INTRODUCTION: Technologies of Wonder: Affective Responses in a Posthuman World

Aleksandra Kaminska

Simon Fraser University

Technologies are often remembered for the sense of fear they originally provoked: photography, cinema, and the history of media technologies on the whole is filled with accusations of magic and wizardry, while inventions such as the hot air balloon and telescopy prompted reactions of both wonder and terror. [1] Discovery and innovation continue to spur both hope and dread, but a prevailing sense of disenchantment has to a large degree stifled our ability to value wonder as a constructive mode of engagement with or attachment to the world. The following contributions question to what extent wonder continues to be possible and useful. They draw on the work of artists and filmmakers who provide wondrous encounters of, with, and through the technological to examine how we comprehend, represent, manipulate, imagine, and question the ‘wondrous.’ Where does wonder belong in relation to knowledge? And can it still generate something outside of itself to provide entry points towards a critique beyond skepticism?

No amount of information ‘overflow’ has been able to abolish the sense that the world is a bewildering place. On the one hand there has been what Jonathan Crary describes as the elimination of the “useless time of reflection and contemplation” into the regulated and “relentless capture of time and experience” by the logic of an always-lit 24/7 capitalism – a disenchanted world of “fraudulent brightness that presumes to extend everywhere and to preempt any mystery or unknowability.” [2] At the same time, however, we continue to live through chronic disorientations caused by new scientific and technological ‘advances,’ new ideas, possibilities, and knowledge; books about ‘enchanted objects’ and events on technological magic are just some recent examples of a ongoing willingness, if not desire, to think outside the restrictions of the ‘reasoned’ world. [3] This is a space of wonder, of that which has not been entirely folded into the “homogeneity of the present.” [4] Fueling this space are the experiences of wonder, moments that could be deemed a kind of resistance, which resonates with Philip Fisher’s observation that wonder is “the most neglected of primary aesthetic experiences within modernity.” [5] The goal is not a general re-enchantment with the world, but rather, as Jane Bennett suggests, to question “whether the very characterization of the world as disenchanted ignores and then discourages affective attachment to that world.” [6] As artists continue to work with increasingly complex technologies like 3D printing, AR, AI, and to develop art-sci practices like bioart and molecular aesthetics, how do we draw on these creative actions and aesthetic approaches to cultivate experiences of wonder in a way that incites renewed attachments and entanglements with our technologies and our world?

This is where the following essays begin: unanswered questions, inaccessible spaces, invisible and uncanny domains, all of which exist in the space of the incomprehensible or unimaginable, testing the limits of human knowledge and reason, and of humanness itself. The experience of wonder provides a kind of access to and contact with the matters of the world that may be enchanting, but also illuminating or perplexing. Wonder, as Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park outlined in their expansive historical study of the subject, has many meanings: it is the action and experience of wonderment, the ‘passion’ itself, and it is also the noun, in the sense of an object that inspires the sense of wonder. [7] ‘To’ wonder, or ‘a’ wonder – both are excursions into and experiences with the unknown, other, or new.

Wonder, enchantment, the marvelous or sublime – these are closely linked affective responses and encounters with the world that toe the line between awe, curiosity, and fear. According to Jane Bennett, enchantment describes a particular feeling of being “struck and shaken by the extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and the everyday,” a state in which there is a “temporary suspension of chronological time and bodily movement…. a momentarily immobilizing encounter; it is to be transfixed, spellbound.” [8] Wonder, while maintaining the sense of a moving experience, also taps into an intellectual curiosity or stimulus that allows for a certain detachment, limiting the rapture characteristic of enchantment. This duality of wonder – as residing within the subjective experience or as the root of inquiry – emerged as early as with Aristotle and Plato, who took on these respective positions. [9] Is wonder a cognitive mechanism that exists in relation to our scientific explanations ‘of’ world, or a subjective response and interior sensibility ‘towards’ the world? Must reason and knowledge preclude the experience of wonder?

These were questions at the heart of the Enlightenment. Through the 17th century, wonder had been central to the experimental method, a precursor to inquiry and to knowledge. [10] Descartes proclaimed wonder the primary passion, one that led to curiosity and investigation and the beginning of philosophy. [11] But with the enlightenment came disenchantment and the anti-marvelous – the loss of wonder – and the values of evidence and objectivity became the driving sensibilities in the rationalization of the world. Reason resolved wonder and situated it as both the beginning and end of inquiry; “the more we know, the less we wonder.” [12]

In his study of wonder and the rainbow, Fisher argues, however, that even when we understand phenomena perfectly well, scientifically speaking – e.g. how and why rainbows occur – they continue to generate wondrous personal experiences in part because they are rare, sudden, and unexpected. Moreover, they only exist through human experience, meaning that “each person’s rainbow… is uniquely determined by the point where he or she stands” – what I see is mine alone. [13] The sight of the rainbow creates an individual attachment to the natural world, a wondrous space “between subjective experience and objective referents.” [14] This is a way of thinking about wonder not as antithetical to reason, but as a deliberate and continuous way of engaging with the world that can “resist the story of disenchantment.” [15] For Fisher wonder continues to exist “at every step within the process of thought itself. It is not the stimulus to thought, but the very core energy that makes up each moment of thought…Wonder, in this sense, we can call the poetics of thought.” [16] In such a poetics, the inward/outward perspective on wonder is overcome by the complex, ongoing, and evolving relationships between the known and the unknown.

Along similar lines, one of the recurring questions about wonders is whether they “appeal because they contradict and destabilize” or because they confirm and “round out the order of the world.” [17] When we see technological novelties, do they disrupt our knowledge? Do they defamiliarize and make strange? Or do they clarify and materialize something that makes the world, and our place in it, more understandable, reasonable, sensible? Does wonder illuminate or confuse?

