Deflating Hyperspace

David Pacchioli
December 01, 1995

Where exactly is hyperspace?

I mean, it's all over the place, right?

It's the alternate reality you blast into on "Star Wars" when there's an Empire warship on your tail, the wormhole you dive through on "Sliders" when you're on a mission to change history.

Under the techno-torqued variant "cyberspace," it's the zip code your e-mail traverses, the room where your chat group meets, the vast and teeming locus of the Information Age. It's the crackling cloud of ether where countless all-but-finished term papers float forever, gently bumping, because of one false keystroke.

But where is it?

Inside your computer? Under the bed? Winking behind the star-spangled drop-cloth that shrink-wraps the universe? In the past, the future, the never (ever) present . . . ?

It's all in your head, of course.

In which case, well, what is it doing there? And, um . . . why is it taking up so much . . . space?

Or, as Jason Chernosky more decorously puts it: "What cultural work is getting done by this curiously protean word?"

For Chernosky, a Ph.D. candidate in English literature, this isn't exactly the same thing as asking what hyperspace means. Hyperspace seems to mean a lot of things, and then again not to mean much at all; its meaning shifts with the user, if not with the wind. It is, Charnesky writes, "an almost empty signifier capable of almost limitless application."

"This fuzziness," he adds in person, "is its power." It is also a quality that puts hyperspace in rather crowded company. Our language is loaded with terms appropriated from science for use in popular discourse. Along the way, the borrowed word's highly technical, narrowly precise—not to say arcane—meaning is typically transformed. What emerges is a fluttering, eye-catching, all-purpose concept that can be used interchangeably for explaining the weather or selling toothpaste.

"Chaos" is one that comes to mind. "Chaos theory really does mean something way back there," Chernosky says, his voice almost incredulous. "It's a series of very difficult equations."

Now, he writes, people freely use the term, "who only know that a butterfly in the Amazon and a hurricane along the Gulf coast are somehow intimately related."

"Black hole" is another. Black holes, Chernosky notes, although they started out in astrophysics, eventually "found their way into economics and sock drawers."

"Hyperspace" is now enjoying a similar vogue. The difference, says Chernosky, is that in this case it's the second time around. Hyperspace, it turns out, is a concept with a history.

"We were doing the same thing 100 years ago with the very same word."

The term hyperspace emerged, for the first time, out of the very specialized context of mid-19th-century analytical geometry.

Geometry had, for 2,000 years, been the province of Euclid. The Greek master's three-dimensional arsenal of spheres and triangles "were believed to be truly existing aspects of the real earth, clearly evident in real space," as Chernosky writes. This concreteness matched well with Victorian scientific rationalism; classical geometry was regarded by educators as science's apogee. But by mid-century a revolution had taken place in mathematics—one whose repercussions continue to be felt. For at about that time, two new geometries arose to change the way we see the world.

The first of these geometries, called simply non-Euclidean, successfully presented a three-dimensional space in which Euclid's parallel postulate (which states that through a point outside a line only one line can be drawn parallel to the given line) is violated, without contradictions.

The second, less remembered today, is known as n-dimensional geometry.

"Since Descartes," Chernosky explains, "analytical geometry represented spatial dimensions with algebraic variables, x, y, and z. Theoretically, there was no reason why a fourth variable could not be added. Algebraically, such four-dimensional geometries are perfectly self-consistent." Nineteenth-century geometers began exploring the meaning of this truth.

To discuss new parameters they needed a new word. The term designated to refer to space other than the Euclidean, i.e., space of more than three dimensions, was "hyperspace."

The ripple effect occasioned by the fourth dimension's arrival was swift. "A change in geometrical theory which carried with it such important philosophical ramifications," Chernosky writes, "gave writers and thinkers a new metaphor."

By 1884, hyperspace had made its debut in fiction, in a novel by the Anglican clergyman Edwin Abbott Abbott. In Abbott's charming Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by A Square, a Square, inhabiting the world of two dimensions, is visited by a Sphere. Made thus aware of the existence of a third dimension, Square wonders aloud about the possibility of four dimensions, or five, or more . . . and is imprisoned for this heresy. (The book is still prized by science-fiction aficionados.) Ten years later, H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, for the first time treating time itself as the fourth dimension.

Many geometers, for their part, were quick to issue disclaimers. E. H. Neville, in his book, The Fourth Dimension, attempted to stem the popular tide:

"The pure mathematician," he wrote, "makes no attempt to imagine a space of four dimensions; he lays no claim to visualizing a world that is inconceivable to other men. . . . Now it has happened that the talk of a few mathematicians has suddenly become of universal and absorbing interest. . . . [Mathematicians are not talking] about a new heaven and a new earth but about linear algebraic equations."

