In The Writing of Stones (1970) the French author Roger Caillois presents an odd geological phenomenom: stones that, when sliced open, appear to contain likeness of faces and landscapes in their core. These stones are rare and prized among connoisseurs (Caillois himself amassed a large collection that he later donated to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris). From one perspective the stones appear to have a hidden knowledge of the world around them, to mirror it internally. From another perspective, the patterns found in the stones are given meaning by the human mind, which is constantly in search of significance.

Caillois’ experience was not unique. In 1925, the surrealist, Max Ernst, had developed a method of ‘frottage’ based on his study of the floorboards of his hotel room during a spell of bad weather:

On the tenth of August, 1925… finding myself one rainy evening in a seaside inn, I was struck by the obsession that showed to my excited gaze the floor-boards upon which a thousand scrubbings had deepened the grooves. I decided then to investigate the symbolism of this obsession and, in order to aid my meditative and hallucinatory faculties, I made from the boards a series of drawings by placing on them, at random, sheets of paper which I undertook to rub with black lead. In gazing attentively at the drawings thus obtained… I was surprised by the sudden intensification of my visionary capacities and by the hallucinatory succession of contradictory images superimposed, one upon the other, with the persistence and rapidity characteristic of amorous memories. My curiosity awakened and astonished, I began to experiment indifferently and to question, utilizing the same means, all sorts of materials to be found in my visual field: Leaves and their veins, the ragged edges of a bit of linen, the brushstrokes of a ‘modern’ painting, the unwound thread from a spool, etc. There my eyes discovered human heads, animals, a battle that ended with a kiss (the bride of the wind), rocks, the sea and the rain …

Ernst’s Histoire Naturelle (1926) was the result of this work – a collection of thirty-four collotypes based on his frottage technique. Those works focus on the nature of resemblance, one thing evoking the image of another. For Caillois too, this was a key concern in his analysis of the images buried in stones:

I seem to detect the underlying reasons for the unwearying and irrational zeal that makes man give a meaning to all appearances devoid of it, to look for parallels everywhere, and to create them where they do not already exist. I see the origin of the irresistible attraction of metaphor and analogy, the explanation of our strange and permanent need to find similarities in things. I can scarcely refrain from suspecting some ancient, diffused magnetism; a call from the centre of things; a dim, almost lost memory or perhaps a pre-sentiment, pointless in so puny a being, of a universal syntax.

Caillois quickly shifts, though, from the issue of resemblance to the question of why the human mind needs to find these correspondences and finally settles on a quasi-mystical suggestion of a ‘universal syntax’ buried in all things. Here he touches on a long-standing tradition in which philosophers, herbalists and doctors read the material objects of nature, finding a resemblance or correspondence between a plant and it’s medicinal use. The doctrine of signatures, as this concept is known, can be traced back to Galen but it was given much more complex and mystical expression by the sixteenth-century theologian Jakob Böhme in 1621 when he published The Signature of All Things. There he argues that resemblances to body parts, animals and objects could be discovered in plants, indicating their restorative use: the plant world was a vast pharmacy and God had already labelled the remedies.

Michel Foucault extrapolates from this approach to nature, seeing it as symptomatic of a wider approach to knowledge in general at that time:

Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them.

Curiously, contemporary medicine seems to demonstrate that the mind does favour resemblance and in extreme cases will respond favourably to the simulation of a desired image. One of the most striking examples of how this can operate can be found in the phenomenon of phantom limb pain. The neuroscientist Vilyanur S. Ramachandran has investigated the possible reasons for such pain and ways in which it could be alleviated. He argues that our body image maps are redrawn after a limb in amputated. Believing that this reorganisation of the brain was a cause of phantom pain, he devised a ‘mirror box’ experiment that, in effect, deceives the brain into thinking the missing limb has been restored:

If this hypothesis of learned paralysis is correct, would it be possible to unlearn the phantom paralysis? To do this, every time the patient sends a message to the phantom arm, he would need to receive a visual feedback message that his arm is indeed moving correctly. But how can this happen when the patient doesn’t even have an arm? To enable the patient to perceive real movement in a non-existent arm, we constructed a ‘virtual reality box’. The box is constructed by placing a vertical mirror inside a cardboard box with the roof of the box removed. The front of the box has two holes in it through which the patient inserts his ‘good arm’ and his phantom arm. The patient is then asked to view the reflection of his normal hand in the mirror, this creating the illusion of observing to hands, when in fact the patient is only seeing the mirror reflection of the intact hand….

