A Little Idea for Our Last Session (July 9th)

On July 9th, there will be the last session of our course. It will be full Summer, most of you won’t have much energy left after this semester. So, I think it would be nice to make something different and entertaining.

The topic of the 9th July session is “New media and the imaginary.” So why don’t we discuss new media starting with our own experience with them?

I propose that some of you bring their media devices: smart phones, tablets, e-Readers, and everything else which is technological and you use in your daily life, or you use sometimes. We will see them together, we will discuss how we use them, what we like of them, what we don’t like, how they are changing our life (are they?), and so on.

I will bring my own little contribution by bringing in class my beloved Kindle. In the last years, I moved several times to different countries: from Italy to Canada, from Canada to Germany… My “old” paper books are now lost in all these places. Most of them are in my brother’s basement in Torino, waiting for someone to read them. So I really came to appreciate this device which allows me to bring my (e)books everywhere quite easily.

It would be great to have also your contribution in this, in order to see different smartphones and tablets, perhaps to find out if Siri actually works, and to play a bit with technology and with our ideas and expectations about it.

Could you contribute to this? Do you have something that you would like bring in class for us to see it?

Please post below in the comments if you can bring something!

If Cinema Dreams Television…

Next session of our seminar will be dedicated to popular fantasies on television. We will have a guest speaker, Sven Pötting, who is an expert of contemporary cinema, with a particular emphasis on Latin American movie culture.

After having discussed the required text, a chapter from Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media, Sven and I will show you some scenes from recent movies. We will discuss the representation of television in these films, and Sven will help us to frame them in the recent history of film.

Why do we use cinema to talk about television? In The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), Paul Young has showed that cinema, throughout its history, frequently provided fictional representations of other media (in Young’s words, cinema’s “rivals”). Some examples of these “media fantasies” spelled out by movies are those that we have seen in the last sessions, such as the representations of wireless in Scanners and The Fog, which we discussed last Monday.

Of all media technologies, television has perhaps been the one which has been most often represented in movies produced during the last fifty years. Such frequency is perhaps due to the fact that television, and later home videos, in a certain sense cannibalized cinema, providing an attractive opportunity for domestic entertainment that had a strong impact in the reduction of the number of spectators in cinemas. TV has been, in this sense, cinema’s greatest rival, and the ubiquity of TV in our domestic environments and in everyday life has been documented by some of the greatest film directors of our time. As we will see, the portrait of TV given by cinema has often been quite compelling, underlining the addictive power of television through references to drug consumptions, such as in Requiem for a Dream, one of the movies we will discuss together; or emphasizing the individual meanings given by spectators to TV programs and stars, which are often connected to personal dreams of fame and social promotion.

More on Monday…

Telepathy and Wireless

In the next seminar session (June 4th), titled “Wireless and Telepathy,” we will address the relationship between theories on telepathic communication and media technologies. We will see how technologies such as wireless, telegraphy, the telephone, and the computer were frequently connected to a recurring fantasy: the idea that it would be possible to communicate through the use of our brain only (called “thought transference” or “telepathy”). The required text, to be downloaded through ILIAS, is Anthony Enns’ article Psychic Radio: Sound Technologies, Ether Bodies and Spiritual Vibrations.

The main subject of our attention will be wireless telegraphy, which -since its introduction at the end of the nineteenth century- was very often compared to telepathy.

But on which grounds was this analogy between telepathy and wireless based?

Let’s start by seeing how wireless telegraphy (and what we today know as radio) works. Simply put, a wireless telegraph is a device that can both detect and product electromagnetic waves (radio waves). Electromagnetic waves ravel through space, and can be sent and detected at great distance, allowing the possibility for communication at distance without wires. While early wireless telegraphs were not able to transmit sound, but worked through simple messages elaborated, as in telegraphy, in the Morse code, later techniques were developed to use electromagnetic waves to transmit more complex messages, including sound and the human voice. This was the requisite for the development, since the late 1910s, of radio broadcasting.

Of fundamental importance in this process is the transformation from the message (either in Morse code or as sound) to the electromagnetic waves to be sent, and the complementary process by which the receiver re-transforms the electromagnetic waves in a meaningful message. This process of transformation of the impulses into messages is of central importance to all electric communications media, including telegraphy, the telephone, television, and so on.

How does the functioning of wireless technology, then, was compared to telepathy? Since the end of the nineteenth century, in psychical research and parapsychology (but often also through the contribution of reputable scholars from the “official” science), many started to believe that while we think our brains, similarly to a wireless device, produce electromagnetic waves. In this perspective, if a brain would be able to detect these waves, and transform them to meaningful information, then the process of telepathy could be explained as something similar to the functioning of wireless telegraphy.

