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Optics and sciences of light in contemporary fiction: knowledge, power, and imagination across disciplines

Abstract : In her article “Optics and Power in the Novel” (1999), Dorrit Cohn expressed concern over the emergence of a new visual metaphor among those usually called upon to comment on the workings of narrative. While elements of visual imagery, from windows to mirrors, had pervaded the language of criticism as purely descriptive tools, the motif of the panopticon deviated from this hermeneutic function and brought with it a negatively charged, politically fraught metaphorics of the gaze. Devices metaphorically borrowed from the sciences of light should remain “neutral,” and be given no critical weight in the apprehension of narrative forms. In the context of the collection title The Distinction of Fiction, this warning suggested that criticism would be well advised to keep to literature and its own devices. Far from adopting such a view, this paper will argue in favour of a closer exploration of the optics of fiction. Bringing into focus British novels of the past twenty-five years, from Jeanette Winterson’s GUT Symmetries to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, I will show that optics and the study of light offer a privileged area for fiction to engage with and question the political, ideological and ethical underpinnings of scientific discourse. By working with optical devices, fiction acknowledges the prominent role played by the scientific gaze in fashioning visual experience, creating new technologies of seeing, and metaphorically embodying knowledge. It also inscribes the language of optics within a wider cultural context, showing that the history of the analysis and capture of light cannot be set apart from human endeavours to understand, produce and use power. Meanwhile, the role of optics in the scientific revolution of the 20th century, and the need for contemporary science to uncover what cannot be seen, bring forth a redefinition within fiction of the heuristic power of imagination.
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Contributor : Diane Leblond Connect in order to contact the contributor
Submitted on : Tuesday, September 29, 2020 - 1:26:58 PM
Last modification on : Wednesday, September 30, 2020 - 3:30:18 AM


  • HAL Id : hal-02952461, version 1


Diane Leblond. Optics and sciences of light in contemporary fiction: knowledge, power, and imagination across disciplines. Annual International Conference of the British Society for Literature and Science, on Light, Apr 2015, Liverpool, United Kingdom. ⟨hal-02952461⟩



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