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…

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.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search