A special dossier
“The Spirit of Media” examines the facts and entities brought into the world by experimental spiritualities of the nineteenth century, with particular attention to the minor media—typesets, letters, accounting techniques, tables, manuals, and cameras—involved in their production.
To understand how spiritualists made productive the absences of modern infrastructure, this essay retraces an actor network of techniques, instruments, media, architectures, and inscriptions enchained by spiritualist phenomena. It revisits the rise of spiritualism in lonely homes of western New York, its technical standardization in urban parlors and theaters, and its refashioning as an object of popular scientific instruction by British scientist Michael Faraday. They all belonged to a shared infrastructural game, structured by comparable moves and affordances, which produced similar kinds of claims about agency, communication, and selfhood.
Since the publication of Ann Braude's Radical Spirits (1989), the modern enchantments of the nineteenth-century occult have often been treated as offering radical possibilities external to a dominant secular order. Drawing on the new discursive approach to secularity advocated by Talal Asad, John Modern, and others, this article argues that modern enchantment is instead a technique of management and discipline within secular modernity. Via the case study of nineteenth-century US animal magnetism, the article argues that mesmeric enchantment was a tool by which those who were modern "already" could manage those who were "still" primitive. US mesmerism, or animal magnetism, was founded by Guadeloupean sugar planter Charles Poyen and his demonstration subject, US textile worker Cynthia Gleason. Educated in the use of mesmerism as a form of enchanted discipline in the hospitals of Paris and on the sugar plantations of Guadeloupe, Poyen presented mesmerism as a means by which workers in the textile factories of New England could be controlled. At the moment of its founding, mesmerism was a gift passed between labor managers. It provided a transmissible technique for controlling primitive souls across the many sites of a globalized economy.
Studying Mormonism in general and Joseph Smith in particular can mess with your mind. Here we have a group of Christians as thoroughgoing as Nietzsche in their repudiation of the Platonic legacy, a nineteenth-century religious movement that embraced metaphysical materialism as a friend rather than an enemy, and a church whose vision of the eternal divinity of procreation earned it opprobrium a century and a half ago for its radicalism (polygamy) as it does today for its conservatism (advocacy of heterosexual marriage). A thinker as capacious as Harold Bloom had trouble deciding if Mormonism was the essence of “the American religion” or “the Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed.” Mormonism is positively electron-like in its ability to morph quantumly before different observers. In the United States today secular liberals tend to regard Mormons at best as nice people with weird ideas (see the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon) or as robotic Republicans (see bafflement at former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s persona). Evangelicals in turn tend to see them as heresiarchs perverting the core tenets of Christian faith with their open canon of scripture, multiple worlds cosmology, and beliefs in potential human divinization and in the embodiment, sexuality and even plurality of God. Historians observe very Mormonisms in different historical periods. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and source of these ideas, is just as subject to a conflict of interpretations. Was he, as various interpreters have urged, a prophet like Moses, a treasure-hunting charlatan, a folk magician or a neo-hermetic magus, an “authentic religious genius” (Bloom), an epileptic or schizophrenic, a practitioner of automatic writing, a frontier telltale mythographer, a power- and sex-crazed despot, a latter-day Mohammad, or a radical critic of all that Christianity and America ever thought they stood for?
In Paris, starting in the month of March 1909, Julien Ochorowicz (1850-1917), codirector of the Institut Général Psychologique de Paris, organized a series of séances to be conducted with Stanislava Tomczyk, a medium whom Ochorowicz had ‘discovered’ in Poland, and whom he had brought to Paris for further study. Tomczyk had already gained a reputation for her telekinetic abilities to levitate small objects, to stop the movement of clocks, and to influence the outcome of a spinning roulette wheel, among other powers that the medium attributed to Little Stasia, a ‘control spirit’ who communicated with and through Tomczyk by means of alphabetic rapping, automatic writing, and direct speech during the medium’s somnambulant states. But this was hardly the first spirit medium to attract both scientific attention and public curiosity; by the time of Tomczyk’s arrival in France, psychic and occult phenomena had been firmly established as objects of legitimate scientific investigation, endorsed by such luminaries as the astronomer, Camille Flammarion, the Nobel Prize winning physiologist, Charles Richet, and his fellow Nobel laureates, the physicists Marie and Paul Curie.1 Ochorowicz’s study of Tomczyk would have merited little more than a few lines in the annals of psychic research had it not been for a dramatic turning point occurring on the 29th of March. On that evening, after a series of unsuccessful séances that had led Ochorowicz to despair at being able to convince his scientific peers of the authenticity of Tomczyk’s powers, the medium announced to Ochorowicz that Little Stasia wished to speak to him.
Unsettled by doubt, we reach for matter: we clutch a tool, pound a table, drive a spike into the earth. We think our grip on something solid will catapult us past uncertainty, deception, delusion. But grasping for solidity often leaves us displaced. The more anxiously we reach, the quicker terra firma recedes. This is the case when we study the “material culture” of matter itself— when historians of science, for instance, inspect devices of observation and inscription in chemistry, physics, or the earth sciences. Though often taken to be more reliable than fugitive perceptions or beliefs, instruments in action are revealed as temperamental links in fragile chains of mediation, riddled with gaps. We see the sustained efforts needed to stabilize phenomena— glass, light, dirt— and the tremendous labor involved in getting people to agree that a given technical set-up speaks reliably for the world. Looking closely at theories of matter leads down even more puzzling detours. Historians of physics gather tracings which reveal vast empty spaces in seemingly solid matter; they chase diagrams marking particles’ oscillation into and out of existence. Treating the molecular structure of metals and crystals, we find patterns of latent motion and force, a molten potentiality at the heart of what appeared firm and inert; we slip into the vortices and eddies of the recurring materialism of Epicurus.
