From Walter Benjamin to Jonathan Crary, theorists of the sensual experience of media have also been interested in its materiality. In the digital era, some media theorists have doubled down on the proposition that media is fundamentally material, not perceptual, while others have instead emphasized the ethereality of media itself. For media archeologists like Jussi Parikka, for example, material histories of cellulose nitrate film are histories of chemistry, of resource extraction, and of labor, not the experience of seeing a rush of moving images on the screen. In contrast, philosophers of media like John Durham Peters emphasize the mediated qualities of the natural world, seeing the transmission of binary data over wires in a continuum with the transmission of many forms of information over media as supple as the clouds.
Peter John Brownlee's well-researched and persuasively argued study of the emergence in mid-nineteenth-century America of what he calls “optical culture” does not purport to be a theoretical treatise, yet the author provides a useful account of how the standardization of vision and print enabled a world governed by texts. Breaking from conventional accounts of the rise of print culture in the United States, which focus primarily on technical advances in printing processes and social changes, such as urbanization, that made daily newspapers financially viable, Brownlee reveals how the very definitions of acute sight, legible text, and visual experience transformed American culture in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
For example, in the first two chapters of the book Brownlee argues that advances in the treatments of an array of eye diseases coincided with the expectation that one's employment, and one's capacity to participate in society more broadly, was predicated on one's ability to see. Drawing from diaries of a vision-impaired clerk, scientific journals, and handbills and broadsides of the period, Brownlee shows how ophthalmologists and opticians developed new treatments for those who had difficulty seeing. He also explores some of the beliefs of this period around eyesight, such as that one's eyes could become weak from overuse, making the growth in the number of street posters, newspapers, and even business records an issue for those who worried about their vision.
As Brownlee observes, doctors who treated the eye were also interested in developing standards of visual acuity. Corrective lenses became more precise, and popular, in the mid-1800s, and scientists discovered eye conditions such as nearsightedness and astigmatism that could be corrected with specialized lenses. The eye charts we now associate with visits to the optometrist emerged in a moment in which the sizes and styles of typography themselves were being standardized. Instead of merely gesturing at the look-alike status of eye charts and models for typeface, Brownlee draws from archival research and multiple disciplines to argue that “twenty-twenty vision emerged from the intersection of typefounding, commercial job printing, and ophthalmic science” (p. 109). He notes that the development of wooden typefaces, as opposed to metal, allowed for more flexible and varied approaches to typography, which in turn enabled typefaces in themselves to signal cultural messages. Likewise, research on visual acuity emphasized that certain typefaces—varied by size, case, and presence of serifs—were more legible than others in particular circumstances, underscoring the diversity of typefaces now present in print culture. Beliefs around growing acumen for visual acuity even influence the placement and size of street signs, which became more numerous and larger in this period, inviting one to look up as well as far away for information about material goods.
In the final third of the book Brownlee turns from scientific and technical documents to visual and literary culture. His training as an art historian becomes more evident as he looks for evidence of the emergence of optical culture in painting. Focusing on the work of Rembrandt Peale, Frederic Spencer, Francis W. Edmonds, and, in most detail, Richard Caton Woodville, Brownlee finds considerable evidence of “optical culture” in the work of some of the period's best-known American painters. In his examination of Woodville's 1848 painting War News from Mexico, Brownlee discusses both the centrality of optical culture in the painting itself—which depicts a small crowd of men gathered on the front porch of a hotel listening to one man read a newspaper—as well as the ways in which the painting circulated, from etchings to folio engravings, in newspapers. In this way, Brownlee argues, the painting both depicts the centrality of vision—the man holding the newspaper brings it close to his eyes in order to read it, while a man behind him uses spectacles in order to read over the first man's shoulder—and, through its recirculation, demonstrates how optical culture spread. The final chapter turns to the limits of optical culture, with a focus on the phantasmic qualities of the period, particularly fears around the value of paper money, speculators, and ghosts.
Historians of advertising and, more broadly, the visual culture of American business will find in The Commerce of Vision an impressively detailed and sophisticated analysis of how advances in the treatment of ocular disease and methods of transmitting, receiving, and processing information brought about an entirely new relationship between seeing and society. As the nation's vision, quite literally, improved, so did the number of things one could expect to see on a daily basis. While rising literacy rates are an important part of this story, so is the expectation that one needed acute vision in order to be successful in business and other daily activities. While many of the images in the handsomely illustrated The Commerce of Vision are familiar to historians of antebellum America, Brownlee gives us a new perspective on the period, in which seeing clearly was not a given but instead something in need of correction.