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Stereoscopy and the Global Picturesque


Rachel Teukolsky is Associate Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Her research focuses on aesthetics, visual culture, and media history in 19th-century Britain. She is the author of The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics (Oxford UP, 2009). Her essays have appeared in ELH, PMLA, and Victorian Studies, among others, on topics ranging from anti-slavery in Dickens to the “white girls” of sensation fiction. Her current project is Picture World: The Aesthetic Life of Images in Britain’s Machine Age. The book juxtaposes objects of new visual media with keywords from Victorian aesthetics.

Brief talk description:

The stereoscope was a wildly popular visual device in middle-class Victorian households. When the viewer placed a dual-imaged stereographic photograph into the device and peered into the darkened eyepiece, the resulting image burst forth in an illusion of three-dimensional depth. Some scholars (following Jonathan Crary) have suggested that the stereoscope inaugurated a disembodied, virtual, proto-postmodern aesthetic. Yet this talk will argue that the stereoscope was a technology of the picturesque, an eighteenth-century Romantic aesthetic affirming the spectator’s subjectivity with a form of intense picturing. While the picturesque connotes scenes rooted in the English landscape, the talk will highlight the aesthetic’s inherently global nature—a globalism that becomes sharply apparent in the stereograph, whose scenes ranged from Niagara Falls to the Egyptian pyramids. The talk will parse some of the ambiguities surrounding the global politics of the picturesque, especially as new visual media opened up ever-expanding geographies for the armchair spectator in Britain and America.