The Body Made Visible: Scientific Practices of Seeing and Literary Naturalism

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2004-11-29

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This study examines how ideas about the body in the late 19th century--how to see them better and how best to represent them--are circulating in discussions among physiologists and sociologists, and how naturalist writers engage these discussions with their own representational strategies. Often, what their works create is a strong tension between methods of corporeal control--immobilizing bodies, abstracting bodies, establishing distance from bodies--and the fact that many bodies refuse to submit to any normative power. I argue that scientists develop visual strategies as a way of learning more about bodies, and ultimately this knowledge can be used for purposes of social reform and regulation. Likewise, naturalist writers focus their narrative upon the body as a way of demonstrating lack of agency and problems with developing identity. In using some of the strategies for bodily representation that physiologists and sociologists do, naturalist writers also point to social problems that warrant change.

In Chapter One, I trace the desire for bodily penetration on the part of physiologists and naturalist writers such as Émile Zola and Frank Norris. I argue that the bodily interior is conceived of as mechanistic and that naturalist writers use visual methods of magnification and immobilizationsuccessful in the physiological fieldto elicit a sense of the interior. In Chapter Two, I discuss how physiologists and sociologists use abstraction to reduce bodies to an essence as a way of ordering excessive detail for measuring purposes. I argue that naturalist writers like Norris and Stephen Crane also engage in abstraction, producing familiar types on the one hand and surreal figures on the other. Finally, in Chapter Three, I examine the multitude of bodiesthe crowds. Again, I examine the relationship between social science and visual strategies of order. I juxtapose the early actualities of Edison and the Lumière Brothers with naturalist texts by Edith Wharton, Norris, and Crane, examining ways that visual strategies of ordering crowdschiefly by establishing distance and perspectiveare used and subverted in literary texts so as to highlight the disruptive power of the crowd.

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