An Ocular Age: Vision in a World of Surfaces
In a journal entry dated May 14, 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "Harder times. Two days since, the suspension of specie payments by the New York and Boston banks." Emerson, like many of his generation, was attuned to one of the most pressing financial issues of the day. The chain of events leading to the suspension of specie payments that Emerson lamented was initiated by President Andrew Jackson's destruction of the Second Bank of the United States in the mid-1830s. As he departed office, Jackson vetoed the bank's recharter and issued the Specie Circular, a primary engine for westward expansion, which required purchases of government land be made in gold or silver, not in paper banknotes. As a result of President Andrew Jackson's scorn for the Second Bank, which served as a fiscal agent for the government, its charter had been allowed to expire in 1836. Amid the financial and cultural catastrophes of the Panic of 1837, Emerson's entry went on to praise sleep as the only palliative against the ills and ailments of the day. But the nation was now "wide awake" as it faced the prospect of further deregulation of banking in an era of western expansion and national development. Banknotes, which fluctuated wildly in value, underscored the watchfulness, the vigilance necessary to keep oneself solvent and self-sufficient. These worn pieces of paper circulated widely, emblematizing the exchange, and corresponding perception, of printed information and its continually fluctuating value that had come to define the era's cultural optics. Below the entry, Emerson scratched the elliptic but prophetic phrase "Our Age is Ocular" (Figure 1). The inscription is as vague and inscrutable as it is provocative. That he pairs it with the Panic of 1837 and the paper money economics of the period is one of the key subjects of this book.
Well before the collapse of the Second Bank of the United States, paper had become a central medium of exchange in antebellum America, circulating in the form of banknotes, handbills, broadsides, and newspapers. These cultural forms and the practices they facilitated were part of a broader set of developments that historians have hailed as "revolutions" in transportation, communication, and the capitalist marketplace. Such changes altered the fabric of daily life during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. New forms of production and distribution fashioned new modes of consumption, as more Americans, urban and rural, were drawn into the market economy's system of wage labor and increasingly mechanized forms of commodity production. A growing infrastructure for transportation—manifested in the expansion of the nation's network of roads and canals and in the development of steam-powered railroads and boats—enlarged the market's reach, while new modes of communication—facilitated by new technologies such as the electromagnetic telegraph and steam-powered, mechanized printing presses—transformed the ways in which Americans related to one another, assessed their expanding nation, and understood the world around them. The age was ocular, to borrow Emerson's elliptic phrase, because so much of its proliferating culture targeted the eyes: newspapers, pamphlets, books, posters, signs, popular prints, painting exhibitions, and spectacular entertainments. As something to be viewed, scanned, skimmed, or read, paper also functioned increasingly as a medium of perception, as a vehicle for a new kind of seeing. And just as these objects were intended to circulate, they were produced for people on the move, and thus remind us of the mobility of observers and the motility of perception. Amid this thriving print and visual culture, the eyes both saw and were seen. Eyes were considered the primary organ for visual experience and the accumulation of knowledge; yet, they were also, like so many other surfaces, to be scanned as one might gloss over a page of print. They were thought capable of penetrating discernment or indicative of a person's inner character, virtual windows onto the soul, and yet, they themselves often failed in fits of fatigue and overstimulation.
The Commerce of Vision attends to how vision was understood and experienced during this tumultuous period. To do so, it investigates how vision was rendered in the crowded visual field of antebellum America. The new visual experiences of the antebellum city produced new knowledge about vision's capabilities and consequentially cultivated new perceptual practices, habits, and aptitudes. But these new experiences also highlighted vision's shortcomings within a visual field increasingly defined by a print culture premised on mobility, ephemerality, and unbridled commerce. Shifting the focus of one's sight from the tiny print of newspapers, pamphlets, and periodicals to the boldest display types deployed on broadsides, posters, and signboards underscored for observers the necessity of maintaining the widest possible range of visual acuity. These forms stressed the importance of vision and emphasized its "normal" functioning as well as its thresholds and its limits. This thriving visual culture physically stressed the eyesight of observing subjects, while several of its many objects bore traces of the culture's reckoning with vision's physiological processes and problems. Emerson, who suffered from a failure of his own vision in the mid-1820s yet posited sight as a key trope in his transcendental philosophy, knew this first hand.
