Spring 2003

Superflux of Sky

Mapping the history of ether

Joe Milutis

In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colors and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.
—Marx, Grundrisse

Property seems to be the most real thing there is, which is probably why the grounded manifestation of it is called “real estate.” But there’s also something unreal—not all there—about property, and we don’t need the relative newness of digital commerce to perceive that property has always been a kind of “coinage of the brain.” Marx, the seeming consummate materialist, appreciated the supernatural unruliness of property when he talked of chairs charmed by sorcerers, ghosts stomping through Europe, and the ethereal nature of Capital. But we are perhaps at the beginning of another stage of civilization as a sky, annealed by meaning, is crossed by lines, vectors, and channels; as new ethers replace the scud of yesterday’s clouds. The creation of real estate in the ether, through electromagnetic spectrum allocation and the proliferation of networks, is the most dramatic transvaluation that the world has recently undergone—though not without precedent. From the early days of radio, ethereal “irrational exuberance” and democratic feeling would formulaically give way to increased privatization of the airwaves, mapping it for the purposes of commerce and security. McKenzie Wark says of this vanilla sky, “It is private property in a purer form, detached from tangible, sensible, material substance—property without properties. It is private property all the easier to privatize because it lacks substantial natural or machine-made form.”[1] This etherealization of Marx’s capitalist ether-net transforms social relations between things to a relation between nothings.

Charles Leadbetter (1847–1934), among his Theosophical peers, attempted to map the ether for purposes of establishing a scientific, non-sentimental, and modern spirituality. In his charts, we can see the ether mapped, and it is just a sliver of rarefied matter on the way to infinitely higher planes.[2] This visual conceptualization of the ethereal—a practice that goes back to Robert Fludd’s copperplate-printed cosmologies of the 17th century—lays the groundwork, so to speak, for radio’s conquest of the air. That is, it is precisely the mystical imaging of the invisible that would allow radio space to be knowable, not to mention ownable. In fact, the introduction of Annie Besant’s and Leadbetter’s Thought Forms, their guidebook to auras and vibrational philosophy, announces that science (by 1901) had finally vindicated ancient knowledge of extracorporeal, telekinetic, and mental vibrations by the discovery of radio, gamma, X, and other multifarious rays.[3]

Illustration from Leadbetter’s Man Visible and Invisible: Examples of Different Types of Men as Seen by Means of Trained Clairvoyance.

Radio was that invention which, through its immaterial alchemy, would transform the world below irreversibly. Radio materialized the immaterial to the point of replacing earlier cosmic worldviews, especially the idea of the ether as the quasi-mystical substance in which all things bathed. Yet ancient ethers would continue to imbue the modern mind. While the ether had already been definitively debunked in the 1880s by the Michelson-Morley experiments, physicists such as Hertz and Helmholtz, in translating the luminiferous ether of the 19th century into the electromagnetic spectrum of the 20th, retained the terminology of “aetherial oscillation,” ensuring that the idea of the ether would still explain the space in which radio operated.[4] The term ether would soon be used to describe how radio space could be plotted, owned, and controlled by secular interests, justifying some of the first attempts at electromagnetic spectrum allocation. The first decade of radio saw the ether transformed from an unknowable substance into government property. Susan Douglas says that, in this time, “the ether constituted national territory, in which Americans had political and international rights and prerogatives, and which had to be defended as staunchly as the shores.”[5] This legalistic phenomenon of ether mapping began in earnest in 1906 with the first allocation of standardized wavelengths, and then, in 1912, with the first Radio Act, established in order to prevent the total meaninglessness that would occur if the atmosphere were to be crowded indiscriminately with radio signals.

During these and later developments, legal realism continually came up against the challenge of creating property in the ether.[6] That an entire new economy became determined by the ownership of frequencies is nothing less than remarkable, especially because it turned the realists into metaphysicians, or at least semioticians who appreciated that this property was nothing less that an enforced bundle of rhetoric, an almost purely political phenomenon. The regulation of the airwaves generated strange contradictions. References to the ether seemed to encourage a populist mystical sentiment. But the idea of the ether as an inalienable mystico-technological commons was paradoxically used to privatize the airwaves under the shibboleth of “public interest.” Herbert Hoover, responsible for some of the century’s most conservative radio regulations, including the creation of the FCC, suddenly seems folksy when he says, “The ether is a public medium, and its use must be for public benefit. The use of a radio channel is justified only if there is public benefit.”[7] But this “public benefit” was, as Thomas Streeter says, “part of a legal and rhetorical strategy for organizing broadcasting’s further development as a commercial, for-profit institution.”[8] It generally meant, aside from the need to keep the airwaves clear for national security and global commerce, some vague notion of consumer pleasure which served to shut down the operations of nonprofits and amateurs, many of whom had squatters’ rights in the ether by the very nature of their early habitation and development of this immaterial zone.[9]