After the invention of wireless telegraphy, then, many hoped to find an evidence of telepathy by studying electromagnetic waves and wireless technologies. Like other scientific and technological discoveries of the time, such as the X rays, wireless was used as a way to gain the scientific recognition that psychical researchers and believers in telepathy and other occult phenomena so desperately needed.

Provisional Plan for the Presentation Sessions

Here is a provisional plan for the presentation sessions of our seminar, which will take place on June 25th, July 2nd, and July 9th. Surnames have been removed for privacy reasons.

First Session
June 18th, 2012

Group 5: Rachel M., Nora G., Sebastian K., Melina L.
Title (provisional): Dystopian and Utopian Fantasies about the Internet
Type of presentation: “free” option (presentation of film excerpts)
Time: 1 hour – 40 min. for the presentations, 20 min. for discussion and questions

Second Session
June 25th, 2012

Group 1: Eshema K., Simone J., Laura F.
Title (provisional): Videodrome/Marshall McLuhan/Fantasy
Type of presentation: to be decided
Time: 45 min. – 30 min. for the presentations, 15 for discussion and questions

Group 2. Zeynep A., Carolin S., Eugenie R.
Title: to be given
Type of presentation: to be decided
Time: 45 min. – 30 min. for the presentations, 15 for discussion and questions

Third Session
July 2nd, 2012

Group 3: Sofia C., Lucia B.
Title: to be given
Type of presentation: to be decided
Time: 30 min. – 20 min. for the presentations, 10 min. for discussion and questions

Group 4: Julia B., Alexander A.
Title (provisional): Fictional and Non-Fictional Dystopias in the Media
Type of presentation: Prezi
Time: 30 min. – 20 min. for the presentations, 10 min. for discussion and questions

Group 6: Georgi D., Hristiyan C.
Title (Provisional): Spiritualism and media
Type of presentation: Blog posts
Time: 30 min. – 15-20. min. for discussion and questions on the blog posts

Please let me know if there are any errors in the plan by posting a comment below or per email.

You can add comments or further information about your presentation by posting a comment here. We can discuss eventual changes in the plan in class. For advices and questions about your topic and about relevant literature, please send me an email or come to my office hours (every Monday at 4 pm upon registration here).

The Panicking Audiences of Early Film and Radio

The next seminar session will focus on a very particular media fantasy: the story of the “train effect”, according to which the first audiences of Lumière brothers’ cinematograph were so shocked by the spectacle of film to take it for real, panicking before the image of a train coming in their direction. As Martin Loiperdinger documented in this week’s required reading, however, this anecdote was not based on a real event: it is, instead, a pure fantasy, an act of imagination.

Why did this fake anecdote have such a powerful influence in the way we understand the cinematic medium, as the persistence of this story in contemporary film history and press reports demonstrate? In the seminar, we will discuss how the fantasy of the train effect was connected to representations of film as a powerful manipulative machine, which was able to deceive human spectators, to make them exchange an illusion for reality.

To see how this fantasy of deceptive machines was not limited to film, but also had a role in the perception of other media technologies, we will then turn the story of another “panicking audience”: the reaction to Orson Welles’ radio drama “The War of the Worlds,” which in 1938 stimulated a wave of panic in American listeners who believed this was a report about a true invasion of the Martians. Although such reactions are, unlike the anecdote of the train effect, historically documented, the relevance of this anecdote in the history of radio suggests that it is connected to fears and fantasies about the manipulative power of broadcasting.

Let’s conclude with an important practical note: on Monday, before addressing this topic, we will take some time to discuss the organization of the presentation sessions. You will be able to talk to other students, exchange email and contacts, and plan group presentation. Please come with some idea about which kind of presentation you would like to do and a topic you would like to address.

Representations of Death

An interesting topic for a presentation/paper in our seminar could be the cultural representation of death. This often involves media technologies, or is connected to media fantasies.

If you would like to know more about it, I would suggest you start by reading a very interesting book, Philippe Ariès’ Studien zur Geschichte des Todes im Abendland.

Another interesting presentation could be based on some contemporary movies which addressed the topic of death and also feature interesting references to media technologies, such as photography and sound recording. Some titles: The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001), Ghost (1990), The Lovely Bones (2009).

Verba manent

The next session of our seminar will focus on technological fantasies related to sound reproduction media – from the phonograph to more modern versions, such as compact discs or LP records.

