Spiritualism and Telegraphy

The decades around the mid-nineteenth century were a defining period for the introduction of new ways of communication across the globe. It was namely around that time that the telegraph came into being. That was also the time of some new religious concepts, which took significant influence from the electronic media of the time and its brand new means of information exchange. Most notable example for that trend would be Spiritualism, which sprang into existence in the USA, as well as the UK and across Europe around the same time as Morse’s telegraph (1840s).

Based on the possibility of “disembodied” communication across huge distancies presented by the new medium, the reality of telegraph communication shared quite a few common characteristics with the basic concept of spiritualism. According to its main belief, the spirits of the dead continue to exist in a spirit world and have the ability to communicate with the living through mediums capable of establishing a link to the afterlife. These structural and operative similarities with the telegraph did not remain unnoticed by the people representing the “spiritual” medium. Some spiritualist texts and works of fiction of that time included themes of the interconnection and interaction between electromagnetic telegraphy and spiritual communication.

As the public interest into the notion of communicating with dead people grew stronger within the next few decades, Spiritualism tried to distinguish itself from its supernatural, and for that matter supersticious, roots, by giving the world and its followers a logical scientific explanation for its occurences. The scientific knowledge of the period in the fields of physics and especially electromagnetism helped illustrating the mysterious metaphysical phenomenon of spiritualism as a science-based process of communication, that shares a very similar electromagnetic functionality with the telegraph. Around that time there was a strong fascination with electricity and its manner of functioning in general, so it is only logical that Spiritualists would borrow its scientific basis in order to deliver an explanation for their methods of communication with the dead.

Nowadays many scientists agree that there was an important relationship the rise of Spiritualism and the spread of electrically-mediated telecommunication technologies in the nineteenth-century. Research projects are being currently developed, the main focus of which are religious, scientific and popular texts from the 1850s to the 1880s. There are also particular research dimensions of those projects, such as: the role played by telegraph-based telecommunication in the establishment and expansion of Spiritualism; the integration of specific electrical vocabulary and metaphor system within the Spritualist movement (telegraph cables – nerves) as well as other related notions and expressions (conduction, vibration, signal interruption); the practice of using electrical devices within seances in order to establish or demonstrate the connection to the spirit world, as well as to showcase the effects this world has over the bodies of the medium participating in the seance.

The Spiritual Telegraph and the relation between body and electricity in Spiritualism

“We are negative to our guardian spirits; they are positive to us. The whole mystery is illustrated by the workings of the common magnetic telegraph. The principles involved are identical.”
Spiritual scientist

“1. Electric charges attract or repel one another with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them: unlike charges attract, like ones repel.”
One of the four main effects resulting from interaction of positive and negative charges /James Clerk Maxwell in Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, 1873/

The massive spread of spiritualism in the 19th century could be further explained with the differentiation of spiritualism from other old shibboleths concerning spiritual life and mystical beliefs, which made it plausible to a greater number of people.

To gain more legitimacy and attach a wider range of followers, spiritualists bridged the gap between science and spirituality in a manner which connected them. They had a wide interest in electrical phenomena and were even arguing that the emergence of electromagnetic telegraphy is caused by the spirit world. Thus the whole idea of the terrestrial telegraph became a counterpart of the Spiritual Telegraph.

The term of the “Spiritual Telegraph” was widely popular within the Spiritualist circles. It was basically used to describe a device quite similar to the electromagnetic telegraph, only existing in the spirit world. Inspired by the spiritual telegraph was also the notion of a whole system of spiritual telecommunication systems in the afterlife, all of them based on the ideas of telepresence and disembodied electrical contact. Quite popular was also the notion of technological devices that exist in our world and are based on electromagnetic scientific processes. However, most of those projects featured an energy source or basically a part, that didn’t quite exist in reality, which explains why none of those concepts actually came into being.

Nevertheless, many of the spiritualists used the inventions of the late 19th century to explain the work of the new medium and build around the theory of supernatural presence, whose footsteps could be traced to the roots of electromagnetism. Scientists, mesmerists, writers elaborated their theses about the Spiritual Telegraphy describing it mostly in telegraphic terms. For instance, one of the most prominent defenders of spiritualism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the stories about detective Sherlock Holmes.

Spiritualists described electrical current as a form of “universal fluid” and compared its capacity to shrink time and space with the functions of the terrestrial telegraph. The spiritual world was connected to ours through a medium – a person (in most of the cases a woman) capable of transmitting fluid energies that came from beyond through the body’s nervous system and spreading it further. For spiritualists electricity and body were widely interrelated with the latter one often being described in terms of electrical principles such as current and charge, capacity and resistance, circuit and field.

Of course, the notion of the Spiritual Telegraph and spirit communication had its critics from the beginning. Critics of Spiritualism relied on physics, physiology, psychology and anthropology to disprove spiritualistic assertions. Scientists conducted experiments in which they unveiled more of the spiritualistic “findings” as frauds and trickery.  Still, the battle between skeptics and believers wasn’t fair enough – spiritualists used the same tools and branches of science for their conclusions, but had also a wider relation to public because of journalistic sensationalism, gossip, etc.