The great corporate ethereal land grab of the Telecommunications Act of 1996—the first substantial change in spectrum allocations regulation since the time of Hoover—has already served to squelch “indiscriminate” signals to the point of creating the monolithically banal cosmos that we have grown accustomed to over the airwaves. But there’s always another frontier, another higher frequency, that can be mapped. Technology guru and futurist George Gilder creates an entirely new cosmology (complete with stock tips arrayed as astrological projections) in order to imagine the utilization of these future territories, what he calls the “telecosm”—for him all available frequencies above 14 gigahertz. For Gilder, “The telecosm makes bandwidth—information at enormous speed and almost infinite scale—the defining abundance of a new era, eclipsing even the still fantastic abundance of the computer age. It makes men into bandwidth angels.”[10] Prophesy of this unlimited spectrum real estate—Gilder’s Zion of unlimited bandwidth—remains, if not a philosophical issue, one largely Theosophical.

The market rationalism that has served to create boundaries in what was first thought to be a boundless new economy is very much like the finite cosmos of the Aristotelian tradition, with its hierarchized ethers, metaphysical firewalls, and an end of space that you’d hit your head on with a crystalline “thunk” if you ever got there. But there’s another ether—an infinite, ubiquitous ether—which, while closed down since the beginnings of the Enlightenment, is only, as it were, repressed, returning in unstable moments of technological shift. This ether is the idea of a network mind that allows for indiscriminate connections and animistic insight. In The Order of Things, Foucault places scientific order in contrast to this system of divinatio—which stems from Renaissance analogical thought.[11] Renaissance Platonist Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for propounding these infinite ethers of indiscriminate interconnection, similar to what quietly reemerged in the 20th century as, among other things, the idea of the noosphere—Teilhard de Chardin’s envelope of human consciousness through which we communally evolve as our technologies progress. This excommunicated French Jesuit priest’s neologism, resuscitated posthumously from his books (banned by the church while he was alive) would be popularized by the 1960s film avant-garde (notably through Eugene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema), and rediscovered in the 1990s by both the Internet avant-garde and the corporate world. Along with his idea of “convergence”—now a corporate cliche—the noosphere draws together fragments of the mind, language, and technology towards a singularity through which Christ will shine in his cybernetic sequel.

Erik Davis, in his Techgnosis, ascribes such messianic powers to the “network path,”[12] and in various other contemporary writings the network has become the sigil of a kind of community of mind, a potential for infinite link-up and access. This image of the network has precisely the same function as earlier imaginings of aura and ether, those virtualities that penetrated the material fashioning of the radio spectrum. Both new global capitalism and Internet avant-gardism in partaking of this network fantasy—a cyber-Platonism with New Age or Deleuzean twists—produces a kind of conceptual art or happening with dubious actual content, powered by a vigorous leap of faith. It’s a leap that many are less apt to take as the gap between actuality and virtuality—the earthly and the astral—looms abysmally in leaner times. In any case, actual networks, in comparison to their noospheric ideal, are much more intractable and tenuous, thwarting this oneness. As a multitude of cosmologies vie for airtime and as corporations create their own time-space through the establishing of idiosyncratic networks competing for universality, an absolute, ethereal overhang seems a foregone impossibility. The sky has fallen.

US government airspace map of Connecticut.

Yet, if we are to think of the network image as a guide to future configurations, we should not entirely discount what Peter Lunenfeld calls “vapor theorizing,”[13] and rush to get to the rational kernel of virtual mysticism. Yes, like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, or the artificial intelligence model of an inhuman rationality that powers economic reality, the Network is the supernatural supplement that makes property become property. Such irrationalities have always maintained the interests of a ruling class. But why not imagine that it is possible to do all the things that the network image inspires us to do, if only through some Reiki on the libidinal economy? Is it possible to improve human relations to the point of reversing the Marxist dictum that what we experience in commodity culture is not a relationship between people, but a relationship between things? Isn’t the most stunning aspect of Internet avant-gardism and more libertarian forms of computer capitalism that the substance produced is not a “thing” as such, but the “nothing” of human relations—and property be damned?

