Romanticism & Contemporary Culture
The Picturesque and the Kodak Moment
Ron Broglio, Georgia Tech
Technology informs the construction of subjectivity. In Gilpin’s reference to the camera obscura, human sight takes as its model mechanical projection: "The imagination becomes a camera obscura, only with this difference, that the camera represents objects as they really are; while the imagination, impressed with the most beautiful scenes, and chastened by rules of art, forms its pictures, not from the most admirable parts of nature; but in the best taste" (Three Essays 52). As Martin Jay has points out in Downcast Eyes, sight is a privileged epistemological tool . Our way of seeing and thinking about the world around us is informed by the camera obscura and its historical derivative, the camera. These machines define the position of the interiorized observer to the outside world (Crary Chapter 2). By setting landscape aesthetics next to the aesthetics of Kodak, I want students to explore how the camera works in relation to the picturesque. My hope is that they discover some basic assumptions about how observers in the 19th century and the present represent their relationship to the world. The dominant way of seeing both then and now is what Jay calls "Cartesian perspectivalism," a method of perception that represents space and the subjects and objects in that space according to the rules of Euclidean geometry. Developing the historical relationship between optics, the picturesque, and the camera de-naturalizes the Cartesian scopic regime. By disturbing the relationship between sight and truth, including the picture as a true representation and tour guides as accurate documents of places, students can begin thinking of other modes of representing place and experience.
In my "Optics and Aesthetics" course, during the first half of the semester I work with students to help them understand Cartesian perspectivalism. The class reads sections of Descartes’s Optics with Jonathan Crary’s commentaries from Techniques of the Observer, then turns to Burke, Gilpin, and various Romantic works that incorporate the picturesque. As a mid-term project, students compare and contrast the picturesque with Kodak’s web site on how to take pictures. They then go into the field and take "picturesque" snapshots according to the guidelines set out by Kodak and by the picturesque aesthetic. They put these photos online with commentaries on each and with links to passages from authors we have studied. The second half of the semester is spent working on a phenomenological critique of the way of seeing established in the first half of the course. In class, we look at how new media, particularly the web and MOO, reconfigures our representations of space. As a final project, students add to their picturesque web site other decidedly non-picturesque photos of the same spot with an eye toward other ways of providing a "feel" for the place. Additionally, we discuss web page designs and site architecture that facilitate their non-picturesque representations.
Using the web and MOO to discuss landscapes adds a new dimension to understanding representation of place. I ask students to take snapshots of a place and then have them use the photos in a group of web pages designed to represent that space. Having students build web pages that in their form suggest the ideas from the content of their argument leads students to engage the problem of constructing representational spaces. The images, font, background color, links and word choice all become part of their attempt to convey the "genius of the place." As students produce their own representation or "virtual guide" to a place, they begin to ask different questions about the authors we've studied. To represent place they must model their writing according to the abstract discourse of Gilpin or the intimate journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, or they may use both discourses and set them against each other in a series of web pages. As they construct image and text in their sites, they look at the way Gilpin uses illustrations in his tour guide, and they reconsider Constable's letters about his paintings.
Importantly, the words and images used as links between pages become a part of the argument since the reader is asked to construct the relationship between the two pages via the connecting link. In the logic of linking pages, what words and images should provide portals to other aspects of a landscape? The dizzying connections Wordsworth makes in his Snowdon passage from The Prelude invite students to think about how to link disparate elements in a landscape we half see and half create. In contrast, the methodical categories of Gilpin's and Wordsworth's tour guides provide other ways of moving through space. My hope is that through their own creative project, students will discover how the epistemologies that inform the landscape aesthetic of the Romantic period effect the way writers and artists of the period both saw and presented the land. By having students use cameras to capture images of the land they have chosen to represent, I am asking them to work within the same mechanical optics that dominated much of landscape aesthetics. Of course, as they place these images on web pages, the shift in representational medium allows students the possibility of breaking out of Cartesian perspectivalism as a model for mediation between viewer and object viewed.
In addition to web pages, students visit MOO rooms to develop a sense of space. (See student instructions.) The MOO is a non-space; that is, there is no "space" other than a screen with words and, perhaps, some images. Yet, depending on the words used to describe the MOO "room" students act differently in each place. After logging and discussing MOO landscapes in Villa Diodati, I ask students what verbal cues caused them to react the way they did to the space. The result is a discussion about the role of text and the role of imagination in creating space. Such a discussion enables them to see Romantic texts in a new light. The interaction in the MOO helps defamiliarize the act of reading landscape texts and allows for new interpretive strategies in reading. They begin asking what is the role of proper nouns that are embodied as objects in the MOO room? What is the movement of the narrator throught the space? What verbs predominate? What descriptive words caused me as a MOO character to act differently in the room than the narrator in the poem? Additionally, the MOO players see slight differences in the room, and each player acts on these differences through the MOO conversation. "Seeing" or reading and imagining differences provides a classroom discussion concerning what we assume about nature and how to act in nature. Some students treat the MOO room as a utopic nature place. Others treat the space with suspicion or even contempt, preferring a narrative poem with its familiar cues or finding a digital and textual representation of nature to be absurd. Such moments are important for understanding how mediation—be it paper or digital—effects representation of place and how any description creates a "virtual" world.
Often, students who consider themselves poor readers but quite skilled in computers (which includes a disproportionately large number of students at Georgia Tech where I teach) find themselves drawn into the problems of representing space as they begin playing with their hypertext documents. They debate on how to best represent the land and what discourse best represents their experience of interacting with the land. The overarching question becomes, "How can I make the land into a landscape and what price do I pay for such a representation?" While I have not tried this approach, such moments seem ripe for exploring issues laid out in Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology" and treatments of nature developed by eco-criticism and Green Romanticism. Admittedly, a good deal of class time gets diverted from the study of Romantic texts, and the class's detailed reading of a select few texts leaves little time for a broad coverage of the period; however, I find the questions raised in class and the engagement of the students in their projects to be more important and more far reaching than I am able to accomplish with a wider range of the period texts.
While landscape aesthetics circa 1800 seems quite distant and inaccessible to most students, taking pictures with a disposable camera is rather commonplace. By allowing students to explore Romantic texts through a contemporary "lens," students find the texts more approachable. They have little problem talking about their experiences and their photography. Eventually this freedom of discussion transfers to their discussion of Romantic texts. Then, as I ask them to discuss their photos in relation to the Romantic texts, the task seems less daunting. Kodak and landscapes are not a perfect fit—nor should they be. The differences are important for putting the two cultures and activities in context. For example, good taste is a cue for class and education in landscape aesthetics. Photography in the late 1800s had similar class, education, and gender distinctions, but by the 1900s this gradually fades, making photography simple and accessible to virtually everyone (West Chapter 2). I use Kodak and the picturesque as a starting place for beginning the conversation by which the students' culture and the Romantics' culture can speak to one another. In this conversation, students bring as much to the class with their opinions about photography and sense of place as I do in presenting them with Romantic texts. By the end of the semester, their sense of what a photo is and does gets placed within a much larger conceptual field of representation from landscapes of the 1800s to digital technology of 2000. Conversely, Romantic texts become for the students not simply historical moments of seeing but a vantage point to explore concerns over optical perceptions still vital to us today.
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