objective" physical laws of sight). As the study of optical phenomena like afterimages undermined the distinction between perceptual appearance and objective truth, nineteenth-century empiricists negotiated that gap by taking the "optical truth" ofsubjective phenomena as their new object ofstudy, with its own identifiable and quantifiable laws. Their study of subjective vision changed the terms of discourse around visual perception, allowing theorists to posit a "modern observer" whose visual relation to the world is structured by physiology and temporality, by the body in time. Indeed, the subject-centered epistemology of nineteenth-century empiricism paved the way for a phenomenological theory ofvision that went even further, calling into question the theoretical foundations of scientific inquiry itself. Merleau-Ponty disputed the theoretical confidence in the subject's ability to gain access-whether through abstract reason or empirical observation-to a stable realm of objective truth. Once one understands the subject as a body in the world, Merleau-Ponty writes, it becomes "impossible to conceive...