Early in the essay Nature (1836), Emerson expounds on what has since become one of the most enduring symbols of his day: "In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God." All seeing yet lacking substance, the disembodied, transparent eye floats in an infinite space. Capable of a clarity of vision often associated with the eye of God, this eyeball bespeaks a romantic seer for whom perception is all-encompassing. It was but one of several images of the all-seeing, monocular eye that graced the cornerstones of buildings, the mastheads of newspapers, and the national seal in the antebellum visual field. It was also the key component of the optical instrument known as the camera obscura, which since antiquity had served as a model for human eyesight. Widely regarded as a seminal statement of American transcendentalism, the philosopher's lofty pronouncement is preceeded, however, by an earthly concern. For the transparent eye crucially depends on properly functioning eyesight, which involves not one but both eyes working together, as Emerson acknowledged in the previous sentence. "There is no calamity that nature cannot repair except for the debilitation of the eyes." Emerson's trope fuses the ideal of a dematerialized, objective, and transcendent vision with a model of eyesight physiologically embedded in the mechanisms of the human body, subject to fluxes of time, space, and shifts in lighting or atmospheric conditions as well as to debility and disease. A pencil sketch by the little-known artist and Emerson accolyte Christopher Pearse Cranch playfully captures the hybridity of the philosopher's vision (Figure 2). Embodied, though still monocular, Cranch's eyeball sits atop an armless body with long legs. Sporting a hat and coat with tails, the figure's long stride bespeaks a roving gaze and posits a thoroughly mobile, ambulatory vision. With top-hatted eyeball "bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space," Cranch's gangly figure demonstrates how Emerson's "transcendent" sight was weighted by the limitations of the body, here clothed in the fashion of the day. With coat and tails signifying his stake in the market economy, Cranch's figure vividly acknowledges that vision, as constituent of an age that is "ocular," was ultimately grounded in broader intellectual, scientific, and commercial currents. As he wanders, the clouds above his head allude to the difficulty of seeing clearly amid the market's obfuscating surfaces and dense networks of exchange.
Similar to most Americans whose eyes failed them, Emerson's own troubled eyesight provided the most instructive lessons in physiological optics. It is well known that Emerson suffered in the 1820s and early '30s from a partial loss of sight resulting from a bout with tuberculosis. Suffering from an inflammation of the eye, he received treatment from Boston's preeminent ophthalmologist, Dr. Edward Reynolds. Reynolds represented the advanced guard of ophthalmic surgeons whose efforts helped to professionalize the field during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. A student of British surgeon James Wardrop, Reynolds brought back from his training in England some of Wardrop's methods for treating cataract and inflammation of the eye. In 1824, one year before he treated Emerson, Reynolds founded the Massachusetts Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary. A decade of work there proved to Reynolds, writing in 1835, "that an unusual prevalence of diseases of the eye marks the period in which we live. Indeed, they are so prevalent, that they may be considered one of its common and peculiar trials." It is likely that Reynolds diagnosed Emerson with a condition that Wardrop had identified as "rheumatic inflammation of the eye," or ophthalmia rheumatica, accompanied by arthritic pains in other parts of the body. Treatment involved puncturing the cornea and evacuating the aqueous humor collected behind it. This delicate operation required specialized knowledge of the eyes' anatomy and their morbid physiology as well as familiarity with the latest surgical techniques. Reynolds's treatment was successful, allowing Emerson to continue writing and lecturing. As the market system increasingly targeted the sensory capacities of human bodies in order to attract or interpellate and position them as consumers, Americans came to locate the properties, processes, and problems of vision in their own bodies, as well as in their fiscal ability to correct and maintain it.
