The Void-Image: Notes on the Event Horizon Telescope

After much hype and fanfare, scientists have unveiled the first image of a black hole — and, as predicted, it’s not much to look at.

… But then, why should it be?

What is fascinating about this story, when you dig down into the science, is that we have essentially found a new way to image that which is imperceptible. By digging down and confronting what exactly this smudge represents (and how), we might even find something that vaguely resembles horror.

Produced using an algorithm written by MIT grad student Katie Bouman called CHIRP — which stands for “Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors” — the image is, in essence, a spatio-temporal cosmic collaboration, made by collating data from various radio telescopes around the world. It is, considering the scale at which it has been produced, a kind of planetary algorithmic vision.

A detailed explanation of the science on the MIT website reads:

The algorithm traditionally used to make sense of astronomical interferometric data assumes that an image is a collection of individual points of light, and it tries to find those points whose brightness and location best correspond to the data. Then the algorithm blurs together bright points near each other, to try to restore some continuity to the astronomical image.

To produce a more reliable image, CHIRP uses a model that’s slightly more complex than individual points but is still mathematically tractable. You could think of the model as a rubber sheet covered with regularly spaced cones whose heights vary but whose bases all have the same diameter.

Fitting the model to the interferometric data is a matter of adjusting the heights of the cones, which could be zero for long stretches, corresponding to a flat sheet. Translating the model into a visual image is like draping plastic wrap over it: The plastic will be pulled tight between nearby peaks, but it will slope down the sides of the cones adjacent to flat regions. The altitude of the plastic wrap corresponds to the brightness of the image. Because that altitude varies continuously, the model preserves the natural continuity of the image.

CHIRP effectively collates various kinds of data recorded about something which is, by its own nature, invisible and infers a visual “continuity” from that data. The fact that it looks like a light as seen through frosted glass is to be expected then and this kind of imagery will be familiar to those with any knowledge of the history of scientific imaging. For so long now, we have regularly found ourselves confronted by splodges. We might even recognise in this image the true, formless nature of photography and our photographies-to-come.

I’m reminded of the book What Photography Is in which author James Elkins takes to task a seminal text of photographic theory: Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.

Unimpressed by Barthes’ mournful, romantic and downright “wet” prose — which fails to take into account its own obfuscatory nature — Elkins instead looks to the true phenomenological limits of the photographic image, and of sight more generally, considering images of translucent, microscopic and transformative organisms and materials as his models for the photograph and photographic experience. These images are, as far as science is often concerned, objective and full to the brim of data, and yet to us, as aesthetic beings, they are empty; even “bad”. Elkins writes:

Through a selenite window, a sharp bright day will appear fractured and broken; in lake ice, everything beyond the surface sinks into night; in rock salt, the photograph is just a reminder that something cannot be seen. […] These are all failed looks into or through something. In them, the world is fractured, folded, faint, undependable, invisible, more or less ruined. Photography doesn’t work, the way it does for Barthes, diligently supplying memories, faces, love, and loss.

At its most aesthetically pleasing, Elkins’ book considers rapatronic images of nuclear explosions, and yet he still emphasises the formless nature of these images. It is nothing but a human habit to see (and seek) form where, materially, there is none. We see a world where there is, in fact, only annihilation. Scientific imagery, in this sense, far more successfully than any other kind of photography, captures the formlessness of the universe, where scientific “meaning” ruptures semiotics with its avisual taxonomies of the void. And yet, at the same time, such images are only produced in order to attempt to satisfy that innate human desire to give things form-for-us.

Photography, for Elkins, is an often myopic medium in this regard, romanticising and humanising its own practice far more than it perhaps should. We wrest it on our all too human laurels, wishing it show us the world as we know it, with any photograph that is “unfamiliar” deemed to be a failure.

We might reconsider our “bad” photography afresh in the decades to come, more so than the public imagination has so far become accustomed to. The further out into the imperceptible universe we reach, the quicker we must get used to seeing images which are obstensibly not-for-us. But maybe that too is just wishful thinking.

We will never be happy with these images. Not really. Not as long as we strive to give shape to that which resists all form. As Bataille writes:

… for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.

Increasingly, we might expect ourselves to find these “mathematical frock coats” — which this new image of a black hole is most explicitly, whilst nonetheless still being a truly awe-inspiring scientific achievement — do not satisfy our sensibilities. And how can they? Elkins writes:

After all, from a phenomenological perspective, how could such a photograph fail to be seen as if it were human-scaled both in time and in size? Indeed, what can be apprehended — in Kant’s sense of that term, in which it is opposed to comprehension — without being taken as an image made to our own measure?

In imaging a black hole, we reduce that which is beyond experience, beyond perception, beyond us, to warm spit. Of course Twitter is disappointed.


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