The Eye and the Mirror: Visual Subjectivity in Chinese and American Literary Presentations




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This dissertation is a comparative study of the role visuality plays in the constitution of human subjectivity in two Chinese novels and two American novels. Images of the mirror and the eye, along with a multitude of other visual agencies for representing visual subjectivity, are prevalent in the novels. My comparative study of the images reveals that there are both universalizable and culturally specific factors in the visual constitution of subjectivity. What is shared by the two traditions is the paradoxical self-other relationship in the visual field: the visual other makes the self possible on the one hand, and alienates or annihilates the self on the other hand. As far as the four novels this study covers are concerned, the psychological process of identification with the visual other in the “imaginary order” is a more fundamental way of constituting subjects than the power of discourse in the “symbolic order.” The cultural differences are manifested by the four different modes of visual subjectivity: “the symbolic,” “the imaginary,” “the transcendent,” and “the dualistic” mode, the first two of which are observable mainly in the two Chinese novels, and the last two in the two American novels. The differences are rooted in the specific dominant intellectual thoughts that the authors are both representing and problematizing—the Chinese Confucianism and the American Transcendentalism. The immanence in the Confucian tradition gives rise to ethical intersubjective visuality in which the seeing is ritualized to maintain social harmony; the transcendence in the American tradition gives rise to the “aloft gaze” and the “dualistic vision” in which the social other is either absent or objectified. The Chinese novels represent tragic subjects as consequences of the infinite identification with the ideal mirror image in the imaginary order or the patriarchal father in the symbolic order; the American novels represent similar tragic subjects also as consequences of the infinite identification with the other, but the American other is distinguished from the social other in Chinese novels; they are either the transcendentalist Soul, or the disciplinary gazer. To be out of the tragedy or absurdity of existence, the Chinese protagonists long for escape from others’ visual field through Buddhist and Daoist renunciation, while the American protagonists wishes to look into a pair of caring human eyes. The authors all propose an ethics for intersubjective care as a way to take care of one’s self when facing the visual trap set up by the real or virtual visual other.



Subjectivity in literature, Visual perception—Cross-cultural studies, Visual perception in literature, Visualization in literature, Chinese literature, American literature


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