With the emergence of physiological optics in the 1830s and '40s, and interrelated developments in the growing field of applied ophthalmogy, the mechanics of vision could no longer be explained without reference to the physiological functions of the human body. Thus the dematerialized model of vision demonstrated by the monocular camera obscura was largely abandoned, first in scientific circles and later by the public at large. Experimental physiology and applied ophthalmology revealed instead that the eye's aqueous humors functioned in tandem with the retina in producing and maintaining sensation. Studies of binocular vision, which would eventually assume the popular form of the stereoscope, revealed that the eyes functioned as a pair, rather than separately, to enable a wider field of view and greater depth perception, as well as an array of other eye movements critical to "properly" functioning vision. So while the monocular, all-seeing eye continued to circulate widely in the visual field, its symbolic currency and cultural relevance faded as the model of vision it promulgated lost its utility in the imagination of a public whose eyes were diseased, malformed, or otherwise disfunctional. Abandoning the theoretical conceit that eyes, whether symbolic or actual, could enable an objective or godlike view, Americans became active stewards of their own vision and came to understand vision as subjective, that is, subject to the size and distance of the objects of vision, to varying light conditions, to movement, and to fluctuations in mental and bodily health. They sought measures to correct and enhance their eyesight, as well as ways to train it, to entertain, or "please," it.
Moving outward from the embodied experience of seeing, the first steps in doing so—the process of what I will call the active culturing of vision—often involved engaging first with printed, carved, or painted representations of eyes, some represented singly, but increasingly in pairs and bespectacled (Figure 3). Whether viewers consulted an ophthalmic treatise, looked up an ophthalmic surgeon in the local newspaper, or walked the city streets in search of an optician's shop, they were likely to confront such imagery, and in a multitude of forms. Along with their impact on the mechanics of sight, such imagery shaped expectations for vision itself.
In the urban visual field, depictions of eyes or the spectacles that came to represent them multiplied the roving eyes of people in parlors, stores, and streets. These orbs, bespectacled or bare, lurked in graphic form in type founders' and printers' specimens and in the various forms of ephemera their stock cuts, engraved in wood or steel, populated. Such representations of eyes in print or on signboards painted or carved often advertised ophthalmologists and opticians; they peered out from the mastheads of newspapers, from posters and banners, and from the surfaces of paintings. In congested city streets, eyes, literal and figural, were to be apprehended at every turn. Architectural details, especially windows, were likened to eyes, as in George Lippard's description of The Quaker City's TON Hotel, "which arises along Chestnut street, a monster-building, with some hundred windows varying its red-brick face, in the way of eyes, goggles intended to preserve the sight of the visual organs aforesaid; while the verandah, on the ground floor, affording an entrance to the bar-room, might be likened to the mouth of the grand-edifice, always wide open and ready to swallow a customer." Likewise, the windows of stagecoaches, omnibuses, and railroad cars also formed makeshift apertures, while awnings, buntings, sidewalks, market sheds, and signposts—eyelids of sorts—framed temporary views. In the suddenly fluid and fulsome exchange of words and images that came to characterize antebellum urban experience, these eyes circulated as a kind of currency in the rapidly expanding commerce of vision, mirroring the binocular makeup of observing subjects left to reckon vision in all of its philosophical and physiological as well as financial and fiscal dimensions. More so than their monocular predecessors had, these disembodied pairs of eyes had much more to say about the nature of embodied vision in an era of transformative social, economic, and technological change.
