An Eagle In Your Mind

 

 

"For God does speak - now one way, now another

- Though no one perceives it"

Job 33:14

The Collins online dictionary defines pareidolia as the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist. Animals or plants can "appear" in clouds as can human speech in static noise, but the appearance of a face where there is none is perhaps the most common variant of pareidolia.’[1] In The Demon Haunted World[2] Carl Sagan suggests that visual pareidolia is an evolutionary trait providing an advantage in facial recognition. Deciphering friend from foe and figure from ground, this evolutionary glitch (an early event in the brain’s ventral fusiform cortex) enables us to negotiate our ‘world picture’[3] It also brings us the tortilla-dwelling Jesus and the man in the moon – the pareidolic over-ride seems to furnish the world picture with fantastic alternatives. Pareidolia helped early societies organize a chaotic view of the world by providing an intelligible reading of nature’s seemingly chaotic states and for the last number of years programmers have been training our computers to do the same. NYU researcher Greg Borenstein writes that ‘facial recognition techniques give computers their own flavour of pareidolia. In addition to responding to actual human faces, facial recognition systems, just like the human vision system, sometimes produce false positives, latching onto some set of features in the image as matching their model of a face. Rather than the millions of years of evolution that shapes human vision, their pareidolia is based on the details of their algorithms and the vicissitudes of the training data they've been exposed to. Their pareidolia is different from ours.’ However, like us, they struggle to avoid returning the false positive, sensing meaning where there is evidently none to be found. Like us, they tap the remains of a ‘demon-haunted world’ in a manner that is at odds with the rationale of our historical moment. Having failed to outgrow it, we have infected a technology with the potential to extend it.

The Spiricom

John Milton wrote of a ‘Universe of Death’[4], a place ‘where all life dies, death lives and Nature breeds, perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things, Abominable, inutterable, and worse than fables yet have feigned or fear conceived.’[5]  Confronting the inutterable reality of death has led countless dreamers to chip away at the silence – from the Bardo Thodol[6] to the blossoming of EVP (Electronic voice phenomena) in the nineteen seventies. From 1979 to 1982, EVP enthusiasts George Meek and Bill O'Neil developed an electronic audio device they dubbed “The Spiricom”. Intended for two-way communication with the spirit world, the Spiricom device consisted of a set of 13 tone generators spanning the frequency range of the adult male voice. Pejoratively referred to as Frampton’s Talk-Box, [7] the device was introduced a press conference in Washington in 1982. O'Neil claimed to have held two-way conversations with his spirit friend Dr George Jeffries Mueller and recorded over 20 hours of dialogue with the aid of his device.  

 

Bill O'Neil: Yeah, I just turned on the tape recorder, Doctor.

Dr  Mueller: Very well, William.

Bill O'Neil: (a bit angrily) You said to hurry back, and I did. That has been exactly one week ago.

Dr  Mueller: Ho, ho.

Bill O'Neil: Yes, ho ho yourself. Cold weather has left us, temporarily anyway. It's raining. It's nice and warm. Of course you never know what to expect. I am going to try to put in a little garden this year.

Dr Mueller: Oh, wonderful. (pause) Send me a couple of carrots.

Bill O'Neil: What's that again?

Dr Mueller: A couple of carrots.

Bill O'Neil: Oh, carrots!

Dr Mueller: Yes, William, and a nice head of lettuce.

Bill O'Neil: A nice head of lettuce. I am not going to plant acres, Doctor. What's that? I think you were talking at the same time I was.

Dr  Mueller: Well, perhaps. I said if somebody had some cabbage, I like fried cabbage. Oh, I love fried cabbage.

Bill O'Neil: Fried cabbage. Well, I like sauerkraut.

Dr Mueller: Well, you know that sauerkraut can do…?

Bill O'Neil: Yes, I do. You know, Doctor, I never thought I'd see the day when I could, uh, talk to someone like you in the way we are doing, and if ten years ago someone had told me this was possible, I would recommend that they be sent to the 'funny farm.'

Dr  Mueller: Well, perhaps you are right.

Although he provided the design specifications to researchers for free – there was little success in recreating O’Neil’s experiment. After his death his business partner Meek put the success of the device down to O'Neil's mediumistic abilities, claiming they formed an integral part of the loop that allowed the device to function.[8] According to O’Neil it was Dr. Mueller who instructed him in building the Spiricom device.  

 

One of a number of forerunners in the field, painter and archaeologist Friedrich Jürgensen had been experimenting with EVP since the 1950’s, having stumbled upon the accidental recording of a voice that was heard to say 'Friedel, can you hear me. It's mummy.' He recognised it as the voice of his dead mother, 'Friedel' being her nickname for him.[9] Jürgensen continued to pioneer and popularise the field until his death in 1987.  At the time of his burial service at 1:22 p.m. on October 21st, Jürgenson’s image purportedly appeared on the blank screen of the television set deliberately tuned to a vacant channel in the home of Claude Thorlin, with whom Jürgenson had previously worked on EVP. What remains compelling about the stories of Jürgensen and O’Neil (in a sense predicting the consumer digital age) is the manner in which they imagined our social lives commingling with non-human agents and machines – to be utilised as engines of our desire to contact the dead. The power of this agency lies in an ability to not only picture the dead but to somehow revitalise them and draw them back to the fold of the social space. The recent death of a friend has thrown this vitality into sharp relief.

