Something in the Air: Ether, Viruses, and the Late Nineteenth-Century Unknown [1/3]

[These posts are based on a position paper I wrote for a panel on the unrepressed unconscious for the first Subjectivity conference way back in 2008. In the panel, ‘Contagions, Rhythms and Energies’, Jan Campbell, Lisa Blackman, and I discussed the various ways an unrepressed unconscious might help explain various fugitive connections and the flows of affect they enable. I never did anything with this work, but thought it might make a good series of posts ahead of Spirits in the Ether: Oliver Lodge and the Physics of the Spirit World at the Royal Institution next week.]

In ‘The Subliminal Consciousness’ Frederic Myers famously recast consciousness as a spectrum, in which what we habitually understand as consciousness, the ’empirical self’, is merely one part of a subliminal consciousness ‘indefinitely extended at both ends.’1 However, it is not just the spectrum that Myers imagines, but the spectrum as imaged by the spectroscope. The spectroscope was a means of ascertaining the elemental contents of a light source, whether this was the flame emitted by a burning chemical compound in the lab, or the light emitted by a star many years ago in a galaxy far, far away. The light emitted was directed through a prism and projected as a line that corresponded with the electromagnetic spectrum: as different elements have different masses and so correspondingly different wavelengths, they appear as bars against the spectrum. The images produced by the spectroscope were predicated on presence and absence: the lines indicated the presence of a substance but the gaps registered absence as virtual presence, a possible presence disavowed.

Spectroscopic image from Sir Norman Lockyer, KCB, FRS, 'Preliminary Note on the Spectrum of the Corona', Proceedings of the Royal Society, 64 (1898-9), facing 170.

Image from Sir Norman Lockyer, KCB, FRS, ‘Preliminary Note on the Spectrum of the Corona’, Proceedings of the Royal Society, 64 (1898-9), facing 170.

The spectroscope reveals what is there at the same time in the context of what is not. However, this sense of immanence, of an absent phenomena signalled by what is present, is not really the same as an unrepressed unconscious. What is missing in the spectroscopic view is ultimately knowable and predictable: it is a gap or absence in a coherent system. In using the spectroscope as a metaphor, Myers employed both the latest research into subvisible electromagnetic radiation and the powerful rhetoric of the spectroscopic image to legitimate his hypotheses regarding psychical phenomena. Yet in doing so, he displaced a model of the subliminal consciousness that, because founded on the unknowable, was suggestive and generative, to one that was always potentially knowable. In the posts that follow, I want to suggest that scientists in the late nineteenth century had a troubled relationship with the unrepressed unconscious. In thrall to nature’s mysteries and its potential for the unexpected, scientific discourse nonetheless attempted to isolate new phenomena and give them shape. Whether by defining their edges or establishing intergrity through demonstrable repeatability, the scientific project of objectification insisted that nature was, ultimately, knowable. Although nineteenth-century scientific rhetoric often gestured towards the mysteries at its edges, often to romanticize the scientific project or maintain conceptual space in the cosmos for God, the condition of nature as a suggestive state of the unknown was only temporary, something to be gradually eroded by a new nature that made sense. The tools of science were designed to carefully distinguish between the observer, whatever was observed, and the chaos against which it was observed; however, such structured relationships could only be predicated upon the knowable aspects of things, their hard edges and predictable behaviour, producing a world that was haunted by what was left out. In the posts that follow, I will describe some of the ways in which nineteenth-century science produced the troublesome entities at its margins. Looking again at such things not only tells us much about how people understood the world around them, but also provides an opportunity to think again about our world. When objects exceed the way we imagine them, we confront a nonhuman unconscious whose otherness we share. It comes down to reading between the lines.

1 F.W.H. Myers, ‘The Subliminal Consciousness’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 7 (1892), 306. [back]

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