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<eyebeam><blast> Astronomical Hindsight

Astronomical Hindsight: The Speed of Light and Virtual Reality

Martin Jay
	History Department
		U. of California, Berkeley

In September, l676, the Danish astronomer Ole Roemer (l644-l710)
presented the recently created French Academy of Sciences with an
audacious prediction. Successfully fulfilled two months later, it
profoundly transformed not only the study of the heavens, but also the
self-understanding of the humans who gazed at them in wonder. Roemer had
been working at the observatory of Uraniborg set up by his illustrious
predecessor Tycho Brahe on the island of Hveen in the Baltic. His goal
was the discovery of a precise astronomical clock for nautical
navigation, but the unintended consequences of his efforts were far more
momentous. On the basis of his observations, he predicted that the
eclipse of the innermost of Jupiter's moons, Io, expected on November
9th at 5:25 and 45 seconds, would take place ten minutes later than had
been calculated based on earlier sightings of the same phenomenon. He
further reasoned that a similar delay would take place with the passage
of the moon from behind Jupiter's shadow--what astronomers call its
emersion as opposed to its immersion--on November 16th. These ten
minutes delays, he claimed, were due to the time it would take for the
light from the eclipse to reach the earth, a longer interval than in the
previous recorded cases because the earth was now at the far side of its
orbit around the sun from Jupiter and thus significantly farther away
from the giant planet than during certain earlier eclipses. Light, in
other words, could now be shown to have a velocity of its own and not
pass instantaneously from its source to its recipient, or in the
vocabulary of the day, its speed could be confirmed as finite and not

Roemer's precise calculations of light's finite velocity were in need of
some correction and fleshing out. He reckoned the time it would take to
cross the diameter of the earth's orbit at twenty-two minutes instead of
the somewhat more than sixteen minutes measured by later astronomers.
And it was not until a year or so later that Christian Huygens actually
divided the supposed diameter of the earth's orbit by the time it took
for light to travel across it to arrive at an actual, if still
imperfect, velocity of light or "c" (from the Latin celeritas). Nor was
the entire scientific community fully and conclusively convinced by
Roemer's claims until the experiments of the English astronomer James
Bradley in l728 concerning what he called "the aberration of light,"
which involved measuring discrepencies in the parallax relations of
certain stars. 

But with Roemer, there was for the first time hard empirical evidence to
settle a debate that had exercised scientists and philosophers ever
since the Greeks. Those theorists from Aristotle to Kepler, Cassini and
Descartes, who had held to the notion of the instantaneous propagation
of light, were refuted. Others, such as Avicenna, Alhazen, and Roger
Bacon, who had speculated that it took some amount of time, were shown
to have had the right hunch, even though they had had no verifiable
evidence to back it up. Earlier attempts to provide such evidence by
following Galileo's suggestion to open and shut lanterns at a distance
of ten miles--an experiment actually tried by the Florentine Academy in
l667 -- had failed because of the shortness of earthly distances and the
slow reaction times of the humans operating the lanterns.

With the work of Roemer and Bradley on extra-terrestrial objects, that
evidence now existed and soon won over the astronomical community with
consequences that were ultimately of vast importance for the future
exploration of the universe. Although less widely heralded, they were,
as Hans Blumenberg puts it in The Genesis of the Copernican World, "just
as momentous...for the change in our consciousness of the world as the
Copernican reform had been."  It was now certain that despite their
apparent size to the naked eye stars were distant suns more or less
comparable to the one that shone so brightly in our daytime sky, a
conclusion hypothesized but not proven before Roemer. It soon also
became possible to begin conceiving of the previously inconceivable
distances between stars, which were progressively revealed by the
dramatic improvement of the telescope through the use of immense mirrors
by William Heschel around l800, and which continue to expand with the
recent discoveries of the Hubble space telescope. And it soon became
possible to realize that not only were stars and galaxies many
light-years away, but that, as William Huggins announced in l868, some
were receding from us at an astonishing rate of speed (or as the
Doppler-Fizeau effect based on spectroscopic technology showed later in
the century some were zooming towards us as well). The speed of light
also provided a limit concept for physics, as no faster propagation of
anything else in the universe has ever been found. In addition, the
experiments of James Clark Maxwell in the late l9th century on
electromagnetic waves showed that light travelled at a constant rate in
a vacuum, which could not be accelerated or slowed down, although it did
change if the medium were altered, say to glass. 

