Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination. (Bachelard, xxxvi).
Ether is a space of speculation. Historically, the medium has been dually seized upon by poetic imagination and subjected to scientific measurement and experiment. From the Aristotelian physics of heavenly bodies to a 19th century notion of an expansive aerial phonograph (Milutis 37), speculations about the ether are necessarily partial: subjective because premised on a negative—a presence envisioned for the void. As the physicists G.N. Cantor and M.J.S. Hodge write, “the conceptions of aither often depend directly on ontologies, on theories of being and substance” (Cantor and Hodge 8). Signifying presence in the absence of a perceptible referent, ether is an image that can only indicate and sustain ontologies.
As a mode of mediation, ether collapses signification and materiality. Ether is thus akin to Iris, the Greek goddess of communication who imminently embodies the message given to her. Despite its etymological tie to our concept of the “ethereal” (otherworldly, immaterial) in mediating unknowable, imperceptible space, ether was necessarily material: a rigorously tested and constructed presence to stand in for the void. Like Iris, the symbolic content of ether was indistinct from its material substrate. Never indifferent, the materiality of ether could potentially bridge lived experience and the absolute (as measurement) or explode this duality (as atomic imagination).
Symbolic materiality: plan(e) and plane
As a conceptual physical field, ether pertains to the “two ways of conceptualizing the plane” (Deleuze and Guattari 265) outlined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. On the one hand, Deleuze and Guattari describe “a teleological plan(e), a design, a mental principle...a plan(e) of transcendence” that, “even if it is said to be immanent, it is so only by absence, analogically (metaphorically, metonymically, etc.)” (265-6). On the other hand is the plane of pure immanence, where “the plane itself is perceived at the same time as it allows us to perceive the imperceptible […] relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between unformed elements, or at least between elements that are relatively unformed, molecules, and particles of all kinds” (266-7). Historically, ether has been both teleological plan[e] and plane of pure immanence. On one level, ether has undergirded dualities that it mediates via transcendence, serving as a presence predicated on absence. On another, ether has structured the void on an invisible, atomic level, negating absolutes through the identification of continuous, volatile activity. The medium has performed according to the logic of representation, but it also embodies the potential for Deleuze’s idea of immanent expression, where Being refuses an appeal to transcendence or ontological hierarchy (McLean 232).
Bodies heavenly and atomic
The origins of ether in Western philosophy are typically traced to Aristotle, whose theory of the universal elements included “aither” as a quinta essentia, or fifth essense (Cantor and Hodge 4). Aristotelian ether was a sempiternal substance that bathed and preserved the heavenly bodies in perpetual, circular motion (5). Though ether was confined to the divine sphere above the sky, it had an analogue on earth: pneuma, the breath and spirit that animated terrestrial life (5). Aristotle’s conception of ether thus both preserved the divine cosmos as incorruptible and absolute and, through pneuma, mediated between heaven and earth. Even though it was “a product of the pagan worship of sun and moon and planets” (Russell 199), the hierarchical structure of the universe and the possibility of transcendence signified by Aristotle’s conception of ether was co-opted by Christian theologians and held sway into the Renaissance.
In the 1st century BCE, however, the Roman poet Lucretius integrated the idea of ether into very different, non-hierarchized ontology: the atomist tradition of Empedocles and Democritus. As Siegfried Zielinski writes, the atomists did “not think of the infinite multiplicity of things in terms of any hierarchical order. Nothing is above anything else; everything exists side-by-side, in motion, and with constant interpenetration” (Zielinski 47). Elaborating this philosophy which prefigures modern particle physics, “Lucretius’s cosmogony starts with the formation of the earth from a mindless rushing of atoms driven only by their weight and their collisions with others” (Cantor and Hodge 7). While the heavier atoms link up to make the earth, the lighter atoms are squeezed out as a fiery ether that, with air, both congeals into and surrounds the moon, sun, stars, and planets. In contrast to Aristotle’s idea of ether as a substance that preserved the heavenly bodies as absolute, in Lucretius’ theory ether “is not, ultimately, special at all” (8), but is comprised, like the rest of the universe, of a particular particle density that both sustains and is subject to constant flux. As Stuart McLean observes, “such a materialism, in focusing on the emergence and dissolution of apparently stable forms, refuses…any absolute distinction”: “[p]hysical bodies, sensations, and products of the imagination thus share the same origin and the same materiality” (McLean 225). In the atomist tradition, which holds that images and material bodies are continuous, ether is at once a simulacra (the product of sensation and imagination) and materiality (a physical body).
