The Martian in the Multiverse – Michael Punt

I existed independently of time and matter, I felt myself departing from my body as I imagined a spirit would depart -emanating into the cockpit, extending through the fuselage as though no frame of fabric walls were there, angling upward, outward, until I reformed in an awareness far distant from the human form I left in a fast-flying transatlantic plane. But I remained connected to my body through a long extended strand, a strand so tenuous that it could have been severed by a breath.

.. and later

My visions are easily explained away through reason, but the longer I live, the more limited I believe reason to be.

Charles A. Lindbergh (cited in Philips, E. ed. 1987. Psychic Voyages, Amsterdam: Time-Life Books.)

Introduction: Technology and Metaphysics

The two quotations that open this essay are not intended to herald an entry i nto the dispute around the causes of Lindbergh’s visions, but simply to point out that, whether it is 1927, 1987 or today, when machines and human minds meet, there is always the possibility of the mechanical capsizing into the paraphysical or the metaphysical. [1] Lindbergh’s story has a particularly unnerving effect, it seems quite possibly, because in a machine that is so dependent on the state of science, technology and engineering in order not to come to grief, the determining presence of the irrationality of human intelligence threatens to undermine the reign of reason. Reflecting on railway trains, the Spirit of St Louis, or the phonograph, it seems impossible to avoid the idea that many of the technologies that involve people, sooner or later become inhabited by ghosts. Almost as much is acknowledged in that most sober and sobering of intellectual pursuits, contemporary film theory. Even at its most trenchant so-called post-structuralist cinema semiotics had to make room for the transcendental. [2] In the movies a spectatorial position that  may or may not be determined by the apparatus sometimes seems to escape the straight-jacket of ideology and become a conduit to the delirious when it is anchored in another technology that also promises a trip to the ‘other side’.

In the early years of the cinema phantom rides, in which the camera was fixed to the front of a moving train for example, proved such a fascination that a fuller simulation of the transcendental travel was developed by George C Hale. Hales Tours and Scenes of the World , in which the audience sat in a railway carriage and viewed Phantom Rides projected on the front wall (to the rattle of cams and a rocking motion), was possibly inspired by a number of other experiments with film projection including, the collaboration between H. G. Wells and Robert Paul on a ‘time machine’, and the Cinéorama which was a 360 degree panoramic view from a balloon. Raymond Fielding identifies a host of other applications of moving image technology in which the thrills of virtual travel were the obvious lure. [3] Fielding suggests that the profits Hale made reached as much $500,000, and that the British rights sold for $100,000. From a survey of the many ways in which moving images were (and still are) combined with other forms of technology it is clear that there were many aspects to the attraction of moving pictures to the public, but the combination of trains virtual travel, the simultaneous address to somatic and cerebral stimulation produced a excitement and delirium that could bring an audience back time and time again and turn a handsome profit.

The rather prosaic turn that the cinema took after around 1907, when in various forms it began to replicate the theatre as a mode of reception, did not mean the end of this strand of the attraction. It may be argued that the attraction and persistence of continuity editing mirrored this precise contradiction, as the excised absent was made virtually present in a way that resembled the daily experience of the individual selecting information in order to build a contingent reality. In other ways too the cinema capitalised on the ecsomatic and metachronic (out of body and hallucinatory) effect of moving image technology as it filmed the ecstasy of flight as in the 1933 film Central Airport in which the train and ‘plane travel on parallel tracks destined not to meet in virtue of their occupation of separate technical domains. Richard Barthelmess’ frustrated (and frustrating) attempts to show his train-bound empathy with the pilot of the following ‘plane is underwritten by the aerobatics spectacle which, filmed from another plane, merely emphasises the power of the cinema to join the un-joinable in ways unavailable to a rationally determined world.

The Romantic(ist) relationship between the train and the aircraft became something of a poetic cliché in documentary films (for example the hugely influential  Night Mail directed by Basil Wright for John Grierson’s GPO Unit) as the perfect analogy for the quotidian multiverse; by which I mean the local parallel (and disconnected) universes that thrive according to different logic in our everyday existence.  In scientific circles this disjuncture is brought together by a grand theory of ‘big things’ called classical physics (which, throughout the last century, was thought to break down at the local – that is, sub-atomic – level). Nonetheless as trains speed through pantheistic landscapes in which each hedgerow has its perfect place, and each reaction has an equal and opposite reaction, a visualisation of material reality binds together the metaphysical questions of love, life, and the universe. It is such an effective visual invocation of nostalgic longing because the train and aeroplane perfectly match each others track yet inhabit irreconcilably separate dimensions. Their destiny of the parallel existences speak of the ‘if only’ sentiment of unrequited love that makes the past a melodramatic Eden.

The chimera becomes a reflection on, and of, the brilliant homology between the X Y of the railway track and the XYZ of Classical space, and the aeroplane’s space and the XYZ of the viewer and the XY of the film strip passing like an express through the projector gate. This enduring trope of realist cinema exposes the contract of the movies: the effect of the particular technology combines with the judgement of the viewer to form the real. This judgement is,  however, dependant on the extent that the human apparatus consents to a meaningful world of three dimensions while daily experiencing an infinitely unstable universe in which time and space have no fixed dimension.

As we learn more about the beginning of the cinema it seems clear that almost from its outset the projection of moving images was understood to facilitate a degree of mobility of identification that was denied to the viewer of a painting or the reader of a novel. Thinking about the complexity of the man/film relationship (maker, actor, character, viewer) David Thompson points out that ‘ L’Arroseur arosé is very short and its transference of identification is accomplished in one shot.’ (1967, 25) This was of course one of the first ten films thought t o be screened by the Lumiere brothers in Paris in 1895 and depicts a prank in which a boy drenches a gardener by first stepping on a hose to restrict the flow and then, at the crucial moment, releasing the pressure. He gets caught, of course, and is brought in front of the camera to be punished. A simple joke but, in less than a minute, audience identification flows seamlessly back and forth between the boy and the gardener, the image and the technology, and the real and the imaginary. It reminds us that, apart from the many other things that it did, the Cinématographe provided a social space in which the idea that the extent of dimensions that we draw upon are always in a state of flux was socially sanctioned through  a participation in the consumption of technology.

