(pitch black room; two flashlights flicker and scan slowly across the space, then off)

“The unusual darkness struck the inhabitants of this state with horror and amazement,
and at the same time filled them with alarming apprehensions.
Could a thinking being sit unmoved
while he beheld the Sun veiled in darkness at mid-day?
To view nature dressed in her funeral attire
the earth enveloped in darkness
men returning from their fields in great surprise
the midnite sentinels crowing in answer to each other
the nite birds singing their dreary notes
the beasts grazing in wild consternation
every countenance seemed to gather blackness.
A dismal gloom which filled the beholder with fear and astonishment
waiting with much anxiety for some great event.
The darkness was such as we nor our fathers never saw its equal.”

The words of an anonymous farmer in Massachusetts detail what has become known as the Dark Day of 1780. On May 19th of that year, a mysterious dark haze descended upon New England, reaching from the Canadian border all the way down into New Jersey.

[SLIDE 1]
Shortly after dawn, people began to notice something strange as the morning skies emerged with heavy rust-colored clouds. Instead of growing brighter as the hours passed, the hues dimmed and formed a preternatural half-light; by 9a.m., a veritable nightfall had spread across the region.

Many accounts from that day tell of bizarre animal behavior, lunches served by candlelight, and a darkness so intense that even reading outdoors was impossible. Samuel Tenney, a teacher in New Hampshire, wrote that “a sheet of white paper held within a few inches of the eyes was equally invisible as the blackest velvet.”

Some unsubstantiated reports described black rainfall and an intense odor of burnt debris. Others claimed to have seen eerie flashes of light in the late afternoon hours, which they compared to the Aurora Borealis but otherwise could not explain.

As this paranormal shadow came over the land, startled citizens scrambled to find answers. The devoutly religious turned toward Biblical signs and messages, hurrying to churches to pray and consult with clergy. Other people insisted that the phenomenon could be rationalized by the laws of nature, and set off to investigate and experiment with the atmospheric conditions. Some drafted theories about smoke billowing from distant forests, but limited information or transportation made it difficult to know how widespread the darkness might be.

[SLIDE 2]
That evening, a star-less sky emerged. Neither the full moon nor it’s light were visible until after midnite, when a blood moon rose.

(pitch black room; two flashlights flicker and scan slowly across the space, then off)

In the days and weeks that followed, speculation and exaggeration ran wild. Protestants obsessed with notions of sin and redemption spread fearful prophesies that the Dark Day was likely an omen from God that Judgment Day was near. Meanwhile, scientific causes such as volcanic eruption, solar eclipse, or a meteorite crash were hypothesized – but these all fell unverified due to lack of concrete evidence.

Even up through the present, the mystery of the Dark Day has largely remained unsolved. Thus far the most widely referenced scientific explanation has supported parts of the forest fire theory: in 2007, researchers examining ancient burn marks on trees in the Great Lakes region suspected that massive wildfires likely occurred there in the late 18th century. Additional reports from other sources have described extensive forest fires in Maryland, Virginia, and present-day Missouri and Arkansas around the same time, likely traceable to drought, arson, sociopolitical upheaval, and destructive land-clearing practices.

Despite never being clearly explicated by scientific study, the Dark Day remains a significant demonstration of how people have historically responded to climatological phenomena that are beyond comprehension. The use of amateur scientific inquiry and philosophical speculation to assign natural origin to what might’ve otherwise been seen as a supernatural event indicates an early phase of the Enlightenment-era secularization of society and intellectual discourse in America.

In a broader sense, “enlightenment” is an ideology that seeks to empower humans to transcend ritual or superstition, through the use of objective scientific logic. Its emphasis on empirical knowledge production implies that human sovereignty is largely a function of technology and the abstract notion of “progress”, which are congruously united to disenchant and conquer nature.

As the critical theorist Theodor Adorno writes, “the essence of enlightenment is the alternative whose ineradicability is that of domination. Men have always had to choose between their subjection to nature or the subjection of nature to the Self. With the extension of the bourgeois commodity economy, the dark horizon of myth is illuminated by the sun of calculating reason, beneath whose cold rays the seed of the new barbarism grows to fruition.”

In the American historical context, the accelerated colonization of western lands and the dawn of industrial capitalism in the 19th century constitute the metastasizing barbarism of Adorno’s conceptualization – a deliberate exploitation and violence targeting native peoples and the landscape itself.

[SLIDE 3]
These factors underpin the American myth of Manifest Destiny, whose imperialism is bulwarked by a fabricated sense of virtuous inevitability, and reinforced through the realm of the visual – a process epitomized in [SLIDE 4] John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress. The image narrates an allegorical course of modernization horizontally across the composition. Animals and Native Americans in the darkened wilderness at left are pushed out of the frame by oncoming white pioneers with their wagons and stagecoaches. Moving beyond the mountains and through the flat plains, rays of sunlight illuminate the vestiges of a village settlement and a bustling port city in the distance. The female figure at center embodies empire as she leads the march of “civilization”, and the star on her forehead symbolizes the assumption that this colonization is divinely ordained. With a school book in her right hand and telegraph wire in her left, the image extols knowledge and information as a means to educate and enlighten the world beneath her.

