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The Limitations of Vision and the Power of Folklore in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 80-101 | 10.1353/sdn.2013.0009

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In Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Martin Jay argues that from Plato to Descartes, sight has generally been the privileged sense. Although the primacy of vision was not without its complications and exceptions, thinkers such as John Locke and Descartes “maintained a faith in the linkage between lucidity and rationality, which gave the Enlightenment its name. And both distrusted the evidence of the competing major sense organ, the ear, which absorbed only unreliable ‘hearsay’” (Jay 85). Jay registers a shift, however, in this privileging of sight at the end of the nineteenth century. Photography, which nurtured the proliferation of images and the desire to gaze, also taught viewers to be skeptical of images, which could be manipulated by artists through techniques such as double exposure. Similarly, Jay posits that the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art movements, “broadly construed, can be understood as a laboratory of postperspectivalist optical experimentation, with a subcurrent of outright antiretinalism culminating in Duchamp” (170). Visual technologies and art movements thus aided in “the dethroning of the dominant scopic regime” (150), opening the way, one could infer, for the exploration of other senses.

Although, for Jay, the pinnacle of visual skepticism manifests in the late twentieth century, with post-structuralist French thinkers such as Georges Bataille, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan—to name only a few—he locates the beginning of this skepticism at the turn of the century, with modernism. According to Jay, though fin de siècle visual art and literature exhibited a flurry of innovation around “new visual experiences,” “this initially euphoric exploration of new visual practices ultimately led to a certain disillusionment” (150). Building on Jay’s study, this essay will examine how one modernist writer, John Dos Passos, expresses his disillusion with vision through negative representations of lighting technology in his U.S.A. trilogy. Turning to “the competing major sense organ, the ear,” Dos Passos offers a murmur of hope in his story of America only through what Jay terms the “unreliable ‘hearsay’” (85) of speech.

From Jay’s perspective, Dos Passos is a modernist writer who was very much situated in the “laboratory of postperspectival optical experimentation” (170). In a 1967 address, Dos Passos recounts how after the World War I armistice, many writers were influenced by the “simultaneity” of cubism (“What Makes a Novelist” 272). He continues, however, by emphasizing the influence of the cinema: “The artist must record the fleeting world the way the motion picture film recorded it. Somewhere along the way I had been impressed by Eisenstein’s motion pictures, by his version of old D. W. Griffith’s technique. Montage was his key word” (272). Referencing this passage in his comprehensive study of U.S.A., Donald Pizer proposes: “The key terms in Dos Passos’ recollection of the art scene of the early 1920s—simultaneity, juxtaposition, and montage—can serve as guides to an understanding of the impact of visual forms on his work of this period” (14; see also Spindler, Suarez, Seed, and Schloss). Cinematic forms, particularly montage, did indeed have an impact on Dos Passos’s fiction, and a direct connection can be established between Dos Passos and Eisenstein, as well as other movie directors he met during his 1928 visit to the Soviet Union.

Dos Passos, however, also fits into Jay’s study of modernists who were skeptical of vision. In his insightful analysis of U.S.A., Michael North rightly points out that there is a paradox within Dos Passos’s writing, which is shaped by visual technologies but simultaneously is “politically and socially mistrustful of the very techniques he put to such innovative use” (142). Examining how the “Camera Eye” sections separate the spectator from the action, North argues that they indicate “the way the progressive possibilities of the new visual media give way to isolation, impotence, and retrogression” (147). This astute assessment of the camera and spectatorship can be enhanced if we examine the ways in which Dos Passos represents visual technologies beyond the camera. More specifically, Dos Passos subtly indicates the submersion of his dismal fictional characters in mass culture by putting them under electric lights. Lighting technology, after all, was first...



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