Hyperrhiz 05: Reviews

Joe Milutis, Ether

Anne Brubaker

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign


Milutis, Joe. Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything, University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 208pp.

"It has become helpless and irresponsible and even depraved in our materialist intellectual context to write about something so immaterial, so beyond local knowledge, not to mention so without disciplinary location" (ix-x). Working against the critical grain, Joe Milutis ambitiously traces conceptions of the ether from ancient philosophy to contemporary new media studies. Milutis historicizes shifting notions of the ether — from its personification as the "superflux of sky" in ancient Greek mythology, to Plato and Aristotle's notion of ether as an absolute, immaterial essence, to its physical instantiation in 18th and 19th century science as the "fluid through which electricity travels," to its rejection by 20th century physics as an irrational concept, and finally to its resurgence as the invisible conduit of radio and internet communication — all the while careful to attend to its varied representations in literature, drama, film and the visual and performative arts.

What makes the ether a relevant subject for scholars interested in materialist criticism is the way in which it has hovered between the abstract and the physical — as a celestial domain, pure nothingness, or as solid matter that transmits electromagnetic waves. It has also become a term synonymous with cyberspace, obfuscating the material practices of telecommunication, functioning as "the misnomer for the wireless-seeming tangle of ports called the 'Ethernet' that resides in the basements of institutional space and facilitates local area networks" (ix). Milutis considers the ether as a "mediating substance between technology, science and spiritualism," and indeed one of the overarching points of his study is to show the interconnection of these three realms, the irrepressibility of the mystical or spiritual within scientific and technological discourses (xi) — a claim that echoes the work of Michel Serres.

Milutis' chapters cover four roughly successive historical periods, each concentrating on the artistic and literary works that engage contemporary scientific and spiritual conceptions of the ether. Chapter 1 focuses on the "ether period," or the beginning of the eighteenth to the end of the nineteenth century, in which the ether became "properly scientific," the object of study for the emergent science of electricity. But just as the ether breaks away from the "magic-suffused involucrum of pre-Enlightenment thought," its relationship to the supernatural reemerges through a popular fascination with mesmerism, particularly the performances of Anton Mesmer, and a corresponding interest in mesmeric and ethereal states reflected in the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and the films of Frederico Fellini. Milutis finds the roots of Mesmer's ideas in the work of Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin; while all three "conceived of an ethereal fluid that bathed all things," Newton and Franklin "establish a paradigm that would become the basis for further scientific investigation, while Mesmer would establish a basis for popular speculation, New Age practice, and artistic investigation" (7). Milutis observes that the legacy of mesmerism plays out in Poe and Fellini's work. For example, in his "The Mesmeric Revelation," Poe stages conversations that Milutis calls "ethereal dialogues": "Poe's disembodied, mystical dialogues are about the destruction of appearances and the attainment of this anterior mind space. Unencumbered by scene, stage, and to a certain extent action, the dialogues attempt the impossible interiorization of a vast unincorporable infinity" (19). Fellini's films likewise share a fascination with occult, as his work "constantly thematizes hypnotists, séances, and other spiritualist kitsch" (23). In such films as 8 1/2, Nights of Cabiria and Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini creates "space-times through which his characters detour, atmospheres and evanescences, assemblages of pieces of things and temporary theaters that threaten to crumble when human inspiration and energy leave the scene," and he experiments with the ethereal aspect of sound — its capacity to represent "some elsewhere" or the hypnotic or mesmeric states his characters experience (25). Milutis finds that Fellini's filmic spectacles reverberate Mesmer's theatrical therapies.

Chapter 2 explores the overlap of science and spiritualism in the period between 1880 and 1905, a period during which some scientists began to treat the ether skeptically but before the publication of Einstein's paper on special relativity, which firmly discounted the ether's existence. "The overall impulse of this period of a paradoxically disappearing ether," Milutis contends, "seems to be toward the development of a spiritual positivism that is not at odds with science but rather uses the objects and ideas of technoscience as one would a philosophical toy, helping people perceive the ultimate, rarefied matter of life" (44). Popular conceptions of the ether shift from a scientific to a theosophical perspective, but one that paradoxically relies on the ethos of scientific rationalism. Milutis argues that a spiritualized and experiential notion of the ether — the "belief in dimensions that can be perceived through the body's ethereal double" — reemerges during this period, reflected in the introduction of yoga to the West, staged in August Strindberg's "dream theater, " and recapitulated in 20th century Japanimation (39).

Chapters 3 and 4 move into the 20th century, tracing, respectively, the development of radio communications alongside avant-garde artists for whom radio serves as both a metaphor and medium, as well as early space exploration and the filmic responses to cosmic travel in 1960s experimental films. While these chapters focus less on the ether as such, a result of its gradual disappearance from popular and scientific discourse, Milutis makes a compelling argument for how the ether is reconfigured in the 20th century as the interspaces of radio, satellite and later internet communications. This new ether is conceived not as an unknown quantity, but rather as mappable, government regulated property. These electronic "spaces," as Milutis points out, are only visualizations of massive amounts of data points: "Like stock market channels and Internet sites, the space launch in real time ... is only a visual signature of the vectors and machinations, abstractions and algorithms, that invisibly allocate wealth according to some clock rate" (116). While data emerges as "our contemporary ethereal substrate," one of Milutis' key points in this wide-ranging study is to show how radio, satellite and internet technologies are imbued with the kind of mythical and spiritual rhetoric that has always accompanied conceptions of the ether. As he writes in his concluding chapter, "the romance of the ether and the digital quantization of all things go hand in hand" (159).

Milutis' concluding discussion of the dialectical relationship between science and spiritualism — the "paradox of increased analytic rationality producing a heightened sense of irrational magic" — helps explain his numerous references to mathematics, a subject that is also paradoxically conceived as both highly rational and mystically charged. Indeed, it seems that the history of the ether is interlaced with that of mathematics; as Milutis suggests in Chapter 4, conceptions of space have always been the province of mathematics, particularly geometry. Perceptions of the ether have shifted alongside the paradigmatic notions of space that mathematicians such as Descartes, Newton and Einstein helped to construct — perceptions that continue to be molded by developments in mathematics, not just in "shape of space" disciplines like geometry and topology, but also in the algorithms and computations which make up "our contemporary ethereal substrate." While Milutis attends to these connections, his conclusion suggests a wariness about the mathematical reduction of the ether. He cites Wilhelm Reich's similar perspective: "You have done away with the ether, thereby committing a colossal error. You have replaced a real, pulsating, lively, functioning world with numbers," adding that "if the digital has any claim to the ethereal, it would be a product of a kind of mathematical sublime" (158). Milutis seeks to limit the analogy between data and the ether to preserve the mystical, illusory otherness that is for him constitutive of this enduring medium.

While versions of Milutis' argument regarding the interconnections of science, technology and the occult have circulated among historians of science and technology as well as science studies scholars, readers of this book will find the ether — and the impressive range of mainstream and experimental visual and performative art projects — a unique and enriching means through which to explore these connections. This book should be especially interesting to those who work in new media, film studies, art history and performance studies, as well as in science and technology studies.


DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/005.r05