Ether: The Nothing that Connects Everything

Joe Milutis,
Ether: The Nothing that Connects Everything.
Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
ISBN: 0 8166 4644 9
208 pp.
US$ 29.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by the University of Minnesota Press)

The term “ether” has multiple points of reference, but it can still mean nothingness. Ruminating about ether (or the ether) is like mulling over infinity (or the infinite): both lead to the frustrating conclusion that they are simultaneously graspable and ineffable. Milutis deals with this dichotomy, explaining that ether is “a plenitude of thought, even though the word stands in for the void” (ix). He describes this highly interdisciplinary subject as having no disciplinary location at all: “ether is all over the place, and that place is nowhere to be found” (ix). In general, meanings of ether and what it represents have changed over time, having profound effects on how people perceive their worlds in part and in entirety:

[Ether] is a mediating substance between technology, science, and spiritualism, and the historical relations between these three terms determine its perfume. Far from timeless, the ether is a placeholder of sorts, expressing these relations as they shift and transform, century after century (xi).

Milutis, assistant professor of art at the University of South Carolina and media artist, has written an extremely engaging and fantastically ambitious book that traces the history of ether. According to Milutis, our concepts of ether as powerful and vague are not too different from premodern ether, but there have been shifts in how people think about ether from then until now (xii).

This history begins with the Greeks. Anaximander created the earliest known concept of a primal substance (the apeiron) that had an infinite extension that exists in all things. Anaximenes, “who said the stars were nailed onto a transparent crystalline sphere,” implied that this ether had a shape. Anaximenes separated the ether into two forms: the earthly air contained within this crystalline sphere and the astral zone that extends beyond the moon (xv-xvi).

Debates about how many heavens and crystalline spheres were in outer space emerged with the medieval rediscovery of Aristotle (xvi). The philosopher also influenced thinking about ether through his idea of the “fifth element,” or quintessence , another name for ether, one that refers to its mystical imponderable features and separates it from the four earthly elements – earth, air, water, and fire (39-40). For Aristotle, the shape of the ether was just one sky (114). Galileo’s telescope challenged followers of Aristotle: “The ether was suddenly (again) not absolute but an abstract everywhere” (xvii-xviii). Contemporary technology enabled people to view themselves as omnipresent and that ether, too, was everywhere rather than out there. Milutis includes an illustration, the Integrae Naturae Speculum, Artisque Imago (1617) by Robert Fludd, a contemporary of Galileo, which shows a hierarchy of the world from animals to angels (a concept “indebted to earlier Ptolemaic systems” and “perhaps influenced by the ‘heresies’ of Galileo and Giordano Bruno” and the occult, xviii-xix). Fludd’s print offers an analogical, alchemical worldview. Outside the circle that represents the Earth, planets, and stars are rays and undulating vibrations that represent the ether. Milutis explains that “Newton’s ether would . . . allow for practical, empirical experimentation, yet the ghost of the alchemical still remained” (xviii-xix). He compares Newton to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a precocious expert of alchemical texts advised by his teachers to abandon his past knowledge for what was then modern scientific (rational) thinking (xix and 9). Newton came to a new conclusion about the ether:

For Newton there was no space, only a noncontinuous, particulate, and elastic conglomeration of ether and void. Or rather, there were two spaces: relative and absolute, the latter the perfected, energetic, and divine double of the active, clouded, and human former (114).

This distinction or division of space (or the ether) would influence Ben Franklin’s work on electricity, Mesmer’s work on energy and animal magnetism, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity:

Newton favored absolute space while Einstein favored relative space (114-115). In Chapter 1 Milutis explains how Mesmer was inspired by both Newton and Ben Franklin (the latter officially renounced him as a scientist) and that scientific concerns (e.g., electricity and magnetism) blurred with questions about metaphysics. According to Milutis, Mesmer believed that there was a fluid or undulating medium that bathes everything (4-5). Mesmer’s idea about this undulating medium as well as animal magnetism were attractive as theatre to an occult-inspired nineteenth-century public that perceived ether as supernatural (5). Interestingly, Mesmer, Newton, and Franklin believed that there was an ethereal fluid that bathed all things; however, Newton and Franklin “would establish a paradigm that would become the basis of further scientific investigation, while Mesmer would establish a basis for popular speculation, New Age practice, and artistic investigation” (7).

Milutis observes that the ether is important now because it “now more than ever opens up questions germane to the history of transcendental thought” (xiii). My own impression is that for the past few years transcendental thought has had a strong re-emergence in both scholarly and nonscholarly writings. As studies they stress transcendence, devotionalism, and spiritualism (with a small “s”).

In the Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2 Milutis considers approaches to ether from science, technology, and literature, but a large portion of the book is devoted to visual and aural media, including theatre, radio, and television. Ethereal themes tie all these fields, disciplines, works, innovations, practices, and ideas together throughout the book. They include undulating vibrations, mandalas and circles (and the punctum), fragments that can be traced back to something lost in its entirety, desires to capture, exhibit, and explore the unknown substance and its space, and connections between the classical, rational, traditional, or mainstream and the experimental, avant-garde, or radical. For example, Milutis explores ethereal aspects of abstract and experimental films of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, as well as Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957), 8? (1963), and Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), Cocteau’s Orphée (Orpheus, 1950), and various Hollywood mainstream films, including Demon Seed (1977), Capricorn One (1978), The Right Stuff(1983), St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), Apollo 13 (1995), and Space Cowboys (2000). He considers a broadcast conversation between composers John Cage and Morton Feldman, the instrument known as the Theremin (invented by and named after Leon Theremin), and performances of the musical works of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Robin Rimbaud (Scanner), and Ryan Schoelerman (Cypher 5), among others.

