- They’re Here, They’re Everywhere
Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media confirms a familiar suspicion. There is something lurking within the electronic devices that surround us: something more than just organized electrical impulses, something just beyond the range of our perception, something we can feel, hear, see, and even speak to.
Sconce’s thesis is relatively straightforward. Telecommunications technology is often perceived as possessing some strange sort of magic, some indescribable “presence” that turns it into a potent incubator for a host of metaphysical, philosophical, or spiritual narratives and fantasies. Such a notion is, as Sconce argues, a social construct that is as much a product of historical and cultural contexts as it is of the sometimes “uncanny” characteristics of the technology itself. The key aim of Haunted Media is to perform what Sconce terms a cultural history of electronic presence in an effort to better understand the fantasies and fictions with which it has become associated. In this respect Sconce is in familiar company. Works by authors such as Sadie Plant, Margaret Wertheim, and Erik Davis also attempt to locate present trends in telecommunications technology within a larger framework of the history of spirituality and superstition. Yet where Sconce’s approach is markedly different is in the precision of his historical comparison. Haunted Media does not reach back to the writings of Hermes Trismegistus or the rituals of medieval monks in an effort to probe our cultural fantasies about technology. Instead, he focuses on the relatively short period between the inception of the telegraph and contemporary digital technology, and he limits his discussion to the specific narratives, rituals, and conceptions generated by the electronic age. His narrative is thus much less grand than those of similar historians—a characteristic that, as I shall discuss below, makes Haunted Media a unique and important work.
Sconce is driven by a nagging question: “why after 150 years of electronic communication, do we still so often ascribe mystical powers to what are ultimately very material technologies?” (6). In responding to such a question, Sconce takes the reader through a remarkable and amusing set of historical materials. The telegraph, the radio, the television, and the computer have all generated a host of cultural fantasies, which, as Sconce documents, are as consistent as they are strange. Yet such consistency should not be taken as a kind of “transcendent essence” or grand narrative of communications technology, but rather as “the product of a series of historically specific intersections of technological, industrial and cultural practices” (199). Haunted Media is thus organized around the exploration of such intersections, beginning with the primitive pulses of the first telegraph and ending with current developments in digital communications technology.
For Sconce there are “three recurring fictions or stories” and “five distinct moments in the popular history of electronic presence” that need to be considered (8). The first of these stories is about disembodiment that allows the communicating subject “the ability, real or imagined, to leave the body and transport his or her consciousness to a distant destination” (9).The second and closely related fiction tells of a sovereign electronic world that is somehow beyond the material realm that we mortals live in. A cast of androids and cyborgs inhabits the third fiction, which addresses the anthropomorphizing of media technology. These three stories, Sconce asserts, have been told countless times during the last 150 years. Yet, as Sconce is quick to emphasize, it is the discontinuities that matter more than the supposed similarities. “Tales of paranormal media are important, then, not as timeless expressions of some undying electronic superstition but as a permeable language in which to express a culture’s changing social relationship to a historical sequence of technologies” (10).
Such a “permeable language” is at work in the five “moments” that Sconce details in his book’s five chapters. The first of these moments revolves around the development of the telegraph during the nineteenth century and the manner in which it is closely associated with the rise and methods of the Spiritualist movement. Indeed, for Sconce the telegraph spawned the “media...