These and many other consequences too technical for a soft-headed
humanist to present in detail followed from the discovery of the fact
that light can travel 186,000 miles or 300,000 kilometers a second and
six trillion miles or 9.5 trillion kilometers a year. Although the 20th
century had new surprises in store when Einstein's Special Theory of
Relativity argued that the speed of light was the one exception to the
rule that velocities were relative to the movement of the viewer and
viewed, and the gravitational force of black holes was shown to effect
its propagation, Roemer's discovery had repercussions that we are still
feeling today. 

The one in particular that I want to explore concerns not the vast
distances of interstellar space nor the amazingly fast, but still finite
and non-instanteous, speed that light waves or photons--particles of
electromagnetic energy--travel through it. I want instead, in accord
with the theme of this conference, to speculate on the implications of
Roemer's discovery for the relation between time and the image. For it
was quickly recognized--at least as early as l702 and a lecture by the
astronomer William Whiston--that not only was it now possible to see
things that were very far away, but it was also possible to see them as
they had existed an extraordinarily long time ago. 

In this sense, the effect of the telescope was radically different from
that of the other great ocular prosthesis of the early modern period,
the microscope, which had no such temporal implication. Only the former
could be called a genuine time machine, or in the words of a recent
commentator, "a probe that can take deep soundings of time, back to the
most ancient cosmos." By l800, it was recognized that looking at the
light from distant stars was gazing at something that had left its
source before the very existence of the human race, indeed likely before
the existence of the earth and perhaps even the solar system. By the
late 20th century, some astronomers were talking about seeing almost as
far back as the birth of the universe itself.

What can be called astronomical hindsight thus presented the viewer of
the heavens with a remarkable conundrum. Sight is, after all, often
understood to be the most synchronous and atemporal of the senses,
capable of giving us a snapshot image of a world frozen in time, a trait
that earned it the disdain of philosophers like Bergson who valued
temporal duration instead. As Hans Jonas typically puts it, "sight is
par excellence the sense of the simultaneous or the coordinated, and
thereby of the extensive. A view comprehends many things juxtaposed, as
co-existent parts of one field of vision. It does so in an instant: as
in a flash one glance, an opening of the eyes, discloses a world of
co-present qualities spread out in space, ranged in depth, continuing
into indefinite distance..." Rgis Debray adds that "a painting, an
engraving, a photograph evade the linear succession of language through
the co-presence of their parts. They are apprehended en bloc by the
intuition, in an instantaneous perceptive synthesis--the totum simul of
vision. A visual image arrests the flow of time like a syncope,
contracts the string of moments." Although recent research has
emphasized the scanning movement of the eye and its restless saccadic
jumps and stressed the mobile glance over the medusan gaze, in
comparison with other senses, vision still seems for many tied to the
Parmenidean or Platonic valorization of static, eternal Being over
dynamic, ephemeral Becoming.

Or alternatively, vision is sometimes understood as the sense that gives
us the best possible glimpse into the immediate future as we look out on
the landscape that we are about to traverse, thus providing "foresight"
about what may well come next. "Man's ability to plan," writes the
anthropologist Edward T. Hall, "has been made possible because the eye
takes in a larger sweep." Hans Jonas adds, "knowledge at a distance is
tantamount to foreknowledge. The uncommitted reach into space is gain of
time for adaptive behavior. I know in good time what I have to reckon
with." Those who assume the exalted function of seer or visionary often
claim the abiity to foretell what they foresee in the distant future as