The strategies employed in visualizing the electromagnetic, the network, and the digital are crucial to the functioning of the economy, just as authoritative faces and Masonic pyramids on money create the visual guarantee that impracticalities will kiss. As Susan Buck-Morss points out, the very idea of economy is contemporaneous with the first data visualizations of it, since a notion of economy depends on visual innovation to be sensible; its mapping allows for an external, scientific relation to the reality that is created by the map itself.[14] This originary invisibility of the economy is exacerbated by the economy of invisibility that Wark describes as “third nature,” the function of which depends almost wholly on appearances. For Wark, “Where the growth of second nature over the landscape takes the form of private property, in Marx’s terms it transforms being into having. Where the vector develops to the point that it can break with the surface and tempo of second nature, in Debord’s terms it further transforms having into appearing.”[15] We can divine how the proclamations of visionary thought may indeed overlap with the ruses of the society of the spectacle.

Perhaps, then, these images—coin of an etherealized realm—can and should be subject to a materialist eye, a virtual eye, and a third eye at once. Whether a highly regimented airspace or electromagnetic spectrum map, or some ad designer’s influential fancy, the ether-mapping of today references a history of allocation, both legal and mystical, having its origins in the images of Robert Fludd, who can be seen as both alchemical philosopher and information designer par excellence. The charm of these maps is not that they stand in for a kind of nothing, but that they are an abstraction of that nothing, which is a highly material something—the real substance, political conceptualization, and technological mediation of electromagnetic and digital properties—that constantly eludes perception.

Cover of Wired, October 1998 (left); Compaq advertisement in Wired, December 1998.

Internet ad copy, before the bust, promised the sudden, alchemical transmutation of the order of things into ethereal recombinations at an instant. Compaq’s “And Can You Do It By Tuesday?[16] campaign resembles not only the more abstract airspace maps, but also recalls the blackboard drawings of Rudolf Steiner in its loopy depiction of corporate energies interfacing with the known world. Noospheric commerce is not born of intuition, but is instead like atomic warfare, in that, in a calculated instant, these abstract New Yorks, Los Angeleses, Europes, Russias, Japans, Asias, etc., will undergo some irrevocable transformation by a certain unspecified Tuesday. Note the sheer hubris of this instant, enlightened-seeming, reassemblage of property on a napkin, with “Other Southwest” as big as the hesitant “Russia?” The napkin points to the spontaneity of the transaction, and Compaq’s ability to act on this speed, but it also says something about cleanliness, that close relative to property and the proper. The world is dirt, a napkin smudge, and it is about to be thrown away.

A Rudolph Steiner blackboard drawing from 1923. The drawing depicts the spiritual conflict between “Spirits of Form” and “Spirits of Personality.” Humanity, marker as ‘M,’ occupies the third-lowest rank on the ladder.

The “Ethereal Virgin” of the alchemists, while commonly represented as a woman, stood for a perfect unity of male and female, a node between different worlds—a true network being. Just as the ether is the zone midway between the absolute and the grounded, so was this virgin a symbol of mediumship—a sensitive barrier between worlds. The Ethereal Virgin was trotted out on the cover of Wired[17] in order to announce the launch of the now-failed Iridium network, sixty-six satellites in low-earth orbit that would facilitate ubiquitous planetary cell-phone usage, described at one point by its chief technical officer Raymond Leopold as “God manifesting himself through us.”[18] But is this androgynous, hairless model with a map of Southeast Asia projected on her back a medium of God, of the spiritual mother, or of commerce? Maybe the model is still the avatar of sex, or at least the geek love of plugs and software and transponding that Wired represents to its readership. (“Iridium anyware” is a headline that resembles the pandering of a magazine like Maxim, with its fantasy of constant access to “it,” only here, it’s access to IT). The reference to colonialism (the model is painted white, the images are of India, Vietnam, etc.) is vague enough to be racy, but not strong enough to engender suspicion as to the intentions of Iridium, the fate of which is now sealed as a kind of Brasilia of the ether.

