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The Transported Man: Phantasmagoria, Tesla and Magic

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Recognizing that something fundamentally had shifted in the consciousness of those residing within the technological medisaphere, Marshal McLuhan observed that we had passed a "break barrier": "Just before an airplane breaks the sound barrier, sound waves become visible on the wings of the plane. The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends is an apt instance of that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as the earlier forms reach their peak performance." Was there a specific point in which our senses began to extend beyond our bodies into mediated realms, as McLuhan suggests? Was it with Plato, the alphabet, linear perspective painting technique, the Guttenberg press, electricity or the telegraph?

Pinpointing an exact threshold is difficult, yet Walter Benjamin's effort to comprehend the milieu of modernity in some respect was trying to do just that. In particular, he was suspicious that something significant had taken place in the 19th Century, some kind of moment when reality accelerated into the technological media bubble of our times, something he reffered to as "phantasmagoria."

Other have called this phenomenon the "spectacle" (Debord) and "simulacra" (Baudrillard), but the roots of the distrust of visual media go as far back as Plato. In Book III of The Republic, Socrates holds up a mirror and claims that any common man or wizard can conduct this simple act of simulating reality, but the mirror world would still only be one of appearances and false consciousness. After the demonstration with the mirror to the Sophist, Socrates states, "God, whether from choice or from necessity, made one bed in nature and only one. Two or more such ideal beds neither ever have been nor ever will be made of God." Hence we reach the core of Platonic thought: that the world is merely a shadow of a greater truth, an ideal that can never be found manifest in our daily reality. Since then we have been ensnarled in an epoch of Greek ocular metaphors, of which we can say Western philosophers have made good careers defending or scorning.

Some art historians claim the Greeks were aware of linear perspectival space as a technique, but rejected it because of its innate distortion of God's natural order. In this respect, the Renaissance and the project of Enlightenment, which conformed the world to the eye and book, would probably have incensed Socrates as a kind of sorcery, for Socrates hated magicians and poets: "I don't mind saying to you, that all poetic imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and that the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them." The vitriol continues as he vilifies the Sophist who is a "sort of wizard, an imitator of things." Ironically, it was the codification of the alphabet by the Greeks that set our imitative technologies into motion.

Cut to the 19th Century when phantasmagoria was a popular entertainment spectacle that incorporated smoke, mirrors, and projected light to create illusions during live performances. The term itself combines roots for ghost or spirit (phantasm) and gathering (agora). Webster defines it as,

1: an exhibition or display of optical effects and illusions; 2 a: a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined b: a scene that constantly changes; 3: a bizarre or fantastic combination, collection, or assemblage.

 

The key words are "exhibition," "illusions," "shifting," and "assemblage," all of which characterize the change that was taking place in the 19th Century as a result of the rise of mass media, commodities culture, industrialization, urbanization and the exponential increase in speed of transportation that was shaping perception. What is particularly interesting about the root "agora" is the sense of an open gathering space of the Greek polis, denoting a collective, public experience , the phantasmagoria being a shared social reality.

But if the phantasmagoria was a kind of break-barrier point for Benjamin, a recent movie concerning the magical arts, The Prestige, takes us a little deeper. But be forewarned, a movie about magic employs the principle technique of enchantment: misdirection. Thus any film claiming to be about magic has as its subtext the fact of the film itself, which is a carefully constructed illusion, just as any Hollywood motion picture about spectacle is ultimately self-referential (such as Gladiator, which was a veiled commentary on the entertainment business and studio system).

Curiously, The Prestige was released within a year of The Illusionist, another film dealing with fabricating reality with its narrative situated in Victorian-era 19th Century. Both locate themselves at the early stages of media spectacle, a time when phantasmagoria – the predecessor of modern film – was a popular form of pubic performance. That there would be a cultural curiosity about this nascent period of magic, performance and spectacle is not coincidental. As we are facing ourselves in Scorates' fully engaged mirror of mediation, we are innately curious about the origins of our societal identity crises as we encounter our interdependent relationship with media.