As part of the circulation of this widely disparate, widely dispersed iconography, the eyes and the vision they enabled became the subjects of both popular and specialized interest that examined the eyes' "philosophy" and "language" as well as their anatomy and physiology. The blend of philosophical, physiological, and practical conceptions of the eyes invoked by Emerson in Nature was in fact characteristic of a broader cluster of discourses regarding vision and visuality in the antebellum decades. Rarely viewed solely as an abstract philosophical phenomenon, human vision was conceptualized and considered from a multiplicity of personal and professional perspectives during this period. Early ophthalmic tracts blended philosophical musings with thinly veiled temperance messages and homespun remedies. Treatises explored the philosophy of the eyes, examined their physiognomic "language," and elaborated the physiological aberations of vision—retinal afterimages, subjective haloes, and physiological colors—that staked out for ocular specialists and experimenters the limits of eyesight that enabled them to better define the range of "normal" vision. For others, these aspects of sight suggested techniques for seeing the unseeable, while still others traded in vision's metaphoric qualities to promote methods for figuratively seeing over the horizon and beyond. Outside the purview of clinical and applied ophthalmology, yet intuitively attuned to key discoveries in the emerging field of vision science, typefounders and job printers designed typefaces and orchestrated broadsides, respectively, each with the goal of attracting and appealing to human eyes. Writers and painters employed tropes and motifs from philosophical works as well as physiological and practical ophthalmic tracts to muse on the properties and problems of vision as well as the epistemological perils it posed. In a variety of forms—conceptual, theoretical, practical—vision itself circulated as a metaphor as well as a method, as a physical system premised on the transmission of light as well as a set of physiological processes grounded in the fluctuations of the body, and as a commercial product and as a productive phenomenon in a cultural moment in which experience itself was increasingly commodified and new forms of work and play restructured sensory activities. At the intersection of these various discourses and practices, an entirely new understanding of vision and its limits emerged.
Navigating this constantly expanding field of visuality, a term I will use to describe the circulation of images or texts intended for visual interpretation or "consumption," required Americans to "watch their eyes" in President Jackson's parting words. Echoing broader currents, Emerson considered the eye "the best of artists." But even by the "mutual action of its structure" and of the "laws of light," he admitted, the eye failed to compose a unified picture of the surrounding world. For Emerson, American cultural life, especially in urban centers, was increasingly defined by its surfaces rather than its depths. "In New York lately," he wrote in his journal in early 1842, "as in cities generally, one seems to lose all substance, & become surface in a world of surfaces. Everything is external and I remember my hat & coat, and all my other surfaces, & nothing else. . . . I visited twice & parted with a most polite lady without giving her reason to believe that she had met any other in me than a worshipper of surfaces, like all Broadway. It stings me yet." Refuting period discourses of physiognomy and phrenology that claimed that surfaces could, in fact, be read or decoded to ascertain and reveal inner truths, Emerson's lament likely came in response to the proliferation of consumer goods as well as the newspapers, posters, and signage deployed to advertise them, the paper banknotes used to purchase them, even the lenses of spectacles that enabled clear sight of them. Such surfaces, as they referenced products, services, news of elsewhere, parcels of land available for purchase, or monetary value in the form of gold on demand, mediated their objects, offering refracted views of the "inner truths" of objects that bordered on the opaque. Leaving the sensibilities in shambles, the proliferation of surfaces in the 1840s decentered viewers and destabilized their perceptions of a rapidly changing landscape. "The ruin or blank, that we see when we look at nature," Emerson wrote, "is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake [sic]." Emerson's counter to surfaces was spirit, the so-called axis of things. For the increasingly mobile culture of antebellum America, however, stable viewpoints and perspectives on the objects and the things they referenced often failed to align with the "realities" they referenced. Paper notes failed to align with the values they represented; land speculation maps alluded to but often failed to equate with the land they purported to represent. Apparently a transparent rendering of the physical world, a world increasingly given to the obfuscating mechanisms of consumer capitalism and the turbid, often cloudy density of physiological eyes, was ultimately impossible. For Emerson, the rift that had opened between perception and transparence stemmed from the simple fact that man had become "disunited with himself." As a result, Emerson felt that the world of the mid-1830s—riddled with bank failures, rampant market expansion, unprecedented geographic and social mobility, and the vast circulation of paper in various forms—lacked "unity," which as he felt, left the world "broken and in heaps." For Emerson, perception was clouded by physiology just as a "unified" world was torn asunder by the ways that the market reconfigured social relations and the identities of persons and products. For Emerson and countless others, a theoretically transparent but properly functioning human vision was central to the equation.