Even after the values of the Enlightenment refuted the scientific merits of wonder, wonder continued to be a productive reaction and imagining of the world. The Romantics sustained their wondrous celebrations of nature, while new technologies of vision triggered a fresh wave of wondrous experiences. Barbara Stafford’s work on devices of wonder in the 19th century suggests that these stimulated a ‘re-enchantment’ via technical tools through the demonstrations and imaginative spectacles of instruments like magic lanterns, panoramas, and optical toys that “provoked wonder in the observer, and wonder as that important cognitive passion.” [18] These instruments of vision and visual media were wondrous because they altered human perception, changed the relationship between senses and the natural world, and revealed things that were previously invisible by uncovering or mediating an aspect of the natural world not seen with the eye alone. Continuing in this tradition of thinking about media as reorganizing our perceptions and sensations, two essays here consider the technological investigation of worlds that are to our eyes, and often in our minds and actions, invisible.

In her contribution on Jacques Cousteau and his 1956 film The Silent World, Janine Marchessault traces Cousteau’s explorations of the deep seas as an innovator both of cinematic techniques and of diving technologies. As a ship captain and film director, Cousteau was driven by a desire to document the oceanic world, a space of continuing mystery to this day. Marchessault situates a new culture of oceanic wonders that was directly tied to an uncovering of the oceans. This new visibility came about through a shift in geopolitical relations after WWII – a change in the Law of the Seas and new visual and sonar technologies that imaged the deep-sea world.

Shifting from the invisibility contained within inaccessible planetary geographies, my investigation of the nanoscale turns to topographical vision and ‘exotic’ optics as two modes through which we can interface with and gain insight into the invisible structures of matter. Visualized mappings of nano-matters and the production of optical effects with nano precision offer strategies for ‘seeing’ the nanoscale. This technological exploration of the infinitely small continues a fascination that originated with the microscope, which made us “aware of the spectacle that took place constantly in a world that eluded the unassisted human senses.” [19]

In their essay, Florence Gouvrit and Jordi Vallverdú turn to the techno-human interaction as the locus of wonder. They consider human connections with artificial intelligences, whether integrated into Ambient Intelligence environments or within the space of the body itself in body hacking. Drawing on a number of artworks dealing with artificial intelligence systems, they ask, what happens when AI – as environment or body – is hacked? What does it mean to be human in a world of the upgraded human? Here feelings of wonder and terror go beyond the integration of human and machine and ask how human existence is transformed through symbiotic artificial systems.

Posthuman methodologies diffuse anthropocentric engagements with the world and allow for complex entanglements between matters, things, and the human. To think about wonder is to consider the ways in which affective responses continue to shape our individual and collective being in the world, but it is also a reminder of human limitations. In his work on developing what he calls infinity structures, Robert Gero turns to the concept of infinity, using a combination of philosophical and mathematical probes – human inquires and scientific explanations. He explores how the mysterious and unknown – i.e., the concept of infinity – can be converted and presented in shapes and objects using technologies such as 3D modeling and printing. The resulting sculptures, which fill large exhibition spaces, are studies into the possibility of creating shapes whose interior is bigger than their exterior and where the inconceivability of infinity is rendered material. This visualization of a philosophical problem and scientific ambiguity does not provide a resolution but a way to see and think about a concept that stretches the limits of human imagination.

Wonder does not reside in a singular domain but rather emerges in the ongoing and changing relationship between human-material entanglements. Technologies of wonder create conversations outside of the habitual rhetorics of techno euphoria, skepticism, or dread, and instead restore and nurture the affective dimensions of techno-encounters, creating situations, moments, and experiences that allow for a kind of contemplation that may renew our relationship to our matters and ecologies, natural and artificial, and provide an opening not only to new knowledge but to new modes of being in, and with, the world.


  1. See for example Richard Holmes, The Age Of Wonder: How The Romantic Generation Discovered The Beauty And Terror Of Science (London: UK General Books, 2009).
  2. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), 19–40.
  3. See for example David Rose, Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things (New York: Scribner, 2014), or ‘Technology is the New Magic,’ a one day symposium held in London in May 2015, accessed April 30, 2015,
  4. Crary, 24/7, 19.
  5. Philip Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2.
  6. Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 3.
  7. Lorraine J. Daston and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 11.
  8. Bennett, The Enchantment, 4–5.
  9. Lindsey Beaven. “Epiphanies of Soul: ‘When the Bolts of the Universe Fly Open.’ A Depth Psychological Contemplation of Wonder.” Dissertation, Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2014, 9.
  10. Martin Willis, “On Wonder: The Enchantment of Nature in the Nineteenth Century,” Plenary Lecture for Nature and the Long Nineteenth Century Conference, Edinburgh, February 6, 2010.
  11. Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow, 42–48.
  12. Lorraine Daston, “Wonder and the Ends of Inquiry,” The Point Magazine 8, Summer 2014, accessed January 18, 2015, life/wonder-ends-inquiry/
  13. Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow, 36.
  14. Daston and Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 16.
  15. Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life, 4.
  16. Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow, 41.
  17. Daston and Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 11.
  18. Willis, “On Wonder,” 3.
  19. Bernard Lightman, “The Microscopic World,” Victorian Review vol. 36, no. 2 (2010): 48.


Aleksandra Kaminska is a Mitacs Elevate Postdoctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and a Research Associate at Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts and Technology Research at York University, Toronto. She develops projects on the materialities, aesthetics, ecologies, and histories of visual technologies, and is currently working on nano-optics in collaboration with artists and scientists. Her first book, Polish Media Art in an Expanded Field, is forthcoming from Intellect Press.