To sum up, the emergence of the telegraph and the invisibility and intangibility of electrical phenomena opened a “Pandora’s box”, which still can’t be closed. But more about that in the last point: Spiritualism nowadays.

Spiritualism and Science Fiction. Spiritualism nowadays.

Spritualism and Science Fiction  

Spiritualism and its ideas have fascinated the public’s imagination over the course of the last century and a half, even after the movement lost some part of its appeal after the second decade of the nineteenth century. Still its ideas have always taken part in the creation of many fiction stories spanning over a variety of genres. In the third part of our presentation we would like to explore some of these processes.

In its most basic form (communication with ghosts) Spiritualism has been able to give a defining touch to the horror genre as a whole as well as to most of its sub-genres. This trend at first typical for the late 19th and early 20th century’s works of fiction literature has carried on until present day where many books, films and TV-shows feature characters whit the ability to contact the dead or basically the notion of an elaborate spirit world that interrelates with the laws our physical world. Mediums are mostly part of the plots of such works of fiction, however their “powers” are often stretched far beyond the simple ability of communicating with the dead. Mind-reading, clairvoyance, telepathy and telekinesis are some of the most common features that define the profile of the 21st century medium, a.k.a. psychic.

Along with these regular “updates” to the Spiritualism concepts within the works of contemporary fiction there is also a constant process of genre mixing and hybridisation which has often resulted in certain genres borrowing or incorporating elements originally found in other genres. Genre mixing is a very common practice nowadays in Hollywood which is both the result of the changing profile of the contemporary movie and its public and a natural process of genres evolving with time. The latter has been extensively theorized by media scholars such as Stephen Neale.

That seems to be exactly the case with Spiritualism and science fiction. And even if some typical for the religious movement ideas have been steadily finding their way into that genre over the last few decades, the notion of combining science fiction with Spiritualism still seems a bit out-of-the-ordinary.

A good and recent example for how deep the ideas of Spiritualism have actually penetrated the creative minds of science fiction authors would be James Cameron’s latest work, Avatar (2009). While the film’s main function, many would argue, is to raise a huge array of environmental questions, it does also, in the core of its plot, include elements influenced by the ideas of Spiritualism.

The notion of an alien race living in deep connection with the nature that surrounds it, could be compared, in a much broader and evolved sense, to the idea of people being able to contact another world beyond their normal senses. The mediator in the world of Avatar is nature itself and the connection being established incorporates both notions of life and death. An example taken directly from the film’s plot could be the tree-system that bears a huge importance to the indigenous population.

The “Tree of Voices” enables the Na’vi to communicate with their ancestors, which is basically what a medium does within the classical concept of Spiritualism. And what lies beyond that tree would logically be the spirit world of the dead on Pandora. This tree and its ultimate destruction take a central role in the film’s plot.

The “Tree of Souls” is the other important connection portal in the world of Avatar. The communication being established there is to the whole biological network of the planet. This tree also enables the transfer of a consciousness from one body into another as seen in the final moments of the film. It provides a direct connection between all life forms, as well as to the afterlife, which in a broader spectrum, is exactly the basic notion of Spiritualism. Arguably Avatar’s single groundbreaking achievement could very well be the visual recreation and extension upon the notion of the complex “spirit world” that a whole generation of spiritualist authors used to write about in the second half of the 19th century.

Spiritualism nowadays

It may sound like a science-fiction joke, but Spiritualism is still alive and kicking nowadays. Its branch called Spiritism or Kardecism (after the name of Allan Kardec, considered as the father of Spiritism) is wide spreaded in Brazil and according to different sources it has over 2.3 million followers, thus making it the third largest religious group in Brazil, behind Catholics and Evangelicals. Moreover, Spiritism is not restricted only in Brazil – spiritist centers exist all over the world, mostly in Brazli, several countries in South America and Europe.

Allan Kardec introduced to the world in the late 19th century a new branch of Spritiualism, namely the Spiritism. He defined Spiritism as ‘a science which deals with the nature, origin and destiny of Spirits, as well as their relationship with the corporeal world’. Kardec depicted Spiritism as a philosophy and science, but with the time Spiritism shaped itself as religion.

At the root of Spiritism lies a dualistic concept of human being, which supports the notion that spirits are immortal and our body inhabits them for several necessary incarnations, so they can achieve moral and intellectual improvement.

Once again the connection between spirit world and our world is made possible through a medium. One of the main forms of mediumship is the “psychography” – automatic writing by which the medium establishes connection with the spiritual world. Psychographies are written without a conscious awareness of the content.

Spiritists doesn’t have any symbol attached to their religion, nor they have any specific rituals or ceremonies such as wedding, funeral, etc., although they recognize The Old and The New Testament along with the spiritists’ law in the five books written by Allan Kardec. In their meetings they mostly concentrate on the sacred readings and their interpreting, physical and spiritual treatment of believers. They gather in spiritist centres, which are often in a home, thus remaining the domestic character of Spiritualism. In Brazil, for instance, spiritist centres are assembled in unions which are represented by the “Brazilian Spiritist Fedearation”.

Whether Spiritism is going to last long or not is only a matter of time.

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…