Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Fossilized Shadows: Italy through the Stereoscope: Distant Shadows

Distant Shadows

“But, Sir—excuse your humble servant—I am at a loss to comprehend your meaning, —my shadow? — how can I?”
“Permit me,” he exclaimed, interrupting me, “to gather up the noble image as it lies on the ground, and to take it into my possession. As to the manner of accomplishing it, leave that to me.”
—Adelbert von Chamisso71
They may receive into their souls the peculiar messages which certain places in Italy can give.
—Albert E. Osborne72

Throughout the nineteenth century, virtual travel and actual mobility—whether driven by tourism, migration, or colonial conquests—were inextricably intertwined: views of the mondo nuovo, carried by the Savoiardi and other itinerant peddlers, could work as an imaginative travel substitute for local customers and as marketing and mnemonic devices, both invitations to the voyage and souvenirs for those who could afford to travel. Toward the end of the century, another shift took place, exemplified by the Underwood enterprise: perfected as a technology, virtual travel became an even more powerful attraction than its panoramic precursors, a comprehensive cognitive, and ideological, apparatus capable of further enhancing—to the point of replacing—the experience of the traveler. At the same time, a symbolic exchange between the Old World and the New World took place: the stereoscope provided an immersive photographic surrogate for what were once Grand Tour itineraries. As this popularization of the Grand Tour progressed, a new subject also emerged, a middle-class viewer, an “innocent at home” (as we have called this new breed of virtual traveler) for whom the entire world was at hand as an object of knowledge and imaginative consumption—a collection of living stereotypes.73 Our simulation has shown how Underwood, Keystone, or Corona Stereo kits turned the experience of the Elsewhere, foreshadowed in the mondo nuovo journeys of a century earlier, into a sort of hyperrrealistic domestic experience, both educational and voyeuristic, that finds in the New World, America, its ultimate realization.

However, these vivid images from a distant world have provided us with another kind of “simulated” experience as well. Looking through the stereoscope, or better, through our own digital simulation of what was a simulated experience of reality, we may ourselves experience the subdued emotion of traveling back in our own collective memory to a fading dimension, frozen in time, as though we were peering into that “aquarium of remoteness and the past” that Walter Benjamin mentions, speaking of his own experience of the Kaiser panorama as a child in Berlin. Like the cosmorama and all the other spectacles examined throughout this monograph, the stereoscope is inspired by a transcendental drive of the human mind and imagination: “Distant worlds were not always strange to these arts,” Benjamin writes, “and it so happened that the longing such worlds aroused spoke more to the home than to anything unknown.”74 Throughout the nineteenth century, inventive and playful technologies seemed to embody this collective nostalgia for the unknown, even as they allowed a systematic appropriation and consumption, a “domestication” of the world.

Our last simulation thus illuminates and completes the meaning of the others, as considered within this digital monograph: as both interactive demonstrations of the devices discussed in each chapter, and as virtual renditions intended to corroborate our interpretation of the devices themselves within their historical and cultural context. As discussed in the Preface, equipped with simulations of the devices it studies, this digital monograph imitates, to some degree, the multimodal system of a stereoscopic kit. If, in previous chapters, we have focused on the theater as a representational device and the “architectural” framework of our simulations, we may now turn to the book as both an ideal container and an evolving medium. This analogy between the book and the stereoscopic kit as a multimodal knowledge tool that expands and blurs the physical boundaries of the printed page was very clearly indicated in the Underwood promotional literature, and also supported by educational experts, as we read on the back inside cover of “Italy through the Stereoscope”: “But when all is said we come at reality in books only through interpreting symbols by the power of our imagination and through the illumination afforded by our personal experiences. Books cannot furnish us with new perceptions of realities.”75 But images can, and stereoscopic images bring the cognitive power of images onto a new level, as the Underwood kit shows. Digital technologies afford us an even more powerful combination of the cognitive functions of the book (interpreting symbols) and images (perception of realities), combinations to be explored in all their possibilities. As a digital monograph, Shadow Plays provides only one of multiple such examples within the boundaries of our current 2D reading environment: one aimed to shed symbolic light on images and make symbols more perceptible, or tangible. Yet, with the new virtual environments produced by digital technologies, we are about to cross a new threshold; with the realization of the virtual, the representational logic behind the concept of virtual realism as we have articulated it is effectively replaced by a technologically driven, interactive, and haptic logic which radically also transforms the meaning of simulation, enabling ever more immersive experiences, including ones which will potentially redefine the very ontology of our social life.