But such protestations were no use. Hyperspace continued to show up in science fiction and popular philosophy. Spiritual and mystical tracts were published in Europe and the United States, with titles like The Unseen Universe, An Experiment with Time, and Little Journeys into the Invisible: A woman's actual experiences in the fourth dimension. At the same time, the Theosophists, proponents of a mystical, Buddhist-influenced religious philosophy in which reincarnation played a central role, latched on to hyperspace as a way of explaining their concept of higher planes.

Attempts to represent hyperspace in visual terms were equally popular. British mathematician Charles Hinton devised a system involving a set of multi-colored cubes that would help a viewer visualize a four-dimensional hypercube.

Perhaps the foremost American proponent of the fourth dimension was the architect and theosophist Claude Bragdon. Bragdon published numerous books on the subject through his Manas Press, including his own English translation (the first) of the Russian spiritualist P. D. Ouspensky's Tertium Organum, probably the most widely read book ever written on the fourth dimension. Bragdon also developed an architectural style which, as Chernosky writes, "employed three dimensional sections of four dimensional hyper-shapes as the unifying motifs and structural elements of his buildings. These 'shadows of the fourth dimension' were meant to serve as embodied reminders . . . of a higher spiritual reality which, Bragdon feared, America was quickly forgetting."

In invoking hyperspace, Charnesky says, all of these disparate popularizers had one aim. "They were using the new geometries to make scientific their spiritual yearnings." By grounding their beliefs and speculations in the hard rock of science they were giving them a legitimacy they otherwise lacked.

Chernosky's first encounter with the early popularization of hyperspace came via the poet W. B. Yeats. Yeats was an artist with considerable interest and involvement in the occult. For a time he was a theosophist, and later he joined the secret London society known as the Golden Dawn. One of the knottier problems for Yeats scholars has been a slim volume called A Vision, authored by the poet with his wife. This peculiar book purports to explain in scientific fashion the source of the artist's creative power. The "vision" of the book's title was a manifestation of the spirit world which "dictated" Yeats' poems, so he wrote, through the medium of his wife. This transmission centered around a complicated—indeed, heretofore unintelligible—system of geometry.

"Yeats' system features a pair of interlocking cones," Chernosky says. He seizes pen and paper and draws them.

At the time Chernosky was struggling to understand A Vision, he was also reading some of the occult stuff—"the 19th-century New Age"—that had influenced Yeats. When he saw the cones, they immediately looked familiar.

"I thought, 'Ouspensky has a diagram of a hypersphere,' " he remembers, " 'and damn if it doesn't look like this.' I saw it and I knew." The cones represented—in two dimensions—what a hypersphere would look like if it were transported into three-dimensional space.

Chernosky, excited, believed he had found a topic for a doctoral dissertation. "I thought I was going to make some sense of Yeats for the world," he says. This new connection would give A Vision the historical context it had always lacked. "The reason Yeats used geometry was that they were using geometry. There was this whole culture out there."

The Yeats connection led him smack into the middle of this culture, and soon enough to art historian Linda Dalrymple Henderson, who in a 1984 book traced the influence of the fourth dimension—and hyperspatial philosophy—on modern art, and in particular on the Cubist movement. "Duchamp's 'Nude descending a staircase,' " Chernosky says, "is a vision of hyperspace." The influence extends in literature, Henderson shows, to Gertrude Stein.

"Stein said 'What Picasso is doing with paint, I do with words,' " Chernosky says. "Her work is called Cubist literature, but nobody really knows what that means. I hope to place her in this tradition."

Nor did the spread of hyperspace end with Stein. "There was this whole industry of writing these fourth-dimension books right up until the 1930s," Chernosky says, "and then it dies out.

"What happens is a new metaphor takes over—relativity. Einstein becomes the paradigm of scientific genius."

As this broader picture emerged, Chernosky's interest shifted from Yeats to a larger, theoretical, question. Why? Why did the concept of hyperspace become so popular? Or, as he puts it, why this concept and not some other?

And how does the answer to this question relate to the current, second, round of hyperspace's popularity?

The fourth dimension resurfaced in popular culture earlier than a casual observer might think. "It had been there all along in science fiction," Chernosky notes, "in that sub-genre known as space opera." The real rebirth, however, came with the rise of computer networks in the early 1980s. "A technology gets invented that needs a word," Chernosky says. "It's hard to trace exactly where a usage begins, but very quickly the word becomes popularized."

