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The Optics of Fiction: Analysing Visual Dispositives in Contemporary British Novels

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At the turn of the 21st century, British fiction finds itself negotiating conflicting perceptions of vision. In the context of the “visual turn,” it reflects the increasingly influential role that visual technologies and media play in today’s cultural landscape. At the same time, it addresses anxious accounts of what is often presented as a crisis of the visual. For centuries vision was celebrated as the most intellectual of the senses; today, however, it is more often presented as a key component in practices of manipulation and control. My reading of works by authors such as Martin Amis, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Nicola Barker and Rupert Thomson suggests that while taking such concerns into account, contemporary fiction creates optical dispositives that subvert the mechanisms of visual subjugation, and pave the way for new practices of subjectivation. In doing so it calls for a shift in the paradigms used to delineate the workings of vision: the epistemological understanding of visual perception as a vehicle of knowledge is replaced by a political and ethical interpretation of vision. Leaving behind optical models defined by the binary separation between seeing and seen, subject and object, the novels I analyse explore visual encounters in which one pair of eyes necessarily meets another.

This talk is part of the Caius MCR/SCR research talks series.

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