Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Amanda Shubert reviews Playful Visions

Meredith A. BakPlayful Visions: Optical Toys and the Emergence of Children’s Media Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2020. 288 pp.

Review by Amanda Shubert

10 June 2020

The story of cinema’s emergence in the late nineteenth century invariably includes a discussion, or at the very least a footnote, about optical toys—those playful gadgets like the phenakistoscope and zoetrope, which could be spun to create animated pictures. In Playful Visions: Optical Toys and the Emergence of Children’s Media Culture, Meredith A. Bak tells the story of optical toys themselves by revealing their foundational role in the development of children’s media. Through expressive and illuminating readings of what she calls “the ludic archive,” conducted through a research method that combines media archaeology with childhood studies, Playful Visions unearths a history of the child media spectator whose emergence crystalizes the relationship between vision, pedagogy, and social hierarchy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The argument of this book is that optical toys taught children how to see, how to scrutinize and interpret visual materials, and in the process gave rise to a set of visual and perceptual competencies that continue to inform educational media and debates over children’s media consumption in the twenty-first century. Although Playful Visions rightly eschews a film studies framework, it is nevertheless a valuable contribution to the field of cinema and media studies and in particular the study of precinema that generates necessary new insights into how children played with, learned through, and imagined optical media.

The first three chapters analyze a range of optical toys that will be familiar to film and media scholars, exploring them through the framework of children’s play practices. Chapter 1, “Templates, Toys, and Text: Optical Toys in Nineteenth-Century Children’s Culture,” reveals how nineteenth-century children encountered optical toys through the juvenile print market, including rational recreation literature and children’s periodicals. The second chapter, “Language in Motion: The Thaumatrope Establishes a Multimedia Convention,” explores the thaumatrope’s dynamic interplay of word and image in the context of children’s literacy and young adult courtship practices. Chapter 3, “Seeing Things: Optical Play at Home,” reconstructs how children played with optical toys such as the phenakistoscope and zoetrope and how these toys not only informed how children saw, but also how they conceptualized visual practices.

The following three chapters offer a more expansive vision of children’s media spectatorship. In Chapter 4, “Moveable Toy Books and the Culture of Independent Play,” Bak turns to the moveable book, a picture book with moveable parts that create spectacular visual transformations, and a staple of the precinema archive that is rarely discussed in scholarship on optical media. Chapter 4, “Color Education: From the Chaotic Kaleidoscope to the Orderly Spectrum,” and Chapter 5, “Democracy and Discipline: Object Lessons and the Stereoscope in American Education, 1870-1920,” explore the use of optical toys in the classroom to instill visual competencies and behavioral norms. Finally, a concluding chapter titled “Oversized Optics in the Digital Age” addresses the proliferation of STEM toys modeled on nineteenth-century optical toys, as well as digital remediations of devices like the zoetrope, to argue for the persistence of nineteenth-century visual and perceptual frameworks in contemporary children’s media.

Through its focus on childhood, Playful Visions expands upon and complicates foundational work on nineteenth-century media spectatorship. One of its strengths is what Bak calls “the speculative reconstruction of optical play,” which imaginatively and sensitively describes how differently classed, gendered, and raced children played with optical toys at home and at school. Her reconstructions of how children played with the thaumatrope (Chapter 2) and moving image toys (Chapter 3) should be required reading for scholars writing about these media for their exceptional insights into their variously stabilizing and transgressive work in constructing power, class, labor, and sexuality for child spectators. Bak’s readings of the “child spectator” sometimes lack sufficient nuance in their handling of the gendered valences of optical play. Although optical toys were also marketed to girls, they were overwhelmingly associated with boyhood and masculine ideals of social, intellectual, and imperial mastery. I wished for more elaboration of the girl media spectator, a category that has not received sufficient attention in nineteenth-century media studies. Overall, through its engaging blend of archival, historical, and phenomenological methods, Playful Visions is an insightful and original contribution to the study of precinema.