Semiotics of a Technological Sublime
On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse transmitted four words from Washington to Baltimore: “What hath God wrought!” With this verse, spelled out electrically in dots and dashes, the relationship of communication and presence was fundamentally altered. The selection of Numbers 23:23 from Scripture points to a spiritually charged cultural response to telegraphy and the channels it opened. For many, it was difficult to conceive of a connectivity that spanned such distance so quickly and Morse’s invention seemed to possess a kind of supernatural power. Architecture, engineering, and the emerging field of electromagnetic telecommunication all contributed to an aura of technological sublimity during the mid-nineteenth century. It is this history that my thesis draws from and builds upon.
Light, Sound, Text: Semiotics of a Technological Sublime is a research-based, site-specific installation that explores language encoding and mysticism through the early history of telecommunications. The project incorporates neon light, synchronized sound, and printed matter within the institutional architecture of New York University. It is here that Samuel Morse, a professor of painting and sculpture, realized his vision for telecommunication.
Sensing human presence, the installation conveys messages to visitors in Morse code, which can be received by them as language, sensory experience, or both. The printed piece—a typographic treatment of Numbers 23:23 overlayed with a GPS drawing—adds a layer of historical context and references movement across a landscape. Meanwhile, sound is sampled directly from electricity passing through the neon tube. The signal is processed and output in time with the patterns of light. Each of these aspects of the project are intended to operate within the framework of a technological sublime in the way that they convey language, appeal to our sense of the infinite, or create an atmosphere of contemplation.
My research process began with an investigation into the history of language invention. I’ve long been interested in the possibilities and limitations of language and began to wonder about the potential of a conceptual writing system that could represent abstract states of being and experience. This utopian vision was tempered by a survey of like-minded projects dating back to the seventeenth century when René Descartes supposed that if one could “explain correctly what are the simple ideas in the human imagination out of which all human thoughts are compounded . . . I would dare to hope for a universal language very easy to learn, to speak, and to write.” In reality, languages are fluid, malleable systems, the ambiguities and inconsistencies of which are assets rather than imperfections to be eradicated. “It is society that creates meaning,” notes Arika Okrent, “and therefore language.”
Surveying the cyclical history of language invention helped me to narrow in on language encoding as central to the approach I would take. Light, Sound, Text is intended to be a platform for the investigation of various forms of language encoding and their relationship to the built environment.
I’m particularly interested in how acts of encryption and decryption resonate with the semiotics of mysticism—of hidden signs and their receptors. For this phase of research, I’ve circled back to the beginning of electronic telecommunications with the invention of telegraphy. As the project poses new forms out of historical material, Light, Sound, Text effectively draws a line between New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and the groundwork laid for it 135 years earlier.
1844–1979: From Telegraphy to Interactive Telecommunications
Though best known for his invention of the telegraph, Samuel Morse began his career as an artist. Born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Morse graduated from Yale College and went on to study painting at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Flush with ambition, Morse set his sights on the City of New York where he took up residence in the fall of 1823 in a single room on Broadway.
Two years later he was selected for a high-profile commission of a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette. Morse had eagerly begun working on the painting in Washington when a letter arrived. His wife, Lucretia, who just a few weeks earlier had given birth to their fourth child, had suddenly died. The distance between them prevented Morse from returning before Lucretia was buried.
The sorrowful Morse carried on with life in New York feeling, nonetheless, a need to get away. This soon lead him to cross the Atlantic again, this time to visit Italy and France. While the trip was productive for Morse’s painting, the six-week journey home was particularly significant as it occasioned conversation about electromagnetism with Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson, an expert on the topic. Morse, who had taken a keen interest in telegraphy, began to envision a form of communication that would convey electromagnetic impulses through long circuits.
Within a month after his return, Morse accepted an appointment as Professor of Painting and Sculpture at the University of the City of New York. The rooms he rented on campus housed him and some of his students with additional space for painting and experimenting with a system for long-distance communication. Oliver Larkin describes the scene: “Around the walls of the Cabinet at New York University were coiled seventeen hundred feet of wire. With Yankee resourcefulness Morse had built his contrivance with the materials at hand—an old table, a discarded wooden stretcher intended for a painting, and various cogs, ratchets and springs from dismantled clocks.” With the help of others, Morse’s vision for a simple, easy-to-use electric telegraph was realized. The United States granted Morse a patent for his invention in 1840 and its major public debut came four years later.
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“What hath God wrought!” was the text selected by Annie Ellsworth, daughter of the Commisioner of Patents, for the opening of the Washington–Baltimore line. It was she who brought Morse news that the Senate had passed the bill funding the line’s construction and he thanked her with the honor. Wonderment spread soon after as the usefulness of the telegraph was demonstrated at political gatherings and elections. The most common description of Morse’s device was that it “annihilated space and time.”
As the telegraphic medium spread, it seemed poised to unify the human race in a utopian interconnectedness. “The sublimity,” writes David Nye, “lay in realizing that man had directly ‘subjugated’ matter, and this realization was a collective experience.” Comprehending this new media condition required a shift in the conceptual framework with which people understood communication—linked, up until then, with notions of travel. Alongside of this new understanding emerged a belief in the ability to channel spirits of the dead. The practice of Modern Spiritualism featured prominently across America from the 1840s to the 1920s.
A series of events surrounding the family of John and Margaret Fox in upstate New York in 1848 illustrate how telegraphic and spiritual media began to overlap in popular culture. After a string of sleepless nights punctuated by unidentifiable sounds of knocking and rapping, the youngest daughter, Kate, engaged the source of disturbance in a form of communication. This involved consistent knocking patterns such as counting and rapping once for “yes” or twice for “no.” News of these occurrences, which were repeatable, coupled with demonstrations at the Fox house lead many to believe that Kate had “opened a ‘telegraph line’ to another world.”
Regardless of the legitimacy of these claims, it appears that the cultural response to telegraphy was enmeshed with notions of presence previously only attributed to the realm of the spirit. This perspective is echoed in the concurrent rise of spirit photography, an attempt to capture spirits and ghosts in the photographic process. “American Spiritualism presented an early and most explicit intersection of technology and spirituality, of media and ‘mediums,’” writes Jeffrey Sconce, who goes on to assert that “many of our contemporary narratives concerning the ‘powers’ of electronic telecommunications have, if not their origin, then their first significant cultural synthesis in the doctrines of Spiritualism.” This is the spectrum within which Light, Sound, Text operates.
And this is the electrical discharge spectrum of argon—the noble gas concentrated in this tube of glass.
What’s fascinating to me about neon and argon is that they’re present in the air around us, hidden until revealed by this seemingly alchemical process. And the word mystical comes from the Greek for “hidden,” bringing us back to the semiotics of mysticism I’m attempting to construct.
French Jesuit priest and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin describes the link-up between technology and metaphysics as an impending “harmonized collectivity of consciousnesses equivalent to a sort of super-consciousness.” That may be. Or is it simply their ability to point us in that direction as signifiers of the unseen?
Light, Sound, Text brings together my interest in this hybrid space of technology and spirituality, the historical development of telecommunications at NYU, and the possibility of forms that speak to a hidden dimension of knowledge and experience.