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Zola's Experiment: Perception and Attention in Les Rougon-Macquart


In contrast to traditional readings of his work, I argue that Zola stages the mediation of sensory data in the urban metropolis and in his own writing in order to curate different modes of spectatorship that can navigate the disruptive, dissociative effects of modernity. This differs from the conventional discourse of theorists such as Simmel and Benjamin who consider the 19th century – with its industrialization, technological innovation, and rapid urban expansion – an era of fragmentation and overstimulation. Recent scholarship reinforces this position and places focus 1) on the visual, and not other senses, and 2) on the writer’s supposedly negative representation of social entropy.

I begin with the cultivation and adaptation of touch in Au Bonheur des Dames. How do literature and capitalist enterprise reformat human information processing? Following Benjamin’s dictum that “technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training,” I consider the grand magasin, and Zola’s fictional version of one, as a site of haptic training. Examining the shopper’s contact with fabrics, I argue that the department store fosters an empowering form of calculation along with phantasmagorical experience. Next, I turn to sensorial mismatching and fantastical descriptions of produce in Le Ventre de Paris to illustrate that Zola’s naturalism joins together scientific discourses and aesthetic trends of his era. His use of synaesthesia, I argue, is just as much a fruitful conversation with Baudelaire’s poetics as it is a serious dialogue with psychologists, such as Helmholtz, who are trying to map out perceptual incongruities. Zola’s focus on distorted perception provides not only an artistic education of the senses, but also a kind of “cognitive architecture” meant to simulate the processes through which sensory input is received and (dis)ordered by the brain.

Finally, I read La Curée as an enactment of modernity’s proliferation of copies. I step through a scientific treatise (Duchenne) and a theatrical debate (over a production of Phèdre) that provide theories on how to accurately duplicate “human expression” across media. I show that Zola’s tableaux vivants and his embedded Phèdre scene are not meant to produce, or suggest higher fidelity; instead, his copies of copies depict perceptual practices encouraged by different, competing media. By depicting various modes of attention within his narratives, and by explicitly showing how sensory data is mediated (and manipulated) in various media, the author ultimately experiments with reader awareness and participation. If we can consider this perceptual reformatting as entailing knowledge sets and adaptive tools, then we can begin to rethink the notions of dissociation and loss in modernity.

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