Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: Stereoscopic Library

Further Insights

Stereoscopic Library

The panoptic character of virtual tourism is clear from its very early stages, embedded in mondi nuovi, cosmoramas, and panoramas. With the stereoscope, representational techniques changed in a way functional to the new cognitive forms that imperialism and/or cosmopolitanism required from ever larger masses of people, in an age in which the nationalization of the masses was also part of a broader globalization.38 As Holmes prophetically wrote: “The time will come when a man who wishes to see any object, natural or artificial, will go to the Imperial, National or City Library, and call for its skin or form as he would for a book at any common library.”39 From this point of view, the stereoscope exemplifies the relationship between virtual tourism and the organization of knowledge. Holmes’s stereoscopic library is also a cosmorama: a century and a half later, it now resides in everyone’s handheld device, distributed through social networks that condition and filter the “wish to see any object, natural or artificial.” Yet, access to knowledge or information is still filtered through popular vision technologies. As Brooke Belisle writes, Holmes’s formulation anticipates our database imagination, our contemporary version of “the fantasy of total representation”: our “dream of the total archive” which substitutes a most realistic version of the map for the territory, including all “material relationships between people, places, and things” (fig. 9).40

We are now again on the threshold of another VR revolution which, combined with AI, promises to radically transform the very meaning of “reality,” beyond traditional forms of representation. Today, algorithmic data visualization radically departs from a representational framework; yet, for large masses of people, cognition is still linked to forms of visual representation, albeit perceived through interfaces increasingly generated by automated systems. Within their analogical framework, stereoscopic kits already configure a significant cognitive shift. While early twentieth-century elite culture, with the rise of the avant-garde, was moving away from conventional forms of representation to explore the hidden geometries and patterns of reality and perception, popular culture remained attached to representational forms, yet transformed in both format and meaning. A distinctive trait of stereoscopic technology was its capacity to translate popular education and entertainment into a more direct, supposedly unmediated experience of the places and objects represented in the stereographs, thus providing a new evidentiary quality to traditional cognitive and imaginative activities. What the stereoscope actually promised to do as a popular technology was to deepen even further the panoramic and encyclopedic worldview, turning the cognitive act of visual perception into a thoroughly immersive activity—the whole known world made available for a private voyeuristic act.

As Albert E. Osborne explains in his book, The Telephone and The Stereoscope, published by Underwood & Underwood in 1909, the experience that the stereoscope and the stereographs provide for their users is not simply that “of sitting in their homes or schoolrooms and looking at life-sized representations of places situated here and there around the world, but indeed that ...[of] gain[ing] a distinct sense or experience of being in these places” (fig. 10).41 The fascination of the stereograph lies for Osborne precisely in its hyperrealistic potential, a phenomenological apperception of the world that goes beyond the ontological limits of the photographic medium and affects the very structure of reality as we perceive it. As William James warned in his fourteenth talk to teachers on psychology, a collection of lectures first published in 1899, the post-Kantian term apperception was exceedingly fashionable among educators at the time when Osborne writes.42 Yet, there is an undeniable similarity between the popularized notion of “experience” promoted by Osborne and the phenomenological theory best represented by the work of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.43 As Osborne writes, stereoscopic travel exemplifies the existence of “two kinds of reality, one objective—the material world around us, earth, buildings, people—and the other subjective—the states of our conscious selves, thoughts, emotions, desires.”44 True, “stereographs of Rome are not Rome,” Osborne writes, yet what “a traveler seeks” are “experiences of places, not places themselves.”45 When we travel virtually to Rome by stereoscope, “we do not go to get the material Rome, the hills and buildings, and people…Yet, we feel we have obtained what we went after.” This—Osborne concludes—is evidently “our experiences of being in Rome.”46 From this point of view, stereoscopic photography offers a technical solution to the paradox of “virtual realism” as the aesthetic paradigm of nineteenth-century culture: a photographic medium, or apparatus, capable of both reproducing reality objectively and providing for the subject the ultimate imaginative, almost hallucinatory experience, replacing a real presence with a virtual one. “Such experience has been supposed impossible except in the place itself,” Osborne writes.47 It is not difficult to see how this invention foreshadows the subsequent evolution of virtual tourism and the attraction of popular gadgets that combine a screen, an image interface, and “unlimited” access to information, all embedded within a geolocation network.

In short, what Osborne was promoting in his early twentieth-century book, and indeed what he was marketing as a spokesperson for Underwood & Underwood, is an early form of our own frequent experience of the world today, thoroughly filtered through the devices that convey it. Osborne’s approach was also part of a deliberate strategy to sell a product, the Underwood & Underwood kits “with special maps and books forming a travel system”: the World in a Box for the benefit of the American “innocent at home” (to paraphrase Mark Twain). As the subtitle of Osborne’s book suggests, the “individual development” provided by stereoscopic kits is also a “promise for the spread of civilization,” that is, American civilization. This is, indeed, a recipe for the Americanization already in progress, of which the Underwood & Underwood system, which peddles virtual travel as a form of democratic voyeurism, is a perfect example. Other “boxes” and other systems would come along to provide the same panoptic and voyeuristic illusion. Osborne writes at the turn of a century which, first with the US intervention in World War I and later with the expansion of a cultural industry led by the Hollywood dream machine, would become the American century. The cinematic medium would both incorporate—and make obsolete—practically all the spectacles and devices we have encountered throughout Shadow Plays, yet the stereoscopic journey remains the emblem of a new type of pre- and postcinematic optical imperialism that uses the alibi of “getting to know the world” not in order to conquer or take material possession of it, but in order to “experience” it; in the process, sells its own virtual experience of the world as a universal system to be enjoyed, and purchased, by individual subjects, wherever they are: a new form of colonization—of the mind.48

If throughout the nineteenth century this surrogate experience was still linked to the reproduction of ever more realistic images, today, in the age of “selfies,” the reproduction seems entirely in the hands of, and focused on, the viewing subject, realizing what Osborne already implicitly described. Not only can simulated reality be more rewarding, and more strangely captivating, than real life, retaining that “hypnotic quality” described by Holmes, but for contemporary tourists, whether virtual or real, the focus is entirely on the viewer, captured in the apparatus. Photographs, videos, and selfies taken during actual travels are not so much a way to preserve a trace of the experience, the memory of “having been there,” but have taken over as the very goal of traveling: they provide the evidence and condense the experience better than our memory and imagination. Replacing the experience of the place through the stereoscope, mentioned by Osborne, with that of oneself taking a picture in the place, the virtualization of “being there” is complete: the subject of the experience, and the experience itself, are now entirely absorbed into a panoptic apparatus which realizes for the subject the dream of seizing the world, by reducing every object it “contains,” including oneself, to its skin, a phantasm, a vivid shadow, a manipulable surface. “So, we cannot say too strongly, we cannot say too clearly,” Osborne prophetically writes, “that in the stereoscope we are dealing with realities, but they are realities of mental states, not the realities of outward physical things.”49 A new dimension of “being there” emerges in the age of the World View, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger defines it: the new realities cast a new type of shadow, “the invisible Shadow that is cast around all things everywhere when man has been transformed into Subiectum and the World into Picture.”50

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