The Language of the Eyes: Science, Sexuality, and Female Vision in English Literature and Culture, 1690–1927 by Daryl Ogden (review)
- Victorian Review
- Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2007
- pp. 151-153
- View Citation
- Additional Information
151 Reviews The Language of the Eyes: Science,Sexuality,and Female Vision in English Literature and Culture,1690–1927 by Daryl Ogden: pp. 272,Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. $75.00 cloth. Impressive in its scope but curiously misnamed, Daryl Ogden’s The Language of the Eyes: Science,Sexuality,and Female Vision in English Literature and Culture,1690–1927 attempts to investigate the existence of what its publishers call “a dynamic women’s tradition of vision and sexuality.” Readers expecting to hear about women’s ways of seeing and desiring will find themselves quickly disappointed: the book does not focus exclusively (or even primarily) on either women’s vision or women’s writing. Rather, it pays just as much attention to writing by men, literary depictions of patriarchal vision, and scientific and psychoanalytic theories of male voyeurism as it does to alternate accounts of female vision produced by women. There is, of course, nothing wrong with treating the former rather well-trodden topics, but their extensive, perhaps even dominant, inclusion does leave the reader rather confused as to what Ogden might have in mind when he talks about traditions of female visuality.The texts on which he focuses—Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa,Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Eliot’s Adam Bede, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd—seem hardly as “neglected” or, by his own frequent admission, as subversive of the conventional psychoanalytic accounts of the male gaze as his introduction suggests . Nonetheless, despite its frequent conceptual and structural incoherence, the book does address crucial debates in feminist theory and provide cogent critiques of various nineteenth-century scientific texts that will make it useful to manyVictorian studies scholars. The book opens by announcing its worthy goal of critiquing that hoary old chestnut of psychoanalytic and feminist film theory: the insistence that “to possess empowered eyes has traditionally meant to occupy a male subject position, to engender oneself as masculine” (1). Men (if they’re straight) look at women in order to assert and effect their patriarchal sexual mastery; women have little choice but to become passive subjects of this stifling and controlling gaze—every undergraduate arts student will have heard a version of this formula at some point in his or her university career. Ogden is surely right to suggest that this formula, in most of its popular iterations, is both ahistorical and reductive, and his desire to join the scholars like Carol Clover who move beyond it is admirable. But while Clover’s work challenges the gendered meanings of looking, arguing that both male and female spectators of horror films identify with rather than subjugate the women they view, Ogden seems intent simply on finding women characters who exercise agency in the way they look at the world. In other words, Ogden wants to change our mind about who possesses the gaze in the British novel, but he leaves the tacit connection between looking and power intact. As a result, the radical potential of the study remains underdeveloped. victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 152 Ogden’s chapters combine close readings of contemporary philosophical and scientific accounts of vision with discussions of the novels that either propagate or subvert their gender ideology and conclude with appended“Case Studies” of selected texts.This structural decision seems ill-advised: the“Case Study” heading is all too often used in lieu of an effective transition between the literary material covered in the bulk of the chapter and that attached at the end.Why, one wonders, is the extensive treatment of Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm included within the body of chapter 3 while the discussion of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd is set off as a “Case Study”? After all, the conclusions that Ogden reaches about each text are remarkably similar—both novels, he argues quite persuasively, attempt to challenge Darwin’s model of male sexual selection, only to defer, however bitterly, to patriarchal law in the end (169; 177). This organizational curiosity points to larger problems with coherence.Throughout the chapters, Ogden seems more concerned with enumerating texts than with developing a single, focused argument from beginning to end. Chapter...