Within a few years the concept had spread far beyond the Internet. So Sports Illustrated in 1993 refers to the salaries of professional athletes as having rocketed "into hyperspace." The Wall Street Journal talks about hyperspace as the place where international finance is transacted. And the variant term, "cyberspace," coined by science-fiction writer William Gibson in the early 1980s to stress the close connection to information technology, is simply ubiquitous.

"It's very similar to what was happening in the 19th century," Charnesky says.

"What's different," he adds, "is that before, all they had as examples of hyperspace was this idea from mathematics, and the metaphors it engendered. Hyperspace is like ghosts, like spirits, like God. Whereas we have computers—this magnificent technology. The spatial metaphors from this technology are already part of the popular culture."

What's the same as 100 years ago, Chernosky argues, is the value being granted the term. "There's an assigning of importance," he says, "that goes above and beyond the meaning of the word itself."

Anything affiliated with computers has instant cachet, the argument runs, so we invoke its terms in all kinds of contexts, appropriating their legitimacy. "We use them to win arguments which we wouldn't win on their own merits."

But why does hyperspace have this power? What does it mean to us, that we invoke it? It means a lot of things, but what it stands for, Chernosky suggests, is transcendence—the world beyond immediate sensory experience. Linked to geometry—queen of the queen of the sciences—in the 19th century, the concept of hyperspace gave popular culture an acceptable way to talk about transcendence at a time when traditional religious concepts were falling before the onslaught of modernism. Linked to our supreme technology of today, it again provides a bridge between seen and unseen, the rational and the super-rational. The concept of hyperspace allows us to think about transcendence in terms we can accept and understand—or think we understand.

Chernosky has found, in the work of the French philosopher Deleuze, a useful model for exploring the cultural function of hyperspace.

"What Deleuze gives me," he says, "is the concept of the abstract machine, which is a way of looking at a configuration of ideas, bodies, things, and trying to find their structural relationship. What's going on underneath.

Things, in DeLeuze's view, are things because they are named. And they are named within a philosophical framework peculiar to a given age. Things, then, are culturally-determined "codings;" and within the framwork there is consistency, so everything makes sense. This consistency suggests a single "machine" under the surface, doing the encryption.

Within such a system, Chernosky says, "the physical process that erodes and stratifies rocks, for example, might be seen as involving the same machine as that which creates a class structure in a capitalist society.

"This is my claim—that the 19th- and 20th- century uses of hyperspace involve the same abstract machine."

In both cases, he contends, hyperspace mediates between realms of discourse that otherwise would not communicate. And in both cases, hyperspace is used as a "sign" for transcendence. What we gain by noticing this similarity is the insight that "lots of people are using this new idea to bolster the same old arguments."

Back in the 19th century, Charnesky relates, "after the theosophists had used hyperspace to establish a bridge between their idea of higher planes and the geometrical concept of mirror images, the spiritualists moved in.

"There was a series of highly publicized experiments, with a famous medium, involving knotted ropes."

The ropes were carefully tied and laid in the medium's presence. A seance was commenced. Suddenly, there were trumpets and smoke and hullabaloo, and the ropes, lo and behold, had somehow disappeared. Then, just as suddenly, they were returned—except that the original knots came back precisely reversed. This mirror effect was reported to be the result of having passed through the afterworld, explainable as hyperspace.

"It was a real scam," Chernosky says. "And it only worked because its victims were familiar with the geometry."

Today's politicians, with their talk about the promise of technology, he goes on to suggest, often effect a similar rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

"Instead of reversing knots, they are going to reverse American society, from bad to good, by invoking hyperspace—or in this case, cyberspace.

"The knot is, say, the problem of the inner city. Newt Gingrich says we can turn the problem inside out simply by giving all these poor kids computers. You introduce the technology—or merely invoke it—and the problem will go through hyperspace and be reversed. And it isn't just Gingrich. Bill Clinton talks the same way. We all do, the way we talk about the Information Superhighway."

Another trickster, he argues, is the physicist Michio Kaku, whose book, Hyperspace, hit the bestseller lists in 1994. In his book, Kaku presents a vision of not four but ten dimensions.

"He presents this oddly 19th-century notion of physics explaining the world, that all we have to do is get all the laws lined up, and to do this we just need enough space—which is ten dimensions. From this, we can come up with this grand unified theory that explains everything. Hyperspace makes sense of our lives. This grand theory becomes God.

"For Kaku, these equations really exist in some ideal space. And that's precisely the danger of hyperspace—that it becomes idealized space."

Jason Chernosky is a Ph.D. student in English, 103 South Burrowes Building, University Park PA 16802; 814-865-9805. His adviser is Sanford Schwartz, Ph.D., associate professor of English. Grant support for Chernosky's research has been provided by the College of Liberal Arts and by the department of English.

Last Updated December 01, 1995