- Ways of Watching
It’s easy to get lost in our contemporary world of ubiquitous visual stimulation, to momentarily surrender one’s sense of self to the pleasures of a film, a game, or a performance. As immersive visual experience becomes ever more ubiquitous, so too does the ability to reflexively acknowledge the complex narrative and physical conventions of these worlds, and, simultaneously, to suspend this intellectual awareness in order to facilitate a more complete illusion. In their impressive excavations of the Enlightenment “subject” as theatrical spectator, Joseph Harris’s Inventing the Spectator and Pannill Camp’s The First Frame trace the genealogy of this bifurcated self through stimulating re-readings of literary and visual esthetic theories in French theater from the 1630s through the 1780s. Harris and Camp separately postulate the emotional, psychological, and sensate subject as a product of the impulse to understand and direct the experience of the theater audience.
Harris’s limpid, concise prose makes his finely reasoned analysis in Inventing the Spectator as engaging and accessible for the uninitiated as it is for the advanced scholar. Of the book’s eight chapters, three take a synoptic view of important conceptual topics, while the remainder delve principally into the writings of single authors (d’Aubignac, Corneille, Dubos, Rousseau, and Diderot, respectively). In illuminating close readings (notably of seventeenth-century texts), Harris aims to show that dramatic theory is “a reflection as much on fundamental issues of human nature and psychology as on dramatic practice” (IS, 7), insisting that neoclassical precepts aimed first and foremost at producing a viewer, rather than a spectacle. Camp, across five dense chapters, focuses on how architectural reforms displace the rationalist spectator of the seventeenth century in favor of an optically-centered viewer whose relation to self and spectacle is determined by Newtonian physics and Lockean sensationism, a high-altitude view of major artistic and intellectual movements that can make discussion in The First Frame occasionally feel abstract. Camp’s ambitious introduction figures the “ideological” transformation of the “synthetic social product” (FF, 9) of theater space as a crucial index of the Enlightenment’s [End Page 420] embrace of theatricality at the heart of modern epistemology, mediating a change from the metaphorical process of recognition (the stage as mirror), to a more immediately sensate visual experience (the stage as window).
Debates around the “regulation” of theatrical art in the 1630s were geared toward developing a poetics of illusion, whose rhetoric of “tricking” spectators into belief belied a tacit concession of the impossibility of flawless illusion. Harris draws out this nuance, explaining an esthetic by which authors focus attention on foregrounded elements as an example of the “availability heuristic” (or “availability error”) that transforms the aim of vraisemblance, or verisimilitude, into an art of channeling spectator attention in order to distract from obvious inconsistencies. Camp takes up the explicitly perceptual side of this debate, opening with a detailed analysis of the “perspective scenery in shoebox-like spaces” (FF, 29) that characterized pre-reform French theater spaces. In a provocative challenge to the venerable paradigm associating linear perspective with the Cartesian subject, Camp insists on the centrality of jeu de paume [indoor tennis court] architecture in the elaboration of both Descartes’s optics and the visual-rational subject of the cogito.
The disembodied rationalism of the Cartesian subject dominates the first half of Inventing the Spectator, including separate chapters focusing on the Baroque era’s most prominent theorist, François Hédelin, Abbé d’Aubignac, and its greatest playwright, Pierre Corneille. While d’Aubignac professes to rely solely on logic in prescribing the boundaries of dramaturgical construction in service of vraisemblance, Harris shows d’Aubignac’s awareness that foreknowledge and expectation necessarily condition emotional response. While Camp and Harris largely skirt the political implications of theatrical theory, the ideological component of this doctrinal orthodoxy traced in Déborah Blocker’s Instituer un “art” (2009) complements Harris’s perceptive...