Having languished for a few decades as we have endured the intellectual firewall of a technological determined digital culture, the cinema in the hands of Hollywood is being recycled in relation to the audience’s lived experience, to become the perfect postdigital analogue for the promise of more than three dimensions and entry into the transcendental of the everyday – hence the irrepressible moment of jouissance we may still experience as the plane crosses the railway track in a modern movie theatre (even though there is no longer much celluloid as the industry turns to television as the main mode of exhibition, and not many railway tracks either).

The irony is that the postdigital joy at the movies should be most profound when technology is visible in its most analogical, that is when light is passed through a ‘celluloid’ film to throw an image on a screen joining a past of ‘things’ with the immaterial present of images. Consequently for the contemporary viewer – the postdigital voyeur of the past’s nostalgia, this moment of pleasure becomes extended by the persistence of the analogue representation as the paradigmatic representation of multiple realities. It is a moment when the image carries with it the extended consciousness of a temporally distributed intelligence (over a hundred years of reception in the case of L’Arroseur arosé ) throughout a Universe in which time collapses. The more one tries to situate the movies in the real, the more the technology becomes overtly implicated as an intervention in the twin metaphysical questions of how it is that we apprehend the world, and why it is that what we do apprehend is quite wrong.

Between the macro and the micro, the astronomical and the astrological, the daily experience of ordinary human beings has long needed the explanation of multiple realities in order to stabilise conflicting desires and constraints – the multiplicity of times and spaces that converge in a single individual have long been sifted between those that have a rational and scientific explanation (e.g. money, work, knowledge) and those that have an irrational basis (e.g. love, pleasure, and art). The underlying claim of this essay is that we live in a multiverse, that is a universe of many universes that occupy the same space and time, not as an exotic excursion into the realms of science fiction, but as an everyday necessity that affects our social and economic interchange. Faced with such instability, the convenient way that this was managed was through an arbitrary division of labour that assigned the rational to the ‘real’ and the irrational to the ‘imagined’.

Recent speculation in cosmology and the science of consciousness studies has obliged us to reconsider the concept of reality as an “absolute given” from which all laws can be verified.  In String Theory in particular, the dispute now hinges on the existence of ten or eleven dimensions in rippling membranes that discharge energy at the point of contact. In consciousness studies similar models have appeared in order to embrace what might be understood as an apparent moment of enchantment essential to turn consciousness and awareness. The inevitable realisation in scientific circles that the reality of the imagined has as an equivalent epistemological significance to the reality of the material, raises fascinating questions as it invites a sceptical reconsideration of the essential basis of knowledge and a revision of procedures. While the radical shift in scientific thought provides the moment of profound satisfaction for those artists, designers and scientists who have long argued for a transdisciplinary world view, it also provides a moment of the greatest challenge as we begin to consider how knowledge might be extended, codified and distributed in a multiverse, and begin to reflect on the relationships between a text and a world to be understood when any given world is only defined by the temporary consensus dependent on an arbitrary episteme?

At its most reduced, the multiverse may be seen to be a constellation of different banks of knowledge that temporarily intersect in consciousness to become awareness. Such fine imagery, however, is always in danger of its own hallucinatory seduction into an existential reverie that renders all action a product of contingencies. To counter this what follows extrapolates from the case of moving image technology to technology as a generic cultural artefact and proceeds from the claim that we exist in a multiverse of multiple realities by exploring some major turns in the management of irreconcilable contradictions to show a shift of the metaphysical debates from the theological to the technological. By proposing from this a revisionist account of science and technology as an expression of the constant flux between the mechanistic world view of classical science and the quotidian experience of reality as multiple and consciousness as non-local but distributed, it points the necessity of maintaining the concept of a multidimensional multiverse in the face of a realist imperative if scientific knowledge is to be at all useful to artists and philosophers.

The Earthquake in Chile

Five years before committing suicide in 1811 in a pact with a terminal cancer sufferer, Heinrich von Kleist wrote a short story with the title of The Earthquake in Chile . Although it is set in South America and based on the historical fact of an earthquake in Santiago in 1647, it is almost certain that the uppermost thought in his mind was the disaster that struck Lisbon in 1755. The significance of the Lisbon earthquake is that it not only obliterated two thirds of a city but also an Enlightenment belief in a divine justice.

On All Saint’s Day, when the churches were full of the pious and the good, the earthquake not only destroyed the cathedrals but reduced much of the city to rubble, and the fires which followed, caused mainly by votive candles, were almost as destructive as the ensuing tidal wave which sank the shipping in what was the best of Europe’s ports. The response was utterly rationalist; a dignified closure of the ports, the disposal of bodies at sea in barges and the focus of attention placed, not upon the souls of the departed as was the habit, but on the condition of the living.  A benign statutory authority took to tending the sick, fixing prices and raising and using taxes for rebuilding the city. This time there was no longer any space for the fickle divine. In its place the bold grid of the Baixa – rebuilt as the seed of a rational civilisation and set in the serpentine chaos of nature – clearly stated to any sentient deity who might happen to be cruising around the Universe that man had at last understood the earth to be a random nonsensical, and above all, hostile planet that was to be tamed not by prayer but by human force, creative energy, and rationality. Man was in charge.

