- Semi-Detached: The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience since Dickens by John Plotz
John plotz's Semi-Detached describes the ways fiction, painting, and film portray the "dual experience" (2) of readers, partially absorbed in the virtual world of the text and partially distracted by the contours of the ambient material world. Plotz traces semi-detachment as it plays out formally in nuances of grammar, perspective, and genre and thematically in local passages or scenes, as for instance when the narrator of The Mill on the Floss notices that her "really benumbed" elbows have been pressing on the arms of her chair even as she imagined them to be on the bridge by Dorlcote Mill (qtd. in Plotz 1). If he sometimes stretches to include under the umbrella of semi-detachment the relationships between such features—including novelistic episodes and plots, inasmuch as they can be concomitantly purposeful and digressive—Plotz convincingly extends the semi-detachment represented in texts and actuated by reading to everyday experience. More often than not, we live flickering between a shared material present and our private worlds of thought, detached from temporal, spatial, and other physical limitations. Here, then, "virtual reality" refers not to secondary, artificial worlds in which we might or might not become immersed, but a distinctly modern mode of experiencing the world (actual or fictive) distractedly. Whether reading or not, "we are" as Ford Maddox Ford puts it in his essay "On Impressionism" "almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite another" (3).
Jonathan Crary's Suspensions of Perception (2001) identifies the economy of attention and distraction as a principle feature of modernity since the 1850s, and both Stephen Arata and Nicholas Dames have elaborated Crary's claim by detailing how inattention or distraction came to function as a medium of political resistance. In The Physiology of the Novel (2007), for instance, Dames shows how Thackeray cultivates distraction as "negative liberty" (73) from the excessive demands that modernity makes on attention, and Plotz's account of John Stuart Mill tacitly follows suit. "We are defined by our semidetached relationship to those around us" (48), Plotz argues, and Mill promotes an individualism modelled on the "semi-detached sociability" (56) of reading. As "mediated involvement" (48), reading offers freedom from the affective immediacy of face-to-face contact. Semi-detachment affords time to make our own choices.
Semi-detachment thus edges close to the cluster of moral, epistemological, and political liberal virtues Amanda Anderson details in The Powers of Distance (2001): disinterestedness, impartiality, cosmopolitanism. Applying Mill's notion of reading, Plotz renders fiction not an escape from social engagement but "the acme of all sociability" (73), a practice that enables engagement but preserves autonomy. Plotz similarly recasts provincial novels, paradoxically, [End Page 307] as privileged mediums of cosmopolitan modernity: their chartable but trivial "Nowheresville[s]" (102) stand in for life everywhere because they cultivate "the awareness that one is living at once inside a tiny world, a trivial world, caught in the middle of nowhere, and yet one is also located within the larger currents of the day, potentially locatable anywhere" (111). Middlemarch, Barsetshire, Mitford, and Wessex, with their variously myopic residents—Farebrother with his beetles, Jude with his Christminster cakes—narrate the feeling of being "half-engulfed in daily cares, and half-aware of the forces at work elsewhere in the great world" (121). In doing so, they instantiate in communal form the semi-detachment of readers, at once stuck in their chairs and alive in fictional worlds.
True to form, however, Semi-Detached remains semi-detached from scholarship on attention and liberalism; the book favours instead questions of form, genre, and reading. For example, the category of semi-detachment allows Plotz to belie the singularity of effect that Poe prescribed for the short story by registering a generic "polydoxy" in tales by Hogg, Galt, and Dickens. In Hogg's stories, "a fully coherent account of events is replaced in the final few paragraphs with an equally plausible but incompatible alternative explanation" (25). If this polydoxy...