Projecting Spirits
Speculation, Providence, and Early Modern Optical Media
Pasi Väliaho



It was commonplace in the early modern period to emphasize a distinction between the study of two types of phenomena of light. Catoptrics focused on the production of appearances by reflective surfaces such as mirrors, while dioptrics studied refractions of light on transparent bodies such as lenses.1 These two operations of light could not be easily set apart in the design of actual optical instruments, but it serves to bear the distinction in mind to the extent that, as Siegfried Zielinski intimates in his sketch for a genealogy of projection, dioptrics and catoptrics connoted two intertwined but nonetheless distinct techno-aesthetic practices.2 Whereas the former dealt with optical devices contrived for looking through into the world outside the apparatus, such as microscopes and telescopes, the latter implied beholding a surface inside the apparatus onto which images were projected, such as the screen of the camera obscura or the magic lantern. To put it schematically, whereas dioptric apparatuses were designed to function as “artificial eyes” (as the German Jesuit scholar Johann Zahn called the telescope) to augment reality, catoptric ones could also be fashioned for the production of artificial realities—wavering therefore, uncannily for many, on the uncertain threshold between what was in the seventeenth century called “natural” and “artificial magic.”

Microscopes and telescopes put a definitive stamp on the formation of the modern scientific worldview, marking what Hans Blumenberg called a “caesura,” beyond which the perceptually and epistemologically accessible reality started to expand indefinitely.3 They made space stretch toward the infinite and introduced a plurality of worlds alongside the actual one. Although the contribution of camera obscuras, magic lanterns, and related contrivances to the development of early modern thought has been perhaps less straightforward to assess, these devices, too, played a role in shaping ways of seeing, visualizing, and knowing during the early modern period. The Italian scholar Francesco Algarotti proclaimed in the 1760s that “painters should make the same use of the Camera Obscura, which Naturalists and Astronomers make of the Microscope and Telescope, for all these instruments equally make known, and represent Nature.”4 In this vein, historians of art and visual culture have evaluated the place of optical instruments in early modern artistic practice, as well as uncovering how the camera obscura’s projections stood for a model of truthfulness and naturalness in seventeenth-century painting, and more generally for a model of the rational, disembodied intellect—even of a kind of “phantasy subject of reason”—in the early modern period.5 Historians of science and ideas have more widely mapped the meanings and functions of camera obscuras and magic lanterns in early modern thought, encompassing such diverse fields as the development of modern optics as well as counter-reformation metaphysics.6 Media historians, for their part, have provided detailed accounts of the generation of image projection devices along with their makers, often situated on a long lineage of “screen practices” culminating in the cinema.7 Historians of literature and philosophy, furthermore, have traced how the magic lantern’s ghost projections became key epistemic figures in Enlightenment writing, from the emergence of German idealism to new conceptions about the status of the imagination in early nineteenth-century fiction and psychology.8

This book’s impetus is to contribute to this heritage with its own account of how optical media lent their shape to Western thought at the turn of the century. The book pursues a historical epistemology interested in the medial conditions of thinking (not only scientific but also philosophical, religious, and economic) based on the assumption that the movements of the intellect are embedded in and hinged on the objects, techniques, and visualizations that the intellect is surrounded by, and fundamentally “patched together from shifting object relations,” as Sean Silver proposes.9 The following chapters play out a media history of thought, by exploring how circa 1700 optical projections—light-borne images cast by a more or less elaborate technical device onto a surface—gave a meaningful cognitive shape to attempts at planning and plotting how the world could, and should, turn out. The English novelist and trader Daniel Defoe famously characterized this historical moment in his native country as a “projecting age.” By “projecting,” Defoe, to be sure, did not primarily mean the practice of conjuring a colorful play of light and shadow on a screen—although his concept was not far removed from the aesthetics of optical projection, as we will later see. Rather, Defoe was referring to new speculative economic practices and ideas emerging within colonial trade and finance, which not only eroded older concepts of wealth but also radically challenged traditional ways of thinking about the purpose of human activity and God’s place in the world. Projection meant a way of embracing the future immanently for the sake of taking risks and profiting on what was contingent and probable, instead of submitting the future to a pre-established design.10 Defoe’s “projection” was cast against more established notions of God’s providential care and governance of the world and human history, quietly questioning the basic premise, critical to the Christian cognitive universe still prevalent during the period, about the presence of divine guidance in the course of events and in one’s actions. Within this universe, both intended actions as well as seemingly contingent occurrences were ruled by superior causes. As Thomas Aquinas forcefully argued:

Since man is ordered in regard to this body under the celestial bodies, in regard to his intellect under the angels, and in regard to his will under God it is quite possible for something apart from man’s intention to happen, which is, however, in accord with the ordering of the celestial bodies, or with the control of the angels, or even of God.11

The concept of projection embraced this epistemological problematic of “ordering,” which gradually shifted its meaning from predetermination and divine intervention into speculative attempts at design and control that subsumed the future, or “fortune,” into monetized relations. Projecting Spirits takes the conceptual and cognitive reorientation illustrated by Defoe as the general intellectual background for configuring the meanings and functions performed by optical media at the turn of the century. It is here that the book’s historical excursion departs from more well-trodden paths. For some, approaching the history of optical media in relation to (apparently) far removed metaphors, analogues, and practices—and, at first sight, distant intellectual problems—might not come across as a most straightforward gesture. However, the intuition guiding this book is that from roughly 1650 to 1720, the aesthetic forms embodied by camera obscuras and magic lanterns became symbolic of a range of intellectual transitions: “symbolic” in the sense of providing the fitting figures of thought through which a world undergoing a series of changes could be made sense of, and in that respect also rendered as operable, actionable. This book sets out to show how, circa 1700, the projective screens of the camera obscura and the magic lantern became critical cognitive surfaces where the world was witnessed in ambiguously shifting shapes—where notions of pre-established divine harmony gradually dissolved into a complex sphere of contingent events, as well as the empty time of eternity into a future open to opportunities and risks. On these surfaces, furthermore, hermeneutic quests for invisible divine truths became juxtaposed with empirical observations of “matters of fact,” and the divine management of the world anticipated the emergence of liberal, and above all speculative, economic ideas. These shifts were by no means linear and uniform; they were continuous and reversible, something akin to topological transformations where things can shift shape, bend, stretch, and twist—all without losing their key properties or functions.

This book’s take on the early modern history of projection does not pretend to be exhaustive. It is centered on a handful of protagonists, both humans and machines: philosophers, scholars, friars, merchants, sailors, missionaries, and nuns, as well as the optical apparatuses they encountered and interacted with. As for the latter—the machines—this book focuses on camera obscuras and magic lanterns. These two apparatuses, designed for the processing of optical signals (light waves), shared the aesthetic function of projecting images but in symmetrically opposing ways: While the camera obscura transmitted light rays that projected mirror images of objects in the environment inside the apparatus, the magic lantern had a light source, such as a candle, positioned to illuminate a figure, drawn on a transparent slide, through a system of mirrors and lenses and to project that image outside onto a screen.12 As for the former—the humans—this book’s historical excursion comprises individuals who were somehow in contact with camera obscuras and magic lanterns: those who developed new instruments or tweaked old ones; who wrote about the machines or used them in their artistic or scientific practice; who pictured the camera obscuras and magic lanterns in illustrations—satirical, scientific, or otherwise; and who thought, or merely dreamed, about the machines and their projections and turned them into tropes and metaphors, noetic analogues, as well as figures of thought.

The diverse and sometimes disparate stories of these devices and persons are brought together to show how the main aesthetic and cognitive function carried out by optical media in turn-of-the-century thought was to superimpose the real with a perceptual frame that could render the chaos of life as a negotiable design. The first chapter demonstrates in more detail how, during this historical moment, camera obscuras and magic lanterns were varyingly associated with an intuition of the world as a continuum of movements, differentiations, and variations (rather than as something fixed and unified per se), and they were simultaneously understood as pertinent conceptual tools to rationalize and arrange these movements, differentiations, and variations into more or less durable shapes. Alongside anamorphic images, optical projections performed a play of differing perspectives—distorted and blurred, clearer and more comprehensible—that also acted out a distinction between the human and divine modes of apprehending the world. For philosophers like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, projection became a critical concept as well as an optical metaphor to understand how the universe varied from one viewpoint to another but was at once unified within a single divine optic that organized things into a geometric and logical harmony. Projection signaled what Leibniz called God’s “government of the universe,” thereby associating optical media importantly with an older Christian concept of “economy” (oikonomia), or divine administration and rule.