Hienrich von Kleist’s story, written 60 years later, tells the story of Jeronimo and Josefa, two star crossed lovers separated and condemned to death for fornicating in a convent. Josefa is about to be beheaded and her distraught lover, confined to prison, wants nothing more than death as a release from his heartache. He attempts to hang himself in his cell, at the very moment an earthquake strikes the city. This disaster instantly reverses Jeronimo’s mission from self destruction to self preservation as he desperately tries to scramble from the collapsing prison. Unknown to him, Jeronimo, the love of his life is also set free by the disaster and amid random annihilation of both good and evil people the two lovers miraculously meet under a pomegranate tree in a glade outside the turmoil of the city where, among the other survivors, a natural democracy based on equality of need pervades, and those with food feed those without. When, however, order is restored and the lovers return to the city and make straight for the only church left standing to give thanks for their salvation: they are denounced from the pulpit and lynched by a fanatical mob who attribute the disaster to their passion. 

The pattern of Kleist’s novella (one narrative form which displays the creative intelligence of mankind), mirrors the more common natural disaster of a tornado, with violence and matter at the outer edges and a transcendental moment of complete calm at its centre – a  tree with outspread branches. The object lesson of Kleist’s story is that the sentiments, which had hitherto been visited on a hostile nature, now included human beings and, as a consequence, there was now no clear reason for anything on earth. In half a century the ideals of the Enlightenment had collapsed as spectacularly as it had been rejuvenated in Lisbon in 1755.

Kleist was of course not alone in his distrust of the rationality of human beings. At about the time The Earthquake in Chile was published, Goethe was studying colour and became convinced that, in a post Kantian world, there was a considerable discrepancy between the way things are in themselves and the way that the human senses represent them to themselves. Increasingly it was felt that human perception – especially vision – was, if not entirely independent from material reality, at the very least, inflected by the body. As Jonathan Crary puts it, ‘From the beginning of the nineteenth century a science of vision will tend to mean increasingly an interrogation of the physiological make up of the human subject, rather than the mechanics of light and optical transmission. It is a moment when the visible escapes from the timeless order of the camera obscura and becomes lodged in another apparatus, within the unstable physiology and temporality of the human body.’ (1990, 70)

The consequences of this was not only that the human body became an untrustworthy observer as far as experimental science was concerned, its very distinction from the nature which the body observes was not even authenticated by the independence of its perceptual apparatus. With the human witness finally discredited, science ceased to become a general statement about a set of natural events that could be verified, or an explanatory system for a limited cluster of questions, but increasingly through the nineteenth century it gained authority as a descriptive and revisionist metaphysical discourse. In various well-documented ways ranging from psychoanalysis to the study of the natural world and creation it attempted to insist on verification through practice as it also insisted that the way that we think about reality is fundamentally wrong and needed radical rethinking. As Kleist’s short story makes clear, what follows from this insight as far as the non-scientist is concerned is a continuity between human consciousness and the irrationality of the natural world in which contradictions as profound as the coexistence of good and evil seem to cohabit. This devastating reversal of the democratic ideals of the Enlightenment heralded an attempted reversal in an unfettered rush to instrumentation in experimental science as it also liberated a popular fascination with the occult and supernatural to the pleasures of clandestine meetings.

In the early 1920s Thornton Wilder wrote a novel which bears a remarkable resemblance to Kleist’s Earthquake in Chile . The Bridge of the San Louis Rey begins; ‘On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.’ By coincidence a Franciscan monk named brother Juniper saw the calamity and made it his life’s work to systematically trace the history of the five victims in order to discover if there was any plan in the universe at all, to see, in Wilder’s words ‘if there was a pattern in a human life. Either we live by accident and die by accident or we live by plan and die by plan.’ At the end of the novel Brother Juniper is burnt in the town square as a heretic after six years of painstaking and inconclusive research in which he can see no relationship between good and evil or divine intention and stupid accidents. Where Wilder’s inquiry into the Lisbon problem – compatibility of good and evil – differs from Kleist’s is that, while it was the compulsions of the body and fornication in the convent which led to the demise of Jeronimo and Josefa, it is the failure of technology (the bridge) and the pursuit of knowledge which seals Brother Juniper’s fate.

Both stories revisit the enduring problem of the coexistence of good and evil but they sit either side of a radical revision in the way that history was thought about. What changed was a dramatic methodological intervention that proceeded from the basis that the condition of human life was to produce the necessities and to look for the engine of history, not in the nature of man, but in society. The way in which these necessities were produced, it was argued, governed all aspects of society including law, morals, religion and art. The technology, the energy, and the ability to organise, which produced these necessities determined the social order, consequently as methods of production change so a new social order developed and the nature of relationships between people were altered. The implications of this theoretical model were developed, and from the mid-nineteenth century it became clear to some historians that the fundamental importance of technology in the production of necessities insists that the study of history is essentially the study of technology. As a consequence, the existential questions which the Lisbon earthquake and Kleist’s short story pose, particularly in regard to theodicy (the coexistence of good and evil), became transformed into technological issues during the nineteenth century as the sensory apparatus of the body was finally sectioned and relegated to become the object in history – a topic of study rather than the source of knowing. Wilder’s tale exploits the convenience of a new approach to history by focusing on the irrationality of technology and dissolves the paradox of the human conceit of rationality in an irrational world by burning brother Juniper – the human interrogator.

