- Astronomy as Intermedia: 19th Century Optical Mobilism and Cosmopolitics
Clouds are therefore a fine metaphor for intermediary and automatic beings… Trees too are clouds: only, they are slower at occupying space.(Quéau)
In the new landscape of media archaeology—especially variantology, which insists on ramified rather than convergent developments—media, too, appear to be imperceptibly changing from stable trees into metastable clouds. If we accelerate that motion, then the whole McLuhan-Kittler-Parikka media forest of semi-separate specimens starts to look like a self-rearranging ballet—a murmuration across species. At a certain historical rate, in other words, problems of media ontology and phylogenesis tend to turn into animated sequences in which individual or individuated media are but arrested moments.
This animation metaphor, much more than a metaphor, is the substance of the present essay. Namely, I propose that the condition of possibility of intermedia is precisely cinematic animation, as an expansion of metaphor from a transport across water (its original meaning in Greek) to one across lexical meaning, to a more general transit across media. Against the grain of media archaeology’s laudable democratization of all media, I follow here the thought of Jean Epstein, for whom cinema is not one media amongst others, but the first machine that invented for us a new mobile universe of perceptual, cognitive, imaginary and philosophical circulations.1 My hypothesis is, then, that it is cinema that discloses the horizon of multiple media and is also, and perhaps therefore, the catalyst for media transfers.
The main reason that cinematic animation is media prototypical, and this is my second claim, has to do with the longer history of optical motion, or kinopsis, derived from astronomy and culminating with the new cosmology of the 19th century, within which context cinema, and before it, photography, emerged. Cinema, then, is prototypical among media because its very fabric comes, in several separate channels, from a cosmological revolution in optics.
I am well aware that, together, these two claims reprise the bête noire of media archaeology—cinema as teleological. There is, however, a major difference in asserting that cinema results merely from a telos of mimicry or a multi-sensory archetype, as Bazin and others pretty much do, and [End Page 53] proposing that it conjugates revolutionary optics, secular astronomy and post-revolutionary cosmopolitics in a way that makes it the polymorphic condition of possibility of intermedia.
1. Astronomy as Media
Astronomy has remained problematically aloof within contemporary studies of our modern mediascape. This results from modernity studies’ horizontal bias towards the socius and global connectivity to the detriment of any active interest in verticality and the cosmos—at least until recently. It also has to do, I believe, with the perception that astronomy is now entirely divorced from modern aesthetics, philosophy and sociopolitical changes. The emergence of the Anthropocene frame might revise this perception, but let us say that the forgetting of the cosmos is a significant blind spot when it comes to the 19th century, as we shall see.
Media theoreticians might have taken notice that astronomy represents a kind of zero degree for media dispositifs, which combine a technics and a discourse. Minimally, astronomical practice requires an observational apparatus comprised of elements such as a site, a means of pictorial recording, a mathematical model, and ultimately optical instruments. It also relies on an overarching theoretical discourse ranging from the ominous to the soteriological, and from astrological prediction to cosmographic description and finally cosmological modeling. Moreover, its operational processes encompass prototypical features of mediality such as optical devices, scalar representations, signal/noise ratios, tele-technics, etc. Hence, astronomical observation was never just a dispositif for the knowledge of the cosmos, but an epistemologically informed media for finding the new in the near future or the far past, and for testing new constructs of thought, geometry and physics, in order to shape a universal account of reality. With the rather sudden development of the telescope in 1608—with similar attribution issues as cinema—astronomy can also claim to have become a full media. Not only were phenomena such as novae, Jupiter’s moons, the nature of the Milky...