Milutis credits Edgar Allan Poe as the most outstanding ethereal writer. His writings appeared in both scientific and literary journals because he “mixed particle theory with metaphysical sentiment” (16). In Poe’s time mesmerism was a household word in American middle class homes. It was also considered a form of mass entertainment during the Nineteenth Century when the spectacle was packed full of a variety of performances and events (22). Poe’s writings include many facets of mesmerism (the curiosity of telepathy, animal magnetism, the sixth sense, mediums, the trance, the anonymous or dead recipients of his messages, and dark worlds that can be accessed only through dreams and imagination). In his writings that captured spirits Poe was prescient of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs of subjects and the spirits or vapors that hovered over them (a striking compilation of these kinds of photographs as well as photographs of fluids can be found in the book The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, 2004). Milutis remarks that Poe was “the most energetic transponder of the premodern ether, who cast its occult waves well into the Twentieth Century” (16). Poe’s influence was felt despite the short period of 1880 to 1905, when, according to Milutis, the ether disappeared. In 1887 Michelson and Morley’s experiments (overshadowed by Hertz’s demonstration of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory) could not find the ether, so “suddenly the ether did not exist.” The work of Hertz and Helmholtz would eventually keep the ether going through radio.

Fellini had also been attracted to mesmerism and ether. In his films his cast served as proxies for him. As if they were hypnotized, he would control their every word, action, and reaction. Milutis relates Fellini to Poe:

In the work of Fellini, who constantly thematizes hypnotists, séances, and other spiritualist kitsch, there is, as with Poe, a constant interrogation of mesmeric and ethereal states and a search for some concept of clarity (23).

Like Poe, Fellini’s interests in mesmerism permeate both the texts we see on screen and his casting decisions and his attraction to weird and interesting people. He also turned to the radio, not only as a sound source, but also as an access point to the ether that informs the world of his films. Milutis’s remark about the soundtrack to Nights of Cabiria does double duty, showing how the music creates an ethereal world and how the characters can be understood as metaphors for radios:

The nondiegetic music of Fellini’s films at times is veritably transmitted to the characters, who, with utter clairvoyance, will dance, move, and walk to this music as if they are human radios who have perceived the jazzy rhythms of a modern cosmos (27).

Cocteau’s Orpheus also uses the radio as a communication device between the living and the dead. Orpheus is a musician in the myth; however, Milutis explains that Cocteau turns him into a poet-superstar who is facing a writer’s block and struggling to keep the limelight focused on him after a younger, talented poet named Cegeste has blank pages published in the magazine Nudism (86-87). Orpheus later discovers he has a muse in a Rolls Royce car radio, which transmits phrases to him. He finds the poems so intriguing that he begins to ignore major events and tragedies occurring in his life: he ignores his wife as she dies. These poems are Cegeste’s, but Orpheus publishes them as his own. The radio becomes a liminal apparatus that enables transmission from the living and the dead:

Although Orpheus is accused of outright plagiarism, he may merely have renewed the circuits between the living and the dead that radio, facilitating a mysterious connection between different orders of reality, has always promised, and that poetry, when allied with radio and becoming something like a word-music, has the power to reprogram (88).

In his discussion about Orpheus Milutis astutely relates this radio of the underworld to the Orpheus myth, Pythagorean ideas about understanding music perfectly, communications with the Other, and spiritual aspects of the cinema. He also makes a connection to the 1960s counterculture, by focusing on Jack Spicer’s lecture and his book The Heads of the Town up to the Aether (1960). Spicer was always interested in the Other in the form of alien voices and transmission. One wonders if his lectures and book had some influence on Buckminster Fuller’s Introduction to Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema (1970) when he described human eyes as operating as transceivers that may beam thoughts into outer space and that thoughts themselves may be beamed from other planets (quoted on P. xxii and cited as Youngblood, P. 30). Spicer’s remark during his Vancouver lecture seems applicable to Orpheus:

I think that the radio set doesn’t really worry about whether anyone’s listening to it or not, and neither does the poet (90).

Milutis explains that the poet is the receiver of transmissions that are alien to him. Sound and music offer space for ethereal discourse. Cocteau’s radio and his cast, despite their entombed dead voices (by means of radio or cinema), need sound and music to render themselves appealing to each other and to the audience. At the beginning of Chapter 3, Milutis describes how ether became a property in the early Twentieth Century through increased control of airwaves. By the end of this chapter, his discussion makes and opposing turn, suggesting that these airwaves are capable of controlling us. One can look beyond the radio of Orpheus and observe the many structures built to reach the ether (for instance, the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower – outcomes of the spirit of monumentalism) and electronic music composed to communicate with, receive noise from, or resemble the ether (e.g., Cage, Ligeti, Oliveros, and music composed for the Theremin). His final chapter returns to mainstream films about reaching outer space as well as underground and experimental films that offer various kinds of trips to the moon and beyond it.
Ether is wonderful interdisciplinary fun to read and offers an ethereal aura of its own: readers will delight in its juxtapositions, some at first glance farfetched. Milutis, however, makes convincing connections without going too far out on a limb and thus provides hierarchy for this gigantic web. The book will inspire new questions and ideas about anything that is considered as object, text, space, connective tissue, or nothing at all.

Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith,
Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, Louisiana, USA.

Created on: Friday, 10 November 2006

About the Author

Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith

About the Author

Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith

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