The comparison of these stories by Kleist and Wilder, separated as they are by around a hundred years, provides a fascinating illustration of the way that technology changed to become not simply a product of the developmental history of hardware, nor a cultural interpretation of science, but also a player in the history of ideas. In particular they point up the theological uses that we make of certain pieces of apparatus for intellectual release in the face of perplexing and insoluble questions. This stands in contrast to the apparent mechanistic causality of determinism and suggests that technology (and science) may be better understood as a concrete representation of the mental models that help us understand our peculiar position in nature as conscious beings able to reflect upon and ameliorate the inevitability of the apparent irrationality of the natural world with which we see ourselves as both continuous and distinct. In this way technology can be regarded as a form of incomplete mythic narrative passed from generation to generation in which pragmatic, occult and entertaining aspects of consciousness become reconciled in ‘the machine as imaginary’ through the distributed human intelligence that engages with it, interprets it, redefines it and gives it function.

The Technological Imaginary

During the period that separates Kleist and Wilder the human observer was not only replaced in science by machines but became itself an object to be legitimately analysed and described by technologies which were independent of the body. By mid-century the sensory apparatus of the perceiving human was compartmentalised to the extent that consciousness itself was consigned to the brain which too was divided into localised centres of activity. The quantitative analysis of these functions as separate was not only in keeping with scientific knowledge but also ideally suited in its applied outcomes to new systems of industrial manufacture. In as much as it was a social intervention in science it failed and instead contributed to the reification of the atavistic and ‘unscientific’ practices of physiognomy which proved the perfect device to construct the individual as a consequence of its specific appearance through an artistic practice.

Lumps and bumps, squints and skin colour were interpreted as indices of the interiority of an apparatus (the mind) which was increasingly described elsewhere in ever increasing detail by little machines held in scientific laboratories. Research into movement conducted by Marey at the Physiological Research Station at Paris was funded by the government, not least because it provided apparently useful information for the State about blood-stock breeding for the cavalry, and the optimum pace for the Infantry. His data later provided the basis for industrialists to raise individual productivity without significantly increasing investment, employment or remuneration. For all its material application however Marey was primarily concerned with the problem which puzzled Kleist: how to reconcile ones experience of the world with what one knows about it, how surface appearances can be, on occasions, the least reliable index of truth.

The social impact of this rejection of the human as a rational and reliable scientific observer was to reinstate a pre-Enlightenment epistemological hierarchy, this time led by science rather than faith. It was a return to the idea that some people had greater authority than others when it came to making claims about how the world really was. Professional scientists who had access to the elaborate experimental apparatus and instrumentation by virtue of membership of the Royal Society, no longer valued the observations of the lay-man as they had done for nearly a century, and actively discouraged popular participation. Science ceased to be democratic both in the way knowledge was acquired and also in the way that it was then distributed. Perhaps with some justification there was a strong public reaction and resentment to this new exclusion. One effect was that a new breed of experimenters who were excluded from the Academy demarcated themselves as practical scientists whose knowledge was based on what they knew to be true through experience rather than what was thought to be fact in theory – these were called technicians. In the course of this separation of science, technology and entertainment however hostilities developed between theoretical scientists, practical scientists and the public.

The antagonism that technicians showed to theoreticians seemed to excite public support and, as practical sciences were banned from the academy, so they reappeared in the fairground, in the same way that animal magnetism, hypnosis and mesmerism became popular diversions when, half a century earlier, it had been driven from the clinic. During the nineteenth century, the burden of confirming what did and did not exist and explaining the demarcation between the material and ethereal domains was assumed by the professional scientist who enlisted ever more complex technological devices to show that even beyond the human senses the world was understandable. Perhaps the massive intellectual investment in electro-magnetism in physics provides a solid example of this imperative particularly as it proved a topic of fierce disagreement over methodology between the practical and theoretical scientist.

The general public, who had invested huge amounts of intellectual energy in engaging with the Enlightenment project of democratic knowledge offered some resistance to their exclusion by subscribing to the technological displays that technicians put on as a spectacle to be consumed rather than engaged with. There were, of course, profits to be made from this resistance, mainly involving alcohol and licentious behaviour, but without exception, where a structured experience of new knowledge was not involved, the short term gains of the bawdy house were won at the expense of extended engagement. Conversely where pleasure and knowledge were judiciously balanced, solid audiences could be built who returned time and time again to critique the assertions of science in a technological imaginary.


Perhaps the most explicit example of the late nineteenth century technological imaginary is the cinema – an entertainment which began as a short term technological spectacle of a kluge of existing hardware that produced the illusion of instrumental vision and, for complex reasons which we do not fully understand, was able to constantly reinvent itself an enduring industry by integrating new knowledge with hedonistic visual and aural pleasure. Although it was absolutely crucial that certain social, technological and economic factors were in place, what seemed to save the Cinématographe from oblivion was its emergence at a moment when science, technology and entertainment, which had hitherto been inextricably intertwined, became quite distinct ways of engaging with similar objects. The irony is that a technology such as the cinema, allegedly borne of instrumental science illuminates a world of non-mechanistic connections. The chemical precision of photography combined with the regulated progress of each frame past the source of light in both taking and projection mode appeared to guarantee that what we see, is what was there. An inspection of the film strip, however, confirms this not to be the case. In the context of public engagement in amusement parks and world’s fairs, the Cinématographe was not merely an exciting novelty to be marvelled at, but also offered the intellectual thrill of a profound contradiction since it both endorsed and repudiated  the claims of positivist science.

This philosophical question of reality and how we apprehend it was at least as important as the putative novelty of movement that audiences responded to. The British Mutoscope and Biograph Co. Ltd., for example, was advertised in 1900 on a poster with an image of a woman floating in a theatre above the audiences’ heads holding a camera aloft as a ‘magic box’. Through this box the world spinning in the universe was mediated onto a screen as a text which reads: ‘The Biograph reproduces the Latest Events from All Parts of the World’.” [4] As the audience sits inside the astral world whose image is being mediated by technology which is both chained to that world and separate from it the metaphysical conundrum the image poses are quite breathtaking and continuous with the ‘other history’ of the Cinématographe – the history of occult and philosophical fascinations.