Like the other case studies included in this work, the stereoscope is open to symbolic interpretation based on the illustration of the images it (re)produced, condensing the critical meaning of what we have called “virtual realism.” In their very ambivalence, “sun sculptures” and “fossilized shadows,” as Holmes described them, stereographs capture the aura of reality and evoke the living presence of the past, as in a real phantasmagoria. This, as we have seen, applies in particular to the experience of the virtual traveler, mesmerized by the vision of places and the perception of “presences” that are as vividly tangible as they are immeasurably remote. Enhancing the power of the photographic medium, the stereographs play on an internal tension, evoked by the two dimensions of a photograph as “the living image of a dead thing,” according to Roland Barthes: what he calls the “studium,” the symbolic framework of the image, the “cultural experience” it provides; and what he calls the “punctum,” the detail that “pricks” the observer and “lightning-like” triggers an emotional and cognitive mini-shock within the viewer.76 The experience enabled by the stereoscope ideally fuses both dimensions in a single act of vision: a cultural experience made vivid to the point of providing a cognitive shock of recognition.77 This shock, the very experience of “being there,” as Osborne describes it, is the essence of what we have called the system of “virtual realism” inscribed within the mechanism of the apparatus. There may be no better example of this technologically mediated voyeuristic dimension than the impression made by the stereographic photographs of the “mummified” bodies discovered in the cities buried by Mount Vesuvius and displayed in the very position in which they were caught by sudden death, covered by ashes, as in a sulfuric flash (fig.14):

We have seen the homes and the streets of Pompeii, but the inhabitants, were no traces of them left? No doubt a pathetic and mournful interest would attach itself to such a sight, but to actually look upon the faces of those who once lived in these dwellings, and made up the life of this famous city, would be exceedingly interesting and instructive. Is such a thing possible? Surprising as it may seem, that is the very thing we are about to do.78

Discovered in September of 1853, these bodies “were preserved in the same form in which they were found by an ingenious process, suggested by Fiorelli, which was to pour liquid plaster into the mold of hardened lava and ashes in which they were discovered,” as Ellison writes. By retrieving their three-dimensional presence, their colorless form, what the stereograph captures for the bifocal vision of the observer is not just a one-dimensional specimen in a virtual museum but the very aura, the tangible space and time of their sudden death:

This plaster having been allowed to harden formed a wonderfully perfect outline of the body, preserving every attitude and expression. We feel these are not statues, but veritable human bodies embalmed by Vesuvius in a casting of lava, which reproduced the clothes, the flesh, nay, almost even the appearance of life. These are no Egyptian mummies black, withered, hideous but men and women who have just died. Some of the bodies have a calm and peaceful look, but others have a ghastly appearance, as when the bones protrude here and there where the flowing lava did not completely envelop the limbs.79