To illuminate the practice of seeing during this period, this book concerns itself with the materiality of vision through an analysis of both the objects of vision, such as signs and advertisement, as well as objects such as spectacles that facilitated it and objects such as newspapers and banknotes that as virtual surrogates figuratively extended its reach. Building on art historian Jonathan Crary's recovery of "an observer who also takes shape in other, grayer practices and discourses," The Commerce of Vision traces the formation of the observer in those "grayer practices and discourses" of both ophthalmology and popular physiology. But it also examines this observer's formation, and occasional disintegration, in objects including paintings, engravings, and signboards; in the construction, advertisement, and use of spectacles and other aids to vision; and in pictures of people studying the fine print of newspapers, banknotes, contracts, and maps. Conceptions of vision and formulations of observing subjects do, in fact, cohere and reside in the line of an engraving, in the shaded areas of new bold letterforms, printed, painted, and carved; or in the meticulous rendering of transparent glass in prints and paintings. In these objects are to be found those traces of the viewer and notions of what constituted vision at a particular juncture in the cultural history of the United States.
Efforts to redefine vision reflected growing concerns about the body's fitness to withstand the increased demands placed on it by market life. Through publication and practice, ophthalmology and its more popular forms helped to make vision visible for antebellum Americans, whose eyesight faced new challenges in a cultural landscape undergoing rapid social, political, and economic transformation. Ophthalmology, like other forms and practices, evolved with the burgeoning market system and participated in the formation of "market" subjects, a general cultural process in which the marketplace reoriented its constitutents' perceptual habits, patterns of thought, and behaviors to the purposes of maintaining one's health and sobriety, earning a living wage, and consuming. Notions of embodied subjectivity, premised on ideas of possessive individualism and integral to democratic citizenship, relied on and were facilitated, in large part, by the theoretical and practical embodiment of vision in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. As demonstrated by the art historian Wendy Bellion, an earlier, crucial stage in this process had called upon spectators to hone their ocular abilities and skills to enable the degree of discernment necessary for navigating the new political realities of citizenship in the new republic. As the market economy came to more fully constitute and structure the mechanics of daily life, such visual aptitudes and abilities became even more critical for political as well as professional and personal well-being. For the increasing number of clerks, copyists, and others of the so-called white-collar class during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the profit of one's labor, the property it earned, and the propriety it ensured, increasingly depended on the "economy" of one's eyes, a period phrase that alluded both to the efficiency and efficacy of their mechanisms and the increasingly cost-based maintenance of their general fitness. The contributions of ophthalmology and reform physiology to public notions of the mechanics, capacities, and character of vision incorporated these white-collar workers into the increasingly information-based, visual culture that facilitated the market's vast expansion in the years between the opening of the Erie Canal and the Civil War. But while emerging formulations of vision's embodiment facilitated a more thorough integration of the self into the machinery of the market economy, they also pointed out how individuals with poor eyesight might be denied access to or excluded from the manner of exchange that so prevalently defined and animated antebellum consumer culture.
With the aim of acuity and general ocular health, a growing and increasingly specialized group of ophthalmic surgeons sought to better understand the critical functions of acuity and accommodation in order to correct or ameliorate the key ocular problems of their day: cataract, astigmatism, myopia, hyperopia, and strabismus. In the course of investigating these conditions and devising methods for correcting them, the emerging field of physiological optics developed a more sophisticated lexicon to describe the eye's complexities and its numerous pathologies. Filling the pages of scientific treatises, this increasingly specialized language also found its way into the common parlance of popular print, thus broadening the discourse of vision while highlighting its aptitudes and especially its failures. As clinical investigation and practical treatment of these problems advanced, however, the cultural conversation surrounding vision continued to hinge on issues of transparency and opacity, on the veracity of representation, and on perception's abilities to apprehend knowledge and truth. Indeed, as Emerson warned early in Nature, "empirical science is apt to cloud the sight, and, by the very knowledge of functions and processes, to bereave the student of the manly contemplation of the whole." As nascent forms of professional ophthalmology and optometry strove to qualify and quantify vision's aptitudes and capacities, antebellum visual culture, more broadly construed, pondered from a variety of angles vision's complications and inadequacies. Because indistinct vision, or the inability to see, makes us look harder, it is only when vision breaks down that it becomes noticeable at all. Such ocular impairment raises questions regarding the knowledge that vision helps to produce, what it enables and allows us to know, even what it obfuscates and misconstrues. As such, this study fastens onto the cloudy, the unclear, the ambiguous as it calls attention to vision's inabilities and underscores cultural concern regarding its maintenance and meanings. Cartoons and genre paintings framed and posed such questions in period syntax, probing vision's propensities and problems in engaging and entertaining ways. Stories lampooned the employment of spectacles or the foibles of faulty vision. Sight and seeing, or the inability to do so clearly, were also inscribed in the bold, ink-saturated surfaces, the new and revised shapes, and the enlarged scale of period typography. Together, these forms posed vision as subject to uncertainty, to fluxes of time and space, and to outright failure. Looking to conceptions and practices of vision circulating in scientific and philosophical discourse as well as the broader cultural field, The Commerce of Vision analyzes how ophthalmic and optometric practices, popular pamphlets and newspapers, literary stories and novels, prints, and paintings, and discourses of paper money economics, national expansion, urban planning, and spiritualism helped to fashion notions of vision, the shifting status of observing subjects, and the contours and experience of vision itself.