But of course from the very start the photochemical image and the projection of incrementally different samples of a movement were philosophical and metaphysical provocations as much as they are now. The Thaumatrope, for example,  invented by Sir John Herschel and often cited as an early ancestor of the Cinématographe comprised a cardboard disk with an image on either side which, when spun, produced a superimposition of the two (ie a bird in a cage). As Michael Chanan points out it was Dr Paris who popularised it as a philosophical toy and wrote about it in 1827 in a book entitled Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Earnest. (1980, 59-60) In the photo/cinematic image however the metaphysical stakes are raised even higher.

The ghost of what was there in the time it takes for light to travel from the object to the film is written on the chemicals as the camera shutter closes – the photograph is not just a nanoseconds behind the material world but more an emanation of it – an auratic phenomenon. When the image is projected in a cinema, another ghostly presence is conjured up as though it were there by the passage of light over the audiences head producing an image as an outcome of its essentially fugitive nature. Not for nothing was the cinema received as a means of connecting the living with the other-worldly presence of the dead, not for nothing is the cinema at its most profitable in its most unrealistic mode – the animated feature and the effects driven action movie. For all the institutional insistence on realism, if we could believe our eyes in the movies who would go?

In the context of the way that the public, in Europe and America, had engaged with the latest technologies, in world’s fairs and amusement parks as both instructive and distracting, the Cinématographe made its novel intervention in the disputes about the world (such as the nature of movement) and gained an audience. What singled it out beyond this (as the Biograph poster shows) however, was the way that the apparatus satisfied another apparent impulse in the technological imaginary: that was to occupy different places and times simultaneously. The quite special possibilities that moving picture technology offered for transcending the physical world were (famously) noted at the idea stage of the Kinetoscope (when Edison wanted to bring back the talents of the dead).

Less well documented, however is the Lumiére brothers declared fascination with the third dimension in chemical and photographic research which may well have influenced their development of the Cinématographe as a machine to exploit the perceptual significance of overlap to record a view in depth. The ‘other’ dimension was not lost on audiences either as the first reports of the exhibition in the Salon Indiene in 1895 point out, despite its relatively degraded image quality, this kind of moving picture technology offered an opportunity to be in both this world and the next. More than post-mortem photography, (although possibly less satisfactory than a séance with a good medium) moving picture technology seemed to provide a portal to an other-worldly experience beyond time measured by the decay of the body.

Less morbidly, interaction between people, places and times regarded as separate according to the laws of science, became a dominant theme for the so-called ‘living’ picture shows. Phantom rides, actualities, and trick films reiterated many of the visual effects already achieved in magic lantern shows, as they also satisfied a long-standing popular fascination for practices that involved remote interaction in a context that showed a marked ambivalence to positivist claims. To be sure serious scientific and educational films were made and shown, but often in the context of hilarious trick films in which the fundamentals of science were undermined (much as they are in blockbusters today).

Nineteenth century moving image technology with its necromantic possibilities and its cognitively impenetrable trick on the eye and brain recommended it to a constituency that had been recently disenfranchised from the project of science that could, consequently, behave with intellectual freedom and irresponsibility. In this history of late nineteenth century invention as the contested ground between science, technology and popular culture, the Kinetoscope and the Cinématographe, with their different modes of exhibition, appear as to be used for both supplying moving images, and as a device for overcoming the physical limits of the body which had been progressively insisted upon. Once in the public domain the two inventions converged as a telepresence machine that could indexically represent the world and at the same time collapse the topography of the real and imagined to provide a portal to remote interaction. Such apparent contradiction between contesting realities were not confined to cinema and photographic technology but were abroad in the popular interpretation of other technologies and the ways in which they were used. 

There were other expressions of the cultural imperative for remote interaction. For example, almost concurrently with the progressive institutionalising of the Cinématographe as an exhibition entertainment comprising longer narrative films there was a rise in the popular fascination with manned heavier-than-air flight. In much the same way that inventing moving image technology was dispersed and simultaneous, so too were experiments to enable man to fly with complete control over direction. [5] Aside from the sheer adventure and spectacle of leaving earth, aeronauts and their backers were alert to the military implications of an elevated viewpoint, and, as others have remarked, vision, flight and warfare are closely – if not inextricably – intertwined. (See Virilio 1989) Consequently, although not strictly a moving image technology in the sense of animated images, heavier-than-air manned flight in particular was implicated in the same discourse as chronophotography (also implicated in warfare); inits public reinterpretation in stories and images, it replicated the condition of a transcendental subject (whether in the aeroplane or on the ground) who only fully understands reality through a process of intellectual self-projection – teleportation – to another place.

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that at this very moment – as these technologies enter the technological imaginary where their meanings were being negotiated and were, in these instances, meant tele-presence – a new physics was undermining the cherished certainties of positivist science. On a parallel track physicists had for the previous decade become more confident about the proposal of an invisible unit of action which was both matter and radiation.