Taking its cue from Leibniz, this book is concerned with a changing economy of projection, both in the ancient and modern senses of the word “economy.” Most generally, the concept of economy is used in this book to explore how the projective screens of camera obscuras and magic lanterns facilitated drawing relations between phenomena and one’s imaginations, beliefs, and reasonings and to cognitively manage those relations. In this respect, the following chapters chart the visual economy of early modern optical media, to borrow a concept from Marie-José Mondzain who explores how images became conceived as indispensable connectors between visible and invisible realities in the Byzantine era.13 In its original Greek sense, oikonomia signified the administration of the household (oikos), which in Christianity shifted its meaning to designate the divine providential government of the world and human history toward salvation.14 In both cases, indeed, economy meant a science of relations and their management. But whereas for the Greeks economy suggested the arrangement of goods, animals, and humans into a harmonious and profitable whole, in Christianity the concept was made to account for God’s organization of divine life into a trinitarian form (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), on the one hand, and the earthly, temporal unfolding of God’s eschatological plan, on the other hand. Economy became reconsidered on a universal scale, encompassing the disjunctive relations between transcendence and immanence, the infinite and the finite, eternity and historical time, universal providence and human freedom, as well as concealment and disclosure. In Christianity, what is crucial is that images became considered as essential mediators of these relations, as “living linkages,” as Mondzain puts it, between heaven and earth.15

In the later seventeenth century, optical media became critical to this Christian concept of (visual) economy, as we will see in Chapters 2 and 3. Jesuit scholars in particular—the polymath Athanasius Kircher (also famous from extended histories of audiovisual media) at the forefront—drew optical apparatuses firmly into the providential oikonomia. Projections of light and shadow by technological means became regarded as relays between the holy and the profane space, and hence as potent agents of the divine providence and its economic and globalizing process. “No divine power without projection,” the Jesuits of the late seventeenth century seemed to think. Chapter 2 focuses on the development of the concept and practice of optical projection among Jesuit scholars against the backdrop of Catholic counter-reformation and colonial expansion, which it plots by tracing the movements of artifacts, books, missionaries, images, and ideas, not only within Europe, but also between Rome and New Spain as well as China. Among the Jesuits, optical projection became understood as natural but prodigious mediation between the spiritual and the temporal and therefore also as a potentially expansive, possessive form.

Chapter 3 studies how central to the Jesuits’ concept of optical media was the association of projection, not only with the celestial but also with the phantasmatic—spirits, ghosts, and demons of all sorts. The key “property” to be annexed to ecclesiastic rule on a planetary scale was the individual soul, and the providential grasp of images cast on a screen was to expand, through homology, onto images in the mind. Immersing their beholders into a realm of illusions and visions, projections of spirits (or, spiritual projections) were to direct individuals toward perfection—the “government of souls,” to borrow a concept of Michel Foucault’s.

However, during this historical period the economy of projection also played out in a different sense. While Anglican priests in England were preaching against the worship of images of all sorts (including the Catholics’ relics and miraculous apparitions), seeking to lodge the holy firmly under the purview of words only, camera obscuras and magic lanterns simultaneously developed from media of theocracy and items of curiosity into experimental and exploratory devices—especially within the exploits of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, established in 1660, which was a new type of public body devoted to the corporate pursuit of knowledge.16 Among the Royal Society scholars—who promoted the radical reassessment of vision and cognition by Johannes Kepler at the turn of the sixteenth century and the new principles of scientific study proclaimed by Francis Bacon—devices of projection were turned toward empirical reality, to quasi-mechanically procure information about things and beings both near and distant, familiar and strange, ranging from the operations of light to flora and fauna in the West Indies, for instance. Charting these developments, Chapters 4 and 5 survey situations where established interpretations of projection and divine rule became challenged (although by no means unambiguously) within empirical investigations that sought to apprehend the world objectively as open to “chance and opportunity” (as Francis Bacon put it), sticking onto the visible surfaces of things rather than striving to interpret every contingent event as a manifestation of a deeper cosmic order.