But in the case of stargazing, what we see instead of the present or
proximate future is the past, often an immeasurably deep past whose
ontological status is unlike anything else that we experience in mundane
existence. We literally see what is not, or rather is no longer. And yet
we are not seeing a mere later reproduction or simulacrum of what once
was, but rather the real thing delayed -- sometimes enormously delayed
-- in time. We can have, however, absolutely no way of knowing whether
or not that real thing still exists or has long since disappeared. The
gap between appearance and essence, subjective experience and objective
stimulus, phenomenon and noumenon yawns as wide as it can be. Instead of
the infamous "metaphysics of presence" that deconstruction tells us is
based on the logocentric, phonocentric and ocularcentric prejudices of
Western thought, we get an explicitly visual instantiation of the
ghostly trace of the past in the present, but one that is neither an
hallucination nor a technologically induced illusion.

There is, moreover, no possible way to apply the other senses,
especially the touch that so often functions to verify or confirm the
existence of the past objects we see, as Bishop Berkeley claimed we must
to determine spatial location. In stargazing, the sense of sight is
isolated from and privileged above the general human sensorium as
perhaps in no other realm of experience. The oft-remarked link between
abstracted theory and visual distance is given added weight by the
impossibility of testing astronomical theories through non-visual
means.  Parallels between sight and touch, drawn for example by
Descartes in his Optics, where he compared sight to the instantaneous
transmission of an object through a blindman's stick, break down; how
can you even imagine "touching" something that existed light years in
the past and may no longer be there today?

The cultural implications of the discovery of the speed of light were no
less profound than the scientific ones, although they may have taken
longer to register. The famous blow dealt to man's narcissistic
assumption of his pivotal place in the universe by the Copernican
replacement of a geocentric by a heliocentric cosmos was intensified as
it was realized that celestial objects had existed well before we were
around to behold them. As Blumenberg notes, "man could no longer be the
designated witness of the wonders of the creation if the time required
for light to reach him from unknown stars and star systems was longer
than the entire duration of the world." The already appreciated fact
that the stars are that part of nature least amenable to human
construction, domination or intervention because of the distances
involved was given added weight by the stunning realization that not
only space but time would have to be conquered for humans to make a

One corrolary effect of this realization was the increased erosion of
belief, except among the most gullible, in the opposite assumption: that
the stars could somehow causally intervene in human behavior. How, after
all, could astrological causation operate, if it were impossible to
coordinate the time of a sublunar event, such as one's birth, with the
temporal events in interstellar space? How could a plausible horoscope
be written that took into account the radically divergent, multiple
temporalities of stars whose light came from vastly different distances
from the earth? Here too the link between the human present and the
images of light in the night sky was rendered deeply problematic by
astronomical hindsight, which reveals that constellations are not just
spatial relationships, but temporal ones as well. The result, if Maurice
Blanchot is right, may have extended beyond the superstitous belief in
astrological correlations. Playing on the etymology of the word, he
introduces the notion of "disaster"--literally, ill-starred--to
designate "being separated from the star...the decline which
characterizes disorientation when the link with fortune from on high is
cut." Disaster can thus be called "withdrawal outside the sidereal
abode...refusal of nature's sacredness." 

The implications of that withdrawal were complicated still further by a
later stage in the development of astronomy, the use of photography to
record the faint light from distant stars that the human eye could not
itself easily register. Here the opposite of the snapshot potential in
the new technology, its medusan capacity to freeze flowing time in an
instant, was realized as long exposures made it possible to preserve on
the photographic plate the dim evidence of past light that could not be
seen instanteously, indeed could not be seen by the naked eye at all.
Once again, it is Blumenberg who has most suggestively explored its

	Astronomical photography raises to a higher power the
	simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous; it now completes
	the Copernican differentiation of appearance and reality
	by pursuing the logic of the finite speed of light, also,
	to its conclusion: the technical analysis and display of 
	the heavens, as a section through time, which no longer has 
	anything to do with the equation of intuition and presence.
	The product of the chemical darkening of a plate by a source
	of even the faintest light is, in a certain respect, no
	longer an auxiliary means, but has become the object itself,
	of which there is no other evidence but just this.