Although generally accepted by 1914 it was the proposition of Einstein’s light theory in 1920 that set in train the research that forced physics to abandon the strict causality of classical physics for Quantum Mechanics.  In the Quantum Mechanical world the observer is unable to measure both position and momentum since even though that world is invisible, the observer’s measuring presence in it disturbs the system. Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s belief that nature itself operated discontinuously effectively collapsed the universe into the individual so that distinction between subject and object was no longer applicable. This dissolution of the cornerstone of classical reality situated physics at least in the thick of philosophical debate. The epistemological implications of the Uncertainty Principle extended beyond the laboratories to the very core of metaphysics. This was not simply the consequence of the brilliance of individuals but, according to Celia Green, it was an inevitable outcome of the rise of science in the twentieth century;

The European mind found itself in an uncomfortable position. In philosophy it had formulated the idea that the external world might be illusory, together with a number of other related equally irrefutable ideas. In mathematics and physics the most obvious developments ahead of it were the evolution of ideas concerning higher dimensionality. . Further to complicate its position, ideals of scientific objectivity had been expounded which made it difficult for these issues to be concealed. (1976, 8)

The expansion of the fascination for the portal between distributed spatial and temporal locations is evident in other technologies, many of which carry the prefix tele -, (telepathy telephone telescope, telegraph television, telepresence, telegony, telekinesis, telemeter, teleport, to name but a few) which, as Samuel Weber notes in ‘Television: Set and Screen’,

.has tended to be absorbed into the set of nouns that it modifies and thus loses its semantic independence. In nouns such as telepathy, telephone, telescope, and telegraph, the notion of ‘distance’ is preserved only as an obstacle to be surmounted, either by an intangible ‘sixth sense’ (telepathy) or, more frequently by some sort of mechanical device or electronic apparatus (telescope, telephone, television). Moreover, the overcoming of distance in all cases is linked to the ability to transcend the spatial limits usually associated with the body. (1994, 76)

Samuel Weber’s reminder of the body as an occult topic in the etymology of so many nineteenth century inventions begins to suggest that, as the antagonism and distance between the various scientific factions grew throughout the latter part of the century, the reinterpretation of scientific instruments as technologies for remote – even out-of-body – interaction may be regarded as expressions of a critical response to the scientific claims that the world was understandable.

The way in which certain technologies were thought about  prior to their institutional exploitation also points to a cultural obsession with remote interaction through time and space. Another kluge of pre-existing hardware; the convergence of the Cinématographe, the telephone and wireless provides us with the most tele of all these technologies – television. This apparatus also claims its ancestry in the will to overcome the spatial limits of the body, most famously in the apocryphal remarks of Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, who apparently wanted to be with his mother at Christmas, and in the ghostly presence of its images of another reality transmitted through the ether.  Moreover once an amplification tube was developed one imagined function of the next generation of television was in the convergence of these technologies with the idea of controllable heavier than air flying machines. In 1928, for example the following proposal was published in Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung in a caption to a picture of a man lying in bed watching a screen on which is projected the view from an aeroplane that he is controlling remotely. The caption reads:

Miracles that maybe we will experience: a tour of the world from the bed through the medium of television. The device above the bed is used to remote control an aeroplane, which carries recording devices and wirelessly transmits aerial views of the area above which the plane is hovering. On the map, which the viewer has in front of him, he can control, where the plane is currently located. ( Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung 08.01.28., 157).

Like early cinema, television was first understood as a narrow-cast medium intended for person to person (or person to machine) engagement that discarded the classical restrictions on interaction – in both machines, space and time became relative to the operation of the technology. It was only through subsequent re-invention in an instition underwritten by the State (in the case of the UK) that it was used for broadcasting. By the 1950s, of course this technology too, ceased to exhibit its ancestry of tele-presence as it became a domestic machine and even in the outside broadcast mode began to provide a ‘better view’ of the game rather than a somatic continuity with another distant place. As the cultural interpretation these technologies is subject to the processes of institutionalisation, the ecsomatic experience (in which the observer watches the normal world from a point of view which is not coincident with his physical body) gives way to a metachronic experience of complete hallucination. Again, in the same way that the cinema masked its ancestry of table tapping and paraphysics in its institutional phase, and the transcendental potential of heavier than air flight to free the individual from the prosaic constraints of the material world became sublimated in the passenger airliner and cargo plane, and the recovery of this fascination with the ‘other-worldly’ was equally short-lived as the brief excursion with television as telepresence gave way to broadcasting and the tele-event.

In the past two decades we have seen a similar trajectory of the use of telematic technologies. In the early 1980s, when artists and dissidents used the gift of surplus capacity from ISPs, electronic interconnectedness was seen as a new consciousness from which the repressed radicalism of the arts would emerge hand-in-hand with political change. It was a position argued most eloquently and persistently by Roy Ascott and a small group of networked artists. To an extent it did, but as we have all seen in the unfolding of the internet  in the last few years, the materiality of remote interaction as a medium for the exchange of goods has all but overwhelmed the transcendental aspects of telematic interaction that Ascott called the telematic embrace. (Ascott, 3) Using the World Wide Web, moving image technologies of the internet appear to be chasing the Hollywood model and the medium is moving into that institutional phase when the popular fascination with the remote interaction becomes subordinated to representational conventions and positivism.

In this rather potted account of a highly selective group of technologies we see that some scientific and technological inventions that involved sensing at a distance – the tele -technologies – often become sites of convergence of dominant social, intellectual and philosophical tensions which, following the trend set out here, are only quietened by the repression of a technology’s distributed meaning in an emollient institution of mass entertainment. The story of screen practices from the phantasmagoria of the sixteenth century to the church-hall magic lantern and moving image technology, or the conjuring act to the variety show, suggests that there is a pattern of re-circulation in which some devices emerge that initially seem to gain an audience in the promise of the ability to transcend the spatial limits usually associated with the body – to connect with other transcendent realities – only to be ‘grounded’ again. These technologies briefly contest the claims of classical science and scientists before the tele -dimension is masked in an institutional form apparently closing the portal to other ways of knowing. However as we have seen with Hollywood, amid an academic discourse of realism shored up by the industry’s own disavowal of an occult agenda, the lure of the transcendental and the ‘unreal’, whether in special effects or animation, lies at the heart of the financial health of the movies and its technological imaginary.