With her panoramic perspective and domineering view over the landscape, she can also metaphorically be linked to other forms of technology that have asserted power over nature – most notably, photography, [SLIDE 5] which had been indelibly linked to landscape since its invention a half-century prior. Feminist critics such as Donna Haraway and Susan Sontag have created analogies between the camera and the gun, with Haraway further asserting that the camera is ultimately “superior to the gun for the possession, production, consumption, surveillance, and control of nature.”

The genre of landscape photography grew exponentially from 1860-1890 as it was widely utilized in exploring the western frontier. [SLIDE 6] Professional photographers such as Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, Charles Savage and others were commissioned to work alongside scientists and engineers on surveys for private interests in the mining, logging, and railroad industries. Picturesque images were received as faithful and precise depictions of nature, but more importantly, [SLIDE 7] their harmonious aesthetics conjured a mental notion of the land as primitive territory waiting to be discovered and cultivated. As historian Joel Snyder writes, Watkins’ photos reinforce his corporate clients’ belief in an American Eden, and thus “represent the Garden in a way that encourages the audience to see it as a scene of potential development. This representative scheme presents the possibility of a double salvation: a return to unspoiled innocence and an opportunity to profit from the violation of innocence. It offers, furthermore, a reassurance that this untouched land can withstand mass migration and industrial exploitation.”

In this conservative patriarchal construction, pristine nature is equated with purity and femininity, and as such is assumed to be both refuge and handmaiden for an industrious masculinity exemplified by the rugged pioneer, the miner, the logger, or the lone wolf photographer braving the wilderness in search of the quintessential image.

[SLIDE 8]
Another poignant example of photography’s complicity in furthering the ideology of Manifest Destiny can be seen in William Henry Jackson’s work. He often photographed railroad development in Colorado, but is most known for his documentation of the [SLIDE 9] Mount of the Holy Cross, which he summited and photographed in 1873.

Prior to then, abundant rumors told of a mythical snowy cross hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. However, these accounts had all been shrouded in doubt: chroniclers had only seen it from miles away, and its exact location wasn’t well charted or verified. Jackson’s expedition was the first officially recorded ascent of the peak, and his image – bolstered by the cultural belief in photography as authentic scientific observation produced by an objective mechanism – became seemingly irrefutable proof that the cross existed. [SLIDE 10] In turn, it was also widely interpreted as a potent symbol of the divine justification of western expansion and the commodification of nature.

The mythology of a secluded cross deep in the Rockies has also been intensified by the fact that it has only ever been partially visible. Created from a snow field that accumulated in deep crevasses on the eastern face of the mountain, the cross is only detectable during brief periods in the summer, and only from a few specific vantage points atop nearby peaks. Its fluctuating visibility has been taken by some as a sign that the cross possesses a supernatural power to conceal itself. More recently, [SLIDE 11] the cross has faded significantly due to erosion and alterations of snow patterns on the mountain, which some have attributed to climate change.

[SLIDE 12]
With the camera employed as an objective mechanical eye, photography has played a key role in bolstering the supremacy of vision and its historical link to power. We come to understand that there is no unmediated photograph. Vision is not passive activity. Perception leading to knowledge is a continuous exercise in translating the world into an image; this process is imperfect and flawed.

[SLIDE 13]
Fix your gaze on the dot at the center of this image, steadying it for 20-30 seconds.

As the screen goes to white, notice the momentary flicker of a new image.

[SLIDE 14 – WHITE]
Does your sight deceive you?

[SLIDE 15]
The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity – honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, and male supremacy – to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power.

[SLIDE 16 – WHITE]

[SLIDE 17]

(holding two mirrors and standing in front of a projected image, using mirrors to reflect scenes of a mountain landscape around the room)

Vision signifies a perverse capacity – perfected through a history of science tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, and male supremacy – to place the knowing subject above everybody and everything in the interests of unrestrained power.

(return to podium)

(pitch black room; two flashlights flicker and scan slowly across the space, then off)

[SLIDE 18]
What is the psychological space of nature? Where are its boundaries? Where do they lie in relation to what we regard as “civilization”?

Does the disorientation of a walk in the darkened woods produce terror, or some opposite – something sublimely spiritual?

What explanations are proposed by science?

[SLIDE 19]
They say there was a huge uptick in reports in the 1950s, and again in the 1970s. But most people said it goes back much deeper than that.

