Ether: The Nothing that Connects Everything by Joe Milutis

Nothingness is not necessarily the same as meaninglessness. And emptiness doesn’t have to mean despair or lack of excitement. Of course, “interdisciplinary” doesn’t have to mean biting off more than you can chew, but sometimes that’s what it takes to wrap your head around a simple idea.

Although he tries to tie too many concepts to the idea of the “ethereal”, Joe Milutis has spun together a fascinating and complicated network of associations — artistic, scientific, intellectual, and popular — about how we understand the concept of the space between things. And the fact that he picks and chooses his examples based entirely on what inspires him personally is understandable. After all, that’s what the book is really about.

Milutis’ book is a manifesto for something that seems to be driving artists everywhere. Although it hides behind language of academic criticism, it is an anti-critical call to arms. Look around. Even outside of academia, signs of pessimism, fear, know-it-allism, and technophobia are everywhere. Unchecked, critical thinking has brought us to where we are today: consumers who are too smart to be duped by anything that pretends to be sincere. For a generation or more, we’ve responded almost solely to conversations about what’s missing. And now here we are, living carefully in a postmodern culture, keenly aware of its shortcomings and limitations, but unable to see a way out. We’ve spent a lot of time breaking down the walls, deconstructing the grand narratives that played such a role in the atrocities of the 20th century, and all we’re left with is propaganda and a whole lot less certainty.

“Criticism” can be a powerful crutch. It keeps us above everyone else, always in the know. It puts us on the side of rightness, regardless of what we’re trying to tear down. But it doesn’t offer many solutions. By weaving a complex web of subject matter — from Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin to Bruce Willis and Sailor Moon — into this loose mess, Milutis is voicing a common urge: he is joining the art world on a wave of scholarship that looks to a Modernist past for inspiration, since inspiration is not the postmodern condition.

Milutis’ halting, flailing exploration of the connections between things announces the desire to make the world a better place by reconsidering outmoded technologies, paths that were long ago abandoned halfway, and notions that were cast aside — possibly before they’d been fully formed. The thread that runs through the text is the longing “for the scientific and philosophical polysemy of the ether in the pre-Einsteinian period — an era of innocence when Mendeleev had considered putting the fifth element on his periodic table…” It’s a catalog of 18th and 19th century ideas, 20th century pop culture references, and contemporary artists, tied together by our nostalgia for fanciful concepts.

If he and the artists he writes about are any indication, I believe we’re ready to put our televisions away, get out of our cars, and think a little bit about the things they replaced. Once upon a time, people thought about beauty and the sublime. We were excited about live theater and were thrilled when important people came to town on “the lecture circuit”. We also had some pretty cool technologies (zoetropes and mutoscopes, Theramins and crystal sets, Mesmerism and Theosophy). We need to reexamine these impulses and see if they offer untapped possibilities. For the one’s that do, the 21st century offers a lot of new directions.

Using the tools of the past to construct a better future, it’s actually time to build some new narratives to replace the ones we’ve worked so hard to tear down. And we can still try to acknowledge the flaws in our thinking that led us to believe that strip malls on the edges of our cities would be more convenient than having Main Street within walking distance — without giving up the idea of a better life.

Music, passed through the atmosphere on radio waves, offers an interesting example. As corporate America moves to satellite networks and digital communications, the lunatic fringe (those of us who care about these things) is hoping to play games with the analog junk left behind. Technologies that were once cutting edge are now interesting because they’ve been made obsolete, passed-over by the lumbering giants. So garage bands incorporate eight-track and cassette fumblings into their aesthetic, and professional bands record their music on wax cylinders — just to get that magic sound.

And that’s only the beginning of the possibilities. Centuries of technology, pseudo-science, pop-psychology and eager beliefs are available to us, all safely ensconced in the public domain, and ready to be rediscovered. And best of all, the older the technology, the more human it is. It doesn’t take a modern neurosurgeon to recreate Franklin’s early experiments with electricity. I don’t have to have a scanning electron microscope to understand the mechanics of a ham radio. So we can revel in the individual, man-made scale of these concepts and technologies, even while applying them to our modern lives and communities.

Finally, what makes reinvention exciting is that it’s not necessarily about newness. This isn’t futurism, its pastism. It’s reviving what the things that excited people in the past about the future. And using that nostalgia to create the future’s future. Consider this: The past will never come again. No one has to worry about that. But there are always lessons to be learned. And if there were good things to be said about AM radio, Vaudeville, and daguerreotypes, it doesn’t make sense for Satellites, Mission Impossible III and cell phone cameras to be the only media we’re allowed to experience. Bring back the séance and the vacuum tube. Build something out of wood and pressed tin. Long live the excitement of a world with possibilities! Ether is a vehicle for all of these desires, as well as a nice accounting of the people who have begun tapping into them. And if they’re all as excited and prodigious as Milutis claims, we’re on our way to seeing something new emerging from the ruins of the 20th century.