More recently the imbrication of faith and science has been brought to the fore in the examination of the smallest unit of biological tissue in the human genome project. In a brilliant conjuring trick in which the micro and the macro, the quantum and the classical, are regarded as continuous without the need for more than three dimensions, human behaviour – social economic and technological- is explained in socio-biology thanks to the scientific investment in the idea that the fully functioning human can be described in numerical code.

Socio-biology was not always a respectable branch in the canon of ideas. Between its branding as a pariah, when Edward O. Wilson was assaulted on a conference platform for daring to suggest that the biological (and intellectual) playing field was not racially level, and its acceptance as a respectable thesis Chaos Theory completed a crucial step – the biologising of the paradigmatic belief that claimed both the most exquisite abstractions of the Universe and the merchant reality of bean counting – mathematics. In an attempt to make claims about the universal behaviours of complexity, turbulence was factored into the explanation of dynamic systems. This represented the wholesale colonisation of the biological as three dimensional and partitioned the material so that belief can appear to be detached from scientific understanding. Yet while on the face of it the biologising of everything appears to be driven by a scientific rationalism, its disavowed investment in metaphysics effectively draws the explanation of the universe away from the incremental rationalism of Darwinism towards determinism and, in a brilliant sleight of hand, the miracle of the Creation, and God is reinstated in a universe which is the consequence of a code.

Such an elegant solution to the drawing together of the profound contradiction between knowing and ignorance recirculates the beliefs of the Mediaeval thinkers. The Latin Christian Mediaeval scholars inherited from Greek science a distaste for a contact with matter and practised a science which seems to have been concerned with speculations about ‘ “unchanging reality,” the “elements,” the “truth” and the “absolute.” ‘ (Batz 1965, 232) In the Mediaeval mind there was little distinction between the material world and moral, ethical, and spiritual experiences and a methodological obsession with order conditioned the engagement with the material world on the basis of an incremental accretion of data while the fundamental beliefs remained unquestioned. Such a recirculation in contemporary thinking, however has to recognise the impact of the imbrication of science and technology which insists that in its wake technology acquires an agency for historical change. This is an intellectually (and politically) unsustainable position in which history is selective and individual and collective action irrelevant. However some scholars concede that technology can have agency (to change culture) but only on the basis of a widespread belief that such a power in an inanimate entity exists. With this concession, the horrors of technologically determinism can then visit upon us a Universe organised by a single explanatory system with a deity no less arbitrary than the Lisbon earthquake. 

A frank admission that there may not be a single explanatory system that can account for reality draws us to the centre of the problem that a multidimensional universe poses. It calls for a new kind of explanatory system in which the perception of reality, the representation of reality, and ideology do not fit so snugly. The search for new procedures lies at the very heart of speculative science as for example in research into subcelluar structures – organelles such as mitochondria with their own DNA which appear to drive the engine of another genetic structure in a moment of enchantment. It may also need to embrace magic and astrology, an idea that connects directly with some recent research in the study of consciousness concerning the reconciliation of the electro-chemical processes of the brain with the rest of the world. Recent studies on human precognition and the possibility that we have perceptions of events prior to their happening has sanctioned some strange affiliations between science and parascience.

Dick Bierman, conducting scientific research using fMRI at the Faculty of Psychology in the University of Amsterdam, for example, provides compelling evidence that subjects do indeed exhibit changes in brain pattern prior to certain events. Attempts to account for this evidence without astrology produce their own magical inventions such as the (respected) idea that there is a backward referral in time to accommodate the variations of speed at which data travels around the body’s system. Fast visual data must be reconciled with slower tactile sensations and living in a disjointed present rather than a past has significant evolutionary advantage. Explaining how information can run backwards is not so easy in a classical environment and forces us to return to a world governed by quantum mechanics in which according to its foundational logic of uncertainty quantum information does indeed run backwards in time or is time indeterminate.

In another scientific speculation entitled The End of Time (1999) , Julian Barbour proposal uses the theory behind quantum mechanics, which lies at the root of modern electronic technologies, to consider the idea that time does not exist. He suggests that the idea of time as the Heraclitian flux may be nothing more than a well-founded illusion. Although, one might want to take issue with the phrase ‘nothing more’, or any theory that deprives us of another dimension, there are compensations. Barbour’s notion is of an infinity of “nows” that are organised in sequence in a continuity based on minimal difference (like a film strip) which creates an impression of time. Describing time as an illusion does not mean that the clocks stop, any more than describing the earth as round changes our perception of it as flat. What the end of time does open up, however, is new possibilities for understanding how the perception of multiple realities that we all experience becomes thought. Barbour’s work is timely since in the face of the immanent collapse of string theory, another dimension has opened up: the infinitely long and infinitely thin eleventh dimension of Membrane Theory that allows us to account for the apparent discrepancies between the laws governing small things and those in charge of big things.

The convergence of science, parascience, Quantum Mechanics and Membrane Theory to account for precognition may seem to be an inelegant collage of off-the – peg science but although each explanatory system has a different epistemological constituency, what joins them is the methodology; that is the liberation of image and a celebration of difference. Freed from the yoke of the logocentric dogma of the last century, imaginative leaps have been enabled that may of may not answer the question, but they are fun, and they do extricate us from the cul-de-sac of twentieth century theory founded on a spurious reign of the cult of fact. If nothing else the invocation of the other worldly exposes the ideological conjuring trick that makes the connection between the apparently irreconcilable oppositions of normal and paranormal. It exposes the sleight of hand that teaches us to regard all that is consigned to superstition with great suspicion whilst superstitiously following the truth claims of a scientific rationalism that few of us understand – a sleight of hand that is effectively passed through the scientific community’s rejection of the determining effects of performance as a structural element of the truth claims that it supports.