Chapter 4 focuses on Robert Hooke’s invention of a portable camera obscura, which illustrates how devices of projection participated in key epistemic developments at the turn of the century, in addition to becoming involved, at least in Hooke’s imaginary, in the colonial expansion of both knowledge and trade. Crucial here was the implicit association that Hooke and his contemporaries made between the concepts of projection and property—the latter now starting to be relinquished from celestial possession in the writings of John Locke, among others, and becoming an extension of the person laboring and thereby appropriating the commons originally bestowed upon humanity by divine providence. Projection became involved in the calculation of financial gain and prospects for improvement, surplus and growth, which, as Devin Singh notes, the notion of oikonomia retained historically also in the Christian era.17 Chapter 5 continues on this theme, exploring how the mixed realities of optical media—alongside practices of calculation, which emerged as key cognitive techniques of finance during the period—gave an intuitive shape to processes in which property and value lost their traditional supports and became volatile, fluctuating, and subject to the conceits of speculative minds. Especially the magic lantern’s ephemeral images, in want of solidity and stable form, provided the effective mental analogues for the emerging speculative economy as an ambiguous and illusory perceptual realm seemingly unmoored from material restraints. Overall, these two chapters show how in England circa 1700, optical media became cognitive relays allowing the subsumption of material relations under abstract and invisible, noetic, and even imaginary designs, facilitating thus the development of a new economic concept of the world as a tabula rasa for man-made projections.

Readers, be advised that this book wants to implicitly disengage, both historically and theoretically, the study of early modern technologies and cultures of projection from the shadows cast by film theory and its cinematic archaeologies. The historically specific economic concept of projection advanced in this book shouldn’t be conflated with the psychological and ideological powers of optical projection explored and critiqued in (post-)1970s film theory in particular, most often from psychoanalytic and Marxist perspectives.18 In these debates, early modern optical devices found their place in deep histories of darkness, illusion, and influence that extended from Plato’s cave to the movies, arguably committing to a fundamental optical and conceptual inversion whereby “men and their circumstances appear upside-down,” as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously put it in their metaphoric association between the camera obscura and ideology.19 In these debates, furthermore, projection became primarily interpreted as a mental mechanism and associated with the regimenting of the gaze and positioning of individuals into conformity through identification and disavowal. For Sigmund Freud, as Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis tell us, projection was “always a matter of throwing out what one refuses either to recognise in oneself or to be oneself.” Psychoanalytic projection, Laplanche and Pontalis note, is partly “comparable to the cinematographic one,” in the way it describes the process in which the individual casts onto “the external world an image of something that exists in him in an unconscious way.”20

Such “repressed” manifestations of all sorts—spirits, demons, ghosts—featured prominently in the early history of optical media, ranging from the experiments by the Jesuits, and even sometimes by their fellow Protestant scholars, to popular projected image shows organized by traveling entertainers. In this book, I have decidedly avoided interpreting such apparitions in terms of the psychoanalytic concept of projection, as “embodiments of bad unconscious desires.”21 By doing so, my aim has been not to refute this concept but to offer a historical account that doesn’t employ psychoanalytic theory as an overarching narrative of modernity. Terry Castle suggests that it was not effectively until the turn of the eighteenth century that the ghosts and spirits conjured by means of magic lanterns became circumscribed as primarily inner mental phenomena, as products of the brain rather than as anything supernatural per se, and that projected images started to come across as belonging to a mental reality understood first and foremost in psychological terms.22

The meanings and functions of projected images circa 1700 were neither fixed nor symmetrical; the form was in flux. Furthermore, the demarcations we today draw between economy, science, religion, and (optical) media—as well as rationality, factuality and fiction, or the phantasmatic—were not yet clearly in place during the historical period studied in this book. In the original turn-of-the-century context, these meanings and functions entered into an odd but creative mix. Projecting Spirits hence demands its readers approach a techno-aesthetic form (now familiar to us in the more limited sense of cinematic and “post-cinematic” entertainment, or a constituent function of the modern psyche) in its former semantic openness, complexity, and strangeness.


