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  • Traces and Origins, Signs and Meanings:Analogy and the Pre-cinematic Imagination in Melville's Pierre, or, the Ambiguities
  • Alberto Gabriele

Melville's Pierre, like many nineteenth-century novels, deals with the aftermath of the splintering of the master narratives in what Michel Foucault terms the Classical Episteme. In The Order of Things, Foucault synthesizes the Classical Age's epistemological assumptions about the coherence between language and representation (Foucault 32). In the exemplary fields of Natural History, General Grammar, and the Analysis of Wealth, according to Foucault, taxonomy becomes the foundation of knowledge production, ascertaining identities and differences, classifying them in a structured sequence, and recognizing in them visible signs of equivalence. In the new epistemic regime in which structure and function replace taxonomy, Foucault sees the end of the Classical Age. The relation between elements in a system becomes the focus of the new paradigm that appears in Biology, Philology, and Political Economy. In all these disciplines, Foucault identifies a similar epistemological project that entails a larger and more complex organization of parts within a system. The structuring units may be invisible, accessible only through the microscope or through intellectual constructions. In Techniques of the Observer, Crary has further explored the paradigmatic shift by anchoring the nineteenth-century episteme to the modalities of vision represented by the history of optics, and, in the realm of the everyday, by optical toys.1 These forms of vision inscribe onto the body of the observer a new definition of reality built through new psychological processes; the perceiver subjectively creates reality, thus representing the transition to a new regime of vision and knowledge (Crary 81, 98). Pre-cinematic spectacles, which build a sense of temporal continuity through the juxtaposition of separate images, participate in the same epistemological move to relate parts to a whole that marks the modern episteme. The nineteenth-century novel absorbs and elaborates suggestions from the aesthetic of pre-cinematic entertainment having to do with new relations between fragments and unity, the creation of a parallel reality that problematizes the understanding of reality, and the question of subjective and [End Page 46] constructed vision. Both the nineteenth-century novel and nineteenth-century technologies of vision participated in the systematization of disciplines and knowledge, which, according to Foucault, structured the modern episteme.

Melville's Pierre is particularly interesting in this history because it presents a similar concern with the epistemological purport of the dichotomies between fragmentation and unity and between modernity and the classical age. Melville explores the challenges that modernity poses to the traditional episteme at the experiential, unmediated level of visual perception. In Pierre, the perception of unmanageable multiplicity provided by industrial modernity, an example of which appears in the scenes depicting Pierre's entrance into New York City, resists the textual and visual narratives of immutable order and still contemplation that defined traditional mimesis. In the nineteenth century, the experience of spectacles like the panorama, the phantasmagoria, the mesmeric daguerreotype, the window-view, and the montage of print culture, which are all constituent but not harmonizing aspects of the urban environment, enhanced the perception of fragmentation that industrial modernity produced at the level of material culture. While still profoundly interested in testing the possibility of a system of knowledge based on analogy, Melville resists any systematic organizing principle not only by reproducing, at the experiential level, the chaotic synesthesia of the modern city, but also by questioning, at the intellectual level, the very possibility of knowledge and representation: the meta-literary plot of the novel constantly interrogates the ambiguities that contemporary reality discloses.

Robert Greenberg has identified the theme of fragmentation in antebellum American literature as "multiple manifestations or views of the same phenomenon, such as multiple immigrant groups in cities, or the multiple and shifting views about God and other religious questions within an individual" (Greenberg 19). While Melville presents the tension between fragments and a lost univocal truth in Pierre, I stress two aspects not referred to by Greenberg. The first is the visual quality of the fragmentation represented in the novel. The phenomenological excess of visual stimuli is not only mediated in a sense of relativism, as Greenberg argues, but also presented by Melville as...


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