We tried this experiment on patient D.S. who had his left arm amputated nine years before we saw him…As soon as he looked in the mirror, however, he exclaimed that he experienced vivid sensations of the movement originating from the muscles and joints of his phantom left arm. We then removed the mirror and verified that, as before, he could no longer feel his phantom moving even if he tried mirror symmetric movements. (‘It feels frozen again,’ he said.)

So the human mind appears to crave resemblance even at a visceral level. And what is striking is how the virtual image can have such a physical, and transformative, impact. There is something here that resonates deeply with the history of spells, sorcery, the witch’s curse and the intangible influence of shamanic practice. The mirror itself has been intertwined with notions of the human self and the human self-image for thousands of years. Often that history has dwelt on the otherworldly power of the reflection. The mirror is seen as a portal to alternative dimensions and it is feared as a trap for human souls. In 1871 Alice climbs through a looking-glass to find herself in Wonderland. In Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), the poet Orpheus enters the underworld by walking through a mirror. For centuries the ‘ink mirror’ has been a favourite tool of conjurors and mediums. Peering into a pool of ink held in the palm of a hand, they can see into the future and read the path of events. The larger-than-life English writer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton (translator of One Thousand and One Nights) claimed personal knowledge of the use of the ink mirror. When the orientalist Edward Lane said that the process ‘excited considerable curiosity throughout the civilised world’ Burton countered that

As usual the civilised world was wholly ignorant of what was going on at home; otherwise in London, Paris, and New York they might have found dozens studying the science…this invention dates from the most ancient times, and both in the East and the West has been used by the weird brotherhood to produce the appearance of the absent and the dead, to discover treasure, to detect thieves, to cure disease, and to learn the secrets of the unknown world. The Greeks used oil poured into a boy’s hand…. In Southern Persia, ink is rubbed upon the seer’s thumb-nail… Even the barbarous Finns look into a glass of brandy.

Dr John Dee, the sixteenth-century hermetic philosopher and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, also used mirrors to communicate with the spirit world and to divine in the tradition outlined by Burton. Dee, though, like many alchemists of the time, was on the cusp of science and esoteric practice. He had a lively interest in optics and the nascent world of the glass lens and in that sense was no different that Isaac Newton who barely a hundred years later still explored alchemy alongside his optical investigations of the colour spectrum and the prism. John Dee worked at a moment when science had not yet established such a firm materialist foundation but his curiosity led him to acquire new and unknown technology. His most striking acquisition was a mirror of Aztec origin, brought back to Europe after the invasion of Mexico by Cortes. The artefact, a round highly polished piece of obsidian, had some of the same properties as the ink mirror. It was associated with Tezcatlipoca, the Mexican god of the Aztec ruling elite, and their priests used it to divine and conjure visions. Obsidian is a naturally occurring volcanic glass, dark in appearance, notoriously hard and surgically sharp if fractured. In sixteenth-century Europe where it was not widely seen or used, Dee’s mirror must have had the same extraordinary mystique as an alien artefact.

Today, Dee’s reputation wavers on the spectrum that runs from shaman through charlatan to scientific pioneer. Even Vilyanur S. Ramachandran sits shakily on that spectrum as his mirror therapy experiments await more validation. There is no surprise in these vicissitudes as science ‘truth’ is less a series of facts than a process of evolution. For Isaac Newton, despite his alchemical beliefs, the world seemed best measured through material means. His experiments with light and gravity brought a rational, quantifiable dimension to the invisible forces surrounding him. Yet, three hundred years later Einstein’s quantum calculations rendered this world relative. One of the most powerful insights that the nuclear world brought to bear on humanity was the continuous chain of atoms that linked the apparently virtual to the material. Newton’s world seemed stable and ordered by Newtonian physics but at a molecular level that same material was subject to the chaos of quantum physics. When Einstein was formulating his theory in the 1930s he studied quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which pairs of particles are generated at the same time and the quantum state of each one cannot be described independently. The measurement and changes that occur in one particle are the same in the other, even if the two particles are separated by great distances. Each particle appears to know instantaneously what has occurred to the other although there is no known means for this to happen. Einstein concluded that this was impossible – ‘spooky action at a distance’ he called it – and decided that the theory of quantum mechanics was still incomplete.

