BETWEEN THOUGHT AND MATTER: THE FINAL FRONTIER

24 02 2009

By MICHAEL PUNT

The letter fell from his nerveless hands. He thought long and deeply. Yes hehad memories of a neighbour’s child, of a girl, of a woman in a dancing hall–all was dim and confused, like a flickering and shapeless view of a stone in the bed of a swiftly running stream. Shadows chased one another across his mind, but would not fuse into a picture. There were stirrings of

memory in the realm of feeling, and still he could not remember. It seemed to him that he must have dreamed all these figures, must have dreamed often and vividly–and yet they had only been phantoms of a dream. His eyes wandered to the blue vase on the writing-table. It was empty. For years it had not been empty on his birthday. He shuddered, feeling as if an invisible

door had been opened, a door through which a chilled breeze was blowing into his sheltered room. An intimation of death came to him, and an intimation of deathless love. Something welled up within him; and the thought of the dead woman stirred in his mind, bodiless and passionate, like the sound of distant music.

Zweig, S. (2004) Letter from and Unknown Woman, London: Pushkin Press:. p.104. (First published in German as Bukrief einer Unbekannten in 1922).

To what extent pictures may be improved within the limitations of 10 kilocycles is a matter upon which it would be a mistake to dogmatise–for example it must not be taken for granted that television is bound by the same laws as govern cinematography. There is no necessity to send as many as 22 pictures per second. We sent only 12 and a half at present, and if we use a screen on which is impressed a permanent or semi- permanent image, the recording point being preceded by an obliterating point, then the limit o picture speed is fixed by the rapidity of the movement of the person or scene being televised, and not by any question of flicker. I may say that in the laboratory we have transmitted pictures at as slow a speed as three per second, and these pictures have been visible as a united whole. At that speed, however, rapid motion is impossible, and a man who turns his head rapidly gives the impression of having left his nose behind, or a hand moved up and down looks as if the fingers were made of sealing wax. As I say, however, the speed of picture transmission in television is not bound by the laws of cinematography, and those who endeavour to fix limitations to the progress of television, basing their arguments upon the established arts, may fall into as grave errors as those who based their calculations upon half-tone blocks, and assumed the television image to be made up of dots. John L. Baird 1930

Moseley, S. A., Barton Chapple, H. J. Television To-day and To-morrow. Sir

Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd.: London. (1933) pp. x-xi.

In the year 1887, the idea occurred to me that it was possible to devise an instrument that should do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, and that by a combination of the two, all motion and sound could be recorded and reproduced simultaneously. This idea, the germ of which came from the little toy called the Zoetrope, and the work of Muybridge, Marié and others has now been accomplished, so that every change of facial expression can be and reproduced life size. The kinetoscope is only a small model illustrating the present stage of progress but with each succeeding month new possibilities are brought into view. I believe that in coming years by my own work and that of Dickson, Muybridge, Marié [sic] and others who will doubtless enter the field, that grand opera can be given at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York without any material change from the original, and with artists and musicians long since dead. The following article which gives an able and reliable account of the invention has my entire endorsation. [sic] The authors are peculiarly well qualified for their task from a literary standpoint and the exceptional opportunities which Mr. Dickson has had in the fruition of the work.

Thomas A. Edison

Century Magazine Volume 48, Issue 2 (June, 1894)

In these three long quotations, separated by 40 years, a single theme emerges through the lens of hindsight. Each, in their own way, takes as a norm the idea that there is a reality that coexists with, is coextensive with or, is distinct from, the material world.

In Zweig’s literary exercise the forty-year old wealthy Austrian male wrote as though he inhabited the mind of a twelve year old city girl who became a courtesan. With the right tools, those of an accomplished and demanding author, he enters the affective domain of a creature who could not be more alien to him. ‘R’ the famous novelist returning to Vienna on his 41st birthday receives an enveloped addressed to him containing a manuscript beginning: ‘To you, who have never known me.’ In a dozen or so pages he reads of a dimension that he has participated in but has been completely oblivious to, except, that is in a brief material manifestation that produced a son who subsequently dies. He reads of a parallel world that involved him as deeply as any could but of which he was utterly unaware. In the ‘strange handwriting’ he saw the aspec of eternity, (as Spinoza put it) in which all dimensions are connected, or more precisely only appear disconnected in a reduced or indifferent perception. Only in the last paragraph of the novella does he give voice to the male author in the citation above, gently chiding him for his life-long materialism that has blinded him to the mutlidimensional possibilities he has missed.