A special dossier
In this, his final public lecture, Professor Friedrich A. Kittler reflects on the future of media studies, the changing state of the German university in the twenty-first century, and the role of students and teachers in handing down knowledge across the generations.
Friedrich Kittler’s farewell words of 15 July 2011, from the original building of the Institute for Cultural History and Theory at Berlin’s Humboldt’s Universitaet, where he had been teaching during the final eighteen years of his academic career, are of course not among his intellectually most important texts. Rather, they belong to those documents whose specific status and relevance depends on the temporal relation to their author’s life dates. Kittler’s death, on 11 October 2011, made the improvised Sophienstraße address his last public statement and thus gave it the aura of a legacy. What he said to his students and a few colleagues on that occasion is a random snapshot, which, due to the posthumously dramatic perspective from which it conjures up his personality for us, has become a monument. As such, as a monument and as a legacy, I want to comment on those few sentences pronounced shortly before the end of his life by one of the dearest and most admired friends from my own German generation of scholars and intellectuals.
On 15 July 2011 the late Professor Friedrich A. Kittler gave his final public lecture. For readers who think of Kittler as the great theorist of modern media technologies, his final remarks may serve as reintroduction—rather than coda—to the writer and his work. Their focus on the problem of education situate Professor Kittler’s interest in media and technology within his larger project of writing the cultural history reading and writing practices from the Ancient Greeks to the present.
The rest of the issue features the following essays . . .
Rooted in anthropocentric projection, the perception that consciousness and advanced thinking necessarily go together has centuries, if not millennia, of tradition behind it. Recently, however, a broad-based reassessment of the limitations of consciousness has led to a correspondingly broad revision of the functions performed by other cognitive capacities and the critical roles they play in human neurological processes. Consciousness occupies a central position in our thinking not because it is the whole of cognition but because it creates the (sometimes fictitious) narratives that make sense of our lives and support basic assumptions about worldly coherence. Cognition, by contrast, is a much broader capacity that extends far beyond consciousness into other neurological brain processes; it is also pervasive in other life forms and complex technical systems. Although the cognitive capacity that exists beyond consciousness goes by various names, I call it nonconscious cognition.
A man wearing a badge – he is a security guard, not a police officer, we quickly realize – sits cross-legged in a parking lot. His hands rest on his knees, as if he were meditating, though he looks distinctly uncomfortable. The video we are watching forms part of Mexican-American artist Yoshua Okón’s Parking Lotus series, in which he asked “security guards around Los Angeles . . . to meditate in the parking lots where they worked.” Okón also created an extensive conceptual architecture for the project, drafting a charter statement for a fictitious “Los Angeles Security Guard Meditation Movement” that claimed to “represent close to 5000 security guards for the purposes of organizing meditation breaks in the parking lots of the areas they are guarding.” The movement’s goals, as Okón describes them, were therapeutic, aiming to help the guards “go beyond their context” and “transcend the ugliness and stress of the parking lots.” In the video installations for Parking Lotus this transcendence is literalized, humorously, in the gradual levitation of the guard, rising up and out of the frame until only the barren “context” of the parking lot remains. But the discomfort on the guard’s face belies his apparent liberation; transcendence seems like something done to the guard rather than an act he performs on himself.
Sometimes a term or phrase becomes so culturally powerful that it dislocates completely from its initial context. The various deformations of “deconstruction” are a case in point. Long after Jacques Derrida, headlines in the New York Times now routinely use-- or misuse--the term: recent examples include “Deconstructing a Demagogue” (on Newt Gingrich), “’Diva’? Deconstructing Pop Images of Black Women” (a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Museum), and “Deconstructing the Perfect Burger” (use a cast-iron pan and an 80-20 ratio of fat to lean). Harold Bloom’s phrase “the anxiety of influence” has enjoyed—or suffered—a similar fate. “Beware of Amish Hitmen and the Anxiety of Influence” offered one headline, a review of a suspense thriller based on a Stephen King novella; a Bard College music program on Wagner and the German Jewish composers Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn seemed appropriately-enough described as “Wagner and the Anxiety of Influence”; but a column on the plea bargain of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff was called “In Washington, the Anxiety of Influence”; and pop culture columnists weighed in with “The Anxiety of Being Influential” (Jay-Z on other rappers rapping about him) and, hilariously “The Anxiety of ‘Influence’” (the Olsen twins on their picture book Influence, their favorite writers, and their conversation with Lauren Hutton about sex)2. If an allegorized “anxiety of influence” were itself to suffer anxiety, it might be because of this seemingly inevitable process of Manuscript deformation. Certainly the phrase has become “influential” in a way quite independent from the book, or the theory, of the same name.