Abstract- Lorraine Daston

Dreams of a Perfect Medium

Wax, clouds, wombs, white screens, mirrors, photographic plates. Since Greco-Roman antiquity, philosophers, naturalists, and artists have fantasized about a perfect medium: perfectly yielding, perfectly faithful, perfectly neutral, perfectly passive – in short, a medium that is immediate, a medium that is no medium at all. It is not only a dream about representation; it is also a dream about reproduction and cognition. Aristotle uses the same metaphor of a seal imprinted in soft wax to describe how external objects impress the sensorium and how the active male principle of form impresses passive female matter. It is the same metaphor taken up some two millennia later by John Locke to capture the ideals of empirical epistemology and by Renaissance theorists of the imagination such as Marsilio Ficino and Girolamo Cardano to explain how a mother’s thoughts and experiences during pregnancy can form and deform the unborn child. Early modern opticians and natural magicians invented ways of projecting images onto blank screens, just as nineteenth-century philosophers and psychologists would study projections of the subjective self onto the blank screen of the objective world. But the fantasy is not always the same fantasy, and in defiance of the dream of a completely self-effacing medium, the metaphors did matter. This lecture traces the twists and turns of an astonishingly long-lived and widespread fantasy that was reborn every time a new medium was discovered.