The problem of quantum entanglement, known as the Einstein-Podolosky-Rosen or EPR Paradox, fascinated John Bell, a young Irish physicist who thought he might be able to prove Einstein right. Working at CERN in the early 1960s, he used his evenings to devise an experiment that would confirm the impossibility of such ‘spooky action.’ Instead, he was compelled to conclude that Einstein was wrong:

For me, it is so reasonable to assume that the photons in those experiments carry with them programs, which have been correlated in advance, telling them how to behave. This is so rational that I think that when Einstein saw that, and the others refused to see it, he was the rational man. The other people, although history has justified them, were burying their heads in the sand. … So for me, it is a pity that Einstein’s idea doesn’t work. The reasonable thing just doesn’t work.

As Nature magazine put it in 2014, John Bell made metaphysics testable. Examining the achievements of his experiment they conclude:

As Bell proved in 1964, this leaves two options for the nature of reality. The first is that reality is irreducibly random, meaning that there are no hidden variables that “determine the results of individual measurements”. The second option is that reality is ‘non-local’, meaning that “the setting of one measuring device can influence the reading of another instrument, however remote”.

This is a very dry way to deliver one of the most shocking facts in the history of our understanding of the physical universe. Bell’s discovery means that two particles can impart knowledge to each other over immeasurable distances: they can resemble one another through a precise and ‘spooky’ action.

This ability to resemble and reflect lies at the heart of the human desire for empathy: we want to believe that we can connect to the material world beyond us. Neuroscience, however, is not convinced that this is possible and one scientist, Olaf Blanke, a leading researcher on out of body experiences and the human response to avatars, argues that our sense of empathy is based on vital but illusory effects triggered by the mechanisms of the brain.

Blanke started studying the … brains of people immersed in virtual realities that displaced their physical identity. When you look at an avatar that’s meant to be someone other than you, the temporo-parietal cortex stays quiet. But when the avatar starts mimicking your movements, showing your heart rate or speaking your words — all tricking your brain into thinking the avatar is your own body — the temporo-parietal cortex lights up, just as it does when you watch yourself in a mirror.

Illusory as these effects are though, it may only be a sign that the connection between human consciousness and the world around us is less direct than at first imagined. Imagination, in fact, may provide the link to the apparently oblivious objects of reality. In an article entitled ‘The Stories Things Tell And Why They Tell Them’ the anthropologist Michael Taussig argues that

Shamans make mighty conjurors… They can throw voices, talk to spirits, travel the skies, and walk the depths of the ocean. They can extract strange objects from their bodies or from the bodies of the sick, and just as easily make those objects disappear. In the twinkling of an eye. They can cure and they can kill through seeing, and such seeing, so I am told, in many parts of South America, is a bodily substance like the down of newborn birds in Tierra del Fuego that fills the body of the shaman. Seeing is a substance and such seeing changes fate. Seeing is the feathers of newborn birds. What does ‘is’ mean here? Note that conjuring is not distinct from these supernatural acts but is the same thing. The trick turns out to be more than a deceit. More like a mimesis imitating natural forces, a play for the spirits. …

Taussig takes the illusion or trick as a positive starting point and, importantly, links it to the power of a verb (‘What does ‘is’ mean here?). Here we are almost returning to the universal syntax of Caillois. Taussig though considers metaphor and the transformations of language more modestly, avoiding the tendency to go ‘universal’.

He elaborates his position, arguing for the potential released through the disorientation of shamanic operations:

Conjuring questions being. The nature of being is suspended. It is not clear what is object, what is a subject.

With its love of rapid disappearances and appearances out of nowhere, with its turning of insides into outsides and vice versa, shamanic conjuring helps us understand a little better how this theater of being presents being as the transformation of being into the beingness of transforming forms. That is animism. Anything but constant.

This freewheeling motility shifts the human understanding of the supposedly inanimate world and as Taussig points out, it pivots around our use of ‘is’ or language in general, and by implication, the operations of an artwork.