The strand of research at the interface of the multiverse is between the sub-microscopic and the study of human consciousness.  Drawing on a world-wide transdisciplinary community of scientists in a variety of fields whose experiments suggest that without the explanatory benefits of parallel realities their findings fall into the realm of miracles. Science, that most rational aspect of human enquiry, rejects miracles as it also courts a transcendental infinity and it extends its claims beyond the point where they might be physically verified, first through the telescope, then, demanding an even greater leap of faith with the microscope – an optical instrument that demands consensus and an act of faith as its technology abandons the eye for a comparative judgement between other instrumental realities such as fluoroscopy, radioscopy and so forth. Walking to the stars to test the claims of the telescope is in theory a possibility – no such confirmation is available for the microscope – microscopy is based on belief no less demanding than our faith in Saints. Consequently working at the sub-microscopic level allows metaphysical questions of human determination to surface as a scientific issue. No less than the astrologer or the spiritual medium the realities of the séance and the sub-microscopic are united around the shared cultural imperative of a total dissatisfaction with the chaining of reality to the materiality of the body.

The necessary radical shift in scientific thought (manifest as either reckless speculation or dogged entrenchment in the profession) to avoid a return to realism provides a moment for achievement in those artists, designers and scientists who have argued through their practice for new kinds of knowledge and new sources of authentication of the self to be regarded on an equal footing with the old. At this distance there is now little doubt that the digital revolution was, from its technological and conceptual inception, always destined to be the postdigital in which similarity, congruence and continuity found new applications. At stake in the postdigital analogue however, is more than the recovery of the subject: it is nothing less than whose vision of paradise prevails. A struggle in which the idealisation of representation is in conflict with the dominant technology which disavowed daily experience as an undifferentiated circulation of metaphors for desire and resistance. Things are different: we are now post digital and biology has paradoxically not become more mechanical but much more aggressively organic. Where the digital proposed the perfect finite conditions for a perfect existence regardless of matter, (as for example in the human genome project), in the postdigital analogue (as for example in the ironies of genetic and wet biological art) human consciousness is regarded as almost infinitely malleable, able to shape its identity in response to local (and technological) conditions aware all the time of the range of possibilities (digital and analogue) that are not developed.

What seems clear as we embrace the postdigital analogue – that is, the post digital reality that is the object of our current analogous representation – is that we need new procedures, ones that are not obsessed with equivalence and difference but can finely accommodate the equivalencies of differences. The digital eventually gave us the machine in the garden, the postdigital analogue, on the other hand, points to a version of paradise that is not a finite discontinuous place or a non-homogeneous moment of time, not Eden in a nostalgic future, but a thick membrane in which local conditions, desire and resistance are constantly stabilised to form a whole identity. Such speculative gambles, however seductive, may be symptoms of a more radical condition that we need to imagine.

Quite possibly the plurality of reality that we occupy does not lend itself to explanation – in which case the postdigital could herald not so much the end of time but the end of explanation – by which I mean that we may be forced to the frank acknowledgement that description and analogy provide as much insight into our realities as we are ever going to get. It is a medieval thought, more a provocation than a sustainable intervention, but one which to our rational logocentric ears sounds like madness.

But it is worth reflecting for a moment on the Martian view. If you were a passing alien looking on, what would you make of the different attention paid to the practice of belief and the practice of science, or the hierarchy between the image and the word in a world where “anything” is always two or more “things” at once? What would you make of a world in which human beings were evidently simultaneously multiprocessing huge amounts of data in their consciousness both backwards and forwards in time, and turning this data into complex actions, but whose perceptions are only socially sanctioned as “thoughts” if they are articulated in the serial modality of the text? Perhaps the Martian might look at the history of art and suggest that it is time to recover the power of the alchemist – Medieval to be sure – but the task before us is to rebuild our sensitivity to the networks of similarities in differences which has been overwhelmed by the logic of a single reality.

As I have suggested here, the Cinématographe as an artefact that represented technological achievement, did not emerge from a realist imperative for movement the way that materialist histories demand, but that a cultural  obsession with other dimensions and a radical shift in the relationship between ordinary people and technology converged on a number of machines and reinterpreted them to satisfactorily unite irreconcilable ideas. Not to acknowledge this has contributed to a flawed history of early cinema that becomes an impediment to our understanding of the cinema now and in the future. Similarly in this essay I have argued that to repress the determining impact of the paranormal in the history of science and technology skews our understanding of what science is. It also affects our understanding of what it means to do science and consequently what it means when non-scientists do science. The insistence here on beginning with a reality that is malleable and mixed in order to understand how scientific knowledge has developed is less for the benefit of the scientific community and more to prepare artists, historians, and philosophers to consider what new visions of the Universe we might recover from critically engaging with any world view that includes the immaterial, the apparently irrational and the satisfactory coexistence of the contradictory.


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[1] The fascinating issue of the out of body experience appears in Lindbergh’s autobiographies and is also discussed in the most recent biography by A. Scott Berg (1998). See Lindbergh, C. 1978. Autobiography of Values. Brace Jovanovich, Lindbergh, C. 1953. The Spirit of St, Louis. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, and Scott Berg, A. 1998. Lindbergh. New York: Putnam’s Sons.

[2] For the most thorough overview of this see Rosen, P. 1986. Narrative Apparatus Ideology. New York: Columbia University Press.

[3] For a full account of these se Fielding, R.1983. Hales Tours: Ultrarealism in the Pre-1910 Motion Picture. IN: John Fell, 1983. Film Before Griffith. Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. 116-130.

[4] This poster is in the Public Records office PRO reference: COPY1/171 folio 261.

[5] Interestingly in just the same way the dispute as to who achieved this first flight rages between Clement Ader, Hiram Maxim of France, and the Wright Brothers.

Bio: Michael Punt is Professor of Trans-technology Research at the University of Plymouth. Further information about Michael is available at:


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