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)