There is an extraordinary article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it Mikita Brottman describes the “thoughtography” of Ted Serios, a conman who pretended to project his unconscious thoughts onto photographic film in a manner so blatantly theatrical that only a fool could fall for it. You can do all the skeptical enquiring you need via Google. Serios was debunked numerous times; he was once caught faking his technique on camera.
The exhibition of his images could still be fascinating (I have an enormous interest in fakes and I would love one of the major Australian art galleries to curate an exhibition of great forgeries), and that is what piqued my interest here. Here’s Brottman:
Other images could have been obtained only as a result of knowledge or perspectives unavailable at the time. For example, after seeing magazine photographs taken from Voyager 2 of Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, Eisenbud [Serios's handler and chief defender] suddenly recognized some of Serios’s previously unidentified thoughtographs as images of the moons of Jupiter. That made sense, as Serios had long been obsessed with Voyager 2; what did not make sense, however, was that those thoughtographs had been produced years before the Voyager 2 pictures were taken.
Now if this were actually true, it would count as one of the most staggering achievements in human history. According to Eisenbud, though, “Unfortunately, I couldn’t get an astronomer or optical scientist to agree.” This rather important statement was not reported by Brottman, which just goes to show that even Serios’s handler was more honest about the state of the evidence than Brottman is.
To understand the mindset, Brottman gives us a peek into the psychological mechanics behind willful belief.
Yet to my mind, the Ted Serios phenomenon goes beyond the notion of “real versus fake,” providing insights into the relationships among photography, subjectivity, representation, and the unconscious.
But Brottman doesn’t really think the phenomenon is more important than “real versus fake” because she spends at least half of her review supporting Serios’s more ridiculous claims while diminishing (inaccurately) his detractors (see James Randi’s rejoinder). This sudden move into poststructuralism is purely tactical; it is Brottman’s method of deflecting the obvious criticisms. And we know this because of the second half of her sentence. She writes that Serios says something important about the unconscious even if he was a fraud. But if Serios was a fake, then clearly his faked photographs provide no insights at all into the unconscious, because he made it all up. It is like saying the Loch Ness Monster, real or fake, provides insights into ecology or that The Turk, real or false, provides insights into the computational analysis of chess.
The will to believe is strong in many people. In Brottman’s case the will is so forceful that she has created a defence that allows her to keep believing even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The insights are real, she says, even if they are fraudulent.