 

(The recent death of a friend and their continued presence in the form of their facebook profile has thrown this vitality into sharp relief. The user account, having been neither deleted nor ‘memorialized’ thrives on social media and – in a kind of digital afterlife – continues to haunt friends and family on facebook. On the deceased’s birthday, the profile posted the date to friends obviously unaware of the user’s expiration. A friend of a friend posted a favourite Boards of Canada song for the big day. Older posts by the deceased continued to float to the top of newsfeeds whilst their page recommendations pop up when least expected. The profile hosts the inevitable gestures of grief, but also extends to satellite any number of posts regarding social events and fundraisers. In death, the profile is an apparition – picturing the dead among the living – hosting the desire to defer the reality of death.)

               

19th August 2014

Since its rise to popularity in the 18th century the power of the sublime has been dependent on the notion of a limen or liminal point[10] – the threshold of a physiological or psychological response. Steve Vine writes in Reinventing the Sublime: Post-Romantic Literature and Theory that in Edmund Burke’s sublime, ‘the subject is maintained in the face of the thunderous sublime object – whether that object is conceived as nature, terror, power, infinity, death, otherness, revolution or war. The sublime emerges in the spatio-temporal ‘distances’ that separate the self and the sublime object – to the extent that the object denotes a deferred threat’[11]. In some respects our digital world worries this deferment and in time might threaten the sovereignty of the limenal point. The separation of the subject and the sublime object is increasingly difficult to simulate if the subject can be in many / perhaps all places at once – a mind and agency extended through technology. In a network of human and non-human agents, the mind is extended in a ‘parliament of things’[12].  This extension – this distribution of agency – proposes a more coherent reading of the ‘world picture’ and attempts to locate us in relation to each other and our technology advancement. Objects are considered not in isolation but only in their relationships to other objects – they form networks – loops. Simon Morley writes that ‘despite the fact that that we are increasingly caught with an electronically implemented global system of control and consumption, the concept of the sublime aspires to the possibility of some kind of authentic experience of self-transcendence.’[13] The employment of technology to these ends brings vitality to the possibilities of transcending the limits of the physical body and gazing over the ‘Universe of death.’ Gaining a tacit knowledge and greater insight into what drives the extension of mind is crucial. Otherwise we can never be sure if something old and other has not crept from the shadows of our ‘demon-haunted world’ between the invisible joints of extension.

                             


[1] Rebecca J. Rosen Pareidolia: A Bizarre Bug of the Human Mind Emerges in Computers Aug 7 2012 ‘The Atlantic’

[2] Carl Sagan, Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark Random House, London, 2011.

[3]Heidegger describes the ‘world-picture’ as the phenomenological experience of the world as a relatively accurate representation of an external existence, or object. Martin Heidegger, “The Age of World Picture,” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt, New York; Harper and Row, 1977.

[4] John Milton Paradise Lost (Book 2 Line 622)

[5] Ibid

[6] Attributed to Padmasambhava, the Bardo Thodol (Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State, incorrectly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) describes the experience of consciousness after death and like many terma (hidden treasures) in Buddhist tradition was buried only to be revealed by a tertön, an adept charged with safeguarding the treasure/knowledge. Karma Lingpa (a tertön) discovered The Bardo Thodol on Mount Gampodar in the 14th century.

[7] Although already in circulation at the time, the Talk-Box (an effects pedal that compresses and distorts vocals) featured heavily in Peter Frampton’s 1973 hit single Do You Feel Like We Do? Frampton performed playing decipherable words and sentences through his guitar. Frampton’s Talk-Box became pejorative shorthand for many EVP devices.

[8] Imants Baruss (2001), ‘Failure to Replicate Electronic Voice Phenomenon’, Journal of Scientific Exploration, V15#3, 0892-3310/01

[9] Carl Michael von Hausswolff Friedrich Jürgensen from Cabinet Issue 1 / Winter 200/01 http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/1/1485.0khz.php

[10] ‘Etymologically, it comes from the Latin sublimis (elevated; lofty) derived from the preposition sub, meaning ‘up to’, and limen, the lintel of a doorway, or also perhaps from limes, meaning a boundary or limit.’ from Simon Morley The Sublime Now from The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art, (Ed. Simon Morley) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010

[11] Steve Vine Reinventing the Sublime: Post-Romantic Literature and Theory, Sussex Academic Press, 2009.

[12] Bruno Latour We Have Never Been Modern, Harvard University Press, 1993.

[13] Simon Morley The Sublime Now from The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art, (Ed. Simon Morley) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010.