Though the term "visual culture" has been employed in a number of ways since its inception in the early 1970s, including as a shorthand reference to an expanded field of images and objects for analysis, I use it generally to refer both to visuality, or the datum of what we see, and to vision, or how we see it. But I employ the term specifically in this book to refer first to the cultural nature of visuality, and particularly to the intersection between print and visual cultures and the viewing practices they encouraged and facilitated; and second, to the culturingo f vision, that is, the cultivation and the growth of sight as a cultural phenomenon, which includes the mechanics of its physiological operations as well as accumulation of visual experiences, predilections, memories, or references, what has been called the viewer's "cognitive stock," or "period eye." The interrelated print and visual cultures of the period participated in the broader redefinition of visual perception in scientific and philosophical discourses circulating in the first half of the nineteenth century. Printed forms and paintings both embodied and illustrated an emergent model of vision that coincided not only with an accumulation of knowledge concerning the eye's physiological functioning but also with the emergence of a new range of visual aptitudes and experiences constitutive of cultural and economic modernity. In shaping the experience of vision, these new cultural forms and practices also gradually modulated the perceptual habits of observers and the aptitudes of vision itself. This culturing of vision involved various, yet interrelated aspects of the visual field working in tandem in the production of observers and viable formulations of vision itself. In this way, the imbricated spheres of antebellum visual culture—ophthalmology and optometry, print media and spectacular entertainments, signboard commerce, paper money, and land speculation—enveloped and overlapped with the sensibilities of antebellum observers, determining both intellectual and practical frameworks for assessing the nature of their eyesight and acclimating them to altogether new modes of practice.
Conceptions of eyesight emerging from the burgeoning fields of physiological optics and ophthalmology posited a model of vision that was subject to the fluxes of everyday life. Experimenters Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jan Purkinje, and Johannes Müller no longer considered vision objectively "universal," static, or completely dependent on exterior stimuli for its functioning. Their experiments with retinal afterimages and other visual phenomena revealed that vision was, like the newspaper, the signboard, the banknote—fleeting and ephemeral, subject to fluctuations in time and space, and by extension, to fluctuations of the market and paper money economics. By the 1840s, vision was no longer theoretically situated in the apparatus of the camera obscura. Nor was it securely contained within the laboratories and clinical spaces of physiological optics or the emergent practice of ophthalmology. Embedded in the physicality of the body, a body newly animated by the fluctuations of capital, eyesight was now considered subject to physical movement and vulnerable to an array of diseases, to the harmful effects of bright or dim light, or to the strain of focusing on a growing array of printed materials and other legible objects. Through the application of new ophthalmic techniques or the purchase and employment of spectacles, which aided the consumption of the daily paper and the discernment of broadsides, banknotes, and real estate maps, the mechanics of vision became integrated with the machinery of commodity production and the daily rhythms of a nascent industrial capitalism. The characteristically self-reflexive mode of seeing that emerged as a result, I will suggest, is a chief feature of antebellum visual culture and is indicative of the period's overarching concern with human vision.