Magic Lanterns!

The thing that really stuck with me after Paul Monod’s magic lanterns presentation was the point he made about how cultural notions of “realism” can change.  To people witnessing magic lantern projections in the 19th century, it didn’t matter that the drawings were crude and even childish — the mere fact that they were being projected had a sort of magic and mystery about it that translated to a feeling of these images being “realisitic”.  I think that this gets at the notion that the very way our brains are structured can be affected by the technologies at our disposal.

This summer, I read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson; one of the key points in this book is a way-out-there hypothesis that he makes (it may not be grounded in real science, but fuck it, it’s cool as hell) that ties together semiotics, neuroscience, Sumerian mythology, and Biblical stories like the exile from Eden and the Tower of Babel.  Basically (and I’m not going to make it sound as convincing as him), he puts forth the Sumerian language as the sort of most-basic-level programming language for the “operating system” of the human brain, and says that if the human brain is coded using linguistic, semantic blocks, then a certain spoken phrase could potentially act as a “virus” that would “crash” our brains.  In the story, one Sumerian god whose name I forget somehow invents some protection against this virus — this protection is the fragmenting of our coding into a number of higher-level languages; in other words, the Tower of Babel.  So modern languages are more like, say, C++, where Sumerian is closer to binary.  Or something.

Obviously this doesn’t map perfectly on to the more modern magic lantern thing (which I’ll come back to in a second), but it’s certainly a well-documented idea that our technologies (and keep in mind I’m calling language a “technology”) can fundamentally alter the way we communicate and, therefore, the way our very thoughts are structured.  Think Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy”.

Now I think the genesis of technologies that allowed images to appear without being there in a tangible way (as in, painted or drawn or carved there) may have gradually caused some changes in the way our brains work.  This leads to this changing idea of what makes something realistic (I think?).  I’m starting to second guess myself now, but as Bazin says, cinema is a language just like speech or writing (well, not just like them…), and we had to collectively learn to “read” it — that’s why narrative cinema didn’t appear full-formed as soon as we could record things onto celluloid.  But even those little moving lantern slides are like the earliest stages of the embryo of narrative in moving images.  Weird metaphor, sorry.  I just couldn’t help but thinking, as he talked about how people “went wild” for the moving dancers, of, say, Avatar — probably the most technologically new-ish-y moving image thing that people have gone wild for.  Will Avatar someday seem as simplistically crude and unimpressive as those slides do now?  It’s hard to imagine.  But I guess it’s probably true…provided humans haven’t wiped ourselves out by then.