1. See, e.g., the treatise on “dioptrical vision” by the Capuchin friar and optical instrument maker Chérubin D’Orléans, Dioptrique Oculaire, ou la Théorique, la positive, et la méchanique de l’oculaire dioptrique en toutes ses espèces (Paris, 1671), 22–23.

2. Siegfried Zielinski, “Designing and Revealing: Some Aspects of a Genealogy of Projection,” trans. Gloria Custance, in Variations on Media Thinking (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 339–376, see especially 342–345.

3. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 373.

4. Francesco Algarotti, An Essay on Painting (London, 1764), 66.

5. See, respectively, Martin Kemp, The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 188–217; Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), see especially 1–25; Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 25–66; Jill H. Casid, Scenes of Projection: Recasting the Enlightenment Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 35–87.

6. See, e.g., Raz Chen-Morris, Measuring Shadows: Kepler’s Optics of Invisibility (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016); Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris, “Baroque Optics and the Disappearance of the Observer: From Kepler’s Optics to Descartes’ Doubt,” Journal of the History of Ideas 71, no. 2 (2010): 191–217; Wolfgang Lefèvre, ed., Inside the Camera Obscura: Optics and Art Under the Spell of the Projected Image (Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, 2007); Eileen Reeves, Evening News: Optics, Astronomy, and Journalism in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 135–205; Koen Vermeir, “Athanasius Kircher’s Magical Instruments: An Essay on ‘Science,’ ‘Religion,’ and Applied Metaphysics,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 38, no. 2 (2007): 363–400; Koen Vermeir, “The Magic of the Magic Lantern (1660–1700): On Analogical Demonstration and the Visualisation of the Invisible,” British Journal for the History of Science 38, no. 2 (2007): 127–159.

7. See, e.g., Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema, trans. and ed. Richard Crangle (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000); Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 15–24; Deac Rossell, Laterna Magica / Magic Lantern, vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Füsslin, 2008). See also Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, trans. Anthony Enns (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010).

8. See Stefan Andriopoulos, Ghostly Apparitions: German Idealism, the Gothic Novel, and Optical Media (New York: Zone Books, 2013); Terry Castle, “Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie,” Critical Inquiry 15, no. 1 (1988): 26–61.

9. Sean Silver, The Mind Is a Collection: Case-Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 269.

10. “Projecting,” for Defoe, as Kimberly Latta puts it, “was an act of throwing forward into the future for the sake of moving forward and taking risks, rather than for the sake of returning to a teleological origin—God the Father, truth, the state, the common good—that tradition constructed as the proper end (telos) of all human activity.” Kimberly Latta, “‘Wandring Ghosts of Trade Whymsies’: Projects, Gender, Commerce, and Imagination in the Mind of Daniel Defoe,” in The Age of Projects, ed. Maximillian E. Novak (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 141–165, quotation on 142.

11. Thomas Aquinas, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith (Summa Contra Gentiles), vol. 3: Providence, part 2, trans. Vernon J. Bourke (New York: Image Books, 1956), 42 (3.92.2).

12. See Kittler, Optical Media, 70.

13. Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, trans. Rico Franses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

14. See Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 17–52.

15. Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy, 2–3.

16. See Michael Birch, Establishing the New Science: The Experience of the Early Royal Society (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1989), 1.

17. Devin Singh, Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), see especially 27–56.

18. See, among others, Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” trans. Alan Williams, Film Quarterly 28, no. 2 (1974–1975): 39–47; and Stephen Heath, “Narrative Space,” Screen 17, no. 3 (1968): 68–112. For a recent reassessment of the notion of projection in cinema and beyond, see Virginia Crisp and Gabriel Menotti, ed., Practices of Projection: Histories and Technologies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

19. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (New York: Prometheus Books, 1998), 42. On the metaphor of the camera obscura in nineteenth-century thought, from Marx to Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, see Sarah Kofman, Camera Obscura of Ideology, trans. Will Straw (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).

20. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Karnac Books, 1988), 354.

21. Ibid., 352. For a thorough psychoanalytically oriented analysis of early optical media, see Casid, Scenes of Projection, 35–87.

22. Castle, “Phantasmagoria.”