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  • Spectral Archives, Weird Sciences, Haunted Data
  • Thomas Sutherland (bio)
Haunted Data: Affect, Transmedia, Weird Science, by Lisa Blackman, London: Bloomsbury, 2019, 256 pages, £21.99 (paperback), ISBN 9781350047051

Numerous communication technologies, such as the telegraph, telephone, photography, phonograph, radio, and film, have at certain moments been viewed as conduits of a spiritual or spectral presence, possessing capacities for extraworldly communication. In her latest book, Haunted Data, a curious, unconventional, and often fascinating transdisciplinary experiment in "speculative psychology," Lisa Blackman revisits this notion to argue that studies into phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, premonition, and precognition, rather than merely being quaint and fanciful remnants of early psychological research (preceding this field's professionalization), might instead bear the traces of heterodox and heteroclitic histories, both human and technological, that were displaced or neglected in the name of supposedly more rigorous, precise, and scientific approaches to the mind, and that these might in turn be helpful in examining the occlusions and blind spots still present within positivistic modes of research.

Blackman uses the example of two prominent scientific scandals, the John Bargh priming controversy and the Daryl Bem "Feeling the Future" controversy, and their postpublication peer review to demonstrate "how impoverished our understandings of psychic and psychological indeterminacy are" (163) and to open up new paths for "rapprochement between the humanities and sciences" that do not "simply confirm positivist science by way of endorsement, speculation or confirmation" (85–86). These two scandals, both involving a parapsychological component inimical to established [End Page 415] psychological methods (even as such concepts as priming have become increasingly prominent within fields such as behavioral economics), furnish an opportunity to "introduce the 'wonder' back into what it might mean to conduct experiments with experiences that are considered odd, strange, anomalous, uncanny and unsettling" (5), bringing psychology back into contact with conceptual apparatuses that it has typically forsworn, and to consider "the extent to which digital media, open-access and post-publication-peer-review are changing science communication and have the potential to contribute to a more open science" (26). In short, the book exhorts us to contemplate the manifold ways in which conventional science is haunted by its histories and prevailing narratives.

This notion of a hauntological dimension shared by science and computation is central to the book's concerns. Blackman diverges, however, from Mark Fisher's now commonplace understanding of this concept: in lamenting "social and digital media as evidence of the loss of media's hauntological potential" (55), viewing digital culture as accompanying a gradual attenuation of futurity, Fisher "overlooks the imaginaries that are as much at work in so-called new media, as they have always been in media sometimes considered old or even obsolete" (57). In contrast, Blackman explores "how both science and computational culture are haunted by the histories and excesses of their own storytelling" (166), seeing the unfolding of scientific controversies within digital environments as a testament to the shifting nature of scientific discovery and debate as they become increasingly mediated by software, and putting forward an opportunity for "the mapping and representation of the complexity of science, which is usually covered over by positivist forms of science writing" (171–72). This is what she describes as an affective or "queer" imagining of the archive, a "playful contamination of science" (149) counterposed against the sanitizing propensities of "straight" or legitimate methods.

Blackman likens herself to "a ghosthunter with an obsessive compulsion who focuses on what sometimes appear as insignificant or minor details" (19); for instance, Bargh's priming controversy is haunted by Clever Hans, the horse who could purportedly solve arithmetical problems (until it was revealed that he was in fact merely reacting to unconscious cues from his owner), while Bem's explorations in premediation and precognition, attempting to demonstrate the possibility of both anticipating the future and retroactively shaping the past, continue to haunt the current fascination with speculative forecasting, as well as theories of quantum mechanics and quantum entanglement. The book gestures toward another, more adventurous, inventive form of psychology, one less indentured to a particular, restrictive conception of the scientific method and influenced instead by affect theory, transmedial storytelling, feminist fabulation, process philosophy, vitalism, and other speculative accounts of...


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pp. 415-417
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