The Spell and the Scalpel: Scientific Sight in Early 3D Photography
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The Spell and the Scalpel:
Scientific Sight in Early 3D Photography

Literary studies has entered what might be called an enchanted turn as scholars seek to recuperate magic as a valid mode of reading. The first issue of this journal devoted an entire forum, “In the Spirit of the Thing: Critique as Enchantment,” to the current “mood” [End Page 436] of critique in the academy, one characterized by disillusionment with the scholar as heroic disenchanter.1 Critics have also begun to account for the ways in which paranoid reading practices have historically participated in a larger project of demystification. Rita Felski, literary critic and contemporary theorist of enchantment, articulates how “critics pride themselves in their power to disenchant, to mercilessly direct laser-sharp beams of critique at every imaginable object”; she notes that in literary studies “enchantment is bad magic, and the role of criticism is to break its spell by providing rational explanations for seemingly rational phenomena.”2 Felski’s use of “laser-sharp beams” targets the sterile scientism of surgical precision that appears to be incompatible with enchanted, spellbound modes of reading. Simply put, the spell and the scalpel cannot coexist. Felski correctly uncloaks the distrust of magic as a method in literary scholarship that trains critics into surgeons of the word with lancets in hand, not analytic necromancers. This essay, however, argues that enchantment does not preclude precision or critical reading practices; rather, enchanted modes of reading can actually enable such sustained and critical attention. I return to the nineteenth century—specifically, to the invention of stereoscopic imaging—to show how even the most distinctly hypnotic visual technology of the 3D photograph enables at once enchantment and incisive critical attention.

Mass consumer culture, as exemplified by still and motion pictures, has historically been diagnosed as containing mediums that mystify the masses.3 By such a diagnosis, 3D visual culture is the ultimate mystifier, lulling the passive masses into trances as 3D glasses construct illusory realities before their eyes. Yet, viewed through a different critical lens, the mesmerizing power of the stereograph’s ocular illusions can actually promote close and attentive looking that sustains critical engagement. Excavating a history of stereoscopic sight, I argue, will help retrain the way we think, see, and read in both the humanities and the sciences, particularly as scholars begin to question Max Weber’s story of modernity, which pivots on the progressive disenchantment of the world.4

Oliver Wendell Holmes—the noted nineteenth-century physician, writer, and inventor of the Holmesian stereoscope, the most popular handheld 3D viewing device of the century—is a crucial player in the early history of three-dimensional photography and, by extension, an important theorist of enchantment. Holmes’s midcentury work on stereography showcases how enchanted modes of sight could actually engender more immersive powers of analysis. Braiding the nineteenth and twenty-first [End Page 437] centuries together, I read Holmes’s theories of enchantment alongside and with Felski’s to argue that enchanted modes of reading can actually enable more enveloping powers of analysis. A warning, however, as we shall see: when stereographic sight is hyperfeminized in Holmes’s novel, Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny (1861), scientific and supernatural sight unravel into separate and competing strains. Isolating the enchanted from the scientific reinstates gendered divisions of knowledge, wherein mystical reading practices are aligned with the feminine and precise scientism is aligned with the masculine.

The Nineteenth Century, in 3D

Three-dimensional phantom images inhabit the ocular field of nineteenth-century visual technologies. Visual landscapes of this kind were made possible by the theoretical work of the inventor and scientist Charles Wheatstone.5 In his experiments with two-dimensional geometric shapes Wheatstone successfully simulated three-dimensionality by inventing the stereoscope, a device that artificially merged twin two-dimensional line drawings into one three- dimensional geometric shape. In doing so, Wheatstone discovered what I call the “binocular trick”—namely, that the mind could be deceived into believing it is receiving a fictive three-dimensional image. Wheatstone published his discovery in 1838, one year before Daguerre revealed his method for fixing images on mirror plates. By the midcentury, stereoscopy would enter the realm of the...


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