But now paradoxically, with the advances in astronomical photography the
privileging of sight was itself subtly called into question, and not
only because of a new appreciation of the vastness of the invisible
parts of reality. For no sense, not even unaided human sight, could
verify or falsify what the technological preservation of the light from
past events had recorded. Appearance through technological mediation is
the only reality we can know, even if we theorize that something
lies--or rather at some time in the distant past lay--behind it. With
astronomical hindsight the long-standing reliance on visually based
intuition--from the Latin "intueri," to look at or regard, an
association still present in the German Anschauung--to discern essences
is fundamentally challenged. Only conceptually mediated knowledge based
on the acknowledgement of sight's inability to present the truth of its
objects through intuition follows from Roemer's discovery when it is
combined with photographic enhancement; only a knowledge that is
filtered through sign systems that are not directly perceptual is thus
the lesson to be learned from the astronomical hindsight of the
telescope. Not surprisingly, when the Romantics sought to restore the
power of intuition against the alleged fallacies of analytical
reasoning, they also longed for the return of what Novalis called the
"old sky" of celestial presence through a revival of "moral astronomy."
But theirs was a losing effort, as the symbolic resonance of the
pre-Copernican sky was irretrivably shattered. Blanchot's "disaster"
could not be undone.

Moreover, what has been recognized as the indexical nature of all
photographic signification--in Peirce's well-known sense of an index as
a physical trace of a past event, as opposed to an arbitrary symbol or a
mimetic icon--is doubled by the fact that the index left behind on the
photographic plate is itself a trace of an event that has happened in
the far distant past. Whereas a normal index is once removed from its
cause, which may have left non-visual residues as well--I can feel the
medium, say snow or mud, in which the fox's tracks are left as well as
see it, and perhaps even smell its faint odor as well--a photographic
image of stellar events is twice removed from them and without any other
corroborative trace. 

A melancholic link between photography in general and death--its status
as a kind of "thanatography"--has been recognized by a number of
observers, most notably Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Ren Dubois. The
referent of an image functions as a memento mori, they claim, because of
its inevitable pastness, a reminder that one day we too will no longer
be here. Such a connection can only become more explicit when the image
is of stellar light from an unimaginably deep past. Barthes, in fact,
explicitly notes the link by citing Sontag's claim that "the photograph
of the missing being...will touch me like the delayed rays of a star."
Photographs of stars may not be as poignantly mournful as those of our
parents when they were young, as in Barthes's celebrated example of the
Winter Garden shot of his mother at the age of five, but they intensify
the sense of temporal disjunction that every photograph must convey.
Blanchot's "disaster" is perhaps nowhere as palpable as when we hold in
our hands, in the present, a photographic image of a far distant past
that we know no longer exists. 

This was a lesson, as Eduardo Cadava has recently shown, that was
learned with special thoroughness by Walter Benjamin, whose suggestive
ruminations on mimetic similarity and auratic distance often invoked the
example of astronomical constellations. In a world no longer able to
believe in sympathetic magic and astrological correspondences, the
heavens had become a vast cemetery of dead light. Benjamin believed, in
Cadava's words, that "like the photograph that presents what is no
longer there, starlight names the trace of a celestial body that has
long since vanished. The star is always a kind of ruin. That its light
is never identical to itself, is never revealed as such, means that it
is always inhabited by a certain distance or darkness." Although
Benjamin may have hoped against hope for a messianic redemption that
would restore meaning to a forlorn world, he registered with special
intensity the mournful implications of the cosmic Trauerspiel.

But even if the emotion that ensues is not so morose, we must inevitably
be struck by the conundrum of a visual presence that cannot be complete
and self-contained. Taking seriously that lesson allows us to emend a
bit Jonathan Crary's influential argument about the transformation of
the protocols and techniques of observation in the l9th century. Crary's
claim is that only with advances in the physiological understanding of
the eye, which involved such phenomena as afterimages (the fusion of
discrete images into a simulacrum of duration) and stereoscopic vision
(the transformation of two nearly identical flat images into the
experience of seeing three dimensions), was the time-honored model of
disembodied, atemporal sight based on the camera obscura effectively
challenged. "The virtual instantaneity of optical transmission (whether
intromission or extramission)," Crary writes,

	was an unquestioned foundation of classical optics and  theories
	of perception from Aristotle to Locke. And the
	simultaneity of the camera obscura image with its exterior
	object was never questioned. But as observation is
	increasingly tied to the body in the early nineteenth
	century, temporality and vision become inseparable. The
	shifting processes of one's own subjectivity experienced
	in time become synonymous with an act of seeing, dissolving
	the Cartesian ideal of an observer completely focused on an