Of the two films, The Prestige is particularly relevant. The foreground of The Prestige is a war between two rival professional magicians. The background is the enmity between two magicians of a different sort: Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, the inventors of our modern electrical system. The film's subplot concerning the life and work of Tesla (played by the quintessential space cadet, David Bowie, no less) alludes to the ambivalence the society had with new technology at the advent of electricity. One of the most repressed figures of modern history, Tesla, we may recall, invented/discovered alternating-current (AC) electricity, which competed with direct-current (DC) electricity championed by Edison. As the cliché goes, history is written by its winners, and it's no wonder that Edison, a brazen self-promoter and showman, engaged in a number of public spectacles and dirty tricks to discredit his nemesis, Tesla. Edison publicly electrocuted stray animals to shock people into believing in the danger of AC (one scene in The Prestige alludes to such a public war). Not coincidentally, Edison was one of the earliest innovators and promoter of moving image technology, something that eluded Tesla who preferred to experiment privately with this radical, newly harnessed energy. But even Tesla was known to be a bit of a show-off. When his studio was in New York he was known to entertain celebrity visitors like Mark Twain's entourage and dazzled them by conducting high voltage electricity through his body that produced an eerie aura, and used wireless florescent light tubes (one of his many inventions) that were powered as if by magic. Witnesses reported also seeing Tesla hold "balls of lightening."

In a sense we could say that in the 19th Century our society faced two alternate visions of power: Edison or Tesla, and the one that ultimately was selected by finance has fashioned the world we're in, literally. Among Tesla's many inventions, the one that irked his backers the most was his desire and effort to create free electricity. In a poignant scene during The Prestige, Tesla's assistant amazes the magician Rupert Angier (played by Hough Jackman, better known as the X-Men's Wolverine) when he reveals that the Earth can light bulbs (infused with AC powered by Tesla's Colorado Springs power plant). The film's narrative only references these experiments, but what Tesla went for was developing a system that harnessed the earth and atmosphere as natural conductors of electricity. He dreamed of wireless energy, long before our current age of wireless phones and Internet (which are still dependent on limited battery life and a physical grid). There remains a debate today as to who discovered radio first, but many claim it was Tesla, not Marconi. Not surprisingly, towards the end of his life, when he was destitute and broke, Tesla worked for the US military designing wireless communication between ships and other projects we still don't know about.

When George Westinghouse learned of Tesla's fundamental designs for free power, he pulled the plug, literally, telling him that he would not finance an operation that would give free power to Africans. When you look at the history of the "war of currents" between Tesla and Edison, all the early financiers of our electrical system ultimately became the military industrial complex, in particular Westinghouse and General Electric. That these power and technology companies became media corporations as well sums up the situation quite nicely (GE owns NBC and Westinghouse formally owned CBS). Control requires illusion, i.e. misdirection, and it is fitting that the most dominant military contractors, innovators of nuclear weapons and electrical power, would also be in the business of fantasy, i.e. magic. Touchstone Pictures, a subsidiary of Disney, produced The Prestige. As a member of the global corporate elite, Disney is one of the few media companies that doesn't also make physical weapons, but as the quintessential trademark of capitalist "magic," it's deployment of electrically fueled dreams softens up targets/markets/marks for the inevitable appropriation of energy resources. Our lives are powerfully formed by the convergence of the forces of magic, militarism and the power grid, yet we are rarely conscious of their nexus. Did the filmmakers have this in mind when they conceived The Prestige? No matter, they reveal to us the three stages of the magician's performance, and perhaps they can be used as a deconstruction tool: the "pledge" (a declaration of intent to make something vanish), the "turn" (the disappearance), and the "prestige" (the return of that which has been disappeared). There is a subtle proposition that the film itself is a trick. Are we paying attention?

