Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, this project aims to reconstruct the history and examine the contemporary contexts of media technologies used by paranormal scientists, alternative health practitioners, and spiritual service providers, all of whom share an interest in trying to detect, visualize, and pictorially represent mysterious spiritual forces: specifically, the ‘vital energy’ that some claim radiates from our human bodies and is referred to as our ‘aura’.
Since antiquity, the human aura has preoccupied artists, doctors, mystics, and seekers of esoteric knowledge in diverse regions of the world. Starting in the nineteenth century, however, an emerging biomedical orthodoxy has rejected aura as a scientifically illegitimate description of the bioelectromagnetic fields produced by living organisms. And yet, despite those denunciations, efforts to picture aura have not abated. Whereas students across the humanities and social sciences continue to be taught a version of Walter Benjamin’s famous thesis that aura is inimical to the rise of modern means of technological reproduction, the opposite trend seems to be occurring in the case of human aura, where diverse actors have appropriated and repurposed new visual media technologies in order to penetrate its mystery and to multiply and disseminate pictures of aura in new ways. This evolving complicity between aura and its technological mediation suggests the need to revise dominant historical narratives about modern media, their cultural effects, and their relation to knowledge and practice.
My project will trace roughly one century of evolution of media technologies used to produce pictures of aura, documenting the development of chemical filtered lenses, camera-less photogram techniques, graphic recording instruments, digital imaging technologies, and other visual aids. The project will further examine how such media have been put to work in the domains of paranormal science, alternative medicine, and the (increasingly globalized) spiritual marketplace. My objective is to track the ‘life course’ of pictures of aura and the technologies that produce them, from their phases of initial conception and design, to their incorporation in diverse scenes of experiment, medical diagnosis, commodification, mass-mediated circulation, and domestic consumption. My study adopts a multidisciplinary research strategy, combining methodologies from media archaeology, science studies, the anthropology of religion, and visual culture studies, applied to archival research as well as a multi-sited ethnography targeting selected research institutes, international conferences, trade shows, and New Age marketplaces.
A key source of inspiration for this project is Bruno Latour’s call for engagement with instances of ‘iconoclash’, a term he coined to refer to the modern world’s anxious uncertainty about images that inhabit the shared terrains of science, religion, and art. Pictures of aura represent an ideal case to test how science and religion intersect through technologically mediated modes of knowledge and practice. The results of this research will furnish a detailed account of a remarkable, and much-neglected, transnational history of engagement with visual media while also contributing new knowledge and analytical insight to multiple disciplines, including: the history and anthropology New Age spirituality; the study of ‘rejected’ or ‘fringe’ sciences; and the visual culture of medicine and the body. More fundamentally, my study will offer a new interdisciplinary methodological approach and thereby mount a sustained theoretical critique of how scholars have conventionally (and quite artificially) approached the study of science, medicine, religion, and spirituality as disconnected domains of knowledge and practice.