Natural and Supernatural

The next seminar session (May 7th) will address the way the imaginary of media technologies is connected to supernatural and occult beliefs. In particular, we will focus on the relationship between the introduction of telegraphy and the rise of the spiritualism movement in the middle nineteenth century, a topic explored by Jeffrey Sconce in this week’s required reading, which you should download through Ilias. This is a very well-written and fascinating piece, I hope you will enjoy it.

Additionally, we will look at spiritualism’s use of the photographic medium. This could also be the topic of one of your presentation and/or essay; if interested, you can start by reading an article I published on this topic, which you can download at this link.

But what does the word “supernatural” mean? In the Merrian-Webster dictionary, the supernatural is defined as 1) “something relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe”; 2) “something which departs from what is usual or normal especially so as to transcend the laws of nature”; 3) “something attributed to an invisible agency (a ghost or a spirit).”

Believers in the supernatural, however, often challenged similar definitions. In particular, spiritualists and parapsychologists frequently claimed that phenomena such as spirit manifestations or telepathy were as “natural” as other observable phenomena: their only peculiarity was that their existence had not yet been fully acknowledged by official science. Thus, as they attempted to demonstrate that it was possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead, spiritualists explicitly refused to employ the notion of supernatural. They argued that spirit communication was instead a natural phenomenon, and that spiritualism was to be considered the first “scientific religion.”

For this reason, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, psychical research was extraordinarily receptive to the wonders of modern technology. New discoveries and inventions were often regarded by spiritualists and parapsychologists as further evidence of the most common argument of end-of-the-century psychical research: that, to use the words of Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, “there are things done today in electrical science which would have been deemed unholy by the very men who discovered electricity— who would themselves not so long before have been burned as wizards”. If transatlantic telegraphy, electrical lightning, or airplanes were believed impossible just a few years before their invention, then, reasoned the supporters of psychical research, why could not phenomena such as clairvoyance, telepathy, and spirit communication be the scientific discoveries of tomorrow?

This was, of course, their argument. In our seminar, we will look at this topic with a little bit more of detachment. Exploring the history of the supernatural will hopefully help us to gain some clues about the way media technologies have been represented and imagined since the invention of the electric telegraph.

A nineteenth-century illustration of a spiritualist séance (copyright expired)

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