In 1948 a film version of Zweig’s story was released. It was rewritten by Howard Koch (who collaborated on the Welles’ radio play ‘War of the Worlds’, and ‘Casablanca’ among other things) and directed by Max Ophuls. Koch turned it into a tear-stained melodrama of female masochism which would have ensured that the film sank without a trace, but under the direction of Ophuls, Joan Fontaine, and to an extent Louis Jourdan takes us into unknowable realms while Franz Planer, (the cinematographer), guides the camera through space as though as though matter and thought have equal weight . As a consequence a ‘four handkerchief melodrama’ becomes at the same time a treatise on eternity. Her last words “If only”, so despised by critics for its ideological naturalisation of suffering alerts us to the stoic response to contingency that defined the late 19th century. Such is the delirium of the camera that it is not people or objects but movement itself appears to move. As Zweig entered the mental state of the adolescent girl so (under Ophuls) the film process enters matter to produce a critical commentary on twentieth century realist myopia grounded in a dubious materialism.

Another advocate of the delirious camera (although he would have never put it quite like that) was John Logie Baird. He was one of number of people who have been linked with the invention of television and as the long quotation above suggests, Baird thought of television in a very different way to the broadcast/surveillance version that we understand today. As is also clear he thought of it rather differently from the Cinematographe – or at least what the Cinematographe had become in 1926. For him the transmission of images between one room and another in front of forty members of the Royal Institution on 26th January 1926 was not the same as transmitting pictures. In one room there was an image that we often call for convenience a person, and in the next there appeared an image of that image, not, as the quotation makes clear a mere depiction. This technological achievement which seems to have satisfied most people for nearly a century was not an end in itself as far as Baird was concerned. He saw it more as a stepping stone in the project of teleportation. He did not work on greater definition but instead got closer to the essence of otherness and by the 23rd of November of that year he transmitted an image that was in total darkness by radio waves so that it appeared in the receiving room and all the motions he made could be easily followed. The witnesses to this ‘Noctovising’ (as he called it) were Alexander Russell and W. R. Crookes. In 1927 none other than Sir Oliver Lodge was also successfully “Noctovised” by Laird. Just as we have to see the concept of image as historically mutable so the concept of psychic phenomena has also been affected by the dominant presumption in the late 20th century that reality and matter are interchangeable terms. Crookes and Lodge were both rational intelligent men deeply concerned with psychical phenomena, and saw science and technology as gateways to a world not defined by the restricted conceptual apparatus of the intelligent human.

Logie-Baird is often cast as the loser in the race to invent a viable television. His investment in mechanical television with 30 lines of resolution at 5 frames per second was overwhelmed by electronic television systems initiated by Campbell Swinton and Boris Rosing and, having more lines per inch, gave it what is often called higher definition. EMI’s 405 line electronic system became the broadcast standard and Baird in effect was left to the business of manufacturing receivers. Baird too began working on electronic television systems after 1930 and before he died in 1946 he was working on a thousand line system having, it seems, more or less abandoned his attempts at telportation. But even as Baird adopted a version of Farnsworth’s ‘Image Dissector’ he attempted to integrate it with a mechanical system to develop his idea for “seeing by wireless” suggesting that he had not entirely given up on his earlier vision which he had always dismissed as an attempt to get to telvision very quickly.

He did indeed lose his battle with John Reith, the first Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation. There are many reasons offered for this: old animosities, the public criticism of Reith as out of touch and Baird’s television as closer to the people, and of course that Reith was a staunch Presbyterian whose ethical position could accommodate his ruthless exercise of moral power. Baird was also the son of a Presbyterian minister but seemed more able to accommodate a wider moral compass including aspects of spiritualism. He attended seances and was once introduced to Thomas Edison by a medium. He was profoundly skeptical of this but finishes his essay ‘Fingerprints of a Materialisation’ with an agreement that it was dubious but adds ‘I have witnessed some very startling phenomena under circumstances which make trickery out of the question – and also unfortunately publication. I am convinced that discoveries of the far-reaching importance remain waiting along these shadowy and discredited paths.’

