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  • Gendered Vision(s) in the Short Fiction of Harriet Prescott Spofford
  • Birgit Spengler

In Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary describes important changes in visual technology and visual culture that predate both the advent of impressionism and Wharton's or James's obsession with observers and beautiful objects. Crary has located a break with the hitherto dominant perspectivalist scopic regime in the early nineteenth century. I will argue that this break is reflected in the fiction of Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921), a central but as yet underestimated writer in the American literary tradition, especially with regard to issues of vision. My general thesis is that a strong interest in questions of vision goes further back than the rise of impressionism and that there is a tradition in American women's writing that is concerned with vision and visual structures from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present. Spofford's concern with vision places her in this tradition and renders her a significant example of the inextricable links between vision and gender.

In the following, I will investigate Spofford's interest in vision in three areas: visual technological innovations, questions of artistic representation in the fine arts, and the implications of social regimes of vision with regard to gender. I will argue that Spofford's depiction of visual practices and her ambivalence about the changes she describes indicate a crisis in seeing that is closely linked to her examination of gender relations. But before I concentrate on Spofford, I briefly want to come back to the break Crary has described, to explain why and how questions of "looking" had already become increasingly important during the early and mid-nineteenth century.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the camera obscura, relying on the principles of Cartesian perspectivalism, had served as an example for both the functioning of perception and epistemological insight for at least two hundred years. According to this model, vision is primarily in the service of a nonsensory faculty of understanding, knowledge is founded on a supposedly objective view of the world. The light falling through the hole in the camera obscura corresponds to the light of reason in the inner space of the mind that alone facilitates knowledge of the world. The camera obscura decorporealizes vision and performs a process of individuation. It relies on the assumption of a profound [End Page 68] distinction between interior observer and exterior world, and it presupposes a quasi-immaterial and monocular observer.

Physical research, physiological discoveries, and philosophical inquiries into the possibilities of human understanding from the early 1800s onward undermine the camera obscura model of vision in various ways and render the relation between observer and world more ambivalent. New scientific findings emphasize the binocularity of human sight, acknowledge its temporality, locate vision in the materiality of the body, and thus endow the observer with "a new perceptual autonomy and productivity" (Crary, "Modernizing" 35). Vision is considered subjective, temporal, and nonveridical. On the other hand, the merging of the domain of optics with new knowledge about the functioning of the body in the human sciences is part of the reorganization of knowledge and the increasing interest in controlling and utilizing the capacities of the human body as described by Foucault. The looking subject is positioned at this watershed between old and new understandings of vision, between notions of objective truth and subjective insight as well as between autonomy, standardization, and regulation. The boom in the invention of optical devices in the middle decades of the nineteenth century brought publicity to new knowledge about human sight and ruptured the assumptions about human vision of a broad public.

In Spofford's stories, references to optical devices, physical phenomena, and the visual arts give evidence of her knowledge of how such elements reflect changes in understanding the world, their consequences, and, possibly, their epistemological implications. Even though she does not focus on issues of vision exclusively, they form a continuous sublayer and often have a considerable influence on plot and/or characters.

In the detective story "Mr. Furbush," for example, a murderess is hunted down by means of photographic evidence and the relatively new possibility of the almost infinite enlargement...


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pp. 68-73
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