The Aether of Invention


/1/ – At Century’s turn

The very concept of the turn of the century, whether rendered in English or the French fin de siècle, is tethered to one particular time: the shift from the 19th to the 20th century. This temporal lurch appears more drastic then any other because of the technological advances of the time, advents that seem impossible to imagine being without in the current epoch – the radio, telephone, airplane, and the harnessing of electricity.

In contrast to this tectonic of clockwork, it is odd to consider how the passage from the 20th to the 21th century was barely felt. If anything, the eve of the century bottled all its excitement in the knot of anxiety surrounding Y2K. The possibility of the failure of technology seemed, while utterly ridiculous, also banal and quotidian.

Perhaps there is a kind of wide scale technological death-wish here. In the opening pages of The Telephone Book, Avital Ronell tells us that “there is no off switch to the technological.” The telephone expertly embodies this anxiety – it is the constant demand, as Ronell argues, that never leaves us; we are always ready to answer the call, to accept some form of debt.

But before engaging telecommunications too quickly, there is a concern to be raised: how has science, through its deterritorialization lost its very sense of invention, of novelty, of an irruption in knowledge itself?

/2/ – Materialization of movement

It would be difficult not to characterize the contemporary era in terms of a simultaneous fullness and emptiness, of pure excess but an excess of empty shells. What is the interplay between these elements? Let us make the wager that it can be found in the notion of process, or, technological transparency.

Why should we discuss a certain fascination with the sphere? The creation of massive globes (Richardson’s Weather Factory, Reclus’ inside out sphere, Mappariums et cetera) in conjunction with certain geological theories in the realm of pseudo-science (such as hollow earth) suggests a fascination with the materiality of the immaterial. One example is the temporalization of space such as “the great map of mankind”. Fashioned during Victorian times, this world map depicted non-Western countries not in spatial terms but more fundamentally in terms of time. This meant that the ‘less devolved countries’ were seen less as different cultures and more as located in various pasts of western culture.

In addition, theories such as phrenology, physiogomy, and craniometry attempted to materialize differences and, in particular, racial differences. What links these attempts at objective science to the shift from the 19th to the 20th century is their role in the search, as Alain Badiou puts it in his text The Century, for the new man. The errancy of the Fascist, the Nazi, and of all eugenicists was the possibility of a Promethean/utopian project. While Badiou points out how this was the wrong project, it was more noble than today’s science where there are no projects to be pursued but only problems to be solved.

While so many technologies birthed at the turn of the century seemed to eliminate space, they were, in fact, a greater affront to time. Despite the radicalness of such inventions, a certain amount of spatiality was respected. The phone was trapped in place at its desk or booth, small towns grew to service the needs of endless veins of locomotives, and the television and radio gave full rooms of families the injunction to ‘gather ’round.’ Again we have the sphere – the place which moves yet remains.

Perhaps that was the frightening aspect of Tesla’s experiments in Colorado Springs,the lack of wires, the moveability of science which surpassed magic. And to return to the aforementioned Promethean nature, doesn’t the very holding onto there being a place of the gods, keep technology bound to space?

/3/ – The Fifth element or Invention’s plane

While there are countless theories which have been superseded by scientific evidence, several hang about our imaginations. Here I am thinking of aether, and in particular the luminiferous one. The luminiferous aether was the posited medium which, in theory, allowed for the transmission of light. The concept that light could pass through the nothingness of space did not seem to be a possibility at the time. Aether, in a more general sense, was also the fifth element, the air of the god’s ‘clear sky,’ or as the embodiment of quintessence, the non-material material, life itself.

Here Paul Virilio’s almost poetic text Open Sky is of the utmost relevance. The book begins: “The blue sky above us is the optical layer of the atmosphere, the great lens of the terrestrial globe, its brilliant retina. From ultra-marine, beyond the sea, to ultra-sky, the horizon divides opacity from transparency” (p.1). In a kind of reversal, Virilio goes on to argue that in the current time, contrary to the previous century, we have given time its own sense of matter; time has become the only sense of space.

Another venue to examine the relation of the material and the immaterial during the turn of the century is the awkward co- inhabitation of science and mysticism. Would it be completely ridiculous to find a connection between the rise of spiritualism, the belief that god and spirits can be directly communicated with, and the birth of the telephone?

