and the Technology of Communication:
Tuning into The Electromagnetic Imagination
by Erik Davis
Part of the series of lectures, "Watch Your Language,"
at Public Netbase Media-Space!
presented on 10 April 1997
Part of the series of lectures, "Watch Your Language,"
Most of my talk is going to be historical. It is from material I am working on for a book which is coming out in a year or so entitled "TechGnosis". I will start by laying out the territory and spending most of the time with some historical material which will hopefully open up more contemporary discussions we can have towards the end.
I'd like to start with a couple of quotes from Marshall McLuhan regarding electricity and electromagnetism:
"Civilization is entirely the product of phonetic literacy. As it dissolves with the electronic revolution, we rediscover a tribal integral awareness that manifests itself in a complete shift in our sensory lives....This new electronic environment itself constitutes a inner trip, collectively, without benefit of drugs. The impulse to use hallucinogens is a kind of empathy with the electronic environment."
As usual with McLuhan, these are vast over-statements, and the more you scrutinize them the more they tend to dissolve. But if you recall that McLuhan is more of an intuitive or analogical thinker than a strictly analytic one, I think there is something going on here. A lot of what I am doing in my talk tonight is to flesh out some of his intutitions about the electronic universe using historical materials.
Whatever media we want to talk about, whether the Internet or television or radio, it all rests on two forces, which are the electricity which powers the thing and the electromagnetic universe which we exploit in a variety of different ways in order to produce our mediated world. These are very much the lifeblood of the media sphere: both electric power and the electromagnetic spectrum. These things are so ordinary to us that they are just part of the furniture. Superficially, they seem devoid of anything strange or uncanny. But this is not entirely the case. It is certainly the case that, while we take for granted both electricity and the electromagnetism we exploit for radio and television signals, they are actually very strange things. The more you try to understand the signs behind it, the more you realize how bizarre and counterintuitive they are. We take them for granted because the stuff works very well and very obviously. But of the kinds of things we encounter in our ordinary day-to-day lives---you know we don't run into quantum physical phenomena directly very often, but we do bump into electricity and electromagnetism all the time---they are quite strange if you think about it.
I am not trying to mystify the science or to claim that our scientific descriptions are not adequate to the task of capturing electrical or electromagnetic phenomena. Just as a way to open up the bizarreness of what's going on: if you imagine you have your toaster and you plug it into the wall socket in the morning to toast your Pop Tart, what is really powering the thing? What is really giving it the juice? What you are doing is plugging your toaster into this enormous decentralized network of power. The electrical grid is very much like the Internet: it sends packets of electric power that fluctuate and surge in a very decentralized non-linear manner. It is going back and forth through your circuit at the speed of light, the currents' positive and negative poles reversing, in Europe, 50 times a second. That is rather odd if you consider it as a phenomenon you are trying to explain because, as this motion is switching back and forth 50 times a second, it is not exactly that the electrons themselves are flying back and forth at the speed of light. Electrons are more like dominos in the sense that they are kind of rippling back and forth, and the force that goes back and forth at the speed of light are not the electrons themselves, rather, the electrons are communicating their force. That's fine, but this massless non-kinetic force is rather strange.
Any time you have an electrical signal or fluctuating electrical flow, you generate a field as well. We take these fields for granted. We don't think about them very often but they are actually one of the things that we have changed in our natural environment the most. Modern civilization has radically transformed the environment, or nature as it was given. What we have done to the electromagnetic spectrum is profound: now we walk around in a sea of artificially induced weak electromagnetic fields, and we have exploited much of the spectrum for our own purposes, filling them with all sorts of gobs of strange advertisements and anarchists' free radio and the tedious news we are all so familiar with.
I am saying these things as a way to denaturalize the sense we have about how ordinary electricity and electromagnetism are. Because what I'd like to do is say that any time we have a scientific or technological condition, it always breathes myths. It always produces it own kind of uncanny, its own strange realm of questions and ambiguities. A certain kind of magic---I don't mean it in a mystifying way. I just mean it in the sense of a space of ambiguity and questions.
I'd like to point to three places where we still run across this imaginal aspect of electricity and electromagnetism today. (I am speaking from an American perspective and I am not sure how these ideas have been played out in Europe.)
One example is the question of the biological effects of power lines. It is a very interesting field because there is some strong evidence to support the fact that there are things that happen to the body in conjunction with powerful extra low frequency electromagnetic fields. Yet conventional science will now tell you that, after many studies, there is nothing to this at all, that it is a specious figment of the imagination. And yet the conventional sciences' ability to make that judgment relies on a large part on a model of the body and the very charged question of the role of electricity, or energy, in the body. As I will point out to you later on, the resistance on the part of conventional Western medicine to the questions of the electrical dimension of the body is a very strong one, and it is bound up with a lot of resistance to ideas of bio-energy or a vitalist body. Any time you come across question of electricity or electromagnetism and the body, there is a great deal of resistance for reasons that I will get to in the talk.