Modern airspace is highly routinized; radio controlled. Look at an airspace map and you will see blue circles, like the wakes of rock skipping. There are rods of flight paths, frequencies, altitudes, no-fly zones. These circles also seem to me the hermetic circles of alchemy, the knowledge of which in this case, miracle of miracles, would allow for human flight! The freedom is especially so for the solo pilot: freedom from the hub, the layover, the Skymall, the people-mover. Each of these circles in flight lore represents an inverted wedding cake or ziggurat of air that belongs to the corresponding port.

Robert Fludd, Integrae Naturae Speculum Artisque Imago, 1617.
Chart issued in March nineteen eight-six by the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration Office of Spectrum Management. The chart shows the usages allocated in the United States to various frequencies across the so-called radio spectrum.
Chart issued in March 1986 by the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration Office of Spectrum Management. The chart shows the usages allocated in the United States to various frequencies across the so-called radio spectrum.

Compare, if you will, the image of airspace to Fludd’s famous Integrae Naturae Speculum Artisque Imago[19] [The Mirror of the Whole of Nature and the Image of Art], with the ape of Art at air traffic control, and the Ethereal Virgin held up between cities. If only airports could allow for the connections of the Renaissance universe of analogy! But we are held up, constantly. The air is meted out to us in increments; the sheer mental possibilities of spontaneous flight are closed down through prohibitive pricing for last minute flights and security measures for all. Our body is touched, patted down, our belongings x-rayed. When our meager property is thus scrutinized, it is anathema to aura and magic, even though there is a touch of the magic show to the security gates. I imagine that the security personnel are preparing us for some sort of disappearing act, especially at Newark, where the Indian men who work the metal detectors could very well be ex-fakirs. Any moment, while coursing their wand over me, I expect they will pull something fantastic from behind my ear.

Click here to download a PDF of the Radio frequency spectrum allocation chart, issued by the United States Commerce Department’s National Telcommunication and Information Administration, 1996.

  1. McKenzie Wark, Virtual Geography: Living with Global Media Events (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 191.
  2. Charles W. Leadbetter, Man Visible and Invisible: Examples of Different Types of Men as Seen by Means of Trained Clairvoyance [1925] (Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980).
  3. Annie Besant and Charles. W. Leadbetter, Thought-Forms [1901] (Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1967): “The fact is that science has pressed its researches so far, has used such rare ingenuity in its questionings of nature, has shown such tireless patience in its investigations, that it is receiving the reward of those who seek, and forces and beings of the next higher plane of nature are beginning to show themselves on the outer edge of the physical field. . . . [T]he physicist . . . finds himself bewildered by touches and gleams from another realm which penetrates his own. He finds himself compelled to speculate on invisible presences, if only to find a rational explanation for undoubted physical phenomena, and insensibly he slips over the boundary, and is, although he does not yet realize it, contacting the astral plane.” pp. 1–2.
  4. See Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., The Ethereal Aether: A History of the Michelson-Morley-Miller Aether-Drift Experiments, 1880–1930 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972).
  5. Susan Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899–1922 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
  6. For a description of “bright line” legalism of the 19th century, and the challenge it met in the ether, see Thomas Streeter, Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  7. Cited in Selling the Air, p. 93.
  8. Selling the Air, p. 93.
  9. See Selling the Air, p. 224 and Inventing American Broadcasting. We see the same logic today as cable conglomerates defund public access in order to allocate more funds for the laying of fiber optic cable. The deinvestment of this free-speech technology, effectively thwarting non-profit and amateur media interventions, is justified by recourse to notions of pleasing the consumer—with more channels.
  10. George Gilder, Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionize Our World (New York: The Free Press, 2000), p. 5.
  11. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences[1966] (New York: Random House, 1970).
  12. Erik Davis, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), pp. 319–335.
  13. Peter Lunenfeld, Snap to Grid: A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), pp. 33–36.
  14. Susan Buck-Morss, “Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display.” Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances. Eds. Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen. (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), pp. 111–141.
  15. Virtual Geography, p. 176.
  16. Compaq. advertisement, in Wired, Dec 1998, pp. 1–2.
  17. Wired, October 1998.
  18. Quentin Hardy,“ Higher Calling: How a Wife’s Question Led Motorola to Chase Global Cell-Phone Plan,” The Wall Street Journal, 16 December 1996, A1+.
  19. Joscelyn Godwin, Robert Fludd: Hermetic Philosopher and Surveyor of Two Worlds (Boulder: Shambala, 1979), p. 23.

Joe Milutis is a writer and media artist. He is assistant professor of art at the University of South Carolina.

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