Ethereal Culture

The idea of an “ethereal culture” appears in the book “Ocean of Sound,” written by musician and writer David Toop at the end of the 20th century, a time when telecommunications proliferated. The author speaks of “an ethereal culture, absorbed in perfume, light, silence, and ambient sounds,” to refer to the telematic, hyperconnected, and volatile condition of the digital nomad, even when faced with a premature World Wide Web and barely glimpses of what is now evident in the second decade of the 21st century: the dislocated condition of our vital activity, telecommuting, metaverses, digital navigation, and the mixture of sensations, ideas, and manifestations we witness in virtuality.

Toop’s idea of ethereal culture is based mainly on sound and the manifestations of an open music that functions as a catalyst, bridge, and portal for the extracorporeal journey of the cyborg condition, assuming listeners and sound agents as “virtual travelers, creators of a sound theater, transmitters of all signals received through the ether,” thereby winking at classical thought that, from ancient Greece to Sanskrit culture, has contained the idea of an ethereality underlying all that exists, thus leading us to an idea of ethereal culture as a dimension of the astral, the subtle, the volatile, the sonorous, the ephemeral, and temporal.

The ether in Plato and Aristotle’s Greece was a celestial and unknown element. In cosmologies like that of the Shamkya school of India, the ether was a fifth element and had the property of sound. If we apply this to the idea of Ethernet or the Web, we can assume them as analogies, or if you will, derivatives of this great network, a kind of reflected virtuality, a meta-reality resulting from hyperconnection. Ethereal culture can then be defined as the culture of inhabitable, navigable, sensory, and corporeal, or post-corporeal virtuality, insofar as it often implies the extension, refraction, transgression, or detachment from the physical body.

The ethereality of our culture results from the constant multiplication of our images and specters. We are part of an ethereal society that happens alongside the coarser figures of matter: parallel universes built in images, sounds that travel like perfumes in an invisible space. The new web created from Ethereum, metaverses as habitable plots in virtual realities and exploitable within the confines of code, video calls and the integration-invasion of social spaces on digital platforms, new cryptographic economies, organizations within blockchains, audiovisual art as an entity and space, digital archives or non-fungible tokens, would be living examples that legitimize Toop’s vision: machine spirits that immerse ourselves in a theater of signals in search of a place that in the end is as mobile as our condition on the network. Then, to be is to travel, to move in stillness, like in a perpetual trance, as an alternative way to stay here.

Toop, David. Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds. Serpent’s Tail, 1995.