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Pepper's Ghost and the augmented reality of modernity

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Abstract

The emergence of augmented-reality (AR) displays has inspired scholarship examining the social effects and communicative impacts of these visual technologies. But the broader concept of reality augmentation ‐ of overlaying information onto everyday experience ‐ has been likened to the imposition of social discourses and ideologies. This article examines the nineteenth-century stage illusion Pepper's Ghost as an early AR media system in service to the particular ideological mission of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London. Despite its spectral imagery and historical parallels to spiritualism, Pepper's Ghost was instrumental in servicing the Polytechnic's goals of promoting rational modernity and scientific progress, which it accomplished by mediating the epistemic divide between superstition and science and blending Polytechnic ideology with the phenomenological experience of the screened image. In this article, I make visible the ideological function of two apparatuses: the Pepper's Ghost illusion as a media system, and the social institution of the Polytechnic itself. In the end, I situate the current revival of Pepper's Ghost stagings as a twenty-first-century phenomenon amid new restagings of Pepper's Ghost as performing 'holograms'.
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Keywords: Pepper's Ghost; augmented reality; digital projection; holograms; ideology; media studies; theatre; visual communication

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 0000000121812233 University of California

Publication date: March 1, 2020

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  • Science permeates contemporary culture at multiple levels, from the technology in our daily lives to our dreams of other worlds in fiction. The Journal of Science & Popular Culture is a peer-reviewed academic publication that seeks to explore the complex and evolving connections between science and global society.

    Working with a distinguished international board, the Journal of Science & Popular Culture aims to create a unique forum in which to analyse, chronicle, and interpret this diverse landscape through original research articles, editorials, book and new media reviews, notes and essays. The journal also provides a site where emerging and established scholars can access salient knowledge and cutting-edge research. Contributions from academics, scientists, communicators, industry professionals, and practitioners with an interest in the science and society interface are invited. Any scholarly approaches or disciplines may be used and the Journal of Science & Popular Culture strongly reinforces interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, opening up new possibilities for inquiry across and between the humanities and sciences.

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