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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Unseen in the Modern Image World

  • Author(s): O'Kelly, Brendan M.
  • Advisor(s): North, Michael A
  • et al.

The twentieth century is often characterized as an age of images. The majority of theories about technologies of vision in the twentieth century – photography, film, digital imagery – seize on the proliferation of visual stimuli and their desensitizing or liberating possibilities. In the always incomplete theorization of images, what we see and what sees us often defines and delimits us, but at the same time, we define and delimit what we see. The inherent limitations of vision that result from the capabilities of the visual mechanism and its technological extensions shape both individual perception and the broader realm of cultural vision. In an age dominated by the visible, the limits of vision either provide respite from the mass of images we are forced to perceive or they constrain how we construe the world visually. The Unseen in the Modern Image World reconsiders the complex and mutually constitutive relationship between visual perception and literary production in the twentieth century. This study resituates both literary and critical discourses on the boundaries of the perceptible in order to foreground the dependence of vision

on its limits. I recontextualize the most formative theories of novelistic production of the century alongside theories about the dominance of vision in modernity in order to suggest that the constraints rather than the proliferations of visual perception shape modern prose. I elaborate the predominance of the unseen through its clashes with the limits of visuality: Martin Heidegger’s shadow through which modernity projects itself beyond the representational bounds of “the world picture,” and Walter Benjamin’s elaboration of the masses’ distracted visual reception, brought about by film, which he argues profoundly alters perception. I ground subsequent chapters by demonstrating that the boundaries of perception not only elude the presumed dominating grasp of “the world picture” but also reduce our visual apprehensions of the world to mere extractions from the infinitely vaster realm of the unseen, a terrain that the modern novel—from Joseph Conrad and Henry James through Don DeLillo—grounds itself upon.

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