Stories from pioneers in the Pacific Northwest were supposedly recorded in the 1800s; a few taxonomic indexes near the same time also lent credence from an empirical perspective.

And for who knows how long before the Europeans arrived, it has been a common part of Native American legend. The Chinooks, the Athabaskan, the Chickasaw, the Wenatchi, and countless other tribes all have their own unique symbols and names for it.

[SLIDE 20]
[SLIDE 21]

If what they say is true, then it’s a product of both nature AND culture – simultaneously occupying the margins of isolated forests and the internal wilderness of the human psyche.

[SLIDE 22]
[SLIDE 23]

The myth seems psychologically significant as a mode of iconoclasm against conventional science’s delineation of what is considered acceptable belief, or to recapture a feeling of mystery in a world that by now might seem hyper-rationalized and over-explored. To theoretically repopulate nature with potentially undiscovered creatures seeks to return humans to the threshold of a primitive wilderness, to cognitively counteract the mental burden of knowing that in the reality of the Anthropocene era, human activity has caused massive animal extinction, environmental degradation, and irreparable damage to the planet.

Others say it represents a theoretical opposition to man’s control of nature, a mysterious power that resists and evades the technological and commercial ravaging of the forest.

[SLIDE 24]
[SLIDE 25]

Does your sight deceive you?

[SLIDE 26]
[SLIDE 27]

Could it be a bipedal humanoid afflicted with hypertrichosis? There’s no evidence to support it.

Is it possibly an incorporeal cryptid existing as an entirely separate species that has eluded scientific study? We don’t know enough about it.

Maybe it’s the remnant of a Neanderthal civilization, the last survivor of a prior hominoid lineage, or a distant relative of the mythical Gigantopithecus? There’s no consensus on it.

[SLIDE 28]
[SLIDE 29]

Perhaps from this extant mammal we might begin to see the possibility of a consciousness we can no longer access – that of a figure potentially close to us in origins but whose divergent evolution remains inexplicable. We may imagine an entity that understands the world more deeply than we have, and thus inhabits it more freely.

[SLIDE 30]
[SLIDE 31]

What does society say to those who cling to implausible stories and images, who’ve seen the controversial documentary, who’ve had certain experiences, who subscribe to particular theories? Science attempts to explain them all away by pointing to hallucination, or confused misidentification, or simply an elaborate hoax.

More clinically, perhaps its attributable to an optical illusion resulting from pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon where the brain perceives a familiar pattern or shape where none actually exists. It sometimes manifests in an auditory sense, such as allegations of secret messages recorded into songs through back-masking cassette tapes. But more often it occurs as a visual experience relating to the eye’s innate tendency to recognize human faces and forms.

Exhibit A, perhaps available in your very own kitchen: [SLIDE 32] the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, or, in a potential threat to your cholesterol, [SLIDE 33] a certain political monster creeping in your tub of butter.

Exhibit B, imprinted in landscape: [SLIDE 34] the supposed appearance of a face on Mars, or [SLIDE 35] the so-called “Badlands Guardian” visible on google maps.

Modern society’s alienation from nature – first expressed during rapid industrialization and burgeoning cities in the late 19th century as people became nostalgic for the red-blooded pioneer life and the open frontier they had helped to destroy – continues to have profound political and cultural ramifications. The idea of “wilderness” is positioned as a subordinate Other to our urbanized lives; it is kept at a safe, yet accessible distance. Nature remains ensconced in myth, permeating the cracks in enlightenment’s blemished façade.

In his seminal book Mythologies, the French theorist Roland Barthes explains that myth exists as a mode of speech operating thru semiotics. Myth attempts to outline the whole of human social relations and their power in making and remaking the world. However, in its description, myth often distorts or deforms: “Myth does not deny things. On the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but a statement of fact. In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, and does away with all dialectics.”

Barthes writes of Albert Einstein’s brain as a mythical entity, which he likens to “an object for anthologies, a true museum exhibit.” In the mythology of Einstein, scientific knowledge is reduced to a mere formula. While Einstein’s brain may represent the greatest of human intelligence, it has also been stripped of mystery and subjectivity, instead functioning merely as a machine. And although Einstein personifies a certain pinnacle of rational scientific reason and enlightenment dogma, the notion of Einstein as allegory demonstrates how enlightenment can also slide back into the realm of myth.

This returns us to Adorno, who critiques enlightenment’s self-constructed positioning as being hollow and false. The repetition of the measurable and the knowable, and the ruthless impulse to control nature and administer it merely as raw material, transforms enlightenment to myth.

In Adorno’s words: “Factuality wins the day; cognition is restricted to its repetition; and thought becomes mere tautology. The more the machinery of thought subjects existence to itself, the more blind its resignation in reproducing existence. Hence enlightenment returns to mythology, which it never really knew how to elude.”

This is enlightenment undermined, and knowledge as manufactured commodity.