In the late 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell theorized ether as a substance present in empty space in order to explain how light waves propagate in a void. Just as sound waves travel through air, Maxwell hypothesized, light waves travel through and relative to the ether (Hawking 20). As John Durham Peters notes, Maxwell characterized the ether as a heavenly substance in the Aristotelian and Newtonian lineage, rich with the divine potential of communicability. As Maxwell writes,
The vast interplanetary and interstellar regions will no longer be regarded as waste places in the universe, which the Creator has not seen fit to fill with the symbols of the manifold order of His kingdom. We shall find them to be already full of this wonderful medium; so full, that no human power can remove it from the smallest portion of space, or produce the slightest flaw in its infinite continuity (qtd. in Peters 102).
Despite this “infinite continuity” Maxwell understands to allow action at a distance, Peters observes that Maxwell’s conception of ether also signified modern problems of communication. In one experiment, for example, Maxwell presses two lenses together to depict the space that intervenes between bodies. Even when the lenses are visibly sealed together, when he shone a light through them, a visible ring indicated their separation: which Maxwell perceived as the negation of “absolute contact” (qtd. in Peters 178). Maxwell thus “states a major theme in modernist art and literature,” Peters writes, where “the problem of communication becomes not only one of getting messages across the waste expanses traversed by the telegraph wires or the interference-prone ‘ether’ of radio transmission, but one of making contact with the person sitting next to you” (Peters 178). While at this time ether was used to describe the propagation of radio waves and wireless broadcast (“the Ethernet”), the medium also allowed for the conception of the atomized ontological space that characterizes Modernity.
Both Maxwell’s conception of a crystalline space that propagates light and the atomized notion of social space that Durham observes prefigure the idea of particle physics formulated by Albert Einstein in 1905. “Overthrowing the concept of a universal ‘now,’” (Wilczek 85) Einstein’s theory of special relativity debunked absolute space and Maxwell’s concept of the ether as a spatial constant. Though he is typically credited with laying ether to rest, in 1920, Einstein stated that “according to the general theory of relativity space without ether is unthinkable,” because “to deny ether is ultimately to assume that empty space has no physical qualities whatever” (qtd. in Cantor and Hodge 53-4). Einstein's recuperation of ether thus had a significant role in the dissolution of absolute ontological and physical categories into the immanent, atomic vision of the universe initially conceptualized by the atomists.
Where does the ether go to die?
Despite Einstein’s redemption of the medium, as the physicist Frank Wilczek describes, even the modern iteration of ether “bears the stigma of dead ideas” (Wilczek 74). Nevertheless, Wilczek employs the term as a kind of placeholder to theorize the phenomenon of superconductivity: “where a space-filling material ether…does the conducting” (96). While “we don’t really know what this new material ether is,” we do “know it’s name: the Higgs condensate” (96). Ether may finally be put to rest 574 feet beneath the Franco-Swiss border. If the Large Hadron Collider succeeds in proving the existence of the Higgs boson through high-energy particle collisions, the role of ether as a representation and a potentiality could be ultimately rendered obsolete. Such a teleological plan(e), however, would obscure the immanent expression which characterizes ether as a medium.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.
Cantor, G.N. and M.J.S. Hodge, eds. Conceptions of Ether: Studies in the history of ether theories, 1740-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. Rev. ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.
McLean, Stuart. “Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond ‘Nature’ and ‘Culture’.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 213-245.
Milutis, Joe. Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Peters, John Durham. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. Rev. ed. London: Routledge Classics, 2004.
Wilczek, Frank. The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.