Reith, or more precisely his subordinate technicians complained about picture quality as a tactic to prevent the development of television. This was to miss the point of “seeing by wireless” as Baird referred to it, but it did effectively shift the discourse and the focus of his effort to the commercial exploitation of broadcast television (and open the way for the USA to dominate the industry). His visionary interpretation of television technology was disavowed to the extent that any psychic dimension to radio and television broadcast was prohibited under th e Broadcasting Act passed by Parliament (and not repealed until 1996 – and then only for radio). In the years following the first public Televisor transmission in January 1926 Baird worked to extend the distance of transmission and then to develop a colour system. But even when he capitulated and eventually turned his attention to the business of broadcasting, most commentators see him as visionary: his version for broadcast television was as a medium of pre-recorded material and the technology is based on what he patented as ‘Cinema Television’ (tele-cine). Under pressure from business promoters to increase the size of the image from a few inches square to cinema size, by 1930 he was able to demonstrate a transmission on a screen measuring 6 feet by three feet. In 1931however he returned to the key issue of his research by transmitting the Derby live. (In this he followed in the steps of Robert Paul who also publicised his Animatographe by screening film of this famous horse race in 1896.) Although the outside broadcast only partially recovered his ‘spiritist’ version of television as a teleportation of the senses, it did integrate it with the radio distribution network used for popular broadcasting and there is some evidence that since that time the illusion of ‘liveness’ has underpinned the lure of television despite the fact that it is, to all intents and purposes, a materialist medium of pre-recorded images controlled by a bourgeois consensus much the same as when the cinema became an adjunct to the classic realist novel.

On the face of it recorded television is the fulfillment of Thomas Alva Edison’s vision in 1887 for an instrument that would do for the eye what the phonograph had done for the ear. As has been suggested, his invention of the Kinetoscope was rather closer to the domestic VCR than the cinema but exhibitors and agents intervened to insist on public projection. However this confuses the commercial innovation with the invention. As far as the Kinetoscope went, his business plan of selling films (software) for use in commercial and domestic settings merely replicated the compromise that his muddled management of the phonograph patents had forced upon him. His lifelong fascination with spiritualist matters which stimulated his interest in the phonograph and then the Kinetoscope may have just been a fashionable pursuit or it may have had its foundations elsewhere in his life. But clearly in his letter of 1876 cited above (which some think may be post dated) he signals the ‘material’ in a very different way to our present understanding of it. Claiming ‘… grand opera can be given at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York without any material change from the original, and with artists and musicians long since dead’ Edison is clearly not understanding the material as necessarily solid and finite matter. Instead he suggests that the opera might be experienced through the Kinetoscope as though we had travelled somewhere in time and space without the trappings of ‘stuff’. Although Edison is clearly speculating and ‘talking his inventions up’, as he was apt to do, what the passage above suggests is that his vision for moving images was much closer to Baird’s idea of seeing at a distance than the more mundane imitation that an entertainment exploitation with its high revenues could offer.

In these three quite arbitrary cases we see a repetition of a single theme: the subversion of an immaterial dimension by social and economic forces. It leads one to wonder why the necessity is so compelling (to the extent that the legislature underpins it in the case of television) and where might be the relief. This repression is indeed perhaps the most hostile environment in which the Arts and Humanities can flourish contained as they are by institutional pressures to disavow any dimension that evades our crass world view and clumsy instruments. And it seems when fragile visionary devices do appear they are quickly subsumed and reinterpreted to conformity. Such pessimism is tempered, however, by the power that the recovery of a discourse has when it is re-read from the vantage of the present. It is through this method that we have been able to see the quality of transcendence in popular films, to see the significance of an inventor dismissed by the British establishment as a loser, and to understand that invention and innovation (as we saw through the re-reading of early cinema in 1978) can be quite discontinuous. The necessary step for poorly equipped humans, however, is to acknowledge our frailty and nakedness at times when the overbearing hostility of materialism tempts us into anthropocentric bravado and a suit of the Emperor’s best clothes.

Refs.

Anon. Psychic News (1994,February)

Baird, J. L. (1988) Sermons, Soap and Television. London UK: Croydon: Royal Television Society.

Burns, R.W. (1986) British Television: The Formative Years. London, UK: P. Peregrinus.

Baird, M (Ed.). (2004) Television and Me: The Memoirs of John Logie Baird. Edinburgh, UK, Mercat Press,

Crookes, W. (1871, July) ‘Experimental Investigation of a New Force’ Quarterly Journal of Science.

Edison, T.A. (1894, June) Century Magazine 48(2).

Gelatt, R. (1955) The Fabulous Phonograph: From Tin Foil to High Fidelity. Philadelphia, USA: J. B. Lippincott Company.

Moseley, S. A., Barton Chapple, H. J. Television To-day and To-morrow. Sir

Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd.: London. (1933) pp. x-xi.Punt, M. (2000). Early Cinema and the Technological Imaginary. Bristol, UK: Cromwell.

Zweig, S. (2004) Letter from and Unknown Woman, London: Pushkin Press:. p.104. (First published in German as Bukrief einer Unbekannten in 1922).

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