Crary's premise that the dominant paradigm of vision based on the camera
obscura--what can be called "Cartesian perspectivalism"--privileged the
disembodied, monocular eye has been recently challenged for underplaying
the extent to which the body was already present in certain l7th-century
optical theories. Nonetheless, his central point that l9th-century
physiology gave a much firmer empirical basis to the
recorporealization and thus temporalization of sight than ever before
seems to me still intact. Or at least it does from the point of view of
the subject of vision, the viewer whose eye became firmly situated in a
living, moving body rather than hovering above it in an ideal realm of
pure opticality.

But what appreciating the importance of Roemer's discovery of the speed
of light helps us to understand is that a similar temporalization had
already occurred on the level of the object of vision, at least when it
concerned astronomical hindsight. That is, the camera obscura model of
synchronic presence could not be easily applied when the light coming
through its little hole was from a distant star. Here "afterimages," we
might say, are not produced by lingering sensations on the retina
creating a simulacrum of movement, but rather by the delays in the light
from the object itself.

It must, of course, be conceded that this lesson took a considerable
amount of time before it was widely appreciated; we might even say that
it was appropriately  not an instantaneous transmission. Crary's
physiological technologists of observation thus still deserves the
primary credit for the abandonment of the camera obscura model of
atemporal presence. It may not, in fact, have been until Nietzsche,
according to Blumenberg, that the deduction was drawn 

	from the fact of the finite speed of light, and the
	nonsimultaneity of appearing objects with the observer's
	present, which follows from that, the consequence
	of the  indifference of the present. Presence cannot enable us 
	to apprehend the necessity of what is given in it, because it
	is only an accidental section through reality. The
	irregularity of appearances in space turn out to be a projection
	of the fateful delays into the plane of what is 
	just now visible; it is a paradigm of the distortion of
	reality by time, not only, and not most painfully, in nature
	but also in history.

"The indifference of the present" as a consequence of the speed of light
was perhaps also tacitly implied by one of the most celebrated
evocations of the telescope in modern thought, Freud's comparison in The
Interpretation of Dreams of psychical locality in the unconscious with
an optical apparatus. Such a compound instrument, he noted, produces
images "at ideal points, regions in which no tangible component of the
apparatus is situated." The relevance to our argument about astronomical
hindsight comes from Freud's further claim that we could just as easily
conceptualize the relation between the lenses in that apparatus in
temporal as in spatial terms. In so doing, we can then understand that
the image produced at the ideal point is not fully present, but is
rather the place of a memory trace, an unlocalizable compound that
connects past with present. 

Freud's metaphor has attracted considerable attention, at least since
Jacques Derrida foregrounded its implications in his l966 essay "Freud
and the Scene of Writing." To reduce a complicated argument to its most
fundamental lineamants, Derrida suggested that Freud's "optical machine"
metaphor would be transformed in his later work into a graphic one based
on a "mystical writing pad" on which the traces of previous inscriptions
could be discerned in the wax beneath a transparent sheet of celluloid.
The writing pad produced a kind of spatialized time which denied the
possibility of any full symbolic presence. It instantiated instead the
temporal spacing of difference without reconciliation.

