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  • When the Medium Was the Mission: The Atlantic Telegraph and the Religious Origins of Network Culture by Jenna Supp-Montgomerie
  • Timothy H. B. Stoneman (bio)
When the Medium Was the Mission: The Atlantic Telegraph and the Religious Origins of Network Culture By Jenna Supp-Montgomerie. New York: New York University Press, 2021. Pp. 312.

The tale of the Atlantic telegraph (1858–66) has been told many times (Gordon, A Thread across the Ocean, 2002, Muller, Wiring the World, 2016). The reader need not worry, however, since the title of the current treatment is slightly misleading. The book only tangentially covers the history of the Atlantic telegraph and the electromagnetic telegraph. And it does not concern the missionary or religious usage of the transatlantic cable in any traditional sense.

The author, a religious and communications studies scholar at the [End Page 300] University of Iowa, uses her study on the attempt to create the world's first undersea cable connection to pose a larger and arguably more important question. How did the Atlantic telegraph succeed so remarkably in the popular American imagination despite its marked early technical failures? And why did the telegraph experience become the template for how we think about all subsequent networked communication technologies, including the contemporary internet?

To answer the question, Supp-Montgomerie forays into new ground by connecting the history of technology with the history of American religion and a range of critical theoretical approaches. For the author, the initial technical failure to lay the Atlantic telegraph was fundamental to its success. The unreliability of the underwater cable, which operated briefly for twenty-three days, prompted American popular imagination of a utopian global community united through communication technology. "Infrastructural religion" in the form of public Protestantism in the United States provided critical resources that proved essential for creating social imaginaries of communication through connection. The early failure of the 1858 Atlantic telegraph cable created a formative and durable template, and as a result, "we broadly define networks as systems of connection."

The chapters of When the Medium Was the Mission cover an array of topics that follow the discursive components of the author's argument (rather than chronology). The book begins by recounting the story of the Ottoman telegraph, emphasizing the role of Baptist missionaries, from initial efforts in 1847 to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1919 (ch. 1). Then it considers nineteenth-century alternatives to the electromagnetic telegraph, including the optical, spiritual, grapevine, and teaching telegraphs (ch. 2). A case study of the Oneida Community (1848–81) in upstate New York follows as a stand-in for U.S. religious utopianism around the telegraph (ch. 3). More abstract is the following chapter, which applies structural and post-structural theories of communication to analyze the content of the 1858 cable (ch. 4). An epilogue suggests the continued influence of religious motifs, "protestant dreams for the telegraph," in imaginaries of the internet and social media technology today (p. 32).

Readers of Technology and Culture will find this work a frustrating read at times. It draws heavily on media and cultural theory and resorts all too often to seemingly jargonistic language. The author's argument focuses exclusively on a narrow, unrepresentative time period (1858–66) in the history of the Atlantic telegraph characterized by endemic difficulty and prior to longer-term stabilization. Supp-Montgomerie brings no new major archival research to light and relatively little primary evidence, relying on discourse analysis and the forceful elaboration of her conceptual argument to make her central case. In the end, she fails to demonstrate exactly how or why "fractures and failures" are foundational to both nineteenth-century communication-based globalization and network logic more generally. [End Page 301]

Nonetheless, When the Medium Was the Mission well warrants the effort to wade through its theory-driven waters. The book serves as a useful introduction to contemporary critical cultural scholarship on media and communication as well as major media scholars. The author shows an adept familiarity with several subfields in the history of technology, while her "infrastructural approach to network media" develops the intersection between media studies scholarship and STS/history of technology (p. 27). Supp-Montgomerie makes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 300-302
Launched on MUSE
2022-01-06
Open Access
No
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