The text chosen is a chapter from Canadian scholar Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past. Jonathan Stern, a Canadian media historian who specialized in sound studies, is a very famous and influential scholar in the field of media studies. The text is quite long and relatively complex, so it is all right if you read just part of it. But please try, and ask me questions if you didn’t understood something!

In class, we will not only focus on the nineteenth century, but also on contemporary fantasies about sound media, in order to show the connections between history and the present day.

The key concept I would like to discuss with you is that the fact that it was possible to record sound exercised a powerful fascination on the contemporaries of Edison, the American inventor who introduced the phonograph in 1877. For the first time, it was possible to preserve something which was considered extremely volatile, such as the human voice. “Verba volant, scripta manent” (in English, “spoken words fly away, written words remain”), claims a Latin proverb. After 1877, people had to realize that also “verba” could remain. The resulting fascination for sound recording technologies is still to perceive today, in different forms, in a variety of contemporary fantasies about sound reproduction.

Here you can find some more information on the history of sound recording.

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)

Albert Robida’s Twentieth Century

The next session of our seminar (April 30th) will focus on how science fiction literature and film address technology and therefore create “media fantasies.” The text chosen is an essay written by Vivian Sobchack, a scholar who is doing some excellent work in the fields of media history and film studies. As always, you can download it through Ilias.

After discussing this text, we will focus on different examples of science fiction authors who particularly relied on media technologies in their work. In particular, I would like to bring to your attention the work of Albert Robida, a French writer who was the author in the 1880s of a trilogy of novels who promised to show the reader how the world would have looked like in the twentieth century.

Although less famous than his contemporary Jules Verne, Robida is a particularly interesting example because he was not only a writer, but also a gifted illustrator and caricaturist. His explorations into the future of technology and society was thus accompanied by some inspiring, visionary illustrations. You can give a look to some of these works here. The visualization of Robida’s futurist fiction is particularly interesting if we think it in reference to the impressive visual contents which would have been provided, some years after Robida’s books, by science fiction movies.

Another science fiction writer whose works are very relevant to our discourse is Philip Dick, who is most certainly known to many of you as the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was adapted into a cult film, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But Dick also wrote beautiful novels such as Ubik and Radio Free Albemuth, in which he merged radio waves and other media technologies with beliefs in telepathy and the occult. In this sense, he was certainly one of the most influential authors of “media fiction” in the twentieth century.


Following to our discussion of astrology in connection to prophecies on media and other kinds of predictions, I would like to add a bibliographic reference which could be of interest to those of you who would like to know more about this subject. This is a very interesting and inspiring book by the German media theorist and cultural critic Theodor W. Adorno, titled “The Stars Down to Earth.”

The book was also translated into German. It could be an excellent topic for a presentation and/or final paper (in connection to our discourse on media prophecies, of course), if some of you are interested.

Media Prophecies, Religious Prophecies?

In the next session of our seminar (April 23rd), we will focus on the role of prophecies, forecasts, and predictions in the cultural reception of communications media. The text chosen to address this issue is David Nye’s essay Technological Predictions: A Promethean Problem (please download it through Ilias).

Our examination of media prophecies, however, will start by comparing the predictions made in the realm of technology to those conceived in a rather different context: religion. There might be, in fact, some kind of religious or superstitious framework behind the idea that a visionary science-fiction writer, a technologist, or a “futurologist” is able to grasp the future of the media.

Prophecies have always been part of religious beliefs and practices. In ancient Greece, the Delphic oracle was one of the major sites of religiosity. Also the Romans accorded a relevant role to prophets, practicing a number of techniques to divine the future, such as the inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals or haruspicy. Today, the power to forecast the future is often accorded to spiritualist mediums, psychics, as well as to Christian saints, priests and other religious leaders.

In media history, prophecies and prophets have always been important, too. Inventors such as Thomas Alva Edison, who reportedly predicted the advent of something similar to long-distance telephony as early as 1878, have been regarded as prophetic and visionary. Also, science-fiction writers were frequently appreciated for their ability to foresee the technological world of the future. In 1930, for instance, the American magazine Popular Mechanics accorded to the French writer Jules Verne quasi-messianic powers: “Jules Verne (…) is the major prophet of modern civilization. In the strict sense, he was a scientist as well as a fiction writer. His description of airplanes, submarines, rockets and engines aroused jeers and hoots, and his defence was, ‘Man can achieve what man can imagine’.”

Is, therefore, a “media prophecy” in some way similar to a religious prophecy? Next week, we will try to answer to this question in class. In the meantime, please write below if you have a question, a comment, or a criticism to share.