To bring up an example I have used before – Hegel, discussing physiogomy in The Phenomenology of the Spirit, makes the odd statement that ‘the spirit is a bone,’ suggesting the coincidence of opposites in materiality and immateriality. As Zizek argues in The Sublime Object of Ideology, this coincidence has to do with the bone, and in particular the skull, embodying the very failure of being a subject, the subject’s deadness (p. 208). Spirit and materiality are seen through the act of ‘looking awry’ or through Zizek’s amended definition of parallax.

At the same time, the century seemed bent on the concept of the performance as sham, the grift, as well as the belief in magic as magic. This brings us to the film The Prestige.

/4/- The Secret or the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige

While k-Punk has, some time ago, discussed The Prestige in terms of the secret, the most important aspect is of course found in the film’s end. The final lesson of the film is that we, in our current epoch, wish to believe the infallibility of science which, in a sense, divides science from the notion of invention itself. Without giving too much away, the film’s final point concerns our willingness to completely disregard magic and accept the logical explanation. But the important caveat here is that our viewing the film with a certain amount of dismissal of magic brings with it a view of technology – that it can no longer accomplish novelty – that it is only, in the current era, capable of slow, incremental changes, or as Badiou put it, fixes to a problem and not projects. How can we better explain how the appearance of novelty, of the Event, functions in the field of science?

For Badiou, science is one of four fields in which new truths emerge. The following is an extended passage from Being and Event:

“When Galileo announced the principle of inertia, he was still separated from the truth of the new physics by all the chance encounters that are named in subjects such as Descartes or Newton. How could he, with the names he fabricated and displaced (because they were at hand — ‘movement’, ‘equal proportion’, etc.), have supposed the veracity of his principle for the situation to-come that was the establishment of modern science; that is, the supplementation of his situation with the indiscernible and unfinishable part that one has to name ‘rational physics’?” (p. 401).

The question that Badiou is asking, in his own terms, is how does one move from the indiscernible, from the obscure object of invention, to the undecidable, to the point where one must decide to act in regards to the truth of one’s discovery. Something is knowable in the situation, through some procedure (in the case of the above story calculation based on gravitational discrepancies) that connects what is known to the truth of the situation which is must be forced (Badiou borrows the term of forcing from the Mathematician Paul Cohen) into the situation.

To bring this to the category of invention, one need only take a brief look at the writings of Brian Massumi. In Parables for the Virtual, he writes: “a true invention is an object that precedes its utility [...] with invention, the perceptual direction of travel between the poles of necessity and utility, between the intelligence and instrumentality, possibility and reason, is reversed” (p. 96). An invention “precedes and produces its own possibility” (p. 96).

/5/ – The call, the ring of the phone

Taking another note of Massumi’s – invention- and, in particular, the process, is always analog (p. 147). Wasn’t the turn of the century about the revolt of process, of our rejection of process? The intimacies of process seem to fall close to the dreams of the project- the details of process instill in us the very impossibility of the project.

So where does this leave us: what is the state of invention? Near the end of his well known text Simulacra and Simulation, in the chapter Value’s Last Tango, Baudrillard suggests that all that we have is the foolish hope that the very territory where the transreal and the transfinite exist disappears. This is all we have if we wish for a kind of return to meaning, a return to value in a time of an excess of information.

Returning to Ronell’s Telephone Book, the notion of the call, and in particular the call to act, is paramount. Ronell works through Heidegger’s embarrassing Spiegel interview, relating it to his philosophical works. In particular Ronell discusses Being-guilty in relation to being-there. She argues that the call, which is both beyond and over one (p. 33) when answered makes one guilty (p. 37). To want to answer the call, one must already be in the state of being-guilty, one must be willing to, in a more literal sense, accept the charges.

Ronell makes clear that this being guilty has to do with a simultaneous over-proximity and great distance from the Other as such. Bashing ‘paranoid’ theorists of technology such as Virilio, De Landa, Zizek and Ronell, Jerry Flieger asserts that hypervisibility and technology are not capable of erasing human existence as it has been. Flieger states that the anxiety over technology is simply another example of ‘paranoid knowledge,’ of looking too awry at reality (Is Oedipus Online?, p. 88).

The greater threat, it seems, is not the human mind and body at the altar of cybernetics, but the very concept of technology as a threat to itself. It is not frightening how humanity and technology, how flesh and circuitry, will be melded, but how such a thought displaces the place of invention itself. The risk is science becoming primarily a technique of extension, instead of one of knowledge’s explosion.

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