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Jakob von Narkiewicz-Jodko, “Effluvia from an Electrified Hand Resting on a Photographic Plate” (1896). Société Astronomique de France.
22 Feb. 2018 -
11:00 - 12:30
St Jorishof, Korte Spinhuissteeg 3
Conference Room
Free entrance

Picturing Aura

NIAS Seminar

Jeremy Stolow explores the history of efforts to photograph ‘the aura’ – a normally invisible vital energy radiating from the body – and the lives of such pictures in psychic research, alternative medicine, the New Age spiritual marketplace, and larger areas of mass media and popular culture.

About the Seminar

Whether described as a type of spiritual glow, a radiant energy, or some other subtle force, the human aura has long been familiar to artists, doctors, clairvoyants, and occult seers in diverse regions of the world. Knowledge about auras, the elements from which they are composed, their distinctive colours and shapes, and their structure and function with regard to the vitality of human bodies, minds, and spirits has been shaped by centuries-long traditions of devotional art, medical illustration, mystical technique, and cosmological description.

But starting in the late nineteenth century, it became possible to manifest auras through the work of instruments and media technologies initially developed for the scientific visualization of the invisible natural order. This technical shift dramatically accelerated and expanded the means by which auras were seen and known, as evidenced in the incorporation of such apparatus into the work of heterodox scientists, artists, and health and spiritual service providers, and in the appearance of pictures of aura within increasingly global circuits of popular science, mass media, and visual culture. In an ironic twist of Walter Benjamin’s famous (and famously misconstrued) commentary on the ‘withering’ of aura and its magical (or sacred) power in the age of technical reproducibility, it seems that the opposite trend has been occurring, at least in the case of the human aura. Its pictures have only multiplied in number, extended in reach, and sharpened in detail. More than this, pictures of aura have empowered their makers and users to flout established scientific consensus about the very construction of the cosmos and to challenge hegemonic modes of medical governance of bodies. For these and other reasons, as this project aims to show, the history of ‘picturing auras’ runs counter to many well ensconced assumptions and claims about technology, nature, culture, and the making of the modern world.

Picturing Aura is a book-length project that recounts the history of instrumental detection and pictorial representation of phenomena that can and have been given the name ‘aura’. The book I am writing examines roughly 130 years of evolution of media technologies responsible for producing what are claimed to be authentic pictures of aura, attending to the material affordances and operational protocols of instruments that have been treated as means of both scientific visualization and occult revelation. The book further explores how pictures of aura have been put to work in service of distinct scientific, therapeutic, artistic, esoteric, and commercial enterprises, as well as noting the range of interest and debate, both professional and public, that has swirled around images in their circulation. Weaving together the ‘biographies’ of visual instruments and artefacts with those of the makers and viewers, Picturing Aura traces a remarkable (and to date only scantily documented) history of creative collision of science, occultism, and the visual arts. My seminar will offer a rough overview of the book, its contents, and its philosophical ambitions.

About NIAS Seminars

NIAS Seminars are aimed to stimulate scientific cross-pollination within the NIAS academic community, but seminars are open to others who are interested. Please  if you wish to attend.