“Old” and “new” media

The next session of our seminar (April 16th) will examine how the idea of novelty influences the cultural reception of media technology, and how the emergence of “new” technologies stimulates reactions of fear as well as enthusiasm. The text chosen to address this topic is the introduction to a collection of essays titled Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies. Please download it through the ILIAS system of the University of Cologne and be prepared to discuss it in class.

Beside reading this text, however, it is useful to discuss briefly what the contrasting ideas of “old” and “new” mean in the history and in the present of media communications.

Today, we usually regard as “new media” those technologies that are connected to the so-called digital revolution, such as personal computers, internet, smart phones, tablets, e-readers, and so on. However, technologies that we now consider “old,” such as radio, television, or the telephone, were also regarded as a novelty when they were first introduced. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, cinema and wireless telegraphy were new media. In this sense, we should realize that the ideas of “new” and “old” are first and foremost cultural and historical constructions.

Take, for instance, the case of television. When it was initially introduced in Germany, at the beginning of the 1950s, it was heralded by the public and by newspapers as something radically new, a symbol of progress and modernity. However, while the possibility to broadcast both images and sounds was indeed new, less attention was given to the fact that the television reproduced forms and techniques that had been developed by older media. Most of the early TV shows, for instance, replicated quite exactly the genres that had been broadcasted through the radio in the previous decades, or were based on older forms of live entertainment, such as the theater act or the variety show.

In media studies, one of the first authors to realize the importance of the concept of novelty in the history of media is Carolyn Marvin, who wrote in 1990 a book titled When Old Technologies Were New, which examined the introduction of electrical technologies such as the telephone at the end of the nineteenth century. This book is available at our University Library.

If you want to discover something more about the way “new” and “old” media are categorized today, try to google the words new old media.

I look forward to discussing this topic and the text posted on ILIAS with you in class. Please post comments below if you have any questions or comments.

How to Do Your Final Presentation

A final presentation (Referat) is the main requisite for this course.

Your presentations will take place during the last three sessions of this course (25. June, 2. July, 9. July). You will be asked to form groups of 2-4 persons: each group will prepare a presentation together. We can discuss the topic of your presentation during the seminar and in my office hours.

There are four possible options for a group to prepare and give the final presentation. These options, which are different and alternative to “traditional” slide presentations, will hopefully help you to learn new ways to present your work and to be more engaged in the project. Please note that each group has to choose ONLY ONE of these options.

1. Prezi presentation option.
Prezi, the “zooming presentation editor,” is an alternative to PowerPoint and to other traditional presentation software. It is a web-based application (which means that you have to prepare your presentation online and, also, to be connected to the internet when you present it in class). For an introductory article on Prezi, see here. The best way to get started is to watch one of the tutorials that are posted on Prezi website here.
To use Prezi, you have to open your account. The free account has some limitation, but you can upgrade to the Students & Teachers licence for free, just by providing your uni-koeln email. To upgrade to the Students & Teachers licence, select the option on the upper right corner of this page.

2. Poster presentation option.
Although still scarcely used in the humanities, the poster presentation mode is an efficient way to present and visualize your work. If you choose this option, you will be asked to prepare a poster that effectively illustrates your project. In the day of your presentation, the poster will be hanged in class, and you will show and explain its content to me and the other students.

3. Blog presentation option.
Instead to prepare a poster or a Prezi presentation, you might choose to prepare a text that will be posted in this blog. In order to allow you to publish here, I will open an account that will give you access to the publishing functions of this blog (it is very easy to use: I will provide you with all the necessary instructions in due time). Your post should be not shorter than 1,000 words. You will be asked to post your text at least one week before your presentation in class takes place. In class, you will present very briefly your text and then discuss it with me and the other students.

4. “Free” option.
Do you have any other ideas for an original way to give your presentation? You are allowed and encouraged to pursue it. Just send me an email and we will discuss this option.

Welcome Students

This blog will serve as support and discussion forum to the seminar “Technological Fantasies: Media and the Imaginary,” Institut für Medienkultur und Theater, University of Cologne.

Prior to each session, I will post a short presentation of the topic we are going to address. You will be able to comment and ask questions, both before and after class, through the comments tool: I will be happy to answer and react to your suggestions and insights. Please do not forget to sign your comments (you can use just your initials or your first name if you prefer to stay anonymous).

Eventually, you will also be able to post your own texts on this blog, if you wish to do so or if you have chosen this option for your final presentation (see here).