Writing in response to Derrida, Timothy J. Reiss has argued in The
Discourse of Modernism that it is unnecessary to posit a transition from
a perceptual to a linguistic or graphological model of the unconscious,
from the telescope to the mystical writing pad, to arrive at the logic
of the trace with its internally split temporality.    For already in
the workings of the apparatus producing an intangible image at once
present and a memory trace of the past can we see the mediation of
intuitive perceptual immediacy by a discursive sign system. The
telescope, pace Derrida, is already a kind of writing machine in which
the trace of the past continues to haunt the apparently self-contained
present. This point, it seems to me, becomes even stronger, if we
separate out, as Freud did not, the telescope from other imaging
apparatuses, such as the microscope and the camera, and emphasize its
role in producing what we have been calling "astronomical hindsight."
For here the temporal spacing produced by the delay between the emission
and reception of starlight is even more pronounced. The images collected
by the mirrors of the reflecting telescope and then preserved on
photographic plates are like memory traces without any single temporal


How do these ruminations on the temporally delayed implications of the
discovery of the speed of light help us to understand the second theme
suggested by our title, the meaning of the new technologies of virtual
reality, or more ambitiously, the purely simulacral world of which they
are sometimes taken to be emblematic? Can we simply extrapolate from the
lessons of interstellar space to the implications of cyberspace? Haven't
we, in fact, argued that the telescope, for all its disruption of
notions of visual presence and immediacy, nonetheless resists reduction
to an apparatus of pure simulacral construction, a model of total visual
semiosis without an original object behind it? And, in contrast, isn't
virtual reality normally understood as precisely such a reduction,
producing a hyperreality that has no referential origin? And isn't that
hyperreality often assumed to be rooted in the accelerated temporality,
even simultaneity, of a cyberspace in which distances no longer matter?

For an answer to these questions let us turn to the figure who had done
more than any other to explore and--at least for some
commentators--legitimate the postmodern world of simulacral
self-referentiality, the French theorist Jean Baudrillard. In one of his
key texts, Fatal Strategies of l983, Baudrillard introduces precisely
the speed of light as a metaphor to explain what he describes as the
progressive attentuation of meaning in the contemporary world.
"Somewhere a gravitational effect causes the light of event(s), the
light that transports meaning beyond the event itself, the carrier of
messages, to slow down to a halt;" he writes, "like the light of
politics and history that we now so weakly perceive, or the light of
celestial bodies we now only receive as faint simulacra." Until
recently, he continues, the sense of reality in normal terrestrial
experience has been based on the very high velocity of light producing a
sense of contemporaneity, in which object and its perception are
coordinated. But now everyday life is beginning to resemble the
experience of star-gazing, in which information paradoxically seems to
travel much slower from a source that grows dimmer and less certain.
Echoing the rhetoric of disaster we have already encountered in
Blanchot, he exhorts us to face the consequences of this transformation:
"We must be able to grasp the catastrophe that awaits us in the slowing
of light: the slower light becomes, the less it escapes its source; thus
things and events tend not to release their meaning, tend to slow down
their emanation, to harness that which was previously refracted in order
to absorb it in a black hole."

Although the gravitational pull of black holes suggests absolutely no
meaning escapes from objects, Baudrillard backs away a bit from this
conclusion, and talks instead of the possibility that we live in a world
of slow-motion images that take a long time to reach us. "We would thus
need to generalize the example of the light that reaches from stars long
since extinct--their images taking light-years to reach us. If light
were infinitely slower, a host of things, closer to home, would already
have been subject to the fate of these stars: we would see them, they
would be there, yet already no longer there. Would this not also be the
case for a reality in which the image of a thing still appears, but is
no longer there?"

Baudrillard's grasp of 20th-century physics may be faulty, as he misses
the implication of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, which has
since been experimentally confirmed. Light itself, the theory argues, is
an absolute constant that cannot be accelerated or decelerated, although
paradoxically space and time can be understood as relative. Because
light, unlike other waves such as sound, is able to travel in a total
vacuum unaffected by the medium through which it moves--such as the
"ether" whose existence modern physics has disproved--and the speed and
directional movement of its observer do not effect its velocity, it is
strictly speaking wrong to speak of the "slowing down" of light.
Distances become smaller and time longer for moving bodies as they
approach the speed of light, but that speed remains the same. The
gravitation of Black Holes only deflects light, it does not effect its
velocity.  As Sidney Perkowitz puts it, "the universe is made so that
light always travels its own distance of zero, while to us its clock is
stopped and its speed is absolutely fixed. These sober conclusions read
as if they come out of some fevered fantasy. Light, indeed, is different
from anything else we know."

