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  • The Graphic Unconscious: A Response
  • Mark Seltzer (bio)

Dorrit Cohn’s reading of “optics and power in the novel” largely devolves on a rehearsal of the argument of her Transparent Minds (1978), and that reading is largely premised on a repetition of exactly the simple opposition of art and power pressured, for example, in my Henry James and the Art of Power (1984). 1 Indeed, on these terms it’s tempting to describe Cohn’s rehearsals as uncanny—if the notion of the uncanny (the unhomelike) itself had not by now become an all too homey way of naming the defensive recapitulations, the belatedness, the uncertain attributions of cause and effect, that through and through mark that account. The uncanny has, as it were, been domesticated as yet another version of an “ethic” of better living through ambiguity, the ethic that of course continues to underwrite a wide range of literary studies. It is not hard to detect both the tendency to recapitulate and what might be called the recourse to complexity-as-such in this piece.

But if something like the uncanny seems to surface here, it perhaps has more to do with another problem broached, but resolutely displaced, in the piece. The problem of seeing and power in the novel is of course most powerfully located in terms of the fantasy structure of the panopticon. But such a fantasmatics of seeing and power makes visible something more general: the seeing machine is also a personation machine. The seeing machine links processes of objectification, identification, and representation to what might be called the making of persons. What becomes visible then is the subject’s uncertain relation to processes of identification and representation: in short, the intricated matters of representation and self-representation, of seeing and seeing oneself.

Hence the question of the subject as such is bound up with the order of representation: the status of the subject’s identity is inevitably bound up with the status of the subject’s processes of identification. 2 One might in fact locate the order of the subject in terms of the subject’s distance, or failure of distance, with respect to representation. Cohn’s account, utterly separating “real and fictional worlds,” posits something like the immunity of the subject to representation. What I mean to outline here is, rather, the contagious relation between the subject’s identity and his [End Page 21] identifications or representations. This, it will emerge, has to do precisely with the “fictional” status of transparent minds, albeit not at all in the sense that Cohn rehearses. In these pages then I want to take up, very briefly, such surfacings of the uncanny—repetition, ambiguation, and the subject’s intimacy with representation, focusing on the third as a way of specifying the effects generated by such haunted houses as panopticons and novels.

The subject of vision has, of course, emerged as a centering topic in recent cultural and intellectual history. One might instance Martin Jay’s richly informed history of the vicissitudes of vision from the Enlightenment on, or Jonathan Crary’s more localized history of the shifts in technologies of visualization during the nineteenth century. 3 Correlatively, the status of “panoptic theory” has been clarified in recent work, in part through Gilles Deleuze’s reassessment of the mutation of the “disciplinary society” into the “control society,” or through Michel Serres’s related account of the displacement of networks of surveillance by the mode of information (“The informational world takes the place of the observed world”). 4 This is not to suggest, however, a simple withering away of panopticism. Consider, for example, the designs prepared in the early 1980s for a series of shopping complexes in Los Angeles: “The service area located at the rear of the property is enclosed with a six-foot-high concrete block wall; both service gates remain closed and are under closed-circuit video surveillance, equipped for two-way voice communications, and operated for deliveries by remote control from a security ‘observatory.’ Infra-red beams at the bases of light fixtures detect intruders who might circumvent video cameras by climbing over the wall.” 5 As Mike Davis points out, “the prototype plan for...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 21-28
Launched on MUSE
1995-02-01
Open Access
No
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