These techniques mirror to some extent the three-act play of our civilization since the discovery of the force of electricity. There's quite a bit of academic theory about the psycho-spiritual turn modern civilization took in the Victorian era. For Benjamin it was symbolized by phantasmagoria, for Adorno it was Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art." For contemporary scholars, early recording technology were efforts to capture time, contingency and ultimately catastrophe. It was an unconscious coping mechanism for Western society to contain conditions that were radically destabilizing pre-established notions of the world. Not surprisingly, in the early days of photography and then later with wax cylinder recording and wireless communications, people associated electricity and media with supernatural forces, linking media technology with spiritualism. As people were adjusting to these new technologies, they were unsure of and spooked by their capabilities. We take all of this for granted because they immerse us, but recall that there was a time when electronic media were new and incomprehensible. As John Durham Peters puts it, "What men and women in the late nineteenth century faced with alarm is something we have had over a century to get used to: a superabundance of phantasms of the living appearing in various media."

In regards to this scenario, McLuhan draws an analogy with the myth of Narcissus. In his version, Narcissus is not enamored with his reflection, but is rather trapped in it. He extends himself into his reflection as we do with our nervous systyem into electronic media, but get ensnared by our iteration. Having lost the sensation of ourselves, we amp up the input into the sensory circuit to re-stimulate ourselves, and the cycle goes on so now it's normal to watch half-second edits on TV and to be assaulted by movie previews that condense films into five minute rollercoaster rides of nerve stimulation. So like the turn in which the magician disappears himself, we are transported into an illusion facilitated by electrically powered media, but the question remains, have we yet to reappear in the final act, the "prestige"? Are we lost somewhere between the trap door in which the magician falls away, and his inevitable return from behind the mirror of our fascination? Or maybe in our prestige a digital doppelganger is what returns.

Tangentially, Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land deals with the revolutionary convergence of magic and psychology. The alien-raised human protagonist, Mike, who has an incredible capacity for empathy and psychic prowess, decides to transform human society when he discovers his powers are best understood when combined with magic (and a Bohemian lifestyle that includes free love). People like a good show, and "marks" as stand-ins for citizens of the rocket age, are in a sense the buying public of the corporate dream world's media torrent. Mike is also the product of a technological magic act. His is the result of a birth by humans who disappeared on Mars (because of an accident), and returns to Earth as a reconfigured human – a posthuman whose global perspective and ability to "grok" cannot be contained by the prevailing society, and ultimately ends in tragedy.

Stranger in a Strange Land does an excellent job of illustrating the particular American skill of combining religion with entertainment, but ultimately for no good. One wonders if the gig is up as transparency ("grokking"?) becomes one of the prevailing characteristics of new media. Without obfuscation, there is no misdirection, no magic. What The Prestige illustrates is that we like to be fooled, and though we insist that good magic be illusory, we also want to know that there is a conscious trick. We are ultimately skeptical of miracles. We want to believe that we are partners in the illusion's construction; it gives us a modicum of control. But to know the solution of the trick is also to destroy its allure. Ultimately, maybe it's better to know not God. We want our toys, and to watch TV, but we really don't need to know how they work.

The Prestige asks us, "Are you looking closely?" What the film draws our attention to inadvertently is the relationship between entertainment and power. Do we have the sophistication to see though the film's own misdirection to get to a critique concerning the ideological core of our contemporary nexus between the military, entertainment and electrical power? I believe anti-television crusader Jerry Mander is correct when we assess the true implications of our electrical power system choice, which incidentally is the number one cause of carbon emissions. Choosing nuclear power or coal means a devil's pact, so-to-speak, with a highly centralized, bureaucratized, military-industrial-complex. A renewable energy system is decentralized and is not dependent on a massive security apparatus or infrastructure delivery system predicated on scarcity.

Through his inventions, Tesla proposed an alternative foundation in which power could be obtained freely. The society, or rather, an elite core of financiers also known as robber barons, chose another path. We'll never know if his theories were correct; he wasn't given the chance to implement them. Consequently, it's no coincidence that the 20th Century was the American Century. The core triumvirate of electricity, military and entertainment was consolidated in the United States, funded by pirates of the Industrial Revolution. That power matrix is further fueled by the petrol economy. What remains to be seen is to what extent we have been altered by the "turn." Fittingly, it's the magic trick, "The Transported Man," that corrupts and destroys the The Prestige's protagonists in an era when we began doubling and transporting ourselves into media space. In our "prestige," what will be our ultimate fate?

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