This co-occurrence of life and death, of presence and memory, is perhaps the most extreme destination reached, consciously or unconsciously, on the experiential journey of the Underwood & Underwood virtual travelers in Southern Italy, a volcanic land of petrified history and timeless beauty. It embodies the dual vision promised by all the technologies we have examined: they offer both a comprehensive, “total” view of the world and impressions captured at a glance, now symbolically embracing space and time in one virtual dimension. Yet, it also confirms the paradox at the core of virtual realism: the more thorough and accurate our ability to turn the world into a phantasmagoria of proliferating images, the more fleeting these images become—and with them, our own reality. Inscribed in the apparatus, hidden in the fluctuating image, is yet another uncanny meaning of “being there”: triggered by motion parallax, in our simulation the 2D images become animated—they “come alive” with an effect not dissimilar to the combination of pictura and imago, inside the Selvas’ casotto. Yet the stereoscope also adds a temporal dimension, in which the present coalesces with the past—presence and absence, space and time crystallized together, as Deleuze suggests. Thus, a profoundly ambivalent experience is embedded in the stereoscope, hidden or disguised beneath its illusionistic effect. If, on the one hand, stereoscopic photography virtually “mummifies” reality, turning its very living presence into almost solid stereotypes (the lazzaroni as “living dead” who keep haunting the collective imagination), on the other hand, looking at these fossilized shadows, a century and a half later, we experience something uncanny ourselves—as perfectly captured in a sequence from Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film, Voyage to Italy (fig. 15).80 This screen shot shows the moment in which two human “fossils” (a man and a woman, frozen in an eternal embrace by Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 A.D.) are discovered and unearthed, something that could not have happened as shown, given the complex process described above of obtaining the casts by pouring liquid plaster into the mold of hardened lava and ashes. Yet, Rossellini’s fictional representation perfectly illustrates the instantaneous “mummification” process of the photographic image, a process that the cinematic image sets in motion.81 If Belzoni’s facsimiles of the figures painted on the walls of Seti’s tomb—also taken by casting wax and plaster-of-Paris impressions on the spot—were able to reproduce and convey the emotion of their discovery, Rossellini’s sequence conveys the moment of shock and “recognition” experienced by the protagonist, played by Ingrid Bergman: de te fabula narratur (the story is about you).82 The stereograph makes this process even more tangible, and the emotion it conveys perhaps more powerful.

This technology, like the others considered in this work, gives us access to a mnemonic archive of our own past, as close to a time machine as we can imagine: distant, historical shadows, a vanished world reflected in foreign lenses and foreign eyes—a gaze on the Self as exotic Other. “As I stood and gazed on these victims of one of the world's greatest tragedies,” Ellison writes, describing the “mummies” of Pompeii, “it all became so real and so near, that the very air of the room grew close and suffocating; and while I fain would have lingered beside these silent sufferers who held me with magnetic power, still I was compelled, at length, to turn away and seek the sunlight and the vitality of the outer air.”83 As with all the simulations included in Shadow Plays—2D renditions of three-dimensional, immersive experiences—our simulation of a stereoscopic kit leaves us at the threshold of illusion, twice removed from the reality of the object depicted: “Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” as Benjamin wrote.84 As a simulation of a simulation, our model is admittedly incapable of conveying the emotion of “being there,” at the moment of discovery. Yet, this threshold is also where images display their uncanny power, making this perhaps the best position for critical reflection. The ultimate goal is not to create an illusion, but to provoke recognition, as Susan Sontag eloquently writes:

It suited Plato’s derogatory attitude toward images to liken them to shadows—transitory, minimally informative, immaterial, impotent co-presences of the real things which cast them. But the force of photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality—for turning it into a shadow. 85

Indeed, following Barthes, we may ask: What is the actual “punctum” of our last two stereographs? They capture the gaze of the “living dead,” the ghostly gaze of disembodied historical mummies—a Sicilian shepherd tending to his flock, oblivious to the ruins of a lost civilization; the migrants about to leave their country and sail for the New World. Their afterlife depends on our living gaze, “ghosts” or shadows which, lifted from reality and life, “stick to our skin.”86 Our readers are free to experience this reflection themselves, this quiet shock of recognition, enabling a sort of “clairvoyance” as each fluctuating image may strike their sight and mind in a different way, with the evidence of a marginal detail.87 As suggested earlier, the punctum of the stereograph, indeed of all the optical experiences we have considered in our case studies, could also be our sudden recognition of a reversed gaze looking back at us, capturing us, voyeurs of life and death, positioned wherever we are in our geographic and temporal New World—reaching us from an Elsewhere in which, whether we are aware of it or not, we are ourselves forever inscribed with our own shadows, absent and present at the same time.

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