But for all its imprecision, Baudrillard's metaphoric invocation of the
effects of Roemer's discovery that light is not instantaneous in terms
of the time it takes for images to travel is not without its instructive
implications. For it unexpectedly undermines the equation of virtual
reality entirely with a non-referential system of signs totally
indifferent to any prior reality that might have caused or motivated
them, an equation that admittedly is operative at other moments in his
work. That is, by comparing the world of virtual reality with the
delayed light from distant stars, Baudrillard alerts us to the
attenuated indexical trace of an objective real that haunts the
apparently self-referential world of pure simulacra. Like the memory
traces in Freud's optical apparatus version of the unconscious, such
images are not made entirely out of whole cloth existing only in an
atemporal cyberspace, but are parasitic on the prior experiences that
make them meaningful to us today. The temporality of virtuality is thus
not pure simultaneity or contemporaneity, but the disjointed time that
disrupts any illusion of self-presence. 

As N. Katherine Hayles has pointed out in a recent discussion of
"Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers," "the new technologies of
virtual reality illustrate the kind of phenomona that foreground pattern
and randomness and make presence and absence seem irrelevant...Questions
about presence and absence do not yield much leverage in this situation,
for the puppet [on a  computer screen duplicating the movements of the
user] both is and is not present, just as the user both is and is not
inside the screen." Morever, the new information technologies produce
signifiers that do not float entirely free, but rather "flicker,"
disrupting the absolute alternative between presence and absence. They
are thus ultimately dependent on the material embodiment that they seem
to have left behind, especially those that interact with the human
sensorium and its environment. They are, we might say, reminiscent of
those other flickerings of information that come to us from the
twinkling of the stars, even if Hayles herself does not make the

Another way in which the apparent self-sufficiency of the virtual
universe may be disrupted, Mark Poster has added, is through the
transformational interaction of subjects who construct the world they
enter when they put on the glove and headset. The result is thus more
than the passive acceptance of a world of pure simulation; it plunges us
from the present into the future. As such, it accords with the
definition of virtuality per se--derived from the Latin virtus, the word
for "force" or "power"--provided by the French media theorist Pierre
Levy in his recent Qu'est-ce que le virtuel?, where it is opposed not to
the real or the material, but to the actual. Virtuality here means
something like an Aristotelian final cause, a potentiality that
"displaces the center of gravity of the object considered," which is
neither a pure presence nor a simulacral phantasm.

The alternative way in which the alleged self-sufficiency of virtual
reality is called into question suggested by the analysis of this
paper--and the two are not mutually exclusive--is through the memory
traces of the reality that haunts virtual reality from the start,
inadvertently betrayed by Baudrillard's metaphor of sidereal light that
reaches us after a long delay. Here, as in the case of Crary's argument
about the importance of ocular physiology in dismantling the camera
obscura paradigm, the story of subjective construction must be balanced
by an acknowledgment of the disturbing effects that come from the
object. Or more precisely, when the lessons of astronomical hindsight
are applied broadly, we are in an uncanny world of what Derrida has
dubbed "hauntological" rather than "ontological" reality, a world in
which temporal delay and the indexical trace of the past prevents the
present--virtual or not--from assuming the mantle of synchronic

Whether or not the result is a melancholic memento mori, as has been
claimed in the case of photography, or a "disaster" in Blanchot's sense
of being ousted from a realm of sacred meaning, is, however, uncertain.
For might it be just as plausible to experience a feeling of wonder at
the survival of the seemingly dead past? And might that wonder at the
virtual residues of the long dead stars be connected to the virtuality
that, according to Poster and Levy, opens us as well to a potential
future. For after all, is not the light reflecting off us, radiating our
images to any eyes open to receive them, somehow destined, even if in
increasingly diffused form, to travel forever, making our present the
past of innumerable futures still to come?

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