- The Machine and the Ghost: Technology and Spiritualism in Nineteenth- to Twenty-First-Century Art and Culture ed. by Sas Mays and Neil Matheson
The product of a seminar series and conference at the University of Westminster, this volume is the latest scholarly mining of what has become a surprisingly fertile subject: the intersection of media technologies with the paranormal or occult. Critics working in this area often focus on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which saw the invention of several communication and recording technologies concurrently with the popular diffusion of modern spiritualism. While Sas Mays and Neil Matheson’s collection does look back to this originating period, it also looks forward to the present century. In the process, it points to compelling consistencies—or historically important differences—in the way we think about magic, haunting, machinery, and technology (the latter in the broad sense of technē: a technique or precept as a means of making or accomplishing). Also, in an intriguing move, this volume treats overlaps between the technology and the occult as more than just comparative or metaphorical. Instead, the essays shine a light on magic’s material and mediating practices, or what the editors call its “technological effectuation” (p. 2). More specifically, most of the essays address technological effectuation within the realm of art: how mechanical or other methods for disclosing (other)worldly truths dovetail with aesthetic modes of representation and perception.
While Aura Satz’s essay concerns haptic and acoustic technologies, the experience of the occult has been especially bound up with photography and visual media, as several essays attest. Leigh Wilson likens Edwardian spirit photography to Dada photomontage, claiming that both proffer a magic that works through—rather than transcending—materiality. Matheson suggests that mediums and their researchers performed ghostly displays directly for the camera, as shows of evidence, and that the camera thus inevitably shaped their productions. Ben Burbridge examines recent exhibitions that juxtapose early spirit photographs with contemporary art photography; these exhibitions “self-reflexive[ly]” indicate changing perspectives, [End Page 286] across the centuries, on the possibility of capturing images of the ghostly (p. 170).
Another chapter features Alexandra Kokoli’s interview with contemporary artist Susan Hiller, whose projects include a trove of internet images of auras and levitations. More satisfying, though, are the book’s other two interviews, Dan Smith’s with writer and critic Marina Warner and Roger Luckhurst’s with contemporary artist Suzanne Treister. These do a better job of initially orienting the reader, as well as offer more amenable interview subjects and therefore more fruitful conversations. Like Wilson’s argument about Dada, Treister’s discussion of her projects—which have involved a website, computer animations, and a time-traveling avatar—suggests that avant-garde and experimental art has often evoked the super-normal or the edge of the unknown.
Another powerful insight in this collection is that while we tend to distinguish the occult, magical, or irrational from the scientific, technological, and rational, Victorian (and later) artists and thinkers constantly complicate that distinction. Justin Sausman proposes that Henri Bergson and psychical researchers were mutually beneficial, not only because Bergson’s élan vital served as a technology for explaining psychical action, but also because, for all psychical research’s positivistic bent, both it and vitalism challenged a “purified form of science” (p. 26). As many essays here imply, modernity and its variety of technē—no matter how rational we may imagine them to be—often truck with the irrational, or are futile in their attempts to expel it. The interview with Treister, for instance, highlights the U.S. military’s ongoing research into paranormal possibilities, and Mays’s and Charlie Gere’s essays draw on Jacques Derrida’s theories about the specters haunting modern taxonomies and environments.
There is at least one notable paratextual error here: the contributor’s note for Kokoli recognizably shades off into a profile of the work of Tatiana Kontou (not a contributor to...