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Optical Instruments and the Eighteenth-Century Observer JOANNA PICCIOTTO In the first number of the Spectator, Joseph Addison appears in the guise of Mr. Spectator to announce his identity "as rather a Spectator of Mankind than as one of the Species": "I have acted in all the parts of my Life as a Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper." This claim appeared to one anonymous contemporary to represent "the Author as a Monster, rather than a Man from whom any great Performances might be expected." This critic was not prepared to entertain the idea that "looking on" might itself qualify as a "great Performance." Not only did he find Mr. Spectator's "creeping behavior" and ocular obsession monstrous and unworthy of a "Gentleman," he considered him a threat to the public peace.1 Recently, Scott Paul Gordon has applauded this hostile critic for affirming that "revolts against the gaze" are possible, that "subjects can and do resist disciplinary regimes." In Gordon's view, Mr. Spectator was an "unprecedented technology" which anticipated the panopticon by menacing readers with the threat of constant surveillance. Those subjected to panoptic surveillance, however, did not have the option of occupying the vantage point from which they were seen, any more than individuals without the proper social credentials could claim the authority of a gentleman. In contrast, the technology of Mr. Spectator was a written one, a product of discursive strategies that could be replicated by almost anybody. To the extent that Mr. Spectator's self-presentation could be imitated, the author123 124 / PICCIOTTO ity it conferred was up for grabs. Thus a closer analogue to the technology of Mr. Spectator might be the "spectacles" pamphlets of the 1640s analyzed so suggestively by Sharon Achinstein in Milton and the Revolutionary Reader.1 Given this precedent, it seems likely that this hostile contemporary might have been concerned that Mr. Specator's "spectatorial authority " would not only be perpetuated as myth but adopted as a strategy by a resourceful public. This article, then, will investigate how Mr. Spectator's chosen vocation as a "Looker-on" opened up possibilities for individuals to reinvent themselves as authoritative and interventionist observers of the contemporary scene. Edward Said has argued that "in all the outpouring of studies about intellectuals there has been far too much defining of the intellectual , and not enough stock taken of the image, the signature, the actual intervention and performance, all of which taken together constitute the very lifeblood of every real intellectual." In my attempt to "take stock" of the enormously influential intellectual type of the privileged and interventionist spectator, I will be particularly concerned to explain the rise of the belief that a spectatorial performance can be a form of intervention.3 Ralph A. Nablow has argued that what he calls the "Addisonian tradition " of social observation has given rise to our own "age of 'professional observers'"—a group which would seem to include anyone who attempts to fuse observation and social intervention through the act of writing. The continuing influence of Mr. Spectator's chosen vocation on intellectual life is evident in the constantly renewed attempts of intellectuals to penetrate surface appearances, to look through institutions and cultural products, even through constructions like Mr. Spectator himself. The currently popular notion of cultural criticism as an intervention depends precisely on the (perhaps wishful) attempt to blur the boundary between action and contemplation —or performing and looking on—that was Mr. Spectator's peculiar specialty. As Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse have argued , this boundary had in fact become newly pervious in the late seventeenth century, as intellectuals generally began to regard their pursuits not as an extension of gentlemanly leisure but rather as a form of labor.4 Although Mr. Spectator's elevation of mere looking to the status of a vocation struck one contemporary as preposterous, observation had held precisely this prestige among experimental scientists, or virtuosi, for more than half a century. It was left to a new literary type, the professional observer , to extend the spectatorial model of intellectual labor beyond the laboratory, adapting the techniques of virtuosi for observing nature to the scrutiny of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 123-153
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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