Another example of a current manifestation of this imaginal aspect of electricity or electromagnetism is in the motifs of schizophrenia and paranoia. The most common ones which you will know from the "X Files" is that someone has implanted a small chip in us and is controlling us from a distance through electromagnetic waves. This is a very common and powerful motif within schizophrenic madness, and is less explicitly manifested in conspiratorial theories. It goes back throughout the history of modern communication technologies. (I am using the word "schizophrenia" in quotes because, of course, it too is a construct which can be questioned and interrogated.) But we already know that schizophrenia acts in many ways as a kind of avant-garde. It is interesting how they pick up things right away. As soon as the telephone was invented, Thomas Watson got reports from people saying that other people had implanted telephones inside their heads and were using them to give them secret messages and trying to control them and tell them what to do. Beneath this figure of madness is a whole set of very powerful and profound questions that affect those of us who are not sucked into these kinds of worldviews, questions about electromagnetic control, about the limits of identity and about the unseen level of vibrational influences which, if you actually unpack, have a lot to do with the more theoretical questions we have about power and control in the information industry.
The third example of the way that the electromagnetic imagination exists in our culture today is electronic music. That is, of course, a huge field and I am not trying to generalize about it at all. But if you look at the topic historically, particularly once electronic music or the electrical aspects of music enter into popular culture, we find an association between electricity and mysticism, outer space, cosmic vibrations. A lot of very bad music is produced out of these ideas and a lot of very good electronic music has nothing to do with them. I am not trying to say that they are necessary connections, but they are connections which come up over and over again. Stockhausen's ideas about how the universe works are actually quite interesting because they come out of the things that I have already been talking about, a way of fusing the more mystical ideas about vibration and the cosmos with aspects of electromagnetism. You find the same thing with the role of feedback in Sixties rock music. The paragon example of this is in The Beach Boys' song, "Good Vibrations," which captures this very hippy metaphor---vibrations and that whole cultural idea---and yet if you analyze the song, the instrument which is producing the "good vibrations" is the theremin. The theremin is the first genuinely electronic instrument and, if you have ever seen anybody play a theremin, it is a very odd instrument because you are not actually touching anything physical. The theremin basically has two rods---I am not very good at the science of it or else I would have coughed it up--- and you sit there and it produces two fields that you play by moving your hand. So you wave your hands like a magician and you can pull the sounds out of the ether. Of course, the ether doesn't really exist, but it is certainly a very enchanted instrument. We go on through the Seventies and the progressive rock and a lot of cheesy things like that and we notice that, when electronic music comes back into popular culture in strong way in the late-Eighties and the early-Nineties, it is still accompanied by a return of ideas of the ecstasy, of the experience plugged into a drug universe, of imagery of cosmic beings and aliens and entities. All sorts of elements of the imaginal are connected in with the question of electronics.
Now what I'd like to do mostly is go back and tell some stories, some alternative histories of electricity and electromagnetism. I am doing so not because I think they are true or that they reveal some secret mystical history that we are not aware of in our conventional ways of looking at science, but it is rather to indicate that, as we develop new technologies and, using science, create new environments, it is always accompanied by a certain kind of uncanniness, by a certain kind of loss of boundaries which produces a space where the imaginal works. We cannot avoid the mythic dimension of the things that we are doing and, if we do so, they often become repressed. There is an unconscious that goes along with these things and, as we will see, the relationship between magnetism and consciousness is a very profound one.
I'd like to start off with alchemy and the way it informed the initial explorations of electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries. To make a long story short, alchemy derived from the basic idea that matter is alive and that we can, by manipulating matter, increase its quality of organism and take advantage of that spiritual quality. The first time that electricity enters the English language is in a book by an alchemist. Often it is described---this is more in the 17th century---in alchemical terms: "the ethereal fire," "the quintessential fire," "the desiderata," or the desired quintessence of matter. The idea in alchemy is that you take the nature of matter and by distilling it and changing it and forcing it and fighting it, you will create a spiritual essence from it. That essence was associated with electricity.
Of course, at the same time, electricity was just a very conventional object that was exploited for perfectly pragmatic ways as part of the march of Rationalism. The paragon of this is Benjamin Franklin, who did many electrical experiments. The most famous one is when he discovers that lightning indeed is just a natural form of electricity. By doing so, he not only invented the lightning rod, but demystified this great symbol of the divine wrath of the god. He says, "No. this is not what is happening. This is electrical energy and we can control it and we can save lives."
Franklin's experiment has an interesting archetypal aspect. The fact that it is the framer of the American constitution who tames and demystifies this previously heavenly force is very interesting. There is an epigram on a French bust of Franklin which states: "He wrested the flash of lightning from heaven and the scepter from the tyrants."
So, here you have the idea of electricity connecting to the idea of political Prometheanism. But for all his fame, Franklin wasn't the first person to have the idea of the lightning rod. In fact, that credit goes to a Moravian named Prokop Divisch who was a Premonstratensian monk. One day he was sitting around and diddling around with electrostatic machines and he discovers the principle of the lightning rod. In fact, he came to Emperor Franz Josef and said, "Listen. I want to put a lightning rod on top of the Hofburg." But the Emperor wouldn't have any of it. So, if Franklin stands as the exoteric story of how we tame electricity and bring this mysterious force down to earth in order to exploit it for rational gain, we also have the monk who opens up this esoteric side that I am trying to point to, in which electricity is an imponderable fluid that becomes symbolized and related to the higher powers.
The idea of the esoteric charge of electricity plugs directly into German nature philosophy. In particular, there was a group that the German historican Ernst Benz calls "Electrical Theologians," whose most notable member was Friedrich Christopher Oetinger, who had some interesting things to say. It is worth going into a bit of his---to us---goofy pseudo-scientific ideas because we see a little bit more about the charge that electricity has. Oetinger looked at the Book of Genesis. The Book of Genesis tells us that on the first day of Creation, God said "Let there be light"---and there was light. But there has always been this question: it is three more days until God creates the sun, the moon and the stars. So there has always been this question about what this light is if it is not the sun, the moon nor the stars. What is this first good light? Oetinger believed that it was the electrical fire, which enters the primal watery chaos and sparks it with life, giving it the ability to produce forms and to produce life. Once the sun and the moon come, the electrical fire then disappears into matter and only in special conditions, like in a lightning storm or when you are screwing around with electrostatic machines, can we actually recover this essence.
Now, other than just being an intriguing story, Oetinger's notion is actually a very important idea because what it does is engender the earth with immanent power. It is an opposition to the idea that life descends only from above, and that we are simply cut-out little creatures that are given the spark of life from above. Instead, the very material of nature has within it an animist principle that gives form and life. So this connection between animism and electricity goes back to the very beginning, and we see it today with the organic metaphors that often creep up around electrical technology. It comes from this intuition that electricity has something to do with vitalism.
As I mentioned before, the whole question about electricity and the body and the controversy around it derive from the connection between electricity and vitalism. When Galvani started hooking up frogs' legs (and we get the word "galvanic" to indicate that jittering response), he thought that he was discovering the Úlan vital, the living spirit of matter that had an electrical form. Of course, he was wrong, and the mechanists, for whom the body is essential dead, showed instead that he just using the body as a battery rather than discovering its internal life. But from that point on, vitalism and electricity go hand in hand. In the great battle over the body between a vitalist perspective---which we find for example in alternative medicine---and a mechanist perspective---which we find enshrined in reductionist Western medicine---electricity plays a profound role. Even Frankenstein is not entirely a myth. A nephew of Galvani would take dead criminals and put electricity in them to try to regenerate them. So, this connection goes back a very, very long way and led to a lot of goofy pseudo-science and profound mythic resonance.
Another important aspect of Oetinger's thought is how it creates a different image of humanity. Humans are no longer simply rational spirits inhabiting otherwise static hunks of matter. When God scrapes up the dust to create Adam, the dust itself is already alive. It is already animated so that, along with our rational souls, we have this electrical soul. This is an important distinction: that there is a realm of ontology or our consciousness that is not associated with the rational factor but is associated with vital life. Though this kind of division of human being into a rational and an animal or vegetable soul goes back at least to Aristotle, it comes up again in the context of the elecrical imagination.
In the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, once again electricity plays a very profound role. It is interesting because electricity is the discovery of the Enlightenment, and electrical power eventually enables us to transform nature on a scale unimaginable to people 200 years ago. And yet it also has this undercurrent of a mystical reaction, a call toward those things and ideas suppressed within Enlightenment rationalism.
I have spoken a little bit about the electrical side of the equation and now I'd like to talk about the magnetic. In the 18th century, they did not think that they were necessarily connected. It was only later that we unified the electromagnetic field, but the connection in terms of my story is very important because this leads us even more directly into the unconscious dimension of the electrical or animist life.
The father of the psycho-electromagnetic unconscious is Franz Mesmer, who is known alternately as the kookiest charlatan of all time or the man who in many ways kick-started psychoanalysis. He was born in 1732 earned his doctorate degree here in Vienna, where he wrote his dissertation on the astrological influence of the planets. In order to explain this influence---and again these people were already working under the influence of Enlightenment materialism---he posits this ether-like substance that he calls the "fluidium". This is that substance that allows the moon to tug the tides and allows planets to influence human beings. The scientific side of the question, which goes back to Newton, is how can we account for action at a distance on a cosmic scale. Nowadays, we don't need a substance like the ether to explain these phenomena, but for rationalist scientists at this time, they couldn't imagine how such forces would propagate through a vacuum. So they posited the existence of the ether, an invisible, etheric medium of communication. Mesmer simply attached astrological influence to this fluid.
What is interesting about the materialist conception of the ether is that, even though it is an expression of the materialist desire to fill the world with matter, by its very insubstantial nature, it allows very bizarre occult ideas to cling to it. Even Newton, who was the grand rationalist (and an alchemist on the side), held that the ether which allowed the planets to communicate with each other was a living substance, an entity of sorts. What is really important about this is that it is ultimately a matter of communication, a communication of bodies and light. This is a motif which is important to keep in mind. Mesmer wavered about what he was going to call the aspect of ourselves which responds to this etheric field, and he settled on the term "animal magnetism," a term he took from the works of a hermetic Jesuit a century earlier. Mesmer wrote:
"All bodies are a magnet, capable of communicating this magnetic principle. This fluid permeates everything and can be stored up and concentrated like the electric fluid and it acts at a distance."
While Mesmer never identified animal magnetism with the mineral magnetism which we've know about for millennia, we can see the way that he used the reality of magnetism as a way to get across a lot of occult ideas. Not that he wasn't adverse to messing around with magnets in his healing practice, an idea he took from a priest with the unlikely name of Father Maximillian Hell, who used steel magnets to heal people. This again is not a new practice. You could go back to Sumar and discover magnetic healing charms which are inscribed with the symbol of Marduke. Marduke, among other things, is "he who causes action at a distance". Again, it is that question of how do we influence things across empty space. For Mesmer and Hell, the influence in question was about healing, and so they used magnets in their healing practices. The idea was that body was a magnetic form and that by using magnets, you could re-align the living field of the body.
Soon Mesmer discovered that he didn't really need magnets, and this is where he really starts looking like a charlatan kook. He realized that he could magnetize people simply by passing his hands over them. It sounds kind of goofy, except that whatever he was doing, he catalyzed extraordinary effects. I don't know if you have this word in German, but in English we frequently use the word "mesmerize" to describe something that hypnotically seduces us. For example, "When I am watching the screen, I am mesmerized by the movie." Mesmer was not putting people into a hypnotic trance, but he was creating a convulsive climax, a la Wilhelm Reich, that he thought would lead to healing. He attempted to realize this crisis in order to re-align the body. If any of you follow alternative medicine and the models it works on, his basic conceptual model is not much different from the one that lies behind, say, acupuncture in Chinese medicine. In acupuncture, the body is described as a field of energies. When they get off balance, you get ill. The trick of the healing is not to kill the bug, but to re-produce a resilient moving balance in the fields of the body.
I bring this question up because, if you are interested in the conflict between conventional medicine and alternative medicine, the electrical or the magnetic role often serve as the conceptual umbrella under which Western healers have worked with the kinds of models and practices that we find in China and in Ayurvedic medicine, etc. This sets up an electromagnetic conflict on the level of power, particularly regarding the rationalized and institutional power over the body---a conflict that Mesmer pays the price for.
Needless to say, Mesmer wasn't interested in just magnetizing with his hands. He started magnetizing everything: wood, china, books, whatever. He would magnetize them and give them to people. He never really tried to explain what he was doing. He just sort of realized that it worked and that he was able to produce these effects. He played up all the ambient aspects of his healing. For example, he would draw the curtains and he would play moody music on his glass harmonica, an instrument, by the way, which produces very ambient resonant tones. It is like when you rub the edge of a crystal glass filled with wine, you get that hum. A glass harmonica is made up of those kinds of tumblers. It sounds like very New Age-y music. At the same time that Mesmer was doing all this wacky stuff, he insisted that animal magnetism was a purely rational, explicable, and real force in the universe. He was not at all a mystic in that sense. In fact, he garnered a lot of fame initially by lambasting a Swiss country priest who was using very similar techniques to exorcise people. For Mesmer this was absurd. It is important that he was not just some whacko.
One of the difficult things about trying to trace the history of science is trying to reconstruct what it was like to think about something before we decided how it worked. Before we knew that electricity operated in the way we know now, what kind of meanings and powers did it have? We knew that there were some kinds of electric effects, we knew that there were magnetic effects, but what was the descriptive universe of qualities we created around that, what were the subjectivities we linked to those effects? As we jettisoned the descriptive universes of the premodern mind, alchemy and Neoplatonism and so on, we honed the world down to the rationalist conception we have today, even though these alternative stories and subjectivities are always leaking back in.
In any case, Mesmer pioneered a style of "wild" healing we can recognize in some of today's alternative healers, an exuberant attempt to bring back the animist body surpressed by mechanism. For these reasons, he very quickly he became identified as a quack, a charlatan, and was hounded out of Vienna by the medical establishment. He then goes to pre-Revolution Paris, where he is the talk of the town and things get even crazier. He starts wearing lilac magicians' robes and such. In Paris,he was very popular, and once again he was hounded down by the medical establishment. Here is where we take the story into the question of the unconscious. His therapies had real effects. They produced real changes in people and the medical establishment could not deny the evidence of healing. So the Paris commission which lambasted him was given the problem, "How do I explain what is going on? Obviously, he is producing effects that actually heal people. But we can't fit his paradigm into ours, so how do we explain it?"
What did they do? They chalked it up to the imagination . Given a certain psychoanalytic definition of the imagination, this is true. We can see this now. What Mesmer was doing in a psychoanalytic context was that he was exploiting the mechanisms of hypnotism and suggestion, manipulating the effects that powerfully charismatic people can have on people who are willing to let themselves be controlled. In that sense, animal magnetism is imaginative. But it is interesting if you think about it: they think it is the imagination, yet it produced effects and healed people. Why would you not then pursue this imagination? But that wouldn't fit into the paradigms of Enlightenment medicine at that time, so it is brushed off. One of the things that I am trying to emphasize is that we can't ever really completely detach the imagination from the real. Even if the imagination is something we can never quite define and as a conceptual idea or psychological category remains very problematic (which is certainly true in aesthetics), nonetheless, the role of the imaginal in healing and in the health of the body always carries on. We see this same battle being played out today over questions of alternative medicine.
Luckily, Mesmer's students didn't really care about the paradigm police and they kept on exploring his techniques further. The great change that happens here is that they stopped emphasizing Mesmer's Reichian exuberance and they started to "mesmerize" people in the sense of bringing them into what we would call a hypnotic state. In fact, it was one of Mesmer's students first realized that the "magnetizer's" will had a tremendous role to play in the cure, along with the self-belief of the person being magnetized. In this sense, animal magnetism was not at all mechanistic.
So, already in the early 19th century they were discovering the psychoanalytic language of hypnotism and transference. It was still a couple of decades before the word 'hypnotism" was actually used by the British doctor Braid to describe this phenomenon. Braid was on the fence: the mesmerers thought he was a bit too establishment, the establishment thought he was kooky. In any case, 19th-century mesmerists started to use their hypnotic trances to basically do psychoanalysis, or to explore the strange new continent of the unconscious. What happens when we put someone in a situation where rational will is not functioning at all, and yet all sorts of intelligent things happen? What is going on there? What is interesting is that we have kind of forgotten about that. We seem to think that the procedural aspect of probing someone's unconscious, or what goes on in the mind when the will falls asleep, begins with Freud. But throughout the 19th century,there is a tremendous amount of folks in America and Europe exploring these things very methodically, charting them and writing them down. The magnetic paradigm opens up the unconscious in all its uncanny and spectral power.
In fact, it is this tradition that Freud took advantage of when he was developing his early theories of the unconscious. While we usually think of Freud relying heavily on steam-engine metaphors, he also used electrical metaphors in describing the body-mind. Though by his time, there was very little of Mesmer left in Freud's practices, he did resemble the old magnetizer by attempting to heal nervous conditions of his patients by exploring altered states of consciousness in a scientific manner---that's what we're talking about here---and in exploiting the strange, almost shamanic or occult relationship that can be generated between a patient and doctor. But the great change that psychoanalysis made was that it reduced this communicating property purely to the subject and it removed it to the world at large. For Mesmer and his followers, animal magnetism was property of the world in general, a property that tied our existence into the network of all living things, whereas what happens with psychoanalysis is that those lines are cut off and magnetism is reduced to an aspect of psychic life inside the person. It is removed from the material and social field.
As the 19th century wore on, Mesmerism lost power in Britain and in Europe, but it became a huge hit in America. 19th century America was a festival of weirdness. Anything you could imagine: religious revivals, new cults appearing, a tremendous amount of utopian energy released. The millennium was at hand, and Americans would build a paradisal society. Mesmerism fit right in. At the same time, in a very American turn, Mesmerism also became something of a spectacle, of a sideshow. Just as we are familiar now with the professional hypnotist who goes before a crowd and hypnotizes someone to do something funny and everybody laughs.... that kind of thing was happening back then. At the same time, the more serious researchers were charting altered states of consciousness. If you are familiar with the work of Charles Tart or of the other humanist psychologists who emerged around in the 1960's, they said, "Look. Wherever we think they are coming from and however much mystical garbage is attached to them, there are altered states of consciousness and we can figure out procedural ways to produce them and to map them. To deny that is both anti-scientific in terms of trying to capture what is going on and it is also somewhat dangerous because the people who do realize that those things are real can manipulate them."
So American mesmerists were trying to chart altered states of consciousness within a scientific frame of mind, but in so doing, they came across strange things like clairvoyance or the appearance of telepathy between the magnetizer and the person being magnetized -- phenomenon which even Freud acknowleged initially but were subseqently squeezed from the accounts of hypnotism. I am not making any scientific claims about the reality of these things, but I do think that telepathy is valid as a procedural metaphor for certain kinds of communication, and in that sense it is a metaphor that continues to tug at us. Just as Upton Sinclair wrote "Mental Radio" in the early twentieth century (a book about telepathy that Einstein furnished an introduction to), you can look at a lot of our media technologies or communication technologies today as being driven by the unconscious desire to achieve something like telepathy, not in a mystic sense, but just as an active quality of immediate, realtime, incorporeal communication.
Along with telepathy,19th century mesmerists discovered a variety of altered states. Some start getting cosmic waves of energy, or states that resembled the kinds of plateaus that hardcore meditators or serious mystics describe. But the mesmerists were operating under the aegis of rationalism, doing psychoanalysis before the name. In a sense, their work became less about healing the body, and more about exploring the strange dimensions of mind. Mesmerism thus introduced a hands-on craft of introspection, a pragmatic tactics of generating altered states of consciousness that could be reframed in a language divorced from mysticism. The mesmerists wanted to say, "No. This is something scientific."
And they used quasi-electromagnetic explanations to justify what they were doing, to give it scientific legitimacy. Throughout the history of modern civilization, we always find people who are trying to deal with phenomena which don't quite fit the basic materialist worldview, and yet they do so along the edge of materialist explanations. And so you chalk up occult phenomenon to the ether, to the invisible material that occupies space and communicates not only magnetism and the tidal forces but also mental images, the material of the imagination.
The telegraph directly links this magnetic imaginary to information technology. Before the telegraph, the idea of communicating through electricity doesn't exist. Because this transformation of electrical energy into information is so revolutionary, it's vitally important to look at the cultural resonance of the telegraph, the kinds of subjectivities it suggests. The first message that was sent was 1847 from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. was, "What hath God wrought" What God wrought, or what man wrought in his god-aping mode, was the information age.
We pride ourselves on being digital these days, as if 20 years ago the digital barely existed and now we are conquering the old world of analog signals with digital codes. But it is important to remember that the telegraph is digital. The electricity that is running along the telegraph cable is analog, but by alternately rupturing and re-establishing current flow, you are turning that medium into a code. By organizing those breaks and flows into a code---and there were a number of different codes before the Morse code---you were able to chop up the vital energy into bits that we then use to communicate. Right away, we have the space-shrinking ability of instantaneous communication across long realms of distance. The first step towards this incredible shrinking implosion that we are now familiar with across the globe starts here. It rapidly spreads. Within a decade, there were already 30,000 miles of wire across the United States, and a little bit later we had the trans-Atlantic cable. Along with this----and this is something important to keep in mind when we listen to our contemporary Internet hypesters---this new invention is immediately the site of utopian hype.
There is this great quotation---it's perfect---from a congressman trying to convince his fellows to give Morse start-up money. Of course, the fellow in question has already secretly invested in Morse's operation (so already we have the logic of information power-mongering going on). Here is his quotation:
"The influence of this invention of the political, social and commercial relations of the people of this widely extended country will of itself amount to a revolution unsurpassed in world range by any discover that has been made in the arts and sciences. Space will be, to all practical purposes of information, annihilated between the states of the Union and also between the individual citizens thereof."
Strikingly familiar rhetoric, one which comes up again and again. Almost every new electronic media that is developed after the telegraph resurges this same utopian dream, as if shrinking to one point is a great thing. Then there is the language of revolution, the language of a millennial paradise. This is a crucial aspect of the electromagnetic imaginary---but here I am more interested in its occult or animist dimensions. McLuhan, for one, saw everything beginning right here with the telegraph. The telegraph lends an organic quality to civilization, and the metaphor of the organic does not begin with McLuhan. As early as 1873, we find the president of Western Union calling the telegraph "the nervous system of the commercial system." Today, we see these organic metaphors in a rather insidious way, particularly the idea that you find in the Wired universe that technology is an organic force that is going through a Darwinian evolution. The force of natural evaluation is now somehow merged with our technosphere, and now all we have to do is let these new creatures emerge. The organic or vitalist rhetoric of the information age is very prevalent amongstWired people and the odder scientists who work with artificial life and neural networks. There are a lot of very problematic aspects to this rhetoric which we can maybe bring up in questions. But again what I want to talk about is the occult reaction to this tremendous event.
A few years after Morse's first cable was strung up, two sisters in upstate New York invented a necromantic information exchange. The Fox sisters started hearing creepy knocks and sounds in their house. This phenomenon is familiar to those of you who like to while away the hours reading Charles Fort. We usually call them poltergeists. But the Fox sisters did something unique and unprecedented---they decided to communicate back to the noisy spirits. They developed a code of knocks that enabled them to start digitally responding and communicating with the entity that haunted their abode.
Now, I am not making any claims about the reality of these spirits. In fact, the Fox sisters wavered throughout their lives about whether or not they were faking it. But that is not important, because what their little occult adventure did was spark Spiritualism, which was one of the most remarkable religious phenomena of the 19th century, especially in terms of its popularity and its ability to penetrate the upper echelons of society. Spiritualism is basically a modern religion of mediumship, whose main ritual was the seance. People would sit around a circular table in the dark and a medium would channel ghosts. The table might levitate and you might hear rappings or the medium might speak with the voices of the dead. Spiritualism was enormously popular. By the 1870's, there were 11 million spiritualists in the US, and it spread all over the world, especially among the upper classes and, most oddly, among certain scientists.
What I would like to emphasize is the way that the technical question of communication is bound up with the occult imagination. How do we communicate with these spirits that seem to inhabit altered states of consciousness? The Spiritualists derived all sorts of gadgets and weird devices: various slates, different kinds of complex codes and ouija board-like things which would allow folks to reconfigure the occult unconscious or the imagination with the paradigms of the information age. That is the connection that I am trying to make, and its most important aspect was the communication between the living and the dead. It brings up another notion that McLuhan had. McLuhan held that the communications unleashed by electricity "outers" the human nervous system, unfolding the subject into an electromagnetic collective. As he put it,
"To put ones nerves outside is to initiate a situation, if not a concept, of dread."
This dread is, of course, what religion really speaks to, particularly as it relates to the limits of identity and the question of death. Spiritualism, in comparison with conventional religion, was extremely materialistic. It believed that its phenomena were scientifically verifiable, and that there was nothing mystical about what they were doing. Yet the religion became a way for a world that was rationalizing its means of communication to deal with the dread that was produced by the sudden fact of being able to "outer" the self instantaneously across electric wires and, later, through the electromagnetic spectrum.
Although there are obvious limits to this kind of approach, I do think that McLuhan was essentially right in his intuition that the electrical or the electronic universe creates profound instabilities and changes and the qualities that we associate with the subject, or the unconscious. These instabilities and ambiguities, which often manifest as the uncanny, are clustered around our technologies whether we want them there or not, where they appear in all sorts of cultural, sociological and even political ways.
It is important to emphasize that Spiritualism conceived of mediumship as a kind of psychic telegraph. One of the most popular newspapers it had was called "The Spiritual Telegraph". One of the earliest interrogators of these spirits said,
"The spirits chiefly concerned in this telegraph were philosophic and scientific minds. Many of them had made the study of electricity and other imponderables a specialty in their earth life."
This is also familiar to us because it sound a lot like New Age material, as well it should. New Age channeling is basically just a modern form of Spiritualism, although instead of communicating with the dead, New Agers communicate with other kinds of beings that are operating in other spheres. The word "channel" emerges only after the notion of a channel that we can tune into saturates the popular imagination.
To make even more connections with the New Age, one might note that the records of Spiritualist seances are notable for their mind-numbing banality. They are incredibly tedious. There is very little attempt to even gesture towards imaginative cosmologies, or mystical truths, or teachings that actually help people to balance their lives---the more positive aspects of religious or mystical movements. You just find a tremendous amount of spew, what Emerson called "the rat-hole of revelation." You also find the same ideas we have today, that right around the corner we the millennium will dawn. In just a few years, everything will change: society will suddenly improve, new inventions will emerge that will allow us to overcome war, alleviate hunger, etc.
So, while we read these things and recognize that they are incredibly banal and tedious, what is interesting about them is that they reflect the millennialism that is driving the development of a lot of these technologies. As I pointed to earlier, the congressman who helped create the hype around the telegraph insisted that the technology was going to help us change the world, and revolutionize commerce and society. That millennial dream has stuck with us until now, almost as if it were constantly pushing the enveloped of existing technological frameworks. At bottom, it is a lie. At bottom, it is a way to justify the creation of a certain order of power and communication that are immediately coopted for the most part by the powers that be. But it is a lie that is not (how should we say it?) a purely cynical myth. It is something that draws off a pervasive recurrent motive in the imagination, a motive that emerges precisely because of the kinds of connections I am drawing here, in the sense that it emerges from people as well as from the manipulators of ideology. We see that with the material you have Spiritualists and the material you have with New Agers.
I want to make one more point about the connection between the occult and science. One thing that happens in the late 19th century---when so much technology was developed, when "science" achieved its modern form---is that the new experts and elites were charged with the problem of communicating the new explanatory regime to ordinary people, of making people excited, and of lending themselves power. And so you had the spectacular phenomenon of public demonstrations. You would have the electricians working in their labs who would come up with something, and they would go out to the public and they would create a spectacle to demonstrate the great power that these new technologies had. They knew that these imaginal ideas were lurking in the masses' minds and they completely exploited the language of the occult and the performance of the occult in order to get across their non-occult technologies. Here is an example from a finale of a Boston lecture given by representatives of the Edison company in 1887:
"Bells rungs. Drums beat. Noises natural and unnatural were heard. A cabinet revolved and flash fired. A row of departed skulls came into view."
When Nikola Tesla went on these public demonstrations, he would finish his gig by saturating himself with thousands of volts of electricity. He would sit there with flames flashing out of his fingers, and speak mysteriously through the electric gloom. Justifying this exploitation of the popular imagination, one could say that of course these things are the very opposite of the occult, that we can describe them rationally, and that they are very pragmatic.
That is all true, but such an approach denies the way that science and technology operate within a much larger cultural context. Within this larger context, occult and mystical ideas became a mask of power, one which paradoxically redeploys the mystifying tendencies of occult charlatans in a new language. Part of what these public demonstrations were doing was to capture the magical imagination and then reappropriate its power for the elite, saying in effect, "We are actually the only ones how have the power. All those other people are charlatans and kooks. We are they ones you can rely on."
You see this very much in imperialism, when Western powers usde technology as a way to show the natives that invaders had better magic. Once they were so convined, then the West can put the lock on, and draw these cultures into the rationalist capitalist grid. In her book "The Telephon Book", Avital Ronell writes that, "Science acquires its staying power from a sustained struggle to keep down the demons of the supernatural with whose visions it constantly competes."
To this day, the occult remains science's tawdry twin, a shadowy fusion of popular perceptions and anomalous phenomena that continue to evade the grid of scientific explanations. You find this shadow falling across the history of every new technology that comes along: daguerreotypes, phonographs, the telephone, the radio. Every time they emerge, these kinds of spectral figures emerge. You have the same sorts of myths, the same sorts of reports of strange voices, disembodied intelligences, even of extraterrestrial signals.
One of the examples of this spectral return is the telephone. Again, the telephone is one of these technologies that we are completely used to. There is apparently nothing magical about the telephone. It is utterly banal. But if you think about it, the phone is the ultimate animist technology. When they demonstrated the telephone in its very first days to Dom Pedro, the emperor of Brazil, he saw the thing and said, "My God. It talks!"
What's important is that IT talks. It is not that a person talks through it, because in a certain sense you are channeling your voice through a wire when you are speaking. From the perspective of the cultural imagination, the telephone is another instance of the connection between communication at a distance and the electromagnetic imagination. It produces an occult overspill, if you will. Does it talk or do we talk through it? Are those vibrations us or are they, in a sense, ghosts of ourselves or doppelgangers? That is again the uncanny that creeps in. When you wake up with the phone ringing in the middle of the night, there is a kind of spectral horror more profound than simply the fact of a loud noise. It is the feeling that I am getting a message, but that I am not who I normally am, because I am swathed in darkness and dream. Crank callers also exploit the telephone's uncanny powers. If you have ever been harassed continually by people who don't speak up on the phone, this can very quickly lead into all sorts of paranoid and disturbing feelings. You are constantly picking up the receiver and NO ONE IS THERE, a very spectral absence.
One of the funniest questions is---and this is a just sort of sidelight about the question of how these technologies produce all sorts of ambiguities in identity---what kind of message do you leave on your answering machine? "Hi. I'm not here right now," or "John Doe is not here right now, please leave a message for him." Almost any way you formulate it, there is some kind of lie. And the lie shows the way that we are externalized in our machines, even though we pretend we are not. We like to think when we are talking on the phone: we are here and they are there. But we are actually leaving little traces of ourselves all over the place. We don't need to invoke the occult or the imaginal in order to address these situations. But what I am saying is that the occult reaction occurs because it is an imaginal symptom of these technological mutations in identity.
Electrical and electronic media fire up pre-modern or magical perceptions by technologically stretching the boundaries of the self. These perceptions then become routinized, commercialized, and swallowed up as business as usual. But you can still tune in to these perceptions by looking in the margins of culture and at history, where you will find powerful metaphysical motifs woven into the mundane or secular phenomena of technological life.
A great example of this weaving is paranoia, the whole tremendous 20th century mythos of paranoia and surveillance. Obviously, state institutions throughout the century have used and exercised their power through surveillance technology. It is very real. And yet the mere possibility that unknown and unseen forces are tapping and bugging your line is enough to really ruin your psychological state. That possibility, that dread, is a secular trace of the dark side of the magnetizer. From the beginning, the whole idea of the magnetizer is: "I can stare at you in your eyes, and waving my hands, I can draw up something in you that you have no control over. In fact, I may be able to control you to do things that you don't want to do."
This is an ancient demonic motif, and yet we find its secular myth recontextualized and re-crystallized in the stories of paranoia and mind control, some of which are, of course, very true. It is not a matter of truth or not truth, or of myth and reality. It is the way that power exercises itself in a mediumthat always also includes the imaginal. There is no way for us to get outside of that entirely because there is always that possibility. That is the hook. Of course, the schizophrenic motifs that I talked about earlier are the most extreme forms of this parnoid mesmeric trace. People are using transistor radios or TVs to control me or to make me kill people, or the aliens have stuck implants in my neck. Again, I mentioned earlier the example of the man who approached Thomas Watson in 1870, claiming that two New Yorkers connected his brain to a telephone and they were telling him to kill people.
Such unpleasant convictions now are couched in stories of KGB agents, spies, extraterrestrial probes, or CIA mind-control experiments. These are secular mythologies appropriate for the mutations of the self introduced by electric technologies. At the same time, the basic scenario is thoroughly occult, a scenario that enters the imaginary with the figure of Mesmer. As the historian of hermeticism Joscelyn Godwin writes,
"Animal magnetism is of the essence of occult conspiracy theory which hinges on the possibility of deliberate action at a distance and the implanting of ideas in people's minds."
For Mesmer, this connection was not just linked to the individual psyche but pervaded the entire field of the world. To understand that we have to recognize the pervasiveness, the almost totalizing nature of the paranoid worldview, a paranoia that, I would like to add, also seeps into the more extreme theoretical critiques of the spectacle and the information society. Again, I would like to end up with another McLuhan quote. He gets a lot of shit because he made a lot of mistakes and said a lot of goofy things. But we are wrong to imagine him as a naïïve utopian. If you read closely, if you read between the lines, and if read specifically, he is actually very dark much of the time about the world he glimpsed through his speculative images. Here is the glimpse I will wind up with:
"As our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. Unless we are aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of drums, total interdependence and superimposed co-existence. Terror is the normal state of any oral society [which he thought electricity us bringing us back to], for in it, everything affects everything all the time."