A Pedagogy of Observation: Nineteenth-Century Panoramas, German Literature, and Reading Culture by Vance Byrd
Vance Byrd's smart book examines the literary representations of panoramas as they were first viewed from just before 1800 until the later nineteenth century. His sharply articulated study offers a brief material history of where, when, and by whom panoramas were constructed. However, rather than listing off a historical catalogue of panoramas, Byrd examines the aesthetic dimensions of this new visual technology. He explains that its initial attraction was the ability to immerse viewers in the illusion that they were in a different place. Because its sights were so overwhelming, Byrd claims that the first Germans encountering panoramas had to be taught how to view the images sweeping before them; his book offers a literary history of this theoretical act. His argument incorporates the most important media archeology scholarship, including the early film analysis, while building on the history of reading. Byrd integrates nuanced analysis of visual spectacles with older notions of identificatory consumption of books, in which readers imagined they were immersed in the places depicted by a novel, alongside the characters. His argument concentrates on panoramas as a means [End Page 167] of organizing visual knowledge; thus, he moves beyond the showrooms themselves to the panorama as a textually generated mode of perception. This reviewer was thrilled to see how expertly Byrd integrated visual theory with historical interpretations.
A Pedagogy of Observation does not itself offer a panorama of all the panoramas displayed and described during the nineteenth century; instead, it provides five densely argued chapters. Byrd begins by explaining how operators of the new invention instructed viewers how to pick out details in the array of images passing before their eyes. It was not easy for the first spectators to concentrate their attention; thus, the carnival barkers running the show provided a variety of pamphlets, guidebooks, and illustrated keys as pedagogical orientation. Chapter 2 describes the earliest German reports about foreign panoramas. Friedrich Justin Bertuch's Journal des Luxus und der Moden translated these spectacles into bourgeois fashion culture. Rather than considering them cheap, low-level distractions, the fashion journal explained how panoramas belonged to the aspirations and practices of the respectable household. They became visions that could educate and edify the enlightened viewer, showing them places they might otherwise never visit. Byrd dives into literary criticism with his third chapter on Achim von Arnim's 1809 novel Der Wintergarten, in which a cast of characters pass the time recounting stories in front of a panorama. Rather than fleeing the plague as in Boccaccio's Decameron, these proud Berliners are evading the national misery imposed by Napoleonic troops occupying the Prussian capital. Arnim's novel serves as a prelude to Byrd's discussion of panoramic displays of Alexander von Humboldt's scientific expeditions. Once again, the spectacle provides an escape by immersing viewers in a succession of scientifically grounded images, accompanied with a learned lecture. Chapter 4 moves into the heart of Walter Benjamin's famous history of urban crowds by taking on E.T.A. Hoffmann's "Des Vetters Eckfenster" (1822) alongside Edgar Allen Poe's "The Man is the Crowd" (1845). Byrd is anything but heavy handed in providing his own theoretically grounded reading of this canonical intersection of narration and urban spectatorship. With deft restraint, Byrd's philosophical assertions are confined to individual sentences interspersed cautiously within a longer line of analysis. Here, at the doorstep of Benjamin's Passagenwerk, and then again when the argument arrives inevitably at a comparison between panoramas and Jeremy Bentham's panopticon prison, Byrd does not reiterate long familiar theoretical discussions but instead remains focused on his particular arguments, trusting that the reader will follow. Hoffmann's story becomes a springboard for Byrd to contemplate the panorama as a model for urban realism's organization of succession of singular characters, settings, and small dramas. The panorama provided a method for arranging these multifarious sights into a coherent work, as it unfolded over time. The final chapter in the book treats the collection Wien und die Wiener in Bildern aus dem Leben, edited by Adalbert Stifter, and explains how the panorama competed, at first successfully, with photography as the master trope for urban literature, with Stifter [End Page 168] favoring the panoramic viewpoint as the organizing principle for this succession of vignettes. The book's epilogue considers the moment when the panorama's form of arranging images had been revived to depict military battles during the Kaiserreich and more recently in educational installations about the rainforest. A Pedagogy of Observation shows how the viewing techniques we all intuitively apply to our own perception of digital images arise from a long historical process in which audiences have been taught how to look. The panorama is one important link in the history of spectatorship.