It is often the case that a number of events that at first seemed coincidental later reveal a sequence or a line of successive approximations from something vague to something clearer and ultimately irrefutable. Two coincidences will suggest themselves as existing in a mirror stage of each other. This will be my final “complex” essay – bear with this text; subsequent writings will not be so “instrumental” or mechanical in nature.
I. EMERGING PERSPECTIVE, VANISHING REALITY
Our first coincidence: last week I was writing about documentary film production, which I had not done previously, and this week, some encounters revealed the need for caution and for relying on visual evidence in the search for metaphysical truth. Visual evidence is often a problematic term because, as much as we rely on images for proof of reality, the means by which some images are created (for others) and recreated (within ourselves) is where much of the trouble begins: visual evidence is always unreliable. Perhaps this is why certain religions forbid the use of literal images of their principal deity. They respect what is perhaps a healthy skepticism about the concrete literalness of an image in connection with the abstract enormity of the universal force behind it.
This is not a new problem; it has been the central theme of German philosophy for more than two centuries. Immanuel Kant’s own philosophical works, particularly the Critique of Pure Reason, revolve around a distinction between what he called phenomena and noumena — what we perceive versus the thing-in-itself, respectively. Philosophical texts are easy to dismiss as the stuff of dusty shelves, but they are the product of careful analysis of the same reality that we live in today, and thus remain relevant, regardless of our attitudes. In brief overview, we can see why Kant is relevant to art, to the study of UFOs, and to the question that every image asks of us: to believe it outright, despite the fact that is is a manipulation of direct reality.
Kant’s concept of phenomena refers to the world as we see and understand it. It is the empirical, sensible reality that is accessible to us through our senses and understanding. It is the world of appearances, subjected to the limitations and conditions of our perceptual apparatus. The point is that appearances, or perceived reality, are always and only available to us through our mental faculties and senses — and through some other mediating device (such as a photograph or a painting). On the other hand, Kant’s notion of noumena relates to the things as they are in themselves, independent of our perception. This is the objective reality that exists outside our senses and understanding, inaccessible and unknowable due to the inherent limitations of our cognitive faculties or any possible medium. In narrative film, the clearest distinction between phenomena and nuomena appears in the film The Matrix, where Neo, the protagonist, is given a demonstration that persuades him to accept how truly compromised and mediated what seems like transparent, apparent reality really is:
Not long ago, a certain individual contacted me; he wanted to have a documentary film made about his UFO images and footage, which he had been posting on his social media account. In my last essay, I mentioned that such requests are not uncommon. He began to send photographs of highly impressive images and videos of flying phenomena, in some cases they were rotating light orbs captured through the use of a drone from a distance in the morning light.
He subsequently sent photographic of images of flying orbs; these were in extreme close-up, conveying a level of detail that I had never seen before. These orbs were extremely clear, resembling egg yolks, and occasionally one could even see organic-looking structures.
A flying orb. Image courtesy of Phillip Davis (Source)
We exchanged dozens of emails on these images, as I asked about their location, time, and other details.
Detail from orb. Image courtesy of Phillip Davis
One day he explained that he was using “AI enhancement” on these impressive images, which he has been posting on social media without making this process explicit. Since by his own admission they had been subject to some kind of AI-based transformation, I asked to see the original orb images.
A flying orb – detail. Courtesy of Phillip Davis (Source)
Eventually, I received those originals. Looking nothing like the earlier sharp, detailed, fantastically enticing images, these originals were extremely small and fuzzy. The question to consider was whether the sharp details in the processed images were indeed within the original images, or were perhaps synthesized with new elements produced by the software itself in its attempt to magnify features of the originals. To be sure, the originals appeared to have no features at all.
Orbs, enhanced by software. Image courtesy of Phillip Davis
Orbs, original image. Courtesy of Phillip Davis
To be clear, enhancement is the process of making an image clearer by enhancing only its internal features. In this case, there is no way to know whether the “AI enhancement” might have added these details. Ideally, a test could identify the source of such details. For example, would such processing on a blurry image of Mars captured by early photography reveal the features we see clearly on the planet’s surface today? What is in question is the effect of the decisions iteratively made within the software (which is the “AI” part of his claim), and whether they are either a form of enhancement or adornment.
I thus made clear that it is very important for him to openly describe and explain his AI transformations, to put both kinds of images – the originals and those subjected to such processing – side-by-side, and, additionally, in full disclosure, to allow the public to understand that what he was presenting was just one possible version of what is optically there. To show how many new artifacts might or might not have have been added by his software, I also mentioned that he should run the same software transformations multiple times on the same image and then post each of the resulting images, so that the public can understand how the result of multiple permutations will alter the original image in various ways.
A distraction emerged. Substituting for an explanation, he instead sent a link to an article that discussed NASA’s use of AI enhancement. His message was clear: “Looks like NASA is going to follow suit as to what I have been doing.”
The link in his email sourced back not to NASA itself, but rather to a short article from Fox News, which, we would recall, earlier this year was forced to pay $787 million for defamation and misrepresenting two makers of electronic voting machines. It had also fired its chief prime-time host, Tucker Carlson, without even giving him prior notice and without covering its own story, for his defamatory deceptive statements made over many months. To be sure, as of today 29 September 2023, a search query today for “Tucker Carlson” on the Fox web site shows that the channel has refused to explain his termination to its own audience:
A Fox News search query for “Tucker Carlson”
With these actions, we may recall, Fox behaved as a questionable outlet for factual information. Its reporting was careless, and characteristically, the author of the article on NASA and AI was a “crime and US news reporter for Fox News Digital,” not a science reporter. The wayward article’s main photo was an image of Avi Loeb, whose affiliation, as is widely known, is with Harvard University, not NASA.
In any case, the Fox article explained that NASA was considering the use of AI, and to be sure, there are current efforts to follow the trajectory of flying objects inside our atmosphere in order to determine whether certain craft follow an aberrant flight profile that might be indicative of nonhuman origin. For example, airplanes, birds, and helicopters all fly in relatively straight lines and turn in soft curves based on their velocity. Correspondingly, one simple AI rule for a detection system that tracks flying objects could identify anomalies by reporting on any craft moving at high speed but which then suddenly stops, or makes an unacceptably sharp turn, or a full 180°reversal. No known craft or animal is able to do this.
This case of NASA’s AI use, however, has little to do with images. Rather, it would track multiple points in three-dimensional coordinate space to compare the trajectories of objects with certain flight profiles that are known to be those of helicopters, birds, and airplanes. Such a system does not see what an object looks like; it only tracks motion. Motion is an abstract quality of a physical object, but the image of the object is a physical characteristic. The man with whom I was conversing saw both as the same kind of AI. I took notice of the fact that on social media he continues posting these images without explaining how they are altered.
My last email was simple: “I recommend again that you post original images with your AI images. You’re not representing the information accurately, and unless we go that route, I won’t be able to feel OK going forward with these claims.” Within 12 hours, his simple reply was, “We are done here. Good luck.” Perhaps he feels that these images are true reflections of the originals, but the refusal to explain his work to the public, which is reacting to his images with astonishment, is something to which we will return later, because there is a lingering discrepancy between what is a true and a mirror image in this account.
In the context of aerial phenomena, everyone wants to know more and to see more. Such curiosity is crucial to this large-scale quest of a truly deep and enduring mystery of uncanny objects seen all over the globe and apparently throughout all of history. Enhancements, distortions, permutations, revisions—these are the work of visual artists, people who work directly to the dictates of imagination and for whom reproduction of reality plays only a small role in the final product. But artists need not present their work as having the chatty detail of journalistic reporting. But when we claim to present accurate images, we are not “done here” until we carefully and openly explain as well. As we will see, distortion is a double edged weapon, necessary to arrive at accurate representations of reality, but without awareness of its power, it can also deceive the eye.
II. EMERGING REALITY THROUGH VANISHING PERSPECTIVE
In a second coincidence, simultaneous with this uncompelling dialogue begun in the desire for a film production, I received the latest issue of October, a journal of contemporary art that is unparalleled in its intellectual rigor.
October, Issue 185, Summer 2023
The journal was founded by two art historians, Annette Michelson, and Rosalind Krauss (whom I filmed on a previous occasion both at her SoHo apartment and during her lectures at Columbia University). October came into being a kind of response to art criticism in the 1970s, which at the time was based on empty platitudes and emotional excesses rather than focusing on true formal characteristics and deeper contexts informing the creation of contemporary art. The title of the journal is a reference to the Bolshevik Revolution and was intended as a metaphor, a signal that the long and tyrannous reign of art critics like Clement Greenberg was to be overthrown. This new issue contains important writings on painting, sculpture, and photography, but significantly, its final text is a short, nuanced, labyrinthine essay by Krauss discussing the visual technique of perspective drawing in relation to psychoanalysis. Here, perspective is a word tied both to seeing (i.e., visual three-dimensional perspective) and to believing (i.e., psychological perspective), and Krauss finds connecting points between both in certain ideas that stem from the human gaze.
First, let us consider the term “perspective” as being of the literal, optical kind in which objects are represented to our retinal processing with a sense of depth. Visual perspective is an artistic technique that took centuries to develop. Given that visual art has been in evidence for eons, the rise of perspective drawing in Italy after the 13th century is a relatively recent development in the history of art, involving the transposition of three dimensional objects onto two dimensional media, such as paper, panel, or canvas. If it seems as if painting and illustration were always drawn in perspective, it may be because the ways in which such perspective came into being are not part of normal cultural consciousness. It is well to ask, briefly, what did the development of perspective in art look like?
The Italian late medieval painter Giotto di Bondone is perhaps the artist who most clearly demonstrates the moments just before and just after the development of perspective technique. Dating from 1310, his Madonna Enthroned, also known as the Ognissanti Madonna, is masterful, almost haunting painting replete with persons and ornamental details, yet still shows the artist’s struggles with perspective: rear figures are merely made to look smaller, but each exists in his or her own separate perspective space. The faces, too, appear as if flattened onto the surface of the work, rather than with the rounded slack of a forward-to-rear progression of line. The placement of the eyes is especially flattened, and the throne’s structure seems inconsistent and does not adhere to a coherent system of perspective, revealing an embryonic form of spatial representation:
Giotto di Bondone, Ognissanti Madonna, 1310.
This work provides evidence that in 1310 there is an effort among even great artists to recreate depth and volume, but still fails to convey the kind of true linear perspective developed later in the Renaissance.
But only ten years later, Giotto produced the Stefaneschi Triptych, shown here:
Giotto di Bondone, Stefaneschi Triptych, 1320
The Stefaneschi Triptych much more clearly shows Giotto’s evolving grasp of spatial representation and depth, displaying more advanced uses of perspective, even though it might not fully adhere to the strict linear perspective developed later by artists like Filippo Brunelleschi, the 15th century architect and engineer who pioneered early Renaissance architecture in Italy. It is, then, to Brunelleschi that we must turn for clues to the explicit discovery of the perspective method, because in a well-known building at the center of Florence – the baptistery of the Florence cathedral – Brunelleschi found the perfect object with which to practice and discover what is today known as vanishing perspective technique.
Peculiar in shape and color, the baptistery in Florence is one of the oldest buildings in Europe, constructed between 1059 and 1128:
The baptistry of the Florence cathedral, constructed between 1059 and 1128.
The primary problem was to see the object comparatively, in some way that could overlay a reflection of the building onto an artist’s evolving sketch, so that the physical object and its reflected image could be seen together. As it happened, working with a reflection of the object turned out to be the key to this form of comparative overlay.
We know that the first successful case of portraying an object in true perspective was accomplished by just this kind of reflective comparison, through the use of a mirror, and by a man with the mind of both an artist (able to work comfortably in two dimensional renderings) and an architect (just as easily working with three dimensional structures). This synthetic mind belonged to Brunelleschi himself, and like others before him, he set his sights on the baptistery of the Florence cathedral. Brunelleschi relied on a form of double deception to capture reality through a method that was deceptively simple. How did he formulate such a mirror version of reality?
As the illustration below depicts, Brunelleschi used both a panel and a mirror (each with a tiny hole in the center). Through the panel’s hole, Brunelleschi’s gaze beheld the Florence baptistery. In front of the panel, he also held a small mirror, reflected against a drawing of the building which he was making on his panel. Peering through both the panel’s and the mirror’s holes, Brunelleschi was thus able see the building directly in front of him, and simultaneously, on the panel, he could also see his own drawing of the building. By seeing both the building and his drawing, he would gradually add points and line features to his panel drawing, continuously holding it up for comparison with the building physically in front of him. Repeating this act of drawing and comparing the structure and his illustration over and over, Brunelleschi found the anomalous secret to projecting the third physical dimension onto the second: the previously unknown illusion of a vanishing point toward the center horizon. In the vanishing point technique, objects diminish in size as they recede toward a central point on the horizon. As mentioned earlier, the physical object and its double (the painting) came into a symmetrical relationship with each other through the use of a mirror:
The effect is made more literally evident by the imposition of a physical network of lines tracing to the vanishing point, from which the relationships of all objects in relative distance are then established:
Brunelleschi defended vanishing point perspective in the simplest terms: “…no picture can resemble nature unless it is seen from a definite distance and location, and the diminution in size as a function of distance.” until the rise of abstract painting in the 20th century, resembling nature, and indeed all reality, is what every picture was meant to do, and every painter came to accept the ironic problem that reality could be correctly represented only by means of a perceptual distortion like vanishing point perspective.
It is ironic that three-dimensional reality could at first only be captured with a mirror, an instrument of duplication that creates the illusion of a “second original.” Recognizing this, Rosalind Krauss’s October essay turns to The Eye and the Gaze, an important essay in the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who understood the function of the mirror as informing both visual and psychological perception.
Fusing both acts of being and seeing within a single process early in human development, Lacan proposed the emergence of a “mirror stage” that occurs when an infant, between 6 and 18 months of age, recognizes their reflection in a mirror. This recognition is accompanied by a mix of jubilation and tension as the infant identifies directly with this seemingly coherent and unified image. However, this is a misrecognition or “méconnaissance” because, at this age, the infant experiences their body as fragmented and their motor capacities as uncoordinated. But the mirror creates an ideal “I” that only later is identified as distinct from the imperfect “I” (indeed, in subsequent life stages, the mirror emphasizes the imperfect “I” to the point of trauma).
And so, here is a parallel to the first coincidence mentioned at the beginning of this essay regarding the man who contacted me and who is using AI to create seemingly coherent images of orb-shaped UAPs. His means of creating the ideal image isn’t through the use of a mirror, but rather via software on his computer. His perception of the orbs is nonetheless subject to mysterious distortions hampering him from sharing the original images with the public, while continually posting his reconstructions as if they were a reflection of physical reality. And, as with the infant, his misrecognition is indicative of a mirror stage holding two irreconcilable images, at first “correctly” reflected by each other – in fact, equated and equal, but eventually doomed to separate and stigmatize the very image he sees reflected by his “software mirror.”
His transformations lie in direct opposition to the useful and necessary distortions that led to the discovery of vanishing point perspective: Brunelleschi distorts reality so as to present it in two dimensions from which both image and object can be directly compared. This other man, by contrast, begins with an unknown reality but to represent it as real, ends up eclipsing and preventing the original from being seen.
In each case, a given medium, when used, creates a change of perceived reality, with opposite results: for the artist, it is the use of visual perception to reveal, for the supposed scientist, it is visual deception to conceal. Brunelleschi’s is a simulation technique; the other man’s technique is one of dissimulation.
Clearly, the contrast between both turns on the full and intimate availability of the original object; the baptistery, in all its formal detail, is immediately present to the artist, whereas the flying orbs, distant, small, and fuzzy, have no such detail to offer any current means of perception. As every image must be distorted through a medium before it can be displayed, it is well to remember that, whether presented by an artist, an amateur, a NASA satellite, or any other kind of presumptively real photography, the elusiveness of the original is the key factor in whether its reflected copy is realistically presented or merely represented.
Either way, the eye is always fooled. Perhaps we would do better to focus on non-phenomenal reality. Seeking direct access to the nuomena is the work of spiritual life itself, as something beyond all mirror stages. That is where I am going.