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  • Curious Imagination or the Rise of Voyeurism: Mirabeau’s Le Rideau levé
  • Jörn Steigerwald (bio)

Contemporary historiography regards “curiosity” and “imagination” as two concepts that were both freed from their religious limitations during the early modern period. The theological concept of curiosity, disqualified as an expression of concupiscientia oculorum,1 was transformed into a model of scientific practice, which led to the objective observation of new subjects. In the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, astonishment was replaced by the antagonistic model of curiosity to inaugurate a rational, non-scholastic science and scholarship within the field of knowledge.2 Regarded with suspicion by physicians and theologians since antiquity, the concept of imagination gradually changed into the distinguishing characteristic of artistic creativity and found its apotheosis in the self-descriptions of Romantic poets.3 During the process of transformation, both concepts create a new, modern subject, whose constitution is based [End Page 924] on complete rationality as well as unlimited creativity. However, one has to consider the chiastic way in which the emancipation of these concepts takes place: on the one hand, the rational objectification of scientific practice excludes all forms of imagination that are regarded as palimpsests of subjective resistances in a disenchanted world.4 On the other hand, the concept of imagination becomes a major subject of interest in modern scientific analyses: it becomes a central topic and a fundamental constituent of the humanities in medical and psychiatric as well as psychoanalytic discourses.

In the field of human sexuality, the effect of scientific curiosity on the imagination becomes most obvious: the will to knowledge originates from this curiosity in order to produce its discursive subject. Treatises on maladies which are regarded as based on, or related to, a misguided imagination—like masturbation, nymphomania, hysteria, etc.—all deal with the problem of coping with an abnormal subject, which not only has to be controlled, but also observed for his good and for the public welfare. Hygiene becomes the new master discourse: its purpose is to regulate the normal subject, and to control (if not exclude) the abnormal one.5 Even pornographic literature does not manage to transgress the boundary of the sexual dispositif. It is rather its criticism of political authorities and of social and sexual interaction which serves as a starting point for the discourse on perverse sexuality: the Sadean experiences of lust are transformed—in the readings of psychiatrists—into the perversion of sadism.6

The purpose of this paper is to focus on an aspect which has hitherto been to a great extent neglected in studies on curiosity as well as on imagination: the curious imagination of a sexual subject. My aim is to point out that voyeurism is based on the concept of curious imagination and serves as a technology of the self, regulating human sexuality. To be more precise: the roots of voyeurism can be found in [End Page 925] the erotic literature of the enlightenment. Once stimulated by curious imagination, it offered the subject the possibility of becoming acquainted with its own sexuality by observing the sexual practice of others. Voyeurism had not—at least in its literary beginning—been regarded as a perversion of abnormal subjects, but as a specific form of self-care used by elite individuals as a means of introducing “novices” to the field of sexuality and eroticism.7 Moreover, voyeurism was a practice used to locate subjects in space, to position the observing and the observed subject in their own space, and a technique which aimed at transgressing the space between these subjects. There were two ways in which this practice was carried out: first of all, by just imagining oneself to be part of the erotic scenery, secondly, by narrowing the space between the subjects, until the observer and the observed finally interact. From my perspective, voyeurism should not be considered as a quasi-mythological theme—neither Christian in the name of Susanna nor Greek in the name of Actaeon and Diana8—that suddenly, at the end of the nineteenth century, enters the archive of perversions, but a technology of the self, elaborating the